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Newsline - February 29, 2000




BABITSKII RETURNS TO MOSCOW

Authorities in Daghestan put RFE/RL journalist Andrei Babitskii on a plane from Makhachkala to Moscow on 28 February without informing his wife and lawyer, who had arrived in Makhachkala two days earlier. Babitskii, who had declared a hunger strike on 27 February to protest his detention, said on arriving in the Russian capital that he was released on condition that he does not leave Moscow. Earlier on 28 February acting Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had discussed Babitskii's case with Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo and saw no reason why Babitskii should be held in detention. Speaking in Moscow on 28 February, the head of the pro-Russian Chechen militia, Beslan Gantemirov, again denied any part in Babitskii's detention and subsequent disappearance last month, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2000). LF

FEDERAL FORCES TAKE SHATOI

After days of intensive artillery bombardment, federal forces on 29 February occupied the town of Shatoi, the last Chechen-held settlement in the Argun gorge, ITAR-TASS reported. The deputy commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, said that the capture of Shatoi means that the Chechen resistance has been smashed. There has been no Chechen confirmation or denial of those reports. On 26 February, Russian military spokesmen had reported that the estimated 2,700 Chechen fighters in Shatoi, who include President Aslan Maskhadov and field commanders Shamil Basaev and Ruslan Gilaev, had split into small groups that were trying to leave the town to head either north into Russian-controlled regions of Chechnya or south across the Russian-Georgian border, AP reported. LF

COUNCIL OF EUROPE HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSIONER TOURS CHECHNYA

Visiting Grozny on 28 February, Alvaro Gil-Robles expressed shock at the extent of the devastation and called for efforts to halt the fighting in Chechnya as soon as possible and aid the republic's suffering population, AP and dpa reported. Gil-Robles said he will continue to pressure the Russian authorities for an investigation of claims that Russian soldiers committed atrocities against the civilian population. LF

MOSCOW'S CHECHNYA REPRESENTATIVE VISITS VIENNA

Nikolai Koshman held talks in Vienna on 28 February with OSCE Chairman and Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero- Waldner, who will visit Moscow and the North Caucasus after the 26 March Russian presidential elections, Russian agencies reported. Koshman told journalists after that meeting that the Russian government will do everything possible to resolve the Chechen conflict peacefully by restoring normal relations between the federal center and Chechnya as a subject of the Russian Federation. He added that the formation of new local power bodies in Chechnya is under way, but it is not clear from media reports whether he revealed what role in those bodies will be played by Chechen Mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who accompanied him to Vienna. Koshman explained restrictions on the movements of Western journalists in Chechnya in terms of Moscow's concern for their security, adding that he always takes 10-15 Western journalists with him when he travels to Chechnya. LF

PUTIN TO PRESENT CHECHNYA POLICY AS MODEL FOR OTHER PROBLEMS

In an article devoted to the activites of acting President Putin's campaign headquarters, "Kommersant-Vlast" on 22 February quoted its sources in the Kremlin as saying that during the run-up to the 26 March presidential elections, the military campaign in Chechnya "will be presented to voters as a model way of solving [Russia's] problems." According to the weekly, Putin's campaign managers also want his platform not to have too many details so that "voters can fill in the blanks in Putin's speeches with their own content." The weekly reported that Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, routinely attends meetings at Putin's campaign headquarters and takes part in discussions but does not have a deciding vote. JAC

PUTIN PROMISES TO STRIP OLIGARCHS OF PROXIMITY TO POWER...

Meeting with voters on 28 February, acting President Putin said that "not a single clan or oligarch should be close to regional or federal authorities." He added that "it is extremely important to create equal conditions for everyone who takes part in the political and economic life of Russia." JAC

...AS YAVLINSKII SAYS NOTHING WILL CHANGE...

