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Newsline - March 26, 1998




"TROIKA" SUMMIT OPENS OUTSIDE MOSCOW

French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin outside Moscow on 26 March. The three leaders agreed to launch a transportation project to provide new rail services between their three countries that will eventually stretch from London to the Urals. They reached agreement to strengthen university ties between their countries. And they also condemned the march by veterans of the former Latvian SS Legion in Riga on 16 March. Following the leaders' first session, Yeltsin told journalists that "we agreed on everything." BP

SELEZNEV SAYS KIRIENKO LACKS EXPERIENCE

State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, a prominent Communist, told Interfax on 25 March that he asked presidential Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev to tell Yeltsin that acting Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko does not have enough experience to lead the government. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov told journalists the same day that his party will support Kirienko's candidacy only if the government promises to change its social and economic policies, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. Zyuganov called on Yeltsin to convene a roundtable including members of the parliament and regional leaders in order to discuss appointments to the new government. At a 26 March press conference, Yeltsin declined to say whether he will nominate Kirienko as prime minister but dismissed criticism that the 35-year-old Kirienko is too young for the job, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. LB

LDPR'S STANCE ON KIRIENKO UNCLEAR

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky on 25 March described Kirienko as "completely unacceptable" in terms of age, experience, and political views, Reuters reported. Zhirinovsky added that appointing Kirienko prime minister is like "putting a sergeant in charge of the Defense Ministry." The same day, Duma Geopolitics Committee Chairman Aleksei Mitrofanov of the LDPR said the party has not yet decided whether it would support Kirienko's candidacy, Interfax reported. The government often relies on the votes of the LDPR faction in order to get key initiatives passed in the Duma. LB

NEWSPAPER ACCUSES KIRIENKO OF SHADY FINANCIAL DEALS...

"Novye izvestiya" on 25 March charged that before Kirienko joined the government last year, he used shady financial deals to withhold profits accrued by his oil business from both creditors and the Pension Fund. As a former Komsomol activist and protege of then Nizhnii Novgorod Governor Boris Nemtsov, Kirienko became head of the Norsi-oil company and the local bank Garantiya. The newspaper charged that Norsi-oil managed to avoid paying the oil processing plant Norsi's debts while "real money" from the plant's transactions flowed into Norsi-oil's bank accounts. It also reported that Kirienko devised a scheme whereby revenues from the oil business were deposited into the Garantiya bank, which performed lucrative transactions with the funds and at the same time issued promissory notes (rather than cash payments) to cover Norsi and Norsi-oil's contributions to the Pension Fund. Boris Berezovskii is reportedly one of the financial backers of "Novye izvestiya." LB

...SLAMS ACTING FUEL AND ENERGY MINISTER

Also on 25 March, "Novye izvestiya" reminded readers of allegations it had made last November against Viktor Ott, whom Kirienko recently appointed acting fuel and energy minister. The newspaper added that Ott, who at the time of the allegations had been Kirienko's deputy at the ministry, had never responded. "Novye izvestiya" had charged that as a first vice president of the state-owned oil company Rosneft, Ott acquired two Moscow apartments and one cottage. All were constructed using Rosneft funds and were ostensibly for company use. Once construction had been completed, Rosneft managers, including Ott, purchased them for "laughable prices," the newspaper alleged. "Novye izvestiya" concluded that a "happy future" awaits Russia if all Kirienko's appointments have "talents" similar to Ott's. LB

OUR HOME IS RUSSIA SEEKS TO PICK UP PIECES...

The political council of the Our Home Is Russia (NDR) movement met in Moscow on 25 March to plan strategy following Viktor Chernomyrdin's departure from the government. Chernomyrdin has headed the NDR, informally known as the "party of power," since it was founded in May 1995. Addressing the movement's leaders, Chernomyrdin warned that the NDR "must not and cannot go on in the same condition as it is now," RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. He called for unity in the "democratic" and "pro-reform" camp before the next parliamentary elections and warned that "unless we unite now..., we will lose everything." Other prominent NDR members, including Duma faction leader Aleksandr Shokhin and Duma deputy Nikolai Travkin, called for the movement to transform itself into an "independent structure" rather than an uncritical supporter of the government's and president's initiatives. LB

...BUT WILL IT SUFFER SAME FATE AS RUSSIA'S CHOICE?

RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported that some governors who had been expected to attend the 25 March meeting of the NDR political council decided not to make the trip to Moscow following Chernomyrdin's ouster. This suggests the NDR is in danger of repeating the history of its predecessor as the "party of power." In the December 1993 Duma elections, Yegor Gaidar's movement Russia's Choice gained 15.5 percent of the vote and won dozens of seats in single-member districts. At the time, Gaidar and other members of the movement were in the government. But by the December 1995 Duma elections, Gaidar had been out of government for nearly two years, and his party-- now called Russia's Democratic Choice--gained less than four percent of the vote. NDR won some 10 percent of the vote and 10 seats in single-member districts in the 1995 elections. LB

CHERNOMYRDIN DEFENDS DECISION ON ROSNEFT SALE

Speaking at a 25 March press conference, Chernomyrdin denied that his dismissal was prompted by his endorsement of a plan to sell 75 percent plus one share of the Rosneft oil company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 1998). Chernomyrdin defended the decision to sell 75 percent rather than 50 percent of Rosneft shares, which, he said, would have brought less money to the treasury, Interfax reported. He acknowledged that opinions differed within the government on the Rosneft privatization plan but said acting Prime Minister Kirienko had been in favor of the 75 percent option. LB

BANKER CHARGES GAZPROM HAS 'NO RIGHT' TO BID FOR ROSNEFT...

Konstantin Kagalovskii, deputy chief of the Menatep Bank, argued on 25 March that the gas monopoly Gazprom has neither the legal nor the moral right to submit a bid in the upcoming auction for Rosneft, ITAR-TASS reported. Gazprom has formed a consortium with LUKoil and Royal Dutch Shell to bid for Rosneft. Speaking to Japanese oil industry executives in Tokyo, Kagalovskii claimed that Russian law prohibits enterprises that are more than 25 percent state-owned from participating in privatization auctions. The state owns 40 percent of Gazprom shares. Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the founder of the Menatep Bank, is the president of the oil company Yuksi, which plans to bid for the Rosneft stake. Kagalovskii said Yuksi will insist that the Rosneft sale be conducted according to the letter and spirit of the law. LB

...WHILE NEWSPAPER SAYS NEITHER DOES ONEKSIMBANK

"Novye izvestiya" on 25 March called on the government to bar Oneksimbank from the Rosneft auction. The Sidanko oil company (an Oneksimbank affiliate) and British Petroleum have formed a consortium that is considered one of the leading contenders for the controlling stake in Rosneft. "Novye izvestiya" reported that the terms of the auction demand that all competitors submit documentation proving they have no debts to the federal budget. Oneksimbank cannot meet this requirement, the newspaper charged, because Sidanko has yet to pay the tax debts of its subsidiary, the Angara Petrochemical Company. A government commission on tax and budgetary discipline ordered Angara to pay its debts last December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 30 December 1997). Berezovskii, who is believed to help finance "Novye izvestiya," is one of the founders of the Yuksi oil company. LB

NEMTSOV SAYS NEW GOVERNMENT WON'T BE INFLUENCED BY BANKS

First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov predicted in an interview with the "Wall Street Journal" on 25 March that the new government will not be influenced by leading bankers who supported Yeltsin's re- election campaign in 1996. Nemtsov said the dismissal of Chernomyrdin and Anatolii Chubais as prime minister and first deputy prime minister, respectively, will leave the "oligarchs" unable to put pressure on the government. Asked to comment on Nemtsov's remarks, Chernomyrdin said Nemtsov often "speaks first and thinks later," Interfax reported. The former premier added that "I think [Nemtsov] will come to his senses somewhat and say something absolutely different." Nemtsov told Interfax on 26 March that he gave the interview in English and that the newspaper misinterpreted his remarks about Chernomyrdin. LB

