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Newsline - December 22, 1997




YELTSIN SAYS WILL RETURN TO KREMLIN

President Boris Yeltsin told journalists on 22 December, "Tomorrow I'm going back to the Kremlin and to work. There are no traces of the illness left," ITAR-TASS reported. Yeltsin has been at the Barvikha clinic since 10 December, reportedly for treatment of a respiratory infection. On 19 December, after the president was examined at the Moscow Cardiological Center, Kremlin doctor Sergei Mironov and cardiologist Yurii Belenkov announced that the president's heart has not been affected by his recent illness. Nonetheless, they recommended that Yeltsin spend five or six more days at Barvikha, although Mironov said he would not be surprised if the president decided to leave the clinic sooner. Meanwhile, Ekho Moskvy on 21 December quoted presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii as saying that Yeltsin may take an unscheduled vacation at the end of December or at the beginning of January. LB

RUSSIAN BORDER GUARD CHIEF RESIGNS...

Yeltsin on19 December accepted the resignation of Federal Border Service head Colonel-General Andrei Nikolaev, Russian agencies reported. Meeting with Yeltsin on 9 December, Nikolaev had complained that the1998 budget provides inadequate funding for the border troops. Several observers suggest that Nikolaev was dissatisfied with the Russian government decision to transfer the disputed Verkhnii Lars post on the Russian-Georgian border back to its original position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 1997). Yeltsin's Press Spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said that Yeltsin was "seriously displeased" with many aspects of the border guards' work, including Nikolaev's alleged failure to coordinate with other power ministries. LF

... FOR REASONS UNCLEAR

Former Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed charged that Nikolaev's resignation was due to pressure from Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, and that it would result in a increase in the import of illegal alcohol into the Russian Federation, Interfax reported. Lebed characterized Nikolaev as " a strong-willed and smart man with exceptional organizational abilities." But ITAR-TASS quoted unnamed Russian government sources as claiming that Nikolaev was dictatorial and had numerous disagreements with government ministries. The Russian State Duma instructed the heads of its Security, Defense and Foreign Affairs Committees to investigate the circumstances of Nikolaev's resignation, which Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky claimed was "engineered by the Georgian mafia." LF

ZHIRINOVSKY THREATENS NOT TO SUPPORT BUDGET

Duma deputies from Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) say they will not vote for the 1998 budget unless Andrei Nikolaev is reinstated as head of the Border Service, Interfax reported on 20 December. In a press release, Zhirinovsky also said LDPR deputies will not support the budget unless top civil aviation officials in Russia are sacked. If the LDPR withheld its support, it would be extremely difficult for the government to secure approval for the budget in the Duma. Even with the unanimous support of the LDPR faction, the budget was passed in the first reading by just five votes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 1997). The second reading of the budget is scheduled for 24 December. LB

DUMA APPROVES TAX LAWS...

The Duma on 18 and 19 December approved a package of tax laws in the third and final reading, "Kommersant-Daily" and ITAR-TASS reported. On 18 December, deputies approved a law that would force regional branches of corporations to pay property taxes in the regions where they operate rather than where company headquarters are located (usually in Moscow). The same day, deputies backed changes to the land tax and a law raising the tax on foreign-currency purchases from 0.5 percent to 1 percent. On 19 December, the Duma approved changes in income taxes that would charge the maximum rate of 35 percent on all income above 8 million rubles per month ($1,345). The same day, the Duma passed amendments to the law on excise duties, which introduced an excise duty on oil transport. The Duma also approved laws introducing taxes on water, alcohol production and industrial use of animal products. LB

...AND CHANGES 1997 BORROWING PLAN

The Duma on 19 December approved changes to Russia's 1997 borrowing program, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. The amendments to the 1997 budget allow the government to reduce its planned domestic borrowing this year by $1.1 billion and to increase its foreign borrowing from $9.8 billion to $10.9 billion. The government proposed the changes following turmoil on Russian financial markets, which has made internal borrowing significantly more expensive. When debating the amendments, Communist Duma Deputy Valentin Romanov warned that loans from abroad often come with political strings attached. Aleksandr Shokhin, leader of the pro-government faction Our Home Is Russia, argued that the government should borrow where it is cheaper. LB

YELTSIN WANTS TO CHANGE ELECTORAL SYSTEM...

