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Newsline - January 11, 1999




FINANCE MINISTRY DENIES RUSSIA IN DEFAULT

In a statement released on 9 January, the Russian Finance Ministry denied reports that Moscow has defaulted on its foreign debt or faces seizure of its assets abroad as a result, ITAR-TASS reported. The ministry said that Moscow has taken a series of "civilized steps" to deal with the Russian debt. But in an indication that Moscow may not soon pay all its debts, the ministry acknowledged that Russia has budgeted only $9.5 billion of the $17.5 billion required for debt servicing this year. And the statement said that Moscow would seek more foreign help to cover its debts. In the absence of such help, officials said, Russia's economic and political situation would deteriorate even further. PG

MASLYUKOV TO CUT SHORT U.S. TRIP TO MEET WITH IMF MISSION

First Deputy Prime Minister Yurii Maslyukov will cut short his visit to Washington in order to return to Moscow on 15 January, Interfax- FIA reported on 10 January. Finance Ministry officials said they expect a mission from the IMF to arrive before the end of January, but they acknowledged that no date has been set. PG

DUMA TO CONSIDER BUDGET THIS WEEK

State Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev said on 9 January that the Duma may debate the 1999 state budget at an extraordinary session on 19 January, Russian agencies reported. He added that the budget might receive final approval in early February. Meanwhile, Russian Communist Party chief Gennadii Zyuganov told RIA that the lower house of the parliament will pass the budget by the end of January. But the Duma's budget committee on 10 January called for cutting 1999 expenditures on the country's state administration by some 1.8 billion rubles ($85 million), Interfax reported. PG

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO EXAMINE IMPEACHMENT QUERIES

Mikhail Mityukov, Yeltsin's representative to the Constitutional Court, told Interfax on 8 January that the court will consider a Duma inquiry about when a prime minister should assume the powers of the president and when elections should be held if the president is no longer physically capable of performing his functions. Mityukov said that this inquiry is part of what the Duma's "long- lasting 'medical' impeachment campaign." PG

YELTSIN URGED NOT TO TAX JUDGES...

The leaders of Russia's highest courts have called on Yeltsin to block the levying of taxes on judges' incomes, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 January. An amendment to tax legislation submitted to the Duma would tax their incomes for the first time, cutting their incomes by almost a third, the appeal said. They also suggested that such a tax would "provoke a mass exodus of judges" while contributing little revenue to the state. Yeltsin reportedly has directed Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov to modify the legislation in response to the judges' concerns. PG

...VOIDS SAKHA GOLD DECREE

The Russian president on 10 January revoked an August 1998 decree by Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) President Mikahil Nikolaev on the disposition of gold supplies, Interfax reported. Yeltsin's decree said that Nikolaev's decree violates the law on precious metals and must be revised. Officials at the Russian state gold holding agency Goskhran said that Yeltsin's action would "have a positive influence on gold mining companies" in Yakutia. PG

A BAD YEAR ON RUSSIAN STOCK MARKET...

Total trading on Moscow's RTS exchange fell from $15.65 billion in 1997 to $9.26 billion in 1998, Interfax-FIA reported on 8 January. Price declines meant that the capitalization of the shares on RTS fell from $72 billion on 5 January 1998 to approximately $11 billion a year later, an 85 percent decrease. PG

...WHILE PROSECUTOR-GENERAL SAYS DUBININ RESPONSIBLE FOR AUGUST CRISIS

Yurii Skuratov said on 10 January that he will ask President Yeltsin to review the activities of the Central Bank in August 1998 at a meeting of the Russian Security Council, Interfax reported. Skuratov said that in his view then-CBR chairman Sergei Dubinin was "directly responsible for what has happened" since that time. PG

GOVERNMENT PROMISES TO PAY OVERDUE PENSIONS BY JULY

Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko told Ekho Moskvy on 10 January that the government will pay 28.6 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) in overdue pensions by July, ITAR-TASS reported. She also said that pensions will be adjusted twice but she acknowledged that the hikes will not keep up with inflation. PG

OIL CAN'T BE ECONOMY'S 'LOCOMOTIVE,' SIBNEFT OFFICIAL SAYS

Speaking in Omsk on 9 January, Konstantin Popov, the vice president of the Sibneft oil company, suggested that "Russia's oil industry is in no position to be a locomotive for the Russian economy," ITAR-TASS reported. He noted that his company cut output by 4 percent in 1998 and that it will be a long time before oil prices recover to where they were several years ago. Meanwhile, the Russian government announced plans to sell another 2.5 percent of Gazprom shares once the market becomes more favorable. It added that it will consider expanding the size of oil companies in order to raise more revenue, Interfax said on 8 January. PG

YELTSIN SIGNS AMENDMENTS TO PRODUCTION-SHARING LAW

The Russian president on 8 January approved amendments to the Production Sharing Law that are intended to make it easier for foreign firms to invest in the petroleum and natural resource sectors, ITAR- TASS reported. The new law provides legal guarantees for foreign investors. PG

