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Newsline - December 15, 1999


Based on an opinion poll among 1,500 people throughout Russia taken at the beginning of December, the ROMIR research center concluded on 14 December that the pro-Kremlin bloc, Unity, has more voter support than the Communist Party ahead of the State Duma elections scheduled for 19 December. According to ROMIR, Unity's support has risen by 7.9 percent to 21.9 percent, compared with the Communists' 17.7 percent backing. The Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) alliance has seen its support drop 2 percent to 9 percent, while Yabloko's backing remains steady at 8.3 percent. Other parties likely to surpass the 5 percent barrier, according to ROMIR, are the Union of Rightist Forces and Zhirinovskii's Bloc. JAC


The results of a "Moscow Times" poll published in the daily on 15 December showed Unity still lagging behind the Communists but by less than 2.0 percent. In its overview of recent polls, "Izvestiya" concluded that almost all pollsters and political analysts believe the Communists will win more votes than any other party. It also reported that they mostly believe that Yabloko will finish fourth, with estimates of its support ranging from 7 percent to 13.6 percent. According to the daily, the majority of analysts also predict that the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) will make it into the Duma. "Segodnya" on 14 December reported that the SPS needs to win at least 15 percent of the vote in Moscow in order to compensate for its lack of popularity in the regions. JAC


Police in the Republic of Bashkortostan have received orders to confiscate campaign literature of those candidates who are not supported by the republic's authorities, RFE/RL's correspondent in Ufa reported on 14 December. On 11 December they seized leaflets of the social association Rus, and the next day, they seized materials of the Communist Party of Russia. Republic authorities are attempting to justify their actions within the context of the Whirlwind anti-terrorist operation. Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov is a founding member of All Russia, which later formed an alliance with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's All Russia. Last month, he tried to ban broadcasts of Sergei Dorenko's analytical program, which has repeatedly attempted to smear Luzhkov (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 24 November 1999). JAC


Police in Primorskii Krai defused a combat grenade that had been attached to the door of the apartment of Maya Shchekina, "Izvestiya" reported on 15 December. Shchekina is the director of Dalpressa, the printing company that printed the ballots for the 19 December election. JAC


Tens of thousands of people attended a rally on Red Square in support of Moscow Mayor Luzhkov on 14 December. Organizers claimed some 75,000 people attended, while agencies suggested the figure was likely smaller. The Moscow Trade Federation hosted the rally, and many people in the crowd had been allowed to leave work in order to take part, "The Moscow Times" reported the next day. According to the daily, thousands of people were unable to join the rally because they were unable to get past rows of city policemen, some 10,000 of whom had been assigned to keep order. Luzhkov faces re-election on 19 December, a race that some analysts are predicting may require a second round. JAC


Russian troops entered the eastern outskirts of Grozny on 14 December, where they engaged in fighting with Chechen defenders, but Russian military spokesmen denied Chechen claims that an all-out attack on the city has begun. Meanwhile Russian artillery bombardment of the city continued on 14 December, deterring civilians from trying to leave through any of the six "safe corridors" that Russian Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu claimed have been opened for that purpose. LF


Knut Vollebaek was prevented by heavy fog from flying from Makhachkala to the Chechen town of Gudermes on 15 December, Reuters reported. Vollebaek told journalists he will instead travel to Ingushetia and attempt to travel to Chechnya on 16 December. On 14 December, Vollebaek visited Daghestan's Botlikh Raion, the scene of heavy fighting between Russian troops and Chechen militants in August. He also met in Makhachkala with Shoigu to discuss humanitarian aid to both Daghestan and Chechnya. Speaking in Grozny on 14 December, Chechen Deputy Premier Kazbek Makhashev said Vollebaek is likely to acquire a distorted picture of the situation by visiting only the Russian-controlled areas of Chechnya and Vladikavkaz, Interfax reported. LF