Yeltsin has called for changing Russia's electoral law to eliminate the proportional representation system now used to elect half the 450 State Duma deputies, Russian news agencies reported on 19 December. In a letter to Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, the president charged that the current system is unrepresentative, because in December 1995 roughly half of voters backed groups that gained less than 5 percent of the vote and consequently did not win any of the seats distributed proportionally. Yeltsin also claimed that the current system is to blame for what he called "the over-politicization and bellicose nature of the present parliament." Although the president now wants all 450 deputies to be elected in single-member districts, he introduced the mixed electoral system in an October 1993 decree. He also signed the 1995 law on parliamentary elections, which retained the mixed system. LB

...BUT DUMA IS UNLIKELY TO SUPPORT HIS PROPOSAL

The Duma is almost certain to reject Yeltsin's request to change the electoral system. Several prominent Duma deputies, including Seleznev and Duma Legislation Committee Chairman Anatolii Lukyanov, denounced the proposal on 19 December. However, the president's representative in the Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, has expressed confidence that the next parliamentary elections will be conducted using only single-member districts, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 December. Kotenkov did not explain how Yeltsin would be able to force changes in the electoral system. The president does not have the right to issue a decree overriding a federal law. The Constitutional Court has up to now refused to consider appeals charging that the proportional representation system violates the rights of voters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 1997). LB

YELTSIN VETOES ANTI-CORRUPTION LAW

Yeltsin has vetoed a law on fighting corruption, which was passed by the Duma in November and by the Federation Council earlier this month, ITAR-TASS reported on 20 December. The law would bar officials from accepting various forms of gifts and payments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 1997). Yeltsin's veto message to the speakers of both houses of parliament charged that the law violated the constitution, the Civil Code, and several federal laws. Meanwhile, the Duma on 19 December failed to override a presidential veto of amendments to the law on police, Interfax reported. Those amendments would have provided for police forces to be funded from local budgets and would have allowed police to search individuals if "there are sufficient reasons to believe" that those individuals are carrying illegal weapons or drugs. Yeltsin charged that the amendments were unconstitutional. LB

DUMA WANTS HELP FOR NUCLEAR CENTERS...

The Duma on 19 December passed a resolution asking Yeltsin to intervene to help solve the problems of nuclear weapons producers, ITAR-TASS reported. The resolution cited wage arrears to nuclear arms designers and a federal debt of 175 billion rubles ($29 million) to the Federal Nuclear Center in Arzamas-16 (also known as Sarov, Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast). Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited Sarov in July, shortly before a gubernatorial election in Nizhnii Novgorod, and promised that the government would support the nuclear research center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 July 1997). LB

...MORE REGULATION OF PRIVATE ELECTRONIC MEDIA

Also on 19 December, the Duma passed a resolution "on state regulation on the television company NTV and other non-state television and radio companies," "Kommersant- Daily" reported the next day. The resolution, proposed by LDPR leader Zhirinovsky, accused NTV of "stoking political confrontation in society," broadcasting "erotic and pornographic programs" and ignoring "the religious feelings of believers." The Duma urged the government to charge NTV more for the use of transmission facilities. According to Interfax, the resolution also recommended that the government impose "extremely tough sanctions" against private radio and television companies that violate the terms of their broadcasting licenses. The resolution also instructed the Duma's committees on the budget and on information policy to draft a law on taxing private radio and television companies. LB

WORLD BANK APPROVES TWO MORE LOANS FOR RUSSIA

The World Bank announced on 19 December that its board has approved two new loans to Russia: an 800- million-dollar structural adjustment loan, and an 800- million-dollar loan earmarked for supporting the coal industry, an RFE/RL correspondent in Washington reported. The structural adjustment loan is to finance reform of Russia's natural monopolies, banking, trade policy, and privatization projects. The coal loan will help finance restructuring of the coal industry, which is to involve the closure of many unprofitable mines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November and 11 December 1997). First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais announced on 20 December that the first 400-million-dollar tranche of the coal loan will arrive in Moscow within three or four days, and that the government will allocate $118 million to the coal industry by the end of December, ITAR-TASS reported. LB

YELTSIN APPOINTS NEW STATE PROPERTY MINISTER

Yeltsin on 20 December appointed Farit Gazizullin, up to now first deputy state property minister, to head the State Property Ministry, Russian news agencies reported. He replaces Maksim Boiko, who was fired last month after it emerged that he received $90,000 from a publisher linked to Oneksimbank for a book on privatization that has not yet been published (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 November 1997). Gazizullin held various high posts in the government of the Republic of Tatarstan before being appointed first deputy chairman of the federal State Property Committee in June 1996. That committee became a ministry on 30 September. LB

