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Newsline - December 4, 1998




RUBLE CONTINUES TO PLUNGE

The ruble fell for the sixth consecutive day on 4 December to 19.57 rubles per dollar, losing almost four percent of its value from the previous day. The rate was one of the lowest in three months but remained above the post-devaluation nadir of 20.82 rubles to the dollar recorded on 9 September. The ruble has dropped about 15 percent since 1 November. Bloomberg attributed the decline to the Central Bank's loosening of restrictions imposed on exporters and commercial banks access to foreign currency, while the "Moscow Times" on 3 December quoted traders as saying that continuing uncertainty over the restructuring of Russia's domestic debt is behind the plunge. The Central Bank set the ruble's official exchange for 4 December at 18.83 rubles per dollar. JAC

RUSSIA WANTS NEW CFE BEFORE NATO EXPANSION...

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 3 December that an updated version of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty must be ratified before NATO admits any former Warsaw Pact countries. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are scheduled to join NATO in April. JAC

...KALININGRAD CALLED DETERRENT, WEAK LINK

Meanwhile, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Mikhailov told reporters on 2 December that troops in Kaliningrad Oblast will play the role of a "deterrent" in response to the possibility of Lithuania and Poland joining NATO. However, he noted that the deployment of those troops is not intended to "intimidate." "Poland is joining NATO, and we've got to put up with this...whether we like it or not," he commented. The same day, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" labeled Kaliningrad as one of most unstable regions in Russia. The newspaper noted that the prospect of the Baltic States joining NATO puts the region in a complex geopolitical situation. In addition, the oblast is isolated territorially from the rest of Russia and depends on imported goods for 80 percent of its consumption. Moreover, a quarter of its population is unemployed. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" receives financial support from Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group. JAC

YELTSIN SENDS BACK REGIONAL ECONOMIC LAW

President Boris Yeltsin described a draft law on the organization of economic associations of Russian regions as "unconstitutional," Interfax reported on 3 December. The president recommended further work on the bill, which was passed by the State Duma in the first reading on 21 October. The next day, "Izvestiya," commenting at length on Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov's recent call for a strengthening of vertical authority, concluded that the restoration of vertical power in which all levels are elected will require changes to the Russian Constitution. The newspaper also noted that while "the governors want to abolish the institution of presidential representatives in the regions," Moscow will still demand some means of influencing the governors. LUKoil and Oneksimbank are major investors in "Izvestiya." JAC

LUZHKOV SAYS NO TO KIRIENKO, YES TO NDR?

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzkov ruled out an alliance with former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko on 3 December after "Kommersant-Daily" carried a report the previous day that negotiations were taking place between them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 1998). Luzhkov declared that he has no intention of uniting with those who were responsible for the events of 17 August. Meanwhile, in an interview with "Segodnya" on 3 December, "Our Home is Russia" (NDR) faction leader Aleksandr Shokhin said that the NDR is ready to sign a "non-aggression pact" with Luzhkov's movement in which both groups would unite to take away votes from leftist organizations. In response to the question of whether former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin would remain the NDR's future presidential candidate, Shokhin avoided answering directly, saying only that the NDR has the "right to claim the post of prime minister" in the coalition. JAC

SBERBANK PAYS OUT FOR SOME CUSTOMERS

After missing its original deadline of 30 November, Sberbank offered customers access to savings transferred from Menatep, Most Bank, Mosbiznesbank, and Promstroibank on 3 December. Customers from Inkombank and SBS Agro still have no access. A Sberbank spokesman said a statement on the SBS Agro accounts will be issued later. The fate of Inkombank customers' accounts remains uncertain, since the bank failed to complete necessary paperwork and no longer has a license (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 1998). Earlier, the Central Bank had promised to cover all savings accounts transferred to Sberbank. JAC

ANOTHER ST. PETERSBURG CANDIDATE ARRESTED

Another would-be participant in the already scandal-ridden St. Petersburg elections was arrested on 3 December. Sergei Nirov, a member of the Honor and Motherland political movement, led by Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed, was picked up on suspicion of making false charges against a police investigator, Russian Television reported. ITAR-TASS reported that "libelous flyers" with a forged imprimatur of the Central Election Committee have been circulating in the city. Those flyers make false claims about the past criminal records and drug habits of certain candidates. Meanwhile, some candidates have found that opponents with the same name are running against them in their own districts, and local individuals have been offering their votes for sale on the Internet, Reuters reported on 4 December. Elections for the local assembly are scheduled for 6 December. JAC

WORKERS LAUNCH NEW PROTESTS

Civilian defense workers in Rostov na Donu staged a work stoppage on 3 December to protest unpaid wages, NTV reported. In Khabarovsk Krai, 43 hospital workers began a hunger strike on 2 December to protest a growing backlog of unpaid wages, ITAR-TASS reported. Personnel at a nearby emergency medical aid service are also on strike. According to a local health workers' union, unpaid wages amount to more than 260 million rubles ($14 billion). Meanwhile, around 1,500 mourners gathered in Ulyanovsk for the funeral of the 43-year-old teacher who died while on a hunger strike, AFP reported. JAC

GLASNOST ENDS IN STAVROPOL?

