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Newsline - March 12, 1998




FEDERATION COUNCIL APPROVES BUDGET

The Federation Council on 12 March approved the 1998 budget by 115 to 22 with four abstentions, ITAR-TASS reported. The document now goes to President Boris Yeltsin, who is expected to sign it before the end of the month. The budget calls for some 500 billion rubles ($82 billion) in spending and 368 billion rubles in revenues, resulting in a deficit of 132 billion rubles or 4.7 percent of projected GDP. In accordance with an amendment added shortly before the Duma approved the document, the government will not be required to seek parliamentary approval for spending cuts in the event of revenue shortfalls (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 March 1998). However, such cuts must be applied proportionally to all budget expenditures. LB

GORE-CHERNOMYRDIN COMMISSION EXCEEDS EXPECTATIONS

The Russian-U.S. Commission on Economics and Technology, also known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, wrapped up its 10th session in Washington on 11 March. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore told journalists that the commission has "exceeded the limits of purely economic cooperation" to become an "important factor in Russian-U.S. relations." Gore noted than in the five years of the commission's work, U.S. investment in Russia has doubled and the U.S. has become the leading foreign investor in Russia. With reference to nuclear proliferation, Chernomyrdin said "Russia has no interest in seeing these dangerous systems spread to any of its neighbors," but he refrained from any mention of Iran. BP

MAJOR DEALS SIGNED WITH U.S. FIRMS

Within the framework of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission session, Russian and U.S. companies discussed deals estimated to be worth a total of $100 billion. The biggest agreement signed so far is between the U.S. company Conoco Inc. and Russia's LUKoil to develop oil and gas fields in Timan-Pechora. That deal could be worth $25 billion over 25 years. Boeing is to purchase $175 million of titanium from VSMPO. Corning and Samara Cable are to set up a joint venture in Russia to produce fiber optic cable. The U.S. company AGCO will sell agricultural equipment worth $62.5 million to Chelyabinsk, and eight U.S. firms will supply road construction equipment to three Russian government agencies. Meanwhile, representatives of the U.S. company Texaco have discussed off-shore oil projects around Sakhalin Island, while unnamed U.S companies are holding talks on oil projects in western Siberia and in northern Russia. BP

RUSSIA TO HELP IRAN BUILD NUCLEAR POWER FACILITY

While Prime Minister Chernomyrdin was giving assurances to U.S officials in Washington that Russia will not help Iran develop nuclear weapons, Russian officials announced in Moscow that a deal to help Iran construct a nuclear power plant will go ahead. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Bulgak said "there can be no reprimands" over the issue as Iran is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency and has signed the Nonproliferation Treaty. Russian Minister for Atomic Energy Yevgenii Adamov has already said his country will continue work on the Bushehr plant and can provide the turbines that Ukraine has refused to supply. In Washington, Chernomyrdin responded to that announcement by saying that nuclear power technology has "no relation whatsoever to the technology involved in building weapons of mass destruction." BP

DUMA DEFENDS YUGOSLAVIA'S TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY...

The Duma on 11 March voted by 336 to zero to pass a resolution condemning "attempts to destroy the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia" and "all manifestations of terrorism, extremism, and separatism," RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. The resolution calls on Yeltsin and the Foreign Ministry to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis in Kosovo. It also supports diplomatic efforts to block the imposition of new sanctions against Belgrade, although a call for Russia to use its UN Security Council veto to block such sanctions was removed from the final version of the document at the Foreign Ministry's request. Speaking to RFE/RL, Yabloko deputy Aleksei Arbatov praised the resolution and accused the U.S. and other Western countries of a "one-sided" reaction to the crisis in Kosovo before any investigation of who instigated the bloodshed there. LB

...CALLS FOR LIFTING SANCTIONS AGAINST IRAQ

Also on 11 March, the Duma passed a resolution calling for sanctions against Iraq to be lifted gradually as Baghdad complies with resolutions of the UN Security Council, Russian news agencies reported. The document said Russia's opposition to the use of force to end the recent crisis surrounding UN weapons inspectors in Iraq has proven correct. It also praised the visit to Iraq by a Duma delegation during the crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9-12 February 1998) and noted that the Duma deputies saw no indication that weapons of mass destruction are being stored at any Iraqi "presidential sites." Addressing the Duma deputies, First Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called for taking that passage out of the resolution, Interfax reported. He said drawing conclusions about the storage of weapons of mass destruction is a "job for experts and hardly in line with parliamentary missions." LB