FIVE OF RUSSIA'S 10 LARGEST BANKS INSOLVENT

The Interfax Center for Economic Analysis announced on 9 January that five of Russia's 10 largest banks--Inkombank, SBS Agro, Unexim Bank, Rossiiskii Kredit, and Menatep--are no longer able to meet their financial commitments. Only one of the five still solvent banks-- the International Industrial Bank--is controlled by Russian private capital. On the basis of this, the Interfax Center for Economic Analysis predicts that what it calls "pro-state banks and the subsidiaries of foreign financial markets" will improve their positions in the Russian banking scene in 1999. PG

RUSSIA INTRODUCES EXPORT DUTIES

Moscow on 4 January introduced customs duties on scrap non-ferrous metals and certain kinds of lumber exported to countries outside the CIS, Interfax reported. The new levies, up to 10 percent of the value of the products, are intended to help stabilize the country's economic situation, officials said. PG

MAKASHOV CASE RETURNED TO FEDERAL SECURITY SERVICE

Prosecutor- General Skuratov said on 10 January that his office had returned the investigation of the October 1998 statements by Duma deputy Albert Makashov to the Federal Security Service's Moscow department, ITAR-TASS reported. Skuratov described as "illegal" the termination of the investigation for Makashov's anti-Semitic statements under the article of the criminal code that punishes appeals for changing the constitutional system. PG

RUSSIAN DIPLOMAT CALLS FOR OUSTER OF UNSCOM CHIEF

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's permanent representative to the UN, said on ORT on 10 January that UNSCOM's methods "have completely discredited themselves" and that Richard Butler should be dismissed as UNSCOM chief. PG

VORONTSOV TAKES POSTS WITH UN, RUSSIAN BANK

At a Washington reception, Yulii Vorontsov, who has been Moscow's ambassador to the U.S., said that as of 1 February he will become deputy secretary-general at the UN and chairman of the Board of the Russian-U.S. Investment Bank, ITAR-TASS reported on 9 January. Vorontsov's successor in Washington, Yurii Ushakov, is to arrive in the U.S. capital shortly, the Russian agency said. PG

MERGER OF AIR FORCE UNITS COMPLETED

Colonel-General Anatolii Kornukov, the commander in chief of the Russian Air Force, told Interfax on 8 January that the merger of the Military Air Force and the Air Defense Forces has been completed. He suggested that the "new structure" will improve combat effectiveness in the event of need. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Duma defense committee, Roman Popkovich, called on Yeltsin to explain why the military will not get more funds for 1999. PG

JAPANESE AMBASSADOR CALLED IN OVER KURIL REPORTS

The Russian Foreign Ministry last week called in the Japanese ambassador to discuss reports in the Tokyo press that Moscow was ready to return two of the disputed Kuril Islands to Japan, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 January. Both the Russian and Japanese governments have denied those reports. Representatives of the two countries are scheduled to meet to discuss the islands on 21 January prior to a February visit to Tokyo by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. PG

INTENSIFIED SEARCHES CUT DESERTION RATE

Lieutenant-General Pavel Labutin, the chief of the Leningrad military district headquarters, told ITAR-TASS on 8 January that as a result of intensified searches and greater willingness by commanders to report the number of soldiers absent without leave, his officers reduced the number of deserters from 110 to only 48 during last year. Labutin indicated that other military districts are also stepping up their efforts to reduce the desertion rate, but he noted that it is most difficult to find deserters from those military units now stationed in the Caucasus. He also said that "in many cases," because of cash shortages in the army, deserters who are caught are forced to continue their service in the military districts where they are found. PG

OMON POLICE TAKE CREDIT FOR QUIET IN RUSSIAN CAPITAL

Colonel Vyacheslav Kozlov told ITAR-TASS on 10 January that his OMON units were responsible for the "tranquil" holding of 675 public events in Moscow during 1998. He noted that OMON forces had confiscated more than 130 guns, 800 pieces of ammunition, and some 31 kilograms of drugs last year. And he added that some 908 criminal proceedings had begun on the basis of OMON submissions. PG

LOCAL COURT CANCELS UPCOMING VLADIVOSTOK VOTE

The Leninskii district court in Vladivostok on 10 January declared that plans to hold mayoral elections in that city on 17 January are illegal, ITAR-TASS reported. The court acted on the basis of an appeal by local citizens who argued that the city must first elect a council and then draft a charter under which mayoral elections would be held. Local officials have said that they will appeal, but they added that the vote will not take place on the scheduled date. PG

GORBACHEV CALLS FOR RENEWAL OF CP, USSR

Expressing his frustration with the continued presence in the Russian Communist Party of those who led the August 1991 coup against him, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said on 9 January that the party needs to undergo a renewal, Interfax reported. "Those people," Gorbachev said, "dealt the heaviest blow, something Boris Yeltsin took advantage of," and thus allowed the demise of the Soviet Union. Now, he insisted, even those who supported the dissolution of the USSR are saying that "Gorbachev was apparently right all along and that a soft union was the best option." PG

