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Newsline - June 1, 1998




IMF SAYS RUSSIA HAS NOT ASKED FOR SPECIAL CREDIT...

John Odling-Smee, a senior IMF expert on Russia, on 29 May said the fund has held "no formal discussions" on granting a special multi-billion dollar loan to calm Russian financial markets, Reuters reported. Odling-Smee said Russian officials have inquired about the IMF's supplemental reserve facility, which provides short-term credits, but he argued that Russia does not need such a loan. IMF officials have praised recent steps taken by the Russian government and Central Bank, such as hiking the refinancing rate to 150 percent. The fund is recommending that its board approve the release of a $670 million loan tranche, but some market analysts say sentiment among investors will not turn around unless Russia receives a multi-billion dollar bailout package. Share values on the Russian stock market fell 5-6 percent on average in early trading on 1 June after posting a 2 percent decline on 29 May. LB

...AS CHUBAIS HOLDS HIGH-LEVEL TALKS IN WASHINGTON

Former First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais, the head of the electricity giant Unified Energy System, held talks with U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers in Washington on 29 May, Reuters reported. Chubais also met with World Bank President James Wolfensohn and senior IMF officials. When Chubais departed for the U.S., Russian news agencies said the main goal of his trip was to discuss matters related to Unified Energy System. But Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko told NTV on 31 May that Chubais also went to Washington to discuss the current situation on Russian markets and to ask for unspecified "support." U.S. President Bill Clinton on 31 May issued a statement saying the U.S. "endorses additional conditional financial support [for Russia] from the international financial institutions, as necessary." LB

COMMISSION THREATENS TAX DEBTORS WITH BANKRUPTCY

The presidential commission on tax and budgetary discipline on 29 May took "tough measures" against eight companies that each owe between 600 million and 800 million rubles ($97 million to $130 million) to the federal budget, Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko told journalists. The commission ordered that bankruptcy proceedings be initiated against some of those companies and gave others until 12 June to pay their debts or face bankruptcy or seizures of assets, Interfax reported. Khristenko also said the commission took tough measures against 11 alcohol enterprises that are fully or party state-owned. The commission did not discuss the gas monopoly Gazprom, the electricity monopoly Unified Energy System, and the Railroad Ministry after the "natural monopolies" promised on 28 May to take steps to repay their debts. Gazprom alone owes the state some 4.5 billion rubles, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 30 May. LB

MOODY'S DOWNGRADES RUSSIA'S CREDIT RATING AGAIN

The international rating agency Moody's on 29 May lowered Russia's sovereign debt rating, along with the credit ratings of nine commercial banks, seven Russian regions, and four Russian companies, Interfax reported. Moody's last downgraded Russia's credit rating in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 1998) and is maintaining a "negative" outlook for further changes in the rating. Meanwhile, the Fitch IBCA agency on 1 June lowered the long-term credit ratings of 14 Russian banks. If the value of the ruble dropped sharply against the dollar, some Russian banks would find it difficult or impossible to repay loans denominated in foreign currencies. LB

NEW TAX SERVICE CHIEF CALLS FOR LOWER TAXES...

Newly appointed State Tax Service chief Boris Fedorov says that although tax collection can be improved somewhat under current conditions, significant increases in revenues will be impossible unless the tax burden is significantly reduced. In an interview with NTV on 1 June, Fedorov suggested lowering the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent and criticized current tax legislation, which, he said, makes buying shares in Russian companies more advantageous for foreigners than for Russian citizens. Fedorov argued that the government has not done enough to secure parliamentary approval of a new tax code. However, he praised the measures approved at the 29 May meeting of the commission on tax and budget discipline. Fedorov will have the rank of a cabinet minister, a higher status than previous heads of the State Tax Service, Russian news agencies reported on 29 May. LB

...AS HIS APPOINTMENT DRAWS MIXED REACTION IN RUSSIAN PRESS

"Russkii telegraf," which is owned by Oneksimbank, on 30 May described Fedorov as "fully capable of putting pressure on taxpayers" and predicted that he will make his predecessor, Aleksandr Pochinok, seem like a "good cop" by comparison. In contrast, "Nezavisimaya gazeta," which is financed by CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group, slammed Fedorov's appointment and cast doubt on his ability to improve tax collection, given the prevalence of barter rather than cash payments in the Russian economy. The newspaper speculated that Fedorov may soon be removed if he is implicated in a corruption scandal involving the sale of diamonds and precious metals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 1998). (A leading suspect in that case is to be extradited to Russia this week.) "Nezavisimaya gazeta" also assailed the government's strategy for dealing with the current financial crisis as "pseudomonetarism." LB