DUMA SLAMS IMPLEMENTATION OF 1997 BUDGET

The Duma on 11 March provisionally approved a resolution asking the Prosecutor- General's Office to consider opening criminal cases against Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais in connection with the implementation of the 1997 budget, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. The resolution, proposed by Duma Security Council Chairman Viktor Ilyukhin, was prepared by the Communist faction in accordance with a recent report by the Audit Chamber (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 1998). It must still be approved in a final version. The resolution charges that the government cut spending illegally and failed use all means for increasing revenues, leading to a loss to state coffers of 65.8 billion new rubles ($10.1 billion). LB

MOODY'S LOWERS RUSSIA'S CREDIT RATING

The U.S. rating agency Moody's on 11 March announced it has downgraded Russia's sovereign debt rating. Moody's Vice President Jonathan Schiffer told Interfax that the agency is concerned about trends in Russian trade and the government's failure to introduce new tax legislation or improve tax collection. A Moody's press release added that Russia is vulnerable to turmoil on international markets. The downgrade will raise foreign borrowing costs for banks and corporations as well as for the government. But First Deputy Prime Minister Chubais said at a 12 March meeting with Yeltsin that the decision by Moody's is unlikely to significantly affect Russian markets, ITAR-TASS reported. Yeltsin said he does not consider the downgrade a "catastrophe," according to Interfax. The previous day, Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Sergei Aleksashenko said the government has not done enough to publicize its plan for cutting budget expenses. LB

HOW WILL GOVERNMENT PAY FOR PROMISED PENSION INCREASE?

Yeltsin's latest promise on raising pensions will cost an additional 3 billion rubles ($500 million) a month, Interfax reported on 11 March, citing the Pension Fund's press service. Following a 10 percent increase last October and another 10 percent hike in December, Yeltsin has pledged a 20 percent increase this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 1998). In order to remain current on payments, the Pension Fund must spend 14.5 billion rubles a month. Monthly expenditures are likely to increase by 1.2 billion rubles this year, even if Yeltsin's promise is not kept. However, the Pension Fund collected only 11.1 billion rubles in February and had to borrow money from banks in order to meet its obligations to pensioners, according to Interfax. LB

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT WARNS LUZHKOV

Constitutional Court Judge Vladimir Yaroslavtsev has warned Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov not to defy a ruling that prohibits authorities from using permits to deny some citizens permanent residence in their localities, "Kommersant- Daily" reported on 12 March. Luzhkov has said that owing to budgetary constraints, Moscow will not implement the court ruling (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 1998). Speaking on behalf of the court, Yaroslavtsev told "Kommersant-Daily" that judges will "use all legal means" in order to ensure adherence to constitutional principles. The mayor has asked Yeltsin to exempt Moscow from the ban on residence permits. But Sergei Shakhrai, presidential representative in the Constitutional Court, says the court's rulings are final. He has advised Luzhkov to ask the parliament to grant Moscow special status by amending the federal law on citizens' right to travel and choose their place of residence. LB

JUDGES ALSO ACT AS PROSECUTORS IN MANY CRIMINAL TRIALS

In an apparent violation of the constitution, defendants in criminal trials often find that the presiding judge is also their prosecutor, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 11 March. Article 123 of the constitution stipulates that trials must grant equal conditions for both sides. However, in accordance with the Criminal-Procedural Code, a prosecutor is not required to attend a criminal trial if the charge carries a maximum sentence of no greater than five years. In such cases, the judge also serves as the prosecutor during court proceedings. Defense lawyers say the common practice makes it impossible for the accused to receive a fair trial. Irina Kupriyanova, a judge at a Moscow municipal court, conceded in an interview with RFE/RL that the practice probably does violate the constitution. LB