A spokesman for Vollebaek told Reuters on 15 December that the OSCE chairman is ready to participate in any talks between Shoigu and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Vollebaek had stressed the previous day that the OSCE considers Maskhadov Chechnya's legitimate president. Maskhadov on 14 December had signaled his readiness for talks with Russian representatives, in Vollebaek's presence, on a cease-fire and peace settlement. But Shoigu said the only issue he is prepared to discuss with Maskhadov is the ongoing evacuation of Grozny's civilian population, according to Interfax. And Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev, who is accompanying Vollebaek, told journalists in Makhachkala on 14 December that Russia does not need any help from international organizations to resolve the Chechen conflict, Interfax reported. Avdeev also rejected calls for a cease-fire, which he said "would help terrorists," according to AP. LF


Addressing military officers at the Plesetsk test site in Arkhangelsk Oblast, where he witnessed the test launch of a Topol-M ballistic missile (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 1999), Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized the West for increasingly using the "language of force" with Moscow. Russia "will not allow this and will use all diplomatic and military-political levers at its disposal," he said, adding that "Russia has everything to guarantee its security." Putin, who last week had engaged in damage control after President Yeltsin slammed his U.S counterpart, Bill Clinton, for criticizing Moscow over its Chechen campaign, also took the opportunity to warn the U.S. not to seek changes in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to set up a limited national defense system. "We hope this won't happen," Putin said. "But if it does, the answer will be adequate and considerably more economical than the actual national missile defense." JC


Russia in 1999 has almost 50 percent more students than in 1995, according to the Ministry of Education, "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 14 December. According to the daily, competition to get into universities has also gotten tougher, as the number of applicants for every hundred places at state universities has risen from some 200-210 in the mid-1990s to 268 at present. Moscow universities are the most popular, with some 312 applicants for every 100 spots. The newspaper also noted that the number of applicants for engineering and technology courses are rising, while those for law and economics are declining. JAC


The Supreme Court on 14 December confirmed the Central Election Commission's decision to deny registration to Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Interfax reported. The commission had rejected, then granted, and then rescinded LDPR's registration following decisions by the court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 1999). The Supreme Court also rejected Zhirinovskii's demand that commission chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov pay him 125 million rubles in moral damages. JAC


Russian President Boris Yeltsin met with his Mongolian counterpart, Natsagiin Bagabandi, in Moscow on 14 December to discuss plans to build a gas pipeline and high-voltage power line from China to Russia via Mongolia. The two leaders signed an accord on boosting bilateral ties and agreed that Mongolian Prime Minister Rinchinnyamiin Amarjargal will visit the Russian capital in early 2000. JC


The Russian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement welcoming last week's UN Security Council resolution extending humanitarian assistance to Iraq for another six months, Interfax reported on 14 December. At the same time, the ministry stressed that the oil-for-food program is only a "provisional step that cannot significantly alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people" and should not be regarded as a "substitute for the overriding goal of lifting economic sanctions against Iraq." JC


Artem Minasian, the 17 year old student who briefly took a group of Pedagogical Institute students hostage in Yerevan on 9 December, died in hospital on 14 December of gunshot wounds received when police overpowered him and freed his hostages, Noyan Tapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 1999). Two of Minasian's associates have been arrested on suspicion of complicity in the hostage-taking. LF


Tigran Torosian, who is deputy chairman of the Republican Party, one of the partners in the majority Miasnutiun parliamentary bloc, told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 14 December that the party supports the concept of a presidential republic, which he said provides for "a stronger and more disciplined executive." Commentators had suggested that Miasnutiun might seek to take advantage of the ongoing process of constitutional reform to abolish the position of president. Torosian also denied that the possibilities for cooperation between Miasnutiun and President Robert Kocharian are exhausted. Earlier this month, leading members of the Yerkrapah Union of Veterans of the Karabakh war, of which the Republican Party is the political arm, called for Kocharian's resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 December 1999). LF


