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Newsline - August 7, 1998




RUSSIA TO BORROW MORE ON FOREIGN MARKETS

The Russian government on 6 August announced that it will borrow up to $3 billion abroad before the end of 1998, increasing its annual hard-currency borrowing limit by almost one-quarter, Russian news agencies reported. According to Bloomberg, the Ministry of Finance said that it will still issue only $2 billion worth of Eurobonds but that other forms of foreign borrowing will increase (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 1998). Only last week, Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov said the government would not consider new foreign borrowing until the end of October. However, Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko said on 6 August that Russia's total amount of borrowing will not increase because the government will reduce the amount it borrows domestically. JAC

WORLD BANK LOAN APPROVED

The board of directors of the World Bank approved a $1.5 billion loan to Russia on 6 August. Russia will receive the first installment, worth $300 million, on 10 August. The Bank will release another $500 million by the end of this year and the remainder in 1999. The loan is the largest that the World Bank has ever extended in Europe or Central Asia, and its adjustable interest rate of 5.9 percent is consequently somewhat higher than usual. The World Bank pledged $4 billion as part of the IMF-led $22.6 billion package. JAC

SABOTAGE BY CENTRAL BANK?

"Nezavisimaya Gazeta" on 6 August charged Central Bank chief Sergei Dubinin with paralyzing the Russian government for an entire day on 20 July. According to the daily, the Central Bank froze the Finance Ministry's 8.7 billion ruble ($1.4 billion) account, leaving the Russian government unable to fulfill any of its financial obligations for one week. "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" sketches out different scenarios to explain the Central Bank's action. It suggests that Dubinin may have speculated with the Finance Ministry's money and bought short-term Treasury notes or that the Central Bank may have needed money to pay off its own promissory notes. However, the daily believes that Dubinin's motives were primarily "political" or personal. Not all the Central Bank's past transactions have been "perfectly legal," the newspaper noted. Moreover, it continued, Dubinin wanted to bring down the Kirienko government and trigger an economic crisis before the bank's action was discovered. Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group is a financial backer of "Nezavisimaya Gazeta." JAC

LABOR ACTION FORESTALLED...

Russian air traffic controllers have canceled their strike scheduled for 9 August after the government pledged to pay back wages, ITAR-TASS reported. Federal Aviation Service director Gennadii Zaitsev told a press conference on 6 August that five large airline companies, including Transaero and Aeroflot, will contribute 30 million rubles ($4.8 million). According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 6 August, the air traffic controllers union has scored a number of successes with the government, winning wage increases several times over the past three years. JAC

...WHILE OTHERS END, BEGIN

According to ITAR-TASS on 7 August, coal miners in the town of Partizansk in the Far East have ended a hunger strike in response to a promise of assistance from the coal mine's management. The hunger strike was launched on 28 July. And in Khabarovsk Oblast, 20 gold miners who had stayed underground for seven months to protest unpaid wages reemerged on 6 August after receiving wages for one year. Meanwhile, the union of railroad workers in Moscow called a strike for midnight of 7 August to protest a proposed change in the system of wages. According to ITAR-TASS, railroad traffic so far has been unaffected, in part because railway management considers the action unlawful. Warning of the strike was given only six hours in advance. By law, at least 10 days' notice are required. JAC

SHELL UNINTERESTED IN GAZPROM, ROSNEFT

Royal Dutch Shell is unlikely to enter a bid for either Gazprom or Rosneft, AFP reported on 6 August. Shell Managing Director Jeroen van den Veer said that despite the company's interest in Russia, conditions there are still too unstable. Shell's rejection follows earlier reports that Gazprom Chairman Rem Vyakhirev wanted Shell--and only Shell--to purchase the soon-to-be-available 5.87 percent stake (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 1998). Bloomberg reported on 6 August that to win the tender for Gazprom, bidders will have to promise not to sell the stake for a stipulated period. JAC

GOVERNMENT SAYS ALL IS WELL WITH GAZPROM

After visiting Gazprom headquarters on 6 August, Prime Minister Kirienko and Vyakhirev issued statements of mutual support. According to Interfax, Kirienko pledged assistance for all the company's export projects, singling out Gazprom's Bluestream project to construct an underwater pipeline across the Black Sea to supply Turkey. The project faces stiff competition from a variety of other proposed gas export projects. The U.S. government, for example, has funded a feasibility study for an underwater gas pipeline across the Caspian that would provide an outlet for Turkmen gas bypassing Russia. JAC

