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Newsline - December 28, 1999




RUSSIANS STRUGGLE TO TAKE GROZNY

Federal forces together with some 500 Chechen volunteers under the command of former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov advanced into Grozny from several directions early on 25 December, but they encountered "ferocious" resistance from the city's Chechen defenders. Gantemirov, who had predicted on 25 December that the city would be under Russian control within a week, revised that estimate two days later. The head of the pro-Moscow Chechen government, Malik Saidullaev, said the battle for the capital could last for months. On 27 December, Russian Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu and Chechen emissary Khozh-Akhmed Yarikhanov met in Ingushetia but failed to agree on terms for evacuating the remaining civilians stranded in Grozny. Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev estimates that there are 25,000-30,000 civilians in the city. LF

CHECHEN, GEORGIAN OFFICIALS SAY BORDER BLOCKED

Chechen and Georgian government representatives on 24 December confirmed Russian claims that it has established control over the Argun gorge, the location of one of the two main highways leading south out of Chechnya, Interfax reported. On 27 December, Interfax reported that Russian aircraft have begun dropping bombs containing an inflammable vapor that creates a vacuum after it explodes on sparsely populated districts of southern Chechnya. LF

CHECHEN MUFTI, GOVERNMENT TO CONDUCT RIVAL REFERENDA

Chechen mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov told a press conference at Interfax headquarters in Moscow on 23 December that the Chechen leadership has forfeited popular support. He said the Chechen people should decide the region's future status through a referendum. The following day, a North Caucasus representative of the Russian Prosecutor-General's office told Interfax that he believes the Chechen leadership is already planning a referendum on Chechnya's independence. LF

UNITY REORGANIZES FOR NEXT CAMPAIGN...

The pro-Kremlin bloc Unity held its inaugural congress in Moscow on 28 December. According to Interfax, delegates decided to transform the movement from an interregional group into a "political one." Unity Press Secretary Mikhail Margelov explained earlier that the movement is being transformed in order to support Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the upcoming presidential elections. Putin told the congress the same day that his cabinet will "count on the backing of the Unity faction" and that he expects that the government and Unity will "work shoulder-to-shoulder to achieve the goals Unity set prior to the [19 December State Duma] elections." JAC

...AS SHOIGU DECIDES TO RETAIN CABINET POST

Unity leader and Emergencies Minister Shoigu told the congress he will retain his cabinet position. Putin said he wants Shoigu to remain in the cabinet and continue to lead Unity. Putin said this "will enable the movement to remain closely linked with the government." He added that "both the movement and the government would stand to gain from this combination." Delegates to the congress were expected to elect the head of Unity's Duma faction on 28 December. JAC

WORLD BANK MONEY STARTS TO FLOW AGAIN

First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko on 28 December said the World Bank has decided to release two tranches of its coal sector loan to Russia worth some $100 million each, according to Interfax. The tranches of the loan, which was approved in December 1997, were stalled following the Bank's insistence that the Russian government provide clarification of its plans for the sector (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January and 5 February 1999). Khristenko said the Russian government "hails the fact that the bank was guided by purely economic considerations in taking the decision, disregarding the influence of the outside political situation" in accordance with the "basic principles of international financial institutions." Some Russian officials maintain that the IMF's delay in releasing a second tranche of its loan to Russia is politically motivated. JAC

MORE PROPOSALS FOR DUMA GROUPINGS POUR IN

Newly-elected State Duma deputy Gennadii Raikov on 24 December said about 35 independent deputies will form a group called the "People's Deputies" in the legislature, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 December. Raikov said the group is "centrist" and will support Prime Minister Putin and his government. Last October, deputies in the old Duma tried to form a group with the same name made up of members of People's Power, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and other factions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 1999). At the time, Duma deputy Nikolai Ryzhkov was reported to be interested in joining the "People's Deputies" group; however, on 24 December, he said he favors establishing an industrial and agrarian group of deputies. According to Ryzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov and Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov also support the creation of an industrial group. JAC

TWO MORE INCUMBENT GOVERNORS LOSE SEATS

Orenburg Governor Vladimir Elagin lost the second round of gubernatorial elections on 27 December. With 98.8 percent of the ballots counted, State Duma deputy Aleksei Chernyshev (Communist) had 52.8 percent of the vote, according to Interfax. Meanwhile, on the same day, Tambov Governor Aleksandr Ryabov was also defeated in a run-off election by Oleg Betin, President Boris Yeltsin's representative in the region. Betin was supported by Unity. Tver Governor Vladimir Platov will compete in a run-off election that is likely to be held on 9 January. JAC.