Former Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is one of Kocharian's closest associate, told journalists in Yerevan on 13 December that he believes the criticism of Kocharian voiced at the Yerkrapah congress on 4 December does not reflect the opinion of rank and file Yerkrapah members but originated with unnamed individuals close to the former military commanders, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Sarkisian denied that Kocharian plans to resign. He also denied being part of Kocharian's support base, affirming that "the president's power base is the constitution." LF


The French, Russian and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group charged with mediating a settlement of the Karabakh conflict held talks with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in Stepanakert on 12 December, Noyan Tapan reported. In a clear allusion to the ongoing series of talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan and the resolution adopted at last month's OSCE summit in Istanbul, the unrecognized republic's president, Arkadii Ghukasian, warned that the conflict cannot be resolved without taking the enclave's interests into account. Armenpress on 14 December quoted Karabakh Foreign Minister Naira Melkumian as saying that the Minsk Group's new peace proposal would differ only slightly from that rejected last year by Azerbaijan and that the formula "common state," to which Baku objected, will probably be changed the new draft. LF


The Minsk Group co-chairmen then traveled to Baku where they held talks on 14 December with Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev, and the head of the former Azerbaijani community of Nagorno- Karabakh, Nizami Bahmanov. Reuters quoted U.S. co-chair Carey Cavanaugh as saying that the objective of the visit was "to begin work on a new [draft peace] proposal and to look more intensively at the need for economic reconstruction in the region." Cavanaugh ruled out a recurrence of the hiatus in the OSCE mediation since Azerbaijan rejected the Minsk Group's most recent draft peace plan late last year. Aliyev expressed satisfaction that the co-chairmen are ready to draft a new peace plan. Guliev affirmed Azerbaijan's willingness to resume peace talks within the Minsk Group framework, saying that direct talks between Aliyev and Kocharian could not substitute for that mediation. LF


Georgia's newly appointed Energy Minister David Mirtskhulava on 13 December reached agreement with the Russian company ITERA on the resumption of Russian gas supplies and the rescheduling of Georgia's $60 million debt for previous gas deliveries, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported the following day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 1999). Also on 13 December, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze called for a halt to press speculation that ITERA has been allowed to buy strategic enterprises in Georgia in compensation for Georgia's debts to the company. Meanwhile Mikhail Saakashvili, who heads the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia parliamentary faction, on 10 December challenged journalists to produce evidence to substantiate accusations that he has dubious business contacts with ITERA. National Democratic Party chairwoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia leveled those accusations against Saakashvili, a Shevardnadze protege, last week. LF


Speaking at a press conference in Almaty on 14 December, Kazakhstan Space Agency chairman Meirbek Moldabekov called for an "objective" evaluation of the risks inherent in Russia's continued use of the Baikonur cosmodrome, ITAR-TASS reported. He rejected calls for the facility's immediate closure, but added that Russia might decide anyway to abandon it, possibly as soon as 2005. Moldabekov also said that Russia has already paid $50 million in rent for the cosmodrome for 1999 and will supply goods worth an additional $65 million before the end of the year. Also on 14 December, Kazakhstan National Space Agency Deputy Chairman Nurlan Utembaev told Reuters that Russia has dropped its previous resistance to expanding Kazakhstan's role in commercial space launches from Baikonur. He said Russia and Kazakhstan will hold talks on that issue next month. LF


The Ar-Namys party's office in the southern town of Osh was closed down by tax police on 13 December, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported the following day. The office head Alisher BeishenAliyev was earlier detained on suspicion of tax evasion. Ar-Namys was founded earlier this year and is chaired by former Bishkek Mayor Feliks Kulov. On 14 December, a district court in Bishkek began hearing an appeal against the Kyrgyz Justice Ministry by the El (Bei-Beshara) Party against the ministry's recommendation to the Central Electoral Commission to bar the party from participating in the 20 February parliamentary elections under the party-list system. El (Bei-Beshara) decided at a congress in Bishkek on 11 December to nominate 46 candidates to contest seats in both parliamentary chambers in single-mandate constituencies. LF