RUSSIAN PRISONERS TO BE OFFERED AMNESTY

According to "Vremya MN" on 6 August, one-third of all Russians currently incarcerated may be offered their freedom by the end of the year. Speaking at conference in Krasnoyarsk, Minister of Justice Pavel Krasheninnikov said that in September he would submit to the State Duma legislation offering amnesty to prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses. The amnesty would be only the first step in a larger judicial reform intended to substitute fines and other financial penalties for jail sentences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 August 1998). JAC

NEW TB STRAIN FOUND IN RUSSIAN PRISONS

Doctors have discovered a new incurable form of tuberculosis in Russia, which is concentrated primarily among prison inmates, Interfax reported on 6 August. Medicins sans Frontieres, Medical Emergency Relief International, and the Public Health Institute of New York have sent a joint letter to President Boris Yeltsin warning that Russia has become "an international incubator of a new lethal illness." The new strain of the disease resulted from Russian doctors' "non- standard" use of antibiotics. Of the 15,000 to 20,000 Russians with drug-resistant TB, two-thirds are in prison. JAC

KRASNOYARSK, KHAKASIYA TO CREATE UNITED LEBED REPUBLIC?

The Republic of Khakasiya, which split from Krasnoyarsk Krai in 1992 in the hope of receiving larger subsidies from the federal center as a separate subject of the Russian Federation, now wants that decision reversed, according to "Tribuna" of 7 August. The governors of the two regions, brothers Aleksei and Aleksandr Lebed, are reportedly holding talks on a series of economic agreements intended to improve economic conditions in Khakasiya. LF

GAZPROM TIGHTENS SCREWS ON TATARSTAN

A delegation from Gazprom subsidiary Mezhregiongaz met with Tatarstan's Prime Minister Rustan Minnikhanov in Kazan on 6 August to discuss repayment of Tatarstan's estimated 3.5 billion ruble ($553 million) gas debts, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. Gazprom halved deliveries of natural gas to Tatarstan in early June, prompting Tatarstan's government to cancel gas deliveries to debtor industrial enterprises and to preserve the gas deliveries to private citizens. Mezhregiongaz is now insisting that 30 percent of past and current debts be paid in cash, rather than with promissory notes or by barter agreement. LF




ARMENIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL MURDERED

Henrik Khachatrian was shot dead in his office on 6 August by senior prosecutor Aram Karapetian, who then committed suicide. The motives for the killing are unknown. A former member of the Armenian Constitutional Court, Khachatrian was appointed prosecutor-general in May 1997 by then President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Speaking on national television on 6 August, President Robert Kocharian praised Khachatrian for his honesty and professionalism as well as for his efforts to establish the rule of law in Armenia, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT SIGNS DECREE ABOLISHING CENSORSHIP

As announced by one of his advisers last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 July 1998), Heidar Aliyev has signed a decree officially abolishing censorship in Azerbaijan. But at the same time, Aliyev called for the creation of an alternative body to protect state secrets, Reuters reported on 6 August. Presidential administration official Ali Hasanov told Azerbaijani Television that the move to abolish censorship was not connected with the upcoming presidential elections. LF

OPPOSITION LEADER CONDEMNS ALIEV'S ELECTION MOVE

Former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev has told RFE/RL's Baku bureau that President Aliev's 5 August appeal to three opposition politicians to drop their proposed boycott of the presidential poll was intended to split the opposition ranks. Guliev was one of two other opposition leaders who have likewise declared their intention not to participate in the election unless their demands for liberalization are met. Guliev said that the "five" will continue to act in unison, and he condemned what he termed an attempt by Aliyev to drive a wedge between them. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW STATE MINISTER

Meeting in an emergency session on 7 August, the Georgian parliament voted by 122 votes to two to approve the candidacy of former ambassador to Russia, Vazha Lortkipanidze, as minister of state, an RFE/RL correspondent in Tbilisi reported. Lortkipanidze told lawmakers that he will pursue a European-oriented foreign policy, adding that this does not preclude improving relations with Russia, which, he said, also aspires to closer integration into the European community. He argued that there is no alternative to continuing economic reforms but hinted that he might condone some protective measures to help local producers. The Socialist, Labor, and Popular factions had earlier announced that they will abstain from voting. Following the resignation of almost the entire cabinet last week, the former ministers of communications, industry, education, foreign economic relations, justice, and state property have not been renominated to those positions. LF