PROSECUTORS CHARGE FORMER PRIVATIZATION OFFICIALS

The Moscow Prosecutor's Office has filed embezzlement charges against Aleksandr Ivanenko, former first deputy State Property Committee Chairman, and Boris Veretennikov, a former head of one of the committee's departments, Interfax reported on 25 March. Prosecutors say that in December 1993, Veretennikov gave away 20 apartments that the State Property Committee had purchased from a firm called Eksikom. The recipients of the apartments allegedly included former State Property Committee Chairman Alfred Kokh, former Federal Bankruptcy Service head Petr Mostovoi, and former State Property Committee Chairman Sergei Belyaev (now a Duma deputy). Moscow prosecutors opened a criminal case against Kokh last year over a $100,000 payment he received from a Swiss company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September and 2 October 1997). Kokh and Mostovoi were among officials who received $90,000 each, allegedly for book royalties, from a publishing house linked to Oneksimbank. LB

OFFICIAL REBUFFS FINAL ATTEMPT TO EXTRADITE STANKEVICH

Polish Justice Minister and Prosecutor- General Hanna Suchocka announced on 25 March that former Russian presidential adviser Sergei Stankevich will not be extradited to Russia, where he is wanted on bribery charges, the Polish news agency PAP reported. Stankevich is accused of taking a $10,000 bribe in 1992. He claims the case against him is politically motivated. Two Polish courts have ruled that he should not be extradited (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 1998). Suchocka's decision is final. LB

CHECHNYA AMENDS CONSTITUTION TO FORMALIZE OFFICIAL NAMES

The Chechen parliament on 25 March voted to amend the republican constitution to formally name the republic the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Interfax and AFP reported. Under those amendments, the Chechen capital, Grozny, is formally renamed Dzhokhar- kala in honor of former President Dzhokhar Dudaev. LF




TENSIONS EASE IN KOFARNIKHON

Representatives of the Tajik government, the National Reconciliation Commission, and the UN have succeeded in securing a cease-fire agreement with an armed group that had recently been involved in fighting in the Kofarnikhon region, RFE/RL correspondents reported on 25 March. The armed group and the government exchanged the bodies of 22 of those killed in fighting the previous day. Despite the cease-fire agreement, some 109 government soldiers are still being held in the Romit Gorge by the armed group. The government has sent an additional 200 troops in armored vehicles to the area. A spokesman for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned the attacks by the armed group and laid the blame on the United Tajik Opposition. UN special envoy to Tajikistan Gerd Merrem called on UTO leaders to remind their forces that they now have representatives in the government, whose police and soldiers they are killing. BP

NAZARBAYEV REPRIMANDS GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on 26 March reprimanded Energy Minister Asygat Jabagin, Justice Minister Baurjan Muhamedjanov, and Yerjan Utembayev, the chairman of the agency for strategic planning and reform, RFE/RL correspondents and ITAR-TASS reported. The president's press service said the reason for the reprimand was failure to fulfill the presidents orders. But according to ITAR-TASS, "inadequate information about the investment activities of one of the foreign companies" prompted the president's decision. BP

KAZAKHSTAN OPENS MISSION AT NATO

Kazakhstan opened a mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels on 25 March, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry said the mission will help "raise relations with the alliance to a higher political level." Kazakhstan is already a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, and Kazakhstan's armed forces participated in NATO-sponsored training exercises in September 1997 under that program. BP

KOCHARYAN PROPOSES CHANGES TO ARMENIAN CONSTITUTION

Meeting with supporters in Yerevan on 25 March, Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharyan called for the consolidation of all Armenian political forces to implement "a common goal, a common program," Interfax reported. Kocharyan advocated substantive changes to the 1995 constitution to curtail the "excessively broad" powers of the president and redefine the latter's relations with the prime minister, the government, the parliament, and the judiciary. He proposes stripping the president of the right to dissolve the parliament, which, he said, is conducive to creating, rather than resolving, domestic political conflicts. Instead, he suggests that the constitution grant the parliament the right to disband itself. LF

