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Newsline - December 28, 1998




YELTSIN, LUKASHENKA SIGN NEW "UNION" AGREEMENT...

On 25 December, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a series of agreements that they said pointed toward a new "union of Russia and Belarus," Russian agencies reported. The documents call for a staged integration of the economic and political systems of the two countries over the next year, public discussion and a possible referendum on union, and opportunities for citizens of each country to participate in the political life of the other. But Lukashenka denied reports that he was preparing to run for the Russian presidency. (For further discussion of these accords, see today's Endnote.) PG

...BUT MANY UNCERTAIN OF ITS MEANING

Lukashenka suggested that the accords pointed to a rapid reunification of the two former Soviet republics, a position supported by Russian Communist Party chief Gennadii Zyuganov. But other Russian officials were much more cautious. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov noted that the documents signed were "a declaration, not a treaty of further unification." And Yeltsin's own spokesman Dmitrii Yakushkin said that no one was talking about a single army or a single budget for the two, still sovereign states. But CIS executive secretary Boris Berezovskii suggested that the new agreements ended what he said was an "unnatural" relationship between Russia and Belarus and could be adopted by other former Soviet republics as well. PG

TATAR PRESIDENT COMMENTS ON RUSSIA-BELARUS TREATY

Mintimer Shaimiev told journalists on 26 December that if the treaty signed between Russia and Belarus means the creation of an allied state between them, Tatarstan will seek the same powers as the allied republics will have, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. Shaimiev said the Declaration on unification and other documents signed by Yeltsin and Lukashenka contain a lot of indefinite and uncertain principles. If they mean economic integration, it should be welcomed, he said. But creation of an allied state will cause many problems, Shaimiev added, as Tatarstan, and other Russian republics will declare their place and participation in the new state. In the decades following the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, the Hungarians frequently blocked Vienna's attempts for a constitutional reorganization of the Austrian half of the Monarchy (raising the status of the Czech language, et.c) by claiming that if Austria changed its constitutional "nature," the 1867 agreement became legally invalid. LF/PM

DUMA RATIFIES RUSSIAN-UKRAINIAN FRIENDSHIP TREATY

By a vote of 244 to 30, the lower house of the Russian parliament on 25 December ratified the Russian-Ukrainian treaty on friendship, cooperation, and partnership that had been signed in Kyiv in May 1997. Officials in both capitals greeted the move, with Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov saying that the ratification of this treaty and the accord with Belarus "will become a step toward the unification of the three Slavic nations." PG

YELTSIN PROMISES CAMPAIGN AGAINST ANTI-SEMITISM...

Speaking on ORT television on 26 December, President Yeltsin said that he will soon launch a "powerful offensive" against anti- Semitism and extreme Russian nationalism, Russian agencies reported. Noting that both have surfaced in recent weeks -- including the anti-zionist declaration of Russian Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov that was released on 23 December -- Yeltsin said that he plans to propose a draft law that would allow the authorities to combat these evils and show that these qualities "after all, are not typical of Russia." PG

...DISCOUNTS POSSIBILITY OF EARLY PRESIDENTIAL VOTE...

In his ORT interview, the Russian president said that he sees no reason to expect an early presidential election. "No, and once again no," he said, according to Interfax. Yeltsin suggested that talk about elections is premature and those who were starting their campaigns this soon were making a mistake. But he promised that he will eventually name the person he would like to see as his successor. In another comment, Yeltsin indicated that he is opposed to sharing more power with either the parliament or the government. Were the country to be turned into a parliamentary election, Yeltsin said, "we'll simply lose Russia. That mustn't be allowed to happen." PG

...PRAISES PRIMAKOV...

In other remarks during his ORT interview, Yeltsin suggested that Prime Minister Primakov "is today the most efficient premier" and "enjoys the support of all parts of the government, Russian agencies reported. According to Yeltsin, Primakov "has a unique kind of intuition, which is of course the product of his former diplomatic career." And, Yeltsin added, "I just enjoy seeing him find solutions" to the country's problems. PG

...AND PROMISES TO PROTECT MEDIA FREEDOMS

Calling the country's media the fourth branch of law enforcement, the Russian President told the leaders of the leading television networks on 24 December that he will not allow the reimposition of censorship or other restrictions on the media, Russian agencies reported. And he added that he wants to provide them with more assistance so that they can do their jobs of informing the public. PG

DUMA APPROVES 1999 STATE BUDGET ON FIRST READING

Following a threat by Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov to resign if the lower house failed to approve the budget, the Duma on 24 December voted 303 to 65 for the measure on its first reading, Russian agencies reported. Majorities of most parties, except for Yabloko, voted for the measure. Perhaps more importantly, on 26 December, the government and the parliament reached agreement on a 49.5 percent-50.5 percent split in tax revenues between the central government and the regions. PG

A BAD YEAR IN THE ECONOMY

Based on statistics for the first 11 months of 1998, the Russian economics ministry said that the country's GDP would likely end down five percent for the year, Russian agencies reported. The ministry said that federal budget revenues had fallen 19 percent and tax revenues had declined 11 percent over the same period. It said that inflation for the year would likely reach 82 percent. And Russian trade minister Georgii Gabunia told Interfax on 28 December that Russian trade had fallen 17 percent from the year before. Exports dropped to $72,000 million and imports to $44,000 million. Meanwhile, the finance ministry reported on 25 December that Russia's external debt is expected to rise to $145,000 million by January 1999. PG

RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT DISCOUNTS FOOD SHORTAGES IN 1999