GEORGIA, RUSSIA, ABKHAZIA FORM ANTI-TERRORIST FORCE

Meeting in western Georgia on 7 August, Georgian and Abkhaz representatives and the commander-in-chief of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under CIS auspices in Abkhazia agreed to create a joint force to investigate terrorist attacks against the Russian peacekeepers, Caucasus Press reported. More than 60 members of that force have fallen victim to terrorist attacks over the past four years. LF

SUSPECTED MURDERER OF UN OFFICIAL ARRESTED IN TBILISI

Georgian police on 6 August arrested 20-year-old Zurab Bregvadze on suspicion of the 14 July shooting of a Polish woman employed by the UN mission in Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

TALIBAN SUCCESS WORRIES RUSSIAN BORDER GUARD COMMANDER

The commander of Russia's Border Guard Service, Colonel-General Nikolai Bordyuzha, told journalists in Moscow on 6 August that he is worried that forces of Afghanistan's Taliban movement may soon advance to the border of Tajikistan, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. Bordyuzha said border guards in Tajikistan have already taken measures to secure the border with Afghanistan in the event that Taliban forces reach that frontier. Bordyuzha also said preparations are being made for the possible arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting in northern Afghanistan. BP

KAZAKH CENTRAL BANK CHIEF ON ECONOMIC PROSPECTS

The chairman of Kazakhstan's National Bank, Kadyrjon Damitov, told a press conference in Almaty on 6 August that inflation in the country will stand at 8 percent by year's end, Interfax reported. Damitov said in the first half of 1998, inflation dropped by 3.1 percent, compared with the same period in 1997, and totaled 3.6 percent. Damitov predicted that GDP will increase by 1.5 percent, well short of the planned 3 percent growth. He said the Financial Ministry's debt has grown by more 50 percent, compared with the same period last year, to reach 34.8 billion tenge (some $500 million). However, Damitov said he does not expect the tenge to drop significantly in value against the dollar in 1998, noting that in the first half of this year it lost only 1.73 percent of its value. BP




BELARUS, GAZPROM REACH AGREEMENT ON DEBT...

Meeting in Minsk on 6 August, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Gazprom chairman Rem Vyakhirev reached an agreement on Belarus's repayment of a $250 million debt to the Russian gas company, Belapan and Interfax reported. "Today we agreed on all points," Vyakhirev commented, but he refused to provide details, saying only that Belarus will pay in cash for gas supplies at the same prices as Russian customers. He also denied that the agreement with Belarus amounted to a barter arrangement. Citing unidentified sources, Interfax reported that Lukashenka asked Gazprom to supply 17 billion cubic meters of gas this year and 18 billion cubic meters in 1999. The president is also reported to have insisted that the state bonds with which Belarus intends to repay some one-third of its gas debt should not be sold to other parties until Belarus buys them back. JM

...WHILE LUKASHENKA BLAMES RUSSIA FOR REPAYMENT PROBLEM

The Belarusian president said after meeting with Vyakhirev that Belarus would not have had the "most painful" problem of paying its debt to Gazprom if Russia had paid in cash for supplies of Belarusian goods, Belapan reported. Lukashenka hinted that Belarus and Russia should "make operational" a system of mutual debt payments instead of barter deals, which are currently the main means of paying for Russian gas. "We still cannot agree with the Russian government and the Russian president on supplies of our goods, which are necessary for Russia, not only to Gazprom," Lukashenka said. JM

UKRAINE TOUGHENS BORDER ZONE REGIME FOR FOREIGNERS

In a bid to clamp down on illegal immigration via Ukraine, the government has introduced new restrictions on foreigners staying in Ukraine's border zone, Ukrainian Television reported on 6 August. In addition to valid passports and visas, foreigners there must now have a document from the Interior Ministry confirming "the necessity of their stay on that territory." Pavlo Shysholin, chief of staff of the Ukrainian Border Troops, told journalists on 6 August that 11,000 border violators were detained in Ukraine in the first half of this year, including 5,000 illegal immigrants who were seeking to reach the West. Two-third of the illegal immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa arrive in Ukraine via Russia. JM