GOVERNMENT APPROVES PENSION REFORM PLAN

The government on 18 December approved a pension reform program, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. Beginning on 1 February 1998, state pensions will depend in part on how long individuals have worked (the government hopes to create an incentive for delaying retirement). Other aspects of the reform plan will take effect in 2000. Pensions for individuals will be provided in part by the state and in part out of individual contributions to the Pension Fund. (Details on this part of the plan are sketchy.) Individuals may also make voluntary contributions to private pension funds. Although Pension Fund Chairman Vasilii Barchuk on 15 December said the pension age will gradually be increased, Deputy Prime Minister and Labor Minister Oleg Sysuev indicated on 18 December that the government's plan does not foresee an increase in the retirement age. A previous pension reform plan was rejected at an October cabinet meeting, at which Prime Minister Chernomyrdin sharply criticized Sysuev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 31 October 1997). LB

RUSSIA-IRAN UPDATE

Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov was in Tehran last week for talks with Iranian Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdollah Nouri on combatting drugs and arms smuggling and terrorism, Russian agencies reported. Meeting on 19 December with Nouri and First Vice President Hassan Habibi, Kulikov also expressed Moscow's gratitude to the Iranian leadership for forestalling an attempt by Turkey to include Chechnya on the agenda of the 9-11 December Organization of the Islamic Conference summit, Interfax reported. LF

RUSSIA WILL GO AHEAD WITH S-300 SALES TO CYPRUS

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadii Tarasov on 19 December rejected as "groundless and misleading" a "Financial Times" article claiming that Yevgenii Primakov had announced at the OSCE Foreign Ministers' meeting in Copenhagen that Russia is prepared to suspend the planned delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Greek Cyprus in exchange for finncial compensation from NATO, Interfax reported. Tarasov reiterated Moscow's position that the S-300s are "a purely defensive weapon." LF

HOSTAGE ORDEAL IN MOSCOW ENDS WITH DEATH OF TERRORIST...

A six-hour hostage ordeal in Moscow ended when a terrorist and was killed in the early morning of 20 December outside the Swedish Embassy. The terrorist, identified as 34-year-old Sergei Kobyakov from Chelyabinsk Oblast, took Swedish Embassy worker Jan Olaf Nystrom hostage on the evening of 19 December when Nystrom returned to his car, parked near the embassy. Kobyakov had a pistol and a grenade and demanded $3 million and a plane for the release of Nystrom. He later agreed to trade the Swede for a member of the Alpha force (antiterrorist unit). Kobyakov's behavior became erratic later and commandos decided to open fire. Kobyakov was killed in the exchange. BP

...AND SECURITY FORCE OFFICER

The terrorist Kobyakov swapped the Swede for Alpha unit's Colonel Anatoly Savelev. But when Kobyakov placed a noose around Savelev's neck the colonel appeared to suffer a heart seizure, the Alpha force commandos attacked. Kobyakov was killed outright. Savelev was wounded, according to some accounts several times. Savelev died at a hospital officially of a heart attack but footage of the action and accounts by some present at the scene raise the possibility the Colonel died of gunshot wounds. BP

OLD DEFENSE MINISTERS NEVER DIE, THEY SIMPLY GET NEW, CUSHIER JOBS

Former Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev is likely to become an advisor to Yevgenii Ananev, named in August as head of the arms export concern Rosvooruzhenie, Russian media reported on 18 December. "Kommersant-Daily" on 19 December reported that Grachev has already begun work in that position, which he owes to his former school friend, Rear Admiral Oleg Belavintsev, who is Rosvooruzhenie's first deputy general director. LF

YELTSIN APPROVES NATIONAL SECURITY CONCEPT

Yeltsin on 17 December signed into law the Russian National Security Concept, "Izvestia" reported on 21 December. That concept makes provision for the first use of nuclear weapons (see "End Note", RFE/RL Newsline, 30 April 1997). LF

CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDER PASSES DEATH SENTENCE ON YELTSIN

