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Newsline - March 19, 1999




BLAST IN VLADIKAVKAZ LEAVES AT LEAST 42 DEAD

An explosion at the central market in the North Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz on 19 March has left at least 42 people dead and 70 injured, Russian agencies reported. The blast occurred at 11:30 a.m. local time, when the market was crowded with people. According to initial reports, the force of the explosion was equivalent to 5 kilograms of TNT. President Boris Yeltsin has sent Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin to the city and ordered Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov to launch an investigation. BP

U.S. SENATE ACTION LABELLED UNPLEASANT SURPRISE...

Responding to the U.S. Senate's approval of a bill on the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 18 March calling the legislation a "serious threat to the whole process of nuclear arms reduction as well as strategic stability, for the sake of which decades of international agreements were negotiated." The statement added that "although Washington stresses that a decision on the system will not be made before 2000, the very direction of the Senate's actions cripple" existing agreements in this area. In an interview with NBC television, Prime Minister Primakov called the passage of the bill "an unpleasant surprise," while Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev told Interfax that "the [U.S.] Senate's decision must be analyzed, but I have not lost hope." JAC

...AS U.S. CONGRESSMEN FAIL TO PERSUADE DUMA

Reporting on a visit by U.S. Congressmen to convince the State Duma that the new defense system would not be intended for use against Russia, military analyst Pavel Felgengauer noted in "Segodnya" on 17 March that the Congressmen's talks with the Duma were not successful. According to Felgengauer, Representative Curt Weldon, who led the delegation, asked Russia to cooperate in developing the new system, but Weldon, who "will decide how much money will be allotted to various countries for research and design projects," refused to disclose how much would be allotted to Russia's military industrial complex "if Moscow agrees with the U.S. 'amendments' to the ABM treaty." Felgengauer also reported that the U.S. once signed a $100 million contract for a S-300V anti-aircraft system but winded up taking only the radar and regulation system for $30 million, reneging on the rest of the agreement. JAC

SKURATOV'S STATUS ON STAND-BY

President Yeltsin will not make any decision on whether to ask for Prosecutor- General Yurii Skuratov's resignation until the Security Council has completed its probe of Skuratov and the blackmail effort against him, "Izvestiya" reported on 19 March, citing "Kremlin officials." "Komsomolskaya Pravda" reported the same day that the Office of the Prosecutor-General has instigated legal proceedings against Russian Television for broadcasting the film of a man who looked very similar to Skuratov frolicking with two young women. However, "Vesti" director Boris Nepomnyashchii believes that the station is protected under the law on the media, which allows the broadcast of secretly made materials. Media analysts told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau that it is most unlikely that the tape was aired without the Kremlin's knowledge or even permission. JAC

BORDYUZHA'S BACK, BUT FOR HOW LONG?

ITAR-TASS reported on 19 March that later the same day, Nikolai Bordyuzha, head of presidential administration, will chair a meeting of the subcommission of the Security Council tasked with investigating Prosecutor-General Skuratov. The agency had reported the previous day that on 19 March Bordyuzha would check out of the hospital where he was recovering from heart problems. Bordyuzha returns to face a flurry of speculation in Russian newspapers that he will soon be dismissed for his role in the Skuratov affair. According to several press accounts, Bordyuzha allegedly showed Skuratov the now famous videotape immediately before Skuratov decided to resign. "Kommersant-Daily" concluded on 18 March that although the idea to pressure Skuratov to resign was implemented with the approval of former presidential administration head Valentin Yumashev and Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, Bordyuzha would likely take the heat of Yeltsin's anger for the humiliating vote in the Federation Council. JAC

RUSSIA ADMITS IMF MONEY NOT YET IN THE BAG

Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov told reporters on 18 March that "talks with the IMF are preceding with difficulty and we cannot say that the money is in our pocket." Zadornov pointed out that "a lot of optimistic statements have been made lately" about the IMF's readiness to provide financial assistance to Russia, although he did say that "positions were getting closer." Prime Minister Primakov will meet with IMF mission members on 19 March and is scheduled to hold talks with IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus on 24 March in Washington. Former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who recently met with fund officials in the U.S. capital, said that talks with the fund and World Bank might have made greater progress if First Deputy Prime Minister Yurii Maslyukov had not participated. JAC

RUSSIA WARNS CSFB

Finance Minister Zadornov told reporters on 18 March that the decision of Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) to set up its own fund for bad short-term debt of the Russian government is fostering "unrealistic" hopes among foreign holders of defaulted Treasury bonds Zadornov said that Russia "did not hold and does not intend to hold any talks with the Nikitskii Fund or CSFB about changing terms of exchange." According to Zadornov, two- thirds of the Treasury bills have already been exchanged, including 35 percent by non-residents. Duma deputy and former Economics Minister Aleksandr Shokhin told a workshop on debt the same day that Russia's total foreign debt payments may exceed 85 percent of GDP, Interfax reported. According to "Vremya MN" the previous day, over the next 12 years, Russia must pay back $180 billion, which is nine times the current budget. JAC

IS ORTHODOX CHURCH PROMOTING RELIGION IN SCHOOLS?