ONE RUSSIAN IN THREE OBJECTS TO FOREIGN WORKERS

According to the All-Russia Public Opinion Center, some 34 percent of Russians object to Russian firms' hiring workers from Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries, Interfax reported on 10 January. Of the 1,600 respondents, only 28 percent supported such hires, while 33 percent said they are indifferent. PG

BASHKORTOSTAN BANS TATAR NATIONALIST ORGANIZATION

A district court in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, has banned the Tatar Public Center following an appeal by the Ministry of Justice, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 11 January. The court ruled that the center had called for the secession from Bashkortostan of a region populated mainly by Tatars and for the ouster of Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov. Tatar Public Center chairman Zagir Khakimov told a Tatarstan Radio correspondent that the center did not advocate Rakhimov's ouster but merely called on the population not to vote for him in the 1998 presidential elections. The center has also protested the draft language law passed in the first reading by the parliament of Bashkortostan in December. That bill designates Bashkir and Russian as state languages but not Tatar, despite the fact that Tatars constitute a larger share of the population of Bashkortostan than do the Bashkirs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 1999). LF

CHECHEN PRESIDENT ANNOUNCES NEW ISLAMIC CONSTITUTION

Speaking on Chechen Television on 9 January, Aslan Maskhadov said a commission has been created to draft within three years "a concept of an Islamic state [and] a new constitution...based on the Koran," ITAR-TASS reported. Parliamentary and presidential elections will be held once the constitution is completed. Also on 9 January, the deputy commander of the Chechen national guard, Sulim Yamadaev, said that Islamic radicals from unnamed Middle Eastern countries, rather than ethnic Chechens, perpetrated the bomb explosion in which he was injured last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 1999). On 10 January, ITAR-TASS retracted reports it had issued earlier that day claiming that Maskhadov had held talks in Ingushetia with Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin. LF




NAZARBAYEV WINS MORE THAN EIGHTY PERCENT OF VOTE...

Nursultan Nazarbayev was re-elected president of Kazakhstan in the 10 January elections, gaining 81.75 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results. With most votes counted, Serikbolsyn Abdildin of the Communist Party received 12.08 percent, Customs Committee chairman Gani Kasymov 4.72 percent, and parliamentary deputy Engels Gabbasov 0.78 percent. The Central Elections Commission reports that 86.28 percent of the electorate turned out to vote in the country's first "alternative presidential elections." Observers have so far reported no serious violation at the polls, although Central Elections Commission chairwoman Zagipa Baliyeva admitted there were instances in which one person attempted to vote for other family members. BP

...DECLARES HIMSELF 'SATISFIED' WITH OUTCOME

At a press conference in Astana on 11 January, Nazarbayev said he is satisfied with the preliminary results of the election, RFE/RL correspondents in the capital reported. Nazarbayev commented that of the approximately 20 percent that voted against him, "10 percent is the result of my opponents' activities, [while] the other 10 percent are people who are in poverty now." He noted that he will retain Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbayev in that post and that the government will remain essentially the same, although he added that there will be some changes. When leaving the voting booth in Astana the previous day, Nazarbayev had said he will continue his reform program, but he rejected the suggestion that Kazakhstan will join the Russian-Belarusian union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 1999). BP

FIVE MORE 'WAHHABIS' SENTENCED IN UZBEKISTAN

A Tashkent court on 8 January found five men guilty of trying to overthrow the government and sentenced them to jail terms ranging from two to 12 years, AFP reported. The five are reported to be members of an Islamic sect, the Wahhabis, and to have links to Obidkhan Nazarov, the former Imam of Tashkent's Tokhtoboy Mosque, who has been in hiding for nearly one year. All five pleaded innocence, and the head of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, Mikhail Ardzinov, said the charges were "a fabrication." BP

KULIK IN TASHKENT

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Gennadii Kulik was in Tashkent on 8-9 January for a meeting of the Russian-Uzbek intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation and for talks with various Uzbek officials, including President Islam Karimov. ITAR-TASS reported. Karimov noted that "both sides are interested in deepening mutually advantageous economic relations," while Kulik said "Russia attaches special attention to the development of long term ties with Uzbekistan. BP

KARIMOV MEETS WITH TAJIK PREMIER

The Uzbek president and Tajik Prime Minister Yahye Azimov met in Tashkent on 8 January to discuss trade and economic cooperation. The two sides agreed on a formula to resume natural gas supplies from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan. It was the first official meeting between Tajik and Uzbek officials since Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov accused Uzbekistan of harboring mutineers who had tried to seize territory in northern Tajikistan in early November. BP

UZBEKISTAN, TURKMENISTAN HOLD TALKS

An Uzbek delegation was in Turkmenistan on 8 January to discuss rail tariffs, the use of land in border areas, and payment for the transit of Turkmen electricity via Uzbek territory, ITAR-TASS reported. The two sides also discussed a schedule for the payment of goods and services already delivered but were unable to reach agreement on that issue. BP

