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Newsline - December 5, 1997




COMMUNIST DEPUTIES TO VOTE AGAINST DRAFT BUDGET...

Communist party leader Gennadii Zyuganov on 4 December announced that his parliamentary faction has "decided unanimously" to vote against the draft 1998 budget. Earlier the same day, the party leadership recommended that its deputies reject the government's proposal, which is to be debated on 5 December. Zyuganov told journalists that the draft is "not ready for passage" and that his faction cannot support it "because it does not change the socio-economic course." Zyuganov's announcement is somewhat surprising, since State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, a Communist, had recently said he expects the Duma to back the budget on the first reading. The Communist faction, along with its allies, accounts for 212 seats in the 450-seat Duma. JG

...AS WILL YABLOKO FACTION

The liberal opposition Yabloko faction has also announced it will oppose the draft 1998 budget, Russian news agencies reported on 4 December. Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Ivanenko told reporters that the faction will instead urge a no- confidence vote in the government. Ivanenko said Yabloko deputies are convinced that "adopting a bad budget would make matters even worse...than having no budget at all." Yabloko has 54 of the 450 Duma seats. JG

CHERNOMYRDIN DEFENDS BUDGET PROPOSAL

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, commenting on the Communists' decision to vote against the draft budget, said there are no real grounds for putting off the budget debate or rejecting the draft in the first reading, ITAR- TASS reported on 4 December. At the same time, Chernomyrdin noted that another delay of the budget debate or a rejection of the draft will not find the government "unprepared." First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov accused the Communists of being indifferent to how the country's citizens live. He added he expects the government to find a way to pass the 1998 budget. JG

RUSSIA, WORLD BANK WRAP UP NEGOTIATIONS.

Michael Carter, the head of the World Bank's mission in Moscow, said on 3 December that his mission and the Russian government have completed talks on extending a second coal loan and on an economic restructuring loan to Russia, Russian news agencies said. Carter told reporters the loans are expected to total $1.6 billion but that a final decision will be taken at a World Bank board of directors' meeting in Washington on 18 December. The economic restructuring loan is intended for overhauling the banking and tax systems as well as for privatization projects. JG

IMF SAYS NO FINANCIAL CRISIS IN RUSSIA

IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus told a news conference in Tokyo on 4 December that the Asian financial crisis has not spread to Russia and that Russia's financial situation is not at a crisis point. Camdessus, however, said that if necessary, the IMF would be ready to discuss a financial assistance package for Moscow. JG

DEUTSCHE MORGAN GRENFELL CONFIRMS TALKS WITH MOSCOW

The head of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell's office in Moscow said on 4 December that, at Moscow's request, the bank is holding talks with the Russian government on a major loan from Western banks. Nicholas Chorton, however, declined to reveal the size of the loan. A spokesman for Credit Suisse First Boston also said that several banks are involved in discussions about the Russian government's request for additional credit, an RFE/RL correspondent in Moscow reported. The "Financial Times" reported that First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais has asked four Western banks, including Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and Credit Suisse First Boston, to raise a syndicated loan of up to $2 billion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 1997). JG

YELTSIN WRAPS UP VISIT TO SWEDEN, REASSURES INVESTORS

President Boris Yeltsin met on 4 December with Swedish business leaders and again urged them to invest more actively in the Russian economy. First Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov, who was accompanying Yeltsin, said in Stockholm that even though a government- proposed draft tax code may not be passed by the parliament, he is sure Russia will succeed in streamlining its tax system within the next few months. The reassurances came after the head of the Swedish forestry group AssiDoman told the business newspaper "Dagens Industri" that the risks of working in Russia are too great and that his company faces numerous problems such as bribery and red tape. Later the same day, Nemtsov signed a memorandum with Swedish car maker Volvo on the production of buses and trucks in Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. JG

GOVERNMENT DISCUSSES CRACKDOWN ON CRIME

At a 4 December meeting, the government approved a two-year draft plan to step up the fight against crime, Russian news agencies reported. A final version of the plan is to be drawn up within the next two weeks. Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov said implementation of the plan will cost the equivalent of $3.9 billion. He added that some 20,000 crimes by organized groups have been solved this year. Noting that weapons are now "freely available throughout Russia," Prime Minister Chernomyrdin instructed the Interior Ministry to draft a law stipulating harsher punishments for the illegal production, possession, and sale of arms, Interfax reported. JG

