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Newsline - March 17, 1999




FEDERATION COUNCIL DEFIES KREMLIN OVER SKURATOV

The Federation Council on 17 March voted 142 to six to reject the resignation of Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov. Skuratov tendered his resignation on 1 February, citing health reasons, but in his speech to the parliament's upper chamber the same day, he said that "various powerful forces" "have driven a wedge between himself and Russian President Boris Yeltsin." Among those forces he named two former deputy prime ministers, several current ministers and State Duma deputies, and "well known oligarchs." He added that "information about my private life was used," having been "obtained by criminal means." "Kommersant- Daily" reported the same day that "a cassette of Skuratov's 'sexual adventures' is in the hands of the leaders of all Russia's TV channels," and Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev confirmed that there have been "direct threats from the mass media" to reveal information about Skuratov. Skuratov told the senators that he will agree to stay on in his position only if President Yeltsin concurs. JAC

START-II RATIFICATION LINKED TO ABM TREATY

Speaking on Russian Public Television on 16 March, Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov said that if the Duma does not ratify START-II, then the U.S. will likely abandon the anti- ballistic missile treaty. In the face of such a withdrawal, according to Primakov, Russia will "have to think about a completely new military situation that would require an arms race." Meanwhile, Geopolitics Committee chairman and member of the Liberal Democratic Party faction Aleksei Mitrofanov told reporters the same day that he believes the Duma will ratify the treaty in the near future. Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii earlier spoke out against the treaty. JAC

PROGRESS MADE ON POLITICAL ACCORD

Members of Russia's various political branches tentatively lent their support on 16 March to the current draft of the political peace treaty. Presidential administration deputy head Oleg Sysuev, Federation Council Deputy Chairman Oleg Korolev, and Duma deputy and head of the Russian Regions faction Oleg Morozov all initialed the nine-point statement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 1999). In addition, representatives of four groups in the Duma also signed the draft statement, which still has to be debated and approved by the Duma and Federation Council. According to "Kommersant-Daily" the same day, agreement was possible after Duma representatives backed the Kremlin's formulation that a working group be formed to examine whether the constitution should be amended rather than stipulating that the working group draft those amendments. JAC

PRIMAKOV COMMENTS ON U.S.-RUSSIAN RELATIONS...

Prime Minister Primakov assessed U.S.-Russian economic relations on 17 March as "undoubtedly changing for the better but too slowly." Regarding his visit to Washington next week, Primakov said his preparations for the Gore-Primakov commission are focusing on two issues: how "to reorient the commission's work to provide real assistance to the solution of problems faced by Russia" and [how to] clear away "logjams and unresolved problems that have accumulated during the commission's existence," ITAR-TASS reported. Interfax reported the same day that Agriculture and Food Minister Viktor Semenov will not be attending the agricultural business committee meetings of the commission and that "sources" have linked his absence with the "possibility of pending dismissal." The agency also noted that Semenov did not speak at a national farmers meeting in February and that Deputy Prime Minister Gennadii Kulik has expressed dissatisfaction with the ministry's preparations for the spring sowing. JAC

...AS HIS UPCOMING U.S. VISIT PREDICTED TO BE PIVOTAL

In the March issue of "Vek," Sergei Rogov, director of the U.S.A.-Canada Institute writes that the preparations for the commission meeting are taking place "against a backdrop of unprecedented pressure" and that the two countries are "poles apart on many international issues." The meeting itself may mark a turning point in the development of U.S.- Russian relations, he writes, as Washington must decide whether to "make corrections in its policy and stop dictating solutions to Moscow or apply even more pressure." JAC

ALBRIGHT DOESN'T WANT LUZHKOV TO VISIT U.S.?

Moscow Deputy Mayor Sergei Yastrzhembskii on 16 March discounted reports that U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright allegedly recommended that the Clinton administration seek to distance itself from Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov to avoid strengthening the latter's internal political position, Interfax reported. He said that U.S. officials "tell us just the opposite. They intend to broaden and deepen the dialogue with [Luzhkov] as a leading Russian politician." The same day, "Moskovskii komsomolets," which is close to Luzhkov, reported that information has reached "journalists who circulate around the U.S. State Department" that Albright believes Luzhkov is the "only politician in Russia capable of uniting the country around him." However, the newspaper comments, the U.S. should not contribute to strengthening his position or be in any hurry to have him visit the U.S. JAC

ROSTOV REFUSES TO INVESTIGATE MAKASHOV...