SERGEEV WORRIED BY CRIME RATE IN MILITARY

Defense Minister Igor Sergeev on 10 March expressed concern about rising crime in the armed forces, which, he said, has reached a "critical point," Russian news agencies reported. He told top Defense Ministry officials that more crimes are being registered in the armed forces, and the severity of the crimes is increasing. Commanders are believed to have committed 18,000 crimes last year, Sergeev said, adding there is a "real threat" of organized crime groups penetrating military units. He said the highest crime rates are to be found in the Trans-Baikal, Urals and North Caucasus military districts, while the "least problematic" divisions are the Strategic Missile Forces, the Moscow Military District, and the Black Sea Fleet, ITAR-TASS reported. Sergeev commanded the Strategic Missile Forces before taking over the defense portfolio last May. LB

NEW AGENCY TO SUPERVISE DISMANTLING OF SUBS, CHEMICAL WEAPONS

Sergeev announced on 11 March that Yeltsin has agreed to establish a new federal agency charged with supervising the dismantling of decommissioned nuclear submarines and the destruction of chemical weapons, Russian news agencies reported. Currently, the Defense Ministry is responsible for such supervision. Sergeev proposed creating the new agency at a 10 March meeting with Yeltsin. He told journalists the next day that the agency will be staffed with retired officers, although he did not say how many will be employed there. Interfax on 9 March quoted Defense Ministry sources as saying 300,000 commissioned officers will be laid off this year in accordance with military reform plans. Russia has some 150 decommissioned nuclear submarines and 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, which are to be destroyed over the next 10 years. LB

FORMER PROSECUTOR'S ILLNESS MAY DELAY CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS

Aleksandr Asnis, a lawyer representing former acting Prosecutor-General Aleksei Ilyushenko, announced on 11 March that criminal proceedings need to be delayed to allow his client to be treated for tuberculosis, ITAR-TASS reported. Ilyushenko, who is charged with bribery and abuse of office, was released last month after spending two years in pre- trial detention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 1998). Soon after, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis--a common ailment in Russian prisons and detention centers. Ilyushenko's trial cannot begin until he has finished reviewing the case against him, whose details are set down in some 90 volumes. Nikolai Yemelyanov of the Prosecutor-General's Office said investigators are awaiting official confirmation of Ilyushenko's diagnosis before deciding how to proceed, Interfax reported. Asnis said Ilyushenko insists on either his trial or the clearance of his name, adding that his client will reject any offer of amnesty because of his illness. LB

COAL MINE DIRECTOR CONVICTED BUT AMNESTIED

Aleksandr Ternovykh, the director of the Kuznetskaya coal mine in Kemerovo Oblast, was convicted on 11 March of negligence in the deaths of three miners, ITAR-TASS reported. The miners died of gas fumes in early 1997 while examining a part of the mine damaged by a fire. Ternovykh was convicted of sending the miners into the shaft in violation of safety standards. However, after announcing the verdict, the court freed him in accordance with a wide-ranging amnesty declared by the Duma last December. Angry employees of the Kuznetskaya mine held Ternovykh hostage for five days in January before he was arrested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 1998). LB

YELTSIN URGED TO SACK KRASNODAR GOVERNOR

The Congress of Russian Intelligentsia, headed by former presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Filatov, has issued a statement urging Yeltsin to sack Krasnodar Krai Governor Nikolai Kondratenko and refer the case to the Prosecutor- General's Office, ITAR-TASS reported on 11 March. The statement charged that at a recent forum for Krasnodar youth, Kondratenko blamed Jews for Russia's problems and thereby fomented ethnic hatred--which is prohibited by Russian law. According to "Izvestiya" on 4 March, Kondratenko's speech to that forum included 61 references to "yids," "yid-masons," "cosmopolitans," or "Zionists." Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov on 6 March named Kondratenko as the likely economics minister in the opposition's "shadow cabinet," drawing sharply criticism from the anti- communist press. Human rights activists have long alleged that Kondratenko promotes discriminatory policies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 October 1997 and 17 February 1998). LB




RUSSIA PROTESTS PLAN TO HOLD ELECTIONS IN ABKHAZIA

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement on 11 March criticizing Abkhazia's plans to hold local elections on 14 March, Interfax reported. The statement said any such vote cannot be seen as "legitimate" and that "Abkhazia lacks the necessary legal and political conditions for such an event." Moreover, the Moscow statement continued, any vote of this kind in advance of a final settlement on the status of the breakaway region would lead to "a further aggravation" of conditions there. PG