YAVLINSKII CALLS GOVERNMENT WORK OLDEST--NOT NOBLEST--PROFESSION

Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii told the 25 December edition of "The Washington Post" that his party's poor performance in the 19 December State Duma elections was a direct result of his critical stance on the conduct of the military campaign in Chechnya. Yavlinskii said, "Had the campaign not been held in war conditions, had the campaign not started with explosions of houses that brought the whole society to a state when it was hard to hold any elections at all...the results for Yabloko...would have been twice as large, probably." Yavlinskii also rejected criticism that he has spent too much time outside of the government by noting, "Our government is like a brothel. Once you enter, it's very difficult to say you called in for a cup of tea. Having worked in government, it is impossible to explain afterward that I joined it to work not to steal." JAC

PENSIONERS, STATE WORKERS TO GET BONUS

President Yeltsin signed a decree on 27 December granting Russian pensioners a lump sum bonus equal to 10 percent of their average monthly pension or about 50 rubles ($1.85), ITAR-TASS reported. The same day, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko said the government intends to increase wages for state sector employees by some 1.2 times as of 1 April 2000. In addition, she predicted that the government's wage arrears will drop to 6.2-6.5 billion rubles as of 1 January 2000. The backlog totaled 7.3 billion rubles as of 1 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 1999). The higher wages will come in handy since many regions will increase their sales tax, according to "Vremya MN." Nationally, the prices of alcohol, tobacco, and gasoline are also set to rise as a new tax law comes into effect. Economists are predicting 10 to 15 percent rises in retail prices on all goods. JAC

STOCK MARKET STILL RISING ON ELECTION RESULTS...

In relatively light trading, Russian share prices increased on 27 December by 2-6 percent, Interfax-AFI reported. The benchmark RTS index rose 3.92 percent to 156.61. According to the agency, many investors expect share prices to continue increasing at the beginning of the year when trading volumes start to grow. Share prices of Unifed Energy Systems, LUKoil, and Mosenergo jumped 4 percent, 4.1 percent, and 3.1 percent, respectively. Share prices increased strongly following the State Duma elections as traders evaluated the composition of the new Duma as favorable for business and investment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 1999). JAC

...AS BANKING SECTOR WAITS FOR RESULTS OF PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

A number of leading bankers offered their prognoses for the Russian banking sector in 2000 in the 27 December issue of "Vremya MN." Anton Krasnoshchekov, vice president of Most-bank, said the recent Duma elections did not decisively determine the character of the future government. He said "all should be resolved with presidential elections. In the worse case, the country's banking system will experience a long stagnation." Oleg Kiselev, chairman of the board of IMPEKSbank, predicted Russian banks will recapitalize and gradually recover their losses from the country's internal markets. He added that the significance of banks of "a federal scale" will increase after the presidential elections. On the same day, "Kommersant-Daily" concluded that the Agency for Restructuring Credit Organizations had only a 50 percent success rate in 1999 in the 19 banks with which it worked because the agency does not have enough money to restructure the larger "system-forming" banks. JAC

RUSSIA REJECTS U.S. CRITICISM OF CHECHNYA POLICY

Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin on 24 December said U.S. foreign policy "in the last few months has been increasingly driven by fleeting domestic considerations." He said this tendency has been expressed in "Washington's attempts to use economic levers of pressure against Russia, including sanctions under artificial pretexts." Rakhmanin's remarks following criticism of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen. Also on 24 December, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev dismissed Cohen's remark that Russia had gone beyond all internationally recognized legal norms in its Chechnya campaign, noting that the task of clearing the region of terrorists is being "carried out by federal troops together with the Chechen people." He described the campaign as "Russia's internal affair." JAC

RUSSIA TO HOLD TALKS ON NUCLEAR WEAPONS STORAGE, TRANSPORTATION...

The Russian government has given a green light to negotiations between the U.S. and Russian defense ministries on extending two 1995 treaties dealing with the secure storage and transportation of nuclear weapons, Interfax reported on 27 December. JAC

...AND CONSIDER START-II EARLY NEXT YEAR

Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Vladimir Lukin said on 27 December that the ratification of the START-II treaty may be included in the new Duma's agenda early in the new year. Lukin, a member of Yabloko, was re-elected to the Duma. The new Duma is expected to begin work in the third week of January. JAC

LABOR PROTESTS DECLINE

Teachers in five Russian regions will continue the strike they declared on 11 November, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 December citing a teachers' union. Some 2,500 teachers stopped working in 37 schools in the Kostroma and Kirov oblasts, Altai Krai, and the republics of Kalmykia and Tuva. The striking teachers are owed about five months worth of back wages. Meanwhile, the State Committee for Statistics reported last week that there was a significant decline in the number of strikes in Russia during the first 11 months of 1999 compared with the same period last year. According to the committee, 5,700 workers at 341 organizations were on strike this November, compared with 65,500 workers at some 2,135 organizations last November. JAC