TURKMEN PRESIDENT DISMISSES DEPUTY PREMIER

Saparmurat Niyazov dismissed Boris Shikhmuradov as deputy prime minister on 8 January because of Shikhmuradov's involvement in leasing a book store to companies that do not sell books, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. RFE/RL corespondents in Ashgabat reported that Shikhmuradov had been criticized in the country's state-owned press in December. Shikhmuradov retains his post as foreign minister, however. BP

ARMENIAN CURRENCY AGAIN DROPS IN VALUE

The dram lost 3 percent of its value against the dollar on 8 January, falling from 525 to 550 against the U.S. currency, but stabilized at 545 after intervention by the Central Bank, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Senior Central Bank official Aram Vartanian attributed the dram's weakening to commercial banks' short-term needs and "shadow [currency] circulation." A spokesman for the Armenian Prime Minister told Noyan Tapan the same day that the rise in the dollar rate falls within the framework of the government's credit and monetary policy and does not constitute grounds for concern. But two leading Armenian businessmen predicted that the dram's depreciation will hurt both the business community and the population at large. LF

AZERBAIJAN LINKS PRISON REVOLT WITH COUP ATTEMPT

Azerbaijani Interior Minister Ramil Usubov told a news conference in Baku on 10 January that the uprising two days earlier at a maximum security prison south of Baku was the continuation of attempts three years ago to oust President Heidar Aliev, Reuters reported. Usubov claimed that the revolt was masterminded by former army General Vakhid Musaev and Faig Bakhshaliev, a close associate of special police commander Rovshan Djavadov. He suggested that unnamed foreign intelligence services may have been involved. But Usubov also said that the insurgents possessed weapons and means of transportation and had demanded safe passage out of the country, either by air or through a land corridor to Nagorno- Karabakh, according to Interfax. Musaev and BakhshAliyev were serving prison sentences for having allegedly planned to assassinate Aliyev in 1995. They were among 11 prisoners killed during the insurrection. Two prison guards also died in that incident. LF

CASPIAN OIL STARTS FLOWING THROUGH GEORGIA

Senior officials and diplomats from Azerbaijan and Georgia attended a 8 January ceremony near the frontier between the two countries to mark the pumping of the first Azerbaijani Caspian oil into the Georgian section of the Baku-Supsa export pipeline. Giorgi Chanturia, chairman of the Georgian International Oil Corporation, told journalists that more than 2.5 million metric tons of oil will be exported through the pipeline in 1999, as a result of which the Georgian budget will receive between $2-3 million in transit fees. LF

GEORGIA ISSUES ANOTHER ULTIMATUM OVER CIS PEACEKEEPERS

Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 8 January that Georgia will consent to the extension of the expired mandate of the CIS peacekeeping force in Abkhazia only if that mandate is altered to reflect Georgia's demands, Russian agencies reported. Tbilisi wants those peacekeepers to be given broader powers to protect ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion. On 10 January, Russian President Yeltsin approved unspecified proposals by Security Council secretary Colonel Nikolai Bordyuzha to increase the effectiveness of the peacekeepers' role. On the night of 10-11 January, Abkhaz- Georgian police detachments began patrolling the security zone on the border between Gali Raion and the rest of Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. No incidents were reported. LF




UKRAINE'S 1998 INDUSTRIAL OUTPUT DOWN BY 1.5 PERCENT

Industrial production shrank by 1.5 percent last year, compared with 1997, AP reported on 10 January, citing official sources. The Ukrainian economy has been steadily declining since the country gained independence in 1991: industrial output reduced by 38.4 percent over that period, according to official data. JM

PUSTOVOYTENKO ADMITS FAILURE IN REFORMING AGRICULTURE

Ukrainian Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko on 10 January said that government efforts to reform the agricultural sector have yielded few results, AP reported. "We must acknowledge that the agricultural sector has largely turned into a poorly managed, inert and heavily indebted structure which is not attractive to investors," he commented. According to official data, the total debt of Ukrainian farms is 13.3 billion ($3.8 billion). Pustovoytenko said some 11,000 farms, or 90 percent of their total number, finished 1998 with losses, while agricultural output fell by 2 percent last year, compared with 1997. JM

LUKASHENKA'S OPPONENTS SET DATE FOR PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

At a 10 January session in Minsk, the Supreme Soviet, which was disbanded following a referendum in November 1996, scheduled presidential elections in Belarus for 16 May 1999. The 43 deputies attending the session also approved a 19-member Central Electoral Commission, to be headed by Viktar Hanchar, who chaired that body before the 1996 referendum. The Supreme Soviet deputies remain loyal to the 1994 constitution, which calls for presidential elections this year. The basic law adopted in 1996 extended President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's term to 2001. The results of the 1996 referendum have been recognized neither by the Belarusian opposition nor by Western countries and international organizations. "We count on complete international support for our actions," the 11 January "Gazeta wyborcza" quoted Hanchar as saying. The authorities have warned the opposition that such actions will be considered unconstitutional (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 1999). JM