ARMENIAN COMMUNIST CANDIDATE CRITICIZES DEMIRCHYAN

Sergei Balayan, the leader of the Armenian Communist Party and a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, told RFE/RL on 11 March that former party boss Karen Demirchyan is surrounded by the "most dangerous people" from the former nomenklatura and that as a result Demirchyan is losing support. In other comments, Balayan outlined his own plans. He said that if he is elected, he will form a government of "professionals" and will not require his ministers to be communist party members. PG

ARMENIAN ELECTION HEAD RESPONDS TO CRITICISM

Khachatur Bezirjian, the chairman of Armenia's Central Electoral Commission, told "Azg" on 11 March that he cannot not approve calls for opening polling stations in Nagorno-Karabakh. "Even if we assume that Karabakh is part of Armenia, it does not have the status of a province," he said. In other comments, he repeated his view that acting President and Prime Minister Robert Kocharian qualifies as a candidate, not least because he has traveled abroad on an Armenian diplomatic passport. And Bezirjian said that complaints about the commission's failure to allow Armenians abroad to vote should be directed at the Foreign Ministry, which, he said, has not yet provided a list of expatriate voters as required by law. PG

AZERBAIJAN, GEORGIA DISCUSS POLICIES ON CIS

Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze spoke by telephone on 10 March about their plans for the 19-20 March CIS summit in Moscow, ITAR-TASS reported on 11 March. The two leaders also discussed broader cooperation in the export of Caspian oil. PG

CAUCASIAN COMMON MARKET TO OPEN LONDON OFFICE

The Caucasian Common Market, an economic cooperation group currently being set up by Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Georgia, and Ossetia, will soon open an office in London to promote trade and investment, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev told ITAR-TASS on 12 March. Nukhayev, who also heads the new organization and who has accompanied Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to the British capital, said Turkey, Iran, and other countries may eventually join. PG

KAZAKHSTAN TO RELEASE IRANIAN CHARGED WITH ESPIONAGE

According to Tehran IRIB Television on 11 March, Kazakh authorities will soon release the three Iranian nationals being held on espionage charges. The report also claimed that Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymjomart Tokayev will pay a visit to the Iranian capital on 13 March. BP

TAJIK PRESIDENT JOINS DEMOCRATIC PARTY

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov has joined the Tajik People's Democratic Party, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 March. Until now, Rakhmonov had not belonged to any party, but in order to be nominated as a candidate for the next presidential elections, he needs the support of a least one registered party. BP




UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS 'NO' TO NATO

Gennady Udovenko said in Tokyo on 11 March that Ukraine, like Russia, has no intention of becoming a NATO member, ITAR-TASS reported. Udovenko, who is Japan in his capacity as chairman of the UN General Assembly, said Ukraine "is a non-aligned country and does not want to join" NATO. He added, however, that Ukraine will seek cooperation with the alliance. Volodymyr Horbulin, Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council Secretary, said in Kyiv the same day that his country "has no plans to join NATO" but is working with it to "ensure collective security in Europe." Those statements differ from the equivocal comments made the previous day by Boris Tarasyuk, the head of the Ukrainian mission to NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 1998). PB

EU OFFICIALS THREATEN KYIV OVER TAX DISPUTE

An EU delegation in Kyiv has threatened to withdraw support for Ukraine's entry into the World Trade Organization unless it repeals tax breaks granted to the automaker Daewoo, AFP reported on 10 March. Kyiv granted a 10-year exemption to Daewoo on profits and customs duties after it formed a joint venture with Ukrainian automaker AvtoZaz in September. It also recently put restrictions on the importing of used cars to Ukraine. The EU said such actions violate GATT and WTO regulations and has threatened Kyiv with sanctions if it fails to rescind the measures. PB

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SIGNS BARTER DEALS WITH SYRIA

At the end of his three-day visit to Damascus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with his Syrian counterpart, Hafez Assad, and signed several barter deals, Reuters reported on 11 March. The two leaders agreed to promote economic cooperation, and they also issued a joint statement blaming Israel for the stalemate in the Middle East peace negotiations. A Syrian communique said Assad has accepted an invitation from Lukashenka to visit Belarus. PB

