Accessibility links

Newsline - December 4, 1997




SERGEEV CONFIRMS YELTSIN'S PLEDGE TO REDUCE TROOPS IN NORTHWEST...

Defense Minister Igor Sergeev has confirmed President Boris Yeltsin's pledge to unilaterally cut by at least 40 percent ground and naval forces in northwestern Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1997). Sergeev said the reduction will be part of an ongoing overhaul of Russia's armed forces aimed at reducing the number of troops from 1.7 million to 1.2 million by 1 January 1999. He noted that the cuts will be made to ground forces in Kaliningrad Oblast and the Leningrad Military District as well as in the Baltic and northern fleets of the Russian Navy. The cuts were made possible because of stability in the region, he explained. Sergeev was speaking at a news conference following a meeting with NATO defense ministers in Brussels. JG

...CLARIFIES YELTSIN'S OFFER OF UNILATERAL CUTS IN NUCLEAR ARSENAL

Sergeev also clarified Yeltsin's 2 December statement that he is ready to cut Russia's nuclear arsenal by one-third. Sergeev said the proposed cuts will be discussed within the context of talks planned with the U.S. on a START III treaty. He added that Yeltsin was referring to prospective cuts "on a parity basis" under such a treaty. Meanwhile, the State Duma, which has yet to ratify the START II treaty, has invited Sergeev to attend its 5 December closed-door meeting to report on the state and combat-readiness of the country's strategic nuclear forces, ITAR-TASS reported. JG

PRIMAKOV ON YELTSIN'S OFFER

Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov, who is with Yeltsin in Sweden, said on 3 December that the president's pledge to reduce nuclear warheads by one-third should be viewed within the context of Russian-U.S. negotiations on a START III treaty. Primakov told reporters he wants Yeltsin's statement "to be interpreted in the right way," Russian news agencies reported. He noted that during talks in Helsinki in the spring, Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton had agreed that under a START III treaty, Russia and the U.S. would each have 2,000-2,500 warheads. Primakov said Russia has been raising the issue of lowering this figure and that Yeltsin's statement "should be viewed in this context." JG

RUSSIA, SWEDEN SIGN PROTOCOL ON GAS PIPELINE

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and Swedish Economy Minister Anders Sundstroem have signed a protocol on the construction of gas pipeline that will link Russia and Western Europe. Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said the protocol provides for Russian- Swedish consultations on Sweden's possible participation in the project. He added that while an exact route for the pipeline has not been agreed, it will most likely run through Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Germany. Sundstroem made it clear at the signing ceremony that Sweden's final decision on a pipeline project will be based exclusively on economic, not political, considerations. Nemtsov said economic considerations are also a top priority for Russia and noted that if the two sides fail to reach an agreement, it "will be not be a disaster" for Moscow, ITAR-TASS reported. JG

CHUBAIS ASKS WESTERN BANKS FOR EMERGENCY LOAN

First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais has met with the heads of at least four Western banks and asked them to prepare an emergency loan of up to $2 billion to cover the budget deficit and pay off public- sector wage arrears, the "Financial Times" reported on 3 December. None of the banks would comment on the report, the newspaper added. Also on 2 December, Russian Central Bank Chairman Sergei Dubinin summoned the heads of 10 leading Russian commercial banks to discuss the country's financial situation . A spokeswoman for the Central Bank said after the meeting that the banks had pledged to jointly back the ruble. She said Dubinin reassured the bank heads that he is ready to assist them, since "for the Central Bank, the collapse of any of the largest banks would be undesirable." JG

DUBININ SAYS CENTRAL BANK TO REVIEW INTEREST RATES SOON

Central Bank Chairman Dubinin said on 3 December that the Central Bank will review its benchmark refinancing rate in the next few days and is keeping a close watch over the government securities market, Russian news agencies reported. Dubinin told a Moscow conference on credit and investment in Russia that there will be no devaluation of the ruble and that the Central Bank has "adequate reserves" to handle capital outflows over the next several months. He said total gold and foreign currency reserves now amount to about $18 billion. Earlier, Dubinin had told reporters that, as of 21 November, Central Bank foreign currency reserves amounted to $21.5 billion, Interfax reported. JG