UKRAINE TO CUT CENTRAL ADMINISTRATION STAFF

Oleksandr Yakovenko, head of the personnel policy department in the presidential administration, has announced that the government administration will be cut by 100 people to a total of 600, Ukrainian Television reported on 6 August. He added that the Ukrainian president's administration will be cut by 20 percent. He provided no figures for that reduction because, according to the television station, "it is unknown how many people are working in the [presidential] administration by now." The reductions are part of an ongoing administrative reform that is to be completed in 2010. JM

UKRAINIAN PLANT THREATENS TO POISON RIVER

Workers of a chemical plant in Stebnik in Lviv Oblast have threatened to release poisonous waste into the River Dniester unless they are paid their wages for the past six months, ITAR-TASS reported on 6 August. The river passes through Lviv, Ternopil, Chernivtsi, and Odessa Oblasts, as well as neighboring Moldova. The plant's management has sent a delegation to Kyiv to obtain funds to repay wage arrears totaling 8.5 million hryvni ($4.1 million). JM

OFFICIAL SAYS LATVIAN GDP COULD FALL 2-3 PERCENT

Latvian Railroad Minister Vilis Kristopans told reporters on 6 August that the country's GDP may decrease by 2-3 percent owing to worsening relations with Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. Kristopans said budget revenues will fall because of a decrease in transit cargo and in Latvian exports to Russia. The minister, who is planning to meet with leaders of Russian transportation departments next month, said it will be difficult to discuss anything if the amendments to the citizenship law have not gone into effect by then. A campaign is currently under way in Latvia to collect signatures in support of a referendum on the amendments. JC

BUTINGE TO BE 'SAFEST' TERMINAL IN BALTIC SEA

In a letter to his Latvian counterpart, Guntis Ulmanis, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus argued that the Butinge oil terminal will be the safest installation in the Baltic Sea, BNS reported on 6 August, citing the Lithuanian presidential press service. Adamkus stressed that the terminal is being constructed using the latest technology, ensuring ecological safety. He expressed surprise at "alleged fears" that the terminal will pose a threat to the environment. Such fears are unfounded, he maintained, and reflect "unfair competition and inappropriate political lobbyism on the part of certain oil exporting and transport firms." Adamkus was replying to a letter sent by Ulmanis last month. JC

POLISH PRIMATE DEFENDS CROSS AT AUSCHWITZ

Cardinal Jozef Glemp, primate of the Polish Catholic Church, said on 6 August that the controversial cross at the former Auschwitz death camp should remain in place, PAP and Reuters reported. "The papal cross should stay. I am expressing my own views, but I feel I also express views of other bishops," he was quoted as saying. Glemp was speaking after the Polish government had said that the Catholic Church is the correct addressee for Jewish demands that the Christian symbols at Auschwitz be removed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 August 1998). JM

SUPPORT FOR POLISH COALITION DECREASES

Support for the ruling coalition parties, the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and the Freedom Union (UW), has decreased in July owing to their disputes over integration with the EU and Poland's administrative reform, Reuters reported on 6 August. A poll by Poland's Center for Studying Public Opinion showed that the AWS's approval rating dropped to 20 percent in July, down from 25 percent the previous month. Support for the UW fell by two points to 13 percent. Meanwhile, backing for the ex-communist opposition Democratic Left Alliance grew by seven points to 31 percent. JM

HAVEL'S HEALTH CONTINUES TO IMPROVE

Czech President Vaclav Havel's health continues to improve, his doctors said on 7 August. CTK quoted the head of the Czech medical team treating Havel as saying the president is now breathing on his own. Laboratory results and X-rays show his lung infection is clearing up. Havel will probably remain in hospital one week longer than the original 10-14 days forecast. Havel underwent surgery on 26 July to close a colostomy but subsequently developed breathing and heart problems. JN