KARABAKH INTELLECTUALS ISSUE PROTEST

In a statement issued on 24 March and circulated the following day by Noyan Tapan, members of the Nagorno-Karabakh Unions of Writers and Journalists and faculty from the Karabakh State University condemned attempts by unspecified Armenian politicians to capitalize on the Karabakh conflict during the presidential election campaign. Recent articles in both the Armenian and Russian press on the election campaign adversely affect the image of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and devalue its achievements in the "national liberation struggle," the statement reads. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION TO DEMAND DEFENSE MINISTER'S RESIGNATION

The Abkhazeti faction has begun collecting signatures to demand the impeachment of Defense Minister Vardiko Nadibaidze, Caucasus Press reported on 25 March. The People faction immediately expressed its support for that initiative. Opposition deputies have long been critical of Nadibaidze, a former Soviet army general whom they accuse of serving Russia's interests. A minimum of 75 signatures from members of the 225-strong parliament is needed to include the issue on the agenda of the legislature. LF

ARAB CONNECTION IN SHEVARDNADZE ASSASSINATION BID?

The men who perpetrated the failed 9 February attempt to assassinate Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze were trained in Lebanon and Libya by representatives of the intelligence services and NGOs of "several Islamic states," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 26 March. Georgian First Deputy Prosecutor Revaz Kipiani has claimed that the attackers were trained in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 1998), though not at the behest of the Chechen leadership. Chechnya's diplomatic representative to Tbilisi, Khizar Aldamov, has denied that allegation, however. LF

SOUTH OSSETIA WANTS MORE PEACEKEEPERS

The parliament of Georgia's would-be secessionist republic of South Ossetia has voted against the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the region. It has also demanded that the numbers of peacekeepers in Tskhinvali Raion be increased, Caucasus Press reported on 26 March. A group of Georgian military intelligence trainees staged an armed raid on a village in the raion earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 6 March 1998). LF




BELARUS ASKS CITIZENS TO HELP COMBAT FINANCIAL CRISIS

The Belarusian government appealed to the population on 25 March to report people who disobey state-imposed economic regulations, Reuters reported. Konstantin Sumar, deputy chairman of the Commission for State Controls, said the commission hopes to receive tips from people detailing instances of "abuses in the financial sphere." A number for a special telephone line has been advertised on television. Sumar also said the commission is asking for advice from people on the "rational use of monetary resources." Belarusian Television on 25 March showed police squads raiding state-owned stores that failed to lower prices to levels ordered by the state. Belapan reported on 25 March that the shelves of many food shops around the country have been cleared by shoppers worried about inflation and a further devaluation of the currency. PB

BELARUS TO START NAVY?

In Severomorsk, Russia, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that he needs to acquaint himself with the Russian navy because Moscow and Minsk have begun "working out guidelines for a (common) defense policy." He also said he was considering "taking one [Russian] surface ship and a submarine under Belarus's patronage," ITAR-TASS and BelaPAN reported. In other news, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin told a Belarusian parliamentary delegation visiting China that the two countries hold similar views on most international issues, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 March. Parliamentary speaker Anatoly Malofeyev, the head of the delegation, said Minsk attaches great importance to relations with Beijing. PB

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT MULLS DECREE GIVING TATARS SUFFRAGE

Leonid Kuchma is considering issuing a presidential decree that would allow some 20,000 Crimean Tatars without Ukrainian citizenship to vote in the 29 March elections, a presidential aide said on 25 March. Crimea's Tatars have recently protested and clashed with police over the refusal by the Ukrainian parliament to grant them voting rights (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March 1998). The decree, however, would leave tens of thousands of Tatars still disenfranchised. Observers point out that issuing such a decree would not be completely altruistic, as several Crimean Tatars are running for parliamentary seats as candidates of pro-Kuchma, reformist parties. PB

BALTIC-BELARUSIAN BORDER AGREEMENT SIGNED

The foreign ministers of Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania have signed a border agreement that paves the way for the demarcation of the 500-km Baltic-Belarusian frontier, BNS reported on 25 March. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas said he expects the treaty to lead to improved relations between Minsk and Vilnius. His Belarusian counterpart, Ivan Antonovich, told reporters in Vilnius that talks on the treaty were complicated by illegal border crossings. There are few official crossing points and insufficient patrols along the 350-km frontier between Lithuania and Belarus. JC

