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Newsline - February 1, 2000




CHECHEN FORCES WITHDRAW FROM GROZNY

Hundreds of Chechen fighters broke through Russian lines early on 1 February and withdrew southwest to the town of Alkhan-Kala, where they are surrounded by federal troops, AP and dpa reported, quoting unnamed local residents and a statement by Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. According to that statement, the Chechen army "has fulfilled its military objective" and "will now act in accordance with the plan for the defense of Chechen state." Chechen spokesman Movladi Udugov said that all Chechen defenders have left the city. On 28 January, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov had ordered Chechen fighters in Grozny to hold their positions until 23 February. Acting Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii denied on 1 February the reports of a Chechen withdrawal from Grozny, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDERS REPORTED KILLED, WOUNDED

Quoting Chechen sources, AP also reported that Basaev was severely wounded during the 1 February withdrawal from Grozny and that two other field commanders, Aslanbek Ismailov and Khunkar- Pasha Israpilov, have been killed. Grozny Mayor Lecha Dudaev, a nephew of the late Chechen president, was killed in fighting in Grozny on 30 January, the agency reported. LF

GANTEMIROV CLAIMS MORE CHECHEN FIGHTERS SURRENDER...

Another 34 Chechen fighters surrendered on 31 January, raising the total number of those who have done so to 168, Interfax reported on 31 January, quoting a spokesman for Beslan Gantemirov, who was Lecha Dudaev's predecessor as mayor of Grozny. Earlier estimates suggested that several hundred fighters had surrendered since 28 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2000). LF

...WHILE COUNCIL OF EUROPE SAYS HE IS NOT AN ACCEPTABLE NEGOTIATING PARTNER

Also on 31 January, Kristiina Ojuland, who is head of the Estonian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and deputy chairwoman of that body, told Interfax that the PACE considers that Moscow's dealings with Gantemirov are exacerbating the war in Chechnya, rather than helping to end it. She added that talks between PACE members and representatives of both Chechnya and Ingushetia convinced her that the Chechen leadership "has rejected the idea of Gantemirov representing the Chechen people in negotiations with Moscow." LF

RFE/RL JOURNALIST TO REMAIN IN CUSTODY?

Acting Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov told Interfax on 31 January that RFE/RL reporter Andrei Babitskii, who was detained by Russian forces on the outskirts of Grozny last month, may be held in custody for 10 days for violating regulations for correspondents in a war zone. But Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the same day that Babitskii may be released as soon as a member of the Prosecutor-General's Office clarifies the circumstances of his detention. Interfax cited unconfirmed reports that Babitskii is being held in a detention center in the town of Chernokozovo, some 45 kilometers northwest of Grozny. Earlier reports, also unconfirmed, had said that he was being held in the town of Urus Martan, southwest of Grozny. Meeting with Ivanov in Moscow on 31 January, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright raised the case of Babitskii, stressing that the U.S. considers it important that journalists have the right to provide information on events in Chechnya. LF

TALEBAN SAY THEY HAVE SENT TROOPS TO CHECHNYA

A senior Taleban commander said in Kabul on 31 January that a contingent of Taleban troops left Afghanistan three weeks earlier to fight in Chechnya, AP reported. It is unclear whether those forces have yet arrived in the North Caucasus. When the Taleban officially recognized Chechnya's independence last month, they said they could offer little in the way of military support to the Chechens (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2000). Russian security officials have repeatedly claimed that Afghans are fighting as mercenaries in Chechnya. LF

PUTIN PLEDGES TO RESTORE LAW AND ORDER...

Telling Justice Ministry officials that "the only sort of dictatorship to which we must be subject is the dictatorship of law," acting Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to strengthen the state in order to reinstate law and order, Russian agencies reported on 31 January. "The system of state authority is neglected, slack and ill-disciplined," he said. "How can anyone be surprised that we have such difficulties with reforms? It is indeed surprising that they are working at all," he said in his televised speech. "People must not feel anxiety about their own security or those of their loved ones," Putin continued. And he said that "there is only one way to achieve this--by turning Russia into a strong state." In other comments, he warned against any violation of the country's election legislation during the upcoming Russian presidential campaign: "Those who fail to comply will be the focus of the law enforcement agencies," he said. PG

...URGES RAPID APPROVAL OF LEGAL PROCEDURE CODES

Putin called for the rapid approval of the land, labor, civil, and criminal procedure codes, Interfax reported. He said that "we are suffocating from the absence of fundamental legislation adequate to the changing situation," adding that "it is impermissible that the country should be living according to laws written under a different system of government." And he remarked that conflicts between central and regional legislation "may reach a critical point capable of blasting the common constitutional space." PG

IVANOV-ALBRIGHT TALKS 'CONSTRUCTIVE, FRANK AND USEFUL'

Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov and his U.S. counterpart, Albright, clashed over Chechnya and possible modifications to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty during talks in Moscow on 31 January that both sides described as "constructive, frank, and useful," ITAR-TASS reported. The two leaders signed agreements dealing with space launches and the joint nuclear risk reduction center. Russian media were particularly critical of Albright's suggestion that Russia faces increasing international isolation because of its campaign in Chechnya, Interfax reported. While in Davos, Albright said that she believes acting Russian President Putin is trying to "ride a tiger" in his Chechen campaign. PG

PENSIONS BOOSTED BY 20 PERCENT

Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko told ITAR-TASS on 31 January that the average pension will increase on 1 February by 20 percent to 650 rubles ($22) a month. She noted that this is the first time in many years that Moscow has been able to increase pensions so that they almost meet subsistence minimums. Also on 1 February, the minimum wage is to rise to 410 rubles, up from 234 rubles one year ago. PG

PUTIN CRITICIZES EES

Acting President Putin said on 31 January that the failure of the United Energy Systems (EES) corporation to collect bills in a timely manner reflects the general ineffectiveness of government organizations, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, EES directors continue to work on a plan to restructure the company in ways that would protect all stockholders, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

KASYANOV SAYS INVESTORS WANT STABILITY ABOVE ALL

Speaking at the Davos economic forum, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said that Western investors are concerned, above all, that it is difficult to predict the Russian authorities' actions, Interfax reported on 31 January. Kasyanov added that "the situation's very fragile." And he noted that "we cannot be satisfied with the attitude some governments in the West are taking right now of not supporting Russia's efforts to stabilize the situation." Such an approach, he concluded, risks "losing the chance of getting a democratic Russia with a more developed economy quicker." PG

PUTIN PRAISES ARAFAT

Putin has praised Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his positive assessment of Russian policy in the Middle East, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 January. "Russia will keep working consistently to attain durable and fair peace in the Middle East region which can be secured through the restoration of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people," Putin said in a statement. He also invited Arafat to visit Moscow "as soon as circumstances permit." PG

DEFINING DOWN IMMUNITY

Aleksandr Kotenkov, presidential envoy to the State Duma, told ITAR-TASS on 31 January that deputies should enjoy immunity from prosecution only on matters concerning their duties as deputies. "A deputy cannot be prosecuted for his sharp criticism of the government," Kotenkov said, but "he should be called to account for embezzlement or murder with the State Duma's consent." PG

YAROSLAVL GOVERNOR CALLS ON REGIONS TO AID DAGHESTAN

Anatolii Lisitsyn has urged his fellow governors to provide economic aid to Daghestan, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 January. Lisitsyn and the governors of Vologda and Kostroma recently visited Daghestan at the behest of acting Russian President Putin. The three governors have already committed themselves to providing direct assistance to the North Caucasus republic. PG

DEFENSE MINISTRY READY TO RESTORE NATO TIES

Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry's international military cooperation department, told Interfax on 31 January that "there is no alternative to Russia-NATO cooperation and Moscow is ready to restore relations with the alliance." Ivashov said Russia has two conditions for resuming ties: first, the Russian government insists on cooperative relations in the fulfillment of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which deals with Kosova, and second, "the earnest intention of NATO to build relations with Moscow." Late last week, Ivashov had said it was still too early to restore ties with NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2000). PG

SKURATOV FORMALLY CHARGED

The Russian Prosecutor- General's Office on 31 January formally charged suspended Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov with abuse of power, Interfax reported. PG

GAZPROM WARNS UKRAINE AGAINST DIVERTING GAS

Gazprom head Rem Vyakhirev told Ukraine to stop diverting from export pipelines larger amounts of natural gas than it has paid for, Interfax reported on 31 January. According to Vyakhirev, Ukraine "significantly increased unsanctioned diversions of Russian natural gas" from 20- 25 January. He said that this reduced pressure levels to below optimal levels and thus impaired Russia's ability to fulfill foreign orders. PG

SECURITY INCREASED AT URALS NUCLEAR PLANT

The Interior Ministry has ordered managers at the Beloyarskaya nuclear power plant near Yekaterinburg to increase security, Interfax reported on 31 January. The managers quoted ministry officials as saying this was necessary to prevent any terrorist acts by Chechen rebels. PG

SUSPECTED PIPELINE BOMBERS ARRESTED

The Federal Security Service on 31 January announced the arrest of 10 people who are suspected of being behind the 1 December 1999 explosions in pipelines near Tatarstan, Interfax reported. "The aim of the detainees was to damage Russian economic interests by interrupting gas deliveries to Western Europe and compelling the Russian government over the federal operation in Chechnya," the security service's press office said. PG