SLOVAKIA REJECTS REVOKING BENES DECREES

Slovak Foreign Ministry spokesman Milan Tokar told Czech Radio on 6 August that a Czech revocation of certain decrees signed by Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes in 1945 would be unacceptable for Slovakia. The most controversial of the decrees dealt with the confiscation of property owned by ethnic Germans, Hungarians, "and other enemies of the state" and amnestied certain crimes against expellees. "Our position is that this is a historical matter upon which the legal order of our state and the Czech Republic stand and any intervention would have absolutely unacceptable consequences," Tokar said. Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman has come under fire from German politicians for saying that the Sudeten German expellees association, like the Czech Communists and Republicans, should not take part in the new Czech-German discussion forum since it opposed the Czech-German declaration. Sudeten-German expellees have repeatedly demanded that the Benes decrees be revoked. JN

HUNGARIAN MINISTRY PROPOSES CHANGES TO LEGAL SYSTEM

The Ministry of Justice has completed draft legislation providing for the prosecutor-general to come under the government's supervision, instead of the parliament's, as is currently the case, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 7 August. The prosecutor-general would be nominated by the prime minister and appointed by the president and can be removed from that post without explanation. The government is also planning to tighten the penal code, strengthen the role of investigating authorities, and simplify procedures for fighting organized crime. JN




KINKEL SAYS KOSOVA INTERVENTION WOULD BE DIFFICULT

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said on 6 August that NATO intervention in Kosova would be drawn out and "enormously complicated," Reuters reported. Kinkel, speaking at The Hague, rejected allegations that the West has delayed taking action to stop the violence in the Serbian province. A White House spokesman said preparations for military intervention will be finished in a couple of days. Spokesman P. J. Crowley said Washington is outraged by the Serbs' continued use of violence against civilians. Kinkel also called on Russia to support a UN mandate for possible foreign military involvement in Kosova. PB

AFANASEVSKII IN PRISHTINA

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Afanasevskii traveled to Prishtina on 7 August for talks with ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova and representatives of Serbian authorities and humanitarian agencies. Afanasevskii met in Karadjordjevo with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic the previous day, and both men urged new negotiations between Yugoslav and Kosovar Albanian officials, Tanjug reported. Afanasevskii told RIA Novosti after the talks that he concentrated on making Milosevic aware of Russian alarm over the latest developments in Kosova. JN

EU CALLS FOR EXPERTS TO PROBE MASS GRAVE ALLEGATIONS

The EU on 6 August called on Yugoslavia to grant forensic scientists access to the town of Rahovec, where mass graves are alleged to have been found (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 August 1998). EU officials said the previous day that they saw no evidence of the mass graves, which are said to contain the bodies of some 500 people. The Austrian daily "Die Presse" said the same day that there are two sites, not visited by the EU officials, that have been freshly plowed over by a bulldozer. UN human rights investigator Jiri Dienstbier said he has no independent confirmation of mass graves. He added that Serbian action in Kosova could not be termed ethnic cleansing when compared with what occurred in Bosnia. In Prishtina, family members of some 100 Serbs alleged to have been kidnapped by the Kosova Liberation Army met with Red Cross and U.S. officials to seek help in finding their missing relatives. PB

HUMANITARIAN GROUPS PLEAD WITH CLINTON ON KOSOVA

Several human rights organizations sent a letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton urging him to take immediate steps to stop Serbian aggression against civilians in Kosova, an RFE/RL correspondent in Washington reported on 7 August. The letter said the international community cannot afford to wait for a cease-fire or a political settlement before resolving the "humanitarian disaster." The letter was signed by 30 major humanitarian and human rights groups including Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Institute. The letter said a large-scale crisis would occur without urgent action. It said the number of "besieged, displaced, and attacked" Kosovar residents nearly 1 million people. PB

HUNGARY WANTS BELGRADE TO STOP SENDING VOJVODINA CONSCRIPTS TO KOSOVA

The state secretary of Hungary's Foreign Ministry, Zsolt Nemeth, summoned Yugoslav ambassador Balsa Spadijer on 6 August to request that the Yugoslav authorities cease sending ethnic Hungarian soldiers and police from Vojvodina to Kosova, ministry spokesman Gabor Horvath told "Nepszabadsag." Nemeth repeatedly expressed the ministry's concern about the broadening of the crisis in Kosova and the call-up of ethnic Hungarian reserve soldiers and policemen to Kosova. In Subotica, the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina asked the Yugoslav Army not to send ethnic Croat conscripts to Kosova and called for the return of all conscripts from Vojvodina. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August) JN