Rostov Oblast Prosecutor-General Sergei Ustinov declined to take action against Duma deputy and member of the Communist Party Albert Makashov for his anti-Semitic comments on 20 February in Novocherkassk. During his speech at a meeting of the Movement for the Support of the Army, Makashov suggested transforming the group into a "Movement against Yids." Ustinov told "Kommersant-Daily" on 16 March there is some ambiguity connected with Makashov's use of the word "zhid" since it was used in Pushkin's time to refer to plunderers and money-grubbers and therefore, it cannot necessarily be proven that Makashov knowingly intended to incite ethnic hatred. The Russian Jewish Congress, responding to the local prosecutor's decision, said Makashov was expressing anti-Semitic views with the tacit approval of the leadership of the Communist Party, AP reported. JAC

...INVITES HIM TO RUN FOR GOVERNOR

An aide to Makashov, Valerii Tulyakov, told ITAR-TASS that four oblasts-- Sverdlovsk, Rostov, Samara, and Orenburg--have invited Makashov to run for governor in their regions. "Novye izvestiya" reported earlier that Makashov plans to run for governor in Novosibirsk (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report, 3 March 1999), but Tulyakov said that Makashov has no intention of running for governor anywhere. According to Tulyakov, Makashov said "I am not an expert in sewage systems." JAC

MASLYUKOV ENDS VISIT TO JAPAN...

First Deputy Prime Minister Yurii Maslyukov left Japan on 17 March after a three-day visit, Russian media reported. On 16 March, he attended the fourth session of the bilateral subcommission on economic affairs that discussed Japanese participation in six energy and mining projects in Russia's Far East. Earlier, Maslyukov had discussed Japan's extension to Russia of a $2 billion loan for ecological purposes. Japan had originally said it would provide the money to convert coal-burning power plants into gas-fuelled ones in the Far East. Some Japanese officials, pointing out that such loans are given to developing countries, recently questioned Russia's eligibility for such monies. Japanese officials said several times during Maslyukov's visit that the delay in granting that loan is not connected to the issue of the four Kuril Islands. BP

...AFTER MEETING WITH TOP GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS

On 15 March, Maslyukov met with Japanese Prime Minister Keidzo Obuchi, who said he hopes that bilateral economic relations will continue to develop and that the two countries will sign by 2000 a treaty officially ending World War II and including an agreement on the disputed Kuril Islands. Maslyukov met with Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura the same day and signed an agreement allowing 1,000 Russian students to attend Japanese universities each year at the Japanese government's expense. Komura commented the following day on Russian concerns about the Theater Defense Missile system Tokyo and Washington plan to establish in the Asian Pacific region, saying he understands Russia's unease but stressing that the system is purely defensive. BP

ITALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER WRAPS UP MOSCOW VISIT

Lamberto Dini wrapped up a two-day official visit to Moscow on 16 March. At his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the two officials discussed the Kosova situation and bilateral cooperation issues such as Italian participation in the elimination of Russia's chemical weapon stockpile, AP reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin said that both officials agreed that they favor "the attainment of the earliest possible agreement on the Kosova political accord drafted by the Contact Group." Dini also met with First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov, with whom he discussed bilateral issues and various schemes for rescheduling Russia's foreign debt. JAC

PRIMORSKII KRAI HIT BY NEW ELECTION SCANDAL

Representatives of the political movement Young Nakhodka will be struck off of the roster of candidates for the Nakhodka city council in elections scheduled for 28 March because its candidates were illegally registered, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 March. The group plans to protest the decision of the Primorskii Krai election commission. JAC

CHECHENS RALLY TO SUPPORT PRESIDENT

Addressing a crowd of 30,000- 50,00 people who gathered in Grozny's central square in pouring rain on 16 March, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov acknowledged he is ready for the "maximum compromise" with Moscow but added he will never cede Chechnya's independence, AP and ITAR-TASS reported. Maskhadov blamed tensions within Chechnya on his political opponents, accusing former Premier Shamil Basaev and former Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov of seeking with the help of foreign support to promote anarchy in order to seize power. LF

NEW THEORIES ON KHOTTAB, SHPIGUN ABDUCTION

ITAR-TASS on 16 March quoted unnamed senior Chechen officials as stating that the alleged abduction on 13 March of three members of opposition field commander Khottab's family was staged by Basaev in order to deflect attention from the seizing of Russian Interior Ministry General Gennadii Shpigun. Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin told Interfax on 16 March that his ministry has begun receiving "hints" that Shpigun's abductors might ransom him, adding that Moscow will not pay for his release. LF




ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER PROPOSES NEW REGIONAL ORGANIZATION