In an interview with "Argumenty i fakty" (No. 8), fellow presidential candidate and leader of Yabloko Grigorii Yavlinskii commented that "many people think that when Putin is the president he will put pressure on the oligarchs and Berezovskii and dismiss Yeltsin's team. Certain forces do not allow him to do this yet, but after the elections.... Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking. The acting president is party of the system that formed during the Yeltsin era. Figuratively speaking, he continues to replicate [Yeltsin's] sins. According to the gospel, everyone who sins is a slave of sin." The monthly noted that Yavlinskii has started quoting the Bible frequently. "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported last week that Yavlinskii's popularity rating has jumped recently, reaching some 8 percent. JAC

...AND TITOV SAYS GOVERNMENT SHOULD NOT INTERFERE

Meanwhile, another candidate for president, Samara Governor Konstantin Titov, said that the recent acquisitions of shares by Sibneft and LogoVAZ in aluminum facilities is "a serious problem" reflecting flaws in Russia's legislation and difficulties protecting the rights of small shareholders. "But the government must not interfere, " Titov added. "If there is a problem, the head of Siberian Aluminum Oleg Deripaska or someone else should resolve this through the courts." Deripaska recently petitioned the Anti-Monopoly Ministry to force Sibneft and LogoVAZ to provide more information about the recent deals (see also "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2000). JAC

PUTIN EYES PRESIDENCY FOR 11 YEARS?

Acting President Putin said on 28 February that he supports a recent proposal to increase the term of the president from four to seven years. The proposal was made last week by three governors in a letter to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 1 March 2000). Putin said that "he does not object" to the idea but thinks "the matter should be brought up in a referendum or resolved in some similar manner." Putin added that this question "can be decided one way or another, but it should apply only to the person elected president in 2004." Putin also repeated his support for retaining the system of electing governors, rather than appointing them, as some governors have suggested (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 23 February 2000). JAC

MEDIA MINISTER CALLS FOR NEW LAW ON POLITICAL ADVERTISING

In an interview with "Izvestiya" on 28 February, Media Minister Mikhail Lesin laid out the main tasks for his ministry: "Formulating state policy for the media, elaborating a legislative basis, inculcating standards and formats--in other words--creating the rules of the game for the market." He added that it is "now clear that [Russia] needs a law on political advertising" because certain articles in the law on elections lend themselves to different interpretations: "If one interprets these radically, media do not have the right to mention even the candidate's surname or the name of his party." Lesin estimated that today the advertising market in Russia consists of some 30,000 publishing and 8,000 electronic media outlets. JAC

CONTINUED LACK OF IMF FUNDS PROMPTS GOVERNMENT TO HUNT FOR CASH

First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced on 28 February that next month the government will have to borrow money from the Central Bank in order to pay foreign debts, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day. According to "The Moscow Times," Kasyanov said earlier that Russia will have to make $740 million in foreign debt payments in March. The 2000 budget establishes a $1 billion limit for borrowing from the Central Bank, but State Duma deputy and former Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov said earlier that he expects the government to reach this limit as early as the end of April. Oksana Dynnikova, an analyst with the Economic Expert Group, told "The Moscow Times" that a key problem is the budget, which was "drafted on the assumption that international financial institutions lend to the government." JAC

UNITY MAY GAIN MORE SUPPORTERS

Dmitrii Rogozin, head of the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO), told Interfax on 28 February that his organization may join the pro-Kremlin movement Unity. Rogozin, who is also the chairman of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the People's Deputy group, said that "the KRO as a political organization has fulfilled its function and should join one of the larger [political] structures." In last December's State Duma elections, the KRO had initially joined Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's Fatherland but dropped out when the latter aligned with All Russia. JAC

DIRECT FOREIGN INVESTMENT RISES

Direct foreign investment in Russia grew 27 percent in 1999, compared with the previous year, to total $4.3 billion, Deputy Economics Minister Vladimir Kossov told Interfax on 28 February. The agency did not provide a figure for total foreign investment. Last year, the Anti-Monopoly Ministry reported that the proportion of direct foreign investment in total foreign investment steadily declined between 1991 and 1998 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 September 1998). JAC

REVENUES FROM ARMS EXPORTS EXCEEDED $3 BILLION LAST YEAR

Trade Minister Mikhail Fradkov announced on 28 February that federal budget revenues from arms exports exceeded $3 billion in 1999, Interfax reported. Weaponry and other military hardware accounted for 40 percent of all exports by the engineering sector, he added. At the same time, Fradkov stressed that the full export potential of the Russian defense industry is not being realized, and he urged the government to support Russian arms exporters. JC