GOVERNMENT SEEKS APPROVAL OF LAWS TO BOOST REVENUES

The government has submitted to the State Duma four draft laws aimed at increasing federal revenues by 6.5 billion rubles ($1.1 billion) for the year, Interfax reported on 29 May, citing Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov. One law would levy customs duties on gas when Gazprom ships gas to buyers rather than when payment for such shipments is made. The government also wants to increase the land tax and double the tax on agricultural land that is being used for other purposes, "Vremya MN" reported on 1 June. The fourth draft law seeks to guarantee regular contributions to the Pension Fund, Zadornov said. The finance minister also called on the Duma to speed up its consideration of tax laws that were submitted to the parliament earlier this year, saying those laws could boost revenues by 4.5 billion rubles. LB

PENSION FUND OWED SIX MONTHS' WORTH OF PENSIONS

Russian enterprises owe the Pension Fund a total of 100.2 billion rubles ($16 billion), Interfax reported on 29 May, citing Svetlana Zaika, the head of the fund's press service. She said the fund is obliged to pay 15.8 billion rubles each month in pensions but has been unable to collect more than 13 billion rubles in any month of this year. Consequently, pension arrears rose from 1.2 billion rubles as of 1 April to 4.3 billion rubles as of 1 May. Zaika said that pensioners in 18 out of Russia's 89 regions have not yet received their April pensions. She predicted that there will be difficulties in paying pensions for the month of June in at least 70 regions. LB

RUSSIA'S REACTION TO PAKISTANI NUCLEAR TESTS "VERY NEGATIVE"

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov told reporters in Finland on 30 May that Russia's "attitude is very negative" toward the nuclear tests that Pakistan undertook the previous day, ITAR-TASS reported. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Primakov as saying "there is a need to pressure [Islamabad] but we are against imposing economic sanctions," which, he said, might make Pakistan "feel backed into a corner." The minister said his government favors holding two UN Security Council meetings--one with the foreign ministers of the permanent Security Council members and the other also attended by India's and Pakistan's foreign ministers in attendance. Pakistani Ambassador to Russia Mansur Alam told Ekho Moskvy on 29 May that the purpose of the test was "peaceful" after "India's test destroyed the strategic balance in the region." BP

JUSTICE MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA NOT READY TO ABOLISH DEATH PENALTY

Pavel Krasheninnikov told Interfax on 29 May that he believes Russia is "not ready" to abolish capital punishment, "neither from a criminological nor from a moral point of view." He said opinion polls show that the majority of Russian citizens are in favor of keeping the death penalty. Yeltsin decreed a moratorium on executions in August 1996, but the parliament rejected a draft law on banning capital punishment in March 1997 and refused to ratify a protocol on the issue earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 1998). Outlawing capital punishment is a condition of membership in the Council of Europe, which Russia joined in February 1996. LB

BARELY A DAY PASSES WITHOUT NON-COMBAT DEATHS IN ARMY

Only three days so far this year--7 January and 17 and 27 May--have passed without any non- combat deaths in the Russian armed forces, "Segodnya" reported on 30 May, citing Vladimir Kulakov, the head of the army's Main Department for Educational Work. Suicides alone account for some 40 deaths a month, while accidents, hazing, and killings by fellow soldiers also claim many lives. According to former Duma Defense Committee Chairman Lev Rokhlin, there were 1,534 non-combat deaths (including 614 suicides) in the armed forces last year and the first four months of this year. Rokhlin, who in 1997 founded an opposition Movement to Support the Army, plans to sue Defense Minister Igor Sergeev for alleged "crimes" committed against the armed forces while carrying out military reform, "Segodnya" reported. LB

AGRARIAN PARTY LEADER WINS HARD-FOUGHT ALTAI ELECTION

Mikhail Lapshin, the leader of the Agrarian Party of Russia, won the 31 May by-election in Altai Republic for a seat in the State Duma with 42 percent of the vote, Russian news agencies reported. Gazprom adviser and former First Deputy Finance Minister Andrei Vavilov fell just short of victory, winning 40 percent, despite having spent far more money during the campaign and enjoying the support of the republican authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 and 29 May 1998). The Altai race was a bruising battle in which the leading candidates accused each other of violating campaign regulations and, during the final days before the election, sought to have the other's name struck from the ballot. On 29 May, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Lapshin against the Central Electoral Commission, which ignored Lapshin's complaints concerning the Altai electoral commission's refusal to revoke Vavilov's registration as a candidate. LB