Stavropol Krai Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov has signed a new, vaguely worded document on official secrets, "Izvestiya" reported on 3 December. According to the newspaper, local officials are broadly interpreting that document in order to deflect a variety of media inquiries. The krai government finance minister said that the question of how much budget money was spent on celebrating the anniversary of the Komsomol in the region has been declared an official secret. JAC

RUSSIAN SMOKERS WOULD RATHER SWITCH

Russian-made cigarettes are enjoying new popularity as the price differential between a pack of Marlboros and a pack of Russian Yava cigarettes has increased almost 200 percent since early August, the "Moscow Times" reported on 4 December. Because of import tariffs and the devaluation of the ruble, a pack of Marlboros now sells for 18.50 rubles ($1), compared with 7 rubles previously. Russian cigarette production soared 25 percent in October, compared with the previous month. JAC

FORMER VOLOGDA OBLAST GOVERNOR SENTENCED

Nikolai Podgornov has been sentenced to a one-year suspended jail term for using public funds to buy parts for his jeep, AFP reported on 3 December. The local prosecutor had accused Podgornov of embezzling public funds, but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. JAC

FOREIGN PEACE GROUPS LABELED CORRUPTERS OF YOUTH

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 2 December that a three-day conference organized by the Westminster Democracy Foundation in Novgorod was "teaching Novgorod youths how to escape conscription and avoid criminal responsibility." According to the daily, two international organizations, the Peacekeeping and Social Development Center and the Movement Against Violence, were joined by representatives from the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, the Human Rights Protection Center, and "pacifists from Finland, Great Britain, and the U.S." JAC

TATAR OPPOSITION OUTLINES OBJECTIVES

Speaking at a news conference in Kazan on 2 December, the recently elected chairman of the All-Tatar Public Center, Zali Zainullin, said that organization's priorities are to "gain true independence for Tatarstan and eliminate the bureaucracy in both the Tatarstan and Russian governments," RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. Zainullin, a retired colonel, is known as the "Tatar Dudaev" for his radical views, which until recently have not enjoyed wide support. The center is also campaigning for multi-candidate presidential elections and for the cancellation of what it terms grandiose and unnecessary construction projects, including the Kazan subway. The center has accused the Russian federal authorities of igniting ethnic and religious conflicts in Tatarstan, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 December. LF

CHECHEN PRESIDENT WILL RUN FOR SECOND TERM

In an interview with Interfax on 3 December, Aslan Maskhadov conceded that the Chechen opposition "has influence on a certain category of the population" but said that its systematic attempts to sabotage his policies, including those aimed at combating crime, will not succeed. Maskhadov said that most of Chechnya's population supports him and that he intends to run for a second presidential terms in January 2002. Maskhadov also spoke highly of Russian Premier Primakov's role in resuming a dialogue between Moscow and Grozny and his efforts to implement the agreements on financial aid for Chechnya reached at their talks Vladikavkaz in late October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October 1998). Also on 3 December, Maskhadov's spokesman, Mairbek Vachagaev, said the president will not attend an upcoming conference in Nalchik of Muslim leaders of Russian regions. LF




OSCE CALLS FOR POSTPONEMENT OF KAZAKH ELECTIONS...

The OSCE on 3 December warned Kazakhstan that if the country goes ahead with planned early presidential elections next month, it "could severely damage its reputation as a country committed to democratization," an RFE/RL correspondent in Almaty reported. The OSCE criticized the decision of the country's Central Elections Committee to exclude two candidates from the elections "because of minor administrative convictions." It also warned that the OSCE will not consider the election results valid if the ballot is held, as planned, on 10 January. The October decision of Kazakhstan's parliament to hold elections within the following three months "does not allow for adequate preparations to ensure a democratic election," the OSCE argued. The organization added that there was no equal media access for those taking part in the elections and that voters are being intimidated "to force their support" for incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev. BP