RUSSIAN, ESTONIAN INTERIOR MINISTRIES TO COOPERATE

Also on 4 December, Interior Minister Kulikov met with his Estonian counterpart, Robert Lepikson, in Moscow to sign an agreement on cooperation between their ministries, BNS and ETA reported. Kulikov said the main aim of the agreement, which took some two- and a-half years to prepare, was to step up the fight against organized crime, drug trafficking, car theft, illegal migration, weapons-smuggling, and tax fraud. Under the agreement, Estonian police prefectures and Russian oblast interior affairs administrations will be able to conclude regional cooperation protocols. The accord must now be ratified by the Estonian and Russian parliaments. JC

SYSUEV URGES REOPENING OF KEMEROVO MINE

Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Sysuev, who is leading the government inquiry into the 2 December explosion at the Zyryanovskaya mine in Kemerovo Oblast, says the mine should be reopened. Sixty-seven people were killed in the methane blast, making it one of Russia's worst coal-mining accidents. Sysuev, speaking in Kemerovo on 5 December, said the mine "must regain its previous profitability." According to ITAR-TASS, the Zyryanovskaya mine was among the most modern and profitable in the region. JB



NO PROGRESS IN KARABAKH TALKS

The co-chairmen of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group made no progress during talks in Stepanakert on 3-4 December, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Karabakh authorities rejected the OSCE's principle of a step-by-step approach, which both Armenia and Azerbaijan have accepted. They also repeated their insistence on a package deal. PG

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT CALLS FOR CHANGES IN BUDGET

During a 4 December debate on the government's proposed 1998 budget, various political groups criticized the draft for alleged failing to promote the "development" of Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The parliament asked that the cabinet revise the budget and resubmit it on 5 December. The government may seek a vote of confidence as a means of pushing through its budget proposal. Under the Armenian constitution, the government can ask for a vote of confidence and, if it wins that vote, the draft becomes law. PG

MESKHETIANS PROTEST DRAFT LAW ON RIGHTS OF REPRESSED

Representatives of the Muslim Meskhetians who were deported from Georgia in November 1994 are continuing their protest against a new draft Georgian law that would give special benefits to Georgian citizens who were repressed in the past but would not help them because they are not citizens of the Republic of Georgia. According to a 4 December appeal by the International Meskhetian Youth Association, the group hopes to meet with President Eduard Shevardnadze. It also called on international organizations to intercede on the behalf of the Meskhetians. PG

AJARIAN LEADER SEES GEORGIANS BEHIND DEATH RAY ATTACK

Aslan Abashidze, the outspoken leader of the autonomous Ajarian region in southern Georgia, said on local television on 4 December that assailants from Georgia used a special death ray camera to cause him to have a heart attack last summer. "The camera gave off electromagnetic rays, which led to my heart attack," Abashidze said. "Without the quick intervention of the doctors, I would have died." Georgian officials did not comment on his charges. PG

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT IN TURKMENISTAN

Shevardnadze, paying a one-day visit to Turkmenistan on 5 December, met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat reported. The two signed eight agreements, including one on avoiding double taxation and another on industrial cooperation Discussions also focused on rescheduling Georgia's debt to Turkmenistan for gas supplies, which totals $464.9 million. BP

NAZARBAYEV WARNS OPPOSITION PARTY

At a 4 December press conference in Almaty, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev warned the leaders of AZAMAT that a repeat of the 30 November demonstration in front of the Kazakh parliament building could lead to criminal charges being filed against them, RFE/RL correspondents reported. Nazarbayev called such demonstrations illegal, saying it would be up to the Constitutional Court to make any changes to the 1995 decree banning unsanctioned rallies. He added that anyone who organizes such meetings could face between three and five years in jail. BP

CHAIRMAN OF KYRGYZ STATE PROPERTY FUND SACKED

Askar Sarygulov was dismissed by presidential decree on 4 December, ITAR-TASS reported. His sacking followed a six-month investigation by a special commission that found the chairman had been "incompetent" in carrying out his duties and had "lost control" of the fund. The commission also found that Kyrgyzstan lost 25 million som (some $1.5 million) during Sarygulov's tenure as chairman of the fund and that 10 percent of state property so far privatized was sold at below market prices. Seven criminal charges have been filed against Sarygulov. BP




