Accessibility links

Newsline - February 15, 2000




PUTIN, THE SAVER, BECOMES OFFICIAL CANDIDATE

The Central Election Commission voted to register acting President Vladimir Putin as an official candidate for the 26 March presidential elections. The vote followed the verification of signatures submitted in support of Putin's candidacy and of the income and property declarations for Putin and his family. According to his personal declaration, Putin earned 265,699 rubles ($9,200) in 1998-1999, while his wife Lyudmila earned 43,167 rubles. The couple owns two plots of land and a country home in Leningrad Oblast and one plot of land in Moscow. Their Moscow apartment is owned by the government. Vladimir Putin has three accounts worth 386,999 rubles in Sberbank, Promstroibank, and Baltiiskii Bank. Lyudmila Putin has 10,323 rubles in Sberbank. Fellow candidate and Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov's earnings last year were 46 percent higher, but the Zyuganovs have only 33,544 rubles in the bank (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2000) JAC

ELECTION COMMISSION TO WARN THE MEDIA...

Russia's Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov announced on 14 February that the commission plans to investigate complaints about media appearances made by acting President Putin and Communist Party leader Zyuganov. Examples cited were Putin's participation in a question-and-answer session with readers of "Komsomolskaya pravda" and the publication of Zyuganov's election program in "Pravda" and "Zavtra," according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 15 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2000). Under Russian election law, campaigning may not begin until 23 February in the print media and 6 March in broadcast media. Veshnyakov said that "most likely, complaints will be addressed to the media outlets, not the candidates." The Media Ministry has already issued a reprimand to the government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" over a 4 February article announcing that 1 million people have signed petitions supporting Putin's candidacy, AP reported. JAC

...AS LOW VOTER TURNOUT FEARED FOR PRESIDENTIAL RACE

Chairman of the State Duma's Committee for Credit Organizations and Financial Markets Aleksandr Shokhin told reporters on 14 February that he is not excluding the possibility that the first round of presidential elections will be declared invalid because of low voter turn-out. Shokhin added that in such an event, a new election would take place four months later. Noting that the constitution does not allow an acting president to stay in office for more than three months, he commented that acting President Putin and his supporter might to decide to stage a coup. Shokhin earlier predicted former President Boris Yeltsin's dismissal of then Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov and also Yeltsin's resignation at the end of last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2000). JAC

FEDERAL FORCES PREPARE TO TAKE ARGUN

Having established control over the Vedeno gorge last weekend, Moscow is concentrating its forces to attack the Argun gorge, where an estimated 3,000 Chechen fighters are concentrated, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said in Moscow on 14 February. Kremlin Chechnya spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said on 14 February that in the previous 24 hours Russian forces had repelled an attempt by Chechen fighters to break out of the village of Gekhi-Chu, which he said is surrounded by federal forces. Interfax on 14 February quoted Chechen sources as saying that fierce fighting was under way in the vicinity of the southern villages of Itum-Kale and Duba-Yurt. Those reports have not been confirmed. LF

RUSSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS SAY BABITSKII VIDEO FAKED

Glasnost Fund Chairman Sergei Griroryants said in Moscow on 14 February that the video footage allegedly showing RFE/RL journalist Andrei Babitskii being handed over by Russian troops to unidentified masked men is a "crude fabrication," AP reported. Grigoriyants pointed out that the first few minutes show Babitskii's face and a snow-covered highway, while in the second part Babitskii is filmed from the side of a roadway where the snow is almost completely melted. Also on 14 February, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev said in response to a question from Interfax that he cannot confirm rumors that Babitskii has left Russia for Istanbul and Warsaw. Acting President Putin told journalists in Moscow on 15 February that he is in contact with those officials dealing with the Babitskii case, who, he said, "are doing all they can" to secure the release of Babitskii unharmed, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

GANTEMIROV HORS DE COMBAT

Pro-Russian Chechen militia commander and first deputy plenipotentiary of the Russian government in Chechnya Beslan Gantemirov is currently in a military clinic near Moscow "receiving treatment for old wounds," according to "Trud" of 15 February. LF

RUSSIA'S CREDIT RATING TO RISE...