LATVIA TO EXTEND SOVIET-ERA PASSPORTS FOR RUSSIAN SPEAKERS

Janis Lejinsh, deputy head of the citizenship and immigration department, said on 11 March that Riga will extend the validity of Soviet-era passports for hundreds of thousands of mainly Russian-speakers, BNS and Reuters reported. The former Soviet passports were due to expire in March but will be extended until October. Lejinsh said some 516,000 people still have no other travel papers because the authorities, unable to cope with the number of applications, have handed out only 134,000 documents drawn up for non-citizens. Lejinsh insisted that the decision to extend Soviet-era passports was not linked to the pensioners' rally in Riga last week, which prompted sharp criticism from Moscow over the Latvian authorities handling of the incident. JC

LATVIAN PARLIAMENT SUSPENDS LATVENERGO PRIVATIZATION

Lawmakers on 11 March voted to suspend privatization of the energy utility Latvenergo until the parliamentary committee investigating the loss of 3 million lats (some $6 million) submits its final report, according to BNS. Andrejs Pantelejevs, the head of the committee, had urged deputies to vote in favor of a suspension, saying that the Prosecutor-General's Office and the committee have information suggesting that people linked to the 3 million lats loss want to participate in the company's privatization. JC

ADAMKUS DETAILS PROPOSAL FOR ADMINISTRATIVE REFORM

In a letter to the government, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus has proposed abolishing the Communications and Construction Ministries and merging several others, BNS and Interfax reported on 11 March. According to his proposal, the Labor Ministry would merge with the Health Ministry and the Education and Science Ministry with the Culture Ministry. Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius, who earlier this week was endorsed in office by the parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 1998), agrees with the president that the government administration should be streamlined. JC

CZECH GOVERNMENT APPROVES PRICE DEREGULATION

The government on 11 March approved a 24 percent price increase for electricity, 27 percent for gas, and 27 percent on average for controlled rents, beginning 1 July, CTK reported, quoting Finance Minister Ivan Pilip. Pensions will rise by 7.5 percent, also from 1 July. Meanwhile, the cabinet has accepted the resignation of Vladimir Mlynar as its spokesman in connection with his decision to join the Freedom Union. Mlynar remains as minister without portfolio and has been asked by the government to continue to serve as spokesman until the elections because no suitable successor is available. MS

U.S. HELSINKI COMMITTEE 'CONCERNED' ABOUT SLOVAKIA

The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe says it is "profoundly concerned" about Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar's recent actions, which, it said, are moving Slovakia "away from the democratic values it has agreed to uphold," an RFE/RL correspondent in Washington reported on 11 March. The commission, which is also know as the Helsinki Commission, has sent a letter to Meciar urging him to "reverse course." The letter expresses concern at the repeated failure of the parliament to elect a president and the decision by Meciar to annul the referendum on direct elections of the president and NATO membership. MS

SLOVAKIA REJECTS EU CRITICISM

Slovak Foreign Minister Zdenka Kramplova on 11 March rejected the criticism directed at her country by the EU one day earlier. She argued that the association agreement with the EU requires the union to consult with associated members before making statements on internal developments, which, she added, the EU failed to do. This explains why the EU statement "does not reflect the real situation in Slovakia," Kramplova argued. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's spokesman, Jozef Kroslak, said the government's decision to grant amnesty to the abductors of Michal Kovac Jr. and to annul the referendum is in line with the constitution and that the EU criticism is unjustified, RFE/RL's Bratislava bureau reported. MS

TEXT OF DAM AGREEMENT DISCLOSED IN HUNGARY

The Hungarian government is considering legal action against "Nepszava" daily for publishing the full text of the draft Slovak-Hungarian agreement on the Danube hydropower project, Hungarian media reported on 12 March. Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs said that drafts of international treaties are state secrets and that whoever makes them public is violating the law. He said the information was probably leaked by those who want to turn the dam dispute into a campaign issue. The document explicitly states that a dam will be built on the Hungarian side of the Danube. MSZ

EAST-CENTRAL PREMIERS PLEDGE COOPERATION

Josef Tosovsky (Czech Republic), Gyula Horn (Hungary), and Jerzy Buzek (Poland), who are in London to attend an EU conference of the 15 states aspiring to join the union, agreed to take a common approach in their countries negotiations for NATO and EU membership, Reuters reported. Horn said the three countries will cooperate closely at each stage of the membership talks with the EU and hold "operational consultations" during the process, which is expected to take several years. PB