ARMENIAN PROSECUTOR REJECTS PROPOSED MONITORING OF PARLIAMENT SHOOTING INVESTIGATION

Military prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian, who is conducting the investigation into the 27 October shooting of eight senior Armenian officials, on 27 December rejected calls for the creation of an ad hoc parliamentary committee to ensure that the investigation is impartial, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Jahangirian also rejected allegations that his close ties with the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, which was founded and headed by slain Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian, impinges on the objectivity of the investigation. On 23 December, opposition National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian charged that the investigators are manipulating the investigation into the 27 October shootings for political reasons, specifically by indicting former presidential aide Aleksan Harutiunian. Also on 23 December, a police officer who was on duty at the parliament building on 27 October was arrested on charges of negligence in connection with the killings, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

SON OF MURDERED ARMENIAN POLITICIAN TAKES OVER CHAIRMANSHIP OF HIS PARTY

As had been rumored, Stepan Demirchian, the younger son of parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian, one of the victims of the 27 October shootings, was named acting chairman of the late Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) on 24 December, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The HZhK board also issued a statement calling for speeding up the preparation of constitutional reforms to limit the powers of the president. President Robert Kocharian reached tentative agreement earlier this month with the Republican Party of Armenia, the HZhK's partner in the majority Miasnutiun coalition, on holding a referendum on the planned constitutional amendments. LF

AZERBAIJAN'S PRESIDENT CANCELS PLANNED TOUR OF PROVINCES

Heidar Aliyev on 27 December cancelled a 27-28 December visit to Shamkir district and the city of Gyanja, Turan reported. No explanation was given for the decision. Gyanja was the scene of demonstrations last week by residents protesting the lack of basic facilities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 1999). LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT REBUTS RUSSIAN ACCUSATIONS

By a vote of 143-1, deputies on 23 December adopted a statement rejecting as absurd and unfounded claims by the Russian Foreign Ministry that Georgia is abetting Chechnya by allowing the transport of arms to Chechen fighters across Georgian territory among other alleged support, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. The parliament statement again affirmed Georgia's recognition of Russia's territorial integrity and Tbilisi's readiness to allow the deployment on Georgian territory of Russian observers empowered to monitor traffic across the Georgian-Chechen border. On 23 December, one day after four Georgian border guards were wounded by Russian grenade-launcher fire, U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee on Near Eastern and South Asia Affairs, called on the U.S. administration to make it clear to Russia that U.S. support for Georgia is unequivocal and that any further military actions against Georgia are unacceptable. LF

RUSSIA DENIES BOMBING GEORGIA

On 24 December, a Russian Defense Ministry commission charged with investigating Georgian claims that Russian helicopters had entered Georgian airspace and fired on Georgian territory on 17 November said it had found no evidence to substantiate those claims, according to Interfax (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 1999). LF

GEORGIAN SECURITY MINISTER ANTICIPATES NEW ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT

Vakhtang Kutateladze told parliament deputies on 24 December that Georgian intelligence has evidence that "destructive forces" both inside Georgia and abroad are seeking to destabilize the situation in the runup to the April 2000 presidential elections by perpetrating terrorist attacks against Georgian politicians, including President Eduard Shevardnadze. Speaking on the independent TV channel Rustavi-2 the following day, Kutateladze said the anticipated attack on Shevardnadze is being planned by the same "forces" that tried unsuccessfully to kill him in 1995 and 1998. Former Security Minister Irakli Batiashvili told Interfax on 26 December that "Russian radicals" have already selected as their preferred successor to Shevardnadze a Georgian politician who is not a member of the opposition. LF

AMNESTY FOR IMPRISONED GEORGIAN WARLORD DENIED

Georgia's Supreme Court has rejected an appeal for clemency by lawyers for Djaba Ioseliani, leader of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary organization, Caucasus Press reported on 25 December. Ioseliani's lawyer Gogmar Gabunia had argued that a court's decision to sentence Ioseliani to 11 years' imprisonment in November 1998 on charges of banditry and planning to assassinate Georgian head of state Eduard Shevardnadze was illegal because Ioseliani had parliamentary immunity at the time of his arrest. Meanwhile, the 73- year-old Ioseliani plans to take monastic vows, according to "Alia" on 23 December. LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S AFGHAN VETERANS APPEAL TO PRESIDENT

Oleg Rubets, deputy chairman of the Kazakh Union of Afghan Veterans, on 24 December said his organization has written to President Nursultan Nazarbaev to ask him to prevent the sentencing of former chief of staff Bakhytzhan Ertaev on what Rubets believes are fabricated charges, Interfax reported. Ertaev is implicated in the clandestine sale to North Korea of several dozen obsolete MiG fighter aircraft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 November 1999). Rubets said he has documents proving Ertaev's innocence, adding that prominent businessmen are trying to frame him. LF