MACEDONIA, UN CONFIRM MINING OF BORDER WITH YUGOSLAVIA

The Macedonian Ministry of Defense on 6 August confirmed news reports that the Macedonian- Yugoslav border has been mined. The previous day, a representative of the UN Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP) in Skopje said the minefields overlap UN patrol routes. Defense Ministry spokesman Petar Atanasov told Radio Macedonia the anti-personnel mines are on the Yugoslav side of the border. Yugoslav forces have been laying the mines for at least one month, the Skopje daily "Nova Makedonija" reported on 6 August. It added that four mines have exploded since 9 July. JN

MACEDONIAN ELECTIONS CALLED

Tito Petkovski, the speaker of the Macedonian parliament, said on 6 August that elections for the 120-seat legislature in Skopje will be held on 18 October, AP reported. The Social Democrats won the last elections, which were boycotted by several opposition parties because of alleged voter fraud. PB

BOSNIAN SERB POLITICIANS PUNISHED

Two Bosnian Serb politicians on 6 August were barred from participating in next month's parliamentary elections because of their actions in a protest to prevent the burial of a Muslim cleric, AFP reported. The names of Predrag Lazarevic and Slavko Zupljanin were struck from candidate lists by the Elections Appeal Sub-Commission for failure to "respect the codex of the elections." Some 800 Bosnian Serbs prevented the burial of Mufti Ibrahim Halilovic at the former site of the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka late last month. In Sarajevo, the UN announced that 17 Bosnian Serb policemen were suspended last month for torture and abuse of authority. PB

MORE BODIES FOUND IN BOSNIAN MASS GRAVE

UN officials said on 6 August that 70 more bodies have been exhumed from a mass grave in eastern Bosnia near Srebrenica, Reuters reported. UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko said many of the victims had been blindfolded and their hands had been tied behind their backs. Some 7,000 people from the Srebrenica region went missing after the fall of the town to Serbian forces. PB

CROATIAN TAXES ANGER BOSNIAN CROAT FARMERS

Bosnian Croat farmers blocked all but one border crossing between southwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia on 6 August to protest against a value-added tax on their produce, Reuters reported. Zagreb recently imposed a 22 percent levy and instituted other regulations on fruit and vegetables imported from Bosnia. Ahmed Smajic, the Bosnian agriculture minister, sent a letter to Darinko Bago, the Croatian ambassador in Sarajevo, protesting the actions as derailing economic cooperation between the two countries. Croatian farmers are also upset about the government's imposition of a 22 percent tax on the money they receive from government purchases of their grains. PB

ALBANIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES PLAN TO COLLECT ARMS

The parliament on 5 August approved legislation aimed at accelerating the collection of unregistered weapons. The creation of a central disarmament commission, headed by Minister of Local Government Bashkim Fino, is envisaged. Local disarmament commissions are to carry out the nationwide action to collect weapons over the next year. The authorities will first appeal to the people to hand over their weapons voluntarily; those who fail to do so will be liable to punishment. The law, however, allows several categories of Albanian civilians to keep their weapons. More than 600,000 arms were looted from depots during unrest in 1997. Police have so far collected only a small number of those arms. FS

ALBANIAN COMMISSION PRESENTS DRAFT CONSTITUTION

Minister for Institutional Reform Arben Malaj on 5 August said the commission drafting a new constitution, which he heads, has finished its work and will send the latest draft to the parliament for approval. The parliament will discuss the draft in September--after the summer recess--and is scheduled to submit it to a referendum on 22 November. A preliminary version of the draft has been published in newspapers over the last two weeks. Albania's current constitution is based on constitutional provisions passed by the parliament in 1991 to replace the communist basic law. FS

BULGARIANS DIVIDED OVER ZHIVKOV'S LEGACY

Commenting on the death of Todor Zhivkov on 5 August, Bulgaria's reformist president, Petar Stoyanov, said the former Communist dictator had overseen "one of the darkest periods of recent Bulgarian history.... Eight million Bulgarians lived during that long period with their work, dreams, and illusions, but also in fear and political repression." He added that "with the death of Todor Zhivkov, the era of Bulgarian communism is finally ending." The Bulgarian Socialist Party, which reinstated the ousted leader as a member earlier this year, praised Zhivkov and predicted "generations of Bulgarians would link his name to hard but creative work and a secure and easier life," BTA reported. JN




UZBEKISTAN TURNS BELIEVERS INTO CRIMINALS


by Felix Corley

In Uzbekistan, religious believers of all faiths are waiting in trepidation as the 15 August deadline for their communities to lodge re-registration applications with the Ministry of Justice approaches. Under registration regulations issued in a 20 June decree of the Council of Ministers, religious communities (such as mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples) have to provide extensive documentation to back up their applications, which the ministry must process within three months.