Deputy Prime Minister Gennadii Kulik told "Komsomolskaya Pravda" on 26 December that there will not be any food shortages in the Russian Federation in 1999. He said that the government is taking measures to ensure the delivery of food to distant regions and is also promoting imports of certain foods to help the country survive after its bad harvest in 1998. PG

RUSSIAN LIVING STANDARDS TO CONTINUE TO DECLINE

Economics Minister Andrei Shapovalyants told the Duma on 23 December that the living standards of Russians will continue to decline in 1999 but not by as much as they have fallen during 1998, Russian agencies reported. In 1998, per capita incomes fell 15.6 percent, and he said they will likely fall another 7.5 percent in 1999 before beginning to recover. PG

POLITICAL COOPERATION REJECTED

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov said on 24 December that he would not cooperate with UES chief Anatolii Chubais, and a day later Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed said that he would not cooperate with Luzhkov in upcoming elections, Russian agencies reported. But Luzhkov continued his own political campaign: his new deputy Sergei Yastrzhembskii said that he would work to ensure that everyone knows "the true Luzhkov," "Kommersant" reported on 25 December. PG

SHOKHIN LEAVES NDR FACTION

Following his ouster as leader of the Our Home is Russia parliamentary faction, Aleksandr Shokhin quit the NDR party altogether on 25 December, Interfax reported. Shokhin was ousted after a power struggle with Viktor Chernomyrdin on a 36 to 4 vote. PG

CORRUPTION SEEN AS GROWING THREAT

Corruption has grown to such an extent that it now "constitutes a threat to the Russian state," according to the press center of the Office of the Russian Prosecutor General, Interfax reported on 28 December. Indeed, according to one senior prosecutor, Russia now ranks in the top 10 countries around the world in terms of corruption. The announcement came as the chiefs of law enforcement agencies met in Moscow to map a strategy for overcoming this problem. Yurii Skuratov, the prosecutor general, said that economic crimes alone have cost the country 18,000 million rubles (some $900 million). True bank deposits are three or four times greater than official statistics suggest, and criminal groups keep more than 5,000 million Swiss francs in Swiss banks alone. PG

PRIMAKOV TO KEEP DEFENSE SPENDING AT 3.58 PERCENT OF GDP

The Russian prime minister said on 28 December he will try to keep defense spending in 1999 at the 3.58 percent that the military has requested, Interfax reported. His remarks come after a lobbying campaign by Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, who noted that the military needed this much if it was to buy a single additional tank in next year. But despite its poverty, the Russian military installed a new regiment of Topol-M missiles on 27 December and tested a new helicopter. In a related matter, the Federation Council rejected a draft law on military reform on 24 December. PG

RUSSIA EARNS $2,200 MILLION ON ATOMIC EXPORTS...

Lev Ryabev, Russia's deputy atomic energy minister, said that Moscow would earn $2,000-2,200 million from the export of nuclear equipment, materials and technology in 1998, Interfax reported on 24 December. While that figure was approximately the same as in 1997, Ryabev said that he expects major increases in earnings during 1999. PG

...AND EXPECTS TO EARN EVEN MORE FROM ARMS EXPORTS IN 1999

Russian Economics Minister Andrei Shapovalyants said on 25 December that Russia expects to export 20 percent more arms in 1999 than it did in 1998, Russian agencies reported. Much of the increase will come through sales to India. PG

US ACTIONS IN IRAQ SEEN AFFECTING TIES WITH MOSCOW

Russian diplomats told Interfax on 25 December that the US-UK attack on Iraq had cooled relations between Moscow and Washington. Russian public opinion, polls suggested, was overwhelmingly against the airstrikes. And the Russian air force commander said on the same day that the airstrikes had been much less effective than Washington has claimed. But the Russian ambassadors to London and Washington, earlier recalled for consultations, have now returned to their posts. PG

CENTER-RIGHT COALITION NAMES COORDINATING COUNCIL

The Center-Right Coalition named former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, former tax service chief Boris Fyodorov, former first deputy premier Anatoly Chubais, and Aleksandr Yakovlev as well as the governor of Tver Valerii Platov and the chairmen of all the political parties that make up the coalition members of its coordinating council, Interfax reported on 25 December. PG

KIRIENKO RULES OUT PRESIDENTIAL BID

In a message released via the Internet on 24 December, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko said that he will not run for president in the year 2000. But he did say that he will take an active part in the New Force movement during the 1999 parliamentary elections and indicated that he might cooperate with Grigorii Yavlinsky of the Yabloko party and with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's Fatherland movement. PG

RUSSIA UNWILLING TO EXCHANGE INSPECTORS WITH US

In announcing the completition of a series of five non-nuclear tests at the Novaya Zemlya facility, Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Lev Ryabev said on 24 December that the Russian government is opposed to having any American inspectors present during these tests or to sending Russian inspectors to the United States, Interfax reported. "The U.S. is inviting us to its own test sites and wants to be present at ours. But we don't go to them and don't let them come here," he said.

RUSSIAN SECURITY COUNCIL WORRIED ABOUT KALININGRAD

Vyacheslav Mikhailov, first deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, told a meeting in Kaliningrad on 24 December that Moscow "needs to give more attention" to that region's internal problems "in order to secure" Russia's national interests, BNS reported. Moreover, Mikhailov said, the central government needs to address the very special nature of this enclave rather than treating it simply as a member of the federation like all others. PG

RUSSIANS -- NARROWLY -- WANT DZERZHINSKY STATUE BACK

According to a mid-December poll by the Public Opinion Fund, 45 percent of the 1500 people queries said they would like the statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police returned to Moscow's Lubyanka square, whereas 36 percent opposed such a step, Interfax reported on 27 December. Residents of the capital and highly educated people were generally opposed to the move; rural residents and the supporters of the Russian Communist Party were in favor. PG

OCALAN NOT TO RETURN TO RUSSIA

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin has categorically denied Russian media reports that Kurdish Workers' Party leader Abdullah Ocalan has returned from Rome to Russia to seek asylum there. Rakhmanin told ITAR-TASS on 24 December that Ocalan will not enter Russia. Federal Security Service Public Relations Department chief Aleksandr Zdanovich refused to comment on the media reports, which Kurdish representatives in Moscow have also denied. ITAR-TASS on 23 December had quoted members of Ocalan's entourage as saying that the PKK leader would like to settle in Ukraine, Estonia or the Czech Republic. LF

CHECHEN RELIGIOUS COURT EXONERATES PRESIDENT...