OIL-PRODUCING REGION WANTS TO SHARE WEALTH WITH INFANTS

Aleksandr Filipenko, governor of the Khanty-Mansii Autonomous Okrug, has proposed that all babies born in his region during the year 2000 be given a savings account in which a certain sum of money will be deposited by the time they reach adulthood, ITAR-TASS reported on 29 February. Filipenko, who is running for re-election on 26 March, said "similar programs are already in operation in a number of oil-rich countries, such as the United Arab Emirates." According to the agency, the okrug's legislative assembly has approved in the first reading a bill establishing such accounts. Meanwhile, the draft law has been sent to towns and districts in the regions for review. Khanty-Mansii is a key oil- producing region in Russia and a net donor to the federal budget. JAC




ARMENIAN PRESIDENT ENDORSE NEW CABINET

Robert Kocharian on 28 February issued a decree appointing five new cabinet ministers, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The new appointees include two Communists, who will be ministers for construction and local government and for social security and public health, while a member of the National Democratic Union who will be minister for state property. The defense, interior, national security, finance and foreign ministers retained their posts in the new cabinet, which will have 17 portfolios instead of the previous 24 (not 16, as was erroneously reported in "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2000). Contrary to earlier reports, Justice Minister Davit Harutiunian also retained his post (see RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 8, 25 February 2000). Presidential spokesman Vahe Gabrielian told journalists that Kocharian hopes that the cabinet changes will contribute to an improvement in Armenia's economic situation, Reuters reported. LF

AZERBAIJAN MAKES A PITCH FOR GAS EXPORTS TO TURKEY

Following Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's rejection of Azerbaijan's claim to 50 percent of the throughput capacity of the proposed Trans-Caspian gas export pipeline, two senior Azerbaijan gas sector officials have held talks in Ankara with the Turkish state pipeline concern Botas on a possible alternative pipeline to export gas from Azerbaijan's Caspian Shah-Deniz field to Turkey, Caucasus Press reported on 28 February. That project would entail rehabilitating an existing pipeline in Azerbaijan and extending it via Georgia to Turkey. Those exports would begin in late 2002 or early 2003 with an initial volume of 5 billion cubic meters, rising to 16 billion cubic meters per year. Turan on 29 February quoted Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev as describing Niyazov's rejection of Azerbaijan's claim as "not serious." Aliyev was speaking to reporters at Baku airport late on 28 February on his return from a visit to the U.S. LF

NORTH OSSETIAN PRESIDENT VISITS GEORGIA

Aleksandr Dzasokhov held talks with Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze and with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in Tbilisi on 28 February, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Issues discussed included measures to preclude smuggling from Russia to Georgia via the disputed former autonomous oblast of South Ossetia, Moscow's intention to impose a visa requirement for Georgians, which Dzasokhov termed "a step backward," the possible expansion of the proposed TRACECA project to include a highway from Siberia and the Urals to the Caucasus, and South Ossetia's future status within Georgia. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT DENIES CONTACTS WITH TALIBAN

Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on 28 February, President Shevardnadze denied that the Georgian government has any relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Shevardnadze, who was responding to a question from Interfax, said the reason that the Taliban had been discussed at a 25 February session of Georgia's National Security Council was that the Taliban "have a certain influence" on the situation in Central Asia. LF

GEORGIAN SUPREME COURT REJECTS ELECTIONS APPEAL BY STALIN'S GRANDSON

The Supreme Court on 28 February rejected the Democratic Union of Georgia's appeal against a ruling by the Central Electoral Commission barring Yevgenii Djughashvili from contesting the 9 April Georgian presidential election, ITAR-TASS reported. That ruling was based on the fact that Djughashvili is a citizen of Russia, not of Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 22 February 2000). LF

KYRGYZ AUTHORITIES PLEDGE TO PRECLUDE FURTHER POLL VIOLATIONS...

Presidential spokesman Osmonakun Ibraimov told journalists in Bishkek on 28 February that Kyrgyz police will deal resolutely with any attempts by candidates to bribe voters during the second round of voting for a new parliament on 12 March, Russian agencies reported. He added that special commissions have been created to investigate reports of serious procedural violations and report their findings to the Central Electoral Commission. Ibraimov also said that President Askar Akaev has no plans at present to meet with the leaders of the six parties that won representation in the new legislature under the party list vote, according to Interfax. LF

...AS U.S. NOTES FIRST-ROUND FLAWS

Meanwhile U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin on 28 February expressed "concern" over violations during the election campaign, including judicial proceedings against some opposition candidates and bias in the state-controlled media, dpa reported. He called on the Kyrgyz government to ensure that "all candidates qualifying for the second round are allowed to participate in an unhindered electoral process that is free, fair and transparent." In Bishkek on 28 February, the president of Kyrgyzstan's National Radio and TV Corporation, Amanbek Karypkulov, rejected charges of bias, saying that the more than 500 candidates received a total of 2,456 minutes of free air time, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Karypkulov said that opposition El (Bei-Bechara) party leader Daniyar Usenov received the largest allocation of free air time. LF

TAJIK RULING PARTY AHEAD IN PARLIAMENTARY POLL...