Six political parties have been registered to participate in the 27 February elections to the lower chamber of the parliament and in local elections, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 15 December. They are the People's Democratic Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Democratic Party (Almaty platform), the Adolatkhoh Party and the Islamic Renaissance Party. They may propose both party lists and candidates in single-mandate constituencies. The Social Democratic Party Adolat Va Tarakkiyot was not registered by the Ministry of Justice. Several other opposition parties have also been barred from contesting the poll (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 1999). LF


The National Bank on 14 December allowed commercial banks to introduce free hard-currency exchange rates. The same day, currency exchange booths in Minsk offered 720,000 Belarusian rubles for $1 and sold $1 for 730,000 Belarusian rubles, virtually the same rates as on the black market. The National Bank also lifted its restriction ordering commercial banks to sell 70-95 percent of their hard currency to the state. It is unclear whether the Central Bank will revoke the hard currency market liberalization after several weeks. Former National Bank Chairman Stanislau Bahdankevich commented to Belapan that the authorities failed to regulate the hard currency market by means of administrative measures, therefore the liberalization will be in place "for a long time." JM


The OSCE on 14 December issued a statement expressing concern over the reported beating in jail of Andrey Klimau, a deputy of the opposition Supreme Soviet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 1999), Reuters reported. The OSCE urged the Belarusian government to investigate the incident, provide immediate medical treatment in a suitable hospital for Klimau, and release him from pre-trial detention. The authorities denied that Klimau was beaten. Adrian Severin, OSCE special envoy to Belarus, said in Minsk the same day that he regards the beating of Klimau as a "personal insult" as he is seeking to organize a dialogue between the government and the opposition in Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. JM


The parliament on 14 December failed to approve Valeriy Pustovoytenko as prime minister. Of the 281 deputies present, 206 backed Pustovoytenko, 44 voted against him, 21 abstained, and 10 did not cast ballots. Under Ukraine's legislation, 226 deputies must approve a candidate for the premiership, while the president may submit a candidate only once. According to parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko, Kuchma will propose another candidate within two days and another vote will take place in the parliament next week. JM


Following the parliament's refusal to accept Pustovoytenko, President Leonid Kuchma stressed his election campaign pledge to seek a referendum on the "redistribution of powers" in Ukraine, Interfax reported. "If there is a constructive majority, let [the parliament] work until 2002. If there is no such majority, the country does not need this parliament," Kuchma noted. According to Kuchma, the referendum should decide whether to give the president the right to dissolve the parliament if it fails to form a majority. It would also decide the issues of abolishing deputies' immunity, introducing a bicameral parliament, and making changes in the constitution only by means of a referendum. JM


A survey released by BMF Gallup Media on 14 December shows that 21 percent of the Estonian public used the Internet in the past six months, up from 16 percent in the spring, ETA reported. The report shows that the largest increase was among those in their 40s: the figure for those in that age group has doubled since the last survey in spring. It also showed that 17 percent of Estonians have a computer at home and 7 percent have Internet access from their home computer. Estonia consistently ranks among the top countries in Eastern Europe in terms of Internet usage, usually registering a higher per capita rate than some EU countries, including France and Italy. MH


"RFE/RL Newsline" on 10 December incorrectly reported that Latvia has extended tariffs on pork imports for one year. In fact, those tariffs will remain effective until December 2001.