Addressing a 3,000-person rally in Grozny on 20 December, Salman Raduev threatened to execute Yeltsin during the Russian president's visit to Chechnya next month in accordance with a death sentence pronounced by the "Supreme Caucasus Sharia Court" on Russian officials deemed responsible for the 1994 invasion of Chechnya, AFP reported. The Russian Presidential Press Service termed Raduev's statement appalling and charged it aimed to derail dialogue between Moscow and Grozny. Rally participants also passed a vote of no-confidence in Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and the Chechen government and called on the latter to resign, Interfax reported. Raduev's supporters had issued a similar demand at a rally in Grozny five weeks ago (See "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 November 1997). LF

MASKHADOV, RYBKIN OUTLINE PRIORITIES FOR CHECHNYA

Addressing the first session of an international conference on Chechnya, Maskhadov on 19 December again called on Yeltsin to sign a full-scale treaty recognizing Chechnya's independence and establishing diplomatic relations, Interfax reported. But Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin told the final session of the conference in Kazan on 20 December that the 43 agreements already signed between Moscow and Grozny constitute "a rich contractual basis" for structuring bilateral relations, and that the primary problem facing Chechnya is restoring its economy. Rybkin warned against "over-hasty" decisions on Chechnya's status, expressing the hope that the conference, attended by experts on international law, would make it possible to find a formula acceptable to both parties. LF



ARMENIA BLOCS ADOPTION OF KARABAKH DOCUMENT IN COPENHAGEN

The Armenian delegation to the OSCE foreign ministers meeting in Copenhagen on 19 December blocked a decision reiterating the principles of the 1996 Lisbon OSCE summit. It also blocked a statement by the current OSCE chairman couched in virtually identical terms, Noyan Tapan , a correspondent for RFE/RL's Armenian Service, reported. The 1996 Lisbon statement had affirmed that a solution to the Karabakh conflict must be based on autonomous status for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. The Armenian delegation in Copenhagen likewise registered its disapproval of the OSCE's preference for a "phased" settlement of the conflict, which the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership categorically rejects. LF

CORRUPTION TERMED 'MOST DANGEROUS' CRIME IN ARMENIA

Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian on 18 December characterized corruption and economic crime as the most serious problem facing his ministry, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He said that growing ties between state officials at various levels and the criminal underworld are "extremely dangerous" and "weaken the country." Sarkisian complained that present legislation does not permit his ministry to combat these evils effectively. He also said that although no attempts have been made during his tenure as minister on the life of President Levon Ter-Petrossyan, the security ministry and presidential guards "have had numerous occasions to be worried," according to Interfax. LF

HAPPY BIRTHDAY COMRADE STALIN

Admirers of Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili (Stalin) congregated in his hometown of Gori on 21 December to mark the 118th anniversary of his birth there. Stalin's great-great- grandson was baptized the same day in a nearby monastery. Similar celebrations organized by the Stalin Society and other organizations took place in Tbilisi and Kutaisi. LF

WAHHABIS BLAMED IN NAMANGAN KILLINGS

The Uzbek government is blaming the murders of four policemen in Namangan on members of a Wahhabi sect (See "Newsline" 18 December), according to RFE/RL corespondents and Reuters. One suspect killed in the 17 November gunfight with police has been identified as a Wahhabi. Police in eastern Uzbekistan are now looking for other members of the sect. Mikhail Ardzinov, the chairman of the Independent Organization for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, says authorities in the Namangan area have detained or arrested hundreds of people in connection with the killings of police officers. " He said the town is under semi-siege. BP




RUSSIAN PARTIES IN ESTONIA FORM ELECTORAL BLOC

The three Estonian political parties that seek to represent Russian speakers in Estonia -- the United People's Party, the Russian Christian Union, and the Russian Unity Party -- formed a common bloc for the 1999 parliamentary elections, BNS reported 19 December. The new group will be called "Our Home is Estonia;" a spokesman said . The formation of the bloc represented the opening of the election campaign. PG

MOSCOW AGAIN LINKS SECURITY, RIGHTS IN MESSAGE TO LATVIA

On 21 December, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev delivered a message from Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov on Moscow's current thinking about Baltic security, Itar-Tass reported. According to the Russian news service, the message again linked Moscow's attitudes toward security issues in the Baltic countries with the way in which Latvia deals with its ethnic Russian minority. PG