DUMA WANTS REPORT ON GOVERNMENT MEASURES FOR FINANCIAL STABILITY

The Duma on 3 December asked Central Bank Chairman Dubinin and Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov to report to the lower house on 5 December on measures taken by the government to ensure the stability of Russia's financial market. The Duma also intends to ask Yeltsin to put off the re-denomination of the ruble by at least six months, until the financial market becomes stable. A resolution to that effect was drafted on 3 December and will be put to the vote at the 5 December closed-door session, ITAR-TASS reported. JG

DUMA GIVES INITIAL APPROVAL TO DRAFT AMNESTY

The Duma on 3 December approved in the first reading a draft decree providing for an amnesty of some 360,000 prisoners sentenced for less serious crimes. Under the draft, which was proposed by Yeltsin, some 35,000 inmates will be released from prison while the sentences of the remainder will be commuted by as much as one-third. In a 26 November letter to Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, Yeltsin said the amnesty would ease the burden on Russia's over-crowded jails. JG

FSB CHIEF ON RELATIONS WITH WASHINGTON

Nikolai Kovalyov, head of the Federal Security Service, said on 3 December that Moscow does not want to aggravate relations with Washington over a U.S. citizen detained on suspicion of espionage, Russian news agencies reported. Kovalyov said Richard Bliss will be freed if it is proven that he has committed no crime. At the same time, Kovalyov said evidence available to the security service is sufficient to bring espionage charges against him. Bliss was detained on 25 November in Rostov Oblast while conducting land surveys with a global positioning device. The authorities have until 5 December to file formal charges. JG

RYBKIN IN GROZNY

Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin met with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and First Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov in Grozny on 3 December to discuss President Yeltsin's proposed visit to Chechnya in January, Russian agencies reported. Rybkin conceded later that "Russia is not doing very well" in honoring earlier agreements signed with Grozny, including pledges to provide economic assistance. Rybkin will return to Grozny on 6 December, and Yeltsin and Maskhadov will discuss the proposed visit by telephone within the next few days. LF

DUMA WANTS INVESTIGATION OF FAILED DUDAEV OUSTER

The Duma on 3 December adopted a resolution condemning the creation in fall 1994 of "illegal armed formations" aimed at ousting then Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev. With Russian military backing, the formations of the opposition Provisional Council launched an abortive assaults on Grozny (see "RFE/RL Daily Report," 17 October and 28 November 1994). The second attack in November precipitated the full-scale Russian military intervention on 11 December. The Duma resolution called on the Prosecutor-General's Office to identify and bring to justice those responsible for the creation of the military units in question. LF



MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRMEN IN STEPANAKERT

The U.S., Russian, and French co-chairmen of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group were in Stepanakert on 3 December to meet with Naira Melkumian, foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, Prime Minister Leonard Petrosian, and Defense Minister Samvel Babayan. President Arkadii Ghukasyan, who is reportedly sick, did not attend the meeting. A senior Nagorno-Karabakh diplomat told an RFE/RL correspondent in Stepanakert that the Minsk Group's plan "predetermines a status full of dubious ambiguities" for the disputed region, adding that even the plan's authors cannot explain how it would be implemented. In an interview with Turan on 3 December, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov condemned what he termed "bellicose and unconstructive" statements by unnamed Armenian and Karabakh officials. He also said the Karabakh Armenians' position is "illogical." LF

ARMENIAN MEDIA STAGE ONE-DAY STRIKE

Almost all major newspapers, nine news agencies, and one radio station staged a strike on 3 December, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and ITAR-TASS reported. Among the newspapers taking part was the state-owned daily "Hayastani Hanrapetutyun." Editors issued a joint statement demanding tax exemption for the press, the free-of- charge handover of state-owned premises to the media currently leasing them, and the restructuring of the state agency for newspaper distribution. They also demanded a meeting with President Levon Ter-Petrossyan and Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan. The strike was precipitated by the surprisingly high number of unsold newspapers in recent weeks. The strikers blamed that development on the allegedly inefficient work of the Haymamul state agency, which has a monopoly on newspaper distribution. LF