VAN DER STOEL AGAIN CRITICIZES ESTONIAN LANGUAGE REQUIREMENTS FOR DEPUTIES

In an interview with the daily "Eesti Paevaleht," OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel again criticized recent amendments requiring members of parliament and local government to be proficient in the Estonian language, BNS reported on 8 January. "It's up to the voters to decide whether they want to elect to the parliament somebody who is not fluent in the Estonian language," he said. Van der Stoel also rejected suggestions by some Estonian officials that his criticism of minority policies in Estonia is prompted by Russian objections. His recent letter to President Lennart Meri criticizing the language requirements preceded a Russian Foreign Ministry statement on the issue by several days, he pointed out. Meri signed the amendments into law on 31 December 1998 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 1999). JC

LATVIAN PREMIER SAYS THERE'S NO 'PORK WAR' WITH BALTIC NEIGHBORS

On returning from his first working visit to Tallinn as prime minister, Vilis Kristopans blamed journalists for exacerbating the issue of possible temporary quotas on imports of pork and live pigs from Estonia and Lithuania (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 8 January 1999), BNS reported on 8 January. He stressed that there is no "pork war" between the Baltic States and chastised journalists for asking "too many questions" about the issue. He also commented that it is necessary to work at implementing unified tariffs in the Baltics. "Diena" on 8 January quoted Kristopans as saying that he believes the quotas would not violate the regulations of the World Trade Organization (of which Latvia recently became a member), the free trade agreement between the Baltics, or Latvia's association agreement with the EU. JC

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT TO WAIT FOR COURT RULING ON LUSTRATION LAW...

Responding to a letter from five lawmakers, Valdas Adamkus said he is not declining to implement the law banning former KGB agents from holding government office and a wide variety of private-sector jobs, BNS reported on 8 January. Rather, Adamkus explained, he is waiting for a ruling by the Constitutional Court before setting up a three-member commission provided for by the law. That commission is to decide which former KGB agents are exempt from the new legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 January 1999). The legislators who authored the letter were political prisoners during the Soviet era, according to the news agency. JC

...BACKS INCREASED DEFENSE EXPENDITURES

At a meeting with Lithuanian military attaches on 8 January, Adamkus said he supports increasing the country's defense budget to the equivalent of 2 percent of GDP, stressing that NATO membership is a "strategic aim of Lithuanian foreign policy and national security," BNS reported. The parliament is currently discussing a bill, proposed by parliamentary chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, that foresees defense expenditures totaling 1.70-1.75 percent of GDP in 2000 and 1.95-2.00 percent in 2001. Those expenditures account for 1.51 percent of GDP this year, compared with 1.34 percent last year. The opposition in the parliament is opposed to the draft law. While the right-wing coalition has sufficient votes to pass the bill, Landsbergis has said he wants the parliament to adopt it unanimously. JC

POLISH PARLIAMENT ADOPTS 1999 BUDGET...

By a vote of 243 to 200, the parliament on 9 January passed a budget for 1999 proposed by the Solidarity-led cabinet. The budget projects economic growth at 5.1 percent of GDP, compared with 5.6 percent forecast for 1998. Budget revenues total 129.3 billion zlotys ($38 billion) and spending 142.1 billion zlotys. The deficit is estimated at 2.15 percent of GDP, down from 2.8 percent last year. Inflation is expected to drop to 8.1 percent from last year's rate of 9.5 percent. The ex-communist opposition voted against the budget, arguing that it fails to increase spending in the social sphere and agriculture. JM

...EDUCATION REFORM BILL, CLASSIFIED INFORMATION ACT

The previous day, the parliament voted by 234 to 191 with seven abstentions to adopt a bill on education reform, due to be implemented in September 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 January 1999). The opposition Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) wants to delay the reform, arguing that it should be based on the results of an ongoing reform experiment in various districts. The SLD intends to ask the president to veto the bill. Also on 8 January, the parliament voted by 267 to 155 with 12 abstentions to pass a law on the protection of classified information, adjusting Polish regulations to NATO requirements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 November 1998). JM

KWASNIEWSKI IN ISRAEL

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski paid an unofficial visit to Israel on 9-10 January in an attempt to boost Polish-Israeli relations. He met there with Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Referring to the Jewish-Polish controversy over Christian crosses at the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, Kwasniewski said the Polish parliament is preparing a law on "the protection of places of remembrance," which, he said, will enable Poland to base Polish- Jewish relations on "agreement and dialogue," PAP reported. JM

POLAND'S NAZI VICTIMS SEEK COMPENSATION FROM GERMANY

The 9 January "Der Spiegel" reported that a German lawyer--acting on behalf of the 22,000-strong Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners in Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps--has sued the German government for 2.4 billion marks ($1.4 billion) in compensation. "Der Spiegel" says the claimants demand 400 marks for each month of forced labor, plus compensation for damage to health sustained in Nazi prisons and camps. The lawyer warned that if the Bonn government denies its responsibility, his clients will file individual claims, suing 15 German companies that are the legal successors to the firms for which his clients were forced to work during the war. According to dpa, the government does not intend to meet the demand, saying that Polish victims of Nazi Germany have already received compensation. JM

