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Newsline - February 24, 2000




INTERNET REGULATIONS TO INCREASE AFTER ELECTIONS...

In an interview with "Segodnya" on 24 February, the chief of the information department at the Justice Ministry, Andrei Morozov, said that the government's Commission on Operational Issues will examine legislation about information security on 28 March--two days after the presidential elections. Morozov said that he hopes the new regulations will defend the interests of citizens, legal entities, and the government. When asked whether sites such as will continue to exist after the new regulations have been enacted, Morozov said "soon some norms will be written which will allow the removal of such sites.... Everything that is distributed on the Internet will be placed on the same footing as a document that should be examined in court." Last month, acting President Vladimir Putin signed a law expanding the Internet surveillance project SORM. JAC

...AS ONE SITE EXPERIENCES TEMPORARY SHUT DOWN

Internet specialist Anton Nosik told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau last month that in order to curb the freedom of the Internet media, the government will have to broaden its attack on all media: "In order to forbid something, authorities will first have to forbid everything." According to "Segodnya" on 24 February, the "popular" Internet site, , was closed during the morning of 23 February but was back online by the evening of the same day. Russia-On-Line head Andrei Kolesnikov said the site was blocked because its owner owed money. However, the site's owner, Sergei Gorshkov, said that the debt suddenly appeared and that "people from some special department of the Interior Minister" had visited his Internet service provider. The newspaper alleges that the owners of several Russian sites specializing in "kompromat" have been advised by their friends in the Federal Security Service not to talk to their sources by any kind of phone. JAC

PUTIN ASKS DUMA TO EXTEND CHECHEN AMNESTY...

Acting President Putin has written to State Duma chairman Gennadii Seleznev asking him to extend until 1 April the deadline for Chechen fighters to lay down their arms and be amnestied, Interfax reported on 23 February. Putin reasoned that it is necessary to prolong the deadline as a "goodwill gesture" and in order to end armed resistance and "work out a civil peace and accord" in Chechnya. The amnesty was originally due to expire on 1 February. The Duma's Security Committee and Justice Minister Yurii Chaika have both proposed extending it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2000). Seleznev on 23 February expressed support for Putin's proposal, saying the Duma may discuss the issue as early as 25 February. LF

...MARKS DEPORTATION ANNIVERSARY

Putin addressed separate messages of sympathy to the Chechen and Ingush peoples on the occasion of the 23 February anniversary of the 1944 deportation of the ethnic Chechen and Ingush populations of the then Chechen-Ingush ASSR, Interfax reported. His address to the Chechens noted that the Russian and Chechen peoples "have always been together, sharing our joy and grief." He added those shared experiences impose on both Russians and Chechens the duty to "take a responsible attitude toward strengthening stability and restoring peace and order in the North Caucasus." In his address to the Ingush people, Putin also noted that the "difficulties" to which they were submitted during their forced deportation did not break their spirit. He wished "the entire people of Ingushetia civic accord, success, welfare, and peace in every home." LF

BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY SAYS WEST CAN'T SWAY RUSSIA OVER CHECHNYA...

Following a meeting with Russian acting President Putin in the Kremlin on 23 February, Robin Cook told reporters that the West is unable to influence Russia over its military campaign in Chechnya, which he described as "excessive." Cook said he had urged Putin to involve the international community in seeking a resolution to the conflict, but apart from repeating concerns about that conflict, he noted there is "little else" he can do. Reuters quoted Britain's chief diplomat as adding that "expressions of concern from the West have not fallen on deaf ears." Among other topics, Cook and Putin discussed boosting economic ties. British exports to Russia have plummeted as a result of the August 1998 financial crisis. JC

...IS TOLD BABITSKII 'ALIVE AND WELL' WITH CIVILIANS

At the same press briefing, Cook revealed that acting President Putin told him that missing RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii is "alive and well" and is "with civilians in the mountains" in Chechnya. The British foreign secretary also welcomed the appointment of a human rights envoy for Chechnya. Last week, Putin appointed Vladimir Kalamanov, the head of the Federal Migration Service, to serve as a special presidential representative in Chechnya "for safeguarding human rights and liberties" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2000). JC

VESHNYAKOV POURS COLD WATER ON SHOKHIN THEORY

In an interview with "Segodnya" on 24 February, Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said that "nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the powers of the acting president end after a period of three months." State Duma deputy Aleksandr Shokhin (People's Deputy) had hypothesized earlier in the month that if the 26 March elections failed to attract sufficient voter turnout to be declared valid, acting President Putin and his supporters might stage a coup because the constitution does not allow an acting president to stay in office longer than three months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2000). According to Veshnyakov, if anyone has questions about the length of Putin's tenure as acting president, then it would be best to consult Russia's Constitutional Court. He added that he would advise Russian voters to participate in the first round to avoid any "serious political intrigues." JAC

