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Newsline - March 15, 2000




RUSSIAN FORCES CLOSING IN ON KOMSOMOLSKOE

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said on 15 March that fighting is abating in the village of Komsomolskoe, south of Grozny, after some 120 Chechen fighters had failed the previous day to break through surrounding Russian lines. He added that federal forces are combing the village for Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev, whose men they believe are holed up in a dozen houses. The village has been the center of fierce fighting since 6 March. On 14 March, Sergeev attended the funeral in Pskov of eight of the 84 Russian paratroopers killed in fighting in the Chechen village of Ulus-Kert between 29 February and 3 March. Russian military officials had initially denied that the death toll in that clash was so high (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 March 2000). Russian Air-Borne Troops deputy commander Nikolai Staskov told Interfax on 10 March that the Russians were outnumbered 20:1 by their Chechen attackers, who were led by field commanders Khattab and Shamil Basaev. LF

FUNDS FOR RECONSTRUCTION STOLEN IN DAGHESTAN

The Prosecutor- General's Office in Daghestan has opened criminal proceedings against 14 persons suspected of embezzling funds allocated from the federal budget for the rebuilding of villages damaged during the Chechen incursion last summer, "Segodnya" reported on 14 March. LF

UNION OF RIGHTIST FORCES BACKS PUTIN

A majority of the Coordinating Council of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and the union's State Duma faction has voted to support the candidacy of acting President Vladimir Putin, Interfax reported on 14 March. Earlier, the movement had announced it would not back any candidate, but on 12 March, SPS leader Sergei Kirienko announced his support for Putin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2000). Presidential candidate and Samara Governor Konstantin Titov said that he has no intention of withdrawing from the SPS's Coordinating Council, but he added said that the decision "smells of a split." According to Russian Public Television, three high-level members of the group, Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada, and Yegor Gaidar, abstained from the vote on whether to back Putin. Various media outlets speculated that SPS member and Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii Chubais engineered the decision to back Putin. JAC

ELECTION COMMISSION OKAYS REAL ESTATE OF TULEEV, PUTIN...

The Central Election Commission announced on 14 March that the failure of Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev to register an apartment and acting President Putin a lake cottage were not serious infractions of campaign rules. According to Russian Television, the commission found that because Tuleev's apartment is state-owned and construction on Putin's cottage is unfinished, neither need be declared. JAC

...AS CANDIDATES DON'T BOTHER CAMPAIGNING IN FAR EAST

In an interview with Russian Public Television on 14 March, commission chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov acknowledged that in the Far East, some candidates are not using the television time set aside for them by law and that instead videos and cartoons are being shown. He said, "We cannot force candidates to appear on television with their election program--that is their own business." Director of the Far East Television and Radio Company Lev Zvenigorodkii told Interfax-Eurasia that "apparently, candidates are not taking into account the regions with small populations and are concentrating their campaigning on the more densely populated areas." Another official with the company said that only two candidates, Putin and Ella Pamfilova, had bothered to inform the company that they would not be using their free air time. JAC

SKURATOV HAS QUESTIONS FOR PUTIN

Suspended Prosecutor- General and presidential candidate Yurii Skuratov told reporters on 14 March that he has tough questions to ask acting President Putin about his earlier activities as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and Federal Security Services head, AFP reported. Skuratov said that he would like to ask Putin to explain his involvement in a series of export-import "barter deals" that he oversaw in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. Skuratov also announced that if he does not make it to the second round of the presidential elections, he will tell his supporters to vote for Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, Interfax reported. JAC

RUSSIA SUPPORTS KOHLER

After a meeting with acting President Putin, First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced on 14 March that Russia will support the candidacy of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development head Horst Koehler as IMF managing director. Kasyanov said that Russia is aware of Koehler's high standard of professionalism. In addition, the fact that Germany is "our close strategic partner" is another factor in his favor, Kasyanov added. JAC

NATO MEMBERSHIP MULLED IN PUTIN'S NEW BOOK

Echoing remarks that acting President Putin made in a well-publicized interview with BBC Television broadcast last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2000), the recently released book "In the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin" also tackles the subject of Russia's possible membership in NATO. Asked whether it is possible to review the idea of Russia's joining the Atlantic alliance, Putin answered in the affirmative but added "hardly at the present time." Moreover, it is important to determine "which NATO is meant," he added. "If the question is about the serious transformation of the bloc into a mainly political organization prepared for constructive interaction with Russia, then we would have a subject for discussion." JC