In an interview with Mayak Radio on 18 March, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexii II said that the Russian Orthodox Church is working on having the history of Orthodox culture included in school programs. He added that introducing religious classes in schools "is a thing of the future as it is difficult to do in this secular state." He noted that the Russian Orthodox Church is currently conducting talks with the Education Ministry on this issue. "Izvestiya" reported on 10 March that with the blessing of the archbishop of Volgograd and Kamyshin, a new course, "The Rudiments of Orthodox Culture," is being introduced in schools throughout Vologda Oblast (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 17 March 1999). The course is aimed at teaching the younger generation Christian values as well as acquainting them with Russia's historical legacy and the deeds of outstanding representatives of Russian Orthodoxy. JAC

MILITARY ACADEMIES FACING DRAMATIC REDUCTION

Seventeen military educational establishments will be abolished beginning 1 April, and of the 101 in the country at the end of 1998, no more than 50 will remain in the long term, according to Lieutenant-General Anatolii Sidorenko, head of the Defense Ministry's Military Education Directorate, "Segodnya" reported on 16 March. The reductions are supposed to result in a savings of at least 500 million rubles ($21 million), the daily reported. Sidorenko noted earlier that financial savings are not the only factor behind the cuts, pointing to the "noticeable decrease in the professional and moral level of graduates from military educational establishments." "Segodnya" reported on 2 March that competition to get into some military educational establishments is very low, with some institutions accepting every applicant in order to fill their vacancies. JAC

DUMA SLAMS AZERBAIJAN FOR COURTING U.S. BASES

Duma members voted on 18 March to adopt a statement denouncing the possibility of the U.S. deploying military bases in Azerbaijan, ITAR-TASS reported. The vote was 281 to one with one abstention. The statement raps "certain political circles in Azerbaijan" for wanting to "review the geopolitical balance of forces in the Transcaucasus and turn it into a zone of contest between outside forces." The same day, the Duma adopted in the first reading a bill prohibiting persons with criminal convictions for grave offenses from running for legislative bodies and another preventing air traffic controllers from striking. Despite concern expressed by some individual deputies that the latter law would violate the constitutional right to strike, only the Yabloko faction voted against it. JAC

SVERDLOVSK LEGISLATORS RECOMMENDS CABINET RESHUFFLE

Angered by a report on wage arrears by Sverdlovsk Oblast Finance Minister Vladimir Chervyakov, members of the oblast legislative assembly have accused the government of Governor Eduard Rossel of executing its duties poorly and trying to misinform the people and their elected representatives, according to "EWI Russian Regional Report" on 18 March. Chervyakov reported that teachers and doctors are receiving their current salaries on time while they are slowly being reimbursed for past wages. Local legislators had a different take on the situation, noticing that the salary backlog remains as high as 871 million rubles ($37 million). According to the report, legislators are not likely to push to dismiss the whole government, since the governor might propose that legislators help him pick a new cabinet and thus share in responsibility for government policies. JAC

SIBERIAN EX-MAYOR NABBED FOR BRIBERY

The former mayor of the city of Belovo in Kemerovo Oblast, Yevgenii Parshukov, has been arrested on bribery charges, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March, citing New Siberian Television. According to the television company, Parshukov is suspected of accepting a bribe in the form of an exemption for a repayment of a 62,000 ruble loan ($2,600). Parshukov is also charged with misusing 700,000 rubles in federal funds that had been intended for creating new jobs for coal miners but were instead transferred to a city transportation enterprise. Parshukov resigned from the post of mayor two months ago for unannounced reasons at the request of Governor Aman Tuleev. New mayoral elections for the city will be held 18 April, according to the agency. JAC

CHECHEN, RUSSIAN LEADERS TO MEET?

Both Chechen and Russian leaders suggested on 18 March that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and Russian Prime Minister Primakov may meet in the near future, ITAR-TASS reported. Chechen sources suggested that the meeting could occur within the next two days. Russian officials stressed that a meeting now "is an extreme necessity." The meeting, if it takes place, will be in Moscow; an earlier gathering took place in Vladikavkaz. PG

FEW RUSSIANS CONSIDER CHECHNYA PART OF RUSSIA...