Tajikistan's Central Electoral Commission chairman Mirzoali Boltuev said on 28 February that the preliminary vote count suggests that the People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan, headed by President Imomali Rakhmonov, polled some 70 percent of the vote in the previous day's elections to the lower chamber of the new parliament, Reuters reported. The Communist Party came second and the Islamic Renaissance Party third. LF

...WHILE UN, OSCE CAST DOUBT ON FAIRNESS OF BALLOT

A spokesman for the UN-OSCE election observation mission said in Dushanbe on 28 February that high estimates of voter turnout before polling stations closed on 27 February cast doubt on the integrity of the poll outcome, Reuters reported. The mission noted that "in general, political plurality was assured," but it added that "Tajikistan must improve the process in order to meet the minimum democratic standards for equal, fair, free, secret, transparent and accountable elections." Spokesmen for the Communist Party and the Islamic Renaissance Party claimed there was widespread vote rigging and that party representatives were barred from observing the vote at some polling stations. LF




BELARUSIAN PARTIES STAKE OUT POSITIONS

The United Civic Party on 28 February said it will take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections only if they are "truly democratic," Belapan reported. While the party said it welcomes President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's declared willingness to engage in a broad social dialogue, it says such a dialogue cannot replace discussion with the "illegitimate regime" on free elections. The Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus announced on 28 February that it will not take part in discussions or dialogues "inspired by the regime," adding it will participate only in OSCE-mediated discussions, Belapan reported. A new political party called Fatherland applied to register with the Belarusian Justice Ministry on 28 February, Belapan reported. The party describes itself as a "centrist" organization that opposes the current regime. VG

BELARUS SAYS GERMANY HAS TO RECOGNIZE ITS PARLIAMENT

Nikolai Cherginets, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Belarusian National Assembly, said on 28 February that the ratification of an agreement with Germany on the reburial of soldiers killed in World War II depends on Germany's recognition of the Belarusian legislature, Belapan reported. Germany does not recognize the Belarusian parliament that was set up according to a controversial 1996 referendum. Under the agreement, which has already been ratified by the German legislature, Germany would be able to exhume the remains of its soldiers in Belarus and re-bury them in Germany. VG

UKRAINE FAILS TO MAKE BOND PAYMENTS

The Ukrainian Finance Ministry confirmed on 28 February that the country failed to make payments on a German mark-denominated bond issue over the weekend, AP reported. The head of the ministry's foreign debts department Vitaly Lysovenko said he expects foreign investors to accept Ukraine's offer to exchange outstanding Ukrainian bonds for seven-year Eurobonds denominated in euros or U.S. dollars rather than declare a default on the bonds. He said the offer is valid until 15 March. In other news, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko has reportedly postponed a trip to the U.S. scheduled for this week owing to the IMF's decision to suspend its credits until April, according to ITAR-TASS on 28 February. VG

FUEL IMPORTS TO UKRAINE SLOW DOWN

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on 28 February that traders have imported only 126,000 metric tons of gasoline in the first two months of this year, compared with 235,000 during the same period last year, Reuters reported. In a bid to improve the situation, deputy parliamentary speaker Ivan Havrysh said the parliament will probably pass a bill temporarily lifting all excise and customs duties on fuel on 1 March. Officials and traders said the decline in imports resulted from the parliament's recent repeal of tax breaks for joint ventures, according to the agency. Tymoshenko also blamed export tariff hikes in Russia, the "Ukrainian Eastern Economist Daily" reported. "Russia is making policy as if it did not need the Ukrainian market," she said. VG

ETHNIC RUSSIAN GROUP WANTS REFERENDUM ON LANGUAGE IN UKRAINE

Slavonic Party Chairman Aleksandr Bazilyuk said on 28 February that his party has forwarded a request to the Central Electoral Commission for a referendum on official recognition of the Russian language in Ukraine, ITAR-TASS reported. He said he is confident his party can gather the 3 million signatures required to call a referendum. In other news, the third reactor at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant was restarted on 28 February after four days of repairs to a faulty safety valve (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2000). VG