Chechnya's Supreme Shariah court ruled late on 24 December that President Aslan Maskhadov had violated some provisions of the Chechen Constitution, but that those violations do not warrant his impeachment as demanded by field commanders Shamil Basaev, Salman Raduev and Khunkar-pasha Israpilov, ITAR-TASS reported. The court also found Maskhadov guilty of appointing to senior positions officials who had allegedly collaborated with the Russian-backed Chechen government during the 1994-1996 war, and called for the dismissal of Prosecutor-General Mansur Tagirov and Deputy Prime Minister Yusup Soslambekov. LF

...BUT SUSPENDS PARLIAMENT

Also on 24 December, the Supreme Shariah court called on Maskhadov to dissolve the Chechen parliament, arguing that its legislative activities contravene Islamic law. The court specifically called for the dismissal of parliament chairman Ruslan Alikhadjiev for having allegedly made repeated public statements that defy Islamic law, according to ITAR-TASS. The court proposed that the parliament be replaced by a council of top military commanders. The Chechen parliament met in closed session on 27 December to debate the court verdict. Former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin told Interfax on 26 December that the Chechen Shariah court ruling violates the Chechen constitution. LF




NEW PRIME MINISTER APPOINTED IN KYRGYZSTAN

The People's Assembly approved 54-year-old Jumabek Ibraimov as the country's new Prime Minister on 25 December, RFE/RL correspondents in Bishkek reported. Only the approval of the People's Assembly is required to confirm a Prime Minister. President Askar Akayev nominated Ibraimov to the post after the Kyrgyz government resigned, at Akayev's request, on 23 December. Prior to his appointment as Prime Minister, Ibraimov was the chairman of the State Property Committee. He is known to have health problems. Outgoing Prime Minister Kubanychbek JumAliyev was elected governor of the Jalalabad Region by the region's assembly the same day Ibraimov was confirmed as Prime Minister. Akayev sacked the previous Jalalabad governor, Bekbolot Talgarbekov, on 17 December. BP

KAZAKH PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES COMPLAIN ABOUT "OBSTACLES"

Presidential candidate Gani Kasymov, who is head of Kazakhstan's Customs Committee, said no locations where he can meet with voters have been made available to him, Interfax reported on 24 December. Kasymov also said his election posters and leaflets have been torn down and documents outlining his programs have been sent to, but not published by, Kazakh media outlets. Kasymov referred to a poll conducted by the Kazakh Television Channel which showed him trailing incumbent candidate Nursultan Nazarbayev by 13 percentage points. Meanwhile, Communist Party presidential candidate Serikbolsyn Abdildin said at a 25 December news conference in Almaty that Kazakh authorities are interfering with his campaign. Abdildin claimed that in Karaganda, where Nazarbayev has wide support, the head of the regional election committee "made it understood that the other candidates (to Nazarbayev) have no chances." BP

OSCE WILL NOT SEND OBSERVER MISSION TO KAZAKH ELECTION

Judy Thompson, the coordinator of the OSCE mission in Kazakhstan, said on 24 December that the organization will not send observers to monitor the10 January presidential elections, Interfax and Reuters reported. Thompson repeated the OSCE view that the announcement of the elections in early October did not give candidates enough time to prepare. Thompson also said that "the refusal to register two potential candidates poses a serious problem." The OSCE will send a 15-member team to assess the election process, but stressed that should not be mistaken for an observer mission. BP

NEW KAZAKH POLITICAL PARTY EXPERIENCING DIFFICULTIES

Almira Khusainova, an advisor to the Republican People's Party, has been accused of breaking the law, RFE/RL correspondents in Almaty reported on 25 December. Police claim that according to the law, they should have been allowed to attend the 17 December meeting which officially created the party. Khusainova is accused of barring the police from attending. The Republican People's Party is headed by former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was prohibited by a court decision in November from participating in the 10 January presidential elections. BP

TURKMENISTAN WILL RESUME GAS SUPPLIES TO UKRAINE

Russia's Gazprom agreed on 27 December to a deal allowing Turkmenistan to resume shipments of gas to Ukraine, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. That decision cleared the only remaining obstacle to delivery of Turkmen gas to Ukraine which had been cut off in early 1997. On 23 December, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma visited Turkmenistan to negotiate terms for the resumption of gas shipments. Kuchma signed an interstate agreement with his Turkmen counterpart, Saparmurat Niyazov, under which Turkmenistan will provide Ukraine with 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 1999. Interfax reported that the price of 1,000 cubic meters of gas at the Turkmen-Uzbek border will be $36. The same amount of gas will cost $68-72 at the Russian-Ukraine border. Ukraine will pay Turkmenistan 40 percent of the cost of the gas in hard currency and the remaining 60 percent in goods and services. BP