Following the agreement between London Club creditors and the Russian government, the international credit agency Fitch ICBA placed Russian Eurobonds on a "RatingAlert positive," Interfax reported on 14 February. According the agency, the alert means that Russia's credit rating maybe be upgraded after the agency completes its review of the economic and political situation in the country. According to "Kommersant-Daily" the next day, Russia will not receive a new rating before the end of March. Analysts believe that a higher rating will depend on three factors: a favorable outcome of the Russian presidential elections from the point of view of Western countries, a restructuring agreement with the Paris Club, and the normalization of Russia's relations with international financial organizations such as the IMF, the newspaper reported. JAC

...AS GOVERNMENT PREPARES TO RE-ENTER WORLD CAPITAL MARKETS

In an interview with "Vedomosti" on 14 February, First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said that Russia will be able to re-enter world capital markets, probably in 2001, once it reaches an agreement with Paris Club creditors along the lines of its recent agreement with the London Club (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2000). Earlier this month, Bella Zlatkis, the head of the Finance Ministry's Domestic Debt department, said the ministry was drafting a proposal on issuing new treasury bills or GKOs for the domestic market. The cabinet is expected to make a decision on the proposal on 17 February. JAC

CLINTON SAYS U.S. CAN DO BUSINESS WITH PUTIN...

In a question-and-answer session conducted with CNN viewers on 14 February, U.S. President Bill Clinton said "Based on what I have seen so far, I think that the United States can do business with [Russian acting President Putin]. I think he is obviously intelligent, he is highly motivated, he has strong views. We don't agree with him on everything. But what I have seen of him so far indicates to me that he is capable of being a very strong and effective and straightforward leader." On the topic of Chechnya, Clinton said Russia made a mistake in ruling out negotiations with Chechen officials and adopting tactics that have caused high civilian casualties. Earlier in the month, the U.S. administration submitted a draft budget to Congress that set aside $162 million of assistance for Russia in 2001 or 9 percent less than the previous year, ITAR-TASS reported on 9 February. JAC

...WHILE BUSH THE YOUNGER RECOMMENDS LINKING IMF FUNDS TO CHECHNYA

Meanwhile, U.S. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush Jr. told NBC on 13 February that the U.S. should have cut off aid to Russia because of what he called the slaughter of innocent women and children in Chechnya. Bush said that Washington should have taken a firmer stand on IMF loans to Russia as well as on export and import credits because of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya. He added that it is too early to pass judgement on Putin. JAC

TWO GUILTY PLEAS EXPECTED IN BONY CASE

Two major suspects in the Bank of New York (BONY) scandal have agreed to plead guilty to charges of money-laundering, "The New York Times" reported on 15 February citing only "a person close to the investigation." The suspects, Lucy Edwards and her husband, Peter Berlin, are also reportedly willing to forfeit their claims to $8 million seized from their personal bank accounts. Last month, federal authorities issued their first indictment in the case against Svetlana Kudryavtseva, a former BONY employee, for making false statements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2000). JAC

INDUSTRIAL OUTPUT KEEPS ON GROWING

Industrial production grew 10.7 percent in January 2000 compared with the same month the previous year, according to the State Statistics Committee, Interfax reported on 14 February. However, January's output fell 7.9 percent, compared with December 1999. During the last six months of 1999, industrial output grew consistently, compared with the same months the previous year: December 1999 saw output rise 11.1 percent, November 12.9 percent, October 10.3 percent, September 20.2 percent, August 16.0 percent, and July 12.8 percent. JAC

SERIOUS CRIMES, ECONOMIC CRIMES SOAR

According to data from the Interior Ministry, the number of registered crimes more than doubled in 1999, compared with the previous year, Interfax reported on 14 February. In addition, more than half of the registered crimes--61.6 percent--fall into the category of serious crimes. Various regions experienced a particularly dramatic increase in the number of these crimes, including the Republics of Tuva (69.1 percent) and Marii El (68.9 percent), as well as Kaluga (71.7 percent), Chelyabinsk (69.4 percent), Kaliningrad (68.4), Sverdlovsk (68.4 percent), and Amur (68.2 percent) Oblasts. Last year, the number of "economic" crimes grew by 20.4 percent. The share of economic crimes of the total crimes committed rose from 9.8 percent in 1998 to 10.1 percent in 1999. JAC

IVASHOV ARGUES U.S. MISSILE DEFENSE PLAN DIRECTED AGAINST RUSSIA, CHINA...