BELARUSIAN PARLIAMENT RESTRICTS PUBLIC ASSEMBLY

According to a new law passed unanimously by the Belarusian parliament on 4 December, organizers of public meetings and demonstrations will have to obtain official permission for such events, Belarusian media reported. Those who ignore the law will face criminal penalties. The new legislation codifies a 1996 decree issued by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. PG

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT BACKS DRAFT BUDGET

Lawmakers have given initial approval to the government's draft budget for 1998, Interfax reported on 4 December. By a vote of 264 to 42, the parliament approved a budget that would cut the deficit from 5.2 percent of GDP to 4.3 percent. Parliamentary deputies also passed a resolution calling on the government to increase revenue and expenditure plans before a second vote. In addition, they urged greater spending in the regions and on social problems. PG

UKRAINE CRACKS DOWN ON CORRUPTION, FRAUD

Police on 4 December arrested Vasily Koval, the chief of the Foreign Ministry's consular department, on charges of abuse of office and involvement in illegal currency operations, ITAR-TASS reported. The same day, acting Prosecutor-General Oleh Lytvak asked lawmakers to lift the parliamentary immunity of Yulia Timoshenko so that the opposition legislator can be tried for illegal financial dealings, Interfax reported. And Ukraine's emergencies ministry released a statement saying that some 3,819 people who falsely claimed to have been clean-up workers at Chornobyl had been stripped of their special benefits. PG

ESTONIA'S MERI REFUSES TO PROMULGATE AMENDED LANGUAGE LAW

President Lennart Meri on 4 December refused to promulgate amendments to the language law adopted by the parliament in mid-November, RFE/RL's Estonian service reported, citing the Office of the President. Meri argued that under the amendments, the executive branch is given too much power to decide whether deputies have sufficient knowledge of the Estonian language. He also commented that the amendments allow the government to define the obligations of the individual, which, he argued, only the constitution can do. JC

END TO ESTONIAN BUDGET ROW IN SIGHT?

The United Opposition on 4 November accepted the government's offer of an additional 133 million kroons ($8.9 million) to fund a wage hike for teachers next year, BNS and ETA reported. The opposition recently voted a 200 million kroon allocation into the 1998 budget, resulting in a budgetary imbalance. Both the government and the opposition believe the compromise will increase the chances of passing the budget in mid-December. JC

TALLINN, RIGA INCLUDED ON WORLD HERITAGE LIST

The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has included the historical centers of Tallinn and Riga on its World Heritage List, BNS reported on 4 December. The committee praised the Estonian capital as an outstanding example of a medieval, north European trading center, while it noted that Riga's art nouveau architecture is "unparalleled anywhere in the world." JC

LONGER TERMS FOR LATVIA'S FUTURE PRESIDENT, PARLIAMENT

Lawmakers on 4 December voted to extend the terms in office of the president and parliament from three to four years, BNS reported. The constitutional amendment does not apply to the incumbent head of state and legislature. Voting on the amendment had to be postponed seven times because opposition deputies refused to register for the ballot. JC

LITHUANIA TO REPATRIATE MORE REFUGEES

Vilnius will return some 300 illegal immigrants to their native countries in mid-December, BNS and Reuters reported on 4 December. Citizens of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh will be sent home on charter flights sponsored by the Helsinki-based International Migration Organization. Since late October, Lithuania has repatriated some 100 illegal immigrants. JC

KOHL SUPPORTS EARLY EU MEMBERSHIP FOR POLAND

At a 4 December meeting on the German-Polish border, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek that he wants the EU to include Poland as a member "as quickly as you become a member of NATO," PAP reported. That would mean Poland would become a member of both Western organizations in 1999. The two leaders met to open a bridge linking the two countries. PG

HAVEL SEEKS SOLUTIONS TO GOVERNMENT CRISIS...