CHERNOMYRDIN ALLY WINS DUMA SEAT IN CHUKOTKA

Vladimir Babichev, the former head of the government apparatus and a close ally of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, won the 31 May by-election for a Duma seat from Chukotka Autonomous Okrug with some 57 percent of the vote, ITAR-TASS reported on 1 June. Babichev's nearest rival, independent candidate Vladimir Yetylin, gained 21 percent. Babichev has been a key organizational figure in Chernomyrdin's movement, Our Home Is Russia (NDR), since its creation in May 1995. He chairs the NDR's executive council and is first deputy chairman of the movement's political council. "Russkii telegraf" speculated on 30 May that if elected to the Duma, Babichev would replace Aleksandr Shokhin as head of the NDR Duma faction. Chernomyrdin has not yet announced whether he will run for a Duma seat this year or wait until the 1999 parliamentary elections. LB

STEPASHIN DISCUSSES MAKHACHKALA DISTURBANCES WITH KHACHILAEV...

Meeting with Union of Muslims of Russia Chairman Nadirshakh Khachilaev on 31 May, Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin urged the Russian State Duma to form a commission to investigate the causes of the shootings and subsequent storm of the government building in Makhachkala by Khachilaev's supporters on 21 May, Russian agencies reported. Stepashin told journalists that he and Khachilaev agreed there is no truth to Russian allegations of Chechen involvement in the unrest. Khachilaev expressed approval of Russia's response to the incident. Meanwhile, Dagestani State Council Chairman Magomed-Ali Magomadov has called on movements representing the various ethnic groups in Dagestan either to disband voluntarily or to agree to holding a republic- wide referendum on their dissolution, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 30 May. LF

...ANNOUNCES OPERATION TO LIBERATE VLASOV

Stepashin also said that Russian and Chechen Interior Ministry forces will launch a joint operation in the next few days to secure the release of Valentin Vlasov, the Russian presidential envoy to Chechnya abducted on 1 May. Senior Ukrainian government official Nikolai Brichko, who was in Chechnya to conclude agreements on rebuilding work, has also been abducted in Chechnya, Interfax reported on 29 May. LF




GEORGIAN, ABKHAZ PRESIDENTS PLEDGE TO IMPLEMENT CEASE-FIRE PROTOCOL

In a telephone conversation on 29 May, Eduard Shevardnadze and Vladislav Ardzinba affirmed their shared commitment to preventing another large-scale conflict in Abkhazia's Gali Raion, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. Ardzinba also agreed to allow Georgian women and children who fled during the 19-25 May fighting to return to their homes but said the men should be screened to prevent those who took part in the fighting from returning. Ardzinba demanded that Tbilisi halt the activities of guerrilla units on Abkhaz territory and that both guerrilla organizations and the so-called Abkhaz parliament in exile (composed of Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in 1991) be disbanded. The chairman of that body, Tamaz Nadareishvili, announced his resignation on 29 May, saying he still believes that Tbilisi can only regain control over Abkhazia by force, according to Caucasus Press. LF

GEORGIA CONDEMNS ABKHAZ STATE OF EMERGENCY

The Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 29 May saying the state of emergency imposed by Ardzinba in Gali and parts of two neighboring raions two days earlier is a violation of the Georgian Constitution, Caucasus Press reported. The statement said the state of emergency could hinder the implementation of the 25 May agreement on a cease-fire and the return of Georgian fugitives to their homes. In addition, the ministry rejected Ardzinba's claims that Ukrainian mercenaries participated in the recent fighting alongside Georgian guerrillas, according to ITAR- TASS. Also on 29 May, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov told Interfax that Russia opposes any peace-enforcement operation in Gali Raion. Pastukhov rejected charges that Russian peacekeepers supplied Abkhaz Interior Ministry troops with the heavy artillery they used during the fighting. LF

ABKHAZ DENY TAKING HOSTAGES

Abkhaz officials on 31 May denied Georgian media reports that four Georgians seeking to return to their homes in a Gali village had been taken hostage, according to ITAR-TASS. Caucasus Press reported on 29 May that Abkhaz fighters were looting abandoned Georgian homes in the villages of Tagiloni and Nabakevi. A Georgian Interior Ministry official told Interfax the next day that police in three western Georgian raions have been placed on alert and security precautions intensified at the oil terminal under construction in Supsa. LF

SOUTH OSSETIAN DEPUTY PREMIER ASSASSINATED

Valerii Khubulov was shot dead in his car by unidentified assailants in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz, on 31 May, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. A Russian businessman accompanying Khubulov was also killed. LF

ARMENIA WELCOMES FRENCH PARLIAMENT VOTE ON GENOCIDE...