VANDALS DESECRATE SYNAGOGUE IN LATVIAN CAPITAL

Someone painted a swastika and other anti- semitic symbols and words on the entrance to the Jewish synagogue in Riga, Itar-Tass reported 20 December, citing SM, the Russian-language newspaper in Riga. According to SM, the desecration followed distribution in Riga by persons unknown of leaflets calling Jews and Russians the main enemies of the Latvian people. PG

NEO-COMMUNIST LEADS FIRST ROUND IN LITHUANIAN POLL

Arturas Paulauskas won 45 percent of the vote in the 21 December first round of the election of a new president in Lithuania, Lithuanian media reported. He led Valdas Adamkus, who garnered 27 percent, and parliamentary speaker Vytautas Landsbergis, who attracted 15 percent of the vote. Turnout for the election was 71 percent. Because none of the candidates won more than 50 percent, the top two -- Paulauskas and Adamkus -- will face each other in a runoff on 4 January. The choice then will be a stark one: Paulauskas, the son of a KGB colonel and a man who enjoys the support of both the current president and much of the old communist establishment, will be competing against Adamkus, a man who has spent much of his life in the United States and was a senior official in the U..S. Environmental Protection Agency. PG

BELARUS, RUSSIA SEE NATO GROWTH AS DESTABILIZING

The Russian and Belarusian defense ministers said in Minsk on 19 December that the Eastward expansion of NATO would be destabilizing and would threaten the security of their countries, Itar-Tass reported. Russia's Yurii Sergeev and Belarus' Aleksandr Chumakov made the comments after signing a military cooperation pact between their two governments. Meanwhile, Russian businessman and political figure Boris Berezovskii met with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported 19 December. The two men reportedly discussed the fate of the ORT reporters now being tried in Belarus. Berezovskii owns ORT, an independent television network. PG

SOLIDARITY LEADER CAN RUN FOR POLISH PRESIDENCY

At its national congress on 20 December, Poland's Solidarity labor movement voted 259 to 27 to change its rules to allow its leader, Marian Krzaklewski, to run for president while remaining head of the union, PAP reported. Krzaklewski may run in 2000. PG

POLES, CZECHS TO REBUFF CRITICISM ON JOINING NATO

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek and Czech Foreign Minister Jaroslav Sedivy said in Warsaw on 21 December that both their countries and Hungary will respond as one to any criticism of their plans to joint NATO, PAP reported. They also said that they and the Hungarian foreign minister will visit Washington on 9 February to press for American ratification of their joining the Western alliance. PG

BLACK BOXES RECOVERED AT UKRAINE AIRLINER CRASH SITE

Investigators on 20 and 21 December recovered both black boxes from an Aerosvit YAK-42 airliner that crashed in Greece on 17 December, Itar-Tass reported. The news agency said that many of the bodies of the victims recovered so far were so mutilated that identification of the remains will be difficult. PG

KLAUS PARTY WILLING TO JOIN NEW CZECH GOVERNMENT

Outgoing Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus said on 19 December that his party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), was ready to join the new government of Prime Minister designate Josef Tosovsky now that it had received assurances that the new government would not change the country's direction, CTK reported 19 December. Meanwhile, Czech President Vaclav Havel and his wife departed Prague for a three-week vacation in the Canary Islands. They will return just prior to the 20 January parliamentary session at which Havel is expected to be reelected as president. PG




MILOSEVIC ALLY CLAIMS VICTORY IN SERBIAN VOTE

A spokesman for Yugoslav Foreign Minister Milan Milutinovic said in Belgrade on 22 December that Milutinovic won 2,185,218 votes, or 59.68 percent of the vote for the Serbian presidency, against 1,363,577 votes, or 37.24 percent, for his hard-line nationalist rival Vojislav Seselj of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). Milutinovic's spokesman contended that just over 50 percent of registered voters turned out on 21 December and that hence the vote was valid. A spokesman for the SRS, however, claimed that just under 50 percent cast their ballots, thereby making the vote invalid. This is the fourth time Serbs have gone to the polls since 21 September to elect a president. Milutinovic is generally known as a loyal lieutenant of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 1997). PM

ALBANIANS BOYCOTT SERBIAN VOTE

A spokesman for the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the leading Kosovar political organization, said in Pristina on 21 December that Serbia's ethnic Albanians boycotted the presidential vote. He added that the Kosovar leadership will announce their own Kosovo presidential and parliamentary elections later this year and that the vote will take place early in 1998, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Pristina. The LDK and other Kosovar political groups say that they boycotted the presidential vote to show that they do not consider Serbia to be their country and because none of the candidates ran on a platform that the Kosovars could support. PM

CLINTON TELLS BOSNIANS TO 'BEHAVE.'