ARMENIA, GEORGIA, BULGARIA SIGN TRANSPORT AGREEMENT

The transport ministers of Armenia, Georgia and Bulgaria signed a protocol in Yerevan on 23 December on transporting freight to Europe via a recently inaugurated ferry link from the Black Sea Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi to Varna, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Iran has also expressed an interest in joining the tripartite agreement, and Iranian diplomats attended the signing ceremony. Armenian Transport Minister Yervand Zakharian said access to those rail and ferry connections could boost Armenia's external cargo turnover by 20-30 percent in 1999. LF

ARMENIA ANNOUNCES CONFERENCE ON DIASPORA RELATIONS

Armenian Presidential Press Secretary Vahe Gabrielian announced on 24 December that Armenia will hold a major conference in September, 1999 on relations with the diaspora, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. President Kocharian has created a government commission to prepare for the conference, headed by Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. In a press statement, the two ministers said that diaspora aid to Armenia since independence "has not been sufficient and coordinated" to deal with "pan-national issues." "On the eve of the 21st century we have been given an opportunity to consolidate our spiritual, material and intellectual abilities for the sake of attaining national goals," the statement concludes. LF

AZERBAIJANI FOREIGN MINISTER ENDS MOSCOW VISIT

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 24 December following a two-day visit by his Azerbaijani colleague Tofik Zulfugarov, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov acknowledged that serious problems persist in relations between the two countries, Russian agencies reported. Ivanov said that both sides acknowledged the need to resume talks within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group on resolving the Karabakh conflict. He also said that coonsultations will continue between the two countries on resolving their disagreement over the optimum approach to determining the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Finally, Ivanov again denied that Russia's intensive military cooperation with Armenia is directed against Azerbaijan. He said Moscow aspires to "the closest possible friendly relations" with Baku in the interests of furthering integration within the CIS and stability in the Caucasus region. LF

AZERBAIJAN, JAPAN SIGN NEW OIL CONTRACT

The Azerbaijan state oil company SOCAR signed a $2.3 billion contract on 25 December with five Japanese oil companies to develop three off-shore Caspian oilfields with estimated recoverable reserves of 75-90 million metric tons. The contract is the sixteenth Azerbaijan has signed with international companies. LF

GEORGIA DENIES LANDING TROOPS IN ABKHAZIA

Speaking in Tbilisi on 26 and 27 December respectively, Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze and Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze denied Abkhaz Defense and Interior Ministry claims that a 12-15 man Georgian landing party had disembarked on 25 December near the village of Primorskoye in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. Lortkipanidze on 26 December said that Abkhaz Premier Sergei Bagapsh had also said that no Georgian force had landed in Primorskoye, but Abkhaz Interior Minister Astamur Tarba insisted on 28 December that the initial reports were true. Tarba added that a Georgian vessel opened fire on Abkhaz coastguards who tried to prevent the Georgian force from landing. LF

GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER ON RUSSIAN BASE, ARMS PURCHASES

Speaking at a news conference in Tbilisi on 24 December, Davit Tevzadze called for the signing of a new treaty on Georgian-Russian military cooperation that would resolve what he termed the "legal vacuum" surrounding the status of the Russian military bases in Georgia, ITAR-TASS reported. The Georgian parliament has pegged ratification of a bilateral treaty on military cooperation signed in early 1994 to Russian help in restoring Tbilisi's control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tevzadze also conformed media reports that Georgia is to purchase decommissioned tanks from the Czech Republic, Caucasus Press reported. Tevzadze conceded that the quality of the tanks is not optimum, but said that they are "relatively cheap." Meanwhile two senior Georgian army officers have been placed under house arrest for purchasing sub-standard weaponry, also from the Czech Republic, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 December. LF

GREEK DIPLOMAT SHOT DEAD IN TBILISI

Anastasios Mitzitrasos, a 37-year-old security attache at the Greek Embassy in Georgia, was shot dead at the entrance to his Tbilisi apartment on 24 December. The killers escaped. Caucasus Press on 25 December quoted an anonymous Georgian official as confirming media speculation that Mitzitrasos had been engaged in illegal financial activities. LF




UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT DELAYS ADOPTING 1999 BUDGET...

The Ukrainian Supreme Council on 25 December postponed the debate on the government's 1999 draft budget until next week after deputies failed to agree on the projected deficit of 1 percent of GDP. The draft budget provides for revenues of 23.4 billion hryvni ($6.8 billion) and expenditures of 24.6 billion hryvni, with annual inflation forecast at 19 percent. Finance Minister Ihor Mityukov, who presented the budget to lawmakers, argued that with Ukraine's economy expected to decline by 1 percent in 1999 it is unrealistic to count on revenues and expenditures as high as the parliament wanted. Meanwhile, President Leonid Kuchma on 26 December said he will leave lawmakers without their salaries unless they pass the 1999 draft budget. "This is for sure. This cannot go on like this," ITAR-TASS quoted him as saying. JM

...RAISES MINIMUM WAGE ONCE AGAIN...