In an interview with Reuters on 14 February, Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry's international relations department, slammed the U.S. for what he suggested are attempts to dupe Russia about its plans for a limited national defense system. "To say such an expensive system is being developed to intercept Iranian or Iraqi missiles heading north and to intercept possibly one or two North Korean missiles--it's an argument for the naive or stupid," Ivashov commented. The system, he argued, "will be directed against Russia and against China," and he added that Moscow will find ways to respond if it is deployed. Ivashov went on to propose that one solution would be to put plans on hold and secure guarantees from so-called "rogue states" not to develop long- range missiles. "Russia is prepared to help in this process," he remarked. JC

...SAYS NATO PAYING FOR MISTAKES IN KOSOVA

Referring to the recent violence in Mitrovica, where two ethnic Albanians died and others, including Serbs and French peacekeepers, were wounded, Ivashov said NATO is now paying for the mistakes it made in Kosova: "They did not listen to any of our arguments when we asked how it is possible to set up an armed force on a blank sheet--a force which demands the secession of the region from the Yugoslav federation." Ivashov also said Russia is ready to revive ties with the alliance but the conditions must be right. "We stress this cooperation must be on equal terms in the European security sphere," he said. Meanwhile, Russian news agencies quoted unnamed diplomatic sources in Moscow and Brussels as saying NATO Secretary- General Lord Robertson will meet with acting President Putin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and Defense Minister Sergeev in Moscow on 16 February. JC

RUSSIAN-CHINESE TRADE GREW 4 PERCENT LAST YEAR

Citing Chinese Trade Ministry figures released in that country's press, ITAR-TASS reported on 14 February that Russian-Chinese trade grew by some 4 percent last year to reach $5.7 billion. According to unidentified experts, Chinese imports from Russia have increased, particularly timber, steel, and fertilizers. Exports to Russia, meanwhile, have declined by 18.5 percent owing to the "sluggish market demand" in that country. The news agency notes that Russia is one of China's top 10 trading partners, with Japan, the U.S., and the EU heading that list. JC




DASHNAKS SAY ECONOMIC CRISIS THREATENS ARMENIA'S SECURITY

In a statement adopted last weekend at the end of a two-week congress, members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation- Dashnaktsutiun warned that the ongoing socio-economic crisis threatens Armenia's security and statehood, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 14 February. The 100 or so delegates from Armenia and the diaspora also warned that Armenia should not give way to what they termed "a diplomatic attack by great- power forces" trying to impose unfavorable conditions for a solution to the Karabakh conflict. Elected to the post of party Bureau "representative," or chairman, was Iranian-born Hrant Markarian, one of several party members arrested following the December 1994 ban on the party's activities. Markarian was tried and convicted in 1997 for illegal possession of arms but amnestied the following year following the advent to power of now President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 1998). LF

AZERBAIJAN'S FOREIGN MINISTER SETS RECORD STRAIGHT ON SECURITY PACT

Vilayet Guliev has denied proposing that Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey should create a military alliance, according to Turan on 12 February and Interfax on 14 February. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 February had quoted Guliev as advocating such a pact, and Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ara Papyan on 11 February expressed concern that such an alliance would destabilize and polarize the entire southern Caucasus, according to AP. Guliev explained that his original statement about the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey all supporting the concept of a stability pact for the Caucasus was misinterpreted. Meanwhile on 14 February, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili said Tbilisi is considering the possibility of declaring Georgia a neutral state as one possible means of ensuring its security, Caucasus Press reported. LF

NEW AZERBAIJANI MEDIA LAW FINALLY MADE PUBLIC

The Azerbaijani state press has finally published the full text of the country's controversial new media legislation, which was signed into law by President Heidar Aliyev in December, Turan reported on 14 February. The final version of the law does not include amendments that the Council of Europe proposed, arguing that the original draft contained provisions that violate international guarantees of freedom of expression. Both Azerbaijani and international journalists' organizations had criticized the original draft, which empowers local authorities to withdraw publications from sale without first obtaining a court ruling. LF

TWO AZERBAIJANI OIL OFFICIALS DETAINED

Tofik Akhundov, who heads the division of Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR responsible for main-stream pipelines, and his deputy, Rizvan Vahabov, were detained late last week on suspicion of the illegal sale of crude oil in 1993-1995, Turan and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported on 14 February. Vahabov played a key role in 1993 in ensuring the return to Baku of then Nakhichevan Supreme Council chairman and current President Heidar Aliev. LF

AZERBAIJANI, GEORGIAN PRESIDENTS PLEDGE SUPPORT FOR BAKU- CEYHAN

Speaking in Washington on 14 February at the start of an official visit, President Aliyev said that Azerbaijan will begin construction of the planned Baku-Ceyhan export pipeline for Caspian oil "very soon," AP reported. To date, it is not clear who will provide the estimated $2.4 billion needed for the project. In Tbilisi, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told Georgian national radio the same day that Georgia "will meet all its commitments" with regard to building that pipeline, according to Interfax. Arriving in Baku on 14 February for talks on the pipeline project, Georgian Foreign Minister Menagharishvili played down the unresolved dispute over Georgia's demand that it receive $0.20 in transit fees per barrel for oil pumped through the Georgian stretch of the pipeline. LF

