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Newsline - March 19, 1998


Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii told Reuters on 19 March that Boris Yeltsin's health is improving and that doctors plan to cease treatment with antibiotics the next day. He repeated that there are no plans to postpone a three-way summit between Yeltsin, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Yekaterinburg on 25-26 March. "Kommersant-Daily" on 19 March quoted presidential Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev as saying there is a "danger of complications" because the president's illness has traveled "downward," which the newspaper took to mean that the infection has spread to the lungs. But Yastrzhembskii told Reuters that Yumashev denies making such comments. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky charged on 18 March that Yeltsin is not suffering from "a respiratory disease.... His condition is reminiscent of Lenin's condition at the end of 1923," Interfax reported. LB


The State Duma on 18 March passed a resolution calling on the government to strengthen its monitoring of television networks, ITAR-TASS reported. The resolution charges that "certain networks, above all [the private network] NTV, harm public morality by airing material of a cynical, obscene and offensive nature." It asks the government to establish television broadcasting standards based on "traditional norms of morality, culture, and language" and to make broadcast licenses conditional on adherence to those standards. In addition, three Duma committees have been asked to draft amendments to the 1991 law on mass media that would make it possible to cancel a network's broadcasting license for airing materials considered immoral. The Duma has passed a series of resolutions calling for increased regulation of, and possible legal action against, networks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 29 December 1997). LB


Also on 18 March, the Duma passed a resolution asking the government to appoint new representatives to the electricity monopoly Unified Energy System (EES), Russian news agencies reported. The resolution cited conclusions by the Audit Chamber that "considerable sums" are being misused by company managers, in particular chief executive Boris Brevnov, "with the connivance of government representatives on the EES board of directors." The Duma asked that the Audit Chamber's report be sent to the Prosecutor-General's Office, which is already investigating alleged financial abuses at the company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 1998). There has been considerable speculation that Brevnov will lose his job at an EES shareholders meeting on 4 April. First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais has been tipped as a likely contender to replace Anatolii Dyakov as chairman of the EES board. LB


Duma First Deputy Speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov told ITAR-TASS on 18 March that the Duma Council has postponed a visit by a Duma delegation to Yugoslavia in order to examine the situation in Kosovo. The delegation was scheduled to leave Moscow on 18 March, but the trip has been delayed for about a week at the Russian Foreign Ministry's request. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov visited Belgrade and Sarajevo on 17 and 18 March (see Part Two). LB


First Deputy Prime Minister Chubais announced on 18 March that the Economics, Finance, and Fuel and Energy Ministries have informed the government about the likely consequences for Russia of falling oil prices on world markets, Russian news agencies reported. World prices for crude oil recently hit a nine-year low and are about 40 percent below the average price for 1997. Major Russian oil companies, for which oil exports may become unprofitable, have asked the government in January to reduce the tax burden on the industry. Fuel and Energy Minister Sergei Kirienko on 17 March said he expects Yeltsin to sign by the end of the month a decree reducing that tax burden, ITAR- TASS reported. But on 18 March, Chubais declined to confirm whether taxes or excise duties that apply to the oil industry will be reduced. LB


Acting Duma Budget Committee Chairman Aleksandr Zhukov predicted that the revenue shortfalls from oil exports will force the government to cut planned 1998 budget expenditures beginning in April or May, Interfax reported. Zhukov estimated that at least one-quarter of budget revenues come from the oil industry. Government officials have previously acknowledged that some spending cuts will be necessary this year, in particular because market turmoil in late 1997 and early 1998 increased the cost of borrowing for the government. Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the head of the Rosprom-Yukos group and president of the new oil company Yuksi, said on 18 March that the 1998 budget will lose "billions of dollars" because of falling oil prices, Interfax reported. Khodorkovskii warned that prices may decline further and called for "urgent steps" to help the oil industry. LB


First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov on 18 March announced plans to lead a movement that will fight "oligarchies" and seek to build "people's capitalism" in Russia. Hosting a roundtable discussion attended by journalists, scholars, and politicians in Moscow, Nemtsov called for the government to enforce a level playing field for all companies, manage state property more effectively, and "demonopolize" the electronic media, Interfax reported. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 19 March, Nemtsov invited seven leading Russian bankers to the roundtable, but none showed up. In an interview published in the latest edition of the popular weekly "Argumenty i fakty," Nemtsov warned that the current system of "administrative-oligarchic capitalism" could develop into an "authoritarian and semi-military regime" in order to "suppress" protests by the majority who live in poverty. LB