...WHILE KAZAKH FOREIGN MINISTER PRAISES OSCE

Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymjomart Tokayev, addressing the OSCE foreign ministers' conference in Oslo on 3 December, focused his comments on positive developments in his country, RFE/RL correspondents reported. Tokayev spoke of the "progress achieved by Kazakhstan in cooperation with the world, including European states." He also said the opening of an OSCE center in his country will promote civil society. And he praised OSCE activities in Central Asia as having "given strong impetus to the advancement of democracy in the region," Interfax reported. BP

KAZAKH OPPOSITION MEETS IN MOSCOW TO MAP OUT STRATEGY

Leaders from some of Kazakhstan's opposition groups met in Moscow on 3-4 December to discuss strategy, RFE/RL correspondents reported. The meeting was chaired by former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. The group discussed a common approach in the struggle against the "totalitarian regime" in Kazakhstan and in seeking to establish democracy in the country. The group said it was forced to meet in Moscow owing to the "oppressive measures of the Kazakh government against them and the impossibility of holding such a meeting on Kazakh territory." It also adopted an address to be distributed among the Kazakh nation. BP

TURKMENISTAN TO INTRODUCE MORATORIUM ON DEATH SENTENCE

At the OSCE conference in Oslo on 3 December, Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov announced his country's intention to impose a moratorium on the death sentence, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. Shikhmuradov said legislation will be introduced that will reduce the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty. He also commented that "by taking this step, Turkmenistan proved in practice its principled loyalty to humanistic values and OSCE ideals." Turkmenistan's decision comes at a time when many human rights organizations have been complaining about the fate of two people found guilty of attempting to kill the Turkmen president. Khoshaly Garaev and Muhhametguly Aimuradov had been expected to have death sentences handed down at a 30 November court session "behind closed doors." The two allegedly had been plotting to overthrow the government while in prison on other charges. The 30 November session, however, was postponed. BP

TAJIK OPPOSITION GRANTED MORE GOVERNMENT POSTS

The United Tajik Opposition has been granted five more government positions, ITAR- TASS reported on 3 December. The post of first deputy chairman of the country's Tax Committee was given to Aslidin Sohibnazarov. Alijan Latifi will take over the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Mirzomuhammed Mirzohodi the Ministry of Culture, and Hukmiddin Saaddin the Ministry of Communications. Zayd Saidov has been named deputy chairman of the Committee for Precious Stones. BP

KILLERS OF OTAKHON LATIFI ARRESTED

Tajik law enforcement authorities say they have caught the persons responsible for murdering leading opposition figure Otakhon Latifi, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 December. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov said he believes the murder was politically motivated and that he is "99 percent sure" those in custody are responsible. The search continues for those who ordered Latifi killed. The murder took place outside his Dushanbe home on 22 September. BP

UZBEK-TAJIK BORDER REMAINS CLOSED

The Uzbek-Tajik border has been closed for the past two weeks, the "Izvestiya" reported on 4 December. Uzbekistan closed the border when relations with Tajikistan grew increasingly strained following a rebellion in northern Tajikistan in early November. The Tajik government claims that uprising was made possible in part by Uzbek support, but Uzbekistan continues to deny those charges. The article claims that occupants of the few cars with Tajik license plates that are allowed to cross the border are forced to pay a $260 fee. BP

OSCE CALLS FOR RESUMPTION OF KARABAKH TALKS

Speaking in Oslo on 3 December at the OSCE foreign ministers' meeting, Chairman-in- Office Bronislaw Geremek called for a speedy resumption of negotiations on resolving the Karabakh conflict, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. Geremek said he hopes that the conflict parties will demonstrate the political resolve and willingness to consider all legitimate interests and concerns. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian had said at that meeting that Azerbaijan's rejection of the most recent OSCE Minsk Group peace plan demonstrates Baku's inability or unwillingness to seek a solution to the conflict based on mutual compromises. His Azerbaijani counterpart, Tofik Zulfugarov, told Reuters he believes the mediators will abandon the concept of a "common state," which is contained in the latest peace plan, in the light of growing international opposition. Zulfugarov repeated Baku's willingness to grant the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic "a high degree of self-rule." LF

ARMENIA WANTS IMPROVED RELATIONS WITH TURKEY

Speaking in Oslo on 3 December, Oskanian also said that Yerevan is ready to start "a productive dialogue" with the new Turkish government once it is formed, RFE/RL reported. Oskanian said that Armenia's withdrawal of its previous objections to Istanbul as the venue for the next OSCE summit, now scheduled for 14-15 November 1999, is intended to promote better bilateral and regional cooperation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 May and 30 November 1998). LF