RUSSIA SEEKING SEPARATE AGREEMENT WITH PARIS CLUB MEMBERS

An unidentified source at the Finance Ministry told Interfax on 23 February that the Russian government has reached agreements with Austria and Spain, two members of the Paris Club of creditors, on restructuring Russia's Soviet-era debt. According to the source, an agreement with Austria has already been signed and one with Spain will be made official in the near future. Germany, the Paris Club member that holds the largest amount of Russia's Soviet era debt, announced earlier its opposition to any kind of restructuring deal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2000). JAC

GKO MARKET REVIVED

First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov characterized the government's resumption of selling short-term treasury bonds (GKOs) on 23 February as "successful." GKOs worth some 2.2 billion rubles ($76 million) were floated, according to Interfax. Kasyanov added that "the GKO pyramid will not be repeated if the state pursues a correct policy. [It should] not get carried away with borrowing on the domestic market to cover gaps created by uncollected revenues." JAC

FSB DENIES CHERKESOV TO RUN FOR ST. PETE GOVERNOR

The press service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has denied that Viktor Cherkesov, the first deputy director of the FSB, intends to run for the post of governor of St. Petersburg. Last week, "Segodnya" ran an article claiming that acting President Putin plans to back Cherkesov's candidacy in that ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2000). In a response to questions posed in writing by "The Moscow Times," an FSB spokesman said Cherkesov has "absolutely no plans or intentions" to run in that ballot and that "rumors to the contrary are the unfounded creation of the newspaper[s] that printed them," the English- language daily reported in its 24 February issue. JC

MIT SCIENTIST QUERIES PURPOSE OF U.S. RADAR IN NORWAY

"Segodnya" on 23 February quoted Theodore Postol, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as raising questions about the U.S. radar stationed since last summer in the Norwegian town of Vardo, some 65 kilometers from the Russian border. Postol cast doubt on the assertion that the radar is intended to monitor "space junk," and he noted that it could be collecting detailed information, mainly on Russian warheads and decoys, for a national missile defense system "aimed against Russia." The previous day, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon reportedly evaded questions about whether the radar is collecting intelligence data. Earlier, the radar had been used at the Vanderberg air base in California during early testing of a national missile defense system. JC

COLLAPSE OF PALLADIUM MARKET FEARED

Norilsk Nickel head Yurii Kotlyar warned on 23 February that the world palladium market might collapse because of the government's restrictive policy regarding exports of that metal, Interfax reported. Palladium prices have soared recently to $800 an ounce because Russia, which traditionally produces some 70 percent of the world supply, has sharply reduced its exports. The Central Bank and State Treasury hold most of Russian palladium stocks but have been unable to export owing to a lack of quotas from the government. Norilsk Nickel is the world's largest producer of palladium. Kotlyar warned earlier that a new export duty on some kinds of ferrous metals might prove fatal to the industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 June 1999). JAC

YELTSIN PLEDGES TO CONTINUE WORKING WITH PUTIN

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin on 23 February praised the policies of acting President Putin, noting that "he has chosen the right path, a path that was already determined during my office, and he is sticking to it." He added that "I support him and will continue supporting him until election day and then we will work together." Russian Television reported the same day that Yeltsin's statement does not mean he will return to the Kremlin. JAC

A LOOK AT THE CANDIDATES FROM THEIR GARAGES

In a review of the income and property declarations filed by presidential candidates with the Central Election Commission, "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 24 February revealed that foreign cars are popular among the families of Russia's political elite. The daughter of Communist Party Gennadii Zyuganov owns two Volkswagen Golfs and one Passat. The wife of Samara Governor Konstantin Titov owns a "Toyota Lexus" and a Harley Davidson motorcycle. The son of suspended Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov drives a Ford Export, while the wife of former deputy head of the presidential administration Yurii Savostyanov owns a Mitsubishi Montero. The son of State Duma deputy Stanislav Govorukhin owns a Renault-19. The candidates themselves tend not to own cars, domestic or foreign, perhaps relying instead on government vehicles. One exception is Moscow businessman Umar Dzhabrailov, who possesses an BMW 850. JAC