Nemtsov says the media should spread more good news about Russia in order to help attract foreign investment. Speaking to the weekly "Ekho planety," Nemtsov argued that "severe criticism" of Russia in the press discourages potential investors, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. He added that the media often ignore achievements in Russia and dwell on subjects such as "contract killings, the Chechen war, kidnappings, dishonesty in privatization, [and] the criminal connections of big business." Nemtsov added that such reports "create a very negative image" that often sticks in the minds of business people. He argued that China attracts many times more investment than Russia because "Chinese leaders are concerned about the image of their country." LB


Aleksandr Mordovets, acting head of the Interior Ministry's department on organized crime, says large numbers of false promissory notes ("vekselya") are circulating in Russia, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 17 March. Companies often issue such notes in lieu of cash payments, and the "vekselya" can then be bought and sold on a secondary market. According to Mordovets, the full scale of the fraud will only be known in two or three years, when holders of the notes seek to cash them in and discover that they are worthless. Mordovets called for increased regulation of the market in promissory notes and advocated making it a crime to issue securities that are backed by neither cash nor real assets, "Russkii telegraf" reported on 18 March. LB


Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Sysuev says the government plans to reduce the number of higher education establishments and merge many institutes into existing universities and academies, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 19 March. Speaking to rectors of higher education establishments in St. Petersburg, Sysuev said the restructuring will begin this year and is unlikely to affect institutions in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Other possible cost-cutting measures include reducing the number of years of study required for a bachelor's degree and providing stipends only to students from poor families. Speaking at the same meeting, Education Minister Aleksandr Tikhonov said the government must cut costs, as well as seek extrabudgetary funds for education, because projected 1998 budget spending will cover the costs of higher education establishments for just two months, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. LB


The Moscow City Court on 18 March rejected an appeal by former Justice Minister Valentin Kovalev against a lower court ruling that rejected his libel suit against the newspaper "Sovershenno sekretno," Russian news agencies reported. Kovalev was fired soon after that newspaper published scandalous pictures of him in a Moscow club reportedly frequented by organized crime figures. A Moscow district court previously rejected Kovalev's claim that the photographs were fabricated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 1998). Meanwhile, Larisa Kislinskaya, the author of the "Sovershenno sekretno" report, says she will sue Kovalev and "Nezavisimaya gazeta," which published an interview with the former justice minister. Kislinskaya claims that the interview damaged her honor, dignity, and professional reputation. LB


Georgian First Deputy Prosecutor-General Revaz Kipiani said in Moscow on 18 March that Russia will extradite former Georgian Finance Minister Guram Absandze to Tbilisi within the next few days, Caucasus Press reported. Absandze, who was finance minister from 1990-1991 under former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was arrested in Smolensk on 16 March He is suspected of large-scale theft of state property and involvement in the failed 9 February assassination attempt against Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Also on 18 March, Russian police detained former Georgian Supreme Soviet Deputy Chairman Nemo Burchuladze, who is wanted by the Georgian authorities on terrorist charges. Burchuladze, who was granted temporary immunity last month, traveled to Tbilisi for talks with Shevardnadze aimed at securing the release of four UN observers abducted by Gamsakhurdia supporters. LF


Between 10,000 and 15,000 ethnic Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war staged a rally on the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, Caucasus Press and ITAR- TASS reported on 18 March. The demonstration was organized by the youth wing of the Union of Citizens of Georgia, which is the majority party within the Georgian parliament. The fugitives, who are demanding that their repatriation to Abkhazia be speeded up, are also blocking supply routes between western Georgia and the CIS peacekeeping force deployed in southern Abkhazia. The Abkhaz government deployed additional Interior Ministry troops in the region's southernmost Gali Raion on 18 March to deal with "political and social complications and instability." LF


Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba and a group of Abkhaz parliamentary deputies met with the Russian Foreign Ministry's Special Envoy for Abkhazia, Lev Mironov, in Moscow on18 March. The two parties discussed a document titled "On Additional Measures for Settling the Abkhaz Conflict," which the Georgian leadership had drafted for discussion at the next CIS summit. Mironov was quoted by Caucasus Press on 19 March as having told Abkhaz Television that the Russian leadership opposes Shevardnadze's demands for a Bosnian-style peace enforcement operation in Abkhazia. Such intervention could lead to new bloodshed, Mironov said. LF


The Central Electoral Commission on 19 March released the "provisional" final results of the first round of voting in the presidential poll, AFP reported. Prime Minister and acting president Robert Kocharyan received 38.82 percent of the vote, Karen Demirchyan 30.62 percent, Vazgen Manukyan 12.22 percent, and Sergei Badalyan 11.02 percent. A spokesman for Demirchyan told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 18 March that Demirchyan has not yet decided whether to participate in the runoff, but "Golos Armenii" on 19 March reported that he will do so. Under the electoral law, a second round of voting must be held if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote in the first round. LF


Sam Brown, the head of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told journalists in Yerevan on 18 March that there were "significant" violations at 15 percent of the 800 polling stations visited by OSCE observers. Those violations included ballot stuffing, unsanctioned voting by military personnel, and the presence at polling stations of police officers and other unauthorized individuals. Brown called on the Armenian government and Central Electoral Commission to ensure that the runoff vote is not similarly flawed. Lord Russell Johnston, head of the Council of Europe's election observer mission, said the voting process was "acceptable overall." He conceded that there were violations but declined to say whether they would impact on Armenia's application for full membership in the council, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Central Electoral Commission Chairman Khachatour Bezirjian rejected the OSCE criticism, telling AFP that the commission has received no evidence of, or complaints about, violations of voting procedure. LF


The Tajik government released a statement on 18 March demanding that the leadership of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) disarm groups in central Tajikistan that have recently robbed and killed policemen at road checkpoints (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March and ?? February 1998), ITAR-TASS reported. The statement said the government has the impression that the UTO leadership is "either unable to control its armed formations or insincere when it makes statements on its intention to establish a final peace." BP


According to official statistics, Tajikistan's GDP grew last year for the first time since independence in 1991, Interfax reported on 18 March. Presidential spokesman Zafar Saidov gave no figures, except for foreign trade, which he said rose 9.9 percent in 1997. He also claimed an increase in agricultural output. At the same time, however, Saidov noted that consumer prices were up 8.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 1997, a large shortfall exists in tax revenue, and wage arrears grew by 3.2 percent last year to reach a current level of 5.5 billion rubles (some $7 million). BP


Timur Jantikin, the head of Kazakh Atomic Energy Agency, said on 18 March that his country would welcome international inspections of the country's nuclear stockpiles, AFP reported. Jantikin said Kazakhstan wants to show the international community that it is not planning to increase stocks of nuclear materials. He admitted that there is still a "small amount" of such material in Kazakhstan but added that an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency would confirm that "here everything is clean." BP


ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March that according to statistics released by the Kazakh National Statistical Committee, nearly 300,000 people left Kazakhstan in 1997. Of those, 80 percent moved to other CIS countries and the rest, mostly ethnic Germans, emigrated outside the CIS. Slightly more than 15,000 people moved to Kazakhstan last year. ITAR-TASS reported on 28 May 1997 that since 1991, the population of Kazakhstan had dropped from 16.9 million to some 15.8 million. BP


In an interview with "Rossiiskie vesti" of 19 March, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Rybkin claimed that he is "not in the least concerned" by diverging economic priorities within the CIS. Rybkin said that such contradictions are characteristic of integration processes throughout Europe. He added that is "natural" that CIS member states cooperate in those spheres that are mutually beneficial. Rybkin enthusiastically endorsed the four-nation CIS Customs Union but warned that any expansion of that union should take place "strictly in accordance with the rules" and without making exceptions for individual countries. LF