MOSCOW SEES SECURITY THREATS FROM WITHIN AND WITHOUT

In a speech at the Moscow State University of International Relations on 14 March, Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov remarked that Russia must protect itself from various perceived dangers originating both inside and outside its borders. Some countries or alliances, he said, create conditions that "complicate" Russia's ability to defend its "natural and justified interest." Singling out the U.S., he went on to say that Washington's intention to set up a limited national defense system is intended to "harm" Russia: "Of course, this entire complex would be aimed against us. There is no doubt about it," he asserted. JC

DUTCH TO HELP DISMANTLE DECOMMISSIONED SUBS

Meeting with Russian Atomic Energy Minister Yevgenii Adamov in Moscow on 14 March, Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen signed an agreement on helping Russia dismantle nuclear warheads and decommissioned submarines from the Northern Fleet, Interfax reported. Van Aartsen commented that to boost trade and economic cooperation, Russia must reform its tax code and ensure the rule of law. For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said he is happy with the way Russian- Dutch ties are developing. JC

INDUSTRIAL OUTPUT MAINTAINS STEADY GROWTH

Industrial production in Russia rose 13.7 percent in February 2000, compared with the same month the previous year, Interfax reported on 14 March. Output grew 10.7 percent in January, compared with the same month the previous year. State Statistics Committee Chairman Vladimir Sokolin told reporters on 15 March that the population's real incomes grew 4.4 percent during the first two months of 2000, compared with the same period last year. JAC

MORE UPBEAT ECONOMIC DATA FROM LAST YEAR RELEASED

Russia's state debt dropped to 109 percent of GDP at the beginning of 2000, compared with 150 percent the previous year, Interfax reported on 14 March. Meanwhile, the share of cash in 1999 federal budget increased to 65.5 percent from 47.6 percent in 1998. At a recent Finance Ministry meeting, Finance Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister Kasyanov declared that in 1999 all state expenditures were financed for the first time since economic reform began, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 15 March. JAC

PUPPETS RILE VIEWERS AGAIN

At a session of the lower legislative house on 15 March, some State Duma deputies sharply criticized the 12 March edition of the popular puppet television show "Kukly." Igor Igoshin, chairman of the Agro- Industrial Group, said that the deputies were "deeply offended by the portrayal of the State Duma as a brothel and our leaders as prostitutes." He suggested that the Duma's Committee for Information Policy review the program's content. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia faction chairman Aleksei Mitrofanov also condemned the program's "unsuitability" and reported that LDPR leader and Duma deputy speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii will "tell all" about the author of the "Kukly" sketch, Viktor Shenderovich, on the television program "Government Hour." Last month, professors at Putin's alma mater, St. Petersburg University, wrote a letter condemning the program for its indecent parodies of the acting president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2000). JAC

'MISS NATIONAL COSTUME' TITLE WON BY KIROV RESIDENT

In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta-regiony" on 14 March, Olga Filimonova of Vyatka in Kirov Oblast explained how she won the title "Miss National Costume" during the "Miss Russia" contest that took place in January. According to Filimonova, 47 women from cities throughout the federation participated in the contest, which was held in Moscow's Cosmos Hotel and broadcast live on TV-Tsentr. Filimonova related that she faced tough competition in the National Costume category; she particularly liked the costume of a young woman from Tuva who was wearing a copper coat of armor. Another woman from Vladimir wore the distinctive blue-and- white colors of Gzhel porcelain. Filimonova's winning costume used the motif of the Dymkov toy that originated in Vyatka. The overall title of "Miss Russia," however, went to a woman from Kazan, Tatarstan. JAC




ARMENIAN PRESIDENT PROMOTES SENIOR WAR VETERANS

Robert Kocharian issued a decree on 14 March promoting two leading members of the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. That organization's chairman, Major General Manvel Grigorian, and a second leader, Colonel Seyran Saroyan, were appointed deputy defense minister and commander of the Second Army Corps respectively. Major General Yurii Khachatrian, commander of the Fourth Army Corps, Colonel General Artur Aghabekian and Colonel General Gurgen Melkonian were also named deputy defense ministers. Grigorian's promotion was unexpected insofar as Yerkrapah is the military wing of the Republican Party of Armenia, one of the two components of the Miasnutiun parliamentary faction that is engaged in an apparent struggle for power with the president. Grigorian is also a close associate of Prime Minister Aram Sargsian. LF

ARMENIAN NATIONAL TV DIRECTOR RESIGNS

Tigran Naghdalian, the director of Armenian National Television, submitted his resignation on 13 March, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported the following day. On 4 March, Naghdalian had rejected a demand by the Miasnutiun parliamentary majority faction that President Kocharian dismiss him for Armenian National Television's allegedly biased coverage of the investigations into the 27 October parliament shootings. Naghdalian said that demand constituted an attempt to limit media freedom in Armenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2000). In his 13 March statement, Naghdalian again denied the accusations against him. He explained his resignation in terms of the need to maintain political stability in Armenia and the impossibility of continuing to work under "constant political pressure," according to Snark. Naghdalian denied that he had been pressured by Kocharian to resign. LF