GEORGIAN CURRENCY LOSES VALUE

The Georgian lari fell from 1.48 to $1 on 25 November to 1.62 on 3 December, despite intervention by the National Bank on 30 November on the recommendation of the IMF, Interfax reported. One month ago, the lari was trading at 1.35 to $1. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 December quoted unnamed experts as describing Georgia's financial situation as catastrophic and attributing the deteriorating economic situation to the huge budget deficit, endemic corruption and tax evasion, and industrial stagnation. In his weekly radio address on 30 November, President Eduard Shevardnadze had said that international financial organizations are prepared to provide emergency assistance but that IMF recommendations will necessitate "difficult and painful" decisions. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT DEPLORES DEFILEMENT OF JEWISH CEMETERY

President Shevardnadze on 3 December condemned as "barbaric and inexplicable" the destruction by vandals of some 50 gravestones in Tbilisi's Jewish cemetery the previous day, Interfax reported. Shevardnadze said that the attack, for which no one has yet claimed responsibility, will not affect Georgians' traditionally good relations with the country's Jewish minority. LF

ARE AZERBAIJANI CONSCRIPTS DYING OF MALNUTRITION?

Naval Captain Janmirza Mirzoev told journalists in Baku on 3 December that hundreds of servicemen in the Azerbaijani army suffer from malnutrition and that some have died as a result, Turan reported. Mirzoev also commented that Academician Zia Buniatov, whose February 1997 murder has not been solved, was in possession of documents proving embezzlement within the country's Defense Ministry at the time of his death. Those documents later vanished, Mirzoev claimed. LF




FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER ARRESTED IN SWITZERLAND

Pavlo Lazarenko was arrested in Switzerland on 3 December in connection with a money-laundering investigation, Western agencies reported. Lazarenko was prime minister from 1996-1997 and is currently a parliamentary deputy as well as leader of the opposition leftist Hromada party. In Ukraine, Lazarenko was accused of diverting to Switzerland some $20 million in state funds. Since February, Ukraine has sent 20 requests for legal assistance to Switzerland in the case. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT SENDS BACK 1999 DRAFT BUDGET FOR REVISION

The Supreme Council on 3 December voted by 312 to 10 to postpone the first reading of the 1999 draft budget until 9 December so that the Budget Committee can revise the document. Many lawmakers echoed the government's criticism that a budget with a zero deficit is unrealistic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1998) and questioned some revenue sources proposed by the committee. In particular, the committee has proposed raising extra money by taxing commercial banks, imposing fees for using Ukraine's air space, and pressuring enterprises to repay loans received under government guarantees. Supreme Council Chairman Oleksandr Tkachenko commented that Ukraine's economy is not yet ready for a balanced budget, Interfax reported. JM

UKRAINIAN CABINET MOVES TO MEET MINERS' DEMANDS

In the immediate wake of the 2 December coal mining strike (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1998), the parliament has passed a resolution ordering the government to speed up repayment of wage arrears to miners, AP reported on 3 December. The government responded to miners' protests by ordering mines to give the payment of wages a top priority. It also granted mines tax breaks for 1999 and included next year's expenditures for the coal sector on the list of budget items that cannot be reduced. JM

LUKASHENKA SAYS MORE CABINET CHANGES IN OFFING

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has promised "more far-reaching" changes in the government following a reshuffle on 2 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1998), Belarusian Television reported. The government should be filled with new people "who will introduce something new in our life and put our country, like a spaceship, into a new orbit," he commented. He promised that the government will focus on promoting Belarusian exports and gaining new markets. And he did not reject a journalist's suggestion that the Foreign Ministry, the Foreign Trade Ministry, and the Ministry for CIS Affairs may soon merge. Interfax reported that Lukashenka's adviser for foreign affairs, Ural Latypau, is likely to head the new consolidated ministry. JM

RUSSIA WANTS LONG-TERM COOPERATION WITH ESTONIA

Russian Deputy Premier Valentina Matvienko told Estonian Premier Mart Siimann on 3 December that Russia is ready for long-term cooperation in regional, economic, and minority issues, ETA and BNS reported. Matvienko is in Tallinn for a two-day meeting of the Estonian- Russian intergovernment commission, which was established 10 months ago and of which she and Siimann are co-chairs. The 3 December session of the commission focused on cooperation projects between border regions. Tallinn is expected to push for a reduction of high Russian tariffs on imports from Estonia. Two bilateral agreements are to be signed on 4 December: one on recognizing academic qualifications and the other on cooperation in preserving cultural heritage. This is the first meeting of the commission. Previous contacts within the framework of the commission took place at the level of expert. JC

LATVIA-RUSSIA INTERGOVERNMENT COMMISSION TO CONVENE SOON?

