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Newsline - May 21, 1999




FAULTLINES EMERGING IN ECONOMIC POLICYMAKING?

Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin on 20 May announced the creation of a new Economic Council, which will attempt to anticipate economic trends and plan how to deal with them. Stepashin suggested that the government needs to do less ad hoc planning, asking "why is it every year we hold emergency discussions on paying holiday wages to public sector employees or on rivers freezing over?" ITAR-TASS reported. The new council will be composed of economists and regional governors. The next day, "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported, without citing any source, that Stepashin is refusing to sign a decree appointing First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko as head of the Operative Affairs Commission. The newspaper reported the previous day that Aksenenko, in his debut as acting commission chairman, adopted a distinctly independent stance from that of Stepashin. "Kommersant-Daily" the same day claimed that presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin will dictate economic policy to Aksenenko from the Kremlin. JAC

GOVERNMENT AIMING FOR QUICK SETTLEMENT OF FOREIGN DEBT

Acting Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov told reporters on 20 May that First Deputy Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and his team are trying to resolve all technical questions with Russia's foreign creditors so that a restructuring of the country's Soviet-era debts can quickly follow an announcement of the IMF board's approval of the government's economic program. Kasyanov is currently conducting talks with the Paris Club and will meet with London Club representatives on 25 May, Reuters reported. According to Zadornov, the government is not even considering a restructuring of its Eurobond debt at present since it is meeting its Eurobond obligations, Interfax reported. Zadornov also said that settlement of the foreign debt problem will largely depend on the adoption of draft laws agreed upon with the IMF. JAC

SOME IMF LEGISLATION SENT BACK FOR MORE FINE-TUNING

The State Duma's Budget Committee on 20 May accepted one and rejected two of the bills submitted by Yevgenii Primakov's government in accordance with its agreement with the IMF, ITAR-TASS reported. The two rejected bills, one imposing a tax on motor vehicles and the other on gasoline stations, need further work. The same day, Prime Minister Stepashin said that the bills submitted to the Duma "were insufficiently calculated and drafted in haste" and that alcohol prices must not be increased too sharply, Interfax reported. Earlier, Stepashin said that he will call for a confidence vote if the Duma blocks the passage of the IMF legislation. Duma First Deputy Speaker Boris Kuznetsov said on 21 May that in June the lower chamber will examine 26 of the 59 bills prepared by the government for the IMF. At the beginning of next month, the Duma will consider in its first reading the bill on the restructuring of credit organizations. JAC

STATE BACKLOG OF UNPAID WAGES SHRINKS...

Unpaid wage arrears dropped 6.8 percent last month to a total of 63.108 billion rubles ($2.6 billion) as of 1 May, according to the State Statistics Committee, Interfax reported on 21 May. JAC

...AS COUNTRY'S GRAIN STOCKS DROP

As of 1 May, Russia's grain stocks were less than half the previous year's level-- totaling 12.8 million metric tons, according to the State Statistics Committee the previous day. Stocks had declined by 24 percent from the previous month. JAC

TRIPARTITE MEETINGS ON KOSOVA CONCLUDE UNTIL NEXT WEEK

Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 20 May condemning NATO's latest air strikes against Yugoslavia, Interfax reported. According to the statement, bombs damaged the residence of Sweden's ambassador in Belgrade as well as a clinic, killing three patients and injuring medical staff. The same day, acting Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that a first draft of the U.S. Security Council resolution on Yugoslavia "had been put on paper." The next day, Ivanov said that several concrete aspects of a Kosova settlement were coordinated in Moscow by himself and visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. For his part, Talbott said only that his consultations in Moscow with Ivanov and special envoy to Yugoslavia Viktor Chernomyrdin and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari were "quite constructive." The next tripartite meeting will be held in Moscow on 26 May, ITAR- TASS reported. JAC

STEPASHIN'S ASCENT TO CONTINUE?

Prime Minister Stepashin's recent confirmation has lead political analysts and others to jigger their prognostications for Russia's upcoming presidential race. Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii told reporters on 20 May that he now considers Stepashin a likely presidential contender in 2000. The same day "Nezavisimaya gazeta" claimed that Stepashin "currently has everything necessary to form around him a new "party of power" and that he is President Boris Yeltsin's "heir apparent." On 21 May, Duma deputy Konstantin Borovoi (independent) told "Moskovskii komsomolets" that the "anti-Western propaganda spread by Primakov and his team make [Communist Party leader Gennadii] Zyuganov's chances [of winning the presidential vote] almost certain." Political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov told the daily that the likelihood that presidential elections will be canceled has increased, while Primakov's chances have declined. He added that a split in "Primakov's electorate" should be expected between Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, Zyuganov, and Yavlinskii. JAC

FUNDS SENT TO KEMEROVO MISSING?

Prime Minister Stepashin instructed First Deputy Prime Minister Aksenenko to investigate the disappearance of "a $100 million external credit that did not reach Kemerovo Oblast," ITAR-TASS reported on 20 May. Aksenenko will leave for Kemerovo next week, accompanied by representatives from the Finance, Economics, and Fuel and Energy Ministries. After a meeting with Stepashin the same day in Moscow, Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev told "Interfax-Eurasia" that the two officials discussed the problem of interbudgetary relations between the center and the regions. He said that the Ministry of Finance is constantly trying to cut funds to the regions almost as if it wants to trigger social explosions there. He also told Stepashin about the necessity of investigating "millions of rubles [for the coal sector] that simply evaporated in commercial banks." JAC

REGIONS IMPOSING TRADE RESTRICTIONS ON GASOLINE BEYOND THEIR BORDERS

Sverdlovsk Oblast is experiencing the large hikes in gasoline prices that were witnessed earlier in St. Petersburg and Moscow, according to "EWI's Russian Regional Report" on 20 May. Ninety-three octane gas costs 32 percent more than just a week ago, at 3.7 rubles per liter (15 cents). Local roads are noticeably quieter following the price hikes. Gennadii Tikhmirov, director-general of Uralnefteprodukt, told the publication that prices are rising because of increasing shipments of domestically produced fuel to world markets and to domestic agricultural producers during spring sowing. In addition, gasoline station owners are passing along increases in their tax bill to consumers. According to the publication, Omsk Oblast and Bashkortostan Republic, which traditionally supply fuel to Sverdlovsk, have put restrictions on the export of gasoline beyond their borders so that their own local supplies do not run out. JAC

RUSSIA DISMISSES CONCERNS RAISED BY NAS REPORT

Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry has accused the U.S. of overdramatizing problems associated with the safeguarding of radioactive materials, Interfax reported on 20 May. The ministry's press service said that a recent U.S. National Academy of Sciences report saying that the thefts of Russian radioactive matter have been underreported flies in the face of the facts. The same day, the Duma passed a law on the development, maintenance, and safeguarding of nuclear weapons. The legislation requires that all nuclear weapons facilities be exclusively federally owned. In addition, the bill establishes clearer accountability for nuclear accidents. JAC

AFTER BUSY WEEK, YELTSIN RESTS

President Yeltsin left for the Black Sea resort of Sochi on 21 May for a two-week vacation. According to RIA news agency, he is likely to meet with South Korean President Kim Jae Dung while in Krasnodar Krai. JAC

RUSSIA TO RESUME DEFENSE COOPERATION WITH LIBYA

Following the UN Security Council's decision to lift international sanctions against Libya, a delegation from the Russian arms export company Rosvooruzhenie has flown to Tripoli to discuss the resumption of military-technical cooperation, AFP and Interfax reported on 20 May, quoting Rosvooruzhenie director Grigorii Rapota. LF

RUSSIA PROMOTES GREEK, NOVOROSSIISK OIL PIPELINES...

Deputy Russian Fuel and Energy Minister Yelena Telegina met with Greek Development Minister Evangelos Venizelos in Athens on 18 May to discuss the planned construction of a pipeline from the Bulgarian port of Varna to Alexandropoulis bypassing the Turkish straits, ITAR-TASS reported. A feasibility study for that pipeline was recently completed. Meeting in Moscow two days later with U.S. special envoy Jan Kalicki, Russian acting Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Bulgak said that an economically and ecologically sound export route must be found for Caspian oil and gas, Interfax reported. Bulgak said that both the existing Baku-Novorossiisk and the planned Tengiz-Novorossiisk pipelines fill those criteria. LF

...WHILE WESTERN CONSORTIUM PREFERS GEORGIAN VARIANT

But David Woodward, president of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, which is developing three off-shore Caspian oilfields, told journalists in Baku on 20 May that he is concerned by the recent repeated shutdowns of the Baku- Novorossiisk pipeline and by the higher transit costs involved, according to Turan. Woodward said that one reason why the AIOC favors the alternative pipeline from Baku to the Georgian Black Sea terminal at Supsa is because high-quality light Azerbaijani oil transported through that pipeline is not mixed with lower-grade crude, as is the case with the Baku-Novorossiisk line. LF




CIS DEFENSE MINISTERS MEET IN YEREVAN

The defense ministers of the six CIS states that have confirmed their continued adherence to the 1992 CIS Collective Security Treaty (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) attended a session of the CIS Defense Ministers' Council in Yerevan on 20 May chaired by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Russian agencies reported. Georgia and Ukraine were represented by deputy ministers, while Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan did not send representatives. The ministers discussed adapting the Collective Security Treaty to the present geopolitical situation and also tackled problems arising from the establishment of unified CIS military systems, including the air defense system, of which Armenia is a member. Sergeev told journalists that his fellow ministers expressed support for Russia's insistence that the Kosova conflict must be resolved by political, not military means, according to Interfax. LF

ARMENIA DENIES PURCHASING CHINESE ROCKETS

Both Armenian Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian and his Russian counterpart, Sergeev said in Yerevan on 20 May that Azerbaijani claims that Armenia has acquired Chinese Typhoon rocket systems are untrue, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 May 1999). Sargsian said "nothing of the sort has taken place," while Sergeev dismissed the allegations as "nonsense." LF

ARMENIA, BELARUS SIGN DEFENSE COOPERATION AGREEMENT

On the sidelines of the CIS defense ministers' meeting, Vazgen Sargsian and his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Chumakou, signed an intergovernmental agreement on military and military-technical cooperation, ITAR-TASS and Noyan Tapan reported. Chumakou termed that agreement, which had been negotiated for a long time, "a great historical event." He also praised Armenia's role within the CIS Collective Security Treaty. LF

WORLD BANK ASSESSES IMPLEMENTATION OF LOAN FOR ARMENIA'S ENERGY SECTOR

World Bank officials said at a press conference in Yerevan on 20 May that Armenia's energy sector will need more than $1 billion in capital investment over the coming decade to replace obsolete infrastructure and phase out financial losses, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The first tranche, worth $21 million, of a $52 million World Bank loan, released in March 1999, will be used to help cut down losses during transmission, which are one of the reasons for Armenia's high energy tariffs. Privatization of Armenia's power grid may push prices even higher, according to a World Bank officials. But the inability of not only private consumers but also many state-run enterprises to pay their electricity bills has already resulted in huge debts to the energy sector. LF

U.S. CONCERNED ABOUT LOCAL ELECTIONS IN AZERBAIJAN

Meeting on 20 May with Azerbaijani parliamentary International Relations Committee Chairman Rza Ibadov, U.S. Ambassador Stanley Escudero asked whether the parliament will be able to enact by October legislation on municipalities and on municipal elections, Turan reported. Those elections were due two years ago. Also on 20 May, Turan's Washington correspondent quoted exiled former Azerbaijani parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev as saying that in recent meetings he and U.S. Congressional leaders agreed on the need for renewed efforts to ensure free and fair elections in Azerbaijan. But Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar told Turan he believes the bill on municipal elections currently under discussion in the parliament is undemocratic. He argued that the opposition should boycott the polls. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT CHAIRMAN TO MEDIATE WITH REBEL COLONEL?

Zurab Zhvania may meet with rebel Colonel Akaki Eliava to discuss the terms on which the latter is prepared to surrender to the Georgian authorities, Caucasus Press reported on 20 May, citing "Alia." Eliava has been in hiding in western Georgia since launching an abortive insurrection in October 1998 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 October 1998). He recently said that talks with Deputy Security Minister Levan Kenchadze on his possible surrender were a failure, claiming that Kenchadze had threatened to kill him. Eliava then appealed to Zhvania either to meet with him personally or to name a group of parliamentary deputies to conduct further negotiations. Eliava believes that Zhania, who, like Eliava, comes from Mingrelia in western Georgia, has a better understanding of, and greater sympathy for, the problems facing that region's inhabitants, according to RFE/RL's correspondent in Zugdidi. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT CALLS FOR AMENDMENTS TO MEDIA LAW...

Nursultan Nazarbaev has called for changes to the draft law on the media to preclude the suspension or closure of media outlets, except at the discretion of the owner or following a court ruling, Interfax reported on 20 May, citing the presidential press service. Nazarbaev said that gradual democratization is impossible without free media. Opposition politicians have argued that the draft law, which is currently under discussion in the parliament, will restrict freedom of speech and of the media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 1999). LF

...RULES OUT FURTHER SUBSIDIES FOR AGRICULTURE

Meeting with farmers in Akmola on 20 May, Nazarbaev warned that the leadership will phase out direct subsidies to the agricultural sector, Interfax reported. But he added that the country's leadership is considering alternative ways of supporting the sector, which he termed crucial to the development of the economy as a whole. Nazarbaev said he hopes legislation on private ownership of farm land, which is currently before the parliament, will contribute to the revival of agriculture. LF

KYRGYZSTAN COMMEMORATES 1998 ECOLOGICAL DISASTER

Some 1,000 residents of the village of Barskoon held a meeting on 20 May to mark the first anniversary of the accident in which a lorry belonging to the Canadian-owned Kumtor Operating Company spilled toxic chemicals into the Barskoon river, which flows into Lake Issyk-Kul, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. No local or national officials attended the ceremony. But at a session of the Karakol regional assembly the same day, the chairman of the regional commission on the aftermath of the accident announced that Kumtor has promised another $7,000 in compensation for thousands of villagers affected by the toxic spill. Victims of the spill took local officials hostage earlier this month to protest the alleged embezzlement of earlier finds Kumtor had paid in compensation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May 1999). LF

INDIAN FOREIGN MINISTER VISITS UZBEKISTAN, TURKMENISTAN

Jaswant Singh met with Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on 19 May to discuss bilateral relations, Interfax reported. Karimov noted the potential for expanding trade and economic relations between the two countries. The following day, Singh traveled to Ashgabat, where he met with President Saparmurat Niyazov to discuss bilateral relations and regional cooperation. Singh told Interfax that "complete mutual understanding" was expressed on all issues discussed. LF




INTERNATIONAL 'PLANS' SEEN BEHIND BELARUS'S ECONOMIC WOES

Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Leanid Kozik told the National Assembly on 20 May that Belarus's economic crises in March and August 1998 resulted from deliberate efforts "conducted in accordance with plans worked out in some states of the world," Belapan reported. According to Kozik, those efforts were aimed at "undermining [Belarus's] people- oriented socio-economic policy." He added that in August 1998, the international forces behind those efforts "sacrificed even the interests of the Russian Federation...in order to destroy the economy of the Republic of Belarus and prevent the further integration of the two states." JM

U.S. DEPLORES SUPPRESSION OF DISSENT IN BELARUS

The U.S. on 20 May deplored the Belarusian authorities' attempts to stop the opposition's efforts to hold alternative presidential elections. "[The elections] dramatized the constitutional and political impasse that President Lukashenka created by overthrowing the country's constitution in 1996 and by his suppression of human rights," the U.S. State Department said. The statement also accused Minsk of fabricating charges to jail former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir and of intending to close independent newspapers that reported on the opposition elections. The State Department called on the Belarusian government to change course and open an unconditional dialogue with the democratic opposition (see also "End Note"). JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT TIGHTENS CONTROL OVER CENTRAL BANK

The Supreme Council on 20 May approved a law on the National Bank introducing a 14-member supervisory council that will draft monetary policy guidelines, AP reported. Half of the council will be appointed by the parliament and the other half by the president. If the National Bank and its chairman do not abide by the policies drawn up by the council, the president is authorized to ask the parliament to fire the country's chief banker. National Bank Chairman Viktor Yushchenko criticized the law, saying the bank "may no longer be able to take responsibility for the stability of the national currency. If the council has the most authority, then logically it should bear the greatest responsibility." The law must be approved by President Leonid Kuchma. JM

COUNCIL OF EUROPE BODY MOVES TO SUSPEND UKRAINE

The Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe on 20 May voted to suspend Ukraine's membership in the council owing to the country's poor human rights record, Reuters reported. The committee's decision opens the way for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to vote on Ukraine's suspension next month. The assembly had announced in January that it would suspend Ukraine unless the country made substantial progress on human rights. The abolition of death penalty was one of its requirements. JM

ESTONIAN PROSECUTOR APPEALS RULING IN FINANCE MINISTER'S FAVOR

Prosecutor Jaan Naaber has appealed to the Supreme Court against the acquittal of Finance Minister Siim Kallas in the so-called $10 million affair, ETA reported. Last month, a second court upheld a ruling by the Tallinn Municipal Court clearing Kallas of fraud in his former capacity as governor of the Central Bank in 1993 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March and 14 April 1999). JC

ESTONIA, SLOVENIA SIGN DEFENSE COOPERATION AGREEMENT

Meeting in Tallinn on 20 May, Slovenian Defense Minister Franci Demsar and his Estonian counterpart, Juri Luik, signed a framework agreement on defense cooperation, Baltic media reported. BNS quoted Luik as saying that the most important thing "Estonia should learn from Slovenia's experience is long-range planning of defense spending." JC

LATVIAN GOVERNMENT SURVIVES NO CONFIDENCE VOTE

As expected, the cabinet of Vilis Kristopans has survived a vote of no confidence submitted by the People's Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 1999), Baltic agencies reported on 20 May. Twenty-four deputies voted in favor of the motion, while 60 voted against and 14 abstained. Also on 20 May, lawmakers voted to confirm Ingrida Udre of the New Party as economics minister. She replaces co-party member Ainars Slesers, who was ousted from that post last week. And four new state ministers--for health, higher education, forestry, and municipal issues--have been appointed, bringing the total composition of the cabinet to 14 ministers and six state ministers, LETA reported. JC

KRISTOPANS SLAMS RUSSIAN DUMA BILL ON SANCTIONS

Latvian Premier Kristopans told Latvian Radio on 20 May that a Communist-sponsored bill passed by the Russian State Duma in its first reading earlier that day does not show "evidence of an understanding of democracy by the Russian parliament," Reuters reported. The bill imposes economic sanctions against Latvia in a bid to put a stop to what its authors see as the violations of the rights of ethnic Russians living there. It would ban any foreign trade deals with the Latvian government and with legal or private entities who are not Russian citizens. And it would prohibit exports to Latvia and non- humanitarian imports as well as credit operations. Also on 20 May, outgoing German President Roman Herzog stressed Germany's unconditional support for Latvia's bid to join the EU. Herzog was speaking in Riga on his last scheduled official visit before his term expires in six weeks. JC

RUSSIAN OIL SUPPLIES TO LITHUANIA DRY UP--AGAIN

According to a spokeswoman for Lithuania's Mazeikiai Nafta oil refinery, operations at the refinery will be halted on 21 May owing to the interruption in oil supplies from Russia, ELTA reported on 20 May. AFP quoted outgoing Economics Minister Vincas Babilius as claiming the move was a Russian response to Lithuania's plan to sell 66 percent of the refinery to the U.S. company Williams International. Earlier this year, deliveries from Russia were halted, prompting speculation at the time that some circles in Russia were seeking to put pressure on Vilnius over the privatization of the refinery (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 2 February 1999). JC

POLISH PARLIAMENT AMENDS LUSTRATION LAW

The parliament on 20 May passed an amendment to the lustration law that will grant authorized employees of the Lustration Prosecutor's Office access to the archives of the communist secret services. Until now, such access was restricted to Interior Ministry and State Protection Office officials. Meanwhile, more than 30 television and radio station heads and newspaper chief editors in Poland have agreed to stop commenting on allegations by some parliamentary deputies that Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek was a communist-era secret service collaborator (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 1999). "It is not our duty to provide rostrums for slanderers," they wrote in an open letter. JM

HAVEL IS HOSPITALIZED

Czech President Vaclav Havel was admitted to the Central Military Hospital in Prague on 20 May suffering from a fever and bronchitis, Czech media reported. Doctors are concerned that the president might contract pneumonia. Havel has had three life-threatening illnesses since 1996 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 1999). VG

KLAUS INDIRECTLY CRITICIZES SCHUSTER

Czech Chamber of Deputies Chairman Vaclav Klaus has rejected suggestions that he indirectly supported Vladimir Meciar's candidacy in the Slovak presidential elections, "Lidove noviny" reported on 21 May, citing a BBC interview (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 19 May 1999). However, he added that he could also discuss other candidates "with sarcasm." Klaus continued: "I could be extremely surprised that everyone is bothered by Meciar and nobody is bothered by the fact that the other candidate [Mayor of Kosice Rudolf Schuster] was a member of the [Central Committee of the Communist Party of Slovakia] for several years." In other news, Jan Zahradil, the foreign minister in Klaus's shadow cabinet, said the politicians who decided to give the green light to the "unsuccessful" NATO operation in Yugoslavia should resign once the conflict is over, "Pravo" reported on 21 May. VG

CZECH COURT RELEASES MAN CONVICTED OF SEX CRIMES IN U.S.

A Czech court has released a man convicted of committing sex crimes against children in the U.S. because of a faulty translation, AP reported on 20 May. U.S. prosecutors failed to gain the extradition of Charles Bronson Jones because of a difference between the Czech and English versions of a 1925 extradition treaty. While the English version states that people can be extradited for "sex crimes against children," the Czech version states that people can be extradited for "sex crimes against girls." Jones's crimes were against boys. VG

SLOVAK GOVERNMENT INTRODUCES AUSTERITY MEASURES

The Slovak government on 20 May unveiled several measures aimed at helping the economy and shoring up the weakening Slovak crown. The measures include budget cuts and increases in the price of natural gas, electricity, rents, telecommunications, postage, and water. The government measures, as well as intervention by the National Bank of Slovakia (NBS), helped stabilize the Slovak currency on 20 May at about 44 Slovak crowns to $1. Earlier in the week, the koruna had fallen to record lows. NBS Chairman Vladimir Masar said the fall of the crown was not caused by economic factors but rather by the market's reaction to the first round of presidential elections on 15 May. VG

FIDESZ STATE SECRETARIES OFFER RESIGNATION AFTER U.S. LETTER SCANDAL

The two FIDESZ political state secretaries who signed a letter lobbying for the appointment of Steven M. Jones, a Lockheed Martin executive, as the next U.S. ambassador to Hungary have tendered their resignations, Hungarian media reported on 20 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 1999). Neither Gabriella Selmeczi nor Istvan Balsay denied press reports that they are linked to Lockheed Martin. FIDESZ parliamentary group leader Jozsef Szajer said that the party's leadership has approved the resignations but that Prime Minister Viktor Orban will make the final decision on 21 May. According to "Vilaggazdasag," current U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Peter Tufo confirmed the letter's existence and said it was delivered to the U.S. Meanwhile, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have confirmed Tufo in his post, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 21 May. MSZ




ALBRIGHT SEES NATO, RUSSIA EDGING CLOSER. U.S.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in Washington on 21 May that there is a "narrowing of gaps" between Brussels and Moscow on resolving the Kosova crisis, ITAR-TASS reported. Albright made that comment after speaking with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who is in Moscow for talks with Russian special envoy to Yugoslavia Viktor Chernomyrdin and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the EU's Kosova envoy (see Part I). Albright said the biggest remaining differences are over the makeup of the peacekeeping force for Kosova as well as the scale of the Serbian military's withdrawal from the province. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said after talks with Albright that greater preparations need to be made for a force to escort the refugees back into Kosova. In London, British Premier Tony Blair and NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana pledged to press on with the air campaign. PB

AIR STRIKES CONTINUE...

NATO air strikes continued on 20- 21 May, with the largest attack on Belgrade since the Chinese embassy was accidentally hit two weeks ago. Fuel depots in Belgrade as well as military barracks outside the capital were struck. The effects of one blast broke the windows at several foreign embassies and residences, including the Swiss ambassador's, which is in the same neighborhood where a hospital was damaged the previous day. Yugoslav officials say three people died and several were injured in the hospital incident. Fuel storage facilities in the northwestern towns of Sombor and Smederovo were also hit, as were ammunition depots in Vrdnik and Sremska Mitrovica. The British Defense Ministry said the air campaign has destroyed a significant amount of Serbian military hardware. It also dismissed an article in "The Times" that said Serbian forces have suffered only light casualties, though the bombardment has severely restricted their movement. PB

...AS MORE REFUGEES CROSS INTO MACEDONIA

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that between 2,000 and 3,000 Kosovar Albanians fled to Macedonia on 20 May, AFP reported. The UNHCR said many of them arrived by train and were from the suburbs of Kosova's capital, Prishtina, while others came from Urosevac. Some said they left because of miserable conditions, while others said they were forced to leave the province by Serbian forces, the UNHCR said. PB

CACAK CITIZENS CALL ON MILOSEVIC TO END THE WAR

The self- proclaimed Citizens' Parliament of Cacak on 20 May urged Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to "stop the war immediately," the Serbian news agency Beta reported. The parliament, formed by 20 prominent citizens of the town on 18 May, said in a letter to the president that "at this moment, you are deciding the fate of all people of Yugoslavia." It asked him to end the "terrible suffering of all the people...whom you lead." NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said the setting up of the parliament is evidence of "an expanding mood of war weariness." Anti-government protests have also taken place in the nearby towns of Krusevac and Alexandrovac. The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, has denied reports that more than 1,000 troops deserted after hearing of the protests in the towns. PB

ANNAN APPEALS TO BELGRADE TO WITHDRAW ITS FORCES

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 20 May urged Yugoslavia to withdraw its forces from Kosova and allow the rapid deployment of an international military force that would permit the Kosovar refugees to return before winter, AP reported. Annan made that appeal while visiting Kosovar refugee camps in the northeastern Albanian town of Kukes together with Albanian President Rexhep Meidani and Foreign Minister Paskal Milo. Annan said the "breathtaking stories" he had heard from refugees "puts pressure on all of us to intensify our efforts to find a political solution." He also noted that all sides in the Kosova conflict have agreed that the UN Security Council should play a major role in resolving the crisis. Annan is to meet with Finnish President Ahtisaari in Stockholm on 22 May. PB

DJUKANOVIC SAYS BELGRADE PLANNING COUP

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic said on 20 May in Podgorica that Belgrade is planning a military coup against his government, Reuters reported. Djukanovic said Yugoslav soldiers have set up checkpoints on all main roads leading into Montenegro. They also have halted aid convoys and prevented raw materials from being imported. Djukanovic said Belgrade wants to install the army as a dictatorial power in Montenegro. He said his government will refrain from opposing the army. The Second Yugoslav Army has some 25,000 troops stationed in Montenegro, while the government claims to have some 12,000 armed police ready to prevent an armed coup. PB

INTERNATIONAL DONORS AGREE TO BILLION DOLLAR TRANCHE FOR BOSNIA

International donors representing some 45 countries and 30 organizations pledged $1.05 billion in aid to Bosnia- Herzegovina for 1999, Reuters reported on 20 May. The conference was co-sponsored by the World Bank and the EU. Carlos Westendorp, the international community's high representative to Bosnia, said he is "very happy because we got more than we expected." It was the fifth donors' conference held since the signing of the Dayton agreement in 1995, bringing the total amount donated to $5.1 billion. In other news, some 50 bodies were exhumed on 20 May near the village of Zijemlje, about 40 kilometers east of Mostar. In the last 10 days, a forensics team has found the bodies of 124 people, mostly civilians, believed to have been killed in 1992 by Bosnian Serb forces. More than 20,000 people are still officially missing. PB

CROATIA SAYS OSCE CRITICISM UNACCEPTABLE

The Croatian government said in a statement on 20 May that an OSCE report criticizing Zagreb for a lack of will to move toward democracy makes conclusions that are "insufficiently corroborated," Reuters reported. The government issued the statement after a closed cabinet session. The OSCE report cited a lack of progress on the return of Serbian refugees to Croatia, stagnation in Croatia's fulfillment of international commitments, and failure to liberalize the media or reform electoral laws. PB

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT SURVIVES NO CONFIDENCE VOTE

The cabinet survived a no confidence vote in the parliament on 20 May. Parliamentary deputies voted by 286 to 147 to reject a censure motion proposed by three opposition parties in response to the government's package of IMF-inspired economic reforms. Meanwhile, Romania's four largest trade unions announced on 20 May that they will stage a 24-hour general strike on 24 May to demand an easing of austerity measures and changes to legislation. The unions said that if their demands are not met by 31 July, they will launch a full general strike, according to a Romanian Radio report monitored by the BBC. Also on 20 May, metal workers at the Resita steel mill in Transylvania launched an all-out strike, Reuters reported, citing Romanian Radio. VG

MOLDOVA DEPRIVED OF UN VOTING RIGHTS

Moldova has been deprived of its voting rights at the UN because of its failure to pay membership fees for the past few years, Infotag reported on 20 May. The country owes $200,000 for this year alone and its total debt to the UN stands at more than $3 million. In other news, Moldovan Prime Minister Ion Sturza said on 20 May that Germany supports his country's bid to be included in any post-Kosova conflict stability pact for the Balkans, BASA-Press reported.

GAGAUZ ASSEMBLY CRITICIZES MOLDOVAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT

The Gagauz Popular Assembly has criticized a recent Moldovan Constitutional Court decision that local court appointments can be made without the input of local authorities, Infotag reported on 20 May. The assembly adopted a statement describing the decision as a "gross violation of [the Gagauz- Yeri autonomous region's] constitutional status." VG

BULGARIAN OFFICIAL SAYS NUCLEAR PLANT IS SAFE

Bulgarian Atomic Energy Commission chief Georgi Kaschiev said "serious measures" have been taken to reduce the risk of damage to the Kozloduy nuclear power plant in connection with NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, Reuters reported on 20 May. Kaschiev was responding to concerns expressed by Greenpeace on 19 May that stray NATO missiles are falling dangerously close to the plant and that oil slicks on the Danube River could block the plant and cause a meltdown. Meanwhile, Bulgarian Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev dismissed reports that two German television journalists and one Bulgarian environmentalist had got into the plant without authorization, according to a 20 May BTA report monitored by the BBC. Bonev said the journalists were accompanied by a security official. VG

BULGARIA, GREECE AGREE TO FORM FREE TRAVEL ZONE

Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov announced on 20 May that his government has approved an agreement with Greece on creating a 25-kilometer-wide free movement zone for permanent residents on either side of the Bulgarian-Greek border, according to a BTA report cited by the BBC. Kostov also said his government will provide $50 million leva ($27,000) worth of humanitarian aid to the ethnic Bulgarian minority in eastern Yugoslavia, BTA reported. Also on 20 May, Bulgarian Defense Minister Georgi Ananiev and his visiting Romanian counterpart, Victor Babiuc, said in Sofia that their countries both support the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia but would like to see it end as soon as possible. VG




SHADOW ELECTIONS IN BELARUS


by Jan Maksymiuk

Originally, it seemed like a good idea to hold an alternative presidential poll in Belarus. From a legal point of view, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's term expires on 20 July 1999. A new constitution introduced by the November 1996 referendum extended his term for another two years and authorized him to disband the democratically elected Supreme Soviet. That referendum was conducted and enforced with such flagrant violations of the law and democratic norms that no European organization has recognized its outcome.

All European countries, except Russia, recognized the 50 deputies of the Supreme Soviet who have remained loyal to the abolished 1994 basic law as Belarus's legitimate parliament. Indeed, it was the Supreme Soviet that decided to hold presidential elections on 16 May and to empower the Central Electoral Commission, another body that was democratically and legitimately elected before the 1996 referendum, to organize them. The man in charge of the elections was Viktar Hanchar, head of the commission.

Highlighting the extraordinary character of these elections, neither of the two candidates was physically present during either the election campaign or the voting. Zyanon Paznyak, who was granted political asylum in the U.S. in 1996, did not make an appearance in Belarus. The other hopeful, Mikhail Chyhir, was jailed by the authorities six weeks before election day on charges of issuing a dubious bank loan in 1994.

As widely expected, the authorities declared the elections illegal and warned the opposition not to "conspire" to depose the legal government. But they seemed to be at a loss about how to respond as the opposition election initiative gained momentum. By mid-April, some 14,000 people had volunteered to take part in regional electoral commissions, most of them from Paznyak's Belarusian Popular Front (BNF).

European organizations, including the OSCE, had reservations about the opposition election initiative. Even before NATO's intervention in Yugoslavia, which shifted European attention away from Belarus to the Balkans, it became clear that the OSCE would not send its observers to the elections, nor would the ballot provide an internationally recognized new president for Belarus. But the elections nevertheless offered the opportunity of a "vote of no confidence" in Lukashenka and of dispelling the widespread belief that his regime has strong popular support.

Owing to the impossibility of setting up stationary polling stations, Hanchar's commission decided to send pollsters with ballot boxes to voters' homes over the 10 days preceding election day. While the law does not provide for such a method of voting for the electorate as a whole, it was nonetheless deemed expedient and effective, given the unique character of the elections,

However, heavy criticism of the voting stemmed not from the authorities but from Paznyak, who argued that the voting procedures were illegal and that the turnout figures had been falsified. Paznyak also accused Hanchar and Chyhir of seeking to implement a Moscow-sponsored plan to replace the "true opposition"--that is, the BNF--with one subservient to the Kremlin. According to Paznyak, Hanchar intended to falsify election results in favor of Chyhir in order to install him as a new opposition leader and eliminate the BNF from Belarus's political scene. Paznyak withdrew his candidacy from the elections on 14 May. While the BNF decided to continue the election initiative, some activists began calling on their regional colleagues to withdraw from the ballot.

Hanchar's commission pronounced a somewhat contradictory verdict on 19 May. The elections were deemed valid with regard to turnout: just over 4 million voters, or 53 percent of the total electorate. But Hanchar cited pressure from the authorities, the absence of conditions for free election campaigning, and Paznyak's "violation of the election law" as reasons for declaring the election as a whole invalid. The commission announced it will organize another presidential poll within three months.

In the end, the shadow election initiative, which was intended to weaken the autocratic regime in Belarus has significantly damaged the opposition. Many oppositionists have already branded the elections "scandalous."

First, it is highly probable that the BNF--the most influential opposition group in Belarus--will split and become mired in mutual recriminations.

Second, it seems that the efforts of many thousands of regional election activists--who risked arrest, the loss of their jobs, and other official retributions--have been squandered. It is unlikely that in the near future, the opposition will be able to re-mobilize such a large number of "field operators."

Third, Hanchar's political career seems to have ground to a halt. One Belarusian independent newspaper speculated that the "scandalous" outcome of the election was deliberately planned by Hanchar and Supreme Soviet Chairman Syamyon Sharetski. It claimed that after 20 July 1999, Sharetski intends to become head of state (in accordance with the provision of the 1994 constitution dealing with the situation where the country does not have a legitimately elected president) and offer the post of prime minister to Hanchar. A major flaw in this scenario, however, is how Hanchar and Sharetski will persuade Lukashenka to make room for them. Moreover, without the support of the BNF, Hanchar may find there is even less room for him in the Belarusian political arena than there was before the election.

Finally, the vote has weakened, rather than strengthened, the opposition's position that the authorities should enter a dialogue with the opposition. Lukashenka has been given a powerful and scathing argument to fend off such a dialogue--namely, that oppositionists should agree among themselves first before seeking to talk to him.


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