U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in Sarajevo on a one-day visit to Bosnia on 22 December. He told political and religious leaders that "the world which continues to invest in your peace expects you to do your part." He urged the leaders to "find more opportunities at the grassroots to reach across the lines of division for the sake of your children and in the service of peace." En route to Bosnia, Clinton told reporters that he would tell each leader in private that "the future of the country is still in their hands... In the end, they've got to behave." PM

SFOR RAIDS BOSNIAN ARMY HEADQUARTERS

NATO-led peacekeepers and UN police staged a raid on 20 December on the Sarajevo building that houses both the headquarters of the Bosnian army and a prison. An SFOR spokesman told an RFE/RL correspondent that peacekeepers "took advantage of our presence there to inspect the adjacent Bosnian army headquarters under the terms of our mandate, that is, without advance warning." The soldiers took away five cartons containing video cassettes, computer discs, and documents. Bosnian army commander Gen. Rasim Delic criticized what he called the "forceful entry" into the headquarters. "The army is always ready to cooperate with SFOR. There was no need to act in this way," he said. PM

ISLAMIC TERRORISTS SEIZED IN BOSNIA

A Bosnian government crackdown on foreign Islamic extremists in central Bosnia has so far led to the arrest of 16 individuals, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Sarajevo on 20 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1997). The men are wanted in connection with murders, robberies, and other terrorist activities in a region to which Croatian refugees want to return and which has a large SFOR presence. Officials of the Bosnian state prosecutor's office said that the 16 apparently all belonged to the same well- organized group. Police confiscated a wide variety of weapons, as well as terrorist instruction manuals, automobile license plates and registration papers, forged documents, and equipment for forging identity papers. PM

HAGUE COURT FREES THREE CROATS

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on 19 December freed Pero Skopljak, Marinko Katava and Ivan Santic. The three had turned themselves in to the court in October, but the court ruled two months later that there is not sufficient evidence to hold them. They returned to Zagreb on 20 December, where they were met by President Franjo Tudjman's son and security chief Miroslav Tudjman, by Tudjman aide Ivic Pasalic, and by Bosnian Foreign Minister Jadranko Prlic, who is a Croat. Prlic said that the freeing of the three prisoners "signifies for the Bosnian Croats a return of a certain credibility" to the tribunal, which holds more than twice as many Croatian prisoners as it does Serbs and Muslims combined. PM

FRENCH GENERAL TO THE HAGUE?

The tribunal is about to press charges of complicity in war crimes against a French former commander of UNPROFOR peacekeepers in Bosnia in 1995, Gen. Bernard Janvier, the Vienna daily "Die Presse" reported on 19 December. Janvier reportedly ignored several intelligence reports indicating that the Serbs were about to attack the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica in July. Once the attack materialized, Janvier turned down a series of requests for air support from Dutch peacekeepers stationed in the Muslim enclave. The fall of the enclave was followed by the largest single massacre of prisoners of war and civilians in Europe since World War II. "Die Presse" said that the court's desire to prosecute Janvier lies at the bottom of recent tensions between it and the French government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 December 1997). PM

BOSNIAN SERB LEGISLATURE TO MEET

Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic and her hard-line rival Momcilo Krajisnik agreed in Brcko on 20 December that the new Bosnian Serb parliament will hold its opening session on 27 December. They also agreed that the hard-line Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) of Radovan Karadzic will nominate the speaker because the SDS holds the most seats of any party, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Brcko. On 19 December, Carlos Westendorp, the international community's chief representative in Bosnia, told the Serbs that they must convene parliament by 27 December. The SDS and its allies lost their overall legislative majority in the elections that took place on 22- 23 November. PM

POLICE FIND WEAPONS IN SLAVONIA

Croatian police announced in Vukovar on 20 December that they found three revolvers, a semi-automatic machine-gun and a machine gun with ammunition, plus two wigs and a bullet- proof vest in a bar in Borovo Naselje, near Vukovar. The area was a scene of armed tensions between Serbs and Croats in the months leading up to the war of 1991. Meanwhile in Zagreb, President Tudjman and the National Security Council welcomed the UN Security Council's decision in New York the previous day to end the UN mandate in eastern Slavonia on 15 January as scheduled. Back in Vukovar, Vladimir Seks, the deputy speaker of parliament and a hard-line Croatian nationalist, told Slavonian Serb politicians that "he extends the hand of partnership" to them, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Vukovar. PM