MINISTRY TO INSPECT SEA DUMPING SITES

The Ministry for Emergency Situations plans to inspect all major sea dumping sites for virulent and poisonous substances, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 January. The ministry said it will seek to learn what impact the dumping has had on the seas' ecology. Meanwhile, Moscow and Oslo announced plans to expand cooperation in the development of the continental shelf, the Russian agency said. PG

FORMER NTV HEAD NAMED CHIEF OF VGTRK

Oleg Dobrodeev, who resigned as director-general of NTV in December 1999, is to be appointed head of Russia's second-largest television company, VGTRK, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 January. Current VGTRK head Mikhail Shvydkoi is expected to be named Russia's culture minister. PG

NEW HEAD FOR ROSENERGOATOM

Yurii Yakovlev, who until now headed the MAKS insurance company, has replaced Leonid Melamed as executive director of the Rosenergoatom concern, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 January. Prior to his departure from office, Melamed announced that Russia's nuclear power industry generated 16 percent more kilowatt/hours in 1999 than in the previous year. Rosenergoatom controls eight nuclear power plants with a total of 25 reactors. PG

RUSSIA PLANS TO ADD 1 MILLION TELEPHONES IN 2000

Telecommunications Minister Leonid Reiman told ITAR-TASS that his ministry plans to install 1 million new telephones by the end of the year. As part of a general plan to "provide everybody with a telephone in Russia," Reiman said, his ministry plans to develop a new billing policy that will base charges on the amount of time customers spend on the telephone. PG

CARGO SHIP ON ITS WAY TO 'MIR'

A Progress cargo ship lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 1 February to deliver fuel, water, and other supplies to the "Mir" space station. Following the announcement last month that foreign funding has been found (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2000), Russia has been preparing to send a crew to the space station for another mission expected to last at least 45 days. "Mir" has been orbiting Earth unmanned since last August. The cargo ship is scheduled to dock with the space station on 3 February. JC

TATARSTAN CLOSES CHECHEN REPRESENTATION OFFICE

Tatarstan's Ministry of Justice has revoked the license of the Kazan office of the Chechen plenipotentiary representative in the Tatarstan Republic, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 1 February, citing Tatarinform. An official from the Foreign Affairs Department of the office of Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev told the agency that the Chechen office may be given the status of trade representation. Chechnya's official representative Umar Ayupov has been in Kazan for approximately four years dealing primarily with economic ties between the two republics. LF




ARMENIA, RUSSIA TO ATTEND GUUAM DEFENSE MINISTERS' MEETING?

The defense ministers of Armenia, Russia, and Romania have been invited to attend the meeting of defense ministers of GUUAM member states, which has now been rescheduled for March, Armenpress reported on 28 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2000). ITAR-TASS on 30 January quoted Deputy Georgian Defense Minister Aleko Mchedlishvili as saying that the defense ministers of the five GUUAM member states (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) will discuss at that meeting in Tbilisi broader cooperation, including the protection of oil export pipelines. LF

ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS DISCUSS MUTUAL 'CONCESSIONS'

During their talks in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliyev discussed the possibility of unspecified "reciprocal concessions" aimed at "normalizing" bilateral relations, Aliyev told journalists on his return to Baku on 30 January. ITAR-TASS quoted the Azerbaijani president as describing his talks with Kocharian as "positive." LF

ENERGY CRISIS FORCES AZERBAIJAN TO IMPORT CRUDE

Natik Aliev, who is president of Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR, told journalists in Baku that Azerbaijan may have to import crude oil to refine into fuel oil for use in oil-fired power stations, Interfax reported on 31 January. He added that it is not possible to purchase fuel oil abroad because of a shortage on world markets. Turkmenistan, which had been viewed as a possible source of fuel oil, has halted production in favor of exporting crude oil. Azerbaijan last week introduced formal electricity rationing in response to the energy sector's inability to generate sufficient power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 28 January 2000). LF

UN EXTENDS MANDATE OF OBSERVERS IN ABKHAZIA...

The UN Security Council on 31 January extended for another six months (until 31 July) the mandate of the UN Observer Force in western Georgia, Reuters and Caucasus Press reported. The Security Council resolution noted that the situation in the south of Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia remains "rather unstable," and it termed "inadmissible" the lack of progress toward a political settlement of the deadlocked conflict between Abkhazia and the central Georgian government. The resolution also called on both sides to demonstrate their renewed commitment to the peace process. Speaking in Moscow on 29 January, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed regret that greater progress toward reconciliation has been made in Tajikistan than in Abkhazia. LF

