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Newsline - March 22, 2000




FRESH FIGHTING ERUPTS IN KOMSOMOLSKOE

New fighting was reported on 22 March in the village of Komsomolskoe after some 150 Chechen fighters reneged on an earlier agreement to surrender, AP reported. The previous day, Russian Deputy Chief of Staff of the Interior Ministry Troops Lieutenant General Stanislav Kovun told Interfax that field commander Ruslan Gelaev, who initially commanded the Chechen fighters in Komsomolskoe, left the village one week earlier and may have coordinated the Chechen defense from Alkhazurovo. LF

RUSSIAN OFFICERS IMPLICATED IN ARMS SALES TO CHECHENS

NTV reported on 21 March that an unspecified number of senior Russian army officers in Krasnodar Krai have been arrested on suspicion of selling weapons to the Chechens over several years, ITAR-TASS reported. Neither the Russian Defense Ministry nor the Federal Security Service has yet commented on that report. LF

MOSCOW OPPOSES CHECHEN DEBATE AT UN MEETING

Vasilii Sidorov, the Russian envoy to the UN European Office, said that "we see no reason for special debates on Chechnya, a part of the Russian Federation, at the Geneva session of the UN Human Rights Commission," ITAR-TASS reported on 21 March. He added that "it seems there has never been a case in modern history of admitting so many different international delegations to a combat zone." PG

PUTIN CALLS FOR LARGER ECONOMIC GROWTH...

Speaking to a gathering of Russian mayors in Nizhnii Novgorod on 21 March, acting Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia should focus on growth rather than fiscal restraint, ITAR-TASS reported. "The past year was not bad for the economy, and the trends continue, but we must aim for the fastest possible economic growth, 7 percent to 8 percent or, better still, 10 percent a year," Putin said. He called for programs to develop low-rent public housing and to expand the consumer sector. The same day, a Central Bank official told AP that the average income in Russia fell another 16 percent in 1999 to 1,563 rubles ($58) by the end of that year. PG

...MORE SPENDING ON MILITARY...

Also in Nizhnii Novgorod, Putin said that the military industrial complex "can help Russia out of all the problems" the country is now facing, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that his calls to pay attention to this sector have nothing to do with the conflict in Chechnya, adding that "we consider it a priority sector of the Russian economy, the sphere accumulating advanced technologies and highly skilled personnel." He then laid out 10 priority tasks in this area: improve the mechanism for state orders, improve inventory management, deal with discarded equipment, expedite the introduction of innovations, block any leakage of advanced technologies abroad, improve mobilization capacity of defense industries, attract younger specialists to the sector, improve use of foreign-currency revenues, streamline quality control, and revise bankruptcy regulations for the complex. PG

...AND CONSOLIDATION OF SOCIETY

Putin also spoke out against regional privileges "distributed by bureaucrats" and said "it is necessary" to pay more attention to small and medium-sized businesses and to "work for the consolidation of society," ITAR-TASS reported. That will allow the country to make use of "the positive energy amassed" recently. Putin added that "people are tired of negative emotions" and "many are ready for constructive work." It is the duty of those who "enjoy confidence," Putin said, "not to miss that chance." PG

PUTIN RAISES PUBLIC SECTOR PAY

Acting President Putin has issued a decree raising the pay of public sector employees by 1.2 times "to boost social protection," ITAR-TASS reported on 21 March. He also issued another decree giving a lump sum of up to 100 rubles ($3.50) to World War II veterans and former prisoners of war in advance of the 55th anniversary of the end of that conflict. PG

OUTSIDER QUITS PRESIDENTIAL RACE

Former deputy head of the presidential administration Yevgenii Savostyanov withdrew his candidacy in the 26 March presidential ballot just minutes before the deadline for candidates to make such a move, Reuters reported on 22 March. Savostyanov, who announced his decision during a live debate on NTV, urged his supporters to vote for Yabloko presidential candidate Grigorii Yavlinskii. Opinion polls had showed Savostyanov as garnering less than 1 percent of the vote. Eleven candidates will now contend the weekend ballot. JC

ZHIRINOVSKII PREPARED TO WITHDRAW

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovskii told Interfax on 21 March that he is prepared to withdraw in favor of either Communist candidate Gennadii Zyuganov or Yabloko candidate Yavlinskii. He said that he believes that such a joint opposition candidate "would win" in what he said will be a likely run-off with acting President Putin. For his part, Putin commented that "this statement is as unexpected as Zhirinovskii's visit to the Gypsies," adding that all opposition leaders should "pay a joint visit to the Gypsies because everybody would benefit from such an event." PG