TURKEY TO PROVIDE LOAN FOR KAZAKHSTAN'S MILITARY

Under an agreement to be signed on 25 December, Turkey will provide Kazakhstan with a $700,000 interest-free loan to improve communications systems used by the country's armed forces, Interfax reported on 24 December, quoting Defense Minister Sat Tokpakbaev. LF

KAZAKHSTAN STARTS PAYING PENSIONS ARREARS

Kazakhstan's Finance Minister Mazhit Esenbaev on 27 December said the government has paid 15.3 billion tenge ($110.7 million) in back pensions, and will pay off the remaining arrears before the end of the year, Interfax reported. Esenbaev linked the move to last week's agreement with the World Bank, which has released a $100 million tranche of a loan to finance pension reform in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 1999). LF

KYRGYZSTAN ASSESSES FOREIGN LOAN BURDEN

Prime Minister Amangeldi MurAliyev on 23 December said the country's foreign borrowing since 1991 amounts to $1.296 billion, RFE/RL's bureau in Bishkek reported. MurAliyev described the amount as "dangerous." He added that while some loans have been used for infrastructure modernization, others--including loans from Turkey, Switzerland, and the EU--have been partly embezzled. LF

THREE SENTENCED TO DEATH FOR TAJIK BOMBING

A district court in Kurgan- Tyube on 27 December sentenced three men to death for masterminding a series of bombings in that town in November 1998, ITAR-TASS and AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 November 1998). Ten other men received prison sentences of 19 years. LF

TAJIK OPPOSITION JOURNALIST BEATEN

Three armed masked men attacked Mukhiddin Idizoda, deputy editor of the Tajik opposition newspaper "Nadzhot," near his home on 27 December, ITAR-TASS reported. The newspaper is funded by the Islamic Renaissance Party. LF

TAJIK POLICE THWART ALUMINUM SMUGGLING

Tajik police have arrested a criminal gang engaged in smuggling aluminum, AP and ITAR-TASS reported on 26 December. Police officials seized 200 metric tons of the metal, worth about $270,000, from a warehouse in Dushanbe. LF

NIYAZOV NOT TO REMAIN TURKMEN PRESIDENT FOR LIFE?

Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov on 27 December rejected a proposal by the People's Council that he should remain head of state for life, Interfax reported. Niyazov said presidential elections will be held as scheduled in 2002, adding that that he may run for a further term, or "if not, we shall appoint someone else." Also on 27 December, Niyazov issued a decree banning smoking in public places in what he described as part of a campaign to raise life expectancy from 65 to 75. LF

TURKMENISTAN ABOLISHES CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, RAISES MINIMUM WAGE

The People's Council on 27 December voted to amend Turkmenistan's constitution to abolish capital punishment, Reuters reported. Turkmenistan is the first Central Asian state to do so. Lawmakers also voted to raise the minimum wage and pension to 400,000 manats (approximately $76). LF

TURKMENISTAN DEPORTS BAPTIST PASTORS

The Turkmen authorities have forcibly deported two Baptist pastors and their wives from Ashgabat and Turkmenabad, Compass Direct reported on 26 December. A member of one of the Ashgabat congregation, who was forcibly detained on 16 December, has been released (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 1999). LF




BELARUSIAN POPULAR FRONT CHANGES NAME

The opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) led by Vintsuk Vyachorka decided on 26 December to change its name to Public Association BNF, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 27 December. The decision is aimed at bringing the name into line with Belarus's law on public associations, which bans the words "Belarus," "Republic of Belarus," "national," and "popular" from being used in the names of public organizations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 1999). BNF activist Yury Khadyka said the BNF had to change its name in order to be permitted to exist legally. He added that the current name allows the BNF to preserve the organization's "10-year tradition." JM

UKRAINIAN LEGISLATORS PLEDGE TO CREATE PRO-GOVERNMENT MAJORITY

Eleven parliamentary caucuses and groups have initialed an agreement on the creation of a pro-government majority in the legislature, Interfax reported on 24 December. The agreement was signed by leaders of the Social Democrats (United), the Revival of Regions, the Fatherland, the Popular Democratic Party, the Labor Party, the Green Party, both caucuses of the Popular Rukh, the Hromada party, the Reforms-Congress, and the Independents. The pro-government majority is expected to be made up of some 250 deputies in the 450-seat legislature. The Communist Party, the Peasant Party, the Socialist Party, and the Progressive Socialist Party did not take part in the agreement. JM