On the sidelines of the OSCE foreign ministers' meeting in Oslo on 2 December, Valdis Birkavs and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, agreed to prepare for resuming the work of the Latvian- Russian intergovernment commission and to organize the first session of that body. Birkavs told BNS by telephone from the Norwegian capital that the meeting took place in a "favorable, constructive atmosphere." He added, however, that it remains unclear when the commission will convene. The two ministers discussed EU and NATO expansion as well as several proposed bilateral agreements, including the border treaty. And they also touched upon the situation of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, with Ivanov reportedly commenting that "Latvia, no doubt, has achieved progress." JC

VILNIUS COURT SENTENCES FORMER NKVD EMPLOYEES FOR GENOCIDE

Three former employees of the NKVD have been found guilty for the second time of killing a family of four in 1945, including a pregnant woman, BNS and AP reported on 3 December. Kiril Kurakin and two of his former colleagues received sentences of six and three-and-a-half years in prison, respectively. Under the amnesty law, however, the sentences were reduced by one-third. All three men are in their mid-seventies and are physically handicapped. In 1997, the Vilnius District Court had found them guilty of killing the four-member family. Their case was then considered by the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court before being returned to the district court for a further ruling. The trial is the first in Lithuania in which a conviction has been made under the country's genocide law. JC

LITHUANIA DELIVERS FOOD AID TO KALININGRAD

The first delivery of Lithuanian food aid reached Kaliningrad Oblast on 3 December, AP reported, citing Interfax. Earlier this fall, the exclave had declared an "emergency situation," warning that food and fuel supplies may soon run out. Lithuania delivered 100,000 cans of condensed milk, 100,000 cans of meat, and 40 tons of cheese, which are to be distributed among hospitals and kindergartens. JC

POLISH FARMERS DEMAND PROTECTION FOR DOMESTIC AGRICULTURE

Some 5,000 farmers held a rally at the parliamentary building in Warsaw on 3 December, demanding government subsidies for farms and increased expenditures on agriculture in the 1999 budget, Polish media reported. The demonstration was organized by the radical Self-Defense Farmers' Trade Union on the eve of talks between farmers and Agriculture Ministry officials. Demonstrators called for the resignation of Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, who is widely regarded as promoting reduced state subsidies for the agricultural sector. JM

KWASNIEWSKI VETOES LAW ON ACCESS TO COMMUNIST SECRET FILES

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski on 4 December vetoed a law on opening Communist-era secret police files (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 1998), AP reported. The law stipulates the creation of an Institute of National Remembrance, which is to collect files compiled between 1944 and 1989, make them available to victims of the totalitarian regime, and reveal the names of secret informers. Kwasniewski argues that a court, not the institute, should decide who was a victim. He also believes that all citizens, not only victims, should have access to secret files. In order to override Kwasniewski's veto, the parliament needs a three-fifths majority. JM

POLISH COURT ISSUES ARREST WARRANT FOR STALINIST PROSECUTOR

The District Military Court on 3 December issued a warrant for the arrest of Helena Wolinska, a Stalinist-era prosecutor now living in Great Britain, PAP reported. Wolinska is accused of illegally ordering the arrest of General August Fieldorf-Nil, who was a leader of the Home Army, Poland's wartime non-communist resistance movement. Fieldorf-Nil was sentenced to death on fabricated evidence in 1952 and hanged one year later. Wolinska was summoned to testify at the investigation but failed to show up. The arrest warrant allows the government to prepare an extradition order. If found guilty, 79-year-old Wolinska could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. She denies the charges against her and argues she will not receive a fair trial in Poland. JM

KLAUS CALLS FOR ROUNDTABLE ON ECONOMY

Former Premier Vaclav Klaus issued an invitation to Premier Milos Zeman and his predecessor, Josef Tosovsky, to join him in a roundtable discussion on the country's worsening economic situation, CTK reported on 3 December. The invitation comes amid allegations that Klaus had not wanted to continue as head of the government because of an oncoming economic crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1998). Tosovsky served as the caretaker premier after the Klaus government's fall and is currently the governor of the Central Bank. Neither Zeman nor Tosovsky has commented on the invitation. PB

PETITION SENT TO CZECH PREMIER ON PIG FARM AT CONCENTRATION CAMP

Zeman received an open letter on 3 December signed by 100 Czechs and foreigners, including Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, calling for the removal of a pig farm from the former concentration camp at Lety, CTK reported. The letter says that the pig farm is a "desecration of a monument to the victims of the former concentration camp, as well as an insult to humanity." Lety began as a labor camp right before the establishment of the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939. From 1942 to 1945, it was used exclusively as a concentration camp for Roma. PB