ESTONIA, LATVIA TO USE WTO FRAMEWORK IN PORK TARIFF TALKS

An Estonian delegation is to begin consultations with Latvia on 29 February to determine whether Latvia's moves to protect its pork market violate World Trade Organization norms, according to BNS. In December 1999, Latvia introduced a minimal customs value for imported pork to protect domestic pork producers for the following two years. According to Estonia, that move violates the Baltic free-trade agreement. MJZ

'PEDOPHILE CASE' GRINDS ON IN LATVIA

The parliamentary commission investigating accusations about the involvement of senior government officials in the so-called "pedophile case" have submitted their findings and supporting documents to the Constitutional Protection Office, pending the appointment of a new prosecutor-general in early March, according to LETA and BNS. Commission chairman Janis Adamsons told BNS that the commission handed over transcripts of commission meetings and other materials that formed the basis for his 17 February accusation that three senior government officials, including Prime Minister Andris Skele, were implicated in the case. The parliament also approved a request to extend the mandate of Supreme Court judge Voldemars Cizevskis, who is charged with investigating the legality of Prosecutor-General Janis Skrastins' actions in connection with the scandal. MJZ

LITHUANIA PRESENTS NATO MEMBERSHIP ACTION PLAN IN BRUSSELS

BNS reported that a delegation of Lithuanian officials, led by Deputy Defense Minister Romas Kilikauskas, has left for Brussels to present its NATO membership action plan (MAP) during a meeting on NATO integration issues scheduled to continue until 1 March. The North Atlantic Council is scheduled to offer its evaluation on 29 March of how prepared Lithuania is for NATO membership; Lithuania hopes to be invited to join the alliance in 2002. MJZ

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS LAWMAKERS MUST BOOST PUBLIC AWARENESS OF EU, NATO

Valdas Adamkus told members of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee that the parliament itself needs to do more to improve public awareness about the EU and NATO and how membership in these organizations will benefit Lithuania. Adamkus also suggested that a government official be appointed with responsibility for matters dealing with Lithuania's integration into the NATO alliance, according to ELTA and BNS. Presidential spokesperson Violeta Gaizauskaite said that so far, the Lithuanian public has hardly grasped the core of the country's foreign policy, while parliamentary deputy Adronius Azubalis conceded that "politicians speaking in the language of Brussels bureaucrats" were largely to blame for the public's negative image of Lithuania's Euro-integration efforts, BNS said. MJZ

POLISH FARMERS BLOCK ROAD

Some 100 farmers from the radical Self-Defense movement blocked a major highway near the southeastern city of Rzeszow on 28 February for three hours to demand outstanding payments for their produce. Over the weekend, Self Defense leader Andrzej Lepper announced plans to hold similar demonstrations across the country on 6 March to protest the government's agricultural policies, AP reported. VG

POLISH FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS MOSCOW OVERREACTED

Bronislaw Geremek on 28 February said Russia overreacted to a demonstration in Poznan last week when it recalled its ambassador from Warsaw, Polish Radio 1 reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2000). While Geremek described the attack on the consulate as a "thoughtless act of vandalism," he also noted that the "deterioration of Polish-Russian relations" is not in anybody's interest. Meanwhile, Polish police chief Jan Michna on 28 February dismissed one of his deputies and the chief of the police station responsible for security outside the Russian Consulate, PAP reported. Michna launched disciplinary proceedings against another 12 police officers in connection with last week's demonstration. VG

FORMER POLISH PREMIER WILL NOT RUN FOR PRESIDENCY

Tadeusz Mazowiecki said on 28 February that he will not run in the upcoming presidential elections, despite the support of 14 regional branches of his party, the Freedom Union, PAP reported. In other news, visiting Lithuanian parliamentary chairman Vytautas Landsbergis met with Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek and other top officials on 28 February to discuss economic cooperation and minority issues, PAP reported. VG

CZECH PARLIAMENTARY CHAIRMAN CAUGHT IN 'CONFLICT OF INTERESTS'?