MILITARY PROSECUTOR INVESTIGATES YAVLINSKII CAMPAIGN

The Chief Military Prosecutor's Office has begun an investigation into Yabloko presidential candidate Yavlinskii's 9 February visit to a military base as part of his campaign, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 March. Russian legislation bans any canvassing on military bases. PG

ZYUGANOV DENOUNCES PUTIN FLIGHT AS PRANK

Communist presidential candidate Zyuganov said on 21 March that acting President Putin's flight to Chechnya on a military jet the previous day was a "prank," Reuters reported. Zyuganov asked "why do you expose the country to such a danger?" Putin responded to Interfax that his own bodyguards had opposed the flight but "if [one] obeys them, he would have to sit at home." "Nothing is better than seeing everything first-hand," Putin continued, noting that "there are enough Federal Bodyguard Service and army resources [in Grozny], and they have proved able to protect all the Russian people. Although I am the acting head of state, I am not all the Russian people." PG

CHUBAIS HOPES THERE WILL NOT BE A SECOND ROUND

Anatolii Chubais, a leader of the Union of Rightist Forces and head of Unified Energy Systems, said on Russian Public Television on 21 March that he hopes acting President Putin will win in the first round because a second round between Putin and Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov would "artificially boost" Zyuganov's role in politics. Zyuganov "does not deserve this," Chubais said, because he is a "vanishing" political figure. PG

1,000 FOREIGN OBSERVERS TO MONITOR ELECTION

The Russian Foreign Ministry told Interfax on 21 March that some 700 people from regional and national organizations and another 300 diplomats from 50 countries will monitor the Russian presidential election. The largest contingent will come from the OSCE, but the ministry noted that the organization will send only 250 monitors, not the 430 who came to monitor last year's parliamentary vote. PG

MOSCOW EDITOR PREDICTS NEW MEDIA ALIGNMENTS

Pavel Gusev, the editor of "Moskovskii komsomolets," said at an Internet news conference on 21 March that there is likely to be a new division of the Russian media market after the presidential elections, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that he hopes to unite journalists, regardless of their political views, to defend their professional interests. PG

IVANOV SAYS MOSCOW UNDECIDED ON NATO MEETING

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told ITAR-TASS on 21 March that Moscow has not yet reached a decision on resuming its participation in the Russia-NATO Joint Permanent Council. He said the issue is being considered. But meanwhile, members of the Russian government, including Ivanov, have lobbied Duma deputies to ratify the START-2 agreement, Reuters reported. PG

MOSCOW 'ALARMED' BY CZECH-RUSSIAN TIES

Nikolai Ryabov, Russian ambassador in Prague, told CTK on 21 March that Moscow is "alarmed by the fact that political dialogue between [Prague and Moscow] has practically stopped." He complained about the way in which new visa requirements for Russians, to be introduced in May, have been decided upon without consultations. And he noted that Moscow will respond by imposing similar requirements on Czech visitors. PG

IVANOV CRITICIZES LATVIAN PROSECUTIONS

Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov told three veterans of World War II who had fought together with his father that "we are very much alarmed by attempts of the Latvian authorities to persecute people who fought against fascism," ITAR-TASS reported. Ivanov noted that his ministry has sent letters to the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and other international organizations on this matter and will raise the issue at the Geneva session of the UN Human Rights Commission that opened on 20 March. He added that the question of economic sanctions on Latvia "must be well considered with due account of all possible consequences." PG

SHOIGU SAYS TERRORISM A REAL THREAT

Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu told a conference on terrorism in Moscow on 21 March that "the fight against terrorism has acquired national significance," Interfax reported. Meanwhile, the Federal Security Service announced that it has arrested four members of a radical organization that has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Moscow since 1996. PG

WORLD BANK TO RELEASE $250 MILLION TO RUSSIA

World Bank Director for Russia Michael Carter said in Moscow on 21 March that his organization will disburse $250 million to Russia this year within the framework of the second coal loan, Interfax reported. He said Moscow is likely to receive $100 million of the first privatization tranche in the near future. Meanwhile, Jane Holt, the director of the World Bank's Moscow office, told Interfax that 60 percent of the bank's projects in Russia now have a positive rating, up from only 33 percent of all such projects in July 1999. PG