NEW ARMENIAN CABINET LINEUP AGREED

Prime Minister Aram Sargsian and the eight political parties represented in the parliament reached agreement late on 23 February on the composition of a new streamlined cabinet, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported the following day. The number of ministries has been cut from 24 to 16, of which six will be headed by new appointees. The defense, national security, interior, and foreign ministers retain their posts. The Communist Party will join the cabinet for the first time since ceding power in the 1990 Supreme Soviet election, and a member of the opposition National Democratic Union will head the Ministry of State Property. Former Premier and Economy Minister Armen Darpinian loses his post. His ministry will be merged with the Finance Ministry, which will be headed by current Minister of Finance Levon Barkhudarian. President Robert Kocharian is expected to endorse the new cabinet on 24 February. LF

AZERBAIJAN PIPELINE TALKS FAIL TO RESOLVE PROBLEMS

Ten days of talks in Baku between Georgian government representatives and potential investors in the planned Baku-Ceyhan oil export pipeline, which were also attended by Azerbaijani and Turkish government representatives, ended on 23 February without an agreement being signed, Reuters reported. Those talks will resume in Istanbul on 26 February. According to Caucasus Press, the sides agreed on four concerns raised by the Georgian government, but there was no consensus on responsibility for the security of the pipeline, for which Georgia declines to take responsibility, or the amount that Georgia will receive in transit tariffs. Georgia is reportedly demanding $0.20 per barrel, while Turkey will receive $1.59 per barrel of the total $2.58 tariff. LF

CONOCO TO RESUME OPERATIONS IN AZERBAIJAN

The U.S. oil company Conoco will acquire a 20 percent stake in the consortium to develop the Zafar/Mashal offshore Caspian oil field, Turan and Interfax reported on 22 February. The other partners in the production-sharing agreement to develop that field, which was signed in April 1999, are Exxon (30 percent) and Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR (50 percent). Conoco closed its office in Baku last month following its failure during three years of negotiations to conclude an agreement with the Azerbaijani government on reviving the shallow-water sector of the Gyuneshli oil field (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 October 1999). LF

GEORGIAN GUERRILLA LEADER ARRESTED IN WESTERN GEORGIA

Police in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi have arrested Ramin Pirtskhalava, a deputy leader of the White Legion guerrilla detachment operating in southern Abkhazia, on charges of manslaughter, Caucasus Press reported on 23 February. On 21 and 23 February, representatives of the Abkhaz parliament and government in exile claimed that the Abkhaz authorities are deploying additional militia in the security zone along the Inguri River, which separates Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. Under a protocol signed on 3 February, a maximum of 320 Abkhaz police may be deployed in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion. LF

USAID, RED CROSS, EU ALLOCATE FUNDS FOR GEORGIAN DISPLACED PERSONS

The U.S. government and the International Committee of the Red Cross signed an agreement in Tbilisi on 24 February to provide $1.2 million for ethnic Georgian displaced persons who fled the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. Those funds will be used to restore homes and assess how to reintegrate the displaced persons into social life. Also on 24 February, Caucasus Press cited the Georgian Foreign Ministry as saying that the EU will extend its funding for the restoration of homes damaged during the fighting in South Ossetia. Some 150 displaced persons from Abkhazia blocked traffic on Tbilisi's main boulevard on 21 February to demand their allowances, which have not been paid since November 1999. LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S PREMIER WARNS AGAINST UNSANCTIONED OIL SALES

Addressing the parliament on 23 February, Qasymzhomart Toqaev expressed concern that crude oil is being exported from Kazakhstan through off-shore zones at dumping prices, RFE/RL's Astana correspondent reported. Toqaev later told journalists that in 1999, three joint ventures exported a total of 28,000 tons of crude at prices ranging from $47.46-- $64.32 per metric ton, compared with the world market price of $114.74, according to Interfax. He said that a state commission has been created to monitor the oil sector. Toqaev also expressed the hope that rising world prices for oil and non-ferrous metals will boost the country's economy in 2000. Also on 23 February, Rosneft Vice President Sergei Oganesyan told journalists in Moscow that his company may sell part of its 7.5 percent stake in the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, Interfax reported. That consortium is building a pipeline to export crude from western Kazakhstan to the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. LF

FORMER KAZAKH PREMIER'S BODYGUARDS CHARGED

Two of Akezhan Kazhegeldin's bodyguards who have been held in custody since December have been formally charged with illegal possession of weapons, RFE/RL's Almaty bureau reported on 24 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 1999). The former commander of Kazhegeldin's squad of bodyguards told journalists in Almaty on 21 February that all the weapons his men had at their disposal were returned to the authorities following Kazhegeldin's resignation in the fall of 1997. LF