The parliament also increased Ukraine's minimum wage the same day from 55 hryvni ($16) to 73.7 hryvni and set the official poverty level at 90.7 hryvni. The decision was taken two days after the legislature failed to override Kuchma's veto on a bill passed in November, which nearly tripled the minimum wage to 148 hryvni. JM

...AND APPROVES CRIMEAN CONSTITUTION

By a vote of 230 to 67 the parliament on 23 December approved a new constitution for Crimea, Ukraine's only autonomous republic. The constitution allows Crimea to have its own government and legislature and permits the republic to independently sign foreign trade deals. It also stipulates that all taxes and duties collected on Crimean territory are to be directed to the republic's budget. Over the past six years, Crimean lawmakers have submitted four constitutional drafts, but all were either rejected or approved only partially due to what Kyiv's parliamentarians considered separatist provisions. The latest constitution draft was approved after deputies had inserted a separate provision that bans Crimea from approving legislation not in accord with Ukrainian law. JM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION PROTESTS 25 DECEMBER BELARUS-RUSSIA UNION DECLARATION

On 25 December in Minsk police arrested some 10 demonstrators during an opposition protest against the Belarus-Russia declaration on a single union state signed by Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Boris Yeltsin in Moscow the same day, Reuters and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. The demonstrators, who carried white-red-white flags, paralysed the traffic in the center of Minsk for some 15 minutes. Two protesters have been hospitalized after their arrest. Meanwhile, Stanislau Shushkevich, Mechyslau Hryb, and Syamyon Sharetski, three former speakers of the Supreme Soviet which was dissolved by Lukashenka in 1996, denounced the signing of the 25 December declaration as a "crime against the Belarusian nation. Lukashenka is afraid of free elections. That is why he is going to surrender our country's independence, in the hope of acquiring supreme power in the united state," they said. JM

LUKASHENKA DWELLS UPON FUTURE BELARUS-RUSSIA UNION

During a live two-hour television appearance on 27 December, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka presented his vision of the Belarus- Russia Union following the signing of the 25 December Belarusian-Russian declaration on steps toward a single state. He said the union should have supranational power and administration bodies, including a parliament and a government. Lukashenka insisted that the two countries "will remain sovereign states," but that the union leadership should be empowered with such functions as the coordination of foreign policy, defense, the customs service, and the border troops. He did not rule out a common president "if a presidential form of government is chosen." He added that privatization should be carried out independently by each union state. JM

ESTONIAN PREMIER SAYS EU MEMBERSHIP "NOT GOAL IN ITSELF"

Mart Siiman told Estonian state radio on 23 December that Tallinn would not take any steps detrimental to the Estonian people just to get into the European Union, BNS reported. "For us, the European Union is not a goal in itself. In this access process, the interests of the state and the people must not suffer." And he added that "nothing will be wrong if Estonia is not a member of the European Union on January 1, 2003." PG

ESTONIA FACES RISING CRIME RATE

Estonian criminologist Juri Saar told BNS on 23 December that the number of crimes committed in 1998 was greater than in any year since the restoration of independence, but that the rate of increase had slowed slightly and the number of violent crimes had actually dropped. The total number of crimes rose 11.4 percent during the first 11 months of 1998 compared to the same period in 1997. For the comparable period a year earlier, the number of crimes rose some 15.7 percent. Faced with this increase, the Estonian police have agreed to make use of personnel from the country's paramilitary Kaisetliit units after the latter undergo special training. PG

ILVES SAYS ESTONIA IS A NORDIC COUNTRY, NOT A BALTIC ONE

Writing in "Eesti Ekspress," former Estonian foreign minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves argued that his country is part of the Nordic region rather than one of three Baltic states, BNS reported on 23 December. Estonia has few cultural or historical links with Latvia and Lithuania, Ilves suggested. And he noted that Lithuanian leaders agree with him. He cited Lithuania's foreign minister Algirdas Saudargas as having said "on numerous occasions" that Lithuania's "historical, religious, geographic and other ties are not with the Baltic states but with Central Europe through Poland." Ilves concluded that the best way to describe Estonia is as "the only post-communist Nordic country." PG

LATVIA OPPOSES ECONOMIC BARRIERS AMONG BALTIC STATES

Latvian Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans is categorically against the erection of any economic barriers among the three Baltic states, BNS reported on 23 December. He told Latvian state radio that his government would take what he said were strong measures to protect domestic food producers against imports but that he would oppose new barriers to food imports from the two other Baltic states. PG

LATVIA SEEKS TO UPGRADE ITS MILITARY

Defense Minister Valdis Kristovskis told BNS on 24 December that he is working to overcome what he acknowledged is a disastrous situation in the Latvian army. By raising military pay and reorganizing the internal structure of the forces, Kristovskis said he hopes to make the army more capable. At present, it is losing officers to better paying jobs in the private sector and is experiencing enormous difficulties with draftees. One-fifth of the latter cannot speak the national language, 10 percent have a criminal record, and 62 percent have less than a complete secondary school education. PG

LITHUANIANS ORDER RUSSIAN MILITARY TEAM OFF TRAIN

Lithuanian border guards forced 28 Russian soldiers to leave a train at the Kaliningrad-Lithuanian border when the troops attempted to travel without the necessary papers, BNS reported on 23 December. PG

MOSCOW CRITICIZES LITHUANIA ON RUSSIAN MINORITY

The Russian embassy in Vilnius has issued a press statement sharply critical of the way in which Lithuania has dealt with Russian citizens living on its territory, BNS reported on 28 December. The embassy statement criticized the trials of pro- Soviet activists, the failure of the government to register an association of Russian citizens, and problems in Russian- language schools. It said that these actions have raised concerns "in Russian society." PG

LITHUANIAN GOVERNMENT CONSIDERS CLOSING IGNALINA AES

The Lithuanian government has approved in principle two scenarios for closing the Ignalina atomic power station, BNS reported on 24 December. Under the first, Ignalina would be forced to close sometime in the next two years; under the second, it would be upgraded and allowed to continue to operate until 2020 or even later. Vilnius is under pressure from the European Commission to come up with a plan to close the reactor. PG