...AS GEORGIA SEEKS TO AVOID NEW HOSTILITIES

Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze told journalists that he is ready to travel to Sukhumi for talks with the Abkhaz authorities in an attempt to prevent a further escalation of tensions on the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, Caucasus Press reported on 1 February. Last week three Abkhaz were shot dead in a clash at the border, and two more Abkhaz men were apprehended by Georgian forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 January 2000). The Abkhaz authorities have proposed releasing seven Georgians recently taken hostage in the region in exchange for the two wounded men and the bodies of their comrades. Lortkipanidze denied rumors that Georgia is preparing a new invasion of Abkhazia. LF

PROTESTING PENSIONERS FINED IN KAZAKHSTAN

Some of the participants in demonstrations by pensioners on 30 January in Almaty and seven other cities in Kazakhstan have received court summonses, and two of them have been fined 4,000 tenges (about $20) for participating in an unsanctioned public gathering, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported on 1 February. Two men were detained in Qaraghandy, while in Qostanay, more than 1,500 took part in the protest. Pensioners stage such protests regularly on the 30th day of the month to demand an improvement in living standards. LF

TAJIKISTAN DENIES SIGNING COOPERATION AGREEMENT WITH TALEBAN

Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry on 31 January issued an official statement rejecting as untrue a report published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 29 January, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 1 February. That report claimed that the Tajik government and the Taleban signed an agreement on 21 January whereby Tajikistan would undertake to modernize Afghanistan's energy sector. The Tajik Foreign Ministry statement made it clear that the agreement referred to was concluded between the Tajik state company Barqi Tojik and the charge d'affaires in Dushanbe of the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. LF

EU DEPLORES EXECUTIONS IN UZBEKISTAN

The EU on 31 January issued a statement condemning the executions in Uzbekistan of six men found guilty of participating in the terrorist bombings in Tashkent last February, Reuters reported. The statement called on Tashkent to introduce a moratorium on executions as a first step toward abolishing the death penalty. LF




BELARUSIAN VENDORS DEMAND END TO 'ROBBERY' OF SMALL BUSINESSES

Some 1,500 outdoor market vendors held a rally in Minsk on 31 January to protest the authorities' policies with regard to small businesses, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. The rally was organized under the slogans "Stop robbing entrepreneurs!" and "Private ownership is untouchable." Protestors demanded that the authorities revoke value-added tax for small businesses as well as the fines for administrative offenses that were recently increased tenfold. The rally also demanded that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka "stop the genocide of his nation" and resign. Former Premier Mikhail Chyhir told the rally that the state is deliberately pursuing a policy aimed at destroying Belarusian entrepreneurship. Beginning 1 February, Belarusian outdoor market vendors are to stage a month-long nationwide strike. JM

BELARUS'S UPPER HOUSE APPROVES ELECTORAL CODE

The Council of the Republic on 31 January passed an electoral code. Both the OSCE and the Belarusian opposition had requested that the code be drawn up by means of a political dialogue, but the authorities refused to start negotiations with the opposition. Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau said the same day that Belarus is ready to hold free and democratic parliamentary elections under the new code. Martynau also accused the opposition of refusing to negotiate with the government. Meanwhile, a deputy of the Chamber of Representatives has announced he will initiate legislative hearings on the "expediency" of allowing missions of international organizations to function in Minsk. Such missions, he argued, "destabilize the situation in Belarus and misinform" Europe about the situation in the country, Belapan reported. JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZES TELEVISION'S PERFORMANCE

Lukashenka on 31 January criticized Belarusian Television for its slow progress toward improving the quality of its programs, Belapan reported. Lukashenka noted that most Belarusians prefer Russian television channels to their national one. He blamed this state of affairs on the lack of competition within Belarusian Television, adding that he has already instructed the government to examine launching a second national television channel. According to Interfax, that idea is opposed by Deputy Premier Uladzimir Zamyatalin, who argues that Belarus lacks the personnel to maintain two television channels at a good professional level. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT AGAIN HOLDS PARALLEL SESSIONS

The Supreme Council is holding two parallel sessions: 157 deputies from the leftist minority convened in the parliamentary building, while 246 deputies from the center- right majority gathered in the Ukrainian House exhibition center, Interfax reported on 1 February. The parliament building is being picketed by several thousand people from the two camps, whom police troops are keeping apart. Some 600 people gathered in front of the Ukrainian House to give support to the parliamentary majority, which is expected to elect a new speaker, deputy speakers, and heads of parliamentary committees. JM

UKRAINE'S MOROZ SAYS PRESIDENT SEEKS DICTATORSHIP

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz told Interfax on 31 January that the current parliamentary crisis was initiated by the executive in order to introduce a dictatorship. According to Moroz, President Leonid Kuchma is looking for a motive to dissolve the parliament, hold early elections, and form a submissive legislature. Moroz added that the activities of the parliamentary majority are punishable under the Criminal Code. The president may disband the parliament if it fails to convene a legitimate session within a 30-day period. JM