TAJIK OPPOSITION FIGURE BACKS RULING PARTY IN PARLIAMENTARY POLL

In an article published on 21 February, First Deputy Premier Khodji Akbar Turadjonzoda appealed to the Tajik electorate to back the ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (the former Communist Party) in the 27 February parliamentary elections in order to prevent a possible confrontation between the legislature and the executive, should the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) win a majority in the new parliament, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Turadjonzoda also criticized an IRP campaign slogan that equates the IRP with Islam and argues that votes cast against the party are anti-Islam. He claimed that the 2 percent of the vote which the IRP's candidate polled in the November 1999 presidential poll reflects its popularity among the electorate. IRP leader Said Abdullo Nuri predicted earlier this month that his party will win 35 percent of the seats in the new parliament. LF




BELARUSIAN NEWSPAPERS PROTEST DISCRIMINATION

The editors in chief of Belarus's six largest independent newspapers have sent an open letter to Prime Minister Uladzimir Yarmoshyn demanding an end to the discriminatory measures that the state uses against them, Belapan reported on 23 February. The letter noted that the state postal service recently raised distribution rates for independent papers by 400-600 percent, while the state-owned publications receive distribution discounts. It also commented that the large hikes "undermine the economic basis of the non-state publications" and violate the freedom of the press. The letter was signed by the editors in chief of "Narodnaya Volya," "Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta," "Belorusskaya Gazeta," "Svobodniye Novosti," "Belorusky Rynok," and "Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii." VG

MOTHER OF BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER APPEALS TO PUBLIC

The mother of opposition politician Viktar Hanchar appealed to the country on 23 February not to forget the still unresolved disappearance of her son, Belapan reported. Valentina Hanchar, as well as other relatives of the vanished politician, are convinced that he was kidnapped by Belarusian police last September. Government officials have said Hanchar may have staged his own disappearance. VG

RUSSIAN, BELARUSIAN CENTRAL BANKS FAIL TO AGREE

The heads of the Russian and Belarusian Central Banks on 23 February failed to agree on establishing a common currency and a common institution for issuing money, Belapan reported. Officials from the two banks said they will continue to work on the issue. VG

RUSSIA ASKS UKRAINE FOR PROPERTY IN LIEU OF DEBT PAYMENTS

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has called on Ukraine to pay some of its energy debts with state property that is being prepared for privatization, AP reported on 23 February. He said that during meetings in Kyiv on 22 February, he submitted a list of state assets that Russia would be willing to consider in lieu of debt payments to Ukrainian officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2000). Kasyanov said a Russian analysis has concluded that Ukrainian businesses will not be able to pay off their energy debts any time soon. He said he has called on Ukraine to recognize the company debts for natural gas as state debts. VG

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SIGNS DECREE ON ECONOMIC TARGETS

Leonid Kuchma has signed a decree requiring the government to implement an economic action plan that he outlined in a 22 February speech, "Ukrainian Eastern Economist" reported. The plan calls for the government to achieve average annual GDP growth levels of 6.5 percent by the 2002-2004 period. The government will be required to report to Kuchma every six months on the plan's fulfillment. VG

CHORNOBYL UNIT SHUT DOWN AGAIN

On 23 February, the third reactor at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant was shut down again for the third time in the past month, Interfax reported the next day. Officials at the plant said the reactor was closed to "remove a defect in the pipeline system." The Energoatom energy company said repairs on the defect will continue until 4 March. VG

LITHUANIAN RIGHT-WINGERS PROTEST CONTROVERSIAL STATE AWARD

Some 200 protestors gathered outside the Lithuanian parliament on 23 February to protest the granting of state honors to people whom they called "KGB agents," BNS reported. They singled out former Premier Kazimiera Prunskiene and former Interior Minister Marijonas Misiukonis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2000), saying that the state awards granted to them constituted an "anti-Lithuanian plot." The protest was joined by radical right-wing parliamentary deputy Stanislovas Buskevicius, head of Young Lithuania, and Petras Grazulis, a member of the Christian Democrats. A court has named Prunskiene as a KGB collaborator, a charge she denies. Earlier, several dozen parliamentary deputies signed a letter criticizing the awards to Prunskiene and Misiukonis. MH