DOZENS OF CONSCRIPTS DESERT FROM GEORGIAN ARMY

During the night of 12-13 March, 65 Georgian conscripts went absent without leave from the Kodjori training center to protest living conditions there, including inadequate food supplies, Caucasus Press and AP reported. Some of the conscripts have since returned to their unit, while the remaining 30 have been formally declared deserters. Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze has called for an investigation into conditions at the camp, where the Georgian peacekeeping contingent serving with KFOR in Kosova undergoes training. Defense Ministry spokesman Koba Liklikadze said in late January that some 3,000 soldiers had deserted from the Georgian armed forces over the previous four years. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT, OSCE SECRETARY-GENERAL DISCUSS SECURITY THREATS

Jan Kubis told journalists in Astana on 14 March after talks with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev that he has information that militant Islamic groups based in Afghanistan may launch incursions into the territory of the Central Asian states this year. Reuters and Interfax reported. Nazarbaev had issued a similar warning in his address to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna last month and appealed for OSCE help to deal with that threat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2000). LF

LEADING KAZAKH INTELLECTUAL CALLS FOR PRIVATIZATION OF LAND

Speaking at a meeting of his National Congress Party in Almaty on 14 March, writer Olzhas Sulaimanov, who is also Kazakhstan's ambassador to Italy, appealed to NGOs in Kazakhstan to lobby the parliament to enact a law on the distribution of land among the country's citizens, RFE/RL's correspondent in the former capital reported. But fellow writer Sapabek Asip rejected that proposal, pointing out that much of Kazakhstan's territory is desert and that disputes would invariably arise over the limited amount of arable land available. Draft legislation on sales of farm land was withdrawn from the parliament last year after a series of popular protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July and 2 August 1999). LF

DEFEATED KYRGYZ PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATE ALLEGES FRAUD...

Opposition Ar-Namys Party Chairman Feliks Kulov told journalists in Bishkek on 14 March that he has appealed to the local court in the Talas Oblast constituency of Kara- Buura to annul the results of the 12 March runoff election, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Kulov said that his supporters had registered more than 350 violations of voting procedure, many of which were recorded on video. The official results gave Kulov 40 percent of the vote and his rival Alymbai Sultanov 56 percent. Kulov claimed that local officials pressured the population to vote for Sultanov. He said the parliamentary elections testify to the Kygyz leadership's rejection of the principles of freedom and democracy and will compound tensions between the leadership and the population at large, according to Interfax. LF

...WHILE PROTESTS AGAINST POLL OUTCOME CONTINUE

Meanwhile, between 700 and 1,000 Kulov supporters continued on 14 March to picket the local administration building in Kara-Buura to protest the poll outcome, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. In the southern town of Djalalabad, some 1,000 people gathered outside the local administration building to protest the election defeat of candidate Kamchybek Tashiev, while in the town of Balykchy 200 people gathered to protest the local court's decision to annul the results of the 20 February vote in one Issyk-Kul constituency where opposition candidate Omurbek SubanAliyev polled the largest number of votes. According to the Central Electoral Commission, 99 of the total 105 seats in both chambers of the new parliament have been filled. LF

TURKMEN PRESIDENT PROPOSES CASPIAN SUMMIT

Meeting on 14 March with Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, Saparmurat Niyazov proposed convening a meeting of the presidents of the five Caspian littoral states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) to try to resolve disagreements over the status of the Caspian Sea under international law. Interfax reported. Niyazov added that he discussed that proposal with acting Russian President Vladimir Putin, who expressed his support for it. LF

RUSSIA FAILS TO HELP BAPTISTS DEPORTED FROM TURKMENISTAN

Russian Foreign Ministry officials in Moscow and Russian Embassy staff in Ashgabat said on 14 March that they have made no effort to defend the interests of ethnic Russian Baptists deported from Turkmenistan over the past few days, nor have they been asked to do so, Keston News Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2000). One embassy official in Ashgabat queried whether the deportees are in fact Russian citizens. LF




BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT PLEDGES TO STICK TO FORMER POLICIES...