In a 29 May statement, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian expressed his thanks to French politicians and the French parliament for their unanimous vote to recognize the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The statement said the open discussion of the genocide within the framework of Armenian-Turkish relations could have a positive impact on establishing mutual trust between the two peoples as well as on security and stability in the region. LF

...WHILE AZERBAIJAN, TURKEY CONDEMN IT

The following day, the Azerbaijan Popular Front condemned the vote as an act aimed at the entire Turkish world. The front called for France to be stripped of its co-chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group which is mediating a settlement of the Karabakh conflict, Turan reported. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem condemned the resolution as "an attempt to destroy Turkish-French friendship," according to the "Turkish Daily News" of 30 May. LF

UTO THREATENS TO WALK OUT OF TAJIK PEACE PROCESS

United Tajik Opposition (UTO) leader Said Abdullo Nuri on 30 May announced that his group may cease participating in the Tajik peace process, RFE/RL correspondents reported. Nuri's statement comes one week after the parliament refused to endorse the candidacies of opposition representatives Khoja Akbar Turajonzoda for first deputy prime minister and Davlat Usmon as economics minister and adopted a law banning religious political parties. Nuri raised the issue with the visiting head of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, saying the parliament's actions are the biggest obstacle to peace and stability in Tajikistan. The previous day, Nuri received some unexpected help from Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Valerii Nesterushkin, who said in Moscow that the ban on parties presumes those formations' activities will be unconstitutional, Interfax reported. He also noted that the prohibition may "complicate" the situation in Tajikistan. BP

KUMTOR HEADS VISIT TO DISASTER SITE

The heads of the Kumtor gold mining project on 29 May visited residents of the area in which one of the company's trucks overturned and spilled nearly two tons of cyanide into the water supply, RFE/RL correspondents reported. Dastan Sarygulov and Gerhardt Glattis said the company will pay for all medical costs of the more than 1,000 people affected by the spill and will install a water system to villages on the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. The residents have demanded that there be no further shipments of sodium cyanide along the lake's southern road. ITAR-TASS reported on 29 May that on the lake's northern shore, where tourist facilities are located, more than half the reservations for the summer season have been canceled following reports of cyanide in Issyk-Kul. BP




IMF SAYS BELARUS'S ECONOMIC POLICY UNSTABLE, UNSUSTAINABLE

Richard Haas, head of the IMF permanent office in Belarus (which is to be closed later this month), said in Minsk on 29 May that the economic policy of the Belarusian leadership is "unstable and unsustainable," Belapan reported. Commenting on the visit of an IMF group to Belarus earlier in May, Haas said IMF experts are concerned about tight state control over prices and currency-exchange rates, an ever-increasing number of barter deals, and the large volume of state credits and subsidies. They are also worried about a draft presidential decree stipulating the subordination of the National Bank to the government. While commenting on the National Bank Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich's pledge to liberalize exchange controls by the end of this year, Haas said that the IMF's aim is "not to finance the status quo but to finance transformation," Reuters reported. JM

KUCHMA SAYS CONSULTATIONS WITH BONN "OUTSTANDING EVENT"

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has hailed the political consultations between Ukraine and Germany, which were launched by his 28 May meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Bonn, as an "outstanding event in the history of relations of the two countries," Ukrainian Television reported. He added that Ukraine counts on German support in its aspirations toward European integration. Kohl, for his part, advised that Ukrainian ties with the EU and NATO should not be too hastily developed. "I am strictly against naming concrete dates," dpa quoted the German chancellor as saying. But he was more upbeat about the prospects of building a large German-Ukrainian-Russian transport aircraft, based on the Russian-Ukrainian An-70 aircraft, saying the decision will be taken next year following a feasibility study by aviation experts. JM

UKRAINE, GAZPROM SET UP OIL, GAS EXPLORATION COMPANY

Ukraine's Chornomornaftohaz oil and gas company on 29 May signed a deal with the Russian monopoly Gazprom on creating a joint venture to prospect for oil and gas deposits in the Black and Azov Seas, ITAR- TASS reported. According to the Chornomornaftohaz director Mikolay Ilnitskyy, those deposits are estimated at 1.5 billion tons and may be tapped by the new joint venture "in a year or two." The deal provides for the equal role of the two companies in the undertaking and the joint use of gas fields around Crimea. JM

ESTONIAN POLITICAL LEADER TO FACE EMBEZZLEMENT CHARGE?