PROTESTS IN POLAND SPUR RUSSIAN REACTION

Demonstrators in a handful of Polish cities protested Russia's military campaign in Chechnya on 23 February. Timed to mark the 56th anniversary of Stalin's mass deportations of Chechens from the Caucasus, the small demonstrations were organized by Polish and expatriate Chechen groups. The largest protest took place in Warsaw, where about 150 people attended a memorial mass for the victims of the war and then proceeded to a demonstration outside the Russian Embassy, PAP reported. In Poznan, demonstrators pulled down the Russian flag from the consulate building, hoisted the Chechen one, and drew a swastika on the wall of the building. Polish police did not interfere in the protest, AP reported. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia will file a "most resolute protest to the Polish authorities." He called on Polish law enforcement agencies to prevent such "hooligan activities" in the future. VG

POLISH JOURNALIST WINS APPEAL

The Polish Appeal Court overruled a district court decision fining "Gazeta Wyborcza" journalist Jerzy Jachowicz 10,000 zloty ($2,450) for revealing the name of an intelligence officer, PAP reported. The court sent the case back to the district level. Jachowicz was fined last year for including the name of the officer in a 1996 article on the spying scandal that involved former Polish Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy. VG

POLISH SOLIDARITY TO KEEP WALESA OUT OF RACE?

Aleksander Hall, the deputy head of the governing Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) parliamentary caucus, said on 23 February that Poland's right-wing parties should select a presidential candidate who would be acceptable to former President Lech Walesa, PAP reported. Hall said this might "induce [Walesa] to withdraw his own candidacy." Also on 23 February, AWS representatives said that most journalists and media professionals who responded to a questionnaire on the group's media policy described that policy as "hopeless," incompetent," and "stupid," PAP reported. VG

BACK TO 'SQUARE ONE' IN PRAGUE?

"I have never in my life let myself be blackmailed and will not allow that to happen this time either," Prime Minister Milos Zeman said on 23 February, responding to Civic Democratic Party Deputy Chairman Ivan Langer's statement that the ODS will not back the budget bill unless Zeman announces a cabinet reshuffle ahead of the early March vote on the draft law, CTK reported. Under the "extended opposition agreement" reached last month by the ODS and the ruling minority Social Democratic Party (CSSD), the ODS is to back the budget in exchange for the CSSD's support for reforming the electoral system and reshuffling the cabinet. But Zeman has said several times that the reshuffle will proceed "gradually" and will not take place before the vote on the draft budget. MS

CZECH GOVERNMENT BANS SUPPLIES TO IRANIAN NUCLEAR PLANT

The government on 23 February approved a bill banning supplies to the Iranian nuclear plant under construction in Bushehr, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 17 February 2000). Government spokesman Libor Roucek said the cabinet is asking Chamber of Deputies Chairman Vaclav Klaus to "declare a state of legislative emergency" to hasten the passage of the bill. He said this is necessary because the issue affects security and the bill is aimed at preventing "serious economic damage to the Czech Republic." The U.S. has threatened to impose sanctions unless exports to the Bushehr plant are stopped. MS

EU COMMISSIONER SAYS CZECH REPUBLIC'S PROGRESS SATISFACTORY...

EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen on 23 February told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that the Czech preparations for EU accession have "considerably improved" but that "great efforts are still necessary." He said the critical October 1999 EU report had a positive impact and the government now has an "ambitious program" toward fulfilling the aquis communautaire, CTK reported. Verheugen said that although Western observers might find the opposition agreement "strange," the pact promotes internal stability and the existing consensus among Czech parties on EU integration is "good." He said the Roma minority problem is not solely a Czech one and that the solution must be an all-European one. "We must be active, but also very sensitive. The Czech political elite is aware [of the problem}, but a lot of discrimination still exists," he commented. MS

...IS LESS OPTIMISTIC ABOUT SLOVAKIA'S CHANCES

Verheugen also said Slovakia's internal political development "provokes certain doubts" about the decision to start accession talks with Bratislava, CTK reported. He also mentioned a letter that former Prime Minster Vladimir Meciar sent to EU Commission Chairman Romano Prodi claiming that the December 1999 Helsinki summit decision to start accession talks with Slovakia was due to the policies pursued by his government, Verheugen said he will not comment on the letter but added that "there are question marks over what is happening in Slovakia at present." Owing to the growing political instability, there is a possibility of early elections in Slovakia. MS

NATO OFFICIAL PRAISES SLOVAKIA

Slovakia has agreed to work on 67 "partnership goals" aimed at boosting its bid to join NATO, the organization's deputy secretary-general, Edgar Buckley, told journalists in Bratislava on 23 February. Buckley met with President Rudolf Schuster and with the secretaries from the Foreign and Defense Ministries, Jan Figel and Jozef Pivarci, respectively. He said Slovakia has agreed to "very challenging partnership goals" and is "making very good progress" toward NATO membership. MS