DZURINDA SAYS BENES DECREES NOT TO BE REVOKED

Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has dismissed opposition fears that ethnic Hungarians in the coalition government want to revoke the Benes decrees, CTK reported. Dzurinda said the issue "cannot be reopened because it was deeply anchored in our coalition agreements." The premier was responding to opposition deputies who claim that the Hungarian Coalition Party wants to redistribute land in southern Slovakia that was confiscated after World War II from Hungarians who were expelled under the Benes decrees. Jan Cuper of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, said "this is one of the ways in which landwill get into hands of people primarily of Hungarian nationality." PB

HUNGARY WANTS MORE TIME BEFORE DECIDING ON DAM

The daily "Magyar Hirlap" reports that the Hungarian government will ask the International Court of Justice in The Hague for another six months to make a decision on the controversial Gabcikovo- Nagymaros hydroelectric project. Slovakia sent the dispute back to The Hague after failing to agree with Budapest on an interpretation of the court's first decision, which was taken in September 1997. The case was originally brought to the court in 1994, five years after Hungary withdrew from the project. PB




NATO SAYS MILOSEVIC APPROVED RAPID REACTION FORCE

An unnamed NATO source told Reuters in Brussels on 3 December that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic "fully agreed to the extraction force and its activities. This can be confirmed. There is no misunderstanding on this." Several Serbian officials have said recently that Belgrade regards as a threat the presence of a 1,700-strong NATO force in Macedonia to rescue endangered civilian monitors in Kosova. Serbian officials have added that they will view as "aggression" any incursion by the force into Serbian territory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 1998). Observers suggested that Belgrade has been using tough language over Kosova in recent weeks in order to press U.S. envoy Chris Hill for more concessions in his draft plan for an interim settlement in Kosova. PM

HILL OFFERS BELGRADE NEW PLAN

In Belgrade on 3 December, Hill gave Serbian President Milan Milutinovic a copy of a "new version" of his plan for a settlement in Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. Neither U.S. nor Serbian officials provided any details of the proposal. In response to reporters' questions as to whether recent State Department statements that Milosevic is "the problem" have hampered his negotiating efforts, Hill said that he works "with the relevant people in this process and...will continue to do so" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report, 3 December 1998). Hill added that top Belgrade leaders "have never refused to meet with me." Hill is U.S. ambassador to Macedonia and was a member of special envoy Richard Holbrooke's team that negotiated the Dayton agreement. Western and regional press reports earlier this year suggested that he became Washington's chief diplomat for Kosova because Milosevic refused to deal with special envoy Robert Gelbard. PM

SESELJ, PARLIAMENT BLAST WASHINGTON

In response to the State Department statements, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj said in Belgrade on 3 December that "the Americans are brutally violating all norms of international public law. In a criminal way they are destroying entire peoples and states and in a most flagrant way they are interfering in the internal affairs of others." The Yugoslav federal parliament, for its part, passed a resolution giving "full support" to Milosevic "in his efforts to defend vital national and state interests." The text "rejected and denounced all pressure, threats, and gross interference [by Washington] in the internal matters of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." The resolution charged that the U.S. "supports terrorism" in Kosova, "misleads world opinion," and "seeks to remove" the province from Serbia. PM

OSCE GETS STRONG SUPPORT FOR MONITORING MISSION

U.S. envoy William Walker, who heads the OSCE's 2,000-strong civilian verification mission to Kosova, told an OSCE conference in Oslo on 3 December that 34 member states have offered to supply personnel for the unarmed contingent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1998). He said that largest groups will come from Italy (203), Germany (187), the U.K. (158), the U.S. (143), and Russia (121). The delegates approved a declaration expressing hope that the presence of the mission will contribute toward reaching a political settlement in the Serbian province. PM

KILLINGS RAISE TENSIONS IN KOSOVA

Yugoslav troops have killed eight persons who were trying to illegally cross the border between Kosova and Albania, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 3 December. In Prishtina, the Kosova Information Center news agency, which is close to shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova, reported that Serbian security forces gunned down a guerrilla leader, a journalist, and a student leader in the center of the capital. Adem Demaci, who is the political spokesman for the Kosova Liberation Army, called the three killings "a classic assassination." Police refused to give Reuters any information on the shootings. The news agency said that a "random roadside killing" of an Albanian on the Prishtina- Peja road in central Kosova and the wounding of a Serb nearby later that day have created a "climate of fear" among Serbs and Kosovars alike. PM