TBILISI METRO EXPLOSION NOT A TERORIST ATTACK

Georgian police said on 14 February that the explosion at a Tbilisi metro station earlier that day that injured several people was caused by a home-made hand grenade thrown by a teenager, Caucasus Press reported. Police are investigating the incident, but no arrests have yet been made. LF

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION PROPOSES POSTPONING PARLIAMENTARY POLL

Meeting in Bishkek on 14 February, representatives of the opposition Ar-Namys (Honor) Party, El (Bei-Bechara), the Republican Party, the Labor-Popular Party and a coalition of NGOs appealed to the government to postpone the parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 February, RFE/RL's bureau in the Kyrgyz capital reported. None of the parties to the appeal has been registered to contest the poll, which they suggest should be held concurrently with the presidential election due in December (see "End Note" below). Also on 14 February, an unnamed member of the Ar-Namys leadership told RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau that Kyrgyz government officials and members of the presidential administration will be sent to rural areas to help ensure the election victory of pro-government candidates. LF

NEW UZBEK DEFENSE MINISTER NAMED

President Islam Karimov on 14 February appointed Lieutenant General Yurii Agzamov to the post of defense minister, Interfax reported. Agzamov, who is 50, previously served as deputy defense minister and commander of the south-western special military district. He replaces Khikmatulla Tursunov, who failed to retain his post when Karimov named his new cabinet last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2000). Also on 14 February, the U.S. delivered to Tashkent 12 military transport vehicles worth $2.65 million, the first such U.S. government-funded sale of U.S. military equipment to Uzbekistan, Reuters reported. LF




BELARUSIAN DRIVERS BLOCK CHECKPOINT AT RUSSIAN BORDER

On 13 February, some 300 Belarusian truck drivers blocked the Brest-Moscow highway for five hours at a checkpoint on the Russian border to protest the amount of time Russian customs officials take to check their documents, Belarusian Television reported the next day. The line of vehicles on the Belarusian side of the border stretched back some six kilometers. According to Belarus's State Customs Committee, the main reason for the protest is the Russian requirement that Belarusian drivers buy "special permits" to enter Russia. The committee made no other comment about the protest action. JM

BELARUSIAN YOUTH FRONT MARKS ST. VALENTINE'S DAY IN MINSK

Some 1,000 young people on 14 February took part in a Minsk march and a rally organized by the opposition Youth Front under the slogan "Belarus to Europe!" Belapan reported. Earlier the same day, the Youth Front handed an appeal to 12 embassies in Minsk calling for international support and solidarity with Belarus's youth, which, it said, "is in favor of a free, democratic, and truly European Belarus." JM

UKRAINE OFFERS DEBT RESTRUCTURING TERMS...

Premier Viktor Yushchenko and Finance Minister Ihor Mityukov made an offer in London on 14 February to restructure the country's external commercial debt. The deal would lengthen by seven years the period of maturity for bonds issued by Ukraine. Those bonds are worth $2.7 billion and have a 10-11 percent annual interest rate. Mityukov said the proposed terms are "the best offer Ukraine can make today to foreign investors," according to Interfax. JM

...DENIES MISUSING IMF FUNDS

Yushchenko denied that the government had misused IMF funds intended to shore up the country's foreign exchange reserves (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2000), the "Financial Times" reported on 15 February. Yushchenko also denied earlier allegations by former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko that President Leonid Kuchma's inner circle made as much as $200 million from the misuse of IMF funds in 1997 and 1998 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2000). Yushchenko outlined his economic program, which is based on a restrictive fiscal policy, a tough budget, an end to tax exemptions and privileges, and the introduction of a new pension system. He added that by the end of April, the restructuring of collective farms will be complete, and he pledged to press ahead with large-scale privatization. JM

UKRAINE DENIES VIOLATING LANGUAGE RIGHTS OF RUSSIANS

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has said that Russian officials' accusations about the violation of the language rights of Russians in Ukraine are "groundless," Interfax reported on 14 February. The ministry was responding to criticism of the Ukrainian government's resolution on language policies that was recently voiced by the Russian Foreign Ministry and Oleg Mironov, Russia's commissioner for human rights (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 15 February 2000). "The organizers of the [criticism] campaign...are essentially accusing the Ukrainian authorities of the intent to ensure for all citizens the inalienable and natural right to use their native language in all spheres of public life, to revive and reinforce the [Ukrainian] national identity that was being uprooted during the decades of forced Russification," the Ukrainian ministry noted. JM