GEORGIAN TERRORISM TRIAL AGAIN POSTPONED

The trial of Mkhedrioni leader Djaba Ioseliani and 14 of his subordinates has again been postponed, Caucasus Press reported on 4 December. The reason for this latest postponement is that one of the defense lawyers is unwell. All 15 men face charges related to the August 1995 attempt to assassinate parliamentary chairman Eduard Shevardnadze. The trial was adjourned shortly after it began on 1 December because the defendants protested having to sit in steel cages. National Security Council Deputy Secretary Rusudan Beridze told Caucasus Press that the caged defendants "were not a pleasant sight," but she insisted that the requirement does not violate the prisoners' rights. LF

GEORGIANS PROTEST RUSSIAN MILITARY PRESENCE

Some 100 members of the youth organization of the Union of Citizens of Georgia, the majority party within the parliament, staged a demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Tbilisi on 3 December to demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia, Russian and Georgian agencies reported. The UCG had staged a demonstration on 29-30 November in protest at Russian border troops' unilateral decision to move a control post from Russian to Georgian territory. Also on 3 December, some 200 residents of the village of Muganlo, southeast of Tbilisi, demonstrated outside the Russian military base at Vaziani to protest the deaths of three villagers on 1 December. The three, including a small child, were killed trying to dismantle a mine they had found in a nearby field. LF

AZERBAIJANI PASSPORT SCANDAL CONTINUES

Jean- Luc Viala, the head of the French national printing office, has denied Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry claims that his office delivered 4 million passports to Baku, which the Azerbaijani authorities then rejected as substandard (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 1997). Viala told AFP on 3 December that his office signed a contract with Azerbaijan in 1994 and delivered 19,000 specimen passports the following year. Later, he said, the contract "was broken for commercial reasons." LF

AZERBAIJAN TO PRIVATIZE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY

Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev on 3 December issued a decree privatizing six state-owned construction companies and another three related enterprises, Interfax reported. The construction branch is one of the last still under state ownership, along with the oil and petro-chemical industry, road maintenance, and medical services (see "End Note," in "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 November 1997). LF

UZBEK OPPOSITION PARTY ASKS PRESIDENT TO ALLOW LEADER'S RETURN

At a plenary session in Tashkent at the end of November, the banned opposition party "Erk" drew up a letter to Uzbek President Islam Karimov asking that Erk chairman Muhammed Salih be allowed to return from self-imposed exile in Turkey. Salih told RFE/RL's Uzbek service on 2 December that he would like to return and that Erk Secretary-General Otanazar Oripov is discussing with the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent on ways to facilitate that process. Erk also asked the Uzbek president for permission to re-register the party. BP

KARIMOV DECREES AMNESTY ON ANNIVERSARY OF CONSTITUTION

Meanwhile, Uzbek President Karimov has decreed an amnesty for some criminals, RFE/RL correspondents in Tashkent reported on 3 December. The decree coincided with the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Uzbek Constitution. Women who either have children or are expecting a child, people over 60 years of age, and those convicted of some non-violent crimes are covered by the amnesty. Those who do not qualify for may be eligible for a 25-50 percent reduction in their sentences. A special commission has been formed to decide who qualifies for the amnesty. The commission's report is due within three months. BP

INFLATION IN KAZAKHSTAN LOWER THAN EXPECTED

Kazakhstan's National Statistics Agency reports that annual inflation for this year will be lower than predicted, Interfax reported on 3 December. Monthly inflation stood at 1.5 percent in November, up from 1.2 percent the previous month. Consumer prices increased by 9.8 percent from to January and November 1997, compared with 24.8 percent in same period last year. The government is now predicting annual inflation will not exceed 12 percent. Earlier forecasts put the annual rate at 17 percent. BP




BALTICS WELCOME PROPOSED TROOP REDUCTIONS IN RUSSIA'S NORTHWEST

The Foreign Ministries of the three Baltic States have welcomed President Boris Yeltsin's announcement in Stockholm that Russia is ready to unilaterally cut by more than 40 percent its ground and naval forces in the northwest of the country (see Part I and "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1997), BNS reported. Yeltsin said that the move is intended to promote confidence in the Baltic region, while Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov commented at a press conference in the Swedish capital that Moscow is "reaching out" to the Baltics and "now almost everything depends on them." This latest initiative follows Yeltsin's October offer of security guarantees for the Baltics, which Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all rejected. JC