WESTENDORP SETS GOALS FOR BOSNIA

A spokesman for the international community's Carlos Westendorp said in Sarajevo on 3 December that the high representative's goals for 1999 are "to make peace self-sustaining and to prepare the country to live without foreign aid," AP reported. Westendorp believes, moreover, that "any exit strategy of the international community...must be accompanied by an entry strategy for Bosnia-Herzegovina into European institutions," such as the EU and Council of Europe. A major international meeting on Bosnia's future is slated for 10 December in Madrid. Meanwhile, Westendorp sent a message to Dragan Kalinic, who is the Republika Srpska's hard-line parliamentary leader, to return to President Nikola Poplasen the mandate he gave Kalinic to form a government. Westendorp argued that Kalinic will not be able to put together a legislative majority and that current Prime Minister Milorad Dodik should have the opportunity to do so. PM

CONCERN GROWS OVER HAJDARI CASE

Prosecutor-General Arben Rakipi told the "Albanian Daily News" of 4 December that several witnesses in the murder case of controversial Democratic Party legislator Azem Hajdari refuse to cooperate with the investigators. He said that most of these witnesses are senior officials of Hajdari's party, but he gave no names. Rakipi argued that the officials are "obstructing the law for political reasons." He added that "few people [seem to feel] obliged to find out the truth but I hope that fear is not what is [keeping] them from testifying." Meanwhile, a Norwegian prosecutor arrived in Tirana on 2 December to assist in the investigation. And a recently established student group on 3 December threatened to hold a nationwide strike unless the investigation yields results by 8 December, the anniversary of the 1990 student protests that toppled communism. Hajdari was a leader of those protests. FS

CONTROVERSY OVER ALBANIAN PARLIAMENTARY BOYCOTT

Speaking to journalists in Tirana on 2 December, representatives of two small parties belonging to the Democratic-led Union for Democracy coalition urged the coalition to end its intermittent parliamentary boycott. Teodor Laco from the Liberal Union and Remzi Ndreu from the Democratic Union stressed that the coalition needs a new strategy and that parliamentary participation would allow it to mount a more effective opposition, "Albanian Daily News" reported on 4 December. Laco argued that the boycott "works to the [Socialists'] advantage." He added that the new constitution allows the opposition to exercise political influence through the parliamentary process. Democratic Party Secretary-General Ritvan Bode, however, rejected the appeal, saying that "we are facing shocking events that do not lead toward rapprochement." He referred to Hajdari's killing and the recent imprisonment of several Democrats over their alleged role in crushing the 1997 unrest. FS

ROMANIA ADMITS COMPANY OFFICIALS NEGOTIATED WITH IRAQ

The Defense Ministry on 3 December released details of the extent of its military cooperation with Iraq, AP reported. In a statement, the ministry said that officials from the companies Romtechnica and Giara traveled to Iraq in 1994 to discuss supplying raw materials and "subassemblies." Iraq also requested Romanian aid in the research, design, and production of parts for short-range missiles. The statement said there was an initial delivery to Iraq but gave no details of what was delivered. Later, a third company, Aerofina, signed a contract to deliver missile parts through a Jordanian company. The Defense Ministry says relations were broken off in December 1996. One month later, Defense Ministry State Secretary General Florentin Popa was sacked, along with the directors of Giara and Aerofina. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 1998.) PB

ROMANIAN, TURKISH PRESIDENTS MEET

Romanian President Emil Constantinescu and his Turkish counterpart, Suleyman Demirel, discussed bilateral relations and energy transport policy at a meeting in Bucharest on 3 December, Rompres reported. Constantinescu said good political relations were the basis for improved economic cooperation. He noted that Bucharest and Ankara's energy transport projects are not competing but are complementary, adding that Romania is helping to build an oil refinery in Turkey. Demirel, making his third trip to Romania in the last two years, praised the countries' strong ties and said he expects their trade turnover to soon total $1 billion annually. He added that Ankara strongly supports Romania's desire to join NATO. PB

OSCE CALLS FOR INTENSIFIED TALKS ON TRANSDNIESTER

OSCE foreign ministers, meeting in Oslo on 3 December, called for reinvigorated talks on Moldova's Transdniester region, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. They said negotiations had "languished" but should be stepped up. They added that talks should seek to consolidate the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Moldova while reaching an understanding on the status of the breakaway Transdniester region. The OSCE also expressed concern at the lack of progress on the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Transdniester. PB

BULGARIAN POLICE CHIEF APPOINTED

Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov issued a decree on 3 December appointing Vasil Vasilev as director of the nation's police, Bulgarian Radio reported. He replaces Colonel Slavcho Bosilkov, who was recently sacked along with Interior Ministry Secretary Nikolay Radulov. PB




THE STATE OF ECONOMIC EMERGENCY IN BELARUS


by Jan Maksymiuk

It seems as if suddenly things have started going wrong for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka . At least, that is the impression one gains from Belarusian official propaganda. As recently as in August, the Statistics Ministry reported a remarkable 12 percent growth in the country's GDP. When the financial crisis hit Russia that month, Lukashenka boasted that Belarus was the only oasis of economic stability on post-Soviet territory.