CROATIAN JOURNALIST CALLS TRIAL POLITICAL

Viktor Ivancic, editor of the satirical weekly "Feral Tribune, " said in Zagreb on 21 December that his upcoming trial for insulting Tudjman "is a classic political trial." He added that the government is trying "to criminalize the fundamental principles of media freedom." Ivancic and Marinko Culic, a journalist at the same paper, are to go on trial before the Zagreb regional court on 22 December. Tudjman is seeking $3 million in damages for a critical article. "Feral" claimed he had plans that amounted to reburying local World War II fascists alongside their victims. Critics of the Croatian authorities often face costly lawsuits for slander or defamation. PM

CROATIAN LIBERALS FOUND NEW PARTY

Vlado Gotovac, leader of a break-away faction of the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), announced in Zagreb on 21 December that he and his followers will soon found the Liberal Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 1997). Gotovac said his party will seek to reduce big government and centralization, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Zagreb. PM

GANG KILLS THREE POLICEMEN IN ALBANIA

An armed gang shot and killed three policemen and wounded two in the central-Albanian city of Ballsh on 18 December, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on 20 December. The policemen were part of a special unit that came to the rescue of a group of people, whom the gang was holding hostage. Police arrested one of the gangsters. FS

FLOODS INUNDATE NORTHERN ALBANIA

Heavy rains on 20 and 21 December flooded 180 houses in the northern Albanian town of Lezha and interrupted the main north- south railway and road lines, the Albanian Service of VOA reported on 22 December. Over 8,000 hectares of land are affected by the heaviest floods since 1985. Floodwaters also damaged three hydroelectric power plants and killed livestock. FS

ROMANIA, HUNGARY SIGN MILITARY ACCORD

Romanian Defense Minister Victor Babiuc and his Hungarian counterpart Gyorgy Keleti signed a military agreement on 20 December in Oradea. The accord provides for transporting troops and military equipment across their two countries and regulates the responsibilities of the armies in case of conflict or natural disasters. The ministers also pledged to sign further agreements on air defense and exchanging military archives and to create a joint peacekeeping battalion in February 1998 . The battalion will be composed of 100 soldiers from each side, with alternating command. FS

ROMANIANS WANT TRUTH ON 1989 REVOLUTION

Some 55 percent of 1,117 people questioned in an EU-sponsored survey said they want to know the truth about the Romanian revolution. Survey results were published on 19 December, eight years after the popular revolt against then-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. FS

FORMER KING VISITS ROMANIA

Michael of Hohenzollern arrived in Bucharest on 19 December with his wife, Queen Anne of Bourbon-Parma, and two of their daughters. He will spend his first Christmas in Romania since 1947. Former Queen Anne said the family intends to visit several hospitals and orphanages and meet with President Emil Constantinescu. Constantinescu had declared himself a monarchist after the fall of Ceausescu but since has changed his position. On 30 December monarchists are planning to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Michael's forced abdication and departure from Romania. Polls indicate about one in ten Romanians favor a monarchy. FS

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT DECREES PRIVATIZATION LAW

The Romanian government decreed a new privatization law on 21 December. It regulates the duties of a newly created Privatization Ministry. The ministry has begun to administer the Fund of State Property, which was previously controlled by the Reform Ministry. Parliament must approve or reject the law during its next session, probably in February. The IMF had demanded the privatization of 3,000 state owned firms as a precondition for a 400-million-dollar loan. The IMF suspended loans in 1996, saying that the last government had failed to implement necessary reforms. FS

HEPATITIS BREAKS OUT IN CONSTANTA

Local health authorities said on 19 December that the hospital in the Ro,anian port city of Constanta hospital has diagnosed some 108 cases of hepatitis-a, including 20 cases involving children, since the beginning of the month. PM

BULGARIAN POLICE RAID DRUGS PLANT

The National Service for the Fight against Organized Crime uncovered on 18 December an illicit plant producing amphetamines on an industrial scale. The special unit found the plant located in three aircraft hangars in the village of Opitsvet, 10 miles west of Sofia. Investigators seized large quantities of the drug, which inspectors said were probably intended for sale abroad. FS




CROATIAN LAWS LEAD TO INTERNATIONAL ROW OVER MINORITIES


by Patrick Moore

The Croatian constitution no longer names Slovenes and Muslims as recognized ethnic minorities. The reason for the change and its practical consequences for the two minorities is unclear. What is certain, however, is that Zagreb's sudden move has already provoked strong negative reactions in both Ljubljana and Sarajevo.