POLISH MINERS WIN PENSIONS CONCESSION, END STRIKE

On 24 December, Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski and Labor Minister Longin Komolowski signed an accord promising to preserve miners' right to early retirement with full pension after 25 years of work regardless of employees' age, Polish media reported the same day. A special bill including the early retirement rule is to be adopted by parliament within six months. The miners who have been protesting underground for two weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December) have left their mines. The signed deal signifies a major concession to miners who protested the new pension system that sets the retirement age at 65 for men and 60 for women. JM

POLAND'S LUSTRATION PROCEDURE STARTS IN 1999

Early next year the Warsaw Appeals Court will start reviewing some 23,000 statements by current politicians, parliamentary deputies, and other top public post holders on whether they collaborated with the Communist-era secret police, PAP reported on 23 December. Such statements are a requirement under Poland's lustration law passed in 1997. The law stipulates that those who admit having collaborated with the secret police will not be forbidden to participate in politics or public life, whereas concealment of such facts will be punished with a 10-year ban on holding some public posts. Thus far, some 100 officials have admitted that they worked for the Communist secret services. Their names will be published in the government's official journal. JM

SLOVAKIA TO PURSUE EU MEMBERSHIP OFFENSIVE

Deputy premier Pavol Hamzik on 26 December said Slovakia will "do everything" for the European Union to decide in 1999 in favor of inviting Bratislava for talks on membership, TASR reported. Hamzik said Slovakia must better coordinate its legislation with that of the EU and make better use of the Phare programs for EU assistance. He also said his country will be more active in pursuing bilateral relations with EU members and with neighboring states to build up support for accession to the EU. MS

SLOVAK CABINET TO FREEZE STATE SALARIES

The cabinet decided against wage hikes for state employees in 1999, as part of the effort to improve the country's economic situation, AP reported on 23 December. Government officials will also forego a raise in wages. Premier Mikulas Dzurinda told journalists that a package of other measures will be introduced on 7 January and that the cabinet wants "to ask the citizens to help us heal the country's economy." MS

ORBAN DISCUSSES HUNGARIANS BEYOND BORDERS

In an interview with Duna TV on 23 December, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Hungary "can not be satisfied with the situation of Hungarians beyond the border as long as there is no independent university [with Hungarian tuition] in places where there is a large Hungarian minority," because of the danger of "slow assimilation." He said his government has allocated considerable funding for education for Hungarians abroad but the results thus far are "partial," and a breakthrough will only be achieved when Romania agrees to an independent university for the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Orban said he expects the situation of Hungarians in Croatia to improve with the envisaged "strategic cooperation" between the two countries, but the situation in Ukraine is "more difficult" since the country is large and has "a cumbersome and complicated administrative system." MS

HUNGARIAN GOVERNING PARTIES WELCOME OPPOSITION'S NATO-RELATED INITIATIVE

National Security Adviser and parliamentary Defense Committee chairman Bela Gyuricza on 24 December said in an interview with "Nepszabadsag" that the opposition's suggestions on amendments to the constitution to make possible the transit of NATO peace keeping troops through Hungary are "a possible base for talks." Zsolt Lanyi, of the Independent Smallholders' Party (FKGP) said the proposal is "suitable for parliamentary debate." But FKGP parliamentary group leader Attila Bank said the Socialist Party's proposed compromise was "a false solution that would only complicate the situation." (See "RFE/RL Newsline, 23 December 1998). MS




FOUR DAYS OF CLASHES IN KOSOVA

Serbian security forces exchanged fire with the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) in the Llap region near Podujeva between 24 and 27 December, leaving at least 12 persons dead. It marked the worst fighting since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke reached an agreement on 12 October. Serbian spokesmen said that the renewed crackdown was necessary following what the spokesmen claimed were attacks by the UCK on individual Serbs. But observers noted that the Serbs' use of up to 100 tanks was a disproportionate response to the UCK's provocations. The observers added that the Serbs' extensive use of heavy armor may be in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. U.S. envoy William Walker, who heads the civilian monitoring mission, announced on 28 December that he had secured a cease-fire. Observers suggested that the agreement was only a temporary truce to allow both sides to evacuate their wounded. PM

FUTURE OF MONITORING IN DOUBT

OSCE Chairman Bronislaw Geremek said in a statement in Vienna on 28 December that the "spiral of violence puts in danger the perspective of a peaceful solution to the conflict If the bloodshed and violence escalate, the OSCE would have to reconsider the forms of its activities [in Kosova] in the context of a broader involvement of the international community in the search for a peaceful solution to the conflict." Some 600 unarmed monitors, known as "verifiers," have arrived in Kosova under the terms of the Milosevic-Holbrooke pact. The remaining 1,400 were to have arrived by early January, but Geremek's remarks suggest that the OSCE may reconsider its plans. The London-based "Daily Telegraph" wrote on 28 December that the flow of events is forcing the monitors into the role of peace-keepers, which neither they nor anyone else wants. PM

RENEWED ETHNIC CLEANSING' IN KOSOVA?

The UCK said in a series of statements in recent days that it still respects the overall cease-fire but that it will fight in self-defense wherever Serbian forces attack. Also over the long weekend, up to 1,000 Kosovars fled their homes in the Podujeva region in sub-freezing temperatures. The "Guardian" wrote on 28 December that this could be the beginning of a new wave of displaced persons in the province. One of the main goals of the Milosevic-Holbrooke pact was to enable refugees and displaced persons to go home before the onset of winter. EuroNews Television reported on 28 December that "instances of ethnic cleansing" have taken place, in which Serbian forces have looted and burned Kosovar homes. The London "Times" noted that Kosova remains "a powder keg." Balkan expert Tim Judah told BBC Television that the crux of the problem remains that Serbian and Kosovar goals are irreconcilable. PM

NATO'S CLARK SPEAKS OF 'NEW PHASE'