The Lithuanian Supreme Court on 14 December commuted the sentences of four former officials of the Salcininkai district who attempted to create an autonomous pro-Soviet zone while Lithuania fought for independence. In August, an appeals court had extended their sentences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 1999). The sentences of three of the former officials were commuted to fines, while the fourth was acquitted However, the former secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party, Leon Jankelevich, will serve the two years remaining on his prison sentence, BNS and ELTA reported. A group of Polish senators, led by Anna Bogucka-Skowronska, hailed the decision to commute and acquit the former Salcininkai officials but expressed regret that Jankelevich remains behind bars as a "political prisoner." MH


The Lithuanian Nuclear Energy Safety Inspectorate (VATESI) announced on 14 December that the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant is Y2K safe. VATESI head Saulius Kutas said that documentation provided by the plant and gathered by independent regulators confirms that computer operations at Ignalina will not be affected by the so-called millennium bug, ELTA reported. However, Kutas criticized the government for not transferring all promised funds for further renovation to the plant, thus delaying some projects by several months, but he stressed none of those projects are related to nuclear safety. VATESI also drew up an emergency plan of action in case of unforeseen events and stressed that a special team will be at Ignalina during the transition to the year 2000. MH


Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said in Warsaw on 14 December that he hopes for a breakthrough in Polish-EU accession talks when Sweden assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the EU in 2001, Polish media reported. Persson assured his Polish counterpart, Jerzy Buzek, that Sweden is keen on having Poland admitted to the EU among the first new members. Following a meeting with President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Persson said he will encourage Swedish companies, including Volvo and Scania, to invest in Poland in order "to help balance bilateral trade." JM


Jaroslaw Pietras, secretary of Poland's team to negotiate the country's EU accession, said on 14 December that the country has to adopt at least 200 laws to adjust its legislation to that of the EU, Polish media reported. Pawel Samecki, a cabinet official in charge of European integration, said the same day that by the end of July 2000, the government will send to the parliament more than 80 bills to bring Polish legislation into line with EU standards. Meanwhile, Poland's Public Affairs Institute has issued a report claiming that the administration is not yet able to properly manage EU pre- accession funds. It is expected that Poland in 2000 will receive some 1 billion euros ($1.0053 billion) in such aid from the EU. JM


The Czech Statistical Office reported that GDP grew by 0.8 percent in the third quarter. Market analysts said the slight recovery was spurred mainly by exports to Western Europe as well as by government spending and the growth in wages of state employees, "Hospodarske noviny" reported on 15 December. However, since the economy contracted by 4.1 percent in the first quarter, analysts are predicting zero growth for 1999. The GDP figures for the third quarter were leaked on 14 December, the day before they were due to be released officially. VG


The Czech Republic's chief envoy to the EU, Pavel Telicka, on 14 December warned that any disruption of the legislative process could delay the country's admission to the EU, Reuters reported. "Any step that would mean an obstacle, a break, a slow-down in the legislative process...will have an impact on the talks in [2000], which is in general taken as a crucial or maybe even decisive [year]," Telicka said. He added that the country is aiming to gain acceptance into the EU on 1 January 2003. VG


The Budapest Metropolitan Court on 14 December ruled that the weekly "Elet es Irodalom" cannot be obligated to run a correction to an article it published on the financial wealth of some leaders of the ruling Federation of Young Democrats- Hungarian Civic Party. The article, published on 20 August, claimed that FIDESZ leaders have gained part of their wealth from party funds. The court ruled that the article's allegations are based on facts and therefore constitute an opinion for which no correction can be demanded. The court's decision reversed an earlier ruling by the Pest Central District Court in favor of the FIDESZ leaders. MSZ


Representatives of the UN and local ethnic Albanians signed an agreement in Prishtina on 15 December setting up a power-sharing council. The first meeting of the Interim Administrative Council is expected later the same day, Reuters reported. No Serbs attended the signing ceremony, and it is unclear whether they will come to the first council meeting. The new body will consist of three Albanians--namely, key leaders Hashim Thaci, Rexhep Qosja, and Ibrahim Rugova--one Serb, and four members of the UN mission to the troubled province (UNMIK). The UN's Bernard Kouchner will head the council and have a veto right over its decisions. In practice, Kosova has been an international protectorate for the past six months following the withdrawal of Serbian forces. Its final political status has yet to be determined. Many observers argue that it is important to introduce self-government as soon as circumstances permit lest the local population develop a "culture of dependency" on foreigners, as has happened to some extent in Bosnia- Herzegovina in recent years. PM