Commenting on Vaclav Klaus's call last week to compensate the ZVVS company in Mielevsko for losses incurred as a result of the law banning exports to Iran, "Lidove noviny" remarked on 28 February that the appeal was not prompted by Klaus's "fine sense of justice" or by his wish to respect "the principle of the market economy." According to the Czech daily, Klaus's wife, Livia, is a member of the ZVVS's board of directors. MS

SLOVAK PREMIER LAUNCHES ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGN

Mikulas Dzurinda on 28 February presented a program on combating corruption, which includes a 40-day public debate on what is understood by the term "corruption." Dzurinda said about two- thirds of Slovaks have "encountered corruption" and that legislation must be changed in order to combat it. He added that most Slovaks regard corruption as something associated with the government but would not hesitate to bribe doctors and teachers, AP and CTK reported. MS

SLOVAK NATIONALIST LEADER INVOLVED IN ILLEGAL EXPLOSIVES TRADING?

Mayor of Zilina and former Slovak National Party Chairman Jan Slota is the co-owner of an arms storage facility where several days ago police seized about 300 kilograms of the Czech-made explosive Semtex, CTK reported on 28 February, citing a police official who was interviewed on national television. Slota, however, dismissed the allegation, describing the police official as "insane" and saying the facility is owned by the policemen who guard it. Earlier this month, a police unit fighting organized crime stopped and arrested a former policeman from Zilina who was driving a van carrying 202 kilograms of Semtex. That arrest led to further searches. MS

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT VOTES FOR INCOMPLETE MEDIA BOARD

The parliament on 28 February approved a board of trustees for Hungarian Television that includes no opposition representatives. The media law states that the boards of trustees of state-run broadcast media must include four governing party and four opposition members. Last year, however, the opposition extreme-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party had prevented a consensus being reached among opposition groups by insisting that it nominate two of the opposition's four representatives on the board. Before the 28 February vote, parliamentary speaker Janos Ader noted that "regrettably the opposition parties could not agree on fielding joint candidates," and he proposed that the lawmakers vote only on the representatives of the governing parties. MSZ

UN EXPERTS EXAMINE HUNGARY'S TISZA RIVER

Twenty-four UN experts examining the damage caused by the cyanide spill originating from Romania have begun their work along Hungary's Tisza River, Hungarian media reported on 28 February. Environment Minister Pal Pepo announced the same day that some 200 tons of dead fish--some 15 percent of the total number--have been collected from the Szamos and Tisza Rivers in Hungary. He said his ministry will allocate 250 million forints ($950,000) to assess the damage, 300 million forints to repair that damage, and 200 million forints for research. MSZ




EU BANS VISAS FOR ANOTHER 180 SERBS

EU finance and economics ministers decided on 28 February in Brussels to add the names of 180 Serbian officials to the list of 600 persons currently banned from receiving visas for travel to EU countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2000). Many of the 180 individuals are judges, employees of the state prosecutor's office, or officials of state security bodies. EU officials said that such individuals have played a key role in repression against the opposition and independent media, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The ministers also gave final approval to lifting the ban on civilian flights to and from Serbia. Yugoslavia's JAT airlines recently resumed flights to Switzerland. Many western European airlines plan to resume flights in approximately one month, when the summer season begins. PM

BILDT SAYS BALKAN PEACE AWAITS CHANGE IN BELGRADE

Carl Bildt, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to the Balkans, told the Security Council on 28 February that regional peace efforts are at best a "holding operation" as long as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power. Bildt stressed that there can be no peace settlement without Serbia but that the international community cannot legally negotiate with a regime headed by indicted war criminals, Reuters reported. "We must actively seek change, we must meet the provocations that are there and will come further, and we must actively try to prevent existing tensions from boiling over into open conflict.... As long as there is no change of regime in Belgrade, [Serbia and Montenegro] are set on a somewhat slow but very steady collision course," Bildt added. PM

KFOR COMPLETES FOOTBRIDGE IN MITROVICA

NATO peacekeepers on 28 February finished work on a footbridge linking a mainly ethnic Albanian neighborhood on the southern bank of the Ibar River with three high-rise apartment buildings on the northern, Serbian-held bank. KFOR plans to resettle there an unspecified number of Albanians who have fled their homes in northern Mitrovica. Local Serbs protested the construction of the bridge. Serbian leader Oliver Ivanovic called it a "cosmetic undertaking" and "an indication that NATO is helping the Albanian side and doesn't want to do anything for the Serbs," AP reported. The existing bridge across the Ibar has been the focal point of tensions between Serbs and Albanians. PM