The Prosecutor-General's Office on 29 May appealed to the chancellor of justice to launch proceedings to lift the parliamentary immunity of Reform Party chairman Siim Kallas, ETA reported The investigators want to charge Kallas, who is a former president of the Bank of Estonia, with abuse of office, giving false information, and intent to embezzlement. The charges are in connection with the five-year-old $10 million affair in which the central bank issued a guarantee to the former North Estonian Bank following the collapse of a deal with a Swiss-based company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 May 1998). Investigators have reportedly found a document signed by Kallas granting a guarantee to the North Estonian Bank. Kallas has admitted the deal was "bad" but regards the central bank's action as justified. JC

SAIMNIEKS WANTS CEVERS TO CONTINUE AS CHAIRMAN

The board of Latvia's Democratic Party Saimnieks has said Ziedonis Cevers must continue as party chairman at least until the general elections scheduled for this fall, BNS reported on 29 May. Saimnieks caucus leader Viesturs Boka argued that the party has become more open and that Cevers should take "this period of awakening" into account. "The party's face should not be changed so that it fails to recognize itself in a mirror," he added. Last month, Cevers told reporters that he planned to quit as party chairman over political intrigues connected with his name. He also complained of having no opportunity to speak openly about opponents while he heads the party. JC

ETHNIC RUSSIAN CHARGED WITH SOVIET-ERA GENOCIDE IN LITHUANIA

The Vilnius District Prosecutor's Office has charged an ethnic Russian with genocide of Lithuanian nationals during the Soviet occupation, BNS reported on 29 May. Agafon Surinin, 77, is accused of deporting three families from Lithuania to the Soviet Union and torturing a woman during interrogation. Surinin was charged in absentia as doctors say he is not well enough to be interrogated. Last week, the parliament voted to declare mass deportations from Lithuania to the USSR a "grave war crime" to which no statute of limitation applies, according to the news agency. JC

POLAND'S ADMINISTRATIVE REFORM PROMPTS ROADBLOCKS

Local communities in Poland's five provinces blocked roads on 30-31 May to protest the state administrative reform under way in the country, Polish media reported. According to that reform, Poland's 49 provinces are to be replaced by 12 larger regions vested with greater powers than their predecessors. Michal Kulesza, the government plenipotentiary for administrative reform, criticized the roadblocks, saying they defended interests that had existed until now as well as "centralist principles of exercising power," Polish Television reported. JM

LEFTIST TRADE UNION DEMANDS TALKS WITH GOVERNMENT

A congress of the left-wing National Trade Union Alliance (OPZZ) in Warsaw on 29-31 May called for the government to hold a trilateral meeting with the OPZZ and Solidarity devoted to work out a "pact for the Polish family," "Zycie Warszawy" reported. Jozef Wiaderny, who was re-elected OPZZ chairman at the congress, said the pact should be a "mutual obligation assumed by the government and its social partners to ensure a non- conflicting course of state administrative reforms." The OPZZ is to step up its protests if the government fails to meet its demands. The alliance is highly critical of the current administrative reform as well as of privatization and has accused the government of favoring Solidarity in its contacts with trade unions. JM

HAVEL WARNS AGAINST VOTE FOR EXTREMIST PARTIES

Czech President Vaclav Havel, speaking on state radio on 30 May, warned voters not to cast their ballot for extremist parties in the 19-20 June elections, CTK reported. Havel said that people opting for parties that advocate policies of a "firm hand" would eventually regret their choice as such a government would "sooner or later turn against those who voted for it." Havel criticized mainstream parties for failing to gain sufficient respect among voters to prevent the rise of extremist formations. In other news, a public opinion poll conducted by the STEM institute shows that the main opposition Social Democratic Party's (CSSD) lead has shrunk to only 5 percent. The CSSD is backed by 24 percent, while former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party is backed by 19 percent. MS

SLOVAK PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT FAILS AGAIN

The parliament on 29 May again failed to elect a president, Reuters reported. The only candidate in the seventh round of voting was the independent Vladimir Abraham, who had been proposed by an independent parliamentary deputy. He received just 11 votes, 79 short of the minimum majority required by the constitution. Parliamentary chairman Ivan Gasparovic has set the next ballot for 11 June, Reuters reported. Also on 29 May, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, in a telephone conversation with Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima, rejected the appeal to postpone the startup of the controversial Mochovce nuclear plant, Reuters reported, citing TASR. MS