Speaking on 15 March at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Vartan Oskanian said that the absence of an all-encompassing regional organization for the Caucasus contributes to destabilization in the region, an RFE/RL correspondent in the British capital reported. Oskanian said such an organization should bring together Russia, Iran, Turkey, the South Caucasus, and the Central Asia states and serve as a forum for the discussion of problems and consensus-building. In Yerevan, presidential press secretary Vahe Gabrielian on 16 March hailed Iran's recent offer to mediate in the Karabakh conflict but made it clear that Armenia gives priority to the ongoing OSCE mediation effort, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT, PARLIAMENT ON COLLISION COURSE OVER ENERGY PRICES

Presidential press secretary Gabrielian said on 16 March that President Robert Kocharian will veto a parliament bill to reduce electricity tariffs if lawmakers pass it in the second and final reading, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Deputies voted in favor of the bill in the first reading the previous day, after Kocharian had met with representatives of the Yerkrapah parliamentary group, the largest in the legislature, to try to persuade them to prevent passage of the bill. Gabrielian failed to specify what steps Kocharian will take if the parliament overrides his veto, which it can do by a simple majority. AFP on 16 March quoted an Armenian government spokesman as repeating opposition to the parliament's proposal to reduce energy tariffs, which, the spokesman said, would worsen the economic situation and lead to a fall in tax revenues and foreign investment. LF

TRANSCAUCASUS PARLIAMENTARY CHAIRMEN MEET

Meeting in Strasbourg on 15 March under the aegis of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Khosrov Harutiunian, Murtuz Alesqerov, and Zurab Zhania adopted a declaration affirming their support for inter-parliamentary dialogue as a means of promoting regional cooperation and understanding, Noyan Tapan reported. "Rezonansi" on 15 March quoted Georgian parliamentary speaker Zhvania as saying that the acceptance of Armenia and Azerbaijan into full membership of the Council of Europe is contingent on a solution to the Karabakh conflict, according to Turan. LF

AZERBAIJANI POLITICIANS ASSESS EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT RESOLUTION ON KARABAKH

The opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party issued a statement on 16 March saying that the 11 March European Parliament resolution endorsing the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group to mediate a settlement of the Karabakh conflict is "unfair," Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 1999). The statement attributed the adoption of the resolution to unspecified "unilateral concessions" on the part of the Azerbaijani leadership. State Foreign Policy Adviser Vafa Guluzade dismissed the resolution as "declarative," noting that it failed to specify precisely which of the Minsk Group's various peace proposals it supports. Also on 16 March, first deputy parliamentary speaker Arif Ragimzade turned down a request by Azerbaijan Popular Front Party First Deputy Chairman Ali Kerimov to schedule a debate on the resolution, saying he has not had a chance to read it. LF

AZERBAIJANI SOCCER TEAM PRECIPITATES CHILL IN RELATIONS WITH TURKEY

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has informed Azerbaijani Ambassador Mehmet Nevrozoglu of Ankara's displeasure at the decision to locate a training camp for the Azerbaijani national soccer team in the Greek sector of Cyprus, according to "Hurriyet" on 14 March. Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev summoned the team back to Baku, where the Youth and Sports Ministry termed the incident "a disappointing mistake," according to Interfax. LF

AZERBAIJAN, TURKMENISTAN PLEDGE TO RESOLVE CASPIAN DISPUTE

In a telephone conversation on 16 March, Presidents Aliyev and Saparmurat Niyazov agreed to instruct the working groups charged with finding a compromise agreement to the two countries' dispute over ownership of Caspian oil fields to expedite the drafting of the appropriate documents for signing next month, Russian agencies reported. Those documents will specify the precise location of the dividing line between the two countries' respective sectors of the Caspian and clarify ownership of the Chirag and Azeri fields, to which both countries lay claim. A decision on the median line delineating the two countries' sectors of the sea is a precondition for construction of the planned Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S PREMIER SAYS ECONOMIC SITUATION 'NOT SIMPLE'

Nurlan Balgimbayev, addressing an expanded session of the government on 16 March, said the economic situation in the country is "not simple," noting that industrial output in the country fell 5 percent in the first two months of 1999, Interfax reported. Balgimbayev said oil refining at the Atyrau and Pavlodar plants decreased owing to a shortage of raw materials. He also identified tax collection as a problem: in 1998 only 89.3 percent of taxes were collected, and on the basis of figures for early 1999, it is estimated that the figure will drop to 78.9 percent for this year. The premier added that in a survey of 38 major industrial enterprises put "under management of foreign and domestic investors," only one in four improved its economic and financial performance last year. BP