Speaking to the Chamber of Representatives on 14 March, Alyaksandr Lukashenka said Belarus's "strategic course" chosen five years ago is correct and must not be changed, even though some "tactical problems" have not yet been resolved, Belarusian Television reported. He noted that the government will not liberalize the economy or privatize state-run enterprises. At the same time, he admitted that Belarusians have a poor standard of living but pledged improvements in 2000, provided that "God grants us a good year." According to Lukashenka, Belarus's foreign policy during his term was the "only possible" one. He added that Minsk wants to have good relations with the West and expressed surprise that the West does not accept Belarus's "sovereign, independent policy." JM

...THREATENS TO DEAL HARSHLY WITH OPPOSITION

Touching upon the opposition Freedom March-2 scheduled for 15 March, Lukashenka said he was surprised by the Minsk authorities' decision to allow the opposition to hold such an action. He added that he had been confronted with a fait accompli and was powerless to change it. According to Lukashenka, Belarusian oppositionists are sponsored by the U.S., which, he said, provided them with $108 million over the past year in an attempt to "destroy Belarus." Lukashenka warned participants in the march that if they take "only one step to the left or to the right of the law," the police ensure that "the stuffing is knocked out of them." In his opinion, there will be no more than 1,500 "dregs" taking part in the march. JM

BELARUSIAN LEGISLATURE CONFIRMS NEW PREMIER

Without any discussion and in an almost unanimous vote, the Chamber of Representatives on 14 March confirmed Uladzimir Yarmoshyn as prime minister. Yarmoshyn told the legislature that economic growth will slow this year since Belarus has no foreign or domestic sources for financing its economy. He pledged to limit the government's previously liberal credit policy by allocating loans only to profitable companies and supporting exporters and the "real economy." He also said the government's immediate goal is to cut monthly inflation from the current 9.3 percent to 5.5 percent by May. JM

IMF SAYS UKRAINE PROVIDED INCORRECT DATA ON BANK RESERVES

The IMF has said that Ukraine's National Bank misled fund experts about the size of its reserves, as a result of which the IMF lent money that it might otherwise have withheld, Reuters reported on 14 March. "It appears that a number of transactions in 1996-98 gave the impression that Ukraine's reserves were larger than was actually the case," an IMF statement noted. Ukraine's National Bank said the same day that its foreign debt payments, methods of channeling its foreign exchange reserves, and transparent book-keeping proved that it had not misused IMF money. The bank added that the "differences of opinion" over Ukraine's use of IMF loans may have resulted from the fact that until 1998, Ukraine employed a Soviet system of accounting that differed from that in the West. JM

COUNCIL OF EUROPE ACCUSED OF PRESSURING UKRAINE'S CONSTITUTIONAL COURT

Presidential administration head Volodymyr Lytvyn said on 14 March that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has been pressuring Ukraine's Constitutional Court, which is currently examining the constitutionality of the 16 April referendum in Ukraine, Interfax reported. Lytvyn was commenting on the PACE Monitoring Committee's recommendation to suspend Ukraine's membership in the Council of Europe if Kyiv holds that plebiscite. According to Lytvyn, the parliamentary majority will immediately split if the Constitutional Court "yields to pressure from the international community." He added that a ruling declaring the referendum unconstitutional would lead to "yet another outburst of confrontation" in the country. JM

ESTONIA APPROVES NEW CONSCRIPTION LAW

The Estonian parliament on 14 March approved a law on military service, ETA reported. The new legislation allows students to complete their one-year military service obligation within three years of beginning their university studies. Defense Minister Juri Luik, who supports the law, said that the conscription period could be reduced to eight months in the near future. He added that the government is considering whether to reintroduce compulsory military training in secondary schools. MH

ESTONIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES INTEGRATION PROGRAM

The cabinet has approved a social integration program for the period 2000-2007, ETA reported on 14 March. Population Minister Katrin Saks said the program "is not meant to solve all national problems in Estonia at once but should speed up" the integration of ethnic minorities into Estonian society. Saks added that the government has allocated some 72 million kroons ($4.4 million) for various integration projects, of which 40 million kroons will be spent on Estonian language instruction. MJZ

PRESIDENT REMAINS MOST POPULAR POLITICIAN IN LATVIA

Vaira Vike-Freiberga remains the most popular politician in Latvia, according to a poll by Latvijas Fakti published on 14 March, LETA reported. On a scale from plus 100 to minus 100, the president garnered 70.8 points, followed by Riga Mayor Andris Berzins (58.9) and Central Bank head Einars Repse (47.1). Former Soviet-era boss Alfreds Rubiks, with minus 22.4 points, is still Latvia's most unpopular politician. Culture Minister Karina Petersone is the most popular member of the government (41.9), followed closely by Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis (40.7). The most unpopular cabinet member is Welfare Minister Roberts Jurdzs (minus 15.2). MH