LATVIAN SECURITY COUNCIL WANTS CLOSER TIES WITH RUSSIA

Speaking to reporters on 25 March, Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis said that a National Security Council session earlier that day had stressed Latvia must seek closer ties with Russia, BNS reported. Ulmanis said that cooperation should be developed between border areas and various regions of the two countries as well as at national level. He also urged that negotiations on border issues be continued and various bilateral agreements signed. The president avoided directly answering questions about current Latvian-Russian relations but said the further development of those relations "would depend on the situation in the neighboring country." JC

NEW LITHUANIAN GOVERNMENT CONFIRMED

President Valdas Adamkus on 25 March confirmed the new streamlined cabinet. Ten ministers retained their posts, while there were two "newcomers" to the government. In a surprise move, Mindaugas Stankevicius, a former prime minister and a member of the opposition Democratic Labor Party, was appointed health care minister. And independent Edvardas Makelis replaced Conservative Vytautas Knasys at the Agriculture Ministry. Four portfolios remain vacant: Telecommunications, Construction and Urban Planning, Education and Science, and European Affairs. The parliament plans to amend the law on the government next week to merge the first two with the Communications and Environment Protection ministries, respectively. The future of the European Affairs Ministry remains uncertain. JC

POPE PRAISES CONCORDAT WITH POLAND

Pope John Paul II hailed a new treaty with Poland after it was ratified on 25 March, Reuters reported. The pontiff said he hopes the Concordat will contribute "to the spiritual and material development of society." Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, who signed the agreement at the Vatican, said the ratification of the treaty is a "day for which we have waited many years." The agreement was delayed for nearly five years by the leftist coalition government that lost last year's elections. PB

POLAND'S CHIEF RABBI RESPONDS TO CARDINAL

Menachem Joskowicz on 25 March repeated the demand that a cross near the Auschwitz concentration be removed, Reuters reported. Joskowicz was responding to comments made by Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 1998). The eight-meter cross was erected in 1979. Compromise solutions made by Krzysztof Sliwinski, the government's envoy to the Jewish community, include moving the cross farther away from the site and replacing it with a smaller cross. PB

MASS PROTEST DEMONSTRATION IN BRATISLAVA

Some 30,000 people demonstrated in Bratislava on 25 March against the growing autocratic tendencies of Vladimir Meciar's cabinet. Specifically, the demonstrators were opposing the intention to change the electoral law to the detriment of the opposition and advocating the election of the president by direct popular vote, RFE/RL's Bratislava bureau reported. The demonstration marked 10 years since protesters in the Slovak capital had demanded religious freedom from the country's then Communist rulers. Former President Michal Kovac told the gathering that "we now have freedom of religion and of assembly, but we have to face intolerance and malice" from the country's rulers. MS

MECIAR SAYS WEST IGNORANT ABOUT SLOVAKIA

Meciar told journalists on 25 March that the EU and the U.S. have a "distorted image" of developments in Slovakia and are taking into account only "the views of the opposition." He promised the September elections will be "free and democratic." Meanwhile, Vladimir Lukin, visiting chairman of the Russian State Duma's Foreign Relations Committee, said in Bratislava the same day that Russia will "never join" international criticism against Slovakia. MS

HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT, MULTINATIONALS LAUNCH INVESTMENT COUNCIL

The Hungarian government, the 28 largest multinational companies in Hungary, and the U.S. and German Chambers of Commerce have set up an Investment Council, which will coordinate the country's economic policy and investors' needs, Hungarian media reported on 25 March. The two co-chairmen of the council are Finance Minister Peter Medgyessy and Gyorgy Mosonyi, Royal Dutch Shell's managing director in Hungary. The council will deal with issues related to telecommunications, energy sector, agriculture and food processing. Meanwhile, General Electric has announced it will invest $50 million in Hungary over the next three years, creating 500 new jobs. Multinationals currently account for 25-30 percent of Hungary's GDP. MSZ