KAZAKHSTAN'S FORMER PREMIER CRITICIZES TENGIZ OIL DEAL

Akezhan Kazhegeldin has called the deal between the U.S. oil company Chevron and Kazakhstan "ill-conceived and unprofitable," according to the weekly "XXI Vek," cited by Interfax on 15 March. Kazhegeldin said when the contract was signed in 1993, Chevron agreed to pay a $420 million bonus but not until the TengizChevrOil joint venture began producing 12 million tons of oil annually. Kazhegeldin said it will be a long time before this quota is reached. He noted that in 1996, when he was prime minister, he sold off 25 percent of Kazakhstan's stake in the Tengiz project to another U.S. oil company, Mobil, for $1.1 billion, which was transferred to Kazakhstan's foreign account immediately. BP

ANOTHER 30 SUSPECTS IN TASHKENT BOMBING ARRESTED IN KAZAKHSTAN

Kazakhstan's police say they have apprehended 30 more ethnic Uzbeks in Taldy Kurgan and Almaty who are believed to be members of a group called Uzbekistan Islam Haraketi, RFE/RL correspondents in Almaty reported on 17 March. Police say all the detainees have Kyrgyz passports. Moreover, some of the group escaped to Turkey, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates before police could arrest them. BP

UZBEKISTAN RESUMES GAS SHIPMENTS TO KYRGYZSTAN

An official at the state company Kyrgyzgaz told RFE/RL correspondents in Bishkek on 16 March that Uzbekistan is again sending supplies of natural gas to Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan greatly reduced supplies of gas on 12 March creating shortages of energy areas in northern Kyrgyzstan, including the capital, Bishkek. BP

UZBEK, TURKISH PRESIDENTS ATTEND OPENING OF SAMARKAND CAR PLANT...

Islam Karimov and Suleyman Demirel attended the opening ceremonies of the joint-venture automotive plant Samkochavto in Samarkand on 16 March, Interfax reported. The plant will produce 5,000 vehicles annually. Turkey's Koc Holding company built the $65 million plant and is co-owner. It is the second automotive assembly plant to open in Uzbekistan. The UzDaewooAvto plant in Andijan began operating in 1996 and has an annual capacity of 200,000 vehicles. BP

...WHILE DEMIREL SAYS UZBEK OPPOSITION LEADER NOT TO RETURN TO TURKEY

At the Samkochavto opening ceremony, Demirel said Uzbek anti-government forces will not find refuge in Turkey, AP reported. "Islam Karimov's enemies are my enemies," Demirel stressed. According to RFE/RL correspondents in Samarkand, Demirel said Mohammed Solih, whom Uzbek authorities have named as an organizer of the February bombings in Tashkent, is not in Turkey and will not be allowed to return there. Solih has resided in Turkey from time to time since fleeing Uzbekistan in 1993. BP




IMF INCLINED TO RESUME LENDING TO UKRAINE

The IMF on 16 March praised Ukraine for its progress in fiscal and structural reforms. An IMF statement said the fund's board is scheduled to meet by the end of March to discuss resuming its $2.2 billion loan to Ukraine. "IMF management has decided to propose to the executive board to resume financial assistance to Ukraine," the statement added. The IMF approved the loan in September 1998, but after disbursing $300 million it suspended further tranches because of the slow pace of reform and poor economic performance. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT FAILS TO LAUNCH IMPEACHMENT OF KUCHMA

The 450-seat Supreme Council on 16 March voted by 160 to 57 to begin impeaching President Leonid Kuchma but fell 66 votes short of the majority required for the bill to pass, AP reported. The Communists, who initiated the impeachment motion, said Kuchma should be ousted for his refusal to sign a law on local government that lawmakers passed one year ago by overriding a presidential veto. Kuchma argues that the parliament violated house voting procedures in overriding his veto. Commentators say Kuchma is reluctant to approve the law because it would reduce the authority of presidential representatives in the oblasts. JM

KUCHMA CALLS FOR SUMMIT ON MOLDOVA'S TRANSDNIESTER REGION

The Ukrainian president on 16 March called for Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova to take part in a summit later this year to discuss the normalization of relations between Moldova and its separatist Transdniester region, Reuters reported. Kuchma proposed the summit during a meeting with Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov in Kyiv. Kuchma's spokesman said Ukraine hopes that Russian President Boris Yeltsin will also take part in the summit. JM