"Izvestiya" on 18 March calculated that of a total of 886 documents signed to date either by CIS presidents or premiers, only 130 contained the signatures of representatives from all 12 CIS member states. It also noted that only 259 of those 886 accords have been implemented and that only five of the 108 agreements requiring ratification have been ratified by all CIS member states: the Agreement on Creating the CIS and its protocol, the CIS statutes, the Treaty on the Creation of the Economic Union, and the CIS Collective Security Treaty. The following day, "Izvestiya" pointed out that Russia's frontiers with its CIS neighbors have not been legally delineated. The only states bordering on Russia which do not dispute existing frontiers are Norway, Lithuania, Belarus, and Mongolia, the newspaper noted. LF


The Russian Central Bank has rejected claims by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that it was to blame for the devaluation of the Belarusian ruble, AFP reported on 19 March. The bank said there is not "the slightest economic logic" in blaming it for the recent plunge of the currency, which has lost some 25 percent of its value. It added that many Russians "have suffered major financial losses" as a result of the drop. Russian First Deputy Premier Anatolii Chubais responded to Lukashenka's claims by saying that the crisis was due to "serious mistakes" in the economy by Belarusian officials. He urged them to make "constructive, professional decisions" rather than to "look for enemies." PB


The Russian gas giant Gazprom has warned the Belarusian government to pay its debt to the company or face a cutoff of gas supplies, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. Belarusian Prime Minister Serhei Ling said that Gazprom is insisting that Minsk pay 70 percent of its debt in hard currency and 30 percent in goods. Last year, he said, Gazprom accepted 70 percent payment in goods and 30 percent in hard currency. Ling said Belarus lacks the hard currency to repay the debt, which, he added, has reached $220 million. Ling said barter deals account for 80 percent of trade between Russia and Belarus. PB


Viktor Medvedchuk, the deputy leader of the United Social Democratic Party (SDPU) said on 18 March that his party would alter current economic policy if elected, the "Eastern Economist" reported. Former President and SDPU leader Leonid Kravchuk said President Leonid Kuchma's economic policy since coming to power has two major flaws: "the sacred belief in monetary policy" and the "abandonment of the state's regulatory role." Kravchuk said that Ukraine has a long history of government regulation and that it would be dangerous to cease such regulation. Ukrainian parliamentary elections are scheduled for 29 March. PB


The Ukrainian airline Aerosvit announced on 18 March that it will pay some $7 million to the families of Greek passengers who died in a crash last December near Thessaloniki, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. At least 69 people died in the crash, and relatives of the victims have demanded compensation, even though a report on the cause of the crash has not been completed. PB


Delegations to the Consultative Committee of the Presidents of Ukraine and Poland agreed on 17 March to increase economic relations, an RFE/RL correspondent in Warsaw reported. After a two-day meeting in Warsaw, the sides released a joint statement that revealed plans for the creation of a transport corridor between the Black and Baltic Seas. The talks were chaired by Ukrainian Defense Council Secretary Volodymyr Horbulin and Polish National Security Office head Marek Siwiek. PB


Lawmakers on 18 March voted by 39 to 30 with 13 abstentions to ratify the sixth protocol to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, under which the country must scrap the death penalty. Previously, Estonia had adopted the convention without the sixth protocol. The last execution in Estonia took place in 1991, before the country regained independence. The Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional in 1996, and the following year the parliament passed a bill providing for life imprisonment, which was seen as the first step toward abolishing capital punishment. Opinion polls show that a majority of Estonians are in favor of the death penalty. JC


Vagit Alekperov, the head of the Russian oil giant LUKoil, was in Tallinn on 18 March, where he met with Estonian Prime Minister Mart Siimann, ETA and BNS reported. Siimann told journalists later that Alekperov's visit was linked to LUKoil's interest in Estonia as a transit country for oil. He said no concrete projects or plans were discussed, saying the meeting was rather "an expression of goodwill by the head of government to a company that want to invest in Estonia." Siimann also commented that the visits of both Alekperov and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Sysuev indicate an "improvement in Estonian-Russian relations." JC


Valdis Birkavs told journalists in Riga on 18 March that Latvia will draw up guidelines by 30 June for integrating the country's Russian-speakers. One of the program's main goals is to "avoid the emergence of a two-community state on Latvian territory," he said, adding that this "long-term task" is linked to Latvia's "strategic foreign policy goal, integration into the EU." However, it is "unacceptable" to seek such goals "by coercion or volitional methods," Birkavs said. The previous day, the Latvian Foreign Ministry sent a note to Moscow asking the authorities there to assess the activities of "extremist organizations at Latvian diplomatic representations and ensure the safety of the representations," BNS reported. Earlier this week, some 100 protesters had gathered outside the Latvian embassy in Moscow in the wake of the Latvian SS Legion rally in Riga (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 1998). JC