CRIMEAN LEGISLATURE SLATES CABINET'S PERFORMANCE

The Crimean Supreme Council on 1 February passed a resolution saying that the work of the Crimean autonomous government, headed by Serhiy Kunitsyn, is unsatisfactory, Interfax reported. Following a long-standing impasse (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 January 2000), the 100-seat Crimean legislature succeeded in gathering a quorum of 52 deputies to open the new session. Most commentators see the current legislative crisis on the peninsula as a power play between Crimean Premier Kunitsyn and parliamentary speaker Leonid Hrach. President Kuchma spoke with both politicians by telephone the previous day, urging them "to find a mutual understanding," according to Interfax. JM

RUSSOPHONE PARTY ATTACKS ESTONIAN INTEGRATION PLAN

United Peoples Party (EURP) leader Viktor Andrejev has attacked the Estonian government's integration program as biased. Andrejev complained that "the concept of the program is based on the wrong assumption that integration is only a one-way process in which the ethnically non-Estonian part of the society would adopt the Estonian language," BNS reported. Andrejev heavily criticized citizenship polices and the gradual integration of Russian-language schools into the mainstream education system. Andrejev's party favors granting citizenship en masse to all residents and the adoption of Russian as an official language, thus removing the need for integration. The EURP and its allies have only five seats in the parliament. MH

ISRAELI ARMS SAGA NEARS AN END IN ESTONIA

The Estonian government on 26-28 January redeemed the final set of bonds issued to pay for a massive arms purchase from Israel in 1993. The final payment totaled some $7.1 million, meaning that the total purchase expenditure, including interest, was $60.4 million, "Eesti Paevaleht" reported. The purchase price of the arms was about $49 million. However, accountants believe Estonia has overpaid the TAAS weapons manufacturer in Israel owing to the poor calculation of interest to be paid: according to one unidentified accountant, Tallinn has overpaid to the tune of $900,000- $2.5 million. Several ministries are investigating the matter. Meanwhile, there has been repeated criticism about the quality of the weapons and their suitability for Estonia: for example, questions have been raised about weaponry designed for desert combat being used in a harsh north European climate. MH

LATVIAN ARMS SMUGGLERS CONVICTED IN CALCUTTA

British arms smuggler Peter Bleach and his five-strong aircrew from Latvia were convicted in a Calcutta courtroom on 31 January. LETA reported that a Russian consular official said the men were found guilty of arms smuggling but escaped conviction for the capital crime of inciting warfare against the Indian state. Their sentence will be announced on 2 February. The five crewmembers, who took Russian citizenship during their detention, were caught during an operation in December 1995. They intend to appeal the verdict. MH

LITHUANIAN PARTIES UNITE OVER NATO INTEGRATION

The five largest political parties in Lithuania have signed a communique pledging to "spare no effort" in the country's bid to join NATO, BNS reported. The five parties--the Conservatives, the Christian Democratic Party, the Center Union, the Social Democratic Party, and the Democratic Labor Party--hold nearly all the seats in the parliament. In the communique, they oppose a petition drive to scale back defense spending by 148 million litas ($37 million) and divert those funds to education. The non-parliamentary New Alliance (Social Liberals) is behind that petition drive (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2000), which parliamentary speaker Vytautas Landsbergis called an attempt "to thwart Lithuania's NATO membership bid." MH

POLISH ECONOMY CONTINUES TO GROW

Central Statistical Office Chairman Tadeusz Toczynski said on 31 January that Poland's GDP rose by 4.1 percent last year, compared with 4.8 per cent in 1998, PAP reported. Toczynski noted that economic growth began to accelerate in the second quarter of 1999 largely owing to a rise in industrial production. Under this year's budget law, GDP is expected to grow by 5.2 percent. Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz commented that 4.1 percent growth is a "good result on an international scale" and expressed confidence that Poland will speed up its growth in 2000. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said last week that Poland is poised for growth of 5- 6 percent over the next two years, but it warned about the country's growing inflation rate and its difficulties in financing the large current account deficit. JM

SLOVAKIA'S MECIAR CONFIDENT OF RETURN TO POWER

Former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar said on 31 January that early elections are a "normal democratic mechanism" and that he is confident the public will support the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia in its drive for a referendum on an early ballot. In an interview with CTK, Meciar said the only thing he remains uncertain about is "whether to assume direct responsibility" as premier or "to rule indirectly, through someone else." He said he will return as cabinet head only if "the electoral victory is so large as to make it irresponsible for me not to take over the premiership, or if the crisis demands that I come back." Meciar said the present coalition is disintegrating and the "only thing that keeps them together is the fear that we shall return to power and hold them legally responsible." MS