SERBIAN OFFENSIVE IN KOSOVO CONTINUES

Serbian paramilitary police on 25 March continued to maintain a strong presence in the Drenica region, west of Pristina, despite repeated demands by the international Contact Group for them to withdraw. The paramilitary police also fired heavy weapons into Kosovar villages in the Decani and Djakovica regions, where they launched an offensive the previous day, Albanian and independent Serbian media reported. The Serbian forces continue to bar journalists from the area, and precise information about military actions or casualties is not available. Kosovar spokesmen said in Pristina and Pec that wounded people from the region under attack were brought to the hospitals in those two towns on 24 and 25 March. PM

KOSOVARS SAY SERBIAN GOAL IS ETHNIC CLEANSING

A Kosovar shadow-state spokesman told "RFE/RL Newsline" on 25 March that the purpose of the paramilitary offensive is to drive the ethnic Albanian population out of Kosovo by using the methods that the Serbs used in their "ethnic cleansing" campaigns in Bosnia. The spokesman said that the Drenica offensive was aimed at clearing a strategic corridor west of Pristina and that the current drive near Djakovica is intended to drive the Kosovars out of the border regions with Albania. He added that refugees are fleeing to Macedonia rather than to Albania, which is widely known in Kosovo to be too impoverished to handle a refugee influx. The spokesman stressed that the Serbs might be able to carry out the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo very quickly because the Kosovars, unlike the Bosnian Muslims, have no military organization to protect them. PM

CONTACT GROUP GIVES MILOSEVIC MORE TIME

The foreign ministers of the U.S., U.K., Russia, Germany, France, and Italy agreed in Bonn on 25 March to give Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic four more weeks to meet the demands that the six countries put forward at their gathering in London on 9 March in conjunction with the Kosovo crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 1998). Their original deadline to Milosevic to withdraw his paramilitary police from Kosovo and launch serious talks with the Kosovars was 19 March. Russia, which is Milosevic's main arms supplier, and Italy, which has many public sector contracts in Yugoslavia, opposed U.S. attempts to impose an immediate arms embargo and tough economic sanctions on Belgrade. German, French, and Italian diplomats argued that the international community should offer Milosevic positive incentives, not just punitive ones, in order to secure his cooperation. PM

ALBRIGHT INSISTS ON TOUGHNESS

Speaking at the Bonn gathering on 25 March, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned her colleagues that Milosevic is stalling for time in the hopes that the international community will lose interest in Kosovo. She said that "we have to remember that progress has only come about through sustained pressure.... If [Milosevic] has his way, he will do as little as possible to meet our concerns, and then only under pressure and at the last minute. Incentives tend to be pocketed; warnings tend not to be believed." PM

IS RUSSIA SELLING ARMS TO MILOSEVIC?

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov said in Bonn on 25 March that Russia will discuss a possible arms embargo with the other Contact Group countries in the coming days. He insisted, however, that any such move must not be "one- sided" and must include a ban on arms smuggling from Albania into Kosovo. "The New York Times" wrote that Russia agreed in December 1997 to sell Yugoslavia tanks, attack helicopters, ground-to-air missiles, MiG-29s and spare parts. The newspaper added that Washington is concerned lest the deal upset the military balance in the region and violate the Dayton agreement, which includes provisions on arms ceilings. The daily quoted U.S. officials as saying that Russian-made attack helicopters may have been used in the current crackdown in Kosovo. PM

CHIRAC CALLS FOR DIALOGUE

French President Jacques Chirac sent a message to Kosovar shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova in which Chirac "hailed the [22 March] elections in Kosovo" and urged the Kosovar leader "to make the best [political] use of his position following the vote." Chirac called on Rugova to begin a dialogue with the Yugoslav authorities and to distance himself from "terrorism." In Tirana, the French ambassador gave President Rexhep Meidani a message from Chirac, who called on his Albanian colleague to help find a solution to the Kosovo problem based on "real autonomy within the existing international borders," "Zeri i Popullit" wrote. PM/FS

