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Newsline - February 22, 1999




RUSSIA STILL HOLDING OUT FOR BREAKTHROUGH AT RAMBOUILLET.

As Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov again stressed his country's opposition to using force to settle the Kosova conflict, Moscow Mayor and Otechestvo movement head Yurii Luzhkov and Duma Speaker and Communist Party member Gennadii Seleznev on 20 February condemned possible NATO airstrikes. Luzhkov said that inter-ethnic problems "exist in nearly every European country" and "cannot be solved by military actions," while Seleznev threatened that Russia is likely to withdraw from its treaty with NATO if force is used in Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, in a telephone conversation on 20 February, Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that a political solution in Kosova is still possible. Primakov told reporters the next day that the Rambouillet negotiations between Belgrade and Kosova should not be regarded as a failure. "The negotiation process is continuing and we count on its success," he said JAC

PRIMAKOV SUGGESTS THAT GOVERNORS BE APPOINTED...

Prime Minister Primakov suggested at a 21 February session of the Leningrad Oblast government that the Russian Constitution needs amending to strengthen "vertical power" but that such a step not be taken this year. In particular, he recommended that governors be selected by local elective bodies from a list of candidates provided by the president, Interfax reported. Primakov explained that "at present governors are chosen directly by the people and it is impossible to exert influence over a governor," Reuters reported. Primakov's announcement could damage the support he has managed to win among the country's governors. "Kommersant-Daily" argued on 20 February that Primakov has managed to woo governors away from Moscow Mayor Luzhkov and his Otechestvo movement by convincing them at a January meeting on federal policy that "consent emanates from the regions, not the center" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 1999). JAC

...WHILE LUZHKOV BIDS FOR HEARTS, MINDS OF MAYORS

The new governors' election bloc headed by Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov has also provided some competition for Luzhkov's Otechestvo movement, prompting Moscow's mayor to consolidate his support among the heads of other Russian cities, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 February. Some 700 mayors, local manufacturers, bankers, and chairs of city assemblies gathered in Moscow on 19 February for a conference whose formal purpose is to discuss how to support municipal economies, according to the newspaper. However, its unofficial purpose was to rally around Luzhkov and support the cause of strengthening the powers of city officials to the disadvantage of regional and federal officials. Among the city officials expressing support for Luzhkov were the mayors of Omsk, Yekaterinburg, Volgograd, Perm, Krasnodar, Trekhgornii, Severodinsk, Yakutsk, and Maykop. According to the daily, governors who had earlier attended Otechestvo constituent meetings in droves "grew noticeably cooler toward Luzhkov" after Titov had announced the idea of an independent bloc of "governors." JAC

1999 BUDGET BECOMES LAW

Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the 1999 budget into law on 22 February, Interfax reported. The Federation Council had approved the budget on 17 February. The document sets aside $9.5 billion to pay foreign creditors, who are owed at total of $17.5 billion in 1999, according to Interfax. The amount devoted to defense was increased by 17 billion rubles ($744 million) to 107 billion rubles, while other programs were cut. The budget calls for expenditures of 575 billion rubles and revenues of 474 billion rubles. JAC

G-7 BACKS UP IMF IN NEGOTIATIONS WITH RUSSIA

After meeting in Bonn on 20 February, finance ministers and central bankers from the G-7 nations issued a statement criticizing Russia for failing to adopt "a concerted policy response to ongoing financial and macro-economic instability." They also said that "a viable budget for 1999" and "significant improvement in government revenues" are necessary for an agreement with the IMF and that an agreement with the IMF is necessary for a debt restructuring agreement with the Paris Club. French Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kohn slammed the government's plan to cut value-added tax, calling it "illusory," AFP reported. Members of the Russian delegation to the meeting remained upbeat. Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko told ITAR-TASS that "recommendations issued were positive" and that Russian officials "did not see the same obstinacy we witnessed at previous rounds of talks between the IMF and Russia." JAC

DUMA REJECTS IMF ADVICE ON CENTRAL BANK LAW...

Duma Speaker Seleznev dismissed the IMF's reservations about proposed changes in the law on the Central Bank now being considered by the Federation Council, ITAR-TASS reported on 19 February. He said that the "IMF can give recommendations but it cannot insist on which laws we shall adopt." He added that the IMF "has gotten used to telling us what they would like to see. Luckily, this government tells them what Russia needs." In a letter to Central Bank head Gerashchenko on 12 February, IMF deputy director of the department dealing with Russia, Jorge Marquez-Ruarte, said that the amendments would reduce the bank's independence and negatively effect the inflation rate and stability of the ruble, RFE/RL's Washington bureau reported. Marquez-Ruarte found a proposed amendment restricting the Central Bank's ability to set interest rates "particularly disturbing." JAC

...AS OFFSHORE FIRM CONTROVERSY CAUSES CENTRAL BANK TO CLOSE RANKS?