BELARUSIAN PARTIES WARNED AGAINST PURSUING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

The Justice Ministry has warned two leading opposition parties, the Belarusian Popular Front and the United Civic Party, as well as a human rights group, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, against taking part in the presidential election campaign organized by the opposition Supreme Soviet, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 16 March. The ministry cautions that the groups may be denied registration if they continue their "anti-constitutional activities" in the campaign. JM

RUSSIA URGES ESTONIA TO TRY ALLEGED NAZI CRIMINALS

Following the second conviction in Estonia on charges of involvement in Stalin-era deportations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 1999), Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin has urged Tallinn to try Nazi war criminals as well, in order to avoid "the politicization of trials and double standards," BNS reported on 16 March. "In this connection, I would like to recall that members of SS units who took part in repressions against the civilian population during World War II are still walking around free in Estonia," Rakhmanin said. Estonian law-enforcement agencies have said there are no Nazi war criminals in Estonia. The dozens of veterans of the Waffen SS units who still live in Estonia were conscripted to fight on the Russian front alongside German troops toward the end of the war. The Nuremberg Military Tribunal branded the SS, together with the Waffen SS, "a criminal organization" but exonerated those men who were forced to join the Waffen SS and did not commit crimes against humanity. JC

16 MARCH EVENTS PASS WITHOUT INCIDENT...

Several hundred veterans of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion marched through Riga on 16 March, Latvia's Soldiers Day. A crowd of up to 5,000 onlookers was composed largely of supporters, RFE/RL's Latvian Service reported. At a counter-demonstration organized by mainly Russian-speakers in downtown Riga, a group of extreme Russian nationalists who had spontaneously joined the demonstration attached a large portrait of Josef Stalin to balloons and sent it soaring above the city. There were no reports of violence, and only two people were arrested for minor offenses. Last year's march, which came on the heels of a Riga demonstration at which police used force to disperse mostly ethnic Russian pensioners, prompted sharp criticism from Moscow and led to a worsening of relations between the two countries. JC

...WHILE PREMIER SAYS DAY WILL BE CHANGED

Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans told foreign journalists in Riga that the day commemorating Latvian soldiers will be changed from 16 March, LETA reported. Kristopans said that both he and his party, Latvia's Way, have always felt that 16 March is an "inappropriate date" to remember Latvian soldiers. He pointed out 11 November is recognized as Veterans Day in Latvia and "symbolizes the fight for freedom." Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Rakhmanin said in Moscow that the decision to commemorate 16 March as Soldiers Day in Latvia "can be assessed only as blasphemy toward those who fought fascism and [toward] the memory of the many millions of victims of that criminal ideology," ITAR-TASS reported. The Latvian Waffen SS Legion marks 16 March as the day their unit first fought against the Red Army in 1943. JC

PROSECUTOR-GENERAL INVESTIGATES THREATS AGAINST LANDSBERGIS

The Lithuanian Prosecutor-General's Office has launched an investigation into death threats made against parliamentary chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, ELTA reported on 16 March. The office said that the letters containing the threats, which were signed by non-registered organizations and delivered to the buildings of various Vilnius dailies, constitute an attempt to disturb "constitutional statehood and public order." Landsbergis himself, meanwhile, has sought to downplay the threats, saying they are attempts to "excite people, disrupt...the functioning of the state, and waste time." JC

POLISH FARMERS DEMAND SUBSIDIES, BAN ON FOOD IMPORTS

Some 6,000 farmers marched in Warsaw on 17 March to press for government subsidies and a ban on food imports, AP reported. "In the EU, subsidies bring prosperity to agriculture," the agency quoted one demonstrator as saying. The protest was the first since farmers lifted their road blockades on 9 February after entering negotiations with the government on alleviating farmers' debts and subsidizing meat, grain, and dairy products. JM

POLISH ARMY CRITICIZED FOR POOR HYGIENE, HAZING

The Supreme Audit Chamber on 15 March issued a report saying that the Polish military suffers from poor hygiene, hazing, and low intelligence among conscripts. The report was based on a study of eight military units conducted from October 1997 to August 1998. It lists common problems such as a lack of hot water and functioning showers and washrooms. Some members of the navy reportedly change their underwear only once a month, while 62 out of 110 members of one naval unit were found to have personality disorders or below-average intelligence. According to the report, older soldiers often force younger ones to smoke cigarettes in gas masks, crawl on the floor, and do hundreds of push-ups. Defense Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz has blamed the problems on negligence. "Dirty but in NATO" ran a headline in the 16 March "Gazeta wyborcza." JM