REPORT BLAMES FAULTY DESIGN FOR "ESTONIA" SINKING

The long-awaited final report on the 1994 sinking of the "Estonia" passenger ferry concludes that faulty design and weak locks on the bow door were primarily to blame for the tragedy. The report, drawn up by an Estonian-Finnish-Swedish commission and released on 3 December, argues that the locks should have been five times stronger. It also suggests that the Estonian crew did not respond quickly enough to signs of trouble and that rescue operations were inadequate. The "Estonia" capsized off the coast of Finland en route from Tallinn to Stockholm when high waves ripped off its bow door, killing 852 people. The final report on the sinking was repeatedly delayed owing to bickering within the commission and the resignations of some of its leading members. JC

LATVIA TO CLOSE DOWN UNSAFE REACTOR

Latvian authorities will close down the nuclear reactor at Salaspils, some 20 kilometers from Riga, by the end of the year, BNS reported on 3 December. Safety concerns and a lack of nuclear fuel prompted that decision. Antons Lapenas, the director of the Salaspils nuclear research center, said the reactor, built in 1961, is now unsafe and should be closed in line with International Atomic Energy Agency recommendations. He added that $50 million will be needed for the shutdown. JC

KUCHMA CRITICIZES EU PASSIVITY TOWARD UKRAINE

Speaking in The Hague on 3 December, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma sharply criticized the EU and most of its member countries for failing to do more to integrate Ukraine, Ukrainian media reported. He said this "passive" approach would have negative consequences for both sides. Meanwhile in Moscow, parliamentary speaker Aleksandr Moroz called for closer ties with Russia and for the ratification of the friendship treaty between the two countries, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

MORE STRIKES, CORRUPTION CHARGES IN UKRAINE

Some 15,000 Ukrainian coal miners at seven mines went on strike on 3 December to press for the payment of back wages and improved safety conditions, Ukrainian media reported. Meanwhile, Deputy Prosecutor-General Olga Kolinkova told Interfax the next day that the authorities have opened 900 investigations into officials suspected of various forms of corruption. PG

U.S. CONDEMNS BELARUS FOR MEDIA CRACKDOWN

In his regular press briefing on 3 December, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said that Minsk's decision to close the "Svaboda" newspaper was not an isolated incident but rather reflects a "pattern of actions aimed at suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press" there (see also "End Note" below). PG

CLASHES OVER POLISH BUDGET, EU MILK BAN

The Polish government and its parliamentary opponents on 3 December clashed over a new proposed 1998 austerity budget, PAP reported. The new budget calls for tax increases on cigarettes and fuel and significantly cuts the size of the state budget deficit. Parliamentary deputies were not the only ones unhappy with the new austerity budget. Some 1,000 farmers protested against that budget at a Warsaw rally organized to denounce the EU's ban on the importation of Polish dairy products. PG

CZECH COALITION PARTNERS CRITICIZE KLAUS

Josef Lux, leader of the Christian Democratic Union, and Jiri Skalicky, chairman of the Civic Democratic Alliance, have issued a statement criticizing outgoing Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus for his decision to seek re-election as leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS). They said the decision is likely to hamper the formation of a "functioning government." Lux noted Klaus's decision is "not very wise, nor worthy of a statesman," while Skalicky complained that time is "needlessly wasted" by the ODS contest. Meanwhile, Klaus told reporters he is "forced by circumstance" to seek re-election. He also announced he will sue the private Nova Television station over a report alleging he owns a villa in Switzerland. MS

CZECH LOWER CHAMBER WANTS TO SUSPEND BANK PRIVATIZATION

The Chamber of Deputies on 3 December approved a resolution calling on the government to suspend the privatization of three major banks until the government crisis is solved, CTK reported. The resolution was submitted by Communist deputy Svatomir Rencman and backed by the opposition Social Democrats. A plan to privatize the three banks was approved on 19 November. But Klaus said work on the privatization program should continue, while noting the final decision will probably be in the hands of the next government. MS