Marquez-Ruarte did not address the issue of the Central Bank's use of a tiny offshore firm to handle its hard currency reserves, although he said that the IMF supports the bank's "increasing transparency and accountability" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 1999). The controversy surrounding the use of the Channel Islands-based FIMACO has prompted an "unprecedented closing of ranks" between former and current Central Bank officials across Russia's political spectrum, from current chairman Gerashchenko to his predecessor, Sergei Dubinin, the "Moscow Times" reported on 19 February. On the other hand, "Izvestiya" noted on 13 February, that there are "clear political overtones" to the assault on the Central Bank as well as "signs of a desire to take revenge on the former Central Bank team, which held very specific political views." JAC

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS JAPAN...

Igor Ivanov, speaking at a press conference at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo on 22 February, addressed Japanese-U.S. plans to create a regional anti-missile defense system in the Pacific area, Russian and Japanese press reported. Ivanov warned the two countries against expanding their sphere of operations and stressed "alliances and groupings ...should have a strictly defensive character." Ivanov said his country expects "the actions of such alliances to be most transparent." Ivanov also denied reports in the international press that quoted him as saying it is "impossible" to conclude by the year 2000 a peace treaty with Japan officially ending World War II. Ivanov is scheduled to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Keidzo Obuchi and to hand over a letter from President Boris Yeltsin. BP

...DISCUSSES PEACE TREATY

The previous day, Ivanov met with his Japanese counterpart, Masahiko Komura, but the two failed to make progress on deciding the fate of the Kuril Islands. Ivanov had said before arriving in Japan that he has no "magic formula" and expects no breakthrough on discussions about the future of the islands. And he had noted that "it would be an anachronism to negotiate just a peace treaty with Japan half a century after World War Two ended." Questions also remain over Yeltsin's planned visit to Japan this year. The Japanese hope he will visit in the spring, but Russian officials say Yeltsin's health and domestic issues make that unlikely. Obuchi said on 22 February that his government will "persistently, persistently, and more persistently" meet with Russian officials to discuss the islands' fate. BP

DUMA CONDEMNS OCALAN ARREST

By a vote of 344 to two with one abstention, the State Duma adopted a resolution on 19 February expressing "extreme indignation" at the 15 February capture of Kurdistan Workers' Party leader Abdullah Ocalan, Reuters reported. It termed the arrest a violation of international law. Duma deputies called on President Yeltsin to request that a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem be included in the agenda of the UN Security Council. They also asked the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to review whether Turkey meets that body's standards on human rights. Federal Security Service Director Vladimir Putin told Duma deputies later that day that Russia neither invited Ocalan to Russia nor deported him from the country, ITAR-TASS reported. Putin similarly denied that Moscow had rejected a request by Ocalan for political asylum, saying Ocalan had never made any such request. LF

DID PRIMAKOV BROKER CASPIAN OIL DEAL?

"Kommersant-Daily" on 19 February suggests that Ocalan did apply for political asylum in Russia last year and that his request was turned down as part of a broader plan devised by Prime Minister Primakov. According to that plan, which the newspaper claims was agreed on by Primakov and Chevron President Richard Matzke at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Moscow will not impede construction of the Baku-Ceyhan export pipeline for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil. (A firm commitment to that project by the Western companies engaged in Azerbaijan is on hold indefinitely because plummeting oil prices make it economically unviable.) In return, Kazakhstan's crude will be exported via the planned pipeline from Tengiz to Novorossiisk and Turkey will not prevent its passage in tankers through the Turkish straits. LF

RUSSIA ASKS FINNS FOR MONEY TO STOP BALTIC SEA DUMPING

Prime Minister Primakov held talks with his Finnish counterpart, Paavo Lipponen, on 21 February in St. Petersburg to discuss the construction of a gas pipeline through Russian and Finnish ports to supply Western Europe and Russian dumping of sewage into the Baltic Sea. St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who attended the meeting, told reporters later that Russia is dumping large amounts of waste that it cannot afford to reprocess. He said that the city of St. Petersburg alone dumps 1 million cubic meters a day and added that Russia needs $1 billion to resolve the problem. Primakov said that already friendly Russian-Finnish relations are "on the rise" and that Russia and Finland have proved that "when one country joins the EU, that does not mean the curtailment of tiesor a smaller interest in the development of relations with the other [non-EU member]." JAC

TEACHERS IN ALTAI LAUNCH THIRD PROTEST THIS YEAR...