On 3 November, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman proposed a series of amendments to the constitution. International media attention focused on an amendment to prohibit Croatian participation in any future Balkan regional grouping or new Yugoslavia, but he made other proposals as well.

One of those proposals was to drop references to any specific ethnic minorities from the constitution, which dates from December 1990. That text referred to "Serbs, Muslims, Slovenes, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Hungarians, Jews, and others." Tudjman's proposal would have left references minorities in general terms. But when the parliament passed the amendments on December 12, it listed the minorities as: "Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Hungarians, Jews, Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, and Ruthenes."

It remains unclear why the parliament decided to change Tudjman's proposal and why it chose to list the particular ethnic groups that it did. After all, official figures show that Muslims and Slovenes are the second and third largest minorities, after the Serbs. Croatia has some 23,000 Slovenes, while the numbers of Austrians or Germans number in the hundreds.

It is also unclear as to what the practical consequences of the changes might be in terms of the day- to-day life of average Slovenes and Muslims. Croatian government officials downplayed the significance of the list in the constitution and stressed that the document and international agreements signed by Croatia protect the rights of all ethnic groups in the country, regardless of whether they are mentioned by name. Zagreb even offered to sign a special treaty on minorities with Ljubljana.

But the omission of their ethnic groups and the inclusion of some relatively tiny communities has nonetheless aroused Slovenian and Muslim suspicions about Croatian intentions. Part of the reason for this is the constitutional heritage of Tito's Yugoslavia, where the legal status of each ethnic community was taken very seriously. Before the breakup of that state in 1991, federal law clearly set down a pecking order among the numerous ethnic communities,. They were divided into three categories in order of political importance: nations, nationalities, and ethnic groups. If a group was moved from one of these three categories to another, it was an event of major political significance.

Being used to this political tradition, the Slovenes and Muslims could hardly be indifferent to the changes in the Croatian constitution. The Slovenes were the first to register their surprise and disapproval. On the day the Croatian parliament approved the amendments, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek was in Zagreb with a high- powered delegation to sign a series of economic agreements. One of them was designed to help pave the way for Croatia to join the Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA), of which Slovenia is already a member.

Slovenia has had much more success than Croatia in becoming integrated in European structures and was prepared to help Croatia join CEFTA, but now this is in doubt. On the day that the Croats passed the constitutional amendments, Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister Marjan Podobnik in Ljubljana called the exclusion of the Slovenian minority "unexpected and disturbing." Podobnik said that Zagreb's move will prompt Ljubljana to reconsider its support for Croatian membership in European bodies.

Upon returning home, Drnovsek echoed those sentiments. Slovenian press commentators called the Croatian move "Balkan," which in Slovenia is an epithet used against the country's former fellow Yugoslav republics. And the National Party's Zmago Jelincic suggested that Slovenia downgrade the legal status of two of its border crossings with Croatia so as to bar them to international traffic and thereby hurt Croatia's tourist industry.

Should Slovenia take any concrete steps to show its displeasure with the Croatian amendments, its actions would further complicate a relationship that is already burdened by a series of disputes stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The points of contention involve bank deposits, property rights, the Krsko nuclear power plant, and access to the sea.

In Sarajevo, surprise and bitterness were likewise the universal reactions to the Croatian amendments. Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of the joint presidency, said that Croatia's move is at odds with the Dayton peace agreement on Bosnia and with a host of European agreements on minority rights that Croatia has signed.

A spokesman for the non-nationalist Social Democrats, told RFE/RL that the Croatian move "was no accident." He charged that it was an attempt by Croatian nationalists to deny that the Muslims are a distinct people separate from the Croats. He also claimed that the Croats' goal is to undermine the Muslim-Croatian federation in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state of two equal partners.

Clearly, the Croatian amendments have already further strained Zagreb's uneasy relations with Ljubljana and Sarajevo. On 18 December, both the Slovenian and Bosnian ambassadors stayed away from the official festivities in Zagreb to honor the anniversary of the constitution.


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