The main opposition Social Democrats said on 17 March that they have asked the police to investigate allegations made on state television the previous day that Czech entrepreneurs living in Switzerland in 1995 bribed party chairman Milos Zeman, CTK reported. A letter showed Zeman's signature to an agreement promising the businessmen top civil service positions under a future CSSD government in exchange for preferential loans. Zeman admitted he had met the businessmen but said he "threw them out" when the offer was made by them. MS


A poll conducted by the STEM institute shows 59 percent of Czechs want the issue of Czech membership in NATO to be put to a referendum, as proposed by the Social Democratic Party. Support for the referendum, however, is not an indication of opposition to joining NATO, since 57 percent of respondents said they back entry to the alliance, AFP reported. In recent months, support for joining NATO has steadily risen. MS


In an official statement released on 18 March, the Slovak Foreign Ministry said EU criticism of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar since he took over some presidential prerogatives is "misplaced" and does not reflect the fact that Meciar acted "in full harmony with the provisions of the constitution" (see also "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 1998), Reuters reported. MS


Jozsef Torgyan , chairman of the opposition Independent Smallholders' Party, has received two more bomb threats since a bomb exploded outside his home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 1998), Hungarian media reported. Torgyan accused Prime Minister Gyula Horn of not taking firm action against the "fascist attack" and thereby encouraging "terrorism." Torgyan is the first party chairman in Hungary to have requested and received secret service protection. In other news, the Smallholders on 18 March signed an electoral cooperation pact with the largest Romani organization in Hungary, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarian Roma. MSZ


Serbian President Milutinovic issued a statement in Belgrade on 18 March calling for the immediate and unconditional start of talks that would address the "issue" of "self rule" for Kosovo. This marks a reversal of Belgrade's previous insistence that negotiations on Kosovo must respect the Serbian Constitution. In an apparent bid at reconciliation with the Kosovar Albanians, Milutinovic's "declaration" did not mention Albanian "terrorism." Tanjug quoted Milutinovic as saying, "these talks should be based on the principle of preserving territorial integrity and include the issue of self-rule for Kosovo-Metohija within Serbia. The only way to resolve the Kosovo-Metohija issue is by political and peaceful means. Lasting solutions to all problems can be found only through dialogue, which should be based on the implementation of the principle of equality of all citizens." JN


U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard announced on 18 March that Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leader, is now ready to talk to the Serbian government, adding that talks will probably take place next week. Kosovo Albanians had until now refused to discuss anything other than independence for the province. Gelbard said Rugova intends to form a broad-based advisory group for talks with Serbian officials. Rugova said Kosovo will designate its negotiating team for talks with Belgrade before parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 22 March. Gelbard threatened Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic with harsher sanctions against Serbia if he does not end the crackdown on Kosovo Albanians. In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also warned that Milosevic must "pay a price" for ordering the police into action against Albanian civilians. JN


A 50- year-old Kosovar man was killed and at least five others injured on 18 March when Serbian police opened fire on a demonstration in Pec, the Kosovo Information Center reported. But Kosovo Information Secretary Bosko Drobnjak later denied allegations that the Serbian police intervened during the demonstration in Pec. Drobnjak told Radio B92 and BETA that "the police did not intervene anywhere in the province on 18 March, nor has there been any information that anyone was wounded today in Pec." JN


The UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has asked Kosovo Albanians for information about the crackdown in the province. The tribunal told the Albanian Committee for the Defense of Human Rights that it is gathering information and evidence in relation to "the Kosovo incidents" to determine whether "crimes within the jurisdiction of this tribunal may have been committed," AFP reported on 18 March. The Albanian committee asked the tribunal on 9 March to investigate the Serbian security force operation against the Drenica region. Meanwhile, the tribunal refused to drop charges against three Muslims and a Bosnian Croat accused of anti- Serbian atrocities in 1992 at the Bosnian government-run Celebici camp. JN


The Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) has repeated its call for the postponement of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Kosovo's Albanian community. In a communique published in Kosovo on 18 March and broadcast on Albanian Television, the UCK said it "will accept elections only after the country's liberation." The UCK denounced Rugova's call for postponing the elections only in the Drenica region as divisive since "the state of emergency is throughout Kosovo." It also said it will continue "the liberation war by attacking the enemy in various parts of Kosovo." JN


Aleksa Buha, the chairman of the Bosnian Serb Democratic Party (SDS). told BETA on 17 March that the decision to postpone the ruling on the status of Brcko "intensely harmed" the Republika Srpska. Buha labeled the decision "political" rather than "legal," describing it as "blackmail" against the Bosnian Serb entity. He proposed that President Biljana Plavsic and Prime Minister Milorad Dodik resign, since the more Plavsic "gives in" to the international community, the less its behavior is "to the benefit of the Republika Srpska." Plavsic's Serb National Alliance issued a statement on 16 March calling the Brcko decision "another form of pressure" on the Bosnian Serb leadership to implement the Dayton agreement. It also said the more the SDS influences the Bosnian Serb leadership, the "smaller" the chance that Brcko would be awarded to Republika Srpska. JN


The chairmen of the municipal committees of the SDS and the Serbian Radical Party in Srebrenica said on 19 March that they accepted as "final and binding" an international arbitration ruling on the distribution of posts in the town, Tanjug reported. The municipal assembly will now consist of 20 Serbian and 25 Muslim deputies, based on the results of the local elections last September, which the Bosnian Serb side has never accepted because of irregularities. Under the arbitration decision, the Muslim side will hold the post of assembly president and four seats on the executive committee. The Serbs will have the post of executive committee president and three seats on the municipal government. The Srebrenica assembly secretary and his deputy, who cannot be of the same nationality, will rotate every two months. JN


Members of the three-member Bosnian- Herzegovinian Presidency met with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov in Sarajevo on 18 March. Primakov expressed Russia's readiness to grant Bosnia full cooperation and reconstruction aid to Bosnia. Russia is expected to grant Bosnia a $50 million reconstruction loan this year, BH Press reported on 18 March. Primakov reiterated that Russia supports the idea of an international military presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina after June 1998 and will be ready to participate in it if the peacekeepers remain. Primakov and Bosnian Foreign Minister Jadranko Prlic agreed that Yugoslavia's territorial integrity should be respected but that there should be more autonomy for Kosovo Albanians. JN


At a meeting in Ankara on 18 March, military experts from Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, and Turkey discussed the setting up of a joint peace-keeping force for the region, Romanian media reported. Slovenia and the U.S. sent observers to the gathering. The force would be deployed in other regions if the UN or the OSCE so requested and would operate under NATO command. The experts will meet again in Bucharest at a date to be yet established to work out further details about the force. MS


Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea told journalists on 17 March that the only solutions to the ongoing political crisis in Romania are early elections or a government of experts, RFE/RL's Bucharest Bureau reported. Also on 17 March, the Steering Bureau of the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic expelled from the party maverick Senator George Pruteanu. Pruteanu the previous day had supported the opposition and the Democratic Party in a vote in the Senate that rejected the government regulation amending the local government law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 1998). An opinion poll commissioned by the Democrats shows that nearly half of the electorate would support an alternative government formed by the Democrats and the opposition Party of Social Democracy in Romania, Party of Romanian National Unity, and the Alliance for Romania. MS


The Transdniester ruble recently nose-dived from 650,000 rubles to 1.5 million rubles to U.S.$1, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The separatist government has put the blame on local private firms, but Aleksandr Karaman, the region's vice president, said he does not rule out that "outside forces" masterminded the fall as a "conspiracy." The separatist authorities has decided to postpone raising value-added tax by 20 percent. MS


Bulgaria is seeking to recover some $ 3 billion owed by countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, AFP reported on 17 March. Iraq has the largest single debt to Bulgaria, totaling nearly $2 billion. Libya, Nicaragua, Syria, Nigeria, Angola, Yemen, and Ethiopia have debts ranging from $44 million to $348 million. Finance Minister Muravei Radev said Sofia is willing to consider scheduling repayments "over an acceptable period," depending on the economic situation of the debtor. Bulgaria itself has a gross external debt of $10 billion. MS


by Michael Shafir

Fifteen political parties and electoral blocs, as well as some 70 independents, are competing in the Moldovan parliamentary elections scheduled for 22 March. As elsewhere in the former communist bloc, the Moldovan political landscape is somewhat fragmented and the political "supply" (that is, the number of aspirants to a seat in the legislature) far exceeds "demand."