ALBANIA REJECTS SERBIAN CHARGES

Defense Minister Sabit Brokaj rejected charges by the Serbian Interior Ministry that armed bands recently crossed into Kosovo from Albania to attack Serbian police. Speaking in Tirana on 25 March, Brokaj said that international monitors stationed on Albania's borders know that such charges are baseless. Brokaj also signed a cooperation agreement with his Macedonian counterpart, Lazar Kitanovski. Brokaj announced that NATO experts will arrive in Albania and Macedonia next week to help train local security forces in monitoring their countries' respective borders with Kosovo. PM

POLICE EVICT HUNGER-STRIKERS FROM ALBANIAN PYRAMID OFFICES

Police on 25 March evicted some 30 hunger-strikers from the offices of the VEFA pyramid company in Tirana, "Koha Jone" reported. The strikers had begun the strike on 25 February to protest the planned shut-down and sell-off of the bankrupt firm. They hoped that, if left alone, it might continue to function and generate at least some profit, which could then be divided among investors. On 23 March, a delegation of investors signed an agreement providing for transparency in the bankruptcy procedures with the government through the mediation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The hunger-strikers, however, refused to accept the deal. FS

ALBANIAN PRESIDENT DECLARES WAR ON CORRUPTION

Rexhep Meidani called key government officials to a special meeting on 25 March to discuss steps to fight corruption, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported. Among those attending were the interior and defense ministers, the deputy finance minister, and the heads of the secret services, customs, police, and the anti-corruption agency. Meidani accused the various government departments of not taking the fight against corruption seriously and of failing to cooperate among themselves. Meanwhile, the Prosecutor-General has launched investigations against former Defense Minister Safet Zhulali and former Prime Minister Aleksander Meksi for alleged corruption in connection with arms sales, "Koha Jone" reported. FS

ROMANIAN PREMIER FACES CHALLENGE FROM WITHIN OWN PARTY

Prominent members of the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) met recently in Brasov to draft a letter expressing "apprehension" about the party's "deteriorating image and isolation" and the party's neglect of the "national dimension"-- an allusion to concessions made to the Hungarian minority. The group called for Premier Victor Ciorbea to be replaced by PNTCD Secretary-General Radu Vasile. It also said a party congress must be called to discuss those issues, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Also on 25 March, the first vice chairman of the national Liberal Party, Valeriu Stoica, said the ongoing political crisis must be solved "even if the price is the sacrifice of the premier." MS

ROMANIAN SENATE COMMISSION REJECTS DRAFT BUDGET

The Senate's Agriculture Commission on 25 March voted to reject the draft budget submitted to the parliament by the cabinet, RFE/RL's Bucharest Bureau reported. Criticism of the budget has been expressed by other commissions currently debating the draft. Senator Varujan Vosganian, who heads the Senate's Budget and Finance Commission, said the draft might be sent back to the government for revisions. Ciorbea has threatened to resign if the budget is amended by the parliament. MS

MOLDOVAN POLITICAL LEADERS APPEAL TO REFORMERS TO UNITE

In a joint declaration released on 25 March, Mircea Snegur and Iurie Rosca, co-chairmen of the Democratic Convention of Moldova, say the "disastrous effects" of the Democratic Agrarian Party's term in office, combined with "divisions among pro-reform forces," explain why the Communists won the 22 March elections, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. But since the Communists do not have a majority, most Moldovans "favor the continuation of reforms," they argue. They call on the three non-communist parties to "overcome differences" and "display responsibility" in negotiations to form a new governing coalition. Dumitru Diacov, leader of the pro- presidential For a Democratic and Prosperous Moldova Bloc (PMPD), said the formation of the coalition depends on the readiness of the non-communist parties to "compromise." He admitted, however, that the PMPD has also held talks with Communist leader Vladimir Voronin. MS

SECOND ROUND OF MASS PRIVATIZATION UNDER WAY IN BULGARIA

The parliament on 25 March approved a bill increasing the rights of citizens to buy investment bonds in state owned companies. Whereas a law passed in 1997 stipulated only 1,000 state companies slated for privatization, citizens may now purchase bonds in any state company that do not exceed a total value of 250,000 leva ($139). Those bonds can then be exchanged for shares or invested in pension funds. The bonds will be used to pay wage and pension arrears from 1997, RFE/RL's Sofia bureau reported. MS