HUNGARIAN RAIL WORKERS STRIKE AGAIN

Railway workers launched an indefinite strike at midnight on 1 February after negotiations with the Hungarian State Railway Company (MAV) that lasted some 160 hours failed to break a deadlock on wages and collective contracts, Hungarian media report. The railway workers' trade unions proposed a 10.78 percent wage increase and agreed to some 800 people being laid off this year, but MAV rejected those proposals. Railway workers had staged a 60-hour strike on 10-12 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2000), which resulted in MAV losing some 350 million forints ($1.4 million). MSZ




CROATIAN PARTIES AGREE ON COMMITTEE ASSIGNMENTS

Leaders of the largest parties and coalitions represented in the parliament agreed in Zagreb on 31 January on the division of top committee assignments. Deputies from the main two-party coalition will chair 10 committees and hold the deputy chair of another 10. Legislators from the smaller four-party coalition will chair four committees and hold the deputy position on another three. Deputies belonging to the opposition Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) will chair five committees and hold the deputy chair of an additional six. Legislators belonging to the two governing coalitions will have a two-thirds majority on all committees, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

GERMANY TO PROMOTE TIES TO CROATIA

Christopher Zoepel, who is state secretary in the German Foreign Ministry, said in Zagreb on 31 January that Berlin wants to help Croatia carry out democratic reforms and improve relations with the West. He invited Prime Minister Ivica Racan to visit Germany on 16 February, AP reported. Germany played a key role in obtaining international support for Croatia after the latter declared independence in 1991. Relations subsequently cooled because of the ruling HDZ's persistent refusal to democratize according to European standards. Romano Prodi, who heads the European Commission, recently visited Zagreb to encourage reform. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will make a brief stopover in Croatia on 2 February. PM

MESIC CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION OF CAMPAIGN FUNDING

Stipe Mesic, who is the four-party coalition's candidate for the Croatian presidency in the 7 February runoff election, told reporters in Zagreb on 31 January that he will investigate the financing of all previous presidential elections if he wins. He said that the investigation will include the 1992 campaign of Drazen Budisa, who is Mesic's rival in the current race. PM

CROATIAN EX-MINISTER IN PRE-TRIAL DETENTION

A judge in Pula ruled on 31 January that former HDZ Minister of Tourism Ivan Herak must remain in detention for one-month pending his trial for embezzlement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2000). The judge added that Herak is not allowed any visitors lest he attempt to "influence witnesses," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

U.S. WARNS MILOSEVIC ON MONTENEGRO

Speaking in Tirana on 31 January, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering warned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic not to intervene militarily in Montenegro. Pickering said that "any further conflict in the region should be avoided," Reuters reported. He stressed that "we are prepared to stand firm against any military actions of Milosevic's in the region." In related news, U.S. officials in Washington promised visiting Montenegrin Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic a considerable aid package aimed at promoting democratic reforms and shoring up the economy. PM

MONTENEGRINS STILL SPLIT ON INDEPENDENCE

In Podgorica on 31 January, pro-Milosevic members of traditional clans staged a protest "so that the entire international community can see whom the people of Montenegro really support," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. In Belgrade, Predrag Bulatovic, who is a leader of pro-Milosevic Montenegrins, called the independence-oriented Montengrin Orthodox Church "a sect." A recent poll, however, suggests that some 42 percent of Montenegrins want independence, while 40 percent oppose it, "Danas" noted. The number of supporters of independence has increased in recent months. PM

SERBIAN POLICE TRY TO PREVENT NEWSPAPER FROM PUBLISHING

Some 16 police entered the Belgrade offices of the independent daily "Glas Javnosti" on 31 January to prevent staff from printing that day's edition, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2000). Undeterred, staff used a back-up press in a different part of the building to print the newspaper, which subsequently appeared on the streets. PM

STRIKES IN SERBIA

A strike by private bus drivers led to a "collapse in transportation" in the Serbian capital on 31 January, the Belgrade daily "Danas" reported. The city bus company was unable to meet the demand of additional passengers prompted by the non-appearance of 500 private buses. The private drivers want government approval to increase fares by almost 200 percent. Meanwhile in communities throughout Serbia, the majority of teachers in elementary and secondary schools staged a strike to demand back wages. The Education Ministry promised to pay the money immediately, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

NOVI SAD DEFIES MILOSEVIC

The city authorities of Novi Sad are slated to launch work on reconstructing a bridge across the Danube on 1 February, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. Belgrade opposes the move and denied visas to 27 foreign journalists, who wanted to cover the story (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2000). The city council protested the decision not to issue visas, "Vesti" reported. PM