DEBATE CONTINUES IN ESTONIA OVER STUDENT CONSCRIPTION

The parliamentary National Defense Committee on 14 February continued its debate on the conscription of university students, "Postimees" reported. Committee chairman Tiit Tammsaar said that one possibility being considered now is to allow matriculating students to choose when to do military service within a time frame of either three or six years. Currently, the prevailing idea is for students to serve before matriculation, which has provoked protests from students and the pro-business Reform Party, a member of the ruling coalition. The committee rejected a Reform Party proposal to cut students' service to four-six months. Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry Chancellor Indrek Tarand told Tartu University students that those who have completed military service will have a better chance of getting a job at the ministry. MH

ESTONIAN GOVERNMENT SETS ECONOMIC PRIORITIES

Endorsing Estonia's annual memorandum with the IMF, Prime Minister Mart Laar and Central Bank President Vahur Kraft on 11 February established the country's economic priorities for this year. Most significant, the budget deficit is put at 1.25 percent of GDP--a departure from the longstanding policy of not planning a budget deficit. The government stated that while the 2000 budget is balanced on paper, carryovers from 1999 will cause the minor deficit, BNS reported. The memorandum also backed the privatization of Estonian Railways and Narva Power Plants (for the latter, the government is close to concluding a deal with the U.S.'s NRG Energy). MH

U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT WITHHOLDS EVIDENCE FROM LITHUANIAN COURT

The U.S. Justice Department is withholding from a Lithuanian appeals court vital information about accused war criminal Aleksandras Lileikis, BNS reported on 14 February. The court received a letter from Eli Rosenbaum, head of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI), nearly three months after the OSI first refused to provide evidence in the case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 September 1999). According to BNS, appeals court judge Valdimaras Bavejanas said Rosenbaum's letter discussed the "bitter experience gained in the process of cooperation between the U.S. and Lithuanian governments," which, Rosenbaum said, "indicates that the Lithuanian side is unable to guard secrets." The trial remains suspended pending the submission of the relevant information, and the case is now in limbo owing to the Justice Department's refusal. MH

POLISH POST-COMMUNISTS REMAIN AHEAD IN POPULARITY POLLS

Support for Poland's two main parties, the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), remained constant in February compared with previous months, PAP reported on 14 February, citing the CBOS polling center. A CBOS poll showed that the SLD has 36 percent support and is followed by the AWS, with 16 percent backing. The coalition Freedom Union and the opposition Polish Peasant Party each have 10 percent backing. The extra- parliamentary Labor Union saw its support rise slightly to 5 percent, the threshold for winning parliamentary representation. JM

CZECH SENATORS ASKS RUSSIAN DEPUTIES TO HELP TRACE BABITSKII

Several Czech senators have sent a letter to Russian parliamentary chairman Yegor Stroev asking him to help find RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii, CTK reported on 14 February. The Senators wrote that they would welcome Stroev's explanation on "what has happened in Chechnya and what is going on there." They added that "the whole world wishes Russia happiness and freedom," but the path to happiness and freedom "will also be decided by the fate of one...journalist." Among the signatories are Senate deputy chairmen Petr Pithart (Christian Democratic Party) and Ivan Havlicek (Social Democratic Party), as well as senators representing the Civic Democratic Party, the Civic Democratic Alliance, and the Freedom Union. MS

CZECH PARLIAMENTARY CHAIRMAN AGAIN CRITICIZES EU

In an interview with RFE/RL on 14 February, Vaclav Klaus said he does not want to live in a Europe where there are no borders and where countries are being "dictated" by others as to what governments they must have, "For me..., this already is a reason to emigrate elsewhere," he said. Klaus described the EU sanctions against Austria as "outrageously false, incomprehensible, near-sighted, and superficial" and said Joerg Haider's Freedom Party is "a normal political party in Austria" that has existed for a long time. MS

SLOVAK PREMIER REGISTERS NEW PARTY

Mikulas Dzurinda on 14 February officially registered his new party, the Slovak Democratic Christian Union (SDKU), AP reported. He told journalists the party intends to "win the next elections [and] complete the country's integration into the EU and NATO." Jan Carnogursky, leader of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), which Dzurinda left, said he hopes the SDKU will "find its own agenda" and will not try to attract media attention through attacks on the KDH. On 12 February, Slovak National Party (SNS) chairwoman Anna Malinkova announced that the SNS has expelled deputy chairman Marian Andel, who refused to step down as deputy parliamentary chairman, as demanded by the SNS. Andel is known to be close to former SNS leader Jan Slota, CTK reported. MS