Judging by the 1994 parliamentary ballot, as well as by opinion polls conducted over the past few weeks, the electorate is significantly more mature than those political forces aspiring to represent it. Of the latter, only a handful are likely to gain representation. Four years ago, 13 lists and a plethora of independents ran for the parliament (where representation is obtained through a proportional system in a single countrywide electoral district) but only four lists gained parliamentary representation: the Democratic Agrarian Party, the Socialist Unity-Edinstvo Bloc, the Bloc of Peasants and Intellectuals, and the Christian Democrat-Popular Front Bloc.

Such is likely to be the case, although some of the main actors will very probably be changed. Opinion polls in Moldova are notoriously unreliable. For this reason, more experienced pollsters from Romania--the Bucharest- based Center for Urban and Rural Sociology (CURS) and the Institute for Market Analysis and Research (IMAS)-- recently conducted two surveys, whose findings were released on 18 February and on 17 March. Both those polls, along with surveys carried out by Moldovan pollsters (such as the one released on 13 March by the Opinia institute) put the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) in front. The first CURS-IMAS poll showed the PCM with19 percent support and the second 21 percent. The Opinia poll gave the Communists 20 percent backing.

Should those polls prove accurate, there would be an electoral upheaval. The PCM, led by Vladimir Voronin, did not run in the February 1994 race because it was outlawed until later that year. But it would be wrong to assert that the Communists have been absent from the Moldovan political scene and to view their "resurgence" as a sudden occurrence. Two Communist ministers have posts in Ion Ciubuc's government, and the party gained post-1994 parliamentary representation owing to the splits and political migrations characteristic of the Moldovan political scene.

In its electoral propaganda, the PCM seems to have been able to shift responsibility for the deterioration of the average Moldovan's daily life onto its adversaries-- "washing its hands," as it were, of either progress in economic reforms or the stagnation of those reforms. While the "born-again" Communists present the Soviet Union in a light of near perfection and promise to restore it with full equality for all its members, their electoral success--if it indeed materializes--would have to be attributed to two factors: nostalgia among the electorate for a time of at least material security, and the Communists' rather special position on the Transdniestrian conflict.

It is the latter of those two factors that distinguishes the Communists from the Socialist Unity-Edinstvo, which, unlike Voronin, favors the recognition of an independent Transdniestrian republic. For this reason, the separatists encourage support for Socialist Unity (Moldovan citizens residing in the separatists region will be allowed to cross the Dniester River and vote, but balloting on the territory of Smirnov's fiefdom has not been allowed) while seeking to thwart Voronin's attempts to take over local Communist Party organizations in the Transdniester.

But despite those differences, the two formations have more in common than meets the eye--above all, their anti-reform stance. This is why a coalition government formed by the Communists and Socialist Unity (which , however, may fail to gain parliamentary representation if the opinion polls are accurate) would virtually signal an end of the reform process, which is already stalled.

Somewhat close to the center but still on the Left of the Moldovan political spectrum is the Democratic Agrarian Party (PDAM). Having won the 1994 election with more than 43 percent of the vote, the PDAM is likely to be the great loser of this year's elections. Support for the party ranges from 8 percent (Opinia) and 4 percent (the second CURS-IMAS poll), meaning the PDAM may fail even to pass the 4 percent electoral threshold. If that proved the case, the party would thus pay the price for its failure either to decisively promote reform or to decisively oppose it. It would also fall victim to internal splits over the past few years. The PDAM was first deserted in 1995 by a group called the Party of Social Progress. Then former President Mircea Snegur left to form the Party of Revival and Conciliation. And other deputies migrated to other parties. A post-electoral coalition between the Communists and the PDAM cannot be ruled out but would doubtless prove an uneasy one. Part Two of this end note will appear tomorrow, 20 March 1998