Only one-third of Russians consider Chechnya part of the Russian Federation, according to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation released on 18 March and reported by AP. That figure is down 50 percent from two years ago and down 67 percent from during the Chechen war. PG

...BUT MOSCOW SAYS GROZNY MUST END INDEPENDENCE TALK

Russian Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov said on 18 March that Moscow should help to rebuild Chechnya's economy but that Chechens must end talk about independence, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

DAGESTAN DEMONSTRATORS BLOCK MAJOR HIGHWAY

Demonstrators continued on 18 March to block the Caucasus Federal Highway, 80 kilometers south of Makhachkala, ITAR- TASS reported. The protest was sparked by the failure of the republic's election commission to register one of the candidates for the People's Assembly of Dagestan. The second round of the elections are to take place on 21 March. PG




ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SUGGESTS NEW ZEALAND MODEL FOR KARABAKH

Following a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Vartan Oskanian said on 18 March in London that New Zealand's relationship with some small islands off its coast could serve as a model for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's London correspondent reported. Oskanian said that the Niue islands are neither independent nor autonomous vis-a-vis New Zealand but instead exist within a common state. The OSCE Minsk Group has proposed a "common state" approach as a way to break the current deadlock between Yerevan and Baku. PG

DEMIRCHIAN CONFIRMS MEETING WITH KOCHARIAN

Soviet-era Armenian leader Karen Demirchian on 18 March confirmed that he recently met with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Demirchian said that the meeting took place "within the framework of the president's ongoing consultations with political parties," but he refused to give any details. In another move with possible implications for the upcoming elections, two small opposition parties--the 21st Century Party of former national security chief David Shahnazarian and the Liberal Democratic Party of Vigen Khachatrian--announced that they will boycott the poll. PG

FRENCH GOVERNMENT TO OPPOSE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE BILL

The French government on 18 March warned its parliament that a motion to condemn the 1915 killing of Armenians in eastern Anatolia could significantly harm relations between Paris and Ankara. The bill was approved by the National Assembly in May 1998. The Senate is now considering whether to put the bill on its agenda. PG

GEORGIA, AZERBAIJAN DISCUSS ENHANCED MILITARY COOPERATION

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met with visiting Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev on 18 March to explore ways in which the two countries can expand their program of military cooperation, ITAR-TASS reported. The two also discussed the war on crime, terrorism, and other subversive activities in the Caucasus region. PG

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT TO PRESS FOR RUSSIAN PULL- OUT

Revaz Adamia, the chairman of the Georgian parliament's military and security committee, told Reuters on 18 March that the country's legislature will seek to force President Eduard Shevardnadze into demanding that Russian forces withdraw from Georgia and Russian bases there close. Adamia said that Moscow was using the bases to destabilize the situation as well as feeding an illegal arms trade. "It is time now to become harder with Russia. Either they should fulfill their obligations or get out," Adamia concluded. PG

GEORGIA, RUSSIA MEET TO DISCUSS ABKHAZIA

Georgian State Minister Vazha Lordkipanidze, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid Drachevsky, and Russian Interior Ministry special envoy Lev Mironov met to discuss the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia and a resolution of the Abkhaz conflict, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. PG

UN SPECIAL ENVOY TO AFGHANISTAN MEETS WITH TURKMEN PRESIDENT...

The UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 19 March to extend a message of thanks from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for hosting the recent round of Afghan peace talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 1999), ITAR-TASS reported. Brahimi leaves for Kandahar on 20 March to meet with officials from the Taliban. BP

...FOLLOWING TALKS IN TAJIK CAPITAL

The previous day, Brahimi was in Dushanbe to meet with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to discuss progress in the Afghan peace talks, ITAR-TASS reported. Brahimi also met with Ahmed Shah Masoud, the defense minister of the Northern Alliance, which opposes the Taliban. Masoud agreed that "war cannot solve Afghanistan's problems," stressing that the Ashgabat talks were "useful and important as a first step." Masoud added that he expects the exchange of 20 prisoners, which forms part of the Ashgabat agreement, will take place around the Nawruz holiday, on 21 March. BP

KAZAKHSTAN, UKRAINE HAND OVER SUSPECTS IN TASHKENT BOMBINGS

Seven suspects in the 16 February bombings in Tashkent have been extradited from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported on 18 March. According to reports, all detainees are ethnic Uzbeks, although some are citizens of Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, and were found to be in possession of Wahhabi literature. Another four Uzbeks caught in Ukraine and suspected of involvement in the bombings will be extradited to Uzbekistan, Interfax quotes Ukrainian Minister Yuri Kravchenko as saying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 1999). BP