BUDAPEST WANTS ETHNIC HUNGARIANS IN ROMANIA TO STAY PUT

The creation of a Hungarian University and the strengthening of Hungarian-language higher education are preconditions for the survival of Romania's Hungarian minority in their land of birth, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Zsolt Nemeth told a press conference on 22 February, summing up his visit to Romania last week. "If this precondition is not fulfilled, there will be a tendency toward a brain drain to Hungary, especially after Hungary's accession to the EU," Nemeth said. He added that secondary schools in Hungary are already recruiting pupils from Hungarian-populated parts of Transylvania in order to qualify for larger amounts of funding from the Education Ministry. MSZ




NATO READY TO DEAL WITH MILOSEVIC THREAT

NATO's Supreme Commander in Europe General Wesley Clark told the "International Herald Tribune" of 24 February that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic recently launched a new campaign of covert operations to challenge the Atlantic alliance. Serbian agents have gone into Kosova and neighboring areas, including Montenegro, to sow unrest, according to Clark. He stressed that NATO is determined to make Kosovska Mitrovica a multi-ethnic community, despite the "intimidation and other dirty work of the military units, gangs, and thugs who have been sent there by Belgrade." On his recent visit to the Balkans, he added, he warned ethnic Albanian leaders not to contribute to the tensions, saying that NATO does not want fighting to spread to the Presevo-Bujanovac-Medvedja area of southern Serbia. Up to 100,000 ethnic Albanians live in that region, to which the Belgrade authorities recently sent an additional 200 special police. PM

FRANCE TO SEND MORE TROOPS TO KOSOVA

In Washington on 23 February, French Defense Minister Alain Richard told a press conference that his government has decided to send between 600 and 700 soldiers to Kosova in addition to the 4,500 it already has there. He said this is necessary in order to "take control of the situation," AP reported. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said that "a greater show of force and a greater capability is going to be essential" in Mitrovica in the very near future and that Washington is considering sending more troops. In London, a Defense Ministry spokesman told Reuters on 24 February that the U.K. does not plan to send any additional forces to the province. There are approximately 30,000 NATO troops in Kosova, in addition to 7,000 peacekeepers from non-NATO countries. PM

HOLBROOKE WARNS MILOSEVIC AGAINST NEW CONFLICT

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke said in New York on 23 February that Belgrade is "playing a very dangerous game" by provoking unrest in Mitrovica. He added: "They lost four wars in the last eight years. I don't know what they think they're doing, but whatever it is, it's not going to work." The ambassador stressed that "the Serb leadership in Belgrade is trying to partition [Kosovo] at the Mitrovica bridge. This is a campaign being directed by Belgrade, directed by Mr. Milosevic and his senior colleagues. They are infiltrating people. Mitrovica is now certainly the most dangerous place in Europe. The reason for that is not because Albanians and Serbs don't like each other. That's an established historical fact. It's because the leadership in Belgrade, led by President Milosevic, is conducting a campaign to undermine the efforts of NATO and the United Nations," AP reported. PM

NATO TO RESETTLE ALBANIANS IN MITROVICA

NATO spokesmen said in Mitrovica on 23 February that the Atlantic alliance will soon start moving ethnic Albanians back to their homes in Serb-held northern Mitrovica. Local Serbian leader Oliver Ivanovic argued that a crisis "will come to a head within 10 to 15 days" unless NATO abandons those plans, AP reported. Meanwhile in Brussels, unnamed NATO officials said that the alliance's North Atlantic Council, which is its governing body, will hold a special meeting on 25 February to discuss the situation in Kosova. PM

MACEDONIA CONCERNED ABOUT BELGRADE'S PLANS

A spokesman for the Macedonian Defense Ministry told an RFE/RL correspondent in Skopje on 23 February that troops went on a higher state of alert and increased the number of border patrols recently. He said that the main reason was the increased concentration of Serbian forces in the south of that country (see "RFR/RL Newsline," 23 February 2000). He added that Skopje is also concerned that events in Kosova could affect Macedonia's internal stability. "From the other side of the border, things can happen that can get out of control," he said. PM

EU AID FOR KOSOVA

The European Commission announced in Brussels on 23 February that it will make available $5.6 billion to promote democracy and stability in the Balkans. The program will run through 2006 and will be funded primarily with money taken from the EU's agricultural budget. Most of the funds will go to Kosova. PM