NATO PLANS MANEUVERS IN KOSOVA

Officials of the Atlantic alliance said in Brussels on 28 February that some 2,000 troops will take part in exercises named "Dynamic Response 2000" in Kosova from 19 March to 10 April. A spokesman told Reuters that the maneuvers have "been in the planning for many, many months" and are not linked to recent clashes in Mitrovica. Soldiers from Argentina, The Netherlands, Italy, the U.S., Poland, and Romania will take part. PM

MONTENEGRIN-ALBANIAN BORDER REMAINS CLOSED

"Vesti" reported on 29 February that the Yugoslav army has closed the border crossing at Bozaj and that "not even a bird" can cross (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2000). There is considerable military activity in the border region and soldiers have set up a checkpoint some 5 kilometers from the frontier on the road leading to Albania, the daily added. The troops have "forbidden" even the local border traffic that was allowed to continue since 1997, when the frontier was officially closed during the anarchy that swept Albania. Army officials say that the military are carrying out only "normal duties," "Vesti" reported. PM

TURKEY INCREASES MILITARY AID TO ALBANIA

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said in Tirana on 28 February that his country will provide $39 million in aid to the Albanian military through the end of 2004. He told a press conference that "since we know very well the contribution of Albania to Balkan stability, we have paid particular attention to helping strengthen its army," AP reported. Among the projects that Turkey finances are arming the Republican Guard, training special forces, rebuilding the Pashaliman naval base, and modernizing the arms factory at Polican. Turkey has provided $41 million in military aid to Albania since 1991. Ecevit is accompanied by about 60 businessmen and journalists. PM

CROATIAN-SLOVENIAN TALKS BEGIN

Members of the foreign affairs committees of the Slovenian and Croatian parliaments began talks in Ljubljana on 28 February aimed at resolving outstanding bilateral problems "in keeping with European norms," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service. Topics on the agenda include delimiting the maritime frontier in the Gulf of Piran, sharing the costs and benefits of the Krsko nuclear facility, and ratifying a proposed agreement on local border traffic. This is the first such meeting since the new Croatian parliament was elected in January. PM

CROATIAN EX-MINISTER TO STAY IN JAIL

The Pula county court ruled on 28 February that former Tourism Minister Ivan Herak must remain in prison for at least another month while officials prepare charges against him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2000). Police arrested him on 27 January just hours after the new government took office. Charges against him include embezzlement and misuse of office. PM

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES DRAFT BUDGET

The cabinet on 28 February approved the draft budget for 2000, Romanian radio reported the next day. That draft provides for a deficit equal to 3 percent of GDP and foresees 1.3 percent economic growth as well as inflation being halved, to 27 percent. Also on 28 February, the Chamber of Deputies voted by 188 to 86 with three abstentions to reject the opposition Party of Romanian National Unity's motion to debate the situation in the education sector. Education Minister Andrei Marga said the motion no longer has any relevance, since the draft budget allocates 4 percent of GDP to education, as required by law. The previous day, Marga said he is withdrawing his resignation in view of the 4 percent allocation and to comply with Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu's request that he do so. MS

MOLDOVAN PREMIER SAYS PREMATURE TO SPEAK OF DEFAULT ON FOREIGN DEBT

In an interview with the Russian daily "Izvestiya" on 28 February, Dumitru Braghis said "it is premature to speak about Moldova defaulting on its foreign debt," Infotag reported. Bragis said that tax collection has improved and that in February "we are expecting 150 million lei (some $12 million) in revenues to the state budget." He acknowledged, however, that Moldova will find it difficult to meet foreign and domestic debt arrears, saying that this month some 126 million lei in budget funds must be disbursed. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT ADDRESSES ISSUE OF DUAL CITIZENSHIP

Petru Lucinschi told journalists on 25 February that he does not rule out calling a referendum on the issue of dual citizenship if the presidency and the parliament do not reach agreement on this issue, Flux reported. Lucinschi noted that negotiations are under way with Romania and Russia to "identify a solution" to this problem, but he added that "the consequences must be carefully considered." He said Moldova's "statehood" might be endangered if a considerable proportion of its citizens hold citizenship of another country as well. On 23 February, Lucinschi submitted to the parliament a bill that would allow double citizenship only if obtained by birth, marriage, or bilateral agreements with other states. MS