ZEMAN CONFIRMS OFFER TO SEND FIELD HOSPITAL TO KOSOVA

Speaking at a press conference following the hoisting of flags of the new NATO members in Brussels on 16 March, Prime Minister Milos Zeman said the probability of an armed NATO action against Yugoslavia has increased after the Kosova Albanians approved the Rambouillet agreement and the Serbs refused to do so, CTK reported. Zeman said the Czech Republic is ready to send to Kosova "humanitarian aid in the form of a field hospital, although it has not been officially asked to participate in a NATO operation" there. The government has already approved the field hospital, which would be stationed in Macedonia, and the parliament is expected to follow suit next week, Zeman said. MS

SLOVAKIA RESPONDS TO ALBRIGHT STATEMENT

Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan on 16 March said he understands U.S. Secretary of State's Madeleine Albright's statement two days earlier to be not a "crushing criticism" of Slovakia but rather "an appeal to Slovakia to proceed more resolutely ahead," CTK reported. In an interview with Hungarian Television on 15 March, Albright said Slovakia is not yet prepared for NATO membership, which, she added, is "sad." Kukan said Albright's statement reflects the fact that Slovakia could have been a NATO member by now, "had it not been for the previous four years of Vladimir Meciar's government." The U.S. embassy in Bratislava clarified that Albright's statement was "made in the past, not in the present tense." MS

SLOVAKIA TO REDUCE TROOPS BY MORE THAN ONE THIRD

Pavel Bartak, director of the Defense Ministry's planning directorate, on 16 March told CTK that Slovakia intends to reduce its military forces by more than one-third as part of the reform of its army. He said the army will have 25,000- 30,000 soldiers by 2002. He added that the army needs only 26,000 conscripts, while some 35,000 are eligible for compulsory service. The cut in the defense budget from 2.2 percent of the GDP in 1995 to 1.7 percent this year, the need to have a professional army, and improvement of Slovakia's "geo-political situation" and security as a result of its neighbors' accession to NATO are the three main reasons for the planned reduction of troops, he said. MS




PENTAGON SAYS SERBIA 'BRACING FOR WAR'

Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said in Washington on 16 March that Belgrade is "bracing for war" in Kosova. He noted that up to 18,000 Yugoslav troops are in the province and that as many as 21,000 are in Serbia proper near the border with Kosova. Bacon pointed out that the army has moved seven of its modern T-72 battle tanks into Kosova. On 15 March, the Defense Ministry extended the term of service for army conscripts by one month. PM

SERBIAN PRESIDENT CHARGES MEDIATORS WITH 'FRAUD'

Milan Milutinovic criticized international mediators at the Paris conference on Kosova for rejecting Serbian proposals to change the Rambouillet plan for a political settlement for the province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 1999). Milutinovic said that the mediators "would like to have just a fraud" rather than discuss the Serbian proposals. An unnamed European diplomat told AFP that "the Serbs are backtracking and opening up new issues. These are delaying tactics." The mediators--U.S. envoy Chris Hill, the EU's Wolfgang Petritsch, and Russia's Boris Mayorskii--say that they will accept minor "technical" changes to the plan but will not renegotiate it. PM

SERBIA ISSUES ARREST WARRANT FOR NEGOTIATOR

The Yugoslav authorities sent an arrest warrant for chief Kosovar negotiator Hashim Thaci to Interpol officials in France, Tanjug reported on 16 March. Belgrade has charged Thaci, who is a leader of the Kosova Liberation Army, with terrorism and murder. PM

RELIGIOUS LEADERS FROM KOSOVA MEET

U.S. Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who heads the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, urged Islamic, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic leaders from Kosova to "find a way to end the bloodshed." Schneier, who is a Vienna-born survivor of the Holocaust, said to a group of religious leaders from Kosova and Austrian dignitaries in the Austrian capital on 16 March that "peace has to be promoted from the top down, but it grows and it is nurtured from the bottom up." Schneier told the BBC that he recognizes that the conflict in Kosova is not religious in nature, but he stressed that religious leaders can influence their followers' attitudes toward questions of war and peace. He noted that this is the first time that the leaders of the three communities have met face-to-face. The conference will end on 18 March, "Die Presse" reported. PM

ALBANIA POLITICIANS WELCOME KOSOVARS' DECISION TO SIGN AGREEMENT

Albanian opposition leader Sali Berisha issued a statement in Tirana on 16 March calling the Kosovars' decision to sign the Rambouillet accord a "great turning point in the history of all Albanians" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 1999). He added that if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic does not sign the agreement, he will have to face "the entire potential of NATO because he has caused many great tragedies in the Balkans." Socialist Party Secretary Gramoz Ruci told a press conference that "with the signing of the agreement, the future of Kosova is not in the hands of [the Kosovars but in those of the international community. The Kosovars] have done their job." Presidential adviser Prec Zogaj stressed that "the ball is now in the Serbs' camp." Parliamentary speaker Skender Gjinushi expressed hope that "the agreement [will] also contribute to the relaxation of tensions in Albania," dpa reported. FS