SLOVAK OPPOSITION TO COOPERATE WITH HUNGARIAN ETHNIC PARTIES

Five opposition parties and the Slovak Democratic Coalition, formed by three Hungarian ethnic parties, have issued a joint declaration saying they will "join efforts" in cooperating against Vladimir Meciar's government. The declaration says the Hungarian ethnic alliance "will not push for ethnic autonomy in either its political program or in practice," RFE/RL's Bratislava bureau reported. President Michal Kovac told journalists in Bratislava on 3 December that a lack of communication between the government and the country's ethnic Hungarians is hurting Slovakia's international reputation. He added, however, that in some respects, the observation of rights of minorities in Slovakia is "above standard." MS

SLOVAK PREMIER ANGRY AT MEDIA

Meciar on 3 December announced that press conferences after cabinet meetings are to be discontinued. That move came after a journalist had queried the recent appointment of Blazena Martinkova as an adviser to Meciar, CTK reported. Meciar also said government officials will no longer grant interviews to journalists during state visits abroad, unless those journalists are included in the teams accompanying them. He complained of the "very low cultural level of some Slovak journalists" and of the "very low level in some Slovak media." MS

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT IN SLOVAKIA

At a joint press conference in Bratislava on 3 December, visiting Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov and his Slovak counterpart, Michal Kovac, emphasized that their quest for joining Euro- Atlantic structures will not impede close cooperation with Russia. With regard to EU membership, Stoyanov said entry talks should start simultaneously with all associate members in order to provide an incentive for democratization and economic reform. He also said Bulgaria will seek Slovakia's support for joining the Central European Free Trade Agreement. MS

HUNGARIAN OPPOSITION PARTIES SIGN COALITION PACT

Viktor Orban, chairman of the Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ-MPP), and Democratic Forum (MDF) chairman Sandor Lezsak have formally concluded the agreement to run joint candidates in the spring 1998 parliamentary elections, Hungarian media reported on 3 November. Orban said his party wants a broad cooperation of "middle-class forces" in an effort to guarantee freedom and welfare. Lezsak told reporters that the alliance will seek to restore a "healthy confidence" to society. A "peaceful co-existence" among the different opposition forces will foster the likelihood of removing the present coalition, he added. Under the agreement, FIDESZ will field 42 of the 63 joint candidates and the MDF 21. MSZ

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE OBJECTS TO LAND REFERENDUM

The parliamentary Constitutional Committee on 3 December recommended that the legislature vote against approving a referendum on foreign ownership of land, despite the fact that opposition parties have collected more than 200,000 signatures supporting the petition, Hungarian media reported. The committee said that if voters were to approve the opposition recommendation to reject foreign land ownership, the parliament would have to pass a law that was not in line with Hungary's international commitments. The Constitutional Court on 2 December refused to rule whether a decision against holding the referendum would be unconstitutional. MSZ




TOMIC IS ACTING SERBIAN PRESIDENT

The Serbian legislature chosen in the 21 September elections re- elected Dragan Tomic as speaker in its opening session on 3 December. Tomic, who belongs to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, will serve as acting president of Serbia until that office is filled. Most opposition parties boycotted the session, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Belgrade. Spokesmen for those parties criticized the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement and Serbian Radical Party for attending the meeting. PM

YUGOSLAVIA WANTS RUSSIAN ARMS

Federal Prime Minister Radoje Kontic signed a series of economic and cultural agreements with his Russian counterpart, Viktor Chernomyrdin, in Moscow on 3 December. Russia will grant Yugoslavia a credit of $150 million to purchase Russian goods. Kontic said Belgrade wants trade between the two countries to reach a total volume of $2.5 billion by the end of the decade. He added that Yugoslavia is especially interested in buying advanced Russian weaponry as well as spare parts for Russian-made arms currently used by the Yugoslav military, RFE/RL reported. PM