Teachers in Altai Krai on 22 February began an indefinite strike to protest unpaid wages totaling 59 million rubles ($2.6 million), ITAR-TASS reported. Two strike actions by teachers in the krai earlier this year resulted in a transfer of some 8 million rubles in overdue wages, but educational workers are now demanding that the balance be paid in full (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 1999). JAC

...WHILE MINERS IN KOMI TAKE PROTEST TO RAILWAY

Meanwhile, coal miners at the Intinskaya mine in Komi Republic, who began a strike action on 15 February, are now picketing the Moscow-Vorkuta railway, ITAR -TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 1999). JAC

PENTECOSTALS IN MAGADAN FACING POLICE PRESSURE

The Word of Life Church in Magadan filed a complaint on 15 February with the oblast's Prosecutor-General's Office about harassment by local police and tax officials, Keston News Service reported on 20 February. In December and January, local tax officials raided the Church and removed documents, which have still not been returned. In February, local police officials threatened Church members during a night raid on the pretext of a hunt for drug dealers, according to the UK-based agency. According to the Church's pastor, the Pentecostal organization has some 800 followers in the city of Magadan and branches throughout the oblast. A local expert on religions reckons that the Pentecostals are the biggest denomination in Magadan after the Orthodox Church. Last month, some 350 members of the Church appealed to the U.S. embassy in Moscow for political asylum. JAC

CHECHEN OPPOSITION ELECTS LEADER

Following two days of deliberations, the Shura [council] established by opposition field commanders on 9 February has elected former acting premier Shamil Basaev as its head, Russian agencies reported on 20 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 1999). Former Chechen Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov told Interfax that Basaev's powers have not been clearly defined, nor have his deputies been named. The Shura demands that following the proclamation of Islamic law in Chechnya, the president and parliament resign and a new constitution be drafted. The following day, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov dismissed Prosecutor-General Mansur Tagirov at the insistence of the Supreme Shariah Court because he had served in the Russian police force during the 1994-1996 Chechen war. LF

LEBED GOES TO HOLLYWOOD

Prime Minister Primakov attended the premiere of Nikita Mikhalkov's latest film, "The Barber of Seville," on 20 February, AFP reported. Some Russian newspapers called the film, which reportedly has a strong patriotic theme, the opening bid in Mikhalkov's presidential campaign, but Mikhalkov told those attending the premiere that he has no such ambitions. Meanwhile, Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed will attend an Academy Awards party at the Beverly Hills Hotel to benefit director Martin Scorsese's film foundation, "Variety" reported. According to the newspaper, the party invitation was first issued to Russian President Yeltsin, who passed it on to Lebed. JAC




ARMENIAN OPPOSITION CAUTIOUS ABOUT CALL FOR PRESIDENT'S IMPEACHMENT

Opposition parties have reacted cautiously to the 17 February demand by parliamentary deputy and chairman of the National Democratic Party--21st Century Davit Shahnazarian, to form an interim parliamentary commission to consider impeaching President Robert Kocharian for violating the constitution, Noyan Tapan reported on 19 February. Albert Bazeyan of the majority Yerkrapah group said that the initiative is inadvisable in the current strained situation. Hrant Margarian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which like Yerkrapah supports the president, suggested the initiators of the proposal oppose Kocharian's anti-crime strategy. Nerses Zeynavaldian of the Self-Determination Union observed that Shahnazarian has not specified the grounds for impeaching Kocharian, while Mkrtich Gimshian of the Hayrenik group expressed support for Shahnazarian's proposal. Shavarsh Kocharian of the National Democratic Union said he believes that the proposal is correct, but he added that it could be interpreted as an act of revenge. LF

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER REVIEWS KARABAKH PEACE PROCESS...

Speaking at a news conference in Yerevan on 19 February, Vartan Oskanian said that in Armenia's view the only option for the resumption of the deadlocked OSCE- mediated talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict lies in the plan proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairman last year, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Baku has rejected that plan, which envisaged the creation of a "common state" by Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Oskanian said that the Minsk Group has issued a statement saying that the co-chairmen are trying to find a mutually acceptable basis for the resumption of negotiations. LF

...RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA, GULF STATES

Oskanian also rejected claims that Armenia's ongoing military cooperation with Russia is directed against other countries, such as Turkey and Azerbaijan. He said Armenian policy is purely defensive and directed not at polarizing, but at promoting rapprochement and peaceful coexistence between the states of the region, according to ITAR-TASS. Summarizing his visits to Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, Oskanian said Armenia will open an embassy in the UAE and hopes for intensified economic cooperation with the Persian Gulf states, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

GEORGIAN DISPLACED PERSONS CONTINUE PROTEST

Several hundred Georgians forced to flee their homes in Abkhazia continue to block passage over the Inguri bridge linking Abkhazia with the rest of Georgia, Georgian media reported on 22 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 1998). The Russian peacekeeping force deployed along each side of that internal border has condemned the protest as illegal. The Abkhaz Foreign Ministry has issued a statement condemning the protest as intended to prevent those displaced persons who wish to return to Abkhazia from doing so. It also asked the Georgian Foreign Ministry to halt such obstructions to the repatriation process, Caucasus Press reported on 20 February. LF

GEORGIAN INSURGENCY LEDAER ISSUES NEW THREAT

Colonel Akaki Eliava, who led the failed one-day insurgency in western Georgia last October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19-20 October 1999), has threatened to seize the strategic Black Sea port of Poti if 60 of his supporters arrested in the wake of that revolt are not released, Caucasus Press reported on 19 February, citing "Akhali taoba." Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze implicitly blamed the Georgian law enforcement organs for failing to apprehend Eliava. Interior Ministry representatives had held talks with Eliava in January in an attempt to persuade him to surrender (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 22 January 1999). LF

THREE CENTRAL ASIAN PRESIDENTS MEET IN ASTANA...