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES INVESTMENT AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIA

Lawmakers have approved a Lithuanian-Russian agreement on the promotion and mutual protection of investments, ELTA reported on 14 March. The accord, signed last June, will offer broad protection to Lithuanian investors interested in doing business in Kaliningrad Oblast, already a prime location for private Lithuanian business activities and investments. MJZ

POLISH MINISTER PELTED WITH EGGS IN DISPUTE OVER NATIONAL PARK

Environmental Minister Antoni Tokarczuk on 14 March was pelted with eggs in Bialowieza, eastern Poland, when he tried to persuade some 500 protesters from Hajnowka District to accept the enlargement of the Bialowieza National Park to include the whole area of the Bialowieza Forest, Polish media reported. Local residents, mostly dependent on businesses exploiting that forest's resources, are afraid that the enlargement of the park will strip them of their livelihood. Tokarczuk said the decision to enlarge the park will not be changed. JM

POLISH FARMERS PROTEST GLOBALIZATION, LAND PURCHASE BY GERMANS

Farmers from the radical union Self-Defense on 14 March picketed the U.S. and German embassies in Warsaw to protest what they see as Western expansion into Poland's economic life. Self-Defense leader Andrzej Lepper handed a statement to both embassies noting that the protesters oppose globalization and the takeover of Polish economic entities by Western banks and companies. Outside the German embassy, Self-Defense also protested the purchase of Polish land by Germans. "We had to change our constitution to adapt to the EU. Why don't the Germans change theirs, which speaks about [Germany's] borders of 1937?" PAP quoted Lepper as saying. JM

CZECH PRIME MINISTER NAMES NEW MINISTER

After weeks of uncertainty over anticipated cabinet changes, Prime Minister Milos Zeman on 14 March asked President Vaclav Havel to dismiss Minister without Portfolio Jaroslav Basta and name Karel Brezina, who heads the Government Office, in his place, "Hospodarske noviny" reported. Brezina, who is 28, will be the youngest minister to take office since 1989. Zeman has yet to announce three other anticipated changes to his cabinet. VG

HAVEL HOSPITALIZED

President Havel was hospitalized on 14 March with bronchitis and digestive problems, Czech media reported. Doctors say he will need a week to 10 days to recover. Havel has undergone life-threatening operations for lung cancer and a perforated colon in recent years. VG

POLITICAL BATTLE AT SLOVAK ELECTRICITY COMPANY?

The chairman of state-owned Slovak Electricity (SE) Stefan Kosovan was dismissed at an SE general assembly meeting on 14 March, Slovak media reported. The issue has political significance in Slovakia since the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), which is a leading member of the governing coalition, had nominated Kosovan to that post. The deputy head of the SDL, Lubomir Andrassy, said Kosovan was dismissed under pressure from "interest groups who want to quickly privatize SE." He said Kosovan did nothing wrong in his post. However, Economy Minister Lubomir Harach said Kosovan was recalled owing to the violation of budget rules at the company, communication problems between the board of governors and the supervisory board, and the fact that Kosovan withheld information on the company's exports of spent nuclear fuel. VG

DEMONSTRATORS MARK ANNIVERSARY OF SLOVAK STATE

About 200 demonstrators gathered outside the Presidential Palace to mark the 61st anniversary of the establishment of the Nazi- puppet Slovak state on 14 March, Slovak media reported. The same day, a group of rabbis who were scheduled to meet with President Rudolf Schuster, had to enter the palace from the back entrance for security reasons. The rabbis are in Bratislava for the 22nd annual European rabbis conference. Schuster said the demonstration in front of the palace had nothing to do with the rabbis, adding that the demonstrators would be "punished" if they promoted fascism. VG

HUNGARIANS DEMONSTRATE FOR INDEPENDENT MEDIA

Some 6,000 demonstrators marched across Budapest on 14 March to demand an independent supervisory board for the broadcast media. The demonstration was organized by the Socialist Party, trade unions, and NGOs; representatives of other opposition parties also took part. The government has come under criticism both at home and abroad for a recent parliamentary vote that established supervisory boards comprising only government-nominated members. The leading coalition party, FIDESZ, blames the opposition parties for the situation, saying they failed to propose their own candidates to the boards. FIDESZ parliamentary deputy Szilard Sasvari said his group will propose a new system for electing the supervisory boards if the governing parties cannot reach an agreement with the opposition at a meeting scheduled for 16 March, Hungarian Radio reported. VG