Czech President Vaclav Havel on 4 December said that he may soon "encourage some individual to lead the talks on the formation of a future government" but that, for the time being, "I shall not name a new premier," CTK and Reuters reported. Havel spoke after meeting with the leaders of the junior partners in the outgoing coalition, the Christian Democratic Union and the Civic Democratic Alliance. He said his decision on whom to ask to lead the talks would depend on his discussions with outgoing premier Vaclav Klaus and on talks between the three coalition partners scheduled for 5 December. Havel said a government formed without Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) would need support in the parliament from the main opposition Social Democrats, whose leader, Milos Zeman, Havel is to meet on 5 December. MS

...AS KLAUS URGES ODS TO FORM 'CONSTRUCTIVE

OPPOSITION.' Meanwhile, Klaus has sent a letter to ODS members saying he is in favor of the party's going into "constructive opposition." He said the party can overcome its current crisis only by disclosing full details of its funding and by explaining the activities of its leadership and structures. Zeman said on 4 December that he cannot imagine a stable government consisting only of the two junior members of the outgoing coalition. In related news, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana has said that the current crisis in the Czech Republic should not influence the process of its admission into the alliance, as "such developments are part of normal political life in a democracy," CTK reported on 4 December. MS

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT EXCLUDES SLOVAKIA FROM MEMBERSHIP TALKS

The European Parliament on 4 December called for all qualified countries seeking EU membership, with the exception of Slovakia, to begin membership talks next year, AFP reported. The parliament said the Slovak government is "not yet sufficiently democratic" for it to be considered for membership. EU leaders are meeting in Luxembourg on 12-13 December to wrap up discussions on whom to invite to start membership talks. However, they remain split over the European Commission's recommendation earlier this year that only six countries--the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, and Cyprus--begin negotiations. MS

MECIAR DECLINES TO ANSWER LAWMAKERS' QUESTIONS

Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar on 4 December refused to answer questions in the parliament about his decision to cancel government news conferences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 1997), Reuters reported. Opposition deputy Roman Kovac said the decision was illegal because it violated the constitutional right of citizens to gain access to information. Meciar declined to answer questions on his recent appointment of Blazena Martinkova as personal adviser. He also refused to tell the parliament whether he recently made a trip to Russia accompanied by the head of the Slovak Intelligence Service, Ivan Lexa. The premier said lawmakers have no right to ask those questions and should "answer them yourselves." MS

HUNGARY'S SOCIALISTS TO RUN ON THEIR OWN IN NEXT ELECTIONS

Prime Minister Gyula Horn, who is also chairman of the Socialist Party (MSZP), said on 4 December that his party will not conclude an electoral cooperation agreement with its current coalition partner, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), Hungarian media reported. He said that the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition is likely to retain power after the spring 1998 parliamentary elections. MSZ

HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT OUTLINES FUTURE MONETARY POLICY

Government spokesman Elemer Kiss told reporters on 4 December that the main goal of the cabinet's monetary policy is to reduce inflation from its current level of 18-19 percent to 12-13 percent next year. The current account deficit is likely to drop to $1.5-1.8 billion in 1998 from $4 billion in 1994, while investments are expected to increase by more than 10 percent next year, he said. The government will increase the minimum monthly wage to 19,500 forints ($100) in 1998. MSZ




KOSOVO GUERRILLAS CLAIM PLANE DOWNED

The clandestine Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) issued a press statement in Pristina on 4 December claiming responsibility for a recent series of violent incidents in Serbia's mainly ethnic Albanian province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 1997). The statement added that the UCK shot down a Yugoslav Airlines trainer on 26 November near Pristina airport. Police had earlier said that a technical problem caused the crash, in which five people died. Elsewhere in Pristina, Kosovar shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova called on the U.S. to take the lead in solving the Kosovo problem. PM

ARRESTS FOLLOW EXPLOSION AT SERBIAN FACTORY

Police arrested the director and five employees of an explosives factory in Lucani, near Cacak, on 4 December. An explosion at the plant the previous day killed four workers and left six more seriously injured. PM

SERBIA'S CROATS BACK MILOSEVIC'S CANDIDATE

Bela Tonkovic, the chairman of the Democratic League of Croats of Vojvodina (DSHV), told an RFE/RL correspondent in Subotica on 4 December that his organization endorses Milan Milutinovic in the 7 December Serbian presidential vote. Tonkovic added that Milutinovic is one of only two candidates who answered a recent appeal by the DSHV calling for the normalization of ties between Zagreb and Belgrade. The Kosovo Albanian leadership, for its part, has announced a boycott of the election on the grounds that none of the Serbian candidates has addressed Albanian concerns about Kosovo. The latest polls give ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj a comfortable lead to over Milutinovic, who is allied with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Seselj won more votes that Milosevic's candidate, Zoran Lilic, in the 5 October ballot, but that election was declared invalid because of low turnout. PM