RUSSIA TO JOIN NEW BOSNIAN FORCE

Senior NATO officials told Reuters in Brussels on 3 December that Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev agreed with his NATO counterparts on what the multi-national peacekeepers have achieved in Bosnia and on what remains to be done. The officials added that Russia feels that a continued international military presence will be necessary in Bosnia when SFOR's mandate runs out in June and that Russia wants to take part in such a force. Meanwhile in Washington, former Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman urged the U.S. to keep troops in Bosnia after June 1998 to help prevent a renewal of fighting. He said that "people with fresh scars of war are not going to be ready for reconciliation." PM

CROATIA TRIES NINE FOR WAR CRIMES

A district court in Zagreb on 3 December charged nine men with murder, attempted murder, extortion, and unlawful arrests in conjunction with the torture and death of dozens of Serbs in Pakracka Poljana in 1991. This is Croatia's first trial of Croats suspected of having committed war crimes in 1991. Previous Croatian trials of Croats have dealt with atrocities committed against Serbs during and after the Croatian army's 1995 offensive against rebel Serb enclaves. PM

MACEDONIA HAS PROBLEMS WITH BELGRADE...

The Yugoslav members of the Yugoslav-Macedonian border commission want frontier changes made in Belgrade's favor at three strategically important points, BETA news agency reported from Skopje on 3 December. The proposed changes would violate the commission's guiding principle that the new international frontier should be the one between Serbia and Macedonia detailed on former Yugoslav army maps. BETA quoted Macedonian media as saying Belgrade has proposed the changes in an effort to delay a final border agreement. Yugoslav army troops loyal to Belgrade occupied several strategic points on the Macedonian side of the frontier at the time of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. PM

...BUT RAPPROCHEMENT WITH ALBANIA

Foreign Minister Blagoj Handziski launched a new policy of rapprochement with Albania by hosting talks with his Albanian counterpart, Paskal Milo, in Debar on 3 December. The meeting follows the conclusion of an informal agreement between Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov and Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano at the Balkan summit on Crete to improve bilateral relations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November 1997). Milo told the Skopje daily "Nova Makedonija" that Macedonia's ethnic Albanians should be allowed to "manifest their national identity and participate in the leadership and administration of the Macedonia state." Milo added, however, that Albania does not encourage separatism and has no territorial ambitions in Macedonia. PM

ITALY DEPORTS HUNDREDS OF ALBANIANS

Brindisi authorities on 3 December sent some 500 Albanian migrants back to Albania by sea. Those Albanians are the first group of a total of some 5,000 migrants slated for repatriation once their residency permits expire (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 1997). Italian aircraft also repatriated some 54 Albanian men from the temporary shelter at Teramo after the Albanians tried to resist deportation by staging a hunger strike and barricading themselves in the shelter. PM

ROMANIA DENIES REPORT ON NAZI GOLD...

A spokesman for the Romanian National Bank has said documents in the bank's archive "prove beyond doubt that the banks' treasury does not have and never had even a single gram of gold" that belonged to Jewish Holocaust victims, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported on 3 December. Adrian Vasilescu was responding to a report prepared by a group of Swiss historians, which says that between 1939 and 1944, Romania purchased from the Reichsbank gold valued at more than $54 million and worth some $540 million today. Vasilescu said that Romania accepted only gold for its deliveries of oil and cereals to Germany but that the ingots received from Berlin date from 1934-1935. Meanwhile, another report based on an archive discovered in Austria reveals that in 1943, the Reichsbank transferred 1,510 gold bars to Romania. MS

...AS ROMANIAN GOLD IN MOSCOW THREATENS TREATY WITH RUSSIA

Ion Diaconu, Romania's new ambassador to Moscow, says the problem of the Romanian treasury sent to Russia for safekeeping during World War I must not become an issue hindering the conclusion of the basic treaty with Russia, Radio Bucharest reported on 3 December. Diaconu recently told ITAR-TASS that the wartime treasury might be raised in parleys on the treaty, which prompted strong reactions in Moscow. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Valerii Nesterushkin told the BBC on 28 November that it was Russia, rather than Romania, that could raise financial claims for military deliveries to Romania during the war and for Russian army assets confiscated after the end of hostilities. The daily "Segodnya" on 1 December published documents from the archives of the Russian Finance Ministry attesting to the transfer of Romanian gold in total value of 117.3 million rubles at 1916-17 prices. MS