CZECH PREMIER CALLS DEPUTY A LIAR

Milos Zeman said on 11 January that Freedom Union deputy Ivan Pilip "is lying" when he claims that Zeman is negotiating a deal that would result in opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) leader Vaclav Klaus becoming president, CTK reported. Pilip claimed on TV Nova the previous day that Zeman would receive ODS support in passing the budget as well as the party's support for a new consumer tax and an increase in social security payments in exchange for Klaus eventually receiving the Socialist Party's support as a presidential candidate. ODS officials have sharply rejected Pilip's allegations as well. In other news, Zeman said he respects the "courage" shown by the Iraqi consul to Prague, Jabir al-Salim, in seeking political asylum in the West. PB

SLOVAK FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS GOAL IS NATO, EU MEMBERSHIP

Eduard Kukan said on 9 January that Slovakia's foreign policy goals are to improve relations with its neighbors and to join the EU and NATO as soon as possible. Kukan, speaking in an interview with Hungarian Television, added that an important new element in Slovak foreign policy is the country's participation in the Visegrad group. He said that the premiers of the other Visegrad countries--Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic--will meet in Bratislava in March. Kukan said participation with those soon-to- be NATO members will help Bratislava's quest to accede to that organization. In other news, the governing board of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) decided on 9 January that its members may belong to both the KDH and the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), of which the KDH is a member. The decision is expected to defuse tension between KDH leader Jan Carnogursky and SDK leader and Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda. PB

HUNGARIAN RAIL STRIKE SUSPENDED AFTER COURT RULING

Striking rail workers returned to work on 8 January after the a labor court ruled that the strike was illegal. The court said the Free Union of Rail Workers (VDSZSZ) could have challenged in court the contract signed between the State Railway Company (MAV) and two other trade unions on 31 December 1998 but not by means of a strike. VDSZSZ President Istvan Gasko said the union will appeal the ruling within 15 days. The union has suspended the strike for an indefinite period but has not withdrawn it demands, he said. A MAV spokesman told Hungarian media on 9 January that if the court ruling is upheld, the company will sue the trade union for the 500 million forint ($2.3 million) losses caused by the strike. MSZ




STANDOFF CONTINUES OVER PRISONERS IN KOSOVA

Spokesmen for OSCE monitors said in Prishtina on 11 January that they are hopeful they will be able to persuade representatives of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) to free eight Yugoslav soldiers whom the UCK captured on 8 January. The UCK wants to exchange the men for an unspecified number of Kosovars held by the Serbs, but Belgrade refuses to make any deals with the UCK, whom the Serbian authorities call "terrorists." Observers believe that the guerrillas are holding the eight soldiers in the Stari Targ area in the mountains near Mitrovica. The Yugoslav army has concentrated troops and armor in the area as well as along the Prishtina-Podujeva road. Army spokesmen have repeatedly said they will use force to free the eight men if the negotiations fail. Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic added in Belgrade on 11 January that "the patience of the authorities of Yugoslavia and Serbia has its limits." In Prishtina, the Kosovar news agency KIC reported that Serbian forces shelled several ethnic Albanian villages in the Llap area on 9 January. PM

MONITORS, MOSCOW PRAISE SERBS, SLAM UCK

OSCE monitors issued a statement in Prishtina on 9 January commending the Yugoslav military authorities for being "very restrained." The monitors hailed the military's "willingness to cooperate in the present situation" and criticized the UCK for engaging in "irresponsible actions." In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 10 January demanding that the UCK release the hostages and called their capture an "outrageous act of terrorism,a challenge thrown down to the international community and a direct violation of commitments formulated by the UN Security Council" in its resolutions on Kosova. The text noted that "ongoing provocative actions by Albanian commandos are causing us extremely serious concern," Interfax reported. The ministry appealed to the Serbian authorities "to show maximum restraint in this difficult situation, something they have been able to do until now despite provocations." PM

OSCE URGES ALBANIA TO HELP IN HOSTAGE CRISIS...

Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, who holds the chair of the rotating OSCE presidency, asked the Albanian government on 9 January to use its influence with the guerrillas to help end the hostage crisis. Vollebaek, who was speaking in Tirana, said he "urged the Albanian government to use its good offices to try to convince the UCK...to release the hostages as soon as possible," dpa reported. He described hostage-taking in general as "unacceptable and...a threat to the stability in the region." He added "that the Yugoslav [military] build-up is out of proportion" to the threat posed by the UCK, and he appealed to the Yugoslav authorities to show their utmost restraint." Vollebaek also told journalists he had urged Kosovar academic Rexhep Qosja, who was visiting Tirana, to use his possible influence on the UCK to secure the release of the hostages. FS

...WHILE ALBANIA PROMISES ITS SUPPORT

Foreign Minister Paskal Milo said in Tirana on 9 January that he will try to use his influence over the UCK to have the hostages released. Milo, however, blamed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for the Kosova crisis, adding that the world must be prepared "to use all pressure and force...because time has shown Milosevic responds to such pressure." FS