MONTENEGRIN ALBANIANS DEMAND OPEN BORDER

The town council of Ulcinj, near the Albanian frontier, appealed to the Montenegrin authorities on 5 December to open four border crossings. The council of the mainly ethnic Albanian town said the move is necessary to end the region's and Yugoslavia's isolation, BETA news agency reported. The officials also asked the federal authorities to end visa requirements for foreigners in order to attract tourists. Montenegrin President-elect Milo Djukanovic, who was supported by the ethnic Albanians in the 5 October vote, wants to end Montenegro's isolation in order to revive tourism and shipping. PM

MONTENEGRIN MEDIA CHIEFS RESIGN

Zoran Jocovic, the director-general of Montenegrin Radio and Television, and Predrag Bulatovic, the chairman of the board, resigned in Podgorica on 4 December. The two are supporters of outgoing President Momir Bulatovic, an RFE/RL corresponedent reported from Podgorica. PM

PLAVSIC IN SARAJEVO

Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic on 4 December paid her first visit to the Bosnian capital since the war began in 1992. She appealed to German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, for patience in the implementation of the Dayton agreement. The two ministers, however, urged Plavsic and the three members of the Bosnian joint presidency to quickly remove obstacles to implementing the treaty. They warned that the international community will punish any side deemed to be obstructing implementation, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Sarajevo. PM

BOSNIAN POLICE ARREST 40 ALLEGED TERRORISTS

A spokesman for the UN police force confirmed in Sarajevo on 4 December that Bosnian police recently arrested some 40 persons in central Bosnian in an apparent crackdown on Islamic extremists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1997). Most of the arrests were made in the Zenica area, where a number of foreign Islamic fighters settled after the war with Bosnian wives. The Bosnian government has been under strong pressure from the international community and from Croatia to arrest the alleged terrorists, who are blamed for the deaths of returning Croatian refugees and the destruction of Roman Catholic religious sites. PM

UN TO LEAVE MACEDONIA IN AUGUST

The UN Security Council voted in New York on 4 December to extend the mandate of the 750 UNPREDEP peacekeepers through August 1998 and to end the mission at that point. UNPREDEP is the first force in UN history aimed at preventing conflict from spreading rather than at separating warring factions. The Macedonian government wants the mainly Scandinavian and U.S. force kept on indefinitely to help ensure peace in a region plagued by ethnic tensions and political instability. Russia argues that the military component of the UN presence in Macedonia should be phased out quickly. PM

MACEDONIA, ALBANIA SIGN BORDER PACT

Albanian Foreign Minister Paskal Milo and his Macedonian counterpart, Blagoj Handziski, signed six agreements in Tirana on 4 December. Four of the texts are aimed at strengthening security along their common border, near which more than 100 incidents have been reported since the beginning of the year. PM

UNESCO DECLARES ALBANIAN SITE ENDANGERED

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization announced in Naples on 4 December that it has added the ancient Greek site at Butrint, near the Albanian- Greek border, to its World Heritage in Danger list. Butrint was looted during the unrest that swept Albania during the spring. Many archeological sites and museums throughout the country were looted or vandalized during the anarchy. PM

ROMANIA'S NEW FINANCE MINISTER WAS SECURITATE MEMBER

Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea told journalists on 4 December that Daniel Daianu was a member of the former Securitate but had nothing to do with the "political arm" of the communist secret police since he worked for its foreign intelligence department. Ciorbea said once the parliament passes the law on access to Securitate files, Daianu's dossier will be re-examined. Ciorbea praised Daianu for having publicly acknowledged in 1990 that he worked for the Securitate. Ciorbea was speaking to journalists on 4 December, shortly after the parliament approved the reshuffled government, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT IN ROMANIA

Petru Lucinschi and his Romanian counterpart, Emil Constantinescu, attended a ceremony in Iasi on 4 December marking the opening of a fiber optics telecommunications line linking their two countries, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. Lucinschi told reporters that it is "more logical" for Moldova to press for EU membership than to pursue reunification with Romania, Reuters reported. According to Mediafax, Lucinschi also said Moldova is "unhappy" that the basic treaty with Romania has not yet been concluded. He hinted that former President Ion Iliescu was to blame but said there are still "problems" at the level of foreign minister. He added that he and Constantinescu have agreed to "demand that the [foreign ministers] present us with a report" on how the talks are progressing by January. MS

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENTARY CHAIRMAN CRITICIZES RUSSIAN DUMA