HUNGARIAN RAIL UNIONS END STRIKE

Hungarian rail unions on 14 February ended their 14-day strike, saying they accept a proposed agreement with the Hungarian State Railways Company (MAV). According to the accord, workers will receive a 8.5 percent wage increase this year and inflation-indexed increases over the next three years. MAV still has to sign the agreement, but trade union representatives say they are optimistic that negotiations on remaining questions will be concluded soon. Originally, the unions had demanded a 14 percent pay rise. MSZ

HUNGARY LOOKS FOR EU'S HELP TO DEAL WITH CYANIDE SPILL

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi on 14 February informed EU Expansion Commissioner Guenter Verheugen that Hungary will ask for professional and financial support from the EU in tackling environmental damage caused by the cyanide spill into the Romanian part of the Tisza River. Spokesman Gabor Horvath said the ministry is constantly informing international organizations about what Hungarian officials called "Central Europe's worst ecological disaster" since Chornobyl. The Romanian Environment Ministry announced on 14 February that Romania will not pay compensation to Hungary, but it acknowledged that more than 80 percent of the fish in the Tisza River have perished owing to the cyanide spill. MSZ




EU SUSPENDS BAN ON FLIGHTS TO SERBIA

EU foreign ministers agreed in Brussels on 14 February to suspend for six months the ban on flights to and from Serbia. The ministers also approved a series of measures aimed at making it more difficult for the Serbian elite to travel abroad and "visit their bank accounts," London's "The Independent" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2000). The moves come in response to long-standing requests from the Serbian opposition to lift the flight ban and other sanctions. The opposition argued that ordinary Serbs will be harder hit by the ban than will the regime. The opposition also said that a relaxation of the sanctions would show Serbian voters that the opposition is able to bring benefits to Serbia from Brussels. In Belgrade on 14 February, several opposition spokesmen greeted the decision to suspend the flight ban. PM

BELGRADE AIRPORT SET TO RESUME FLIGHTS

Officials at Belgrade airport said on 14 February that flights can resume within 10 days. The first routes to reopen will be those to Amsterdam, Zurich, Frankfurt, and Rome, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. Observers note that Belgrade-bound air travelers in recent months have had to fly via Montenegro or Banja Luka or else come by bus from Hungary or other neighboring countries. PM

SERBIAN AUTHORITIES CLOSE MONTENEGRIN AIRPORT

The Yugoslav state Tanjug news agency reported on 15 February that Montenegro's small Tivat airport has been temporarily closed "for technical reasons." Reuters quoted Montenegrin media as saying that federal air traffic authorities ordered the closure after monitoring the presence of NATO aircraft in the area. The airport will reopen on 16 February. In the meantime, Montenegro airlines must reroute its civilian flights to Rome, Frankfurt, Zurich, and Ljubljana. PM

YUGOSLAV ARMY DENIES HAVING PARAMILITARIES IN MONTENEGRO

The General Staff said in a statement in Belgrade on 14 February that the army has no paramilitary forces in Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January and 2 February 2000). The document called recent charges to that effect made by several Montenegrin politicians and former army officers "inaccurate and malicious," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The statement added that all formations controlled by the army, including the military police, have been set up "completely according to the rules." PM

SERBIAN INDEPENDENT MEDIA TO BOYCOTT SESELJ

Representatives of Serbia's leading independent and private media announced in Belgrade on 14 February that they will no longer report remarks by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj and officials of his Radical Party. The move comes in the wake of statements by Seselj that independent journalists should be careful lest they be "liquidated" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 February 2000). PM

FRENCH PEACEKEEPERS STOP AMBULANCE FULL OF ARMS

General Pierre de Saqui de Sannes said in Kosovska Mitrovica on 15 February that French KFOR troops stopped an ambulance full of arms and ammunition at a checkpoint. The driver escaped. Reuters reported that the peacekeepers found "10 RPG-7 rocket- propelled grenades, 183 hand grenades, and thousands of rounds of 7.62 millimeter bullets for rifles or machineguns" in the vehicle. NATO is investigating where the ambulance might have come from and where it might have been heading. Elsewhere, French Captain Cedric Dujardin said that his troops "flushed out" two snipers who had been firing at them. One sniper was Albanian, the other Serbian, he added. PM