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN KYIV TO BOOST TIES

Vartan Oskanian and his Ukrainian counterpart, Borys Tarasyuk, signed six agreements in railway transportation, pharmaceutics, tourism, culture, and education in Kyiv on 24 December, AP reported. Ukraine also agreed to let Armenia use its Black Sea port of Ilyichevsk for shipping. Ukrainian presidential spokesman Oleksandr Martynenko said Oskanian urged President Leonid Kuchma "to help Armenia integrate into Europe." JM

UKRAINE TO IMPORT 1.5 MILLION TONS OF GRAIN

Ukraine plans to import some 1.5 million metric tons of grain by 1 September 2000, Interfax reported on 24 December. The imports are reportedly necessary to maintain a steady supply of bread and to avoid price hikes. JM

ESTONIAN WEALTH CONCENTRATED IN TALLINN

The Estonian Statistical Department on 27 December released a regional GDP breakdown, which shows that Tallinn and the surrounding Harju county provided 59.1 percent of the country's GDP in 1997, BNS reported. South Estonia accounted for 12.5 percent, followed by the northeast at 12.3 percent. Per capita GDP is also much higher in Tallinn and Harju county at 70,334 kroons ($4,554), compared with South Estonia's 29,788 kroons. MH

LATVIAN Q3 GDP STABLE

The Latvian Central Statistics Department announced on 27 December that there was no change in the GDP for the third quarter of 1999 compared with last year's third quarter, BNS reported. This ends several consecutive quarters of decline in the GDP, which dropped by 1.7-percent during the first nine months of the year. Production declines in the processing and agriculture sectors were 12.9 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively. Statistical Department head Aija Zigure predicted a GDP contraction for 1999. MH

LITHUANIAN BANK LOOKING TO OPEN IN REPUBLIKA SRPSKA

Lithuania's state- owned Ukio Bankas has expressed an interest in working with partners to open a bank in Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia- Herzegovina, ELTA reported on 24 December. An official from the bank said Ukio is looking for new markets. The official said the bank has experience in the Balkans as a privatization consultant. MH

NEW ADMINISTRATIVE REFORM MINISTER IN LITHUANIA

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Jonas Rudalevicius took the oath of office in parliament on 23 December as the new minister for administrative reform. Rudalevicius replaced the embattled former Administrative Reform Minister Sigitas Kaktys, who resigned following allegations of corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 1999). President Valdas Adamkus said the Administrative Reform Ministry should be merged with the Interior Ministry in the near future, ELTA reported. MH

LITHUANIA PASSES 2000 BUDGET

The Lithuanian parliament on 23 December passed the state budget for the year 2000 by a vote of 69 to zero after opposition deputies staged a walk out, ELTA reported. The 6.851 billion litas ($1.712 billion) budget carries a 800 million litas deficit, which is equal to about 1.7 percent of GDP, BNS added. President Adamkus said he will sign the bill but urged the government to amend it to place more emphasis on education. At the same session, parliament also slashed corporate taxes from 29 percent to 24 percent and approved a gradual restoration of the VAT on heating. MH

POLISH PARLIAMENT PASSES 2000 BUDGET

The parliament on 23 December adopted the budget for 2000 by a vote of 240 to 177 with three abstentions. The budget foresees $33.2 billion in revenues and $36.9 billion in spending. The bill predicts GDP will rise by 5.2 percent, inflation of 5.7 percent, and an annual average exchange rate of 4.04 zlotys to $1. The bill will be debated by the upper house in January. JM

FORMER CZECH MINISTER SAYS HE WAS BUGGED

Former Health Minister Ivan David on 27 December told Radio Frekvence 1 that a bugging device was planted in his ministerial office a few months before he resigned on 9 December, CTK reported. David said he informed "the relevant bodies" as well as Minister without portfolio Jaroslav Basta, who is in charge of the secret services. David also said he is "disgusted" with how Deputy Premier Vladimir Spidla has been managing the Health Ministry since his departure. David said Spidla, who has temporarily taken over the portfolio, has been dismissing ministry officials simply for having been close to the former minister. MS

SLOVAK PREMIER'S POSITION WEAKENED IN OWN PARTY

The chairmen of the five so-called "parent parties" that set up the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) before last year's elections reached an agreement on 23 December to set up a new SDK body with decision-making powers to replace the SDK Presidium, CTK reported. Political observers say the establishment of the new body, to be called the Council of Chairmen, further weakens the position of Prime Minster Mikulas Dzurinda, who dominated the former Presidium. Dzurinda's main rival for the leadership, Christian Democratic Movement Chairman Jan Carnogursky, said the council will be "an efficient decision-making mechanism" that will start operating on 10 January 2000. MS