COALITION TALKS BEGIN IN HUNGARY

The Federation of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ-MPP) on 29 May offered the post of justice minister and a deputy premiership to its election ally, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), MTI reported. MDF deputy parliamentary faction leader David Ibolya said his party is "satisfied" with the offer. The same day, the Independent Smallholders re- elected Joszef Torgyan as their chairman. Also on 29 May, the Socialist Party elected outgoing Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs as its faction leader. On 30 May the leader of the Hungarian Democratic People's Party, Ivan Szabo, resigned following his party's failure to gain representation in the parliament. MS




DJUKANOVIC WINS IN MONTENEGRO

For a Better Life, the coalition loyal to reformist President Milo Djukanovic, has won an outright majority in the 31 May election to the Montenegrin parliament and to local assemblies. With 72 percent of the votes tallied, candidates loyal to former President Momir Bulatovic, who backs Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, have some 35 percent of the vote. Final results are to be announced on 2 June. A spokesman for Bulatovic conceded defeat in Podgorica on 1 June. Djukanovic supporters in the Montenegrin parliament will be able to change the composition of the Montenegrin delegation in the upper house of the federal parliament in Belgrade and thereby affect the balance of power between supporters and opponents of Milosevic there. PM

ANOTHER SERBIAN OFFENSIVE UNDER WAY IN KOSOVA

Serbian forces launched a fresh offensive in the Peja and Decan areas on 29 May, the Kosovar KIC news agency reported from Prishtina on 31 May. The semi- official Serbian Media Center added that the police killed "several dozen ethnic Albanians in response to an attack by armed separatists" over the weekend. According to KIC, Serbian police are holding 200 Albanians captive at one location in Decan and 70 at another. Some 3,000 refugees from Decan arrived in Lipjan. There is no independent confirmation of these and other reports of fighting because the Serbian authorities have kept almost all foreign journalists out of the combat area for nearly a month. Some telephone lines in the region "were cut" in recent days, the VOA reported on 1 June. The same day in Tirana, Interior Ministry spokesmen said some 1,000 Kosovar refugees have arrived in Albania over the past 24 hours. PM

RUGOVA GETS BACKING FROM CLINTON...

Meeting in Washington on 29 May, President Bill Clinton praised Kosovar shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova and other top Kosovar officials for their commitment to non- violence. Veton Surroi, who is Kosova's leading journalist and a member of Rugova's negotiating team, said after the meeting: "the overall general assurance, I think, the umbrella assurance is that Bosnia will not be repeated." Clinton's press spokesman noted that Clinton expressed concern that Belgrade is "resorting to large-scale indiscriminate violence in western Kosova" and that Clinton expects a "swift and firm response" from the international Contact Group to the Serbian offensive. Rugova told reporters that he urged Clinton to take "urgent action" to protect the Kosovars. PM

...AND ALBRIGHT

The Kosovars on 30 May received promises of political backing from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Albright's press spokesman said she "offered full U.S. support for the dialogue process and emphasized that it must deal urgently with substantive issues." He added that the Kosovars told her "that they are prepared to hold the dialogue on a continuous basis given the critical security situation on the ground." Surroi, however, said the Kosovars want an improvement in the security situation before talks can continue. Elsewhere, USAID Director Brian Atwood said Washington will increase assistance to Kosova this year from $7.5 million to $13.5 million. PM

GINGRICH PRAISES U.S. MISSION IN BOSNIA

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said at the U.S. Bosnian base at Camp McGovern on 31 May that "the American mission here is very, very important, and I talked to people who see differences between violence and that what is now happening.... We have to be prepared to do here what we can for children to have a chance to grow up in peace, to get a chance to get a job and peaceful lives." Gingrich stressed, however, that the Bosnians themselves must shape their own future and that getting them to do so "is a big challenge." Meanwhile in Banja Luka, Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic told her Serbian People's League on 30 May that she has opted to return the Bosnian Serbs "to the normal, civilized world but without abandoning national goals," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

SARAJEVO SERBS URGE EQUALITY

The convention of the Serbian Civic Council (SGV), which represents Bosnian Serbs who remained loyal to the Bosnian government throughout the war, reelected Mirko Pejanovic as chairman in Sarajevo on 30 May. The delegates passed a measure calling for the establishment of full legal equality of Muslims, Croats, and Serbs throughout all of Bosnia- Herzegovina as a prerequisite to solving key problems, including the return of refugees. PM