Foreign ministers of the Atlantic alliance began a two-day meeting in Brussels on 15 December, which will be their last such gathering in 1999. The crisis in Chechnya tops their agenda, but the ministers will also discuss the lessons to be learned from the past six months of international administration in Kosova. UNMIK is the civilian authority, while NATO's KFOR provides security. PM


General Spasoje Smiljanic, who is the commander of the Yugoslav air force, said on 14 December that Yugoslav army troops at Podgorica airport remain on a "heightened state of alert," Belgrade's "Danas" reported. He stressed that the troops "will respond adequately and firmly" to any threat. He made clear that the military will not tolerate attempts by the Montenegrin police to build a helicopter hangar at the airport (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 1999). PM


Prime Minister Kostas Simitis told a press conference in Athens on 14 December that his government is "not interested" in the political future of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Montenegrin Television reported. Simitis was responding to unspecified media reports that Greece has offered the indicted war criminal asylum if he gives up power and leaves Serbia. PM


Robert Hauser, who heads the Belgrade office of the UN's World Food Program, said on 14 December that the food supply situation in Serbia is comparable to that in North Korea, the BBC reported. Hauser said that his agency needs $92.5 million in the year 2000 to help feed refugees and other needy people. His agency currently provides assistance to 321,000 people, but he said that the number could rise to 895,000, or 10 percent of the population, "Danas" reported. Hauser stressed that the situation is "serious and getting worse every day." Since 1991, Serbia has been flooded with tens of thousands of refugees following Milosevic's defeats in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosova. The government provides most of them with little, if any, assistance. Most Serbian economic infrastructure is antiquated, and the economy is organized along unreformed communist lines. PM


Four trucks containing heating oil for Nis and Pirot reached the Macedonian border with Serbia on 14 December. It is unclear when customs authorities will allow the trucks to proceed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 1999). PM


Campaigning for the 3 January elections officially began on 14 December. Officials of the government election commission said that a total of 4,006 candidates have registered on 284 lists. Participating are 55 political parties, 15 coalitions, 20 "independent lists," and 30 candidates representing ethnic minorities, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. On 15 December, "Jutarnji list" published an opinion poll according to which the death of President Franjo Tudjman has had little or no effect on the popularity of his Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). The poll gives the opposition a comfortable lead in the parliamentary vote. PM


Social Democratic leader Ivica Racan said in Zagreb on 14 December that he expects that Social Liberal leader Drazen Budisa will be the presidential candidate of the opposition coalition. Budisa noted that if he runs for that office, he will seek to reduce its powers and help transform Croatia into a "parliamentary democracy." Public opinion polls suggest that Racan is the strongest opposition candidate for the presidency. Racan has made it clear, however, that he is more interested in the office of prime minister. The governing HDZ is widely expected to nominate moderate Foreign Minister Mate Granic as its presidential candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 1999). No date has been set for the presidential election. "Vecernji list" published an opinion poll on 15 December that suggested Granic will easily defeat any opponent. PM


Ljubomir Antic resigned as head of the state-run Hina news agency on 14 December to protest what he called the authorities' failure to inform the agency promptly of Tudjman's death on 10 December. In a letter to Prime Minister Zlatko Matesa, Hina's chief editor Benjamin Tolic noted that state-run television ran the story 40 minutes before the authorities informed Hina of Tudjman's death. Antic and Tolic argued that Hina's credibility suffered in the process. PM


The defense ministers of the two Balkan neighbors signed a military cooperation agreement in Skopje on 14 December. Greek officials presented their Macedonian counterparts with 10 armored personnel carriers and five utility vehicles, AP reported. Macedonia belongs to NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Its fledgling military receives assistance from several countries, including Germany and Bulgaria. PM