HUNGARY URGES ROMANIA TO CLOSE DANGEROUS PLANTS

Hungarian government spokesman Gabor Borokai said on 14 March that Budapest has asked Romania to identify plants that may pose a threat to the environment and "not delay" in closing them down. Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told the cabinet he personally delivered the message to Romania's ambassador in Budapest. The Hungarian Environment Ministry has noted that the authorities managed to protect the Tisza Lake from a spill of heavy metals into the Tisza River (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2000). Meanwhile, Hungarian water management authorities were put on alert again after receiving reports on 14 March from Ukrainian authorities of another pollution spill on the northeastern reach of the Tisza River. Hungarian authorities were unable to receive confirmation from Romanian officials that another spill has occurred. VG




FRENCH PEACEKEEPERS SECURE MITROVICA BRIDGE

Some 250 French peacekeepers in full riot gear, backed by an unspecified number of armored personnel carriers and Italian military police, took control of the small bridge linking ethnic Albanian southern Mitrovica with the ethnically mixed Little Bosnia settlement on the northern side of the river. Four Serbian guards on the bridge left quietly after the French told them to go. The action began peacefully at dawn on 14 March, but a scuffle began several hours later, leaving at least nine Serbs and an unspecified number of peacekeepers and journalists injured. Several local Serbs told AP that KFOR prevented them from returning to their homes in Little Bosnia and accused the French of "trying to expel the Serbs" from Kosova. Local Serbian leader Oliver Ivanovic added that "this measure will create greater tension and...lead to a certain amount of conflict" between the Serbs and NATO. Peacekeepers have begun creating a "security zone" around Little Bosnia with barbed wire. Only local residents may enter the zone. KFOR plans to take control of the main bridge across the River Ibar soon. PM

RUBIN WARNS ALBANIANS OVER PRESEVO

State Department spokesman James Rubin warned Kosovar Albanian militants on 14 March not to spread violence into neighboring southwest Serbia's Presevo Valley (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2000). Speaking at the U.S. Camp Monteith base just 20 kilometers from the Serbian border, Rubin said: "We recognize that the treatment of Albanians in the Presevo Valley is a major problem, that Serb authorities need to do more to enable them to live their lives free of intimidation. But at the same time, Albanians need to not operate under any miscalculations about how the United States views the situation. Kosovo is one thing and Presevo is a different thing.... People shouldn't miscalculate that we will support those who provoke the Serbs by killing Serb policemen and causing a reaction." PM

CONFRONTATION BETWEEN ALBANIANS, NATO IN OFFING?

"The Washington Post" on 15 March quoted an unnamed senior Pentagon official as saying that U.S. troops in Kosova "this spring may have to fight their former allies, [namely] ethnic Albanian guerrillas who are rearming themselves and threatening cross-border attacks against Serbia." The article added that a "well-financed recruiting campaign" is under way in various parts of Kosova among former guerrillas and that some 500 well-armed fighters are active in the Presevo area. The daily noted that in Kosova itself, "with increasing frequency in recent weeks, ethnic Albanian fighters have raked Serbian villages and homesteads with gunfire and have assaulted Serbs on the way to work or to marketplaces in an apparent effort to drive the remaining Serbs out" of the province. PM

SERBIAN LEGISLATOR CRITICIZES RUSSIAN POLICY

Yugoslav parliamentary deputy Milutin Stojkovic told visiting members of the Russian State Duma in Belgrade on 14 March that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is a "meddler" who has worked against Serbian interests. Referring to Ivanov's recent meeting with Western foreign ministers in Lisbon, Stojkovic said: "We have not--nor shall we in the future--authorize anyone to negotiate on behalf of our interests. If the diplomacy of Mr. Ivanov consists of fawning over the Americans, he may do so at the expense of Russian but not of Serbian national interests," AP reported. State-run television carried the remarks of Stojkovic, who belongs to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party. During the same visit, State Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev expressed satisfaction that "brotherly Slavonic [Yugoslavia] is moving along the path of unification with Russia and Belarus," ITAR-TASS reported. Seleznev added, however, that the process should not be hurried. PM

BELGRADE CITY HALL PAYS STUDIO B'S BILL

The city government of Belgrade paid nearly $1 million to federal telecommunications authorities on 14 March to cover the private television station Studio B's outstanding debts for the use of frequencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2000). Both the city government and the station are controlled by Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement. The opposition has charged that the government is trying to shut down or bankrupt independent and private media. PM

SERBIAN CITIZENS BACK RESERVISTS

Some 2,000 residents of Kraljevo in central Serbia demonstrated on 14 March on behalf of members of a local tank reserve unit who recently protested their call-up notices, "Vesti" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2000). Protest leader Dragic Markovic read out a list of demands to the local military authorities, including an end to sending out call-up orders until the army officially orders a general mobilization. The Otpor (Resistance) student movement helped organize the protest. PM