THUGS THREATEN JOURNALISTS

In Sarajevo on 30 May, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights issued a statement condemning a verbal attack by former military police commander Ismet Bajramovic, also known as "Celo," against the staff of the independent bi-monthly "Dani." The previous day, Celo and four of his body guards threatened physical violence against the journalists, whose magazine recently published an article on organized crime. The Helsinki Group said that "responsibility for the prevalence of this sort of anarchy should be shouldered by the centers of the highest political power.... [It is the top leadership's] fault that people from the margins of society have been promoted into heroes and have been allowed to become rich and powerful and out of reach of justice." PM

ALBANIAN ARMY OFFICERS DETAINED OVER ARMS THEFT

A Tirana military court on 29 May ordered the continued detention pending trial of two officers whom it suspects of involvement in the recent theft of 100 mortar shells and 1,000 artillery shells (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 28 May 1998). The court charged two other officers with negligence but did not order their arrest. The depot in Shkoze, north of Tirana, was not guarded when unknown thieves stole the ammunition. Arms prices on the black market have skyrocketed since the outbreak of fighting in Kosova in February. Meanwhile, the Forum of Albanian Intellectuals said in a resolution in Tirana on 30 May that NATO should deploy troops in Kosova. FS

SCHOOL CHILDREN CLEAN UP TIRANA

Thousands of pupils from 70 schools on 29 May followed the call of Prime Minister Fatos Nano and the OSCE to clean up their neighborhoods. The children collected 10,000 bags of garbage, for each of which the OSCE will donate $2 for the purchase of school supplies. Garbage is a serious problem in Tirana and elsewhere in Albania, reflecting both the boom in urbanization since the fall of Communism and a lack of civic consciousness. FS

ROMANIA'S ETHNIC HUNGARIANS DEMAND UNIVERSITY IN CLUJ

Bela Marko, chairman of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), announced on 30 May that the UDMR will submit to the parliament by 15 June a draft law for setting up a separate Hungarian-language university in Cluj. Marko said that the UDMR will "cease cooperation" with the other coalition partners if government regulations nos. 22 and 36 are not amended to the satisfaction of the Hungarian minority. Regulation 22, which allows for street signs in minority languages, has been rejected by the Senate and the Constitutional Court ruled that it contravened the basic law. Regulation 36 changed the education law to satisfy Hungarian demands but was amended by the Senate. Meanwhile, on 31 May, Prime Minister Radu Vasile said he will invite Viktor Orban, the likely future Hungarian premier, to pay a visit to Romania. MS

ROMANIAN OPPOSITION PARTY SETS UP 'SHADOW CABINET'

The Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) on 29 May announced it will to set up a 10-member "shadow cabinet" to monitor the activities of the government. The cabinet is to be headed by PDSR deputy chairman Adrian Nastase. In a letter to President Emil Constantinescu, the PDSR demanded early elections. Also on 29 May, in an interview with Pro TV, Premier Vasile complained that he is being undermined by members of the ruling coalition and of his own party who, he said, are "set on demonstrating that this cabinet will have the same fate as that headed by [Victor] Ciorbea," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. MS

BULGARIA, RUSSIA 'SATISFIED' WITH RELATIONS

Foreign Ministers Nadezhda Mihailova and Yevgenii Primakov, meeting in Luxembourg on 29 May, said they are now "satisfied" that bilateral relations have improved after the signing in April of the agreement on Russian gas deliveries to Bulgaria. They added that preparations are now under way for "speeding up" the visit to Moscow by President Petar Stoyanov. The two countries' premiers are also to meet. Primakov said Russia "fully shares" Bulgaria's position that "economic sanctions" over Kosova "can only have an adverse effect on the economies of Yugoslavia's neighbors" and are "a dubious instrument" for pressure on Belgrade. In other news, Deputy Industry Minister Stefan Stavrev and his Ukrainian counterpart, Valeriy Subarev, meeting in Plodviv on 29 May, agreed on closer cooperation between the two countries' arms industries in order to produce new equipment and sell it to third countries, dpa reported. MS

BULGARIA'S ROMA THREATEN 'HUMAN TORCH' PROTEST

Members of the Romani community in the northern town of Lom are threatening to set themselves on fire to draw attention to their plight as victims of discrimination and racist abuse, AFP reported on 30 May. They have been on a hunger strike since 25 May to protest the refusal of state firms to employ Roma and media coverage that ignores the Roma's problems and focuses on criminal activities among the Romani community. The protest is also directed against the Lom local authorities, which has not paid them welfare benefits since the beginning of 1998. Andrei Terziyski of the Romani Union estimated that 92 percent of Roma in Bulgarian towns are unemployed and that 90 percent of inmates in the country's jails are Roma. MS




WHY "WAG THE DOG" SHOULD NOT BE SHOWN IN ALBANIA


by Fabian Schmidt

Months after the movie "Wag the Dog" reached cinemas in the U.S. and much of Europe, it has not yet arrived here in Albania, which plays a pivotal role in the movie. But it would probably be for the best if the film never played in Albanian movie theaters.