SLOVAK ROMA ASK FOR ASYLUM IN FINLAND

Twenty-six Slovak Roma on 23 December applied for asylum in Finland, raising the number of Slovak Roma asking for asylum in the country since the beginning of December to 92, CTK reported, citing the Finnish STT/FNB agency. Finland temporarily lifted visa requirements for Slovak citizens this fall, after reintroducing the requirements in the summer in response to an influx of more than 1,000 applicants. On 25 December, CTK reported that a group of 50 Slovak Roma arrived in Bratislava, after they were refused asylum in Denmark. CTK also reported on 26 December that some 30 Roma, who left earlier to be with relatives in the Czech Republic, are being prevented from returning to two villages in east Slovakia. The village councils of Nagov and Rokytovce have banned the Roma from returning, even though they have legal residence permits. MS




MILOSEVIC, SERGEEV CONDEMN KFOR

During a visit to Belgrade on 23 December, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev joined Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in condemning the NATO-backed UN force in Kosova, Western agencies reported. In a joint statement, the two said their countries "regard the state of affairs [in Kosova] as untenable" and call on the UN Security Council "to immediately take steps against those responsible for failure to implement its mandate and to secure strict respect of Resolution 1244 as well as the military technical agreement." Milosevic decorated Sergeev with medals for his efforts to promote bilateral cooperation. Sergeev reciprocated by decorating Yugoslav military leaders for their "heroic defense" of their country in Kosova. PG

CHINA BACKS BELGRADE ON KOSOVA

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji told visiting Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic on 27 December that Beijing wants the Kosova crisis to be settled on the basis of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, Reuters reported. On 24 December, Yugoslav President Milosevic decorated several Chinese officials and journalists for their "courage and solidarity" during NATO's bombing and noted that China had shown "friendly support and help to our country in its struggle to preserve freedom, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity," Tanjug reported. The commander of the Yugoslav army corps which was pulled out of Kosova last summer, Vladimir Lazarevic, told "Politika" on 27 December that the Russian and Chinese support indicates "it is possible that China and Russia would veto a decision on extending the KFOR and UNMIK mandate that expires next year." PG

SERGEEV VISITS PRISTINA

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev met with Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, the commander of the NATO-led KFOR, and German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping in Pristina on 24 December, Western agencies reported. They discussed the stationing of Russian peacekeepers in Orahovac, despite local opposition to them. Sergeev also visited with Russian peacekeepers in Kosova. Although NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clarke was in Pristina on the same day to present awards to Russian troops, the two did not meet. Before arriving in Pristina, Sergeev told Interfax "our relations with [NATO] apparently have entered a new phase of getting colder." PG

TEN WOUNDED IN BOMBING OF SERBIAN CAFE IN PRISTINA

Ten people were wounded when a bomb exploded in a Serbian cafe in Pristina on 27 December, a KFOR spokesman told Reuters. Two of the wounded have been hospitalized at Camp Bondsteel, the main base of the U.S. forces in Kosova. PG

72 PERCENT OF YUGOSLAV BUDGET TO GO TO ARMY

The Yugoslav parliament on 24 December passed a budget for 2000 which allocates 72.74 percent of total budget spending worth 22.5 billion dinars ($1.9 billion) to the country's military, Reuters reported. Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic said Belgrade is not planning any new military operations but simply hopes to repair equipment and infrastructure damaged by NATO's bombing campaign. PG

SERBIAN RENEWAL TO DEMONSTRATE FOR EARLY ELECTIONS

The Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) told the BETA news agency on 26 December that it will urge its supporters to demonstrate in favor of early elections. The SPO's Aleksandar Cotric said the party will soon "call its supporters to win early elections on the streets" unless the government calls "early elections under democratic conditions." Those conditions include the resignation of Yugoslav President Milosevic in advance of any vote. PG

BELGRADE TO STEP UP COUNTER-PROPAGANDA EFFORT

Yugoslav Information Minister Aleksandar Vucic on 25 December said Belgrade will begin publishing daily bulletins in English, establishing new Internet websites, and promoting satellite transmissions of local news in order to counter what he called the West's propaganda war against Yugoslavia, Reuters reported. He said Yugoslavs have been subjected "throughout this year to permanent information torture from the Western media and their local branches." Meanwhile, on 27 December, the international media watchdog group Reporters sans frontieres issued a press release denouncing Vucic for his efforts to suppress the free press in Yugoslavia. PG

BELGRADE ARCHBISHOP CALLS FOR "RECONCILIATION"

In his Christmas message, Roman Catholic Archbishop France Perko called for "forgiveness and reconciliation" among all ethnic communities in the Balkans. However, he also told the newspaper "Blic" that at present there is "no sincere wish for reconciliation on any of the sides." In remarks that appear to have been directed at Milosevic, Perko said "politics must be a search for what is possible, whereas here it has been a search for the impossible." PG