Dumitru Motpan on 4 December criticized the Russian State Duma for not inviting a Moldovan parliamentary delegation to its 9 December debates on the ratification of the Moldovan-Russian treaty (initialed in 1990) and on the conflict with Tiraspol. The Duma sent invitations only to a deputy from the Socialist Unity- Edinstvo faction and to the Supreme Soviet of the breakaway region. Motpan said he will ask Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev to postpone the debates because the date coincides with the opening in Chisinau of a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation organization. But he added that even if the request is turned down, a Moldovan parliamentary delegation will nonetheless attend the debates in Moscow. Meanwhile, separatist leader Igor Smirnov appealed to the Duma not to ratify the treaty with Moldova, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported.

TURKISH PREMIER IN BULGARIA

Mesut Yilmaz and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Kostov, on 4 December signed several agreements, including one settling a 50-year-old dispute over the border along the Rezovska River, which runs into the Black Sea. That agreement may facilitate an accord delimiting the territorial waters of the two countries. Yilmaz described bilateral relations as "perhaps in the healthiest period in their history." He said Turkey will ask the Organization of Islamic Conference to take Bulgaria off its "black list." Sofia was included on that list because of communist violations of the rights of its ethnic Turkish population. The two leaders also signed agreements on cooperation in law enforcement, customs, and culture and agreed to work toward setting up a free trade zone. MS




"SVABODA" EDITOR REFUSES TO BOW TO LUKASHENKA


by Jeremy Bransten

The editor-in-chief of Belarus's independent "Svaboda" newspaper, which was recently shut down by the government, says he will not bow to the authorities. On the contrary, he intends to resume publication in the near future.

Speaking to RFE/RL in Prague on 4 December, Ihar Hermianchuk said the staff of "Svaboda" had expected President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to try to silence them. Anticipating the closure, Hermianchuk and his colleagues had registered themselves under several new publication names to enable their newspaper to quickly reappear under a different masthead.

"Svaboda" was closed by the authorities on November 24 after two of its articles were deemed to "incite discord in society as well as between the citizens and the government." One of the pieces in question portrayed opposition politicians in a favorable light, while the other quoted a speaker at an anti-government rally who compared current government crackdowns to the Stalinist repressions of 1937.

Hermianchuk said "Svaboda" will reappear in January under the name "Noviny." He said that if publication proves impossible in Belarus, the newspaper will be printed in neighboring Lithuania and then brought across the border to Belarus for distribution. That option remains legal and is how the five other non-government Belarusian newspapers are forced to operate, even though their content is largely apolitical and focuses on economic issues.

Hermianchuk noted that in the past year, Lukashenka has succeeded in crushing the country's opposition political structures and driving most of their leaders underground or into exile. Now, he continued, Lukashenka has turned his attention to the media in a final drive to silence all opposition to his regime,

As a short-term solution, the strategy appears to be working. Hermianchuk said that soon after Lukashenka came to power, when there were still several opposition publications giving the public uncensored information, his approval rating began to fall sharply. But since his campaign to suppress all dissent, Lukashenka's popularity, especially among rural and older residents, has actually risen. Hermianchuk estimated that of the 40 percent of the population who support Lukashenka, the vast majority has no independent access to information.

But he predicted the situation will not last. Young people, he said, are fed up with the country's increasing isolation from the rest of Europe and its economic stagnation. "They are a completely new generation who grew up without the Soviet value system," he said. "They will not tolerate a return to that dark age. And their parents, who are increasingly unable to subsist on their salaries and have to till their land allotments to feed their families, are growing tired of the Lukashenka administration."

As for Hermianchuk and his colleagues, they will continue their mission to spread the truth. Hermianchuk recalled how he began publishing his first newspaper while still at university. "I used to work as a typesetter in a state-run printing house. Little by little, day by day, I would steal a few of the lead type letters and bring them home. Eventually, I had gathered all the letters in the alphabet, and that's how I started printing my own newspaper."

Hermianchuk smiled, but his expression quickly refocused. "In 1937, some of Stalin's policemen came to seize my grandfather's property, and he called them 'bandits' to their face. He got 10 years in a labor camp for that. Today, if you call Lukashenka's police 'bandits,' you'll get 10 days in prison."

"It's not yet the same with Lukashenka, but the trend is clear," Hermianchuk said. "It's our job to try to reverse it." The author is an RFE/RL news editor.


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