The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, taking part in a Central Asian Union summit in Astana on 19 February, signed a memorandum on coordinating efforts to cushion the impact of the global economic crisis and a protocol on implementing the January 1997 Eternal Friendship Treaty. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev said it is "important" for each country "not to take unilateral steps," and he called the Central Asian Union "more essential today than ever before" if economic problems are to be alleviated. The presidents established a working group of their countries' prime ministers to coordinate measures to combat the economic crisis. By mutual agreement, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev will continue to act as chairman of the union for another year. The next summit is scheduled to take place in Kyrgyzstan in June. BP

... TAJIK PRESIDENT STAYS AWAY...

Tajikistan, which is a candidate member of the Central Asian Union, was not represented at the 19 February summit in Kazakhstan's capital. In talks with RFE/RL correspondents in Dushanbe the previous day, several government officials were unaware of the meeting. There have been no reports that any invitation was extended to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov. Tajikistan was expected to become a full member of the union at the first summit this year. BP

...WHILE UZBEK PRESIDENT HOGS LIMELIGHT AT PRESS CONFERENCE

At a press briefing in which he was the focus of attention, Islam Karimov called the CIS Collective Peace Treaty "ineffective" but said it is up to the nine participating countries to decide for themselves if they will extend their participation or withdraw from the treaty. Karimov also spoke about the 16 February bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, confirming that security forces there are seeking "religious fanatics." Karimov said two men who had parked a car containing explosives near government buildings fled just before the car blew up, shouting "Allah Akbar." Karimov credits the commander of the presidential guards, Rustam Ajayev, with saving his life. Ajayev halted Karimov's car 150 meters from a car that exploded seconds later. BP

IRAN UNHAPPY WITH TURKMEN TRANS-CASPIAN PIPELINE AGREEMENT

The Iranian Foreign Ministry on 20 February warned Turkmenistan about "any initiatives aimed at building oil and gas pipelines under the Caspian Sea," AP and dpa reported. Turkmenistan the previous day had named the U.S. companies Bechtel Corp. and General Electric as the leaders in a consortium to build the Trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmen natural gas to Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 1999). The Iranian Foreign Ministry pointed out that treaties signed by Iran and the Soviet Union in 1921 and 1940 "are still in force" and that any action taken without the consent of all the littoral states will be considered "illegal." The Iranian Foreign Ministry said "the perpetrators of such action are held fully responsible for any harmful consequences to the Caspian Sea, such as environmental damage." BP

STREET PATROLS IN ALMATY INCREASED

Following a violent demonstration by ethnic Kurds last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 1999), Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry said it has intensified police patrols until 26 February, Interfax reported. Viktor Khrapunov, the mayor of Almaty, has called on members of the Kurdish community to abide by Kazakhstan's laws and maintain ethnic and civil peace. Elders of the Kurdish community in Kazakhstan have apologized for not preventing the demonstration and have promised not to allow any further such protests. BP

BROTHER OF UZBEK OPPOSITION PARTY LEADER ARRESTED

Muhammed Begjon, whose brother, Muhammad Solih, is the leader of the Uzbek opposition party Erk, was arrested in Khwarezm on 18 February, RFE/RL correspondents reported. Police came to Begjon's home and requested he drive his car to the police station. Once there, police searched Begjon's vehicle and reportedly discovered gun cartridges. Begjon remains in detention. BP




UKRAINE ISSUES WARRANT FOR LAZARENKO'S ARREST

Following the Supreme Council's decision to strip former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko of his parliamentary immunity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 1999), Ukrainian Prosecutor- General Mykhaylo Potebenko has issued a warrant for Lazarenko's arrest, AP reported on 20 February. Lazarenko is suspected of stealing $2 million in state funds and stashing some $4 million in a Swiss bank. Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko said that Lazarenko is currently in the U.S., to where he wants to emigrate. Reuters reported the next day that Ukraine has asked the U.S. to extradite Lazarenko after he was reportedly detained at New York's Kennedy airport. JM

ALBRIGHT RECOMMENDS $195 MILLION AID TO UKRAINE

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the U.S. Congress on 18 February that Ukraine has made "significant progress" in carrying out its economic reforms to warrant the release of $195 million in aid this year. Congress had intended that sum to be issued earlier but had made its release conditional on Albright's positive assessment of Ukraine's reform process and its efforts to deal with complaints by U.S. investors. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma welcomed the U.S. decision, saying that Washington "understands the role of Ukraine in the region" and that the U.S.-Ukrainian "strategic partnership was not declared for the sake of empty words alone," AP reported. JM