U.S. CHARGES SERBS WITH "ETHNIC CLEANSING"

A State Department spokesman said in Washington on 11 March that the U.S. does not want to see a repetition of the "ethnic cleansing" recently carried out by the Serbian authorities in Kosovo. Referring to the hasty burial of dead Albanians by the Serbian police, the spokesman added that "his action suggests that [Yugoslav] President [Slobodan] Milosevic has something to hide. We are concerned that the burials have destroyed and damaged evidence before it could be properly examined by independent forensic experts (see also below)." PM

CLINTON COMPARES KOSOVO TO BOSNIA

In Washington on 11 March, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that "we do not want the Balkans to have more pictures like we've seen in the past few days, so reminiscent of what Bosnia endured." The president added that sanctions "give us some hope that we can resolve this" before the conflict gets out of hand." PM

FRENCH CONCERN OVER KOSOVO

A spokesman for President Jacques Chirac stated that in Paris on 12 March that "President Chirac telephoned President [Boris] Yeltsin to express the hope that Russia will use all its influence with authorities in Belgrade to convince them to cease repressive operations and engage in a dialogue aimed at finding a political solution." Premier Lionel Jospin told a campaign rally in Toulouse that "we cannot accept a recurrence of the nightmare of massacres, violence and ethnic cleansing on the European continent. That is why...this government calls on the international community to stand by the Albanians of Kosovo in their hour of distress." PM

SERBIAN LEADERS OFFER TALKS

Serbian Information Minister Radmila Milentijevic said in Belgrade on 11 March that Deputy Prime Minister Ratko Markovic and three cabinet ministers will hold "an open dialogue" with "Albanian representatives" in Pristina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 1998). She added that the basis of the talks will be the Serbian Constitution because Serbia "is a state based on the rule of law." Milentijevic regretted that women and children were killed in the recent police action in Kosovo, but she claimed that the Kosovar "terrorists" used the civilians as "human shields." The Kosovar position is that Kosovars cannot accept the constitution because it stipulates that Serbia is a unitary state and because they had no say in its being approved. Kosovar spokesmen charge that Serbian security forces deliberately killed women and children as part of a program of "state terrorism." PM

KOSOVARS SAY SERBIAN OFFER OF TALKS "NOT SERIOUS"

Fehmi Agani, a leader of the key Democratic League of Kosovo, said in Pristina on 12 March that no Kosovar leader has received an invitation to the talks. He added that, if the Serbs come, "they will have no one to speak to." Veton Surroi, the editor of the daily "Koha Ditore," said Belgrade's offer of talks is "not serious." He stressed that the Serbs did not specify either what they want to talk about or with whom they wish to speak. Surroi said the offer was made "urbi et orbi" and therefore applies as much to "the Kosovar Pigeon Admirers' Society" as to the Kosovar political leadership. He stressed that the "gap of confidence" between Serbs and Albanians is so wide at present that he cannot envision any serious negotiations without international mediation. PM

RED CROSS PULLS OUT OF KOSOVO

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent officials in Pristina were recalled to Belgrade on 11 March after receiving anonymous death threats. The Serbian authorities had previously turned down requests by the Red Cross to send officials into the Drenica region or to speak to Albanians arrested during the recent assault by security forces there. In the village of Prekaz, Albanians exhumed the bodies of their relatives, whom the Serbian authorities had buried the previous day in a mass grave, and reburied them according to Islamic custom. The Albanians demand that forensics experts be allowed to examine the bodies to determine the causes of death. The Serbian authorities have repeatedly refused. PM

NATO TURNS DOWN ALBANIAN REQUEST

Secretary-General Javier Solana said in Brussels on 11 March that the 16 ambassadors of NATO member countries voted down Tirana's recent request for troop deployments along Albania's border with Yugoslavia. Solana said it is "too early" to send in peacekeepers and that diplomacy must first have a chance to end the crisis. NATO nonetheless pledged technical and financial assistance to Albania to enable it to prevent arms from being smuggled into Kosovo. NATO will also help the Albanian authorities deal with any influx of refugees. Albania requested the meeting with the ambassadors to discuss the Kosovo emergency, which it is entitled to do as a member of the Partnership for Peace Program. It is the first time that a member of the program has exercised the right to consultation. PM