SERBS URGED TO CONSERVE ELECTRICITY

Belgrade's EPS electrical power company called on its customers to reduce the amount of electricity they were using recently during several days of extremely low temperatures, Reuters reported on 25 December. Belgrade has asked Moscow to provide additional natural gas but has not yet received an answer. Meanwhile, Hungary's MOL energy company said it will deliver gas to Serbia over the New Year's holiday. PG

ALBANIA'S FOREIGN DEBT RISES

Albania's foreign debt rose to $529.8 million as of December 1999, DPA reported. Some $324 million of that is owed to international organizations. PG

DEL PONTE WELCOMES WAR CRIMES ARRESTS

Carla del Pone, the chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal in The Hague, on 24 December welcomed the arrest of Zoran Vukovic, a Bosnian Serb charged with war crimes, ITAR-TASS reported. His arrest brings to 34 the number of those accused who are now in the custody of the tribunal; 31 others are still at large. NATO Secretary General George Robertson also welcomed the arrest, but the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo issued a statement calling on Americans in the country to exercise "extreme caution" because of an increased danger of hostility "directed towards the international community" in the wake of the arrests. PG

OPPOSITION COALITION LEADS IN CROATIAN CAMPAIGN

A coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals now appears likely to capture 35 percent of the vote in the 3 January parliamentary election, AP reported on 27 December. The late President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) is now running at 20 percent in the polls. Meanwhile, Croatia's highest court has ordered state-run television to broadcast advertisements by Glas 99, an NGO urging Croatians to exercise their right to vote. The Social Liberals filed a complaint the same day about a HDZ advertisement showing a drunk as a representative of the opposition. PG

A NEW GOVERNMENT IN MACEDONIA

Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski reshuffled his cabinet on 26 December. In the new line-up, Georgievski's VMRO will have 12 seats, the democratic Alternative seven, and the DPA five, AP reported. PG

MONTENEGRO TO PAY YUGOSLAV TROOPS IN HARD CURRENCY

As part of its effort to win the loyalty of Yugoslav troops stationed on its territory, Montenegro will now pay them in hard currency rather than with rapidly depreciating Yugoslav dinars, Reuters reported on 23 December. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic said "Belgrade may not like it and it may be a pretext for them to misuse the army." PG

FORMER ROMANIAN PREMIER EXPELLED FROM PARTY...

Former Premier Radu Vasile was expelled from the ruling National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) at an extraordinary meeting of the party's Bureau for Coordination, Leadership, and Control (BCCC) on 27 December, Romanian state radio reported the next day. PNTCD chairman Ion Diaconescu said Vasile was expelled for trying to set up a dissident group within the PNTCD, for "blackmailing" the party by setting up conditions for submitting his resignation earlier this month, and for repeatedly refusing to attend BCCC meetings. Vasile did not participate in the 27 December meeting. PNTCD spokesman Remus Opris said he is not worried about a possible split in the PNTCD. He said he is "confident" that Vasile's supporters "will not follow him into nowhere." MS

...AND UNLIKELY TO GET SENATE CHAIRMANSHIP

The National Liberal Party on 23 December announced it will back its leader, Mircea Ionescu- Quintus, for the position of Senate chairman, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The position, vacated by Foreign Minister Petre Roman, was unofficially offered to Vasile as part of a deal that led to his resignation. The BCCC on 27 December decided that deputy Virgil Petrescu will "temporarily" fill the position of PNTCD secretary-general. That position was also promised to Vasile as part of the resignation deal. MS

FORMER ROMANIAN DISSIDENTS BARRED FROM SUPERVISING COMMUNIST FILES

The Judicial Commissions of Romania's two parliamentary chambers on 27 December decided that Andrei Plesu and Mircea Dinescu are not eligible for membership in the College for the Study of the Securitate Archives. The Democratic Party nominated Plesu and Dinescu to the college. They were both dissidents under the Nicolae Ceausescu dictatorship, but the commissions said the recently-passed law on the college bars membership to former or present members of any political party, noting that the two men had been Communist Party members. Plesu served as foreign minister until recently and Dinescu was a member of the leadership of the National Salvation Front, which was set up after the ouster of Ceausescu. Dinescu said it is "incredibly foul" to question his and Plesu's "morality" when it is well-known that "torturers and even priests" had been members of the party. MS

CONSTANTINESCU RECEIVES FORMER ROMANIAN KING

President Emil Constantinescu on 26 December met in Bucharest with former King Michael, who is visiting Romania over the Christmas holidays. It is the first time that a postcommunist president has received the former monarch. The meeting took place at the official presidential residence in the Cotroceni Palace, which was one of the royal house's state residences. After the meeting, the former monarch said he is "confident" in the country's "prosperous future." MS