KOSOVA ADMINISTRATION CALLS FOR FREEDOM FOR PRISONERS

The UN's provisional administration issued a statement in Prishtina on 23 February calling on the Security Council to appeal to the Belgrade authorities to free the approximately 1,600 Kosovars being held in Serbian prisons. The statement also called on Belgrade to allow the Red Cross free access to the prisoners. PM

BOSNIAN ELECTION CAMPAIGN BEGINS

In Sarajevo on 23 February, the OSCE's Robert Barry officially opened the campaign for the Bosnian local elections slated for 8 April. He said that 68 parties, seven coalitions, and 18 independent candidates will compete for 3,300 offices. A total of 21,000 candidates have registered. Elections will not take place in Brcko, which has a special status. The vote in Srebrenica is slated for October. PM

CROATIAN COURT AGAINST WIRE-TAPPING

The Constitutional Court on 23 February overturned legislation allowing the interior minister to tap telephones and read correspondence in cases where the minister deems national security to be at risk. The court ruled that the legislation violates constitutional provisions dealing with citizens' basic rights. PM

ZAGREB WELCOMES REFUGEES

Speaking in the parliament on 23 February, Prime Minister Ivica Racan dismissed criticism from conservative deputies that the government wants to resettle Serbian refugees before it finds jobs for "thousands" of Croats. Racan said that his government does not favor Serbs over Croats but merely wants to guarantee "the return of Croatian citizens." Elsewhere, an OSCE spokesman praised the government's plan to resettle 16,500 refugees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2000). He stressed, however, that the government will be judged by how it implements the plan. PM

CROATIAN GOVERNMENT FUDGING ON CAMPAIGN PROMISE?

The parliament on 23 February began discussing the government's plan to cut officials' salaries by 10-20 percent. During the campaign, the governing coalition promised to cut salaries by 40 percent, but the proposed legislation provides only for the salary of the president to be cut by that amount. The pledge was very popular in the election campaign. Officials receive high wages by Croatian standards. Observers note, however, that the massive wealth accumulated by many officials came not from their salaries but from the opportunities they received by being part of the large insider network of the former ruling party. PM

HUNGARIAN VISITOR CONFIRMS CHARGES AGAINST ROMANIAN COMPANY

Hungarian Justice Minister Ibolya David told her Romanian counterpart, Valeriu Stoica, in Bucharest on 23 February that Hungary will launch court proceedings against the Aurul company "within two days." She said Hungary wants the assets of the Romanian-Australian company suspected of causing the recent cyanide spill to be seized in order to pay for the damage, Romanian and Hungarian media reported. Also on 23 February, a large UN team of experts arrived in Romania to open an investigation into the incident, which has cause widespread pollution in Central European rivers. MS

ROMANIAN NATIONALISTS NOT TO PROSECUTED...

The Arad prosecutor's office announced on 22 February that it has halted proceedings against Romanian nationalists who disrupted last October's celebration of "Martyrs' Day" during Hungarian Justice Minister David's visit to that city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 October 1999). The prosecutor said the demonstrators acted "spontaneously" and cannot be charged with "breach of the peace. " MS

...WHILE CLUJ PRESSES CHARGES AGAINST ITS MAYOR

The Cluj town council on 23 February voted by an overwhelming majority to press charges against Mayor Gheorghe Funar. Using council funds, Funar paid a fine imposed on him by a local tribunal for having caused losses to the Alimentara company. Funar said he will appeal the decision. Meanwhile, another Romanian mayor, Marin Lutu, has been detained for 30 days on suspicion of fraud. Lutu is the mayor of one of Bucharest's city districts. He was expelled from the National Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) after he refused to renounce his seat on the board of a company that he is suspected of having favored in a privatization tender. MS

'BABIUC CRISIS' STILL UNSOLVED IN ROMANIA

The National Liberal Party says it will not agree to Defense Minister Victor Babiuc's replacement until Transportation Minister Traian Basescu apologizes to President Emil Constantinescu for having insulted him in connection with the so-called Babiuc crisis, Romanian Radio reported on 24 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2000). Earlier, the coalition leaders agreed on ways to solve the crisis, and the presidential office said it does not expect Basescu to make a public apology. The PNTCD, meanwhile, has said it is no longer demanding that Basescu apologize to Constantinescu, adding that the Democratic Party nominee for the defense portfolio must have Constantinescu's approval, since the president is the army's commander in chief. MS

BULGARIA ALERTS INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTIONS ON LIBYA TRIAL