MORE EU FUEL ARRIVES IN SERBIA

Some 100 tons of heating oil arrived in the southern city of Pirot on 30 January as part of the EU's Energy for Democracy program. A spokesman for the city government told AP that he expects the oil to continue to arrive until "the heating season" ends in the spring. PM

SERBIA'S ALBANIANS WANT INTERNATIONAL MONITORS

Officials of the Party for Democratic Activity (PDD), which represents some 100,000 ethnic Albanians in areas of southern Serbia bordering Kosova, said on 31 January in Presevo that they want UN and OSCE monitors to come to that town and to Bujanovac and Medvedja. The PDD charged that Serbian special police have sought to intimidate local Albanians and have created tensions in the region. The party wants the police to leave the area, "Danas" reported. PM

KOSOVAR SHADOW-STATE PARLIAMENT MISSES DEADLINE TO DISSOLVE

Deputies to the former underground Kosovar parliament did not dissolve their assembly on 31 January in Prishtina, as the UN-led civilian administration had expected. Some deputies said that they want more time to consider a possible future for that body and to discuss what to do with the funds collected by the shadow-state. A UN spokeswoman said that there is no great urgency for local leaders to work out the details of the dissolution of their institutions. She added, however, that the UN expects them to do so as soon as possible. Observers note that the UN wants its administration to be the only one in the province. PM

EX-GUERRILLAS QUIT KOSOVA PROTECTION CORPS

An unspecified number of former members of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) in Podujeva have given up membership in the UN-sponsored civilian Kosova Protection Corps (KPC), "Danas" reported on 1 February. The men said that the corps is not living up to "the expectations of the UCK regarding how to defend Kosova." Observers note that the differences reflect the contrast between the UN view of the KPC as a civilian work force and the UCK's hope that it will form the core of a new army. PM

ROMANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN FRANCE

Petre Roman met with his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, and European Affairs Minister Pierre Moscovici on 31 January to discuss Romania's quest to join the EU and secure full French backing for that bid, an RFE/RL correspondent in Paris reported. Addressing a student forum earlier that day, Roman said Romania needs to make a "gigantic effort" to qualify for EU membership and, according to the "most optimistic evaluation," will not gain membership before 2007. At a joint press conference with Vedrine, Roman backed the French position on the Austrian coalition talks, saying that nationalist leader Joerg Haider is "offering demagogic and populist solutions" that can bring "nothing to Austria's citizens." MS

ROMANIAN LIBERALS DEMAND EQUALITY WITHIN ALLIANCE

In an interview with the daily "Adevarul" on 31 January, National Liberal Party (PNL) deputy chairman Puiu Hasoti said the PNL "might change its strategy" on its alliance with the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) if a new protocol on the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR) is not signed very soon. Hasoti said the liberals are demanding "equality within the alliance," which he added must have two joint chairmen, one from each of those parties. Also on 31 January, Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) Chairman Ion Iliescu said the emerging Popular Party, which is headed by former Premier Radu Vasile, might be a partner for the PDSR since its pragmatic positions differ from the "fundamentalism" of the PNTCD and of Victor Ciorbea's Christian Democratic National Alliance. MS

MOLDOVAN PARTY CALLS FOR UNION WITH ROMANIA

The extra- parliamentary National Liberal Party (PNL) on 30 January launched an initiative for a Romanian-Moldovan inter-state union modeled on the Russian-Belarus union, Flux reported the next day. Spokesmen for the PNL said at a conference in Chisinau of the party's local branch that there was a growing need for the union, given that Romania will likely join the EU. The conference voted in favor of the Chisinau branch of the Party of Democratic Forces (PFD) joining the PNL; the members of that chapter recently resigned from the PFD. Parliamentary deputy Gheorghe Straisteanu, who quit the PFD, accused that party and its leader, Valeriu Matei, of "power abuse and involvement in dubious businesses." Straisteanu also said that parliamentary chairman Dumitru Diacov, former Premier Ion Sturza and Deputy Premier Nicolae Andronic have all been involved in, or have condoned, corruption. MS

EU SAYS MOLDOVA IS NOT CANDIDATE FOR MEMBERSHIP

European Commission President Romano Prodi, in a letter to Vasile Nedelciuc, chairman of the Moldovan parliament's Foreign Affairs Commission, says it would be "premature" to consider Moldova a candidate for membership in the EU, Romanian Radio reported on 31 January, citing the BBC. Prodi says Moldova has not yet "fully implemented" the partnership and cooperation agreement signed two years ago with the union. MS