DJUKANOVIC TELLS ARMY TO LEAVE POLITICS

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic said in Podgorica on 14 March that in recent years the federal army has increasingly become the army of Milosevic's party and its allies. Djukanovic called on the army to "respect the constitution" and stand above partisan politics, "Danas" reported. PM

MESIC TO AIR TUDJMAN'S SECRETS

Croatian President Stipe Mesic said in Pula on 14 March that he will soon make public the content of documents that his predecessor Franjo Tudjman held in various safes. Mesic added that only documents containing military secrets will remain classified, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. In another sign of Mesic's desire to break with Tudjman's autocratic style of rule, the new president said on Brijuni Island that he plans to open up much of the government's huge estate there to commercial tourism. He added that the government will keep only a small area of what was the favorite seaside retreat of both Josip Broz Tito and Tudjman, "Jutarnji list" reported. Mesic drank with local people and returned to the mainland by a regularly scheduled ferry, offering to pay for his own ticket. PM

NEW DIRECTOR FOR CROATIAN RADIO-TELEVISION

Leaders of the six governing parties agreed in Zagreb that they will soon ask Mirko Galic to head Croatian Radio and Television (HRT), "Jutarnji list" reported on 15 March. His main task will be to transform the state-run media, which now serve the interests of those in power, into a public broadcaster on the model of those in Germany and most other West European countries. PM

SLOVENIA SEEKS TO CLEAR UP 'CERTAIN DIFFICULTIES' IN VIENNA

Janez Potocnik, who is Slovenia's chief negotiator with the EU, discussed some unspecified "problematic" issues in Slovenian-Austrian relations with Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner and other officials in Vienna, "Die Presse" reported on 14 March. Potocnik stressed that it is important "to solve bilateral problems on a bilateral basis and not link them to Slovenia's admission to the EU." He said that he did not raise the question of Slovenia's atomic power plant at Krsko because "that is no problem as far as Slovenia is concerned." Potocnik called EU membership "Slovenia's most important political project," adding that his country hopes for membership in 2002. Austria's far-right Freedom Party's Joerg Haider has previously called for Krsko to be closed and is critical of EU expansion. He is governor of Carinthia, which borders Slovenia and is home to most of Austria's ethnic Slovenian minority. PM

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT MEMBERS DECLARE END TO 'CRISIS'

Representatives of the various parties in Romania's governing coalition declared an end to the recent government crisis after a 14 March coalition meeting, Romanian Radio reported. Remus Opris, the secretary-general of the National Peasants' Party-Christian Democratic, said the coalition parties agreed on certain legislative priorities and decided to set up a technical commission to iron out differences among the parties over certain bills. He said priorities include the state budget and a law on local elections. Democratic Party Vice President Alexandru Sassu said the parties agreed to respect the government's official program and pass all bills related to EU requirements. The recent crisis was sparked by the resignation of the Defense Minister Victor Babiuc from the Democratic Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2000). VG

ROMANIA, BULGARIA SIGN DANUBE BRIDGE AGREEMENT

Officials from the Transport Ministries of Romania and Bulgaria have signed an agreement on the construction of a second bridge across the Danube River linking the Bulgarian city of Vidin with the Romanian city of Calafat, BTA reported on 14 March. The agreement, which was signed in the presence of European Commission representative Joseph Grueter, is based on an expert report prepared by representatives from the EU, Bulgaria, and Romania. The bridge and the adjoining infrastructure are to cost some $155 million. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2001. VG

MOLDOVA HAVING TROUBLE PAYING GAS DEBT TO RUSSIA

Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicolae Tebekaru told ITAR-TASS on 14 March that the problem of Moldova's gas debt to Russia is still unresolved. Dumitru Petrencu, the chief adviser to the Moldovan government, said there is a real risk that Moscow will cut off supplies again (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2000), BASA-Press reported. Tebekaru noted that while Moldova no longer has outstanding debts for January and February, older debts remain. VG

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT SAYS UN REPORT SERIOUS

Petar Stoyanov said the government should take seriously a UN report indicating that Bulgaria has been supplying weapons to Angola's UNITA rebels, BTA reported (see RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2000). He added that the government should explain to the public "how it happened that Bulgaria is again accused of sins" that it had decided to cease committing long ago. Stoyanov refused to comment directly on the UN report until he has had a chance to read it. VG

BULGARIA READY FOR EIGHT CHAPTERS

Bulgarian Foreign Ministry official Biserka Benisheva on 14 March said her country is ready to begin membership talks with the EU on eight chapters, Reuters reported. Last week, the European Commission proposed that negotiations with Bulgaria begin on six chapters. VG




DOES PUTIN HAVE PLANS FOR PETERSBURG?


by Jan Cleave

Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko's recent announcement that acting President Vladimir Putin backs her bid for the St. Petersburg governership ended months-long speculation about whom the Kremlin favors for that post. Matvienko is considered to have a good chance of dethroning incumbent Governor Vladimir Yakovlev in the 14 May ballot. And it is thought that if she does win that poll, Putin may well have plans for his home town in whose implementation newly elected Governor Matvienko would play a major role.