NATO WARNS KOSOVARS

Speaking in Brussels on 14 February, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said in the wake of recent violence in Mitrovica: "Let there be no doubt: KFOR will not tolerate attacks on its forces by anyone. The robust response of KFOR soldiers is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our determination to protect our forces and stop the perpetrators of violence," Reuters reported. He added: "I would remind all parties...that it was NATO that put an end to organized ethnic cleansing and has worked to restore peace and stability for all ethnic groups in the province," AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2000). Near Mitrovica, local ethnic Albanian leader Halit Barani said at the funeral of a former Kosova Liberation Army fighter killed by KFOR that the French troops are "the same as the Serbian soldiers." PM

EU HAILS CROATIAN GOVERNMENT PROGRAM

After meeting with Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan in Brussels on 14 February, EU foreign ministers hailed his government's program. The ministers also called on EU experts to prepare studies that could lead to talks between Zagreb and Brussels on "bringing Croatia closer to the EU." EU Commission President Romano Prodi said that it is "too soon" to set a time table for talks between the EU and Croatia but that he will formulate one at the earliest possible opportunity, AP reported. Racan told a press conference that all refugees are welcome to return home regardless of their ethnic background. He stressed that the government represents all citizens. The EU's Javier Solana said to Racan: "We are going to help your country.... But I would also like to underline that this change in Croatia...is a signal for the region as a whole," Reuters reported. PM

ROWDY CELEBRATION IN ZAGREB

Thousands of boisterous fans celebrated the return of the name "Dinamo" to Zagreb's leading soccer team on 14 February. Some 10 years ago, the late President Franjo Tudjman forced the club to change its name to "Croatia," despite energetic protests from the fans. Observers note that the return of the old name is but one more example of how Croats have quickly turned their back on Tudjman's legacy (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 January 2000). PM

IZETBEGOVIC HEADS BOSNIAN PRESIDENCY

Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic assumed the rotating chair of Bosnia's joint presidency on 14 February. He replaces the Croat Ante Jelavic. Elsewhere in Sarajevo, the international community's Wolfgang Petritsch told a conference that corruption is the biggest obstacle to the successful implementation of the Dayton peace agreement. PM

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT SETS LOCAL ELECTION DATE

Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu, speaking on television on 13 February, said the government has set 4 June as the date for local elections. The runoffs are to be held on 18 June. The parliament has yet to pass the necessary legislation for the ballot. Isarescu also announced he plans to reduce personnel in several ministries in a bid to save some $200 million, which will be channeled primarily to the Education Ministry. Also on 13 February, the government said it has managed to divert 0.5 percent of GDP to that ministry's budget and thus meet the 4 percent of GDP required by the law and demanded by striking teachers. But the teachers said their strike will continue until they receive "credible proof" that the transfer has taken place. MS

HUNGARIAN ENVIRONMENT MINISTER IN ROMANIA

Pal Pepo on 14 February visited the Aurul gold mines in Baia Mare, from where cyanide spilled into a tributary of the Tisa (Tizsa in Hungarian) River (see above), affecting also the River Danube, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. He said it may take as long as 10 years to re-establish the ecological balance in the area. Foreign Minister Petre Roman said the incident has "gravely affected Romania's image" abroad and that Romania will ask for international aid to deal with the disaster and prevent similar occurrences in the future. EU Commissioner for the Environment Margot Wallstrom is visiting the affected area on 15 February. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT SAYS 'INTER-STATE UNION' WITH ROMANIA NOT LEADING TO EU...

Petru Lucinschi believes that the National Liberal Party's (PNL) recent initiative to set up an "inter- state union" with Romania modeled on the Russia-Belarus union will not promote EU membership. The PNL said such a union might assist in Moldova's bid to become a member of the EU once Romania is admitted into the organization. Presidential spokesman Anatol Golea on 14 February said Lucinschi is ready to consider any measure that would advance that goal, but he noted that for the time being Moldova cannot meet EU membership criteria. Golea said the lowest per capita GDP among EU members is that of Greece, at $2,000, while Moldova's per capita GDP last year was less than $300. MS

...ASKS ROMANIA TO BE STRICTER IN GRANTING CITIZENSHIP

In an interview on Moldovan Television, Lucinschi said on 14 February that he has asked the Romanian authorities to be "more strict" when granting citizenship to Moldovan nationals. Lucinschi said Foreign Minister Nicolae Tabacaru, acting on his behalf, drew the attention of Bucharest's ambassador to Chisinau to the fact that the Moldovan Constitution does not allow double citizenship. Lucinschi said "solutions will be sought" to this problem in the future, Romanian Radio reported. Unofficial figures put the number of Moldovans with Romanian citizenship at some 300,000. MS




BACKTRACKING IN BISHKEK


by Liz Fuller

On 20 February, Kyrgyzstan will hold parliamentary elections that look set to demolish the myth that the country is a small oasis of democracy in authoritarian Central Asia. True, Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev has pledged repeatedly that the poll will be free and fair. But on the basis of dubious court rulings, the Central Electoral Committee has barred two major opposition parties from participating. Kyrgyz NGOs, for their part, have gathered extensive evidence of restrictions on opposition access to the state-run media and of harassment by local officials of individual opposition candidates. The National Democratic Institute and the OSCE last week both issued statements expressing concern at what they termed unfair and unjustified restrictions on the election process.