ALBANIAN HEALTH MINISTRY PREPARES FOR POSSIBLE CONFLICT

The Ministry of Health on 11 March ordered all hospitals in the region bordering Yugoslavia to perform "emergency" surgery only , to remain on call, and to stockpile blood supplies. It announced the measures after a meeting of its emergency commission that was called to make preparations for a possible regional conflict or a large influx of refugees from Kosovo, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported. Meanwhile, the Yugoslav embassy in Tirana has asked the Albanian government to increase security at the embassy, saying it has received intelligence reports from the Foreign Ministry in Belgrade warning of possible terrorist attacks. Elsewhere, unnamed military sources are quoted by "Republika" on 12 March as saying fewer than 100 refugees arrived in northern Albania over the past week, all of whom were women and children. FS

PLAVSIC TO RUN AGAIN

Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic told BETA on 12 March that she intends to run for reelection in the upcoming Bosnian general elections so that she "can see the process of democratization through to the end." She regretted that Momcilo Krajisnik, the hard-line Serbian member of the Bosnian joint presidency, "has broken off all contact" with her and her staff. PM

STRASBOURG VS. ZAGREB

In Strasbourg on 11 March, the Council of Europe issued a statement criticizing a recent recommendation by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's National Security Council as "undemocratic." That recommendation called for a ban on "anything that could cause provocations, create a situation of uncertainty, or hinder the further normalization of life throughout the state". The Security Council said the ban is necessary in order to end a series of provocative Croatian nationalist demonstrations in tense eastern Slavonia. PM

U.K. NON-COMMITTAL ON ROMANIA'S NATO MEMBERSHIP

President Emil Constantinescu, who is currently in London to attend an EU conference, has discussed with British Defense Minister George Robertson Romania's aspirations to be admitted to NATO in a second wave of the organization's enlargement. Romanian state radio on 12 March reported that Robertson gave a "diplomatic answer," saying that "the door of the alliance remains open" and the decision will be made by NATO members when the time is ripe. He added that Romania is a "serious candidate" that has " a military and strategic potential." MS

SNEGUR ON HIS PARTY'S POLITICAL AIMS

Former President Mircea Snegur, who is the leader of the Democratic Convention of Moldova (DCM) and is running in the upcoming parliamentary elections, told Reuters on 11 March that the alliance is not aiming at Moldova's re-unification with Romania. Re-unification has long been a priority target of the Christian Democratic Popular Front, the ally of Snegur's Party of Revival and Accord within the DCM. Snegur said the DCM intends to change Moldova's main orientation from the CIS to the West and Romania. He said the DCM seeks to solve the Transdniester conflict "only through peaceful negotiations, aiming at granting autonomous status to the region." He added that lack of progress in the negotiations with the separatists is explained by the fact that "the Kremlin's interests in that region are too strong." MS

FORMER MOLDOVAN DEFENSE MINISTER LAUNCHES BOOK

General Pavel Creanga, who is an independent candidate in the 22 March presidential elections, has accused Snegur of having provoked the military conflict with the Transdniester separatists in 1992. Creanga, who was dismissed by Snegur in 1996, launched his Russian-language memoirs in Chisinau on 11 March, RFE/RL's bureau in the Moldovan capital reported. He admitted to journalists that the timing of the book's release is "somewhat connected" with the current election campaign. He said the book has not been translated into Romanian because of the "translation difficulties" of military terminology. MS

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT DEMANDS DISMISSAL OF ARMY GENERAL

Petar Stoyanov on 11 March asked the government to dismiss the commander of Bulgaria's missile and artillery forces for meddling in politics, an RFE/RL correspondent in Sofia reported. Stoyanov said that General Angel Marin has expressed opinions about reforms in the army that are " unacceptable and populist." On 9 March, Marin had blamed Stoyanov, the government, and "military bureaucrats" for planning to cut the country's armed forces, although "they are necessary." Marin also accused them of "rushing" into NATO membership in a "humiliating manner" before being "properly invited" to join. Marin is the second high ranking general to be dismissed in recent days. On 9 March, the commander of the construction troops, General Radoslav Peshleevsky, was fired for having participated in rallies organized by the opposition Socialist Party. MS




IS MILOSEVIC PREPARING CONCESSIONS ON KOSOVO?


by Kitty McKinsey

In one of history's ironic twists, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who came to power by inflaming Serbian nationalist passions over Kosovo, may now see his political survival in making concessions to the Kosovars.