TURKMENISTAN DETAINS, DEPORTS JOURNALIST

The Information Center on Human Rights in Central Asia released statements on 18- 19 March saying that Nikolai Mitrokhin, a reporter for the Russian newspaper "Panorama," was detained and then deported by the Turkmen authorities to Uzbekistan. According to the statement, Mitrokhin was in the Turkmen city of Charjoi on 16 March, when he crossed into Uzbekistan and was detained by Uzbek authorities. Turkmen special service agents "attempted to forcibly bring him to Turkmenistan." However, Uzbekistan, "in violation of the norms of international rights," handed Mitrokhin over to the Turkmen authorities. Once back in Charjoi, Mitrokhin telephoned "Panorama" to say he was under "administrative arrest." Around midnight, he was deported to Uzbekistan, where he spent the night at the home of the head of Bukhara's National Security Committee chief. Mitrokhin is the author of several articles critical of the Turkmen government. BP

KAZAKHSTAN'S PRESIDENT CRITICIZES JUDICIAL SYSTEM

At the 17 March session of the Supreme Judicial Council during which Nursultan Nazarbayev appointed Igor Rogov head of the council (see RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 1999), the president also criticized the work of the courts, , Interfax reported. Nazarbayev said citizens are writing letters to "the president, the government, and the local authorities" to ask for help in resolving their legal problems. "I have been working all these years so that citizens can bring their cases to court," Nazarbayev continued. "If Kazakh citizens do not turn to the courts for settling their legal disputes," legal reform will become redundant, he argued. Prosecutor-General Yuri Khitrin pointed out that so far this year, two judges have been arrested, while last year five were arrested and five dismissed. BP

KAZAKHSTAN'S OPPOSITION CRITICIZES ELECTORAL LEGISLATION

The chairman of Kazakhstan's Peoples' Republican Party, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin, and 15 other "prominent Kazakh citizens" have sent an appeal to the country's parliament criticizing a presidential Decree on elections, Interfax reported on 18 March. The signatories claimed that current electoral legislation "favors manipulation of the electoral process contrary to the interests of the republic's people." They also noted that there are "inconsistencies between constitutional provisions that make the electoral system less democratic and deprive the people of Kazakhstan of the right to express their will." The appeal urges parliamentary deputies to pass new legislation to make the upcoming elections to the parliament and local government "truly democratic." BP




UKRAINIAN MINERS STRIKE OVER BACK WAGES

Some 20,000 miners held a one-day warning strike on 18 March over unpaid wages. "Our task is to show our government our power and to force them to pay wage arrears worth 2.5 billion hryvni [$665 million]," Reuters quoted an activist from the Coal Industry Workers' Trade Union as saying. Another miners' organization, the Independent Miners' Union, has said it is planning a complete halt of coal production and marches from mining regions to Kyiv. Meanwhile, employees of Ukraine's nuclear power plants have postponed a planned strike over unpaid wages pending a Constitutional Court ruling on whether their protest would be legal. JM

STATEMENTS URGING UKRAINE'S IMMINENT NATO ENTRY DEEMED 'PROVOCATIVE'

Volodymyr Horbulin, secretary of Ukraine's National Council of Security and Defense, said in Kyiv on 18 March that statements urging Ukraine's imminent NATO entry are "provocative in nature," Ukrainian Television reported. The Rukh parliamentary caucus, headed by Yuriy Kostenko, recently called for Ukraine to be admitted to the alliance soon. Horbulin said such statemnts are aimed at altering Ukraine's balanced foreign policy and at directing it along an "anti-European" line. Commenting on Russia-NATO relations, Horbulin said he is surprised that the "influential part of Russia's political elite" opposes contacts between NATO and Ukraine, while opting for cooperation between the alliance and Russia. JM

BELARUS WANTS SECURITY GUARANTEES FROM NATO

Foreign Minister Ural Latypau on 18 March urged NATO to offer Belarus security guarantees following neighboring Poland's admission to the alliance. "We mean measures aimed at building up mutual trust, which would be put in writing and contain a promise not to deploy nuclear weapons next to our borders," Reuters quoted Latypau as saying. JM

WORLD BANK TO REOPEN PERMANENT MISSION IN BELARUS

Paul Siegelbaum, the World Bank official in charge of Ukraine and Belarus, said in Minsk on 18 March that the bank will re-establish its permanent representative office in Belarus this summer. The bank froze aid to Belarus in 1994 and recalled its permanent envoy to Belarus last fall to protest Belarus's refusal to conduct market reforms and introduce a single exchange rate. Siegelbaum told journalists that "some progress on a number of issues" has been achieved in negotiations with Belarus, but he noted that the bank's main requirement for resuming assistance--the liberalization of the exchange rate by the National Bank--has not been fulfilled. JM

'EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES' TO FOIL OPPOSITION ELECTION CAMPAIGN IN BELARUS?

Citing "sources worthy of respect" Belapan on 18 March reported that the Belarusian authorities have worked out "extraordinary measures" to thwart the campaign for the presidential election launched by the opposition. According to the news agency, the Justice Ministry has been ordered to draw up a decree on "counteracting political extremism" and to deny registration to "radical and extremist" organizations. The Foreign Ministry is to prepare a decree tightening control over contacts between foreign diplomats and the opposition. And the KGB has been charged with the tasks of intimidating and compromising opposition leaders as well as preventing financial support from reaching the Belarusian opposition. JM

ESTONIA'S NEW LAWMAKERS RE-ELECT SPEAKER

At its first session, the new parliament re-elected Toomas Savi of the Reform Party as its speaker, ETA reported on 18 March. In the secret ballot, fifty-five out of the 101 lawmakers voted in favor of Savi's re-election. The three-party right-wing alliance composed of the Reform Party, the Moderates, and the Fatherland Union have a total of 53 seats. Also on 18 March, the outgoing government of Mart Siimann resigned but will continue to perform tasks until the new cabinet has been formed. JC

OUTGOING TRANSPORT MINISTER SIGNS FRAMEWORK AGREEMENT WITH NRG

Raivo Vare on 18 March signed the framework agreement under which negotiations will begin with the U.S. company NRG Energy on the privatization of Estonian power stations, ETA reported. Under that document, the first stage of the negotiations is to be completed by 30 June, provided the government has made a decision on the restructuring of the oil-shale industry. The second stage, in which a final accord and contracts are to be drawn up, is to end by 30 November. JC

LATVIAN DEPUTIES PASS STATE LANGUAGE LAW IN SECOND READING...

The parliament on 18 March passed the law on the state language law in the second reading "virtually without debate," according to "Diena." Only the For Equal Rights in a United Latvia faction voted against the bill, under which, among other things, private-sector employees would be required to be proficient in the Latvian language. The bill is to be examined by the OSCE and is expected to be submitted to a third and final reading in May. JC

...AGAIN REJECT FREE ACCESS TO INFO ON OFFICIALS' INCOME

Lawmakers on 18 March passed in the final reading amendments to the anti-corruption law whereby state officials are required to reveal the sources of funds for purchases whose value exceeds an official's annual income, LETA reported. Those amendments are to take effect on 1 July. Also on 18 March, deputies voted by 42 to 23 with five abstentions to reject once again the People's Party's proposal to grant free access at any time to information on the income and assets of a state official, "Diena" reported. Under current legislation, deputies are required to submit declarations on their assets once a year; those declarations are made available to the public. JC

TURKEY SUPPORTS LITHUANIA'S NATO BID

Meeting with his Lithuanian counterpart, Valdas Adamkus, in Ankara on 19 March, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel made it clear that Turkey, as a member state of NATO, "is backing and will [continue to] back Lithuania's entry into the alliance without any reservations," ELTA reported. Adamkus is on a three-day state visit to Turkey. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius, on returning from a four-day visit to the U.S. during which he met with several high-ranking U.S. officials, said that the "U.S. is giving a signal that Lithuania is a real candidate to NATO." JC

LEFTIST DEPUTIES CHALLENGE FINANCE MINISTER

Thirty deputies from the leftist opposition in the parliament have submitted an interpellation against Finance Minister Algirdas Semeta, ELTA reported on 18 March. The deputies accuse Semeta of inaccurate budget planning, unjustified tax increases, and the improper use of money from the Privatization Fund. Under house rules, the chancellor of the parliament must forward the interpellation to the challenged minister, who, in turn, must submit a written answer to the parliamentary leader within two weeks. JC

POLAND, VIETNAM PLEDGE TO DEVELOP ECONOMIC TIES

Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong and his Polish counterpart, Aleksander Kwasniewski, pledged in Hanoi on 18 March to boost economic cooperation. Kwasniewski, who is paying the first-ever visit to Vietnam by a Polish head of state, said he sees many opportunities for Polish investments in Vietnam, particularly in the mining, energy, food processing, and shipbuilding industries. The two presidents signed a letter of intent under which Poland will build two power plants in Vietnam worth $100 million each. JM

POLAND TO INTRODUCE VISAS FOR SOME NON-EU CITIZENS

Poland is to introduce entry visas for citizens of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, and 10 other states no later than on the day of its accession to the EU, PAP reported on 18 March. The announcement was made by Polish Deputy Interior Minister Piotr Stachanczyk during so- called screening talks with EU officials, which aim at determining whether Polish legislation complies with that of the EU. JM

CZECH POLICEMAN CHARGED IN RACIAL INCIDENT

A policeman in Ostrov, some 150 kilometers west of Prague, has been charged for hurling racial abuse at a group of Roma. CTK reported him as saying "Black scum," "Black bastards to the gas chambers," and "Nigger lips." The policeman was recently given a one-year suspended sentence for wearing a swastika armband in public in November 1998 but was not dismissed from the force. He has been now suspended from duty. MS

SLOVAK PARLIAMENT PASSES LAW ON PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

The parliament on 18 March passed the law on direct presidential elections by a vote of 89 to one, CTK reported. Under that law, a run-off is to be held if no candidate obtains a majority in the first round. Candidates are to be nominated by at least 15 deputies or by a petition signed by at least 15,000 citizens. A candidate cannot spend more than 4 million crowns (about $98,300) on the campaign. The names of individual sponsors donating more than 10,000 crowns and companies donating more than 100,000 crowns have to be made public. MS

SLOVAK CONSTITUTIONAL COURT ALLOWS ELECTORAL CAMPAIGN IN PRIVATE MEDIA

The Constitutional Court on 18 March ruled that the provision in the electoral law banning radio and television campaigning in electronic media other than public-owned outlets is unconstitutional, CTK reported. Court chairman Milan Cic said that the provision breached the public's right to information as well as the rights of holders of private radio and television licenses to freedom of speech. The previous parliament, which was dominated by Vladimir Meciar's supporters, passed that law. In another ruling, the court declared illegal a provision stating that political parties have the right to nominate a replacement if a vacancy comes up in its parliamentary group, regardless of preferences expressed at the time of the elections. The court said the legislature's composition is "based on the will of the citizens, not that of parties." MS

SLOVAK COALITION OVERCOMES CRISIS

The coalition has managed to overcome a crisis that postponed by one day the passage of the law on direct presidential elections (see above) and threatened the passage of the 1999 budget. Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) deputies had boycotted the parliament's session for two days to protest both this year's budgetary allocations for financing minority cultures and Agriculture Minister Pavel Koncos's refusal to appoint a SMK member as head of the Slovak Land Fund. The SMK claims funds allocated this year to minorities are half those earmarked previously. MS




KOSOVARS SIGN RAMBOUILLET ACCORDS

Four members of the ethnic Albanian negotiating team signed in Paris on 18 March the international Contact Group's proposal for a political settlement for Kosova. Hashim Thaci, who is heads the delegation and represents the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), said that "we have signed an agreement to bring peace to Kosova. We hope that the force of the international community will make Yugoslavia sign. We say that the violence must stop." PM

CONTACT GROUP 'SUSPENDS' PARIS TALKS

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and his British counterpart, Robin Cook, who are co-chairs of the Paris conference, issued a statement on 19 March praising the Kosovars for signing the document and accusing the Serbs of trying to "unravel the Rambouillet accords." The ministers added: "The negotiations are adjourned. The talks will not resume unless the Serbs express their acceptance of the accords. We will immediately engage in consultations with our partners and allies to be ready to act. We will be in contact with the secretary-general of NATO." The ministers concluded by "solemnly warning the authorities in Belgrade against any military offensive on the ground and any impediment to the freedom of movement and of action of [international peace monitors], which would contravene their commitments. Such violations would have the gravest consequences." PM

SERBIA DENOUNCES AGREEMENT...

Serbian President Milan Milutinovic said in Paris on 18 March that the Rambouillet accord is a "fake document that the Albanians signed with their American friends." He accused Western mediators of using "deceit and manipulation" in conducting the peace talks, adding that the West "can't force us to sign under the threat of bombs." Milutinovic pledged that Serbian forces will resist any attempt by NATO forces to intervene in his country and commented, "Che sera, sera." The previous day, the Serbian delegation signed their own document, which, they said, is the only one they accept (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 1999). PM

...AND REMAINS DEFIANT

Serbian forces continued their offensive in the Drenica region of Kosova on 18 March. In Nis, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who commands the Third Army in the region that includes Kosova, vowed that his troops "will have no problem confronting the remaining terrorists in [the province], and we will do it the moment our country is attacked, irrespective of whether it will be an air or ground attack There is a realistic danger that all the pressure on our country will lead to a war that our country will certainly not lose." Observers noted that "terrorists" is Belgrade's term for the UCK. PM

YUGOSLAV ARMY PUTS PRESSURE ON MONTENEGRO

In Podgorica on 18 March, Yugoslav Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic formally asked the Montenegrin parliament to lift the immunity of Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Novak Kilibarda. Bulatovic has filed charges against Kilibarda for urging Montenegrin conscripts not to obey call-up notices and for asking the Montenegrin government to prevent the Yugoslav air force from using Montenegrin territory in responding to possible NATO attacks, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. Elsewhere, Montenegrin Interior Minister Vukasin Maras said on state-run television that he met with the top Yugoslav army and navy commanders who are responsible for Montenegro. He did not provide details. PM

RUSSIAN NEGOTIATOR DOES NOT SIGN AGREEMENT

Boris Mayorskii said in Paris on 18 March that he will not sign the Rambouillet accords because they do not constitute a proper settlement unless the Serbs' signatures, as well as those of the Kosovars, are added to them. Mayorskii added that he nonetheless understands why his Western colleagues--U.S. envoy Chris Hill and the EU's Wolfgang Petritsch--signed the texts, namely in order "to underline the importance" of the Kosovars' acceptance of them. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in Moscow, "We urged our Belgrade colleagues to show the most constructive approach, taking into account the fact that the Albanian side has already consented to sign the document." PM

ALBRIGHT WARNS BELGRADE

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised the Kosovars for signing the accord. She also said in Washington on 18 March that the Serbs have "gone backwards" in the peace process. Albright added: "I would like to remind [Yugoslav] President [Slobodan] Milosevic that NATO stands ready to take whatever measures are necessary." Elsewhere, the State Department issued a warning to "U.S. citizens against travel to Serbia-Montenegro and strongly urged U.S. citizens to depart the country due to the possibility of military intervention by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization." The following day, Germany and Britain issued similar warnings to their citizens. PM

ALBANIAN GOVERNMENT WELCOMES SIGNING...

The Albanian government issued a statement on 18 March saying that "the signing of the draft agreement...constitutes an outstanding historical, civilized, and patriotic act that will have positive effects for the Albanian people of Kosova," Reuters reported. The government added that the Kosovars' signature "encourages international partners to show the same spirit of cooperation and unity in exercising pressure on Yugoslavia to sign the agreement or face the alternative of military force." The government thanked the Contact Group for taking the lead in the negotiations and especially the U.S. "for the decisive role in starting and continuing the peace talks." It expressed hope that the signing will help reduce tension in the Balkans. The government added that "it was Milosevic and not the Albanians" who are responsible for the crisis in Kosova. FS

...AND URGES NATO INTERVENTION

Prime Minister Pandeli Majko sent a letter to NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana on 18 March urging NATO to send troops to Kosova as soon as possible, AP reported. Majko expressed concern that "Belgrade may start a general offensive in Kosova. If such a development is not brought under control, this could have catastrophic consequences for my country and the entire region." He stressed that "the Albanian government strongly believes that NATO is the only institution that can prevent a catastrophe in Kosova." Meanwhile, President Rexhep Meidani met with a delegation of the Russian Duma in Tirana and urged them "to influence Belgrade to accept [NATO's] military presence" in the province to implement the Rambouillet accords. FS

ALBANIAN MINISTER ORDERS FORMER OFFICIALS TO SURRENDER ARMS

Albanian Interior Minister Petro Koci ordered all former government officials to surrender by 31 March the weapons they have been issued for their personal protection, "Koha Jone" reported on 18 March. He warned that those who fail to do so face arrest. The order also includes other persons who received arms from the Democratic Party-led government for personal protection during the anarchy in 1997, including lawyers, businessmen, and former police officers. The order also says that current officials who legally carry weapons must hand them in within 72 hours of changing jobs. Koci's predecessor, Perikli Teta, issued a similar order in 1997 but failed to implement it. FS

BOSNIAN CROATS LAUNCH BOYCOTT

Officials of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) said in Sarajevo on 18 March that the party will not participate in the work of any federal or local government or legislative bodies from 22 to 28 March. The move is to protest the recent assassination attempt against Deputy Interior Minister Jozo Leutar, who is a prominent member of the HDZ (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 March 1999). PM

ROMANIAN NATIONAL BANK GOVERNOR EXPLAINS CURRENCY DEVALUATION

Mugur Isarescu told the Senate on 18 March that the recent sharp decline of the national currency is partly a result of market speculation and that he expects the leu to stabilize soon. Isarescu said the depreciation reflects the general state of the economy and the downgrading of Romania's country risk by rating agencies that have doubts about Bucharest's ability to service its foreign debt. He acknowledged that the National Bank's has encouraged the depreciation in order to promote exports in view of "fierce competition" from Asian markets, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The bank set the rate for 19 March at 15,115 lei to $1, reflecting a further 1.4 percent drop in one day. MS

ZEMAN, KLESTIL VISIT ROMANIA

Visiting Czech Premier Milos Zeman on 18 March told his Romanian counterpart, Radu Vasile, that Prague will continue supporting the further enlargement of NATO and the EU, CTK reported. Vasile said that they discussed the Kosova problem and that their views were "in many ways similar." Also on the agenda were bilateral economic cooperation and illegal immigration. The same day, visiting Austrian President Thomas Klestil and his Romanian host, Emil Constantinescu, attended the signing of an agreement on combating organized crime, terrorism, and drug trafficking. MS

MOLDOVAN GOVERNMENT APPROVED THROUGH FORGERY?

Transdniestrian television on 17 March broadcast a statement by Ilie Ilascu in which the parliamentary deputy said he did not write the letter used as an absentee ballot on 12 March, when the parliament approved Ion Sturdza's cabinet. Parliamentary chairman Dumitru Diacov said the next day that the statement was made "under pressure." Ilie Matei, chairman of the Party of Democratic Forces, on whose lists Ilascu was elected to the legislature, said that a graphological expertise comparing the letter with others sent by Ilascu from prison can prove its authenticity. Matei added that Ilascu has been "physically and mentally tortured" following the dispatch of his ballot. Party of Moldovan Communists leader Vladimir Voronin said he will challenge the parliamentary vote before the Constitutional Court and will ask the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate "the forgery," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. MS




EASTERN CANDIDATES UNRUFFLED BY EU ROW


By Breffni O'Rourke

The Central and East European candidate countries appear to be taking in their stride the surprise resignation of the entire Executive Commission of the EU.

The 20-member commission- the executive arm of the EU--stepped down earlier this week in an unprecedented move following sharp criticism in a report for mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism.

Fears have been raised that this move will lead to a loss of direction in EU affairs at a time when the 10 candidate countries are impatient to make further progress in their bids to join the union. Selection of a new commission by member states--including a senior political figure to replace outgoing President Jacques Santer--could drag on until the falls.

However, Brussels-based Central and East European diplomats are expressing cautious optimism that the enlargement process will not be severely damaged. One of them--Vesselin Valkanov, counselor at the Bulgarian mission to the EU-- told RFE/RL that "it's business as usual for us, but we are keeping a watchful eye on developments in the EU and hope they will find a way to settle the problem as fast as possible and to the benefit of all the candidate countries, as well as themselves."

At the Lithuanian mission to the EU, counselor Rytis Martikonis told RFE/RL he believes that, at least in the short term, the enlargement process--particularly from a technical point of view--is still on the right track. He said he does not believe the blow to the commission as an institution will influence the process substantially. He says that--on the contrary--the union's institutions seem to work better in times of crisis and the whole affair might have a positive influence on next week's key summit of EU leaders in Berlin "I think that the resignation of the commission has [increased] pressure [on the summit] to resolve the problems more swiftly, so as to demonstrate the capacity to act and not to let the crisis escalate," Martikonis commented.

The current president of the EU, Germany, wants the summit to agree on a package of sweeping internal financial reforms that are considered essential if the EU is to be capable of absorbing new members. German officials say they believe the reform package has now developed such momentum that it cannot be derailed by the events in Brussels. However, given the probable delay in appointing a new commission, the presidency of Finland--which begins in July--could be more heavily impacted.

A Finnish spokesman in Brussels, Reijo Kemppinen acknowledged that the situation could become complicated. But he told RFE/RL that if the Berlin summit can clear the way for reform--and if other factors fall into place, such as the timely nomination of a replacement for Commission President Santer--then the focus will stay on eastward expansion. "The priorities in our presidency," he said, "would be the enlargement of the union, giving new impetus to the enlargement negotiations, plus enhancing the role of the EU externally, be it the trade policy or the foreign and security policy, and questions relating to the strengthening of EU institutions vis-a-vis the upcoming enlargement."

It is unclear whether the commissioner in charge of relations with CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE, Hans van den Broek of The Netherlands, wants to stand as a candidate for the new commission. Sources in the commission say his candidacy is unlikely because he's from a political party now in opposition in his homeland, rather than in government. In addition, the report on mismanagement--although it singled out only a few commissioners by name--was critical of the entire outgoing team. This, too, makes holdovers from among the outgoing commissioners improbable.

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


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