The Kyrgyz authorities' reluctance to risk a free poll derives less from the perceived need to contain a pernicious rival political ideology than from the desire to retain power. By contrast, for the overwhelming majority of the country's 4.8 million inhabitants, the sole issue at stake is survival in conditions of increasing economic hardship. According to a UN Development Program study released last month, 55 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population live below the poverty level. Local observers calculate that up to 1 million people have no fixed employment and live from shuttle trade. Some 3,000 young people congregate each morning in a Bishkek street known as "the slave market" in the hope of finding casual work.

Even those fortunate enough to have jobs find it difficult to make ends meet. The minimum monthly salary is about 100 soms ($2.2), while the monthly minimum subsistence level is 10 times higher. Social benefits are symbolic--the basic pension is also about 100 soms but is rarely paid promptly--and as of December 1999, the Kyrgyz government owed some $2.5 million in unpaid pensions.

Nor is there any prospect of a swift improvement in the economic situation. Kyrgyzstan's foreign debt now stands at $1.4 billion, the equivalent of annual GDP, of which $87 million must be repaid this year (that sum is equal to 44 percent of projected budget expenditure). The top priority for increased budget spending is not the social sector but the military, in the hope of precluding a repeat of last summer's humiliating incursions and abductions by Islamic guerrillas based in Tajikistan.

Given the dimensions of the economic crisis and its impact on the population, it is hardly surprising that the authorities sought to preclude the participation in the parliamentary elections of those parties giving priority to social justice. In December, a Bishkek district court ruled that the El (Bei Bechara) Party (the Party of the Oppressed), which is the country's second-largest after the Communist Party, cannot participate in the elections, as its original statutes did not mention that objective. The party's appeals against that ruling were rejected, several of its leading members were offered lucrative diplomatic or government posts, and a court case was brought against its leader, Daniyar Usenov.

The Central Electoral Commission initially registered the opposition Party of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan, but that registration is in doubt since a Bishkek court ruled that the party's January congress, which drew up the list of the party's candidates to contend the 15 seats in the 60-strong lower house of the new legislature, was illegal. Heading the party's list was one of the country's most influential and popular opposition politicians, former Bishkek Mayor Feliks Kulov. Kulov resigned from that post in April 1999 to protest what he termed President Akaev's tolerance of illegal and anti-democratic activities by unnamed members of his entourage, and he founded his own political party, Ar-Namys (Honor), which is already the third-largest in Kyrgyzstan.

Under the existing electoral law, however, Ar-Namys does not qualify to participate in the polls as it was formally registered with the Justice Ministry less than 12 months before the elections. Kulov's campaign to have Russian designated a state language in Kyrgyzstan would have guaranteed him the support of much of the country's estimated 700,000 ethnic Russians.

Nine political parties and two blocs remain registered to contend the poll. Of those, four parties are in opposition to the government and three are moderate, while two parties and both blocs are unequivocally pro-government. In addition, 239 candidates registered to contend 45 seats in single- mandate constituencies in the lower house and another 216 to compete for 45 seats in the upper house. But of those 455, 37 have been struck off the list for failing either to provide income declarations or to meet the minimum residence requirement in the district where they intended to run.

The use of the courts to bar opposition candidates and parties on the basis of either fabricated evidence or minor technical infringements is convenient insofar as it is adduced by government representatives as evidence of the independence of the three branches of power. In late January, presidential press secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov told RFE/RL that the administration has refrained from "interfering" in the work of the Central Electoral Commission precisely in order to preclude charges of undemocratic meddling in the election process.

But that approach ultimately reflects poorly on Kyrgyzstan's image. It also raises the question, touched on by Kulov last year, of whether President Akaev is in control of the situation, or whether, as some Russian journalists have suggested, he is being manipulated by members of his entourage and immediate family, including his Kazakh son-in- law. Even if, as seems likely, the majority of parliamentary deputies elected on 20 February support the present leadership's policies, Akaev will face a second test of his popularity in the presidential poll later this year. Potential challengers include Kulov and Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan leader Absamat Masaliev--that is, if they are not barred from running.


XS
SM
MD
LG