BULGARIA WANTS SOVEREIGNTY WITHIN EUROPE

Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova told the Vienna daily "Die Presse" of 4 December that Bulgaria wants to consolidate its political and economic integration into European structures by joining the EU. She said that Bulgaria has often been the junior partner of a major power in the course of history and that it does not want to enter into such an unequal relationship again. Mihailova added, however, that Bulgaria welcomes the opportunity to join NATO because the alliance functions as a team in which there is a division of labor. Asked about her country's traditional friendship with Russia, Mihailova replied that friendship may play a role between individuals but that states conduct their relations based on interests. She added that Bulgaria's interest is to preserve its independence and sovereignty. PM




ANOTHER STEP BACKWARD IN BELARUS


by Christopher Walker

Though not wholly unexpected, the Belarusian authorities' decision to shut down the independent newspaper "Svaboda" demonstrates its desire to extinguish any remaining pluralistic impulse in Belarus. Citing recent articles deemed to violate the press law, the Supreme Commercial Court ordered the immediate closure of the publication. That action is not isolated; independent media in Belarus are constantly subject to official pressure to a degree unmatched in neighboring post-Soviet countries. A larger issue for observers of Belarusian media and for Belarusians themselves is whether the majority of the Belarusian people acquiesce in this kind of action.

In Belarus, harassment of independent media--and, for that matter, virtually any independent organization--is the rule rather than the exception. In typical Soviet fashion, the Belarusian authorities devote substantial time and taxpayer money toward badgering non-state media, despite manifold domestic troubles.

Since taking power in 1994, President Alyksandr Lukashenka's regime has closely monitored the content of "Svaboda." But interference in the newspaper's activities predates Lukashenka's ascension to the presidency. "Svaboda" faced a series of libel suits from government officials during the administration of Lukashenka's predecessor, Vyacheslau Kebich. That indicates the depth of the difficulties confronting the Belarusian media today.

A host of presidential edicts have consolidated authority over the press within the president's office. Most printing facilities are state-controlled. An August 1994 decree brought the state printing house in Minsk under the direct control of the presidential administration. Printing facilities elsewhere in the country had to receive the authorization of the presidential administration to conclude printing contracts with non-state media. In October 1995, "Svaboda," along with several other independent publications, was denied the right to publish at the state printing house in Minsk. Those newspapers were then compelled to use printing facilities in Lithuania in order to continue publishing.

Moreover, non-state media have to rely on the state- controlled postal service and distribution network, making it difficult for independent publications to be distributed to towns and villages. "Svaboda," though available in larger cities the same day as it was published, reached distribution points in the countryside one day later. Summary evictions of independent news organizations from state-owned office space is also not unheard of.

Owing to regulatory harassment and economic obstacles, between 35,000 and 50,000 copies of each issue of "Svaboda" were printed at the time of its closure, roughly half of its 1995 level. In a country of 10 million, the newspaper reached only a fraction of the adult population.

In practical terms, the shutdown of "Svaboda" may not have a major impact on the Belarusian media landscape. But, symbolically, the opposite may be true. Already pushed to the margins by the regime, independent media are operating under strained conditions. The irony is that with the existing financial, administrative and political obstacles, there is already substantial control over independent media. Shutting down a weakened "Svaboda" is essentially a gratuitous political act.

Free press advocates and those working in independent media in Belarus view the shutdown of "Svaboda" as the latest in a series of outrages against the independent press. But for the many Belarusians who still have a Soviet orientation and support Lukashenka, the closure of "Svaboda" does not constitute an outrage. Ultimately, the Belarusian population itself must decide that the state of domestic affairs is unacceptable.

Western observers and Belarusian activist groups recognize that the current condition of the country's independent media is unsatisfactory. Ironically, the average Belarusian, receiving inadequate information from limited news sources, ultimately may not have the information necessary to recognize this for himself. The author is based in Prague and is manager of programs at the European Journalism Network.


XS
SM
MD
LG