ALBANIA REPORTS NEW BORDER INCIDENTS

Yugoslav soldiers shot and injured an Albanian shepherd about 60 meters inside Albanian territory on 16 March, Albanian Television reported. The broadcast added that the situation in the area is still tense. Army and police forces remain on high alert along the border with Kosova. In a separate incident, a group of Yugoslav soldiers entered about 50 meters inside Albanian territory in the same area and then withdrew, dpa reported. FS

U.S. CRITICISES ALBANIAN LAW ENFORCEMENT AS 'LACKING'

The annual U.S. State Department human rights report on Albania, released in Tirana on 16 March, said that in 1998 "the gains in human rights were largely offset by the government's stubbornly passive approach to basic law enforcement." The study stressed that "in too many instances crime, corruption and vigilantism undermined the government's efforts to restore civil order," adding that members of the police and the judiciary are often involved in corruption. The report noted that the opposition Democratic Party is frequently justified in complaining about police harassment of its members, Reuters reported. FS

BOSNIAN CROAT OFFICIAL FIGHTS FOR LIFE

Jozo Leutar, who is the Bosnian federation's deputy interior minister, remains in critical condition after brain surgery on 16 March following a car bomb explosion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 1999). Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic described the attack on the ethnic Croat leader as "terrorist." Jacques Klein, who is a deputy for the international community's Carlos Westendorp, said it is "too early" to determine the likely motive for the bombing. Klein stressed that Leutar is known as a tough opponent of organized crime, which flourishes in both parts of post-war Bosnia. But Ante Jelavic, who is the main political leader of the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said in Mostar that the "highest political leaders among Bosnian Muslim people" were behind other recent attacks on Croats. He added that the bombing of Leutar's car indicates that the Croats are not welcome in the Muslim-led federation or its capital. PM

BOSNIAN SERBS PROTEST BRCKO DECISION

Some 5,000 Serbs in Banja Luka and 3,000 in Brcko staged a peaceful demonstration on 16 March to protest the decision by Robert Farrand, who is the international community's administrator for Brcko, to remove the strategic town from Serbian control and make it a "neutral district" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 1999), Reuters reported. Republika Srpska President Nikola Poplasen, whom the international community's Carlos Westendorp recently fired but who refuses to step down, told protesters in Banja Luka that "there is no justification for removing Brcko from the Republika Srpska and there is no justification in replacing legitimate, elected officials." "Oslobodjenje" of 17 March quoted Biljana Plavsic, who is Poplasen's predecessor, as saying that the decision on Brcko will play into the hands of Bosnian Serb hard-liners. PM

ROMANIAN SENATE MAKES IT EASIER TO LIFT PARLIAMENTARY IMMUNITY

The Senate on 16 March voted by 81 to two to change regulations on lifting the parliamentary immunity of its members, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. A "simple majority" of half of the house's members plus one, instead of the "special" two-thirds majority stipulated until now, can lift a senator's immunity. The opposition Party of Social Democracy in Romania and the Greater Romania Party (PRM) boycotted the vote in protest against the fact that the move came before the pending vote on lifting PRM leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor's immunity. Once in force, the new regulations will enable the coalition majority to lift Tudor's immunity without the support of the opposition. The PRM also announced it will boycott the Senate's debates "indefinitely." MS

MOLDOVAN PARTIES BRACE FOR LOCAL ELECTIONS

Parliamentary chairman and For a Democratic and Prosperous Moldova Bloc (PMPD) leader Dumitru Diacov on 17 March announced that the PMPD and three extraparliamentary formations have formed the Moldovan Centrist Alliance (ACM) ahead of the 23 May local elections, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The PMPD, the Party of Progressive Forces, the New Force Party, and the wing of the Moldovan Social Democratic Party led by Gheorghe Sima (which was recently denied registration by the Justice Ministry) will run on joint lists in that ballot. On 11 March, the Party of Moldovan Communists reached an agreement with the Agrarian Democratic Party (PDAM) and the Socialist Party to run in the elections on joint lists. The PDAM was the major parliamentary formation from 1993-1997 but failed to gain representation in the legislature in the last election. MS