MORE YUGOSLAV-ALBANIAN BORDER INCIDENTS

A "large" group of UCK fighters failed to cross into Kosova from Albania on 8 January, the state-run Serbian news agency Tanjug reported. Yugoslav forces and insurgents exchanged fire using small guns and grenades. The agency also noted that no Yugoslav soldiers were killed, but it gave no further details on the clash. The same day, the Albanian ATSH news agency reported that Yugoslav army planes and helicopters violated Albanian airspace in the Has region and near Kukes. FS

SFOR TROOPS KILL SERBIAN WAR CRIMES SUSPECT

French SFOR soldiers killed Dragan Gagovic near Foca on 9 January as they were attempting to arrest him for the rape and torture of Muslim women in 1992-1993. A SFOR spokesman said that the French fired on Gagovic when he tried to run them down with his car. The spokesman added that Gagovic put the lives of five children in his car in danger by driving into the French soldiers instead of heeding their calls to stop. One 10-year-old girl who was in the car told Bosnian Serb television that Gagovic was the young people's karate teacher and that the French opened fire on him when he swerved to avoid hitting a roadblock. In 1996, the Hague- based war crimes tribunal indicted Gagovic, who is Foca's former police chief. PM

SERBS STORM UN POLICE STATION

Between 100 and 200 angry Bosnian Serbs attacked the UN police station in Foca on 9 January in response to the killing of Gagovic. Some five members of the UN staff were slightly injured in the attack. The moderate Bosnian Serb government issued a statement in Banja Luka saying "it is inexplicable and incomprehensible that SFOR soldiers neglected the fact that there were five children in the car when they fired at it, thus seriously endangering [the young people's] lives." The hard-line Serbian Democratic Party appealed to SFOR in a declaration "to stop killing Serbs." PM

NATO BEGINS DESTROYING HERZEGOVINIAN WEAPONS

SFOR peacekeepers on 10 January began destroying an unspecified quantity of weapons, including tanks, artillery, and small arms, that they had seized the previous day from the Herzegovinian Croat military (HVO), SFOR spokesmen said in Sarajevo. The peacekeepers confiscated the weapons after Ante Jelavic, who is the hard-line Croatian member of the Bosnian joint presidency, promoted eight HVO generals on 7 January without the prior approval of the Bosnian government or NATO, which he is obliged to obtain under the provisions of the Dayton agreement. The HVO is formally part of the mainly Croatian and Muslim Bosnian federal army but in practice retains its own structures and close links to the armed forces of Croatia. PM

BOSNIA ISSUES ARREST WARRANT FOR ABDIC

The Bosnian federal Interior Ministry said in a statement on 10 January that it has issued a warrant for the arrest of renegade Muslim warlord Fikret Abdic for war crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 1999). Interior Minister Mehmed Zilic called on his Croatian counterpart, Ivan Penic, to extradite Abdic, who lives in Rijeka, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

DID ALBANIAN POLICE ARREST BIN LADEN AGENT?

Albanian police have arrested a suspected agent of Islamist terrorist Osama Bin Laden in Tirana, "Koha Jone" reported on 10 January. The daily added that the man, whom it identified as Maksim Ciciku, was spying on U.S. embassy staff, including Ambassador Marisa Lino. Ciciku was an employee of a private security firm. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency assisted Albania's secret service in identifying the suspect, Reuters reported. No one at the Interior Ministry or the U.S. embassy was available for comment. The U.S. has accused Bin Laden of masterminding embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, in which more than 260 people were killed in August 1998. FS

ROMANIAN MINERS STAGE MARCH, CALL FOR UNITY

Several thousand miners in Romania's southwestern Jiu Valley marched through Petrosani on 8 January after the government announced it will continue with plans to close some 37 unprofitable mines, AP reported. The leader of the miners, Miron Cozma, said the five- day strike was to be suspended over the weekend but would continue on 11 January. He said some 16,000 miners are taking part in the strike. Cozma also renewed a call for miners across the country to join the strike. No mines in the Jiu Valley are scheduled for closure. PB

ROMANIA'S PRIVATIZATION MINISTER OUTLINES PROGRESS

Radu Sarbu, the president of the State Ownership Fund, gave a progress report on Romania's privatization drive, Rompres reported on 9 January. Sarbu said that of 49 companies slated for liquidation, 14 have started bankruptcy proceedings, 11 have closed and are seeking reorganization, and 16 have been shut down by their debtors. The other eight firms are being considered for privatization. Sarbu said that all lay-offs associated with the closures will have been completed by the end of this month. He did not say how many workers will be involved. PB

BULGARIAN SOCIALISTS DENOUNCE GOVERNMENT AT RALLY

Socialist leader Georgi Parvanov denounced government reforms at a rally in Sofia on 10 January and called for Prime Minister Ivan Kostov to be dismissed by the parliament, Reuters reported. Addressing several thousand people on the second anniversary of the storming of the parliament by those opposed to then Socialist Premier Zhan Videnov, Kostov said the day "remains a symbol of violence, political terrorism, and confrontation which drove us to the edge of a civil conflict." He called on the Socialist Party to overcome internal differences and to more strongly oppose Kostov's ruling Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). National Assembly speaker Yordan Sokolov, a UDF member, said on Bulgarian Radio that "if the Socialist Party, in the person of its then leadership, had not shirked its responsibility, there would not have been a 10 January." PB