U.S. General Wesley Clark, who is the supreme allied commander in Europe, told dpa in Hamburg on 26 December that "we are seeing the emergence of a new round of a possible significant escalation in the scope and intensity of the violence by the Serb side. The Yugoslav army has broken its promises to NATO The facts have been passed to NATO political authorities." On 24 December, a White House spokesman said that the U.S. strongly protested to Belgrade the actions of the Serbian security forces. PM

ALBANIA WANTS NATO INTERVENTION IN KOSOVA

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 24 December condemning the military operation of Serbian forces around Podujeva. The statement called for more international pressure on Belgrade and for NATO intervention in Kosova. Prime Minister Pandeli Majko told a special parliamentary session that "the latest course of events shows that NATO action is a determining factor for the political solution," dpa reported. Majko also called on the opposition Democratic Party to end its boycott and participate in a 28 December parliamentary session, which is slated to approve a resolution on Kosova. Democrat leader Sali Berisha, however, told a press conference in Tirana on 24 December that it is up to the party's National Council to decide about a possible return to parliament. He added that he does not expect his party to return soon, "Albania" reported. FS

LEADING KOSOVAR POLITICAL PRISONER ORDERED BACK TO JAIL

The Prishtina district court has sentenced some 15 Kosovars to jail terms ranging from three to ten years, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 25 December. Most of those tried come from Kacanik and were charged with "hostile activity" and "terrorism." Berat Luzha, a journalist with the daily "Bujku" and chairman of the Kosova Association of Political Prisoners, was tried in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison, KIC news agency added. The Milosevic-Holbrooke pact includes an amnesty for all offenses connected with the fighting this year except for war crimes. PM

MILOSEVIC RESHUFFLES ARMY COMMAND

The Yugoslav president announced a series of new appointments to top military positions on 25 December. These include the promotion of General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who headed the Prishtina Corps, to become Commander of the Third Army, which includes Kosova, Reuters reported. The shuffle follows the sacking of General Momcilo Perisic as chief-of-staff one month ago. Milosevic has never fully trusted the army and instead built up the paramilitary police force as his Praetorian Guard. PM

REPUBLIKA SRPSKA PARLIAMENT BACKS DODIK

Muslim, Croatian and moderate Serbian deputies voted in Banja Luka on 24 December to keep Prime Minister Milorad Dodik in office. Three days later, President Nikola Poplasen said that he nonetheless wants his fellow hard-liner Dragan Kalinic to head the cabinet, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

DRUG BUST IN MACEDONIA TO HERALD NEW POLICY?

Customs police on the Greek border on 24 December discovered the largest illegal shipment of marijuana in Macedonia to date. The cannabis, which was hidden on a truck, has a street value of $1.5 million. An RFE/RL correspondent in Skopje said that the bust reflects the seriousness of the new government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski in cleaning up smuggling and corruption. The correspondent added that the marijuana haul is but the "tip of the iceberg," and that observers expect the authorities to launch further drug busts in coming weeks. PM

BLAST DESTROYS CENTRAL ALBANIAN POWER LINE

An explosion destroyed a high-voltage power line in central Albania on 25 December. It was the fifth such blast this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 1998). The Interior Ministry issued a statement blaming the attack on unspecified saboteurs seeking to "destabilize the country." Government officials have linked the opposition to previous blasts, but did not name specific suspects. Police have not made any arrests. Democratic Party Secretary Fatos Beja condemned the blast on 25 December as a "terrorist act [against] the whole population." He called on police to bring the bombers to court, "Rilindja Demokratike" reported. FS

FITCH IBCA DOWNGRADES ROMANIA'S RATING

The international European rating agency Fitch IBCA announced on 23 December it was downgrading Romania's rating for servicing its long- term foreign debt from BB to B and the rating for servicing its domestic debt from BBB to BB, Mediafax reported. Two American rating agencies, Moody's and Standard & Poor, twice downgraded Romania's country risk in recent months. Fitch IBCA cited as reasons Romania's current account deficit of about 7 percent of the Gross Domestic Product and the country's continued economic decline, estimated at 5 percent of the GDP in 1998. It said this renders doubtful Romania's capability to service in 1999 its nearly $ 3 billion foreign debt or to raise from lenders the $ 5 billion needed to cover both the external debt and the current deficit account. MS

POLLS SHOWS ROMANIANS UNDECIDED ON POLITICAL OPTIONS

A public opinion poll conducted by the Center for Urban and Rural Sociology on behalf of the National Liberal Party shows that nearly half (47 percent) of Romanians are undecided about their political options, the media reported on 23 December. Among decided voters, 29.8 percent support the Democratic Convention of Romania, closely followed by the opposition Party of Social Democracy in Romania (28.5 percent). The extremist Greater Romania Party (PRM) is third (17.3), followed by the Democratic Party (10.5), the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (6.1) and the Alliance for Romania ( APR, 5.2 percent). In a presidential contest, President Emil Constantinescu would garner 30 percent of the vote, former president Ion Iliescu 26.2, PRM leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor 17.3, APR leader Teodor Melescanu 15.1 and Democratic Party chairman Petre Roman 7.8 percent. MS

LUCINSCHI POSTPONES SUMMIT

President Petru Lucinschi on 24 December postponed a summit meeting with Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov, scheduled for 25 December, Infotag and Flux reported. Lucinschi's representative at the talks with the separatists, Ion Lesan, said the postponement was due to the fact that Lucinschi's "presence in Chisinau was necessary in order for him to participate in the search for solutions to some social and economic problems." The meeting was to discuss, among other things, the special status of the separatist region. On the same day, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry released a statement protesting against the recent declarations of Russian Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Tiraspol and calling them a "gross interference in Moldovan internal affairs" (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 23 December 1998). MS