KASYANOV SAYS CAPITAL FLIGHT DOWN

First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said on 21 March that $15-16 billion left Russia in capital flight last year, down from $25 billion in 1998, Interfax reported. But despite the decline, that amount is still more than Russia pays in foreign debt after restructuring. He acknowledged that Moscow's efforts to stop this flight "so far have failed." Meanwhile, Aleksandr Gromov, the acting head of the Foreign Exchange and Export Control Service, said the Russian government has lost more than $1 billion in revenues because exporters have underreported their earnings, Interfax reported. PG

ST.PETE TELECOM COMPANIES TO MERGE

In what analysts are hailing as a major step toward the consolidation of the country's telecommunications sector, St. Petersburg Telephone is to acquire St. Petersburg National-International Telephone and St. Petersburg Telegraph, "The Moscow Times" reported on 22 March. The new entity will have a market capitalization of $450 million, compared with $686.5 million for the giant Moscow Telephone. State-run Svyazinvest, which has controlling stakes in all three companies, will reportedly be the new entity's largest shareholder with majority voting rights. The merger still has to be approved by shareholders of all three companies as well as by the Anti-Monopoly Ministry, the Federal Securities Commission, and the Tax Inspectorate. JC

AEROFLOT HOPES TO JOIN AIR FRANCE-DELTA ALLIANCE

Aeroflot and Air France said on 21 March that the two have begun talks to join the international airline alliance "as soon as possible," Interfax reported. Aeroflot Director-General Valerii Okulov said that it is now "impossible to compete against such monsters as the major air alliances." The two sides said that they hope Aeroflot could join by 2003. PG




U.S., ARMENIA DISCUSS MILITARY COOPERATION

Deputy Commander- in-Chief of U.S. Forces in Europe Admiral Charles Abbot met with President Robert Kocharian, Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian in Yerevan on 21 March to discuss regional security and the prospects for expanding bilateral military cooperation, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. In a statement released after those talks, Kocharian said "favorable conditions" exist for the creation of a regional security system. He expressed the hope that the present "low level" of military ties between Armenia and the U.S. will be improved. LF

KARABAKH PRESIDENT WOUNDED IN ASSASSINATION BID

Arkadii Ghukasian received serious leg wounds when unidentified attackers opened fire on his car in Stepanakert during the night of 21-22 March, but his life is not in danger, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Stepanakert correspondent reported. His bodyguards and driver were also badly injured. Some 20 people, including the unrecognized republic's former Defense Minister Samvel Babayan and his brother Karen, have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attack. The enclave's government issued a statement characterizing the assassination attempt as intended to undermine Karabakh's statehood and the leadership's policy of political reform. Armenian President Kocharian on 22 March condemned the attack on Ghukasian, for whom he pledged his "absolute support," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. LF

OSCE SECRETARY GENERAL VISITS GEORGIA

Jan Kubis discussed the Abkhaz conflict, the situation on the Georgian-Chechen border, and cooperation between Georgia and the OSCE with Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili and President Eduard Shevardnadze in Tbilisi on 21 March, Caucasus Press reported. Also discussed was the role of the OSCE in mediating a political solution to the South Ossetian conflict. Kubis met with Georgian deputy parliamentary speaker Vakhtang Kolbaya, who represents the Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia. Kolbaya criticized what he termed the ineffectiveness of the OSCE observer mission in Sukhum and proposed that it be relocated in Gali Raion, which is the scene of repeated killings and abductions. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION CALLS FOR BOYCOTT OF PRESIDENTIAL POLL

The National Center for Georgia's Freedom and Democracy, a loose alignment created two months ago by some 25 extra- parliamentary opposition parties, distributed leaflets in Tbilisi on 21 March calling on voters to boycott the 9 April presidential poll "in order to save Georgia from Eduard Shevardnadze's destructive anti-national regime," Caucasus Press reported. The previous day, opposition presidential candidate and Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze told journalists in Batumi that Georgian media are deliberately exaggerating Shevardnadze's popularity rating, which is estimated at 80 percent, Interfax reported. Abashidze said that figure is closer to 10 percent. He hinted that he may withdraw his candidacy in favor of former Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili. LF

MORE REVