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Newsline - March 18, 1998




DOCTORS SAY YELTSIN CAN WORK AT HOME

The presidential press service announced on 18 March that Yeltsin's condition has improved, and doctors have said he may work while recuperating at his Gorky-9 residence outside Moscow. The statement said that Yeltsin is coughing less and has a normal temperature and that blood tests have shown his respiratory infection has been controlled. It is unclear when Yeltsin will return to work at the Kremlin. He has been resting at Gorky-9 since 13 March and four days later canceled all official meetings for this week. LB

PROSECUTOR OPENS CRIMINAL CASE AGAINST ZHIRINOVSKY

The Prosecutor-General's Office on 18 March officially informed the State Duma that it has opened a criminal case against Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky on charges of "hooliganism," RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 17 March. Zhirinovsky caused a fracas during a Duma session on 11 March. The Duma need not give its permission for a criminal investigation against one of its members, but Zhirinovsky could not be prosecuted unless the Duma voted to lift his immunity. Grigorii Yavlinskii's Yabloko faction agreed to participate in the 18 March Duma session following the decision by the Prosecutor- General's Office. Some Russian commentators have noted that Zhirinovsky's recent antics dominated news broadcasts and thereby deflected attention from calls for pressing criminal charges against top government officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 1998). LB

NEMTSOV DENIES PRESIDENTIAL AMBITIONS

First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov has again denied that he intends to run for president in 2000. In an interview published in "Kommersant-Daily" on 17 March, a year after he was appointed to the government, Nemtsov said he has no "clans, magnates, or groupings" to support him. He repeated his belief that Yeltsin would be better than other likely candidates for the post. In addition, Nemtsov accused bureaucrats and powerful businessmen of putting up "savage resistance" to reforms. Also on 17 March, Nemtsov published a long article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" arguing that Russia must reject "oligarchy" and "crony capitalism" in favor of a "democratic" market. He acknowledged that the federal government has in the past helped enrich "oligarchs," but he said several steps away from that policy were implemented in 1997. At the same time, Nemtsov slammed the Moscow city bureaucracy for dominating virtually all aspects of business in the capital. LB

RUSSIA EXPELS TWO NORWEGIAN DIPLOMATS

The Russian Foreign Ministry on 17 March summoned the Norwegian ambassador in Moscow and informed him that Russia is expelling a counselor at the Norwegian embassy in Moscow and Norway's consul in Murmansk for "activities incompatible with their official status." That phrase is a diplomatic euphemism for spying, and the move is a tit-for-tat response to Norway's recent expulsion of two Russian diplomats, whom Oslo accused of spying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 16 March 1998). Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek said the Russian expulsions are "unnecessary, groundless, and regrettable," Reuters reported. At the same time, ITAR-TASS quoted Vollebaek as saying that Oslo "has no plans to react further." Meanwhile, Murmansk Oblast Governor Yurii Yevdokimov on 18 March began an official visit to the Troms region of Norway, where he is expected to sign an accord on economic and cultural cooperation. LB

CONFLICTING VIEWS ON START-2 PROSPECTS

Duma Security Committee Chairman Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist, told Interfax on 17 March that the majority of Duma deputies will vote against ratifying the START-2 arms control treaty if the document is submitted for ratification during the Duma's spring session. He cited "persistent" talk of NATO expansion as one issue making ratification of the treaty "problematic." On 14 March, Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Vladimir Lukin of Yabloko expressed optimism regarding prospects for ratifying START-2, Interfax reported. Lukin said more and more Duma deputies, including those from the leftist opposition, are beginning to realize that the treaty is in Russia's interests. However, Lukin blamed the Duma Defense Committee, chaired by Lev Rokhlin, for attempting to delay consideration of a draft law on ratifying START-2. LB

JOURNALIST TO BE FIRED FOR COVERAGE OF SLOVAKIA?

The editor of "Kommersant-Daily" has told Marina Kalashnikova that she will likely lose her job at that newspaper next month, the Czech daily "Lidove noviny" reported on 17 March. Kalashnikova has written several articles portraying the actions of Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar in an unfavorable light. According to "Lidove noviny," one of those articles quoted Meciar as saying Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii is "Slovakia's ambassador to Russia." (Yastrzhembskii was Russian ambassador to Slovakia until summer 1996.) "Lidove noviny" said Yastrzhembskii called the editor of "Kommersant-Daily" to discuss "Russia's state interests." Kalashnikova told the Czech daily that Yastrzhembskii subsequently told her by telephone that "Russia's interests are closely tied to our support for the current government of Meciar." "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 4 March that 70 percent of Russian gas exports to the West transit Slovakia. LB

IS GOVERNMENT RETURNING TO AUTHORIZED BANKS?

First Deputy Prime Ministers Anatolii Chubais and Nemtsov have repeatedly hailed the government's move away from the use of "authorized" commercial banks to handle federal budget funds. However, government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov announced on 17 March that the accounts of the Central Excise Customs Service have been transferred to Oneksimbank, Interfax reported. Oneksimbank, considered close to Chubais, held accounts of the State Customs Committee until late last year. "Kommersant-Daily," which is often critical of Oneksimbank, on 18 March noted that no auction was held to select the bank allowed to hold the Central Excise Customs Service accounts. However, Shabdurasulov said the decision is consistent with government policy because the Central Excise Customs Service deals with "advance payments" that only become "budget funds" following further transactions. Shabdurasulov also said those accounts contain far less money than the accounts Oneksimbank used to hold for the State Customs Committee. LB

LUZHKOV SUPPORTS FORMER BORDER GUARD CHIEF FOR DUMA

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov has endorsed the candidacy of former Federal Border Service Director Andrei Nikolaev for the State Duma, "Kommersant-Daily" and "Izvestiya" reported on 18 March. Nikolaev is one of more than a dozen candidates competing in an April by-election for a Duma seat representing a Moscow district. He announced on 17 March that he agrees with Luzhkov on the need for Moscow to maintain the residence permit system, which the Constitutional Court has declared unconstitutional (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 12 and 13 March 1998). Some Russian commentators view Nikolaev as a promising presidential candidate. During his campaign for the Duma, he has received substantial favorable exposure on the private network NTV. That network broadcast a lengthy interview with Nikolaev on 15 March and strongly praised his campaign strategy in a news report two weeks earlier. LB

TWO HOSTAGES FREED IN CHECHNYA

The Chechen National Security Service have freed two Dagestanis who had been taken hostage by Chechens, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 March. Zamid and Ruslan Dudaev had been held since 5 February in Argun, and the kidnapers had demanded a $200,000 ransom for their release. The kidnapers have now been taken into custody. Meanwhile, a Russian government spokesman said there is no reason for Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to visit Chechnya anytime soon. PG

ORT JOURNALIST BEATEN IN DAGESTAN

Unknown assailants on 16 March severely beat Timur Kukuev, a cameraman for local television and a stringer for Russian Public Television (ORT), ITAR-TASS reported on 17 March. The attackers told Kukuev that he should not have filmed anything "on foreign territory in the future," an apparent reference to a film clip broadcast on ORT on 9 March showing paramilitary formations on Dagestani territory near the Chechen border. Makhachkala prosecutors are looking into the information contained in that report as well as the attack on Kukuev. It is the 10th such attack on a journalist in Dagestan in the past two years. PG

EARLY ELECTION IN BASHKORTOSTAN TO FAVOR AUTHORITIES

The legislature of Bashkortostan recently moved up presidential elections in the republic from December to 14 June, and the new date is likely to benefit the current authorities, Bashkortostan journalist Eduard Khusnutdinov told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 17 March. A summer election will depress turnout in urban areas. In addition, heads of city administrations are currently appointed by Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, but by December many will have been popularly elected. Perhaps most important, the presidential campaign has begun before the Constitutional Court has ruled on an appeal by the State Duma against the Bashkortostan electoral law, which requires the president to speak the Bashkir language. Since only some 20 percent of the population speaks that language, the law narrows the field of presidential candidates considerably. Khusnutdinov edited the newspaper "Vechernii Neftekamsk," which was recently shut down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 1998). LB




WAS ARMENIAN VOTE FAIR AND FREE?

Candidates, officials, and observers continued to disagree on 17 March over whether the Armenian presidential poll was conducted properly. While seven of the 12 candidates-- including Soviet-era communist party leader Karen Demirchyan and current communist leader Sergei Balayan, two of the three front-runners-- condemned the elections as irregular (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 1998),three other candidates have publicly disagreed. Aram Sarkisyan, the chairman of the Armenian Democratic Party, decried the condemnation as "untimely and dangerous." Former Soviet dissident Paruyr Hayrikian said that the election is a major step forward for Armenia, despite some irregularities. And Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharyan's spokesman said the elections were in general "normal, free, and fair throughout the republic." That conclusion was echoed by the Central Election Commission. Russian deputies observing the vote said the ballot went smoothly, without serious irregularities. The Council of Europe noted some violations, as did the OSCE monitoring team, which said that the election is valid but that measures to prevent violations should be instituted before the second round. PG

KOCHARYAN, DEMIRCHYAN HEAD TOWARD RUNOFF

With 92 percent of the vote counted in the first round of the Armenian presidential elections, Kocharyan had gained 38 percent support and Demirchyan 32 percent, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. Sergei Badalyan had 12 percent, with the other nine candidates dividing the remainder. Overall participation was approximately 65 percent. Because no candidate received the required 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off between Kocharyan and Demirchyan on 30 March. PG

AZERBAIJAN RESTRAINED IN MEETING WITH IRANIAN OFFICIAL

Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry officials gave a relatively cool reception to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Murtaza Sarmadi on 17 March, ITAR-TASS reported. While Sarmadi argued that there are historical, spiritual, and religious reasons for the two countries to cooperate, newly appointed Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov would say only that relations between Baku and Tehran are "developing." The two countries disagree over the division of the Caspian Sea, Iran's support for Armenia, and the involvement of Western companies in Azerbaijan. PG

MORE VIOLENCE IN CENTRAL TAJIKISTAN

Five members of the Tajik police and one civilian were killed on 17 March when an armed group attacked another road check-point in central Tajikistan, RFE/RL correspondents reported. The attack, which occurred 5 kilometers east of the town of Kofarnikhon, has been blamed on a group loyal to Ishan Daroz. It is the such third incident in central Tajikistan so far this month. BP

TURKMENISTAN REACHES AGREEMENT WITH UZBEKISTAN ON DEBT

Turkmen President Niyazov has discussed with Uzbek President Islam Karimov by telephone the cooperation agreements reached by the Turkmen-Uzbek commission, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 March. The commission agreed that Uzbekistan's debt of $24 million would be repaid by means of $15 million worth of mineral fertilizers, machine oils, electrical appliances, and medicines. The remaining $9 million will be paid in hard currency. BP




LUKASHENKA BLAMES RUBLE COLLAPSE ON MOSCOW...

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on 17 March that the Moscow currency exchange is responsible for the plunge in the Belarusian ruble, ITAR-TASS reported. Responding to criticism from Russian First Deputy Premier Anatolii Chubais (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 1998), Lukashenka said "speculators" and not the Belarusian economy is at fault for the devaluation. He added that officials from the national bank and the State Control Committee will report to him on 20 March about measures taken to stop the currency slide. Lukashenka also said the same day that 30 top officials have been arrested on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power. PB

...ACCUSES EU OF FUNDING OPPOSITION

Lukashenka also charged that the EU had given several million dollars to the opposition, Reuters reported on 17 March. Lukashenka said a recent grant by the EU to fund civil society programs in Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 1998) was "exclusively to finance the opposition, opposition media, and researchers." He added that the EU TACIS program was sending "college students who are against Lukashenka" to the West to study. PB

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT DISCUSSES POLICY WITH LUKASHENKA

Leonid Kuchma and Lukashenka discussed the need to "regenerate" cooperation during a telephone conversation on 16 March, the "Eastern Economist" reported. Kuchma also told Lukashenka that the two countries should "activate" economic ties. Lukashenka has been critical of Ukrainian foreign policy and its refusal to cooperate with or show an interest in the Russia-Belarus union. PB

EBRD RELEASES MONEY TO UKRAINE FOR CHORNOBYL

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said it is sending some $30 million to the Chornobyl Shelter Fund, which will oversee urgently needed repairs on the sarcophagus covering the fourth reactor at the Chornobyl nuclear plant, Reuters reported on 17 March. The bank said the fund has received pledges of $387 million from 18 countries to fund the costs of repairing the sarcophagus. PB

RUSSIAN-SPEAKERS RALLY AGAIN IN RIGA

More than 2,000 mostly elderly demonstrators rallied in Riga on 17 March to protest what they say are overly strict citizenship rules and official discrimination against the country's Russian-speaking population. Latvian Interior Minister Ziedonis Cevers briefly met with the protesters and accepted a petition from them. Unlike a demonstration earlier this month that resulted in scuffles between pensioners and police, the 17 March rally was authorized and passed without incident (see also "End Note" below). JC

EU OFFICIAL URGES IGNALINA SHUTDOWN

EU Environmental Commissioner Ritta Bjerregaard has pressed Lithuania to shut down the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which has the same kind of reactors as the Chornobyl facility and produces about 80 percent of Lithuania's electricity. In talks with President Valdas Adamkus after visiting Ignalina, Bjerregaard urged that the facility be shut down at the beginning of the next century. At the same time, she stressed that Ignalina's closure is not a condition for either the start of EU membership talks or admission. Adamkus argued that Ignalina no longer poses any danger to Lithuania or neighboring countries, saying "Vilnius is taking all measures to ensure the safety of the Ignalina nuclear power station and has already invested more than $100 million for that purpose already," BNS reported on 17 March. JC

EU SUSPENDS TRADE BENEFITS TO CZECH REPUBLIC

EU ministers on 17 March decided to suspend preferential import tariffs on pork, poultry, and fruit juice from the Czech Republic in a dispute stemming from restrictions imposed by Prague on imports of apples from the European Union, Reuters reported from Brussels. The Czech government imposed a limit of 24,000 tons on imported apples and stipulated that imports exceeding that amount will be subject to a 95 percent duty. A EU Commission spokesman said the Czech decision was "discriminatory and unilateral," emphasizing that the restrictions did not apply to apple imports from elsewhere. In Prague, Agriculture Minister Josef Lux said the EU decision was "unjustified" and the Czech government was not ready to "accept unilateral dictates or conditions of the EU." MS

MECIAR PROPOSES CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS

In an interview with Slovak Radio on 16 March, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar said that the majority needed for the election of the country's president by the parliament must be reduced from three-fifths to a simple majority and that the parliament, rather than the president, should appoint the premier, who then would appoint the members of his cabinet. Both changes would require amending the constitution, RFE/RL's Bratislava bureau reported. The constitutional changes proposed by Meciar would put his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia at an advantage, since the coalition it heads is represented in the legislature by 80 deputies and a presidential candidate would require 76 votes, instead of the 90 currently needed. Parliamentary chairman Ivan Gasparovic on 17 March announced that another round of presidential balloting will take place on 16 April. MS

HUNGARIAN MINORITIES TO RUN ON JOINT LISTS?

Mihaly Karagics has said he believes there is a "realistic chance" that minorities will win seats in the elections scheduled for May if they join forces and run on joint lists, AFP reported on 17 March. Karagics heads the ethnic Minority Forum recently set up in January by representatives of the Croatian, German, and Slovak minorities. The statement was made after the failure of the parliament earlier this week to pass amendments that would have ensured minority representation in the legislature (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 1998). Observers believe that such lists have no chance of success unless backed by Hungary's largest minority, the 600,000-800,000 Roma. MS




MILOSEVIC TELLS PRIMAKOV KOSOVO IS 'INTERNAL AFFAIR'

At a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov in Belgrade on 17 March, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stressed that the situation in Kosovo is Yugoslavia's internal affair, which, he said, can be resolved only within Serbia by political means. Tanjug quoted Milosevic as saying there can be no justification for the refusal by representatives of the Albanian minority to show up for talks with Serbian government representatives. Tanjug says Primakov expressed his support for Yugoslavia's sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as for Belgrade's determination to resolve within Serbia, and by political means, the problem of the Albanian minority's rights in Kosovo. JN

DJUKANOVIC CALLS ON PRIMAKOV TO EXERT MORE PRESSURE FOR DIALOGUE

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and Russian Foreign Minister Primakov said in Belgrade on 17 March that Montenegro and Russia have "identical" views on Kosovo, BETA and Radio B92 reported. Djukanovic told journalists after the talks that he had asked Primakov to "exert additional pressure" on the Serbian and Albanian sides to start a dialogue on Kosovo "in the interest of peace, democracy, Serbia, and Yugoslavia" as soon as possible. Djukanovic says the two agreed that Kosovo must remain part of Serbia and Yugoslavia and that it is in Serbia's best interest to start talks with the Albanian side on the future of Kosovo as soon as possible. JN

KOSOVARS DEMONSTRATE IN PRISTINA...

At least 40,000 Kosovars took to the streets of Pristina on 18 March to protest against the Serbian government and its repression ahead of a visit to the Kosovo capital by U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard. There was no police presence at the rally, which took place without incident. JN

...CONTINUE TO BOYCOTT TALKS WITH SERBS

For the fourth consecutive time, political representatives of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority on 17 March refused to attend talks in Pristina with Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister Ratko Markovic. However, members of the province's Turkish, Romani, and Muslim minorities did attend the meeting. The Kosovars are demanding that the dialogue with the Serbian leadership be held in the presence of an international mediator. Markovic said no party or ethnic group in Kosovo has a monopoly on human or civic rights issues. "The most numerous ethnic group cannot assume the role of ethnic dominator, the role of leading nation--all nationalities here are equal," he commented. JN

KOSOVO STUDENTS SAY RUGOVA NOT AUTHORIZED TO CALL ELECTIONS

The Independent Union of Albanian Students of the University of Pristina on 17 March called for the postponement of the simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections by the Kosovo Albanians, BETA reported. The union released a statement saying Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova "is not authorized to call those elections." With the agreement of the coordinating committee of the Albanian political parties, Rugova scheduled the parallel elections for 22 March. The students said the elections should be postponed "until better times arrive," adding that the vote cannot be held while "a part of Kosovo is under a police siege". Similarly, the Muslim Party of Democratic Action of Kosovo said it would be "inappropriate" to hold parallel elections in Kosovo at present. JN

VOJVODINA PARTIES CALL FOR INVESTIGATION OF DRENICA INCIDENTS

Nenad Canak, the leader of the League of the Social Democrats of Vojvodina, and Ratomir Svircevic, the deputy leader of the Reformist Democratic Party of Vojvodina, proposed in Novi Sad on 17 March that the Serbian parliament set up a board of inquiry into the Drenica incidents. Svircevic told reporters that the board should examine whether Interior Ministry agencies abused their authority during the intervention. Meanwhile, Dragan Veselinov, the chairman of the Party of Vojvodina, called for unity among all political forces in the province in order to use the "historical moment" to raise the autonomy issue. He said whatever Kosovo gains, Vojvodina must also gain, "Nasa Borba" reported on 18 March. JN

TURKEY MAKES PROPOSALS FOR HALTING KOSOVO UNREST

Turkey on 16 March outlined a concrete proposal for halting unrest in Kosovo and warned that the unrest may expand into a Balkan-wide crisis unless a compromise is reached, the "Turkish Daily News" reported. State Minister Ahat Andican summarized Turkey's proposal as: a comprehensive dialogue to be launched immediately between Yugoslav officials and Kosovar representatives aimed at reaching agreement on a specific country or organization that would agree to work on facilitating a resolution. The dialogue should also be aimed at restoring the rights of all ethnic groups in Kosovo and should be open to solutions other than autonomy. The Turkish proposal says ultimately that the rights of Kosovo's Albanians and all ethnic minorities, including the Turks, should be guaranteed. It also calls on the international community to take effective measures to deal with violent incidents in Kosovo. JN

IZETBEGOVIC OPTIMISTIC ON SOLUTION FOR BRCKO

Bosnian Presidency chairman Alija Izetbegovic said he is not entirely dissatisfied with a decision postponing a solution for Brcko. In an interview in the Sarajevo daily "Dnevni Avaz" published on 18 March, Izetbegovic said a careful reading of chief arbiter Roberts Owen's 15 March decision discloses many important messages. Of those messages, he said, the most interesting is that Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik must allow the return of Croats and Muslims to Brcko, establish a multi-national authority and police force, eliminate war criminals from the town, and create a free-trade zone. Izetbegovic predicted that Dodik will be unable to comply fully, resulting in Brcko not remaining in the Bosnian Serb entity. "The final outcome will see Brcko in the (Croatian-Muslim) Federation or Brcko as a state district," Izetbegovic commented. JN

TALBOTT RULES OUT ADDITIONAL NATO TROOPS TO BALKANS

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said in Sofia on 17 March there is no immediate need to send additional U.S. or NATO troops to the region and that diplomacy should be given a chance to solve the Kosovo crisis, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Sofia. Speaking in Skopje earlier the same day, Talbott warned that the Kosovo crisis could escalate into a full-scale war worse than the one in Bosnia. JN

YUGOSLAVIA'S NEIGHBORS OPPOSE SANCTIONS

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova told the Berlin daily "Der Tagesspiegel" that a "comprehensive economic embargo against Serbia, such as the one imposed during the Bosnian war," would have a very negative impact on Bulgaria itself and would "take us back 10 years, signifying the end of our hopes of joining the EU and NATO," AFP reported. Romanian Foreign Minister Andrei Plesu said on 17 March that new sanctions against Yugoslavia would be ineffective in ending violence in Kosovo. He added that "East Europeans have learned to live with an embargo, which to Westerners may seem fatal." He proposed coming up with other ways that are more "flexible and imaginative" since "punitive measures do not always work in [solving] regional troubles." MS

ALBANIAN GROUP SETS UP NATIONAL DEFENSE COUNCIL

An unknown group sent letters to several Tirana dailies on 17 March announcing the creation of a National Defense Council, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported. The group says that its "main objective is the creation of armed forces and structures that are needed for the liberation and independence...of Kosovo." The group appealed to political parties, police, and the army to show solidarity. FS

ALBANIAN DEMOCRATS CHARGED OVER 'ILLEGAL' RALLY

Prosecutor-General Ariston Puka on 17 March filed charges against 28 Democratic Party leaders for "organizing an illegal demonstration." Democratic Party Secretary-General Ridvan BodeIf faces up to three years in prison if convicted, "Dita Informacion" reported. The Democrats had held a demonstration on 25 February in central Tirana's Skanderbeg square, even though police ordered the rally to be held outside the city center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 1998). FS

ROMANIAN SENATE CREATES NEW CONSTITUTIONAL STALEMATE

The Senate on 17 March rejected an amendment to the local administration law enabling members of government to be also mayors or local government councilors. The amendment was made by government regulation in May 1997 and had legalized the premiership of Victor Ciorbea, who is also the elected mayor of Bucharest. If the Chamber of Deputies approves the Senate's decision, Ciorbea will have to opt for one of the two functions. The Democratic Party voted with the opposition, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The Senate's decision also nullifies the right to use bilingual street signs and the mother tongue in dealings with local authorities. MS

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES DRAFT BUDGET

Finance Minister Daniel Daianu on 17 March said the government has approved the draft law on the 1998 budget, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Daianu said that if the parliament rejects the budget, he will resign. But referring to the Senate decision on the local administration law, Democratic Party leader Petre Roman said his party "will not vote to back a budget submitted by a mayor." MS

PLESU ON TREATIES WITH RUSSIA, MOLDOVA

Foreign Minister Andrei Plesu on 17 March said that the pending basic treaty with Russia will not include a condemnation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, because " the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union are two different states" and because Romania had not insisted on such an inclusion when it concluded a treaty with Germany. Plesu said that the dispute over the World War I Romanian state treasury held in Moscow will not be resolved in the treaty but a joint commission of experts will attempt to "trace the fate" of the treasury. With regard to the pending treaty with Moldova, Plesu said Romania is insisting on formulations emphasizing the "special ties" between them, while Chisinau wants a "classic treaty of good neighborly relations." MS

MOLDOVAN SUPREME COURT VOIDS GAGAUZ-YERI REFERENDUM

The Supreme Court on 17 March nullified the decision of the Popular Assembly of the Gagauz Yeri autonomous region to hold a referendum on a constitution for the region at the same time as the 22 March elections to the Moldovan parliament, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Following that decision, the Central Electoral Commission revoked its earlier decision to allow the referendum. A spokesman for the commission said the Popular Assembly failed to bring the draft regional constitution into line with Moldova's basic law. MS