LIBYA POSTPONES TRIAL OF BULGARIANS

Libya has agreed to postpone until 3 April the trial of the six Bulgarians accused of willfully infecting children with the HIV virus, Reuters reported on 28 February, citing Bulgarian state radio. The defendants' Libyan lawyer requested that postponement so that he can study the 1,600-page indictment. President Petar Stoyanov welcomed the decision, calling it "a move of good will that will help find out the truth." The six Bulgarians will be tried in a special court under laws that include elements of the Muslim Sharia law. According to dpa, the six are also accused of prostitution, consuming alcohol and drug trafficking, and committing adultery. MS




UKRAINE PRESIDENT'S PROPOSED REFERENDUM DRAWS CRITICISM


By Lily Hyde

Ukrainians might have an unprecedented chance in April to express both their lack of faith in a split parliament and their confidence in the newly re-elected president.

A national referendum, called by President Leonid Kuchma last month, is due to ask voters if they agree to express no confidence in the parliament. If approved by the public, six major changes to the constitution would strip parliamentary deputies of their immunity from prosecution and create a second chamber of the parliament. Those amendments would also allow the president to dismiss the legislature if a majority is not formed within one month of elections or if a budget is not passed within three months.

Recent opinion polls indicate Ukrainians will approve all six points if the referendum goes ahead.

Kuchma has said he hopes the proposed changes will end the years-long stalemate between the parliament and the presidency. But opponents say he is trying to impose rule by Ukraine's oligarchs--a small group of extremely wealthy individuals who are said to use their seats in the parliament and stakes in the media to further their own ends. Opponents also say that the referendum would violate the constitution and would allow the quick passage of far-reaching legislation ostensibly endorsed by the electorate.

Those arguing that the referendum is unconstitutional say that, under the law, the president can call a direct popular vote on constitutional changes only after the parliament has approved the proposals. The only relevant law, dating back to 1991, says a referendum can be called only by parliament.

Those concerns have been echoed in a letter sent to Kuchma by the president of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, Russell Johnston, and in the comments of two assembly rapporteurs who visited Ukraine two weeks ago. At the time, rapporteur Hanne Severinsen told journalists in Kyiv that Kuchma had not been very sympathetic to their concerns.

"We are very concerned in the Council of Europe what influence this referendum will have for the democracy of Ukraine, " she said. "The president of our assembly launched an appeal two weeks ago to your president not to continue with the referendum if it is not in accordance with the ruling of the Venice Commission [the council's chief legal consultative body]. Unfortunately we have got no promise. On the contrary, Kuchma said he would not follow this advice."

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission is due to issue a report on the referendum at the beginning of April, only two weeks before the vote is scheduled. At the same time, more than 100 Ukrainian deputies have appealed to the country's Constitutional Court to rule on the referendum's legality. Kuchma has said that he will respect the court's ruling.

The proposed referendum has prompted comparison with Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka used a direct popular vote to disband the parliament and extend his term in office. Belarus was then an associate member of the 41-nation Council of Europe, which asked Minsk not to carry out the referendum after the Venice Commission had found it undemocratic. Lukashenka refused, and Belarus lost its associative status.

By contrast, Moldova--a Council of Europe member--sought to carry out a similar referendum but later heeded the council's advice and cancelled the vote.

Severinsen said she does not want Ukraine to go down the same path as Belarus, which under Lukashenka has one of the poorest human-rights records in Europe: "We don't like to compare the situations, but there are some similarities [to Belarus] and we think therefore it's very important for [Ukraine] that what the Venice Commission is saying about legality is also followed, so we don't run the risk of having a referendum that is unconstitutional."

The Council of Europe has some leverage if Kuchma refuses to heed a Venice Commission ruling against the referendum. Since Ukraine joined the organization in 1995, the council has threatened to suspend Ukraine's membership several times because Kyiv has not fulfilled many of its obligations as a member. This time, it could carry out the suspension threat.

One of Kuchma's arguments for holding the referendum is that the long-standing conflict between the president and the parliament--where leftist deputies have blocked all government-sponsored draft laws--has to be resolved.

But the mere proposal of the referendum, which Kuchma characterized as "an axe hanging over the head" of lawmakers, may have already broken the deadlock in parliament. After Kuchma called for the referendum, the parliament formed a pro-government majority. Some lawmakers have already dubbed that breakthrough Ukraine's "velvet revolution."

The author is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Kyiv.


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