According to Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova, Bulgaria has "alerted all international institutions" and is seeking "contacts on all levels, formal and informal," to enlist help for the six Bulgarians facing the death penalty in Libya, AP reported on 23 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline, " 23 February 2000). She also said Sofia has asked the Libyan authorities to postpone the trial in order for the defendants to "properly prepare their defense" and be allowed to meet with Bulgarian embassy officials. Both Mihailova and President Petar Stoyanov called on Bulgarians and the media to refrain from comments in order "not to jeopardize the lives of Bulgarians." MS




HARDSHIP FUELS GAMBLING FEVER IN ARMENIA


By Emil Danielyan

Every morning dozens of mostly elderly men and women form a long line in the center of Yerevan in temperatures below freezing. It is not pension benefits or relief aid that they are waiting for. Somber and miserable, they are trying their lack at gambling--an activity that until now was unthinkable among that social group in Armenia.

One of the many gambling halls in Armenia offers everybody a free ticket to take part in the opening draw of bingo. It's a chance that those mired in poverty cannot afford not to take.

Bingo halls packed with desperate people are symptomatic of the nationwide fever for gambling. Lotteries, slot machines, and casinos are now part of the day-to-day life of a growing number of Armenians. And the proportion of those people involved in gambling industry has become so large that sociologists speak of a major change in the national culture.

Armenia's persisting social hardships make the industry one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. That growth has been particularly visible over the past year. Snark reported earlier this month that revenues in 1999 from licensing fees for casinos and gambling halls totaled 87.6 million drams (more than $160,000), while revenues from lottery licenses amounted to 6 million drams.

Verzhine Marutian, 72, is poor, drawn, and not one's idea of a gambler. She was visibly happy when she became one of two lucky bingo players (out of more than 200 participants) to win 2,000 drams ($4). That sum is almost equal roughly a third or even half of her monthly pension.

"Life forces us to come here," said another player, a man in his 70s who was not lucky that day.

Life also forces many other people to bank on a sudden windfall. A game known as "lotto" and similar to bingo has come to be the most popular form of gambling. Those whose numbers listed on cards are called out in a draw can expect to win anything from a free lottery ticket to an apartment. There are now more than a dozen weekly lotto games, all of them run by private companies and broadcast live on nationwide television.

Such games have regular slots on state-owned Armenian National Television, the channel that can be received by the largest number of people in the country. Every weekday at 7:10 p.m. local time ANT airs the lotto draw. Each day, the draw is organized by a different company.

While competition is becoming increasingly tough, two local firms, Family Lotto and Kind Lotto, have emerged as the market leaders. In a country of just over 3 million inhabitants, they each sell up to 300,000 tickets a week. Only a quarter of ticket-holders win something. The main weekly prize is usually the equivalent of $10,000. More than a hundred other lucky ticket-holders win television sets, refrigerators, and washing machines, while thousands of others have to content themselves with smaller wins.

"This gambling boom results from the hopeless situation the people are now in," said Aharon Adibekian, a local sociologist. "Gambling gives them hope for a better life, something which they haven't got from government officials and politicians in the last 10 years." The popularity of the games, Adibekian said, testifies to changes in a national character that was molded over centuries. A tragic history taught Armenians to tuck away extra money in the anticipation of worse times. Reliance on hard work rather than pure luck was a norm.

Since the transition to the free market has still not translated into economic benefits for most people, Adibekian argued, gambling may be perceived to be the most realistic way of ending the miseries of life. "If things remain as they are, the younger generation may adopt it as a norm of behavior," he warned.

Lottery firms admit that poverty is the major driving force behind their business. They are also keen to cite the benefits they bring to the economy. As one Kind Lotto executive put it, "a whole army of people" are kept busy selling lottery tickets. And they sell well, judging by the abundance of retailers in Yerevan alone. One such ticket costs 300-500 drams.

Brisk sales are kept up by aggressive advertising, which gives television channels hefty revenues. In addition, the lottery firms are major taxpayers. Wealthier Armenians choose to gamble in casinos and smaller "game houses" that have slot machines only. According to official figures, there are nearly 80 such places in Armenia, the bulk of them in the capital. They, too, have spread rapidly in the last few years, often at the expense of other businesses. One of Yerevan's expensive jewelry shops shrunk its floor space by half last year to allow slot machines to be installed.

Some casinos violate a government requirement stipulating that they must be at least 200 meters away from a school. Nor do they post a notice about the "negative consequences of visiting a casino," as is required by law.

The author is an RFE/RL correspondent living in Yerevan.




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