BULGARIAN GDP FALLS, UNEMPLOYMENT UP

Bulgaria's GDP contracted 5.9 percent in the third quarter of 1998, compared with the previous year, the National Statistics Institute reported on 7 January. The institute also reported that unemployment in November reached 16 percent of the workforce, up slightly from the previous month. PB




BIG BROTHER WATCHES INTERNET IN BELGRADE


by Julie Moffett

A Serbian expert on electronic media says efforts by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to censor electronic media in his country have been largely a failure.

Drazen Pantic, director of the Internet Department of the independent Serbian station Radio B-92, made the comment last week in Washington during a press briefing on Serbian media issues.

The briefing, entitled "Preserving the Free Flow of Information Using the Internet: Serbs Thwart Milosevic's Censorship," was sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace--a non-profit organization established by the U.S. Congress. The institute focuses on promoting peaceful resolutions of international conflicts.

Pantic also founded and directs OpenNet, which was the first Internet service provider in Serbia. He says that despite a severely restrictive media law passed last October, the Serbian government has been unable to stop the flow of uncensored information and news via the Internet and electronic mail.

Radio B-92 was the first media outlet in Serbia to use the Internet to provide an alternative source for uncensored news. It began doing so in December 1996, during anti-government demonstrations in Serbia, when thousands protested the government's annulment of municipal elections. Radio B92 broadcasts were sporadically jammed and the radio's transmitter eventually shut off.

In an interview with RFE/RL in April 1997, Veran Matic, editor-in-chief of Radio B-92, said that during this turbulent time, Radio B-92 turned to the Internet. He said B-92 posted print versions of its newscasts on its web site and also began using RealAudio, which allows users to listen to on-line broadcasts over the Internet.

Matic said Radio B-92 was so successful with its Internet experiment that the station was able to quickly secure agreements with RFE/RL, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle to rebroadcast B-92 programs back into Serbia via their airwaves. Matic said that two days after the B-92 transmitter was turned off, the government--apparently realizing it could not stop the dissemination of information and programming via the Internet-- turned it back on.

Matic said the students, who were the mainstay of the demonstrations, were energized by B-92's victory and began referring to it as their "Internet Revolution."

Speaking in Washington last week, Pantic said that it was B- 92's success that unleashed the power of the Internet for all independent media in Serbia. He added that its effect and potential also greatly alarmed the Serbian government.

For example, Pantic said that the new media law in Serbia includes attempts to try and control the Internet. One such attempt, he says, is to impose a large tax on owners of satellite dishes and Internet users. But Pantic said the government has not figured out a way to determine who exactly Internet users are, so it has been unable to levy this charge.

Pantic also said the Serbian government has put filters on independent media web sites, including B-92's, thereby preventing Internet users in Serbia from accessing those sites. For example, officials put filters on the Serbian Academic Network, blocking access to B-92's web site. Pantic noted that there was no official announcement about the filter and that the move was simply done "overnight." But he added that B-92 was easily able to get around the filters by setting up "mirror pages," which are alternative Internet sites that provide the same information as on the home page. "The government can't filter every mirror site," he explained with a smile.

Pantic said that within a few weeks of setting up the filters on the Serbian Academic Network, the government partly lifted them. Officials finally realized they were unable to block the mirror sites and stop the information from being disseminated, he added.

But perhaps the biggest irony of the situation, says Pantic, is that the government has been unable to prevent the electronic mail distribution of B-92 news. He says the station currently has a subscriber list of about 30,000 people.

Gene Mater, a retired broadcast journalist and adviser to the U.S.-based Freedom Forum also spoke at last week's briefing, saying that Serbia's new media law dashes any hope for a free press in Serbia. Mater said he had the Serbian law analyzed by a Washington law firm that has extensive experience in dealing with Central and East European media laws. According to Mater, the law firm determined that the Serbian media law is a "blatantly unconstitutional exercise in media censorship, intimidation, and punishment that cannot stand under either Serbian or international law."

Mater says the firm also determined that the law wrongfully deprives Serbian citizens of their constitutionally guaranteed rights to an independent and free press and freedom of thought and conscience. The law "makes clear that freedom of the press [in Serbia] is a concept of the past," he commented.

Rob Timm, director of the Balkans Independent Radio Project, agreed with Mater, adding that government intimidation and harassment of independent journalists in Serbia is outrageous. "Big brother is, in fact, alive and well and living in Belgrade," according to Timm. He went on to comment that "B-92 is extremely important. If it wasn't, the Milosevic regime wouldn't be paying any attention to it. If what B-92 does and what it does through the Internet didn't matter, the Milosevic regime wouldn't care about it." The author is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Washington.


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