On 10 March, the official Yugoslav news agency Tanjug reported that the Serbian government--which consists of hand-picked Milosevic supporters--is willing to hold an "open dialogue" with the leaders of the mainly ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo.

The Serbian government, under strong international pressure to reign in its police crackdown on Albanian nationalists, for the first time appeared to attach no conditions to opening talks. Earlier, the government had said the Kosovars must renounce terrorism and secession for talks to take place. The Tanjug statement said that dialogue "is the only way to improve political processes" to solve "vital issues."

Keeping Milosevic's past behavior in mind, however, it is far too early to be optimistic over the prospects for such talks, which may or may not solve the long-festering Kosovo crisis. Analysts say the offer may only be Milosevic's latest attempt to sow confusion in the West and forestall threatened sanctions. It is far from clear what Serbia's terms for talks are. There may be conditions that are unacceptable to the ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo.

But Milos Vasic, editor of the Belgrade magazine "Vreme," says talks may offer a way for the two sides to save face. Both sides have taken comfort from the words of U.S. Balkans envoy Robert Gelbard, who criticized the Serbian government for using "brutal, disproportionate, and overwhelming" force against the Kosovars but who also called the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) a terrorist organization.

Vasic says it may be to the benefit of both sides to appear to reluctantly give in to Western pressure to sit down and negotiate--much as the three sides in the Bosnian war were dragooned into the Dayton Peace talks that ended that war.

Kosovo has for centuries been considered sacred to all Serbs, and the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 is the central defining moment in Serbian history. Although the Serbs lost both the battle and their state to the Turks and became subjects of the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries, the memory of Kosovo has been lovingly enshrined in Serbian folk songs and poems through the centuries. The anniversary of the battle, 28 June, is still celebrated as the Serbian national holiday.

Although outsiders might consider the Serbs to be one of the few nations in the world to commemorate a massive defeat in this way, in Serbian mythology Kosovo has come to be seen as a victory in which the Serbs take credit for slowing the advance of the Turks into Europe, and saving European Christianity from Islam.

As one young Serb told RFE/RL: "If it weren't for the Battle of Kosovo, you would be wearing a headscarf today."

No one has exploited Serbian sentiment about Kosovo more adroitly than Milosevic. In his historic 1987 visit to the province, he ignited the flame of Serbian nationalism that was to destroy Yugoslavia by stridently defending Serbs who felt they were mistreated as a minority in Kosovo. In words that were to mobilize Serbs for a succession of battles as Yugoslavia blew apart, Milosevic told a Serb crowd in Kosovo that, "No one is allowed to beat you."

Launching a campaign against what he called Albanian separatism, Milosevic whipped up near hysteria among Serbs throughout Yugoslavia. Following Milosevic's 1987 visit to Kosovo, the Belgrade media disseminated invented tales of rapes and murders by ethnic Albanians until Serbia stripped Kosovo of its autonomy and imposed a virtual police state. (The Serbs' claims then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army by the end of 1996, after some Kosovars lost patience with their leaders' pacifist approach.).

Although Kosovo remains a rallying point for many Serbs, it is now also clear that for many others, the attachment to Kosovo is little more than something they have learned by rote. Since Milosevic made his emotional speech in 1987, Serbs, who were already a minority in the province, have continued to leave Kosovo. Serbs who live in other parts of the republic almost never pay even a tourist visit to Kosovo, the supposedly cherished cradle of their civilization.

And the points of contact between Serbs and Albanians are even fewer than between the Serbs and the other nations they have battled recently--the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims. Although the Serbs could claim the Croats were Ustashe (fascists) and the Muslims fundamentalists when it served their propaganda purposes, all three were at least Slavic people who shared a common language and frequently intermarried.

But in Kosovo, the separation of Serbs from Albanians is total. They speak different languages, have different ethnic roots, and live apart, with virtually no intermarriage. (In one recent survey, 95 percent of Kosovo Albanians said they would not even consider marrying a Serb.) The author is an RFE/RL correspondent who has written extensively on Yugoslav affairs.




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