The Kremlin's choice of Matvienko as favored candidate in St. Petersburg was likely determined by at least three factors. First, Matvienko is one of the "Moscow St. Petersburgers"; as such, she not only has experience in the northern city but can count on the support of the powerful St. Petersburg group in the capital that Putin himself has sponsored, highlighting the continued importance of "zemlyachestvo" (friendly "association" of people from the same place) in Russian political culture. Though not a native of St. Petersburg, Matvienko completed her medical studies there in the early 1970s and held various party posts in the city until she was called to Moscow in 1989. Having worked in the capital and abroad for the past 10 years or so, she remained at a safe geographical distance as St. Petersburg became increasingly mired in scandals of the post-communist era.

Second, Matvienko, who is one of only a few key figures to have survived the last three changes of government, is thought to be able to unite political forces across the spectrum. Both the pro-Kremlin Unity party and leaders of Fatherland-All Russia have announced they will support her, while Unity's alleged ally in the State Duma, the Communist Party, is likely to follow suit. The Union of Rightist Forces appears still to be hemming and hawing over its preference, while the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko, which is strongly opposed to Yakovlev, will run its own candidate, but presumably on the understanding it would support Matvienko in a run-off against the incumbent.

Third, if elected to the Federation Council, Matvienko would become one of only two female governors (the other being Valentina Bronevich of the tiny Koryak Autonomous Okrug). Putin has increasingly said of late that he would like to see more women holding top offices in both the executive and legislative branches. Backing Matvienko as governor of Russia's second city lends credence to such assertions, particularly in the run-up to the presidential election.

But if Matvienko can be seen as indirectly serving Putin's purpose before the 26 March vote, observers believe she will be called on directly to do his bidding once, as seems virtually inevitable, he is elected head of state. Matvienko herself even hinted at this shortly after announcing her candidacy. During Yakovlev's four-year reign in St. Petersburg, the city has come to be known as the crime capital of the Russian Federation, and its current administration is largely held responsible for that dubious designation. Fighting crime and corruption, Matvienko noted, would be one of her top priorities as governor, adding that the plethora of problems facing the city can no longer be solved without the assistance of the federal authorities. "Carte blanche" for Putin, who made his early career in the KGB in St. Petersburg and entered politics as an adviser to late former Mayor Anatolii Sobchak, to deal with those problems as he sees fit? Perhaps.

Another hint of Putin's possible plans for his native city came from former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who was recently passed over as the Kremlin's favorite for the St. Petersburg governership and subsequently announced he would not run in the ballot. Speaking to reporters immediately after talks with Putin earlier this month, Stepashin noted that a "program" already exists for moving several federal structures to St. Petersburg, including the State Duma, the Federation Council, and several ministries, and that the city's "next governor" will likely present that program. Increased investments and improved infrastructure, he noted, would be just two of the benefits of such a move and would help make St. Petersburg the country's second capital city.

According to some observers, Putin may also have plans to bring about the oft-debated reunification of the city of St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast. Arguments in favor of returning to the Soviet-era arrangement have become increasingly audible in recent years. Leningrad Oblast complains of the massive financial losses it has incurred, while St. Petersburg bemoans the fact that it is splitting at the seams and has no room to expand. Moreover, residents of the two regions are bitter that cuts are made in social spending while large sums continue to be spent on a double bureaucracy. Many politicians, including Matvienko, have spoken in favor of holding a referendum on the issue as the only fair way to decide the issue.

But even if a majority of voters in both St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast came out in favor of reunification, a considerable amount of good will would be required on the part of the regions' administrations and legislatures to implement a decision resulting in the dissolution of those structures in their present guise and their reincarnation in an amalgamated and streamlined form. In the absence of that good will, pressure from Moscow would help ensure that the process of reunification is as smooth as possible. As "Argumenty i fakty" suggested in its 8 March issue, there may never be a more favorable time to achieve that goal than now, that is, when Putin's "Petersburg team," including Matvienko as possible future governor, is firmly in control.




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