BULGARIAN PREMIER URGES KOSOVA SETTLEMENT

Ivan Kostov on 16 March told the Bulgarian parliament that the Kosova crisis affects Bulgaria's national security because of the immediate vicinity of the region, BTA reported. Kostov said Sofia will support the dispatch of an international mission of peacekeepers to Kosova if all sides involved are agreed to such a mission. Bulgaria is ready to participate in such a mission under NATO command, he noted. Preliminary talks on offering "logistic support" for the transit of NATO personnel across Bulgarian territory took place on 11-12 March, Kostov said, adding that if Belgrade continues to object to a NATO peace-keeping mission and if NATO is forced to mount an operation without Yugoslav consent, the government will use the mandate approved by the parliament in October 1998 to allow NATO air forces to use Bulgarian airspace. MS

BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN GERMANY

"We expect that the upcoming NATO summit in Washington will identify Bulgaria as one of the serious candidates for membership" in a second wave of integration, "whenever that will be," Nadezhda Mihailova told journalists in Bonn on 17 March. Her host, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Germany supports Bulgaria's NATO candidacy as well as its bid for EU membership, BTA and dpa reported. Fischer praised Bulgaria's contribution to finding a solution to the Kosova conflict. MS




APATHY SETTING IN AMONG ESTONIANS?


by Mel Huang

Lost among the coverage of the 7 March Estonian parliamentary elections was the surprisingly low number of people who voted. While some commentators sounded alarm bells over the turnout, which was officially put at 57.43 per cent, the press focused on seat distribution and coalition- building. Why was turnout more than 10 percent down on the 1995 elections? Did voter apathy set in for Estonia's third general election since the restoration of independence?

There are several reasons why turnout was significantly lower than four years ago: confusion over the complex electoral system; the similarities of the political parties' platforms; disenchantment after the long and lackluster campaign; and even the beautiful spring-like weather on polling day. But the main reason was doubtless the dominant theme of the campaigns pursued by the large parties: namely, Savisaar or no Savisaar.

The controversial leader of the populist center-left Center Party, former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar, has polarized Estonian politics more than any other single personality. With regard to both policy and political behavior, Savisaar has earned the strong adoration or intense vilification of a significant segment of the population. In the 1999 election campaign, it appears that the other segment of the population may have been put off by this polarization and decided not to cast a vote.

The Center Party was essentially the only main political force to advocate significant policy changes. In the name of social justice, it proposed scrapping the much-vaunted flat- tax system and introducing a progressive tax. And in contrast to all the other main political parties, including the closely aligned Country People's Party, it advocated the relaxation of citizenship rules. These two issues put Savisaar in sharp opposition to all other parties, especially the strong center-right United Opposition, composed of the Fatherland Union, the joint list of the Moderates/People's Party, and the Reform Party. While the parliament voted to outlaw election alliances last fall, the signing of a cooperation agreement among these forces on 31 December 1998 consolidated the opposition against Savisaar's Center Party.

When President Lennart Meri issued his warning against electing "authoritarian" politicians in his Independence Day speech last month, most commentators immediately pointed an accusing finger at Edgar Savisaar. The United Opposition took advantage of the press obsession over the presidential warning by launching further attacks on the trustworthiness of the Center Party leader. In a scathing commentary, former Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves of the People's Party strongly criticized Savisaar directly, attacking his "Big Brother" persona.

To his credit, Savisaar did not seek retribution by slamming the personalities competing in the elections. There had been fears of a possible mud-slinging campaign, not least because Savisaar is thought to be party to secrets about many of the country's top politicians. In 1995, he was forced to resign as interior minister because of his links to illegal phone-tapping and the recording of conversations between prominent politicians. But by focusing on party policies, Savisaar managed to deflect some of the attacks on his personality.

In the end, Savisaar gained a larger-than-expected plurality of seats, 28. As support for him was consistently high throughout the country's 11 electoral districts, Savisaar's proposals for a progressive tax system and softer citizenship policies clearly found resonance among a large chunk of the electorate. The United Opposition also won a larger number of votes than expected, gaining a combined total of 53 seats. As a result of its cooperation agreement and anti-Savisaar campaign, the alliance commands a majority of seats and is most likely to form the new government.

But as the prospective new government enjoys its victory, it should not lose sight of the fact that less than 27 percent of the total electorate voted for the coalition parties and that many did so just to keep Savisaar out of office. It should also bear in mind that nearly 43 percent of the total electorate did not vote at all. With local elections due later this year, the winners of the 7 March parliamentary elections should work fast and hard to establish some credibility within the country's political environment. Otherwise, turnout in the fall local elections could be even lower. The author is a contributor to RFE/RL based in Tallinn.


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