BULGARIA TRIES TO SWAP FOREIGN DEBT

Finance Minister Muravei Radev said on 31 January that Bulgaria will try to "swap parts of its [foreign] debt to members of the Paris Club" of creditors, AP reported. Radev, who was speaking at a joint press conference with members of an IMF delegation, did not specify which countries would be involved in such a deal or how much of the debt would be covered. Bulgaria's foreign debt totals $ 9.5 billion, of which $ 5.8 billion are owed to private creditors and $ 3.7 billion to governments and international financial institutions. Sofia owes $910 million to the Paris Club. Yuha Kahkonen, head of the IMF delegation, praised Bulgaria's "sound economic policy" and said the country is now "well positioned for a solid recovery in 2000." MS




TRIAL BALLOON IN YEREVAN


By Liz Fuller

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 19 January, National Democratic Union (AZhM) Chairman Vazgen Manukian proposed that President Robert Kocharian voluntarily resign to allow new presidential elections to be held. Manukian characterized the political situation in Armenia three months after the murder of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian as anarchy and claimed that Kocharian is no longer in control. Allowing the current situation to continue indefinitely, Manukian said, would only cause further damage to the country.

Manukian's remarks represent a shift from his earlier position. In mid-November, he had argued that new presidential and/or parliamentary elections should be held only after the political situation in Armenia has stabilized. Asked why he now advocates new elections, Manukian said that the situation "is swiftly deteriorating" and that a solution is urgently needed.

But leaders of other parties represented in parliament responded either ambivalently or negatively to Manukian's proposal. The two parties that are most closely linked with the current president--the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), which backed his successful presidential bid in 1998 and Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law), which is reportedly partly financed by the head of Kocharian's National Security Council, former Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian--rejected the idea of holding new elections.

Orinats Yerkir leader Artur Baghdasarian said that "there are no legal or political grounds" for the president's resignation, nor is there any guarantee that a new poll would be free and fair. Both Orinats Yerkir and the ARFD made the point that measures to improve the social and economic situation in Armenia would contribute more to stabilization than would new elections.

But the majority Miasnutiun parliamentary faction, which despite both sides' repeated disclaimers is widely perceived as mistrustful of Kocharian, did not endorse Manukian's call for a new poll either. Miasnutiun faction head Andranik Markarian told RFE/RL that the president's resignation should be treated as an option only if "there are serious political grounds." The only other political party leader to advocate a pre-term presidential poll is the new Communist Party First Secretary Vladimir Darbinian, who told journalists in mid- January that such a vote would contribute to stability.

There are, however, credible explanations both for Manukian's proposal to hold new presidential elections and for other politicians' ambivalent response. Manukian may be proceeding on the assumption that if a new poll were held within the next few months, he would stand a good chance of recapturing the "protest" vote against the economic status quo. That vote had almost propelled him to the presidency in 1996, but two years, in the 1998 presidential poll later, he had forfeited it to former Armenian Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchian. By contrast, Miasnutiun would be hard put at present to field a candidate who could compete with Manukian in a fair poll. Its two charismatic leaders, Demirchian and former Premier Vazgen Sargsian, were both victims of the 27 October parliament shootings, and new Premier Aram Sargsian (Vazgen's brother) has not yet proven to be either a strong personality or a decisive and competent economic manager.

In addition, delaying the new poll would give Miasnutiun time to draft and submit to a nationwide referendum in May its planned amendments to the present constitution significantly curtailing the president's sweeping powers.

Delaying a new presidential poll until after the planned referendum could also result in significant changes in the present alignment of political forces. Veteran political commentator David Petrosian defines that alignment as follows: 1) the pro-Kocharian camp, which includes the ARFD, Orinats Yerkir, "Right and Accord," the Ramkavar-Azatakan Party, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic; 2) Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, Minister for Industrial Infrastructures Vahan Shirkhanian, the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, some senior Defense and Interior Ministry officials, and the Miasnutiun parliament faction (Communist Party leader Vladimir Darpinian recently hinted that he might align with Miasnutiun); 3) supporters of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, including the upper echelons of the Armenian Pan National Movement and the 21st Century Party, led by Ter-Petrossian's former National Security adviser David Shahnazarian; and 4) the army, together with Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian and Interior Minister Hayk Harutiunian.

Petrosian observes that the third group is trying to coopt the second, which he characterizes as lacking intellectual potential. He also notes that the first three groups are vying for the support of the army. If the second and third groups were to field separate presidential candidates, Vahan Shirkhanian and Karen Demirchian's son Stepan might emerge as possible candidates from the premier's entourage. On 21 January, Stepan Demirchian was elected acting chairman of the People's Party of Armenia, which his father founded.

If, however, those two groups join forces, one candidate who might prove acceptable to both is Armen Sarkisian, who served briefly as premier in 1996-1997 before resigning on health grounds and who is currently Armenian ambassador to the U.K. Petrosian has suggested that the primary purpose of Prime Minister Sargsian's visit to London earlier this month was to ascertain whether Armen Sarkisian would be willing to run for the presidency.


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