BULGARIAN PREMIER SAYS OFFICERS AGAINST REFORMS MUST RESIGN

Ivan Kostov on 17 March told journalists that the "fairest way for all officers who do not accept the reform of the army is to resign." He said the government "will be uncompromising to everyone who sabotages the reform in the armed forces, which means disciplinary dismissal." The previous day, President Petar Stoyanov officially dismissed the commander of the missile force, General Angel Marin, for having criticized cuts in the army and the "rush" to join NATO. (See "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 1998). In other news, Bulgarian train drivers on 17 March decided to end a series of one-hour strike following threats from the government to dismiss the strikes organizers. MS




TRAPPED BY DEMOCRACY?


by Paul Goble

The escalating war of words between Riga and Moscow over the Latvian government's handling of a demonstration by elderly ethnic Russian pensioners earlier this month highlights the way in which politicians in more open societies can threaten governments' efforts to reach agreements.

During the past six months, relations between Latvia and the Russian Federation had been improving. Not only had the two presidents exchanged what both sides described as positive letters, but their respective Foreign Ministries had been making progress on various fronts. There was even talk that Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis would visit Moscow to sign an agreement demarcating the border between the two countries. Such an accord would have eliminated one of the biggest obstacles to ties between the two countries and also one of the brakes on Latvian integration into Western institutions.

But that progress has been put on hold and may have even been reversed in the aftermath of the 3 March demonstration in Riga. At that time, local police used batons to break up an unsanctioned demonstration by 1,000 elderly and predominantly ethnic Russian residents of the Latvian capital protesting increases in utility rates. The Moscow media and members of the Russian Duma immediately denounced that Latvian action as anti-Russian, a plausible claim in the minds of many Russians, particularly because of past Russian media coverage of conditions in that Baltic country.

Some Latvian politicians dismissed these Russian claims out of hand, arguing that Moscow was simply exploiting the rally to promote a broader policy agenda. Others went so far as to suggest that the demonstration against higher utility prices was, in fact, a Russian provocation staged by Moscow. Such statements fanned the flames of anger in both the Russian and Latvian capitals

Moreover, it had the effect of tying the hands of those government officials in either country who had been seeking better ties. No Russian government official could afford to appear "soft" on Latvia after the 3 March demonstration and especially after the sometimes tendentious discussions of it in the Russian media and the Russian parliament. And no Latvian official could afford to appear to be backing down to Russian criticism, to be willing to acknowledge that Latvian officials might bear some responsibility for what had taken place.

In one sense, the responsiveness of government officials to parliamentary and popular pressure is a triumph of democracy. A decade ago, the authoritarian regime in Moscow would not have had to worry about what either its media or its parliamentary deputies would say since it had control over both.

But in another sense, their responsiveness to such popular and parliamentary outbursts reflect both how far both societies have yet to travel in the direction of institutionalized liberal democracy. It also highlights some of the difficulties inherent in conducting diplomacy among more open societies.

Some newspapers and political figures in either country have adopted a more careful and nuanced approach to the handling of the demonstration. Several Latvian newspapers have pointed out that the police may have used excessive force, while some Russian commentators have noted that the demonstration was first and foremost an economic one.

But both the press and the politicians have largely played to the crowd, drawing on stereotypes about the other country and its leaders rather than considering what actually happened. Such a populist response to events abroad is always possible in more open political systems, but it seems to be an especially dangerous one in countries that are making the transition from authoritarianism to democracy and lack the sophistication that a longer experience with democracy can often provide.

Moreover, this latest Latvian-Russian standoff calls attention to the problems political leaders face in conducting diplomacy when popular passions have been stirred. As Riga and Moscow had moved toward a rapprochement over the last few months, few people in either country seemed to care passionately one way or the other. Now, people and politicians in both do, and that makes it more difficult for the two governments to find their way toward agreement.

It would be a misfortune if the path to better relations between Latvia and Russia were blocked not by genuine obstacles but by a hindrance created by the media and populist politicians.


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