BULGARIAN REFINERY WORKERS END RAILROAD BLOCKADE

Bulgarian state television on 25 March reported that some 1,200 workers from the Plama oil refinery have ended a blockade of a railroad station near Pleven after an appeal by Premier Ivan Kostov. The workers from the Plama refinery were protesting that their wages have not been paid for two months. Kostov said the protest was justified but that the government "could not intervene in the operation of a private company." He pledged to "do everything possible" to seek a solution. Earlier on 25 March, Deputy Premier Alexander Bozhkov told the workers that Plama's new owner, International Equities Inc., would pay wage arrears as soon as the purchase of the refinery from Euroenergy Holding is finalized, Reuters reported. MS




REGIONS AND RUSSIAN REFORM


by Paul Goble

People in the small and medium-sized cities of Russia's far-flung regions may ultimately become the political base for a move against corruption and organized crime in the country as a whole. As such, this demographic group may play a major role in the current reshuffling of the Russian government.

Less touched by corruption and crime themselves but increasingly fearful of both, Russians in the regions are a potentially powerful political force waiting to be tapped by Moscow politicians who are prepared to take their concerns into consideration. To the extent that happens, Russia's regions could play a somewhat unexpected role in re-establishing government authority and promoting democratic and free market reforms.

Yurii Veremeenko, editor in chief of Moscow's "Invest 100" magazine and the former spokesmen for the governor of Tver, told RFE/RL in Washington on 23 March that media exposes about organized crime have left people in smaller Russian cities fearful. Such reports on Russian television and in the national newspapers have convinced the residents of such cities that they are equally threatened, even though statistics suggest that they are much less likely to be victims of crime than they believe. As a result, Veremeenko said that the residents of the Russian regions are ever more prepared to support law-and-order candidates, especially if the latter couch their message in terms of a nationalist defense of Russia itself.

Asked which Russian leader might find it the easiest to tap into such sentiments, Veremeenko, who also heads the Tver Association of Political Culture, immediately named retired general and former presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed. But he suggested that other Moscow leaders were likely to turn increasingly to this issue, running as it were against crime, the long-despised "center," and foreigners, whom many Russians blame for their current problems. Indeed, Veremeenko argued, President Boris Yeltsin himself might seek to draw on precisely those sentiments as he moves to form a new government following his dismissal of the entire cabinet earlier this week.

In an otherwise upbeat characterization of the role such attitudes and appeals to them could play, Veremeenko argued that there are three potentially serious downside risks. First, few Russians in the regions have much experience with either democracy or law and thus may be prepared to back anyone who says he can eliminate crime, regardless of the methods he proposes to use.

Second, any linking of these anti-crime attitudes with anti-foreign ones could help power a very ugly kind of xenophobic nationalism, something that could short-circuit the path toward reforms of all kinds.

And third, at least for the next few years, the power of those who have benefited from corruption and organized crime may be so great that any movement that sought to root out those evils could fail and thus undercut public confidence in democratic institutions.

Although Veremeenko did not mention them, two other factors undoubtedly work against the successful use of these anti-crime attitudes in Russia's regions.

On the one hand, Russian politics remains so centered on Moscow that few politicians there yet seem ready to reach out beyond the ring road around the Russian capital. Consequently, they may raise this issue but not seek to mobilize opinion outside Moscow in any systematic way. On the other hand, many Russians in the regions, like many Russians in Moscow, appear to have little faith in the political system as a solution to their problems.

To the extent that they feel insulted and injured but see no obvious redress to their difficulties within the political system, those groups may simply withdraw, seeking to protect themselves as best they can rather than supporting someone who can address their problems.

For all those reasons, Veremeenko may be far too optimistic about the role Russia's regions will play in the future of that country. But his argument that attitudes outside of Moscow may help to overcome crime and corruption there suggest that Russia's regions may play a positive role, something few Russian leaders or observers have been willing to consider in the past.


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