MOLDOVANS FAIL TO REACH AGREEMENT WITH GAZPROM

A Moldovan delegation led by MoldovaGas chief Valentin Penkov has failed to reach an agreement in Moscow on Gazprom gas deliveries in 2000, Infotag reported on 27 December. Earlier, the Moldovan media reported that the Russian concern partially resumed deliveries on 24 December. At the same time, Gazprom announced that the deliveries will be limited to the amount that Moldova has been able to pay on its outstanding debt in 1999, which is equal to about 12 percent of regular supplies. A Moldovan government delegation headed by Premier Dumitru Barghis canceled a previously planned visit to Moscow owing to negotiation difficulties, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported on 24 December. MS

CONTROVERSY OVER APPOINTMENT OF MOLDOVAN DEPUTY INTERIOR MINISTER

Dumitru Diacov, Mircea Snegur, and Alexandru Mosanu--all leaders of the opposition Alliance for Democracy and Reforms--are demanding that President Petru Lucinschi postpone the appointment of General Nicolae Alexei to the posts of deputy interior minister and chief of the Department for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported on 27 December. The former Ion Sturza cabinet dismissed Alexei from his position as chief of that department earlier this year. Diacov and Snegur wrote to Lucinschi that Alexei was responsible for several "public scandals" and covered up illegal activities during his tenure as department head. Alexei dismissed the accusations, saying Diacov, Snegur, and Mosanu fear his return because they "do not wish to see the evil of corruption uprooted...and are well aware that if I return, I shall continue what I have started." MS




Balts Continue to Show Strong Support for Death Penalty


by Mel Huang

Public support for capital punishment remains strong in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, despite the fact that the practice has been banned in all three countries.

A recent poll conducted by the Estonian polling firm EMOR for the Gallup International Millennium Survey project showed that more than half of respondents continue to back the death penalty: 64 percent in Estonia, 63 percent in Lithuania, and 58 percent in Latvia. Those opposing capital punishment accounted for only 5-10 percent of respondents.

The debate over the death penalty re-ignited in Latvia as the trial of confessed mass murderer Aleksandr Koryakov got under way in the small eastern town of Gulbene. In February, Koryakov entered a nursery school and stabbed three girls and their teacher to death. Citing the desire to become famous, Koryakov voiced no remorse but rather regret for not having killed more people. Prosecutor Rita Medne was clearly frustrated by not having capital punishment as an option and pressed for a life sentence. Medne added that she would have requested the death penalty, had it been available, "as a prosecutor, woman, and mother." Koryakov was convicted and sentenced to life in prison on 7 December.

On joining the Council of Europe and signing the European Convention on Human Rights, all three countries pledged to abolish capital punishment in accordance with the document's Sixth Protocol, which bans the death penalty as a punishment in peace time. The last time capital punishment was carried out in the region was in Lithuania in summer 1995, when reputed mafia boss Boris Dekanidze was executed.

Estonia was the first of the three Baltic States to repeal capital punishment when it ratified the Sixth Protocol in April 1998. At the time, the decision did not enjoy popular support--a full 69 percent opposed banning the death penalty and only 20 percent supported the move. The recent figure showing 64 percent support for the death penalty shows that capital punishment remains popular 18 months later.

Lithuania also repealed the death penalty in late 1998, but it did not ratify the Sixth Protocol until later. At the time of the repeal, 78 percent of Lithuanians wanted the death penalty retained, and opposition members of parliament criticized the government for being soft on crime. Today support for capital punishment has dropped noticeably but has yet to become a minority view.

Latvia's debate on repealing the death penalty coincided with the Gulbene murders, which shocked the nation and prompted members of parliament from both inside and outside the ruling coalition to call for capital punishment to be retained. However, within weeks Latvia joined its neighbors in ratifying the Sixth Protocol. The recent poll showing 58 percent support for the death penalty in Latvia was taken in August, well before passions about the Gulbene events were re-ignited by Koryakov's trial.

Other brutal crimes have also contributed to maintaining public support for the death penalty as a deterrent in all three countries. For example, convicted multiple murderer Zigmunds Niekrass was released from a Latvian jail in April, having served only 10 years for molesting and murdering three victims, including an eight-year-old boy. In addition, a recent rash of police and taxi driver killings has shocked the public in Estonia.

The death penalty is just one of the many thorny issues the residents of the Baltic countries must grapple with in their efforts to integrate with, and gain membership in, international organizations such as the EU and NATO. As those organizations establish the rules of the game, few options exist for the Baltics other than adopting those rules.


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