Radu Vasile on 14 December said that "in the national interest" he will no longer attempt to hold on to the post of prime minister but stressed he will not resign from the post. President Emil Constantinescu dismissed Vasile from the post on 13 December, but the prime minister refuses to leave saying only the parliament has the power to dismiss him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 1999). Vasile even suggested that he would take the issue to the Constitutional Court. But on 15 December, Vasile's aide Sorin Lepsa announced that Vasile will return to the Senate and wait for the parliament to deal with the situation. Lepsa also said the embattled politician considers his dismissal "unconstitutional" and cannot "continue to fight under unconstitutional circumstances." Meanwhile, National Peasant Party Christian Democratic spokesman Remus Opris on 14 December announced that the party leadership has suspended Vasile from leadership positions in the party and banned him from running for such offices for two years, Romanian Radio reported (see also "End Note" below). VG


Presidential spokesman Rasvan Popescu on 14 December said the president was justified in dismissing Vasile because the government was paralyzed after the resignation of the majority of its ministers. Justice Minister Valeriu Stoica on 14 December also said the decision could be justified constitutionally because it would be impossible for the government to function after the majority of its ministers resigned, Mediafax reported. VG


The chairman of the opposition Party of Social Democracy in Romania, Ion Iliescu, said on 14 December that his party will boycott the parliament until the country's government crisis is resolved in a "constitutional manner." Iliescu also called for early elections. Vasile, meanwhile, has said he supports the idea of holding an early ballot. Meanwhile, on 15 December, Constantinescu was expected to hold talks with representatives of the governing coalition parties as well as the opposition on the selection of a new prime minister, Reuters reported. The previous day, Constantinescu appointed Labor and Social Affairs Minister Alexandru Athanasiu to serve as interim prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 1999). VG


The Communists are preparing to submit a bill to the parliament that would require parliamentary and presidential elections to be held simultaneously, BASA-Press reported on 14 December. Communist member Victor Stepaniuc said the measure is necessary to "avoid political crises such as the one Moldova is facing now." In other news, President Petru Lucinschi on 14 December thanked outgoing Russian Ambassador to Moldova Aleksandr Papkin for his efforts to improve Russian-Moldovan ties and to resolve the Transdniester conflict, BASA-Press reported. Also a special internal department of the Interior Ministry is investigating former Finance Minister Valeriu Chitan for alleged financial malpractice when he was minister in 1994-1995, BASA-Press reported on 14 December. Chitan, who is now chairman of the Moldovan Association of Banks, described the investigation as "political blackmail." VG


Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urecheanu said the city has signed contracts with "intermediary firms" to provide gas to the capital if Gazprom cuts off supplies, but he declined to reveal the names of those firms. Chisinau engineering department head Alexandr Ftomovici said the firms can supply the city only if Gazprom allows them to use its pipelines. Gazprom has warned Moldova that it will cut off gas supplies if it does not pay its debts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 1999). VG


Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov on 13 December began negotiations with the coalition partners of the United Democratic Forces on a cabinet reshuffle, according to a 14 December report in " Demokratsiya" cited by the BBC. The paper noted that the prime minister might create a deputy prime ministerial position responsible for European integration. "Novinar" cited anonymous sources as saying that the position might be given to Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mikhaylova. Meanwhile, President Petar Stoyanov on 14 December called for all political parties to cooperate on the goal of achieving European integration, AP reported. He said the process is likely to take 10 years, during which time the government will probably change hands. "It is very important that those who take over continue and reaffirm the successes of their predecessors," he said. VG


Bulgarian Trade Minister Valentin Vasilev on 14 December dismissed allegations by Human Rights Watch that the country violated its international commitments not to sell weapons to various countries, AP reported. The human rights organization said Bulgaria sold tanks and other weapons to Uganda and the warring states of Ethiopia and Eritrea last year. Deputy Trade Minister Hristo Mihailovski said Bulgaria did not sell any weapons to Uganda and legally exported weapons to Ethiopia and Eritrea until March of last year, when an international arms embargo was imposed on the two countries. VG


By Michael Shafir

There are times when "how" is clearly more important than "why." The political assassination of Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on 25 December 1989, following a mock trial that made some Stalinist nostalgics sigh as fond memories flooded back, was such a case. That event marred for ever the "birth certificate" of Romania's new democracy, for how can a state based on the rule of law come into being through such a mockery of that concept? The trial also created a martyr out of a villain, and the political price for that unwarranted metamorphosis of the former dictator has perhaps not yet been paid in full.