UKRAINE'S ENERGY SECTOR OFFICIALS FIRED

Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko on 19 February sacked Nur Nihmatullin, head of the Enerhoatom nuclear energy company, for "serious drawbacks in work," Reuters reported. The dismissal followed a protest the previous day by nuclear plant workers over wage arrears (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 1999). One week earlier, President Leonid Kuchma sacked Energy Minister Oleksiy Sheberstov after farmers had criticized the minister for massive blackouts in rural regions this winter. In other news, 31 protesting coal miners in Luhansk Oblast received a pledge that their back wages will paid. The promise comes after nine protesters had threatened to commit suicide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 1999). JM

LUKASHENKA DENOUNCES EU FOR 'NIGGLING' COMPENSATION DEMANDS

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 19 February criticized EU countries for making "niggling" demands for financial compensation over the eviction of EU ambassadors from their residences at the Drazdy housing compound, AP reported. "How dare such great powers bring financial claims of a meager hundred of thousand dollars against a country that suffered from the Chornobyl catastrophe?" the agency quoted Lukashenka as saying. Under the EU-Belarusian agreement reached late last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 1998), the evicted EU ambassadors returned to Belarus in January to move to new residences, while Belarus has pledged to pay compensation. JM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION SETS UP COORDINATION BODY

Under a resolution passed by the Congress of Democratic Forces last month, the Belarusian opposition has formed a Consultative and Coordination Council of Democratic Forces to unify all democratic opposition organizations, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 19 February. The council is composed of Henadz Karpenka, the organizer of the congress, and representatives of Belarus's six most influential opposition organizations: the Belarusian Popular Front, the United Civic Party, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party "Narodnaya Hramada," the Independent Trade Unions, the Assembly of Belarusian NGOs, and the civic initiative "Charter- 97." JM

EMBEZZLEMENT CHARGE AGAINST ESTONIA'S KALLAS DROPPED

In the trial over the failed fuel deal with Swiss company Paradiso SAL, the prosecution has dropped the charge of intended embezzlement against Reform Party leader and former Bank of Estonia President Siim Kallas, ETA reported on 22 February. Kallas, however, still faces charges of abuse of power and giving false information to auditors. The prosecution argues that the Bank of Estonia was responsible for the failed deal, which had been expected to yield interest totaling some 107 million kroons ($8.2 million), and that Kallas violated the bank's regulations on investing gold and foreign currency reserves. JC

FOUR QUIT ESTONIA'S PRESIDENTIAL ROUND TABLE ON ETHNIC MINORITIES

Four members of the presidential roundtable on ethnic minorities have resigned, saying that lawmakers ignored the roundtable's views by approving amendments to, among others, the election and language laws, ETA reported on 19 February. The four, who are ethnic Russians from the Center Party and the United People's Party, also criticized President Lennart Meri for failing to uphold the roundtable's recommendations by making use of his veto power. "Postimees" commented that while the move can be interpreted as part of the election campaign, the 21-strong, consultative roundtable will "lose its meaning" with the departure of its Russian-speaking members. JC

MOODY'S GRANTS ESTONIA NEW DOMESTIC CURRENCY ISSUER RATING

Moody's Investors Service Inc. has granted Estonia an A1 issuer rating for domestic currency obligations, ETA and BNS reported on 19 February. The rating reflects a very small domestic currency debt (less than 2 percent of GDP) and a tight fiscal stance, Moody's said. The agency's issuer ratings is based on its assessment of the issuer's ability to meet its obligations. JC

ABDULATIPOV TO BECOME CO-CHAIR OF LATVIAN- RUSSIAN COMMISSION

Russian National Minorities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov told BNS on 19 February that he has accepted an offer by the Russian Foreign Minister to become co-chairman of the Latvian-Russian intergovernmental commission. Abdulatipov added that he expects to be appointed to that post "in the next few days." The commission has not convened for one year because of Moscow's failure to appoint a new co-chairman of the commission. JC

POLAND TO SUPPORT VILNIUS'S NATO BID

Visiting Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski assured his Lithuanian counterpart, Valdas Adamkus, on 19 February that once it becomes a member of NATO, Poland will lobby for the membership of neighboring Lithuania in the alliance, ELTA reported. Kwasniewski said that the three new NATO members- -Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic--will make clear their position on NATO's "open-door" policy at the Washington summit in April. "Warsaw thinks that [there] should be a concrete statement on the continuity of the alliance's enlargement to include the Baltic countries or at least one of them," Kwasniewski said. JC

POLAND'S HEALTH-CARE STRIKE SMALLER THAN EXPECTED

The general strike by health-care workers launched on 19 February is "smaller in scale and not as troublesome for patients as was feared," Polish Radio reported. "Some 20 percent of hospitals took part in the strike," PAP quoted a health-care trade union leader as saying. Talks between the strike organizer--the Health Service Reform Protection Committee--and the government have ended in a "provisional agreement," Polish Radio reported on 20 February, without giving further details. The strike is intended to last until 23 February, when health service trade unionists are to meet to decide whether to continue the action. JM