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS PRESIDENTIAL APPEAL ON ADMINISTRATIVE LAW

The parliament on 23 December reconfirmed its earlier decision to include the Taraclia district in the Cahul County, thus rejecting President Petru Lucinschi's appeal to grant the district (inhabited largely by ethnic Bulgarians) administrative independence, Infotag and Flux reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 1998). Iurie Rosca, co-chairman of the Democratic Convention of Moldova (CDM), threatened to dismiss parliament chairman Dumitru Diacov unless the law was reconfirmed. Diacov said this amounted to a "dictatorship of the CDM" over the governmental Alliance for Democracy and Reforms (APDR). In an interview with "Novoye Vremia" on 25 December, Diacov said that "some partners in the ruling coalition are beginning to sabotage the terms on which the APDR has been set up and seek to provoke a conflict between the president and the parliament," Infotag reported. MS

BULGARIAN PROSECUTOR GENERAL ASKS COURT TO VOID MONARCHY ABOLITION

Prosecutor General Ivan Tatarchev asked the Constitutional Court to declare void the 1946 referendum that abolished the monarchy, Reuters and AP reported on 23 December. Tatarchev says that under the law, the constitution could not be changed by a referendum. The court is expected to rule at the end of January. The appeal coincided with a visit to Bulgaria by former king Simeon II, who was received by President Petar Stoyanov on 23 December. Stoyanov showed the former monarch Bulgaria's new coat of arms, in which the royal regalia have been restored. A presidential spokesman said they discussed ways to improve Bulgaria's international image and that Simeon pledged "to work for his country, as he always has done." MS

TURKISH COMMEMORATION MONUMENT DEFACED IN BULGARIA

A monument in Momchilgrad commemorating the victims of totalitarianism and of enforced assimilation of Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish minority in the 1980s, has been desecrated, BTA reported on 27 December. Lyutvi Mestan, a deputy representing the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, told a rally in Momchilgrad that Bulgaria's respect of minorities' rights "is still below that of European standards." MS




END NOTE: A DIVISIVE CALL FOR UNITY


by Paul Goble

An agreement between the Russian and Belarusian presidents to move toward the merger of their countries is sending shockwaves through both countries, the other post- Soviet states, and the West as well. And it is having this effect even though many people in all three places are now dismissing this accord either because they oppose such a new union state or because they doubt that these two former Soviet republics will ever form one.

On 25 December, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a series of accords in the Kremlin that both men said pointed toward the unification of the two countries into a single state, possibly as soon as mid-1999.

And while they promised that there would be "public discussion" of this idea -- the Russian press even called for a plebiscite -- the two presidents said that they had already agreed to introduce a single currency and common tax system early next year.

Not surprisingly, this announcement has had an immediate impact in the two countries most directly affected. In Russia, reformers have spoken out against this move. On the one hand, they are concerned about the way in which this agreement was reached.

And on the other, they view it as a threat to democracy and free market economics, with many fearful that such a reunification would transform the authoritarian Belarusian president into a major player on the Russian political scene.

That latter possibility -- a Lukashenka run for the Russian presidency -- has somewhat dampened the enthusiasm of Russian communists and nationalists who otherwise welcome what they see as a restoration of the past and a challenge to NATO and the West. Consequently, at least some of them may oppose the reunification of the two countries for the same reason they have blocked it earlier: the enormous financial costs unity would impose on Russia itself.

Meanwhile, in Belarus, the impact of the accord has been still more dramatic. Given the extent of Lukashenka's increasingly authoritarian control in Minsk, Belarusian officials have dutifully backed the Yeltsin-Lukashenka deal.

But democratic activists opposed to it clashed with police over the weekend. And the Belarusian Popular Front issued a statement noting that the accord reflects Lukashenka's willingness "to eliminate Belarusian statehood" in order to enhance his power.

This fundamental difference of opinion sets the stage for ever sharper political combat between Lukashenka and those Belarusians who are committed not only to national independence but to democracy, free markets, and cooperation with the West.

As dramatic as that clash is likely to be in the coming weeks and months, the consequences of the Yeltsin-Lukashenka accord on Russian relations with the other post-Soviet states and with the West are likely to prove far more significant.

The Yeltsin-Lukashenka accord appears certain to presage an expanded effort by Moscow to promote the reintegration of the former Soviet republics. And such a move will almost certainly exacerbate relations within and among them.

Within many of these countries, some political factions will welcome proposals for closer relations, given their current economic difficulties. But there will be many more who will oppose any such moves lest they lead as with Belarus to the extinction of national statehood.

And whatever the outcome in the short term, such domestic conflicts are likely to leave many of the governments involved weakened politically, thus setting the stage for increased Russian influence there despite Moscow's current weakness.

But the greatest challenge by far that is posed by the Yeltsin-Lukashenka agreement may be to Western governments: First, it represents a direct challenge to NATO which is now scheduled to include Poland as a member later this spring.

Second, it highlights the continuing influence in Moscow of those interested in reversing the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union and calls into question Yeltsin's past commitments to oppose any such revision.

And third, by setting the stage for greater conflict among the post-Soviet states as well as between Moscow and the West, this agreement may force Western governments to play a very different role than they would like.

While increased conflict in the region may lead some to advocate a further retrenchment of Western involvement in the region, increased conflict between Moscow and the West would likely have precisely the opposite effect.

And for all these reasons, the Yeltsin-Lukashenka accord appears likely to define the nature of many conflicts in the post-Soviet states during the next year as well as the ways in which all the players will respond.


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