First, the movie would create unnecessary misgivings among Albanians about U.S.-Albanian relations. Many Albanians would have to recognize how insignificant their country looks from a U.S. perspective, and their patriotic feelings could be greatly hurt in the process. A few years ago, there was a heated debate about whether Gianni Amelio's movie "Lamerica"--which depicted the exodus of thousands of Albanians by sea -- presented Albania in an excessively ugly light. That, however, could prove to be only a foretaste of reactions to "Wag the Dog."

The movie is not about Albania, but about the White House. It begins with a female student claiming sexual harassment by a fictitious U.S. president just days before an election. The presidential advisers quickly conclude that the only way to detract media attention from the scandal is to start a war. Consequently, the president's public relations consultant (Robert DeNiro) hires a Hollywood movie producer (Dustin Hoffman) to start an imaginary war against Albania, but just for the television screens.

The character played by DeNiro offers a simple and clear argument for choosing Albania: "Why not?" He points out that Albania is the ideal candidate because nobody knows anything about it and nobody would notice that the war was purely a Hollywood production. This indifference and ignorance regarding Albania crop up throughout the movie. The only picture of Albania is as much a product of the imagination as the war itself: A young girl running over a bridge, holding a kitten and crying from fear, as houses burn and machine guns fire around her.

That scene is produced in a video studio from several components, none of which is real. The girl is neither Albanian nor holding a kitten. In reality, she carries a bag of potato chips. Her folk costume looks more Russian or Polish than Balkan. And her hysterical crying against the background of three Balkan-style houses, an unpaved road in between, and the bridge are as much computer simulation as are the smoke and machine gun fire. But the result is surprisingly realistic.

In another scene, the president returns from a visit abroad to a rainy U.S. airport and meets a supposedly Albanian refugee girl and her mother. In a carefully planned gesture, he offers his raincoat to them, just as George Bush did to an elderly lady during a visit to Budapest after the fall of Communism. The girl says something in a garbled language that is certainly not Albanian.

The only scene in the whole movie in which the Albanian language is spoken--albeit only three words--is a television interview with the Albanian-U.S. actor Jim Belushi. Furthermore, the media picture of Albania that has little, if anything, to do with reality is completed by several stereotypes, including a group of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists trying to smuggle a small nuclear bomb into the U.S. from Albania via Canada.

The second reason why the movie should not be shown in Albania is that some Albanian viewers may start believing that the film reflects U.S. reality. Many may come to think that successful media manipulation is what democracy is all about, which would seriously endanger the fragile sense of democracy that has developed since the fall of Communism in 1991. Also, many Albanians may develop a variety of conspiracy theories about U.S. policy toward Albania and thus may mistakenly conclude that Albania really is a key factor in U.S. politics. A favorite subject of endless and fruitless debates in Tirana coffee houses is how competition between the EU and the U.S. is reflected in their respective policies toward Albania. "Wag the Dog" would add ample fuel to numerous conspiracy theories on this and similar questions.

While some may only mistake the movie as reality, others may want to make it reality, which leads to the third reason why it should not be shown here. The biggest danger is that politicians, journalists, and influential media representatives in Tirana may be tempted to take a cue from the movie. In a U.S. context, it is unthinkable that the film's scenario could actually become reality. CNN's Christiane Amanpour would quickly land in Tirana to see what is actually going on.

But in Albania's still developing media landscape, mingling fact with fantasy has a much greater chance of succeeding. Journalism and politics in Tirana are closely interconnected, and journalistic standards generally remain low, with much speculation and few hard facts dominating coverage. Over the centuries, Albanians have developed a highly sophisticated, Byzantine cynicism about politics. With computer-video technology currently coming to Albania, journalists and politicians in the country may soon be able to "wag the dog" much better than Hollywood, helped by the lack of ambitious, investigative reporters.

But in the last analysis, the danger that "Wag the Dog" will come to Albania is rather remote. Out of Tirana's eight former cinemas, only one has survived post-communist privatization. Most of the others have been turned into bingo parlors, which are more lucrative. The only remaining cinema shows almost exclusively pornographic and children's films. The author is Tirana Project director of the Institute for Journalism in Transition.


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