KLAUS CALLS FOR RECONCILIATION WITH FORMER ODS DISSIDENTS

Vaclav Klaus, chairman of the opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS), has called on members of the Freedom Union to consider "more accommodating relations" between the two parties in order to "stop the unfortunate socialist experiment," CTK reported on 19 February. Klaus was addressing the National Assembly of the Freedom Union, a party that was set up by former ODS dissidents last year. Freedom Union leader Jan Ruml said in response that Klaus's appeal was a "sign of good will" that will make possible future talks between the two formations. He added that Klaus's presence at the union's assembly marks "a significant turning point," noting that the two parties' positions are "similar on many issues" and that he expects them to "gradually" cooperate in the legislature and in local government. MS

MECIAR DENIES SIS DEFAMED CZECH REPUBLIC

In a 19 February letter to Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, former Premier Vladimir Meciar wrote that "I swear on my honor and conscience" that neither the Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS) nor any other government body or member of the Meciar cabinet ever tried to damage the Czech Republic's chances of gaining entry to NATO, CTK reported. He said the report delivered at a closed session of the parliament by the new SIS head, Vladimir Mitro, was "full of deliberate lies" and an "attempt to win the political support of some Czech political circles." MS

SLOVAKIA'S FIRST ASTRONAUT DEPARTS FOR 'MIR'

Ivan Bella became Slovakia's first-ever astronaut on 20 February, when he took off on a Soyuz-TM spacecraft from Baykonur, Kazakhstan, CTK reported. Bella is a member of a Russian- French-Slovak team that is to work on the "Mir" space station. An agreement on Slovak participation in the flight was signed during Meciar's visit to Moscow in May 1998. The cost of having Bella take part in the flight is to be deducted from Russia's $20 million debt to Slovakia, CTK reported. MS

'HUNGARIAN-HUNGARIAN' DIALOGUE TO HAVE INSTITUTIONALIZED FRAMEWORK

Representatives of Hungarian parliamentary parties and ethnic Hungarian organizations abroad agreed in Budapest on 20 February to set up the Hungarian Permanent Conference. That body will serve as an institutionalized forum to maintain dialogue between Hungary and Hungarians abroad. Participants in the meeting signed a statement drawing the international community's attention to the "unfairness" of neglecting the interests of Vojvodina's Hungarians in proposals on settling the Yugoslav crisis. Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told the gathering that while millions of ethnic Hungarians living outside the country will be helped by Hungary's accession to EU and NATO, they will not be granted dual citizenship. MSZ




YUGOSLAV ARMY VOWS TO FIGHT...

General Dragoljub Ojdanic, who is chief of the General Staff, told officers in Belgrade on 21 February that "if we lose [Kosova], we'll lose Serbia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and our freedom, which is most sacred to us." He added that he hopes that negotiators can reach a "peaceful, political settlement" at the Rambouillet talks, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The general stressed, however, that the army is prepared to fight if unnamed foreign powers attach to any treaty what he called "unacceptable" conditions, such as the stationing of foreign troops in the province. Ojdanic pointed out that the army is prepared to "respond to force with force" if foreign troops arrive in Kosova. PM

INCLUDING IN MONTENEGRO

The Montenegrin government said in a statement on 20 February that it will not allow the Yugoslav military to use Montenegrin territory for "actions against the NATO alliance," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The statement added that the government's "duty is to protect its citizens." The following day, top officials of the Second Army Command and the Navy said in a statement in the Montenegrin capital that the government's decision is "unconstitutional and damaging to national defense." The statement added that "units of the Second Army and the Navy will decisively and professionally carry out all tasks in defense against aggression and in defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." PM

ALBRIGHT RETURNS TO RAMBOUILLET

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright again sought to break the deadlock in negotiations on a Kosova settlement at Rambouillet castle on 22 February. The previous day, she held talks with the Kosovar delegation and with Serbian President Milan Milutinovic. On 20 February, foreign ministers of the international Contact Group agreed to extend the deadline for concluding a settlement from that day until 3:00 p.m. local time on 23 February. The main obstacles are the Serbian refusal to accept NATO peacekeepers in the province and the Kosovar demand for a referendum on independence at the end of a three-year transition period. She has repeatedly warned the Serbs that they risk NATO air strikes if they do not accept peacekeepers. Albright has also told the Kosovars that NATO will not bomb the Serbs if the Kosovars do not sign the agreement. PM

DIFFERENCES IN EU OVER KOSOVA?