In September, Lukashenka vowed to organize "centralized food supplies" to stave off famine in Russia and even offered to act as economic adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. One month later, in October, with Belarus facing serious food shortages, Lukashenka's self-assuredness began to subside. And by November, Lukashenka himself began needing advice. "Why are our people becoming poorer and poorer every month while we are so dynamically developing industry and agriculture?" he asked his ministers at a televised cabinet meeting. None was able to provide an answer.

Signs of a looming calamity in Belarus's Soviet-style economy began to appear in early September, when Belarusians launched a run on shops in a bid to use up their meager savings before they became completely worthless. Although the National Bank maintained the official dollar exchange rate below 50,000 Belarusian rubles, the street exchange rate plummeted to 120,000. And in noncash transactions between Russian and Belarusian companies, one dollar was equal to 220,000 Belarusian rubles. By the beginning of December, those figures had nearly doubled.

Owing to the de facto insolvency of Russia, which accounted for 70 percent of Belarusian exports before the current economic crisis, Belarusian enterprises have been forced to reduce output and/or hoard products in storehouses. Experts estimate that Belarus's industrial production will continue to slump by up to 12 percent monthly at least for the next four months. Every month, Belarusian revenues fall short by some $100 million because of reduced exports to Russia.

The acute shortage of foodstuffs, which has led to rationing in many regions, may be attributed to several factors. First, Belarus's grain harvest this year was down by 1 million tons, compared with 1997. Second, state-controlled food prices are too low to make food production profitable. Third, Belarus has to supply food to Russia to repay its $250 million gas debt. And fourth, it cannot be ruled out that, owing to much lower food prices in Belarus, some goods are smuggled into Russia and Ukraine, particularly since there are no customs controls on the border with those countries.

To deal with the crisis, the Belarusian president in November set up a "national headquarters"--an emergency task force headed by his administration chief, Mikhail Myasnikovich. In this way, Lukashenka has prevented the cabinet from managing the economy. Prime Minister Syarhey Linh has been subordinated to Myasnikovich and charged with the task of normalizing food provisions in the Minsk region.

None of the administrative measures taken by the authorities to improve food supplies--including the introduction of police and customs patrols on the Belarusian-Russian border--has proven effective, however. In November, the government was forced to increase food prices by an average of 30-40 percent. The price of vodka--which in the former Soviet Union continues to affect political and social trends among the electorate--went up by 75 percent in one fell swoop. Lukashenka publicly blamed the prime minister for that hike, accusing him of "hating the people." The president did not, however, reduce the price.

In addition to price increases, the government has made some other moves toward liberalizing financial policies. National Bank Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich once again pledged to introduce a single exchange rate (to replace the current four) and limited the devaluation rate of the Belarusian ruble to 1,500 rubles per interbank currency-exchange session. Commercial banks have been allowed to sell and buy hard currency at rates exceeding the official one by up to 50 percent. And according to some reports, the National Bank promised the IMF in mid-November to considerably limit money emissions, until now the most popular method of stimulating production in Belarus. In other words, Belarus has tentatively resorted to some market economy tools.

However, it is too early to say that Belarus has moved over to such an economy. Rather, it is the state of economic emergency and the urgent need to obtain a $100 million loan from the IMF that has prompted the Belarusian leadership to take such unorthodox (by Belarusian standards) and unpopular measures. At the same time, facing the threat of trade union mass protests, Lukashenka vowed to control prices after the November hike and not to increase them by more than 3-4 percent a month. And in a successful bid to avert a trade union rally on 2 December, the "national headquarters" pledged to increase wages. Since Belarus does not have large hard-currency revenues, that pledge can only mean printing more inflationary money.

This week, the authorities were able to make the trade unions back down and thereby extinguish the incipient social unrest. But it is hardly conceivable that the government will be able to substantially increase the living standards of Belarusian workers, whose average monthly wage is equal to some $35. It is only a matter of time until workers start making demands again. The authorities, for their part, are finding it increasingly difficult to meet such demands as they continue to shy away from radically reforming Belarus's ineffectual and antiquated economy.


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