Even for those with documentation that meets the strict new requirements set out under the revised law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations, adopted by parliament on 1 May, it is by no means certain that the Ministry of Justice will grant registration. The government and, in particular, President Islam Karimov have made clear their dislike of Muslims outside the control of the government-sponsored Muslim Board. Karimov has made frequent verbal attacks on such Muslims, whom he routinely dubs "Wahhabi fundamentalists," regardless of whether they have any links with the form of Islam found in Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, Karimov cited the presence of such Muslims in Uzbekistan as the justification for the adoption of the harsh new law. During debates in the parliament, Karimov blamed such Muslims for instability in the country and declared that "such people must be shot in the head".

But many religious communities in Uzbekistan--even some that now have state registration--will not be eligible to apply for re-registration, as they have fewer than the 100 adult members required under the new law. In what is being seen as a test case, the prosecutor-general of the Zheleznodorozhny district of Samarkand ruled on 25 June that a local community of Jehovah's Witnesses was functioning illegally without registration and that, with only 30 to 40 members, the community would be unable to gain registration under the new law.

Uzbekistan's new law on freedom of conscience, which amends legislation first adopted in June 1991, is the harshest in the former Soviet Union. Registration is compulsory for all religious groups, whether local or national, and groups need the approval of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs before they can apply for registration with the Ministry of Justice. All unregistered religious activity is illegal, as is proselytism or any kind of missionary activity. Only central religious administrations have the right to publish religious literature, and all imported religious literature must be censored by the state.

Under the same law, only centralized religious administrations can set up schools "to train clergy and other religious personnel". All other forms of religious education, even in private, are illegal. Religious political parties and social movements are banned. And only clerics may walk the streets in religious garb.

The law specifies that those conducting "any illegal religious activity" will be subject to prosecution, as will religious leaders who evade state registration and officials who allow unregistered religious groups to function. Amendments to the administrative and criminal codes adopted by the parliament on 1 May spell out the penalties for the new offenses. First offenses are generally punishable by fines or short-term imprisonment of up to two weeks. Second-time offenders risk up to three years in prison for proselytism, for holding youth meetings, for teaching religion without permission, or for encouraging others to take part in illegal religious groups. For repeat offenses, organizers of illegal religious groups risk a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. Crimes of violence with a religious coloring attract heavier penalties.

Many of the provisions of the new law on freedom of conscience clearly violate Uzbekistan's human rights commitments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Uzbekistan acceded to those two covenants in September 1995), as well as commitments enshrined in successive OSCE documents.

The Uzbek government argues that tight restrictions are necessary to prevent religious-related conflict from spreading to Uzbekistan from neighboring Afghanistan and Tajikistan. President Islam Karimov conjures up bloodcurdling images of what would happen if Islamists came to power in Uzbekistan. But the system of control over all religious activity enshrined in the new law and backed up by the criminal code and the registration regulations goes far beyond the temporary derogations from international human rights commitments permitted in times of "public emergency."

The Uzbek authorities are clearly sensitive on the subject of religion. On 1 August, Russian journalists Vitalii Ponomarev and Nikolai Mitrokhin were assaulted and beaten in the center of Tashkent by unknown attackers following their meeting with Marat Zakhidov, a well-known Uzbek human rights activist. The Glasnost Defense Foundation in Moscow believed the assault was connected with the journalists' investigation into "repression against religious organizations". The two had already visited the Fergana valley, a region with a strong Islamist presence.

In one of the first responses to the new law, the local union of Baptists complained to President Karimov at the end of May that "the new law turns Baptists from peaceful citizens who obey the law into criminals". However, it is not just Baptists who will be subject to the full weight of the new legislation. How numerous these "criminals" turn out to be and how far Uzbekistan is prepared to go in flouting its international commitments will soon be seen. The author writes on religious liberty issues in the former Soviet Union.


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