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in Luxembourg on 21 February that "there will not be another extension" once the latest deadline for an agreement in Kosova runs out. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, however, noted that the Contact Group "is not setting ultimatums and deadlines." The previous day, Albright said that "it would be a grave mistake for [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic to miscalculate our intentions, adding that "we're not into endless extensions" of deadlines for a settlement. PM

ALBANIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS SERBS 'SABOTAGE' TALKS

Pandeli Majko told Reuters in Tirana on 19 February that Serbia is trying to "sabotage" the Rambouillet talks. He warned that failure to reach an agreement would destabilize the region. In an apparent reference to Russia, he added that "pro-Serbian international players" share responsibility for the deadlock in the negotiations. Majko noted that the Albanian delegation at Rambouillet has Tirana's full support, regardless of the outcome of the talks. He stressed that "whatever the stand of the [Kosovar delegation is], the Albanian government will be on its side." Elsewhere, Sabri Godo, who heads the parliament's foreign affairs committee, told VOA's Albanian Service on 21 February that "NATO deployment in Kosova is an absolute necessity" for any agreement between the Kosovars and Serbs. FS

SERBIAN POLICE ASSAULT OSCE KOSOVA MONITORS

Two members of the Serbian security forces punched the driver of a clearly-marked orange OSCE vehicle near Podujeva on 21 February, Reuters reported. The policemen also pointed their weapons into the vehicle and prevented the driver and a second monitor in the vehicle from radioing for help. The policemen then ordered the monitors to leave the area. Local OSCE officials protested what they called the "aggressive behavior of the Serbian police." The previous day, Serbian forces fought the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) in several places in the Podujeva region. Serbian forces also shelled a village near Suhareka, prompting "several hundred" Kosovar civilians to flee the area, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

NATO PREPARES FOR EVACUATION, AIR STRIKES

A British military spokesman said in Petrovec, Macedonia, on 20 February that the 1,800-strong NATO force based in that former Yugoslav republic is prepared to evacuate the 1,300 OSCE monitors in Kosova on short notice. He stressed that the evacuation force "doesn't have an anti-Serb agenda [or] an anti-Albanian agenda. We are here to take the peace monitors out if they are in trouble," AP quoted him as saying. And at Aviano air base in northern Italy, some 50 U.S. Stealth aircraft arrived the next day. The alliance has a total of 400 aircraft ready to take part in air strikes against Serbia, Reuters noted. PM

WASHINGTON ISSUES WARNING FOR REPUBLIKA SRPSKA

The U.S. embassy in Sarajevo advised U.S. citizens and "U.S. government personnel" in the Republika Srpska on 19 February to be prepared to leave on short notice. Observers noted that Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj threatened in October 1998 to take unspecified actions against NATO troops in Bosnia in the event that the alliance launched air strikes against Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 October 1998). PM

ALBANIAN MINISTER WANTS FOREIGN POLICE ON THE GROUND

Petro Koci on 18 February suggested to the parliamentary committee that deals with public order and the secret services that Albania request active foreign support for the police in combating smuggling. Koci acknowledged that Albania's police force is too weak to deal with smugglers and organized criminals by itself, "Albanian Daily News" reported. Police from several EU member countries provide training and equipment to their Albanian counterparts but do not perform police duties. FS

UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN ROMANIA

Borys Tarasyuk ended a three-day visit to Romania on 20 February by visiting areas inhabited by the Ukrainian minority in Maramures County, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. One day earlier, Tarasyuk and his Romanian counterpart, Andrei Plesu, told journalists in Bucharest that they achieved a "significant breakthrough" over outstanding problems related to the 1997 bilateral treaty and that they are determined to reach a "compromise" without appealing to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. While refusing to elaborate, Tarasyuk said that "nobody challenges" the status of Serpent Island as "part of Ukrainian territory." (The treaty also delayed for two years delimiting the continental shelf and some border areas.) The two ministers agreed to submit proposals on meeting Romania's demand to set up a "multicultural university" in Cernivici (Cernauti). MS

KURDISH PROTESTERS CLASH WITH BUCHAREST POLICE

Several people were injured on 19 February in clashes between the police and Kurdish demonstrators who tried to break into the Greek embassy in Bucharest to protest the detention of Abdullah Ocalan, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Earlier, the police had prohibited such a demonstration. Four Kurds detained for questioning were later freed. Prime Minister Radu Vasile said it had been "a mistake" to grant the Kurds political asylum and that the issue will be "re-examined" by the authorities. MS

MOLDOVAN PREMIER-DESIGNATE OUTLINES PLANS

Shortly after his nomination as premier-designate, Ion Sturdza said his government's structure will "reflect the expectations of the parliamentary majority" and that the outgoing cabinet "will not be radically changed," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Sturdza, who must form a cabinet within 15 days, said his government will concentrate on the "continuation of economic and democratic reforms," while taking into consideration "social aspects." He also said that both he and his cabinet will "stay away from politics" and will not participate in the campaign for the local elections. The parliament on 19 February scheduled that ballot for 23 May. MS

BULGARIA INTRODUCES VISA REQUIREMENT

Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev on 18 February announced Bulgaria will impose visa requirements on citizens of 24 countries listed by the EU as a source of illegal emigration, an RFE/RL correspondent in Sofia reported. Among those affected are citizens of several former Soviet republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. MS

BULGARIAN LAWMAKERS APPROVE LEV REDENOMINATION

The parliament on 19 February overwhelmingly approved the lev redenomination law , under which 1,000 old leva will equal 1 new lev. The new lev will have the same value as the German mark, BTA reported. MS




BROKEN NUCLEAR PROMISES COULD JEOPARDIZE EU MEMBERSHIP CHANCES


By Ron Synovitz

Nuclear power plants in Lithuania and Bulgaria pose a dilemma for EU officials who want to shut down Eastern Europe's most dangerous reactors. Over-dependence on nuclear energy in those countries has made it impossible to close their aging Soviet-designed reactors and fuel the kind of economic growth needed to make market reforms successful.

EU officials thought that in 1993 they had won promises from Bulgaria and Lithuania on early closures. In that year, grants totaling more than $50 million were awarded to improve nuclear safety. But EU External Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek has become frustrated by Sofia's refusal to honor the promise and by threats from Vilnius to back out of its agreement. He us now telling prospective EU members they will not be invited into the union until they reach Western standards on nuclear safety.

Some Eastern leaders are questioning which course is more feasible financially --improving their old Soviet-designed reactors or scrapping them altogether and building new types of power plants. At the same time, Brussels has made it clear that it cannot fund all the necessary improvements across Eastern Europe. But Eastern leaders say they must have aid to improve safety and reduce their dependence on nuclear energy.

Van den Broek says Lithuania must set a definite timetable for closing its Ignalina plant if it wants to be invited to fast-track talks on EU membership. But early this month, when Lithuanian Economics Minister Vincas Babilius submitted the government's draft energy policy to parliament, he warned that Lithuania cannot specify shutdown dates without aid commitments.

According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Lithuania is more dependent on nuclear power than any other country in the world. Two 1,500 megawatt RBMK reactors at Ignalina produce more than 80 percent of the country's electricity supply. The reactors are the same design as the unit that caused the Chornobyl disaster in 1986. When both are working, Lithuania can produce almost twice as much energy as its domestic demand. That allows Lithuania to export electricity--something increasingly important as the Baltic States unify their power grids.

Shutting down one unit at Ignalina would not only reduce exports but also mean costly electricity imports. A study by the Swedish firm Grufman Reje found that early closure could cost Lithuania almost $4 billion.

In 1993, Lithuania accepted about $30 million from the EBRD-administered Nuclear Safety Account in exchange for a promise not to replace Ignalina's fuel channels. Brussels has taken that promise to mean a shutdown early in the next century. But Lithuanian officials now say rechanneling may be the only affordable option. A study last October determined that Ignalina's oldest reactor can operate safely for only another three years without rechanneling.

Babilius says EU funding would allow the oldest unit to be decommissioned as early as next year and the second reactor as soon as 2005. But without aid, the government says Ignalina will continue operating for at least 15 more years.

Meanwhile in Bulgaria, Prime Minister Ivan Kostov says it will cost more to decommission the four oldest reactors at the Kozloduy plant than it will to raise safety standards to Western levels. As pressure from Brussels for a shutdown increases, Kostov is asking the parliament to reach consensus on a new national energy policy.

National Electricity Company managers say they will run Kozloduy's four VVER-440 megawatt reactors through the end of their design lives--from 2004 to 2012. The EU wants the oldest reactor shut down by 2002 and others soon after.

Kozloduy produces more than 40 percent of the country's electricity. About 4 percent of electricity production is exported, mostly to Turkey. While decommissioning could put an end to those exports, the trade issues are not as vital to Sofia as they are for Lithuania.

In 1991, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) labeled Kozloduy's oldest reactor as the most dangerous in Europe. Since then, vast improvements have been made in equipment, staff qualifications, and organization. According to Ivan Shilyashki, chairman of Bulgaria's National Energy Committee, a team of IAEA inspectors who visited Kozloduy this month praised the progress and said the plant is far safer than eight years ago.

In 1993, about $22 million in equipment was delivered to Kozloduy through the EBRD's Nuclear Safety Account. In exchange, Sofia promised to shut the four VVER-440 reactors by 1998. But Kostov backed away from that pledge last year. National Electricity Company managers supported the move, saying shutdowns were impossible because expected replacement power never became available.

Threats to block EU accession show how backtracking by Sofia, Vilnius, and others has forced the European Commission to rethink its approach. At the request of Van den Broek, a panel of senior EU officials late last year drafted a new strategy for improving nuclear safety in the East.

One telling conclusion deals with Russia. The panel said a more "cooperative approach" is needed because senior officials in Moscow are rejecting what they see as "paternalistic assistance" from the EU. The panel also said it is pointless to demand reactor shutdowns as a precondition for aid because many countries stand to lose far more from energy cuts than the funds offered by the West.

Significantly, the panel recommended continued pressure for early closures at Kozloduy and Ignalina.

The author is an RFE/RL editor based in Prague.




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