Radu Vasile is no Ceausescu, of course. There is no reason to overdramatize his dismissal as prime minister, but his ouster has taken place with such flagrant disregard of Romania's constitution that the implications of this might secure him a place in history that otherwise might have been undeserved.

The Romanian Constitution does not give the president the prerogative to dismiss the prime minister. The president appoints the premier after consultations with political parties, but the premier is invested by the parliament and can be dismissed only by a no confidence vote in the legislature The basic document also stipulates that the head of state may recall the premier if that person becomes "incapacitated." The state of health of the premier, and nothing else, is obviously meant by that choice of wording.

Vasile's dismissal, however, took place by choosing to interpret "incapacitated" from a political, rather than a medical, perspective. Since it was clear that the premier would refuse to tender his resignation willingly--which is the other way a prime minister's term can be ended, according to the constitution--and since his party, the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD), did not want to propose a no confidence motion in its own premier, there emerged a cabal whose main architects were PNTCD chairman Ion Diaconescu and President Emil Constantinescu. They "ingeniously" decided that cabinet ministers would tender their resignation and once a majority of them did so, Vasile would be deemed "incapacitated" to run his own team.

The result of that cabal is political chaos. How else can a situation be described in which a country has two premiers--in this case, Vasile and interim Premier Alexandru Athanasiu? After putting up public resistance, Vasile on 14 December announced he is returning to the Senate bench. But he emphasized that he is not resigning. Hence, whoever the PNTCD designates as his successor cannot be lawfully invested by the parliament.

Moreover, the outgoing coalition may lack the necessary majority to push through its candidate for premier. Before making his announcement on 14 December, Vasile said a group of his supporters, numbering at least 23 members of parliament, has been officially formed. Calling itself the Popular Initiative Group, this group is clearly the nucleus of a new political formation, since "popular" is the name that some Christian Democratic parties in the West assume, including the Christian Democratic parliamentary group in the European Parliament.

Until this "how" has been satisfactorily resolved, the "why" will count for little or not at all. There were clear conflicts both between Vasile and the president and between him and the leadership of his party. Vasile resented interference by the presidency in government's affairs. That was an "open secret," as open as his own undiplomatic, even unstatesman-like rebukes of President Constantinescu. He treated peremptorily members of his cabinet, who would then run to the presidency with complaints.

More important, and equally undiplomatic, Vasile had made public his desire to replace the octogenarian Diaconescu as head of the PNTCD and has organized his own "Brasov faction" in the party to advance that objective. True, the PNTCD is split, and the "gerontocracy problem" (the party is ruled by a troika of veterans all in their 80s) is a genuine one. But Vasile's manner of handling Diaconescu made it easier for his rivals --most of whom belong to the younger generation in the party--to plot against him.

Moreover, 2000 is election year in Romania, and the PNTCD has an unenviable record of government performance that in itself invites Vasile's ouster in what might be a last- minute image-mending bid. And then there is Constantinescu's own "image problem": the president has often been reproached for being "too weak" but may, however, have chosen the wrong way to prove himself "strong" since his cabal against Vasile may backfire.

All these problems were long known. As Diaconescu admitted on 14 December, the task of tackling those problems had been postponed until after the Helsinki summit to avoid presenting an image of political instability. Such an image, however, is now being projected, as demonstrated by the IMF's announcement the same day that because of the instability in Romania, it is postponing taking a decision on whether to release the second tranche of a loan approved earlier this year. Indeed, if there was one way to prove to the EU that Romania is facing not only economic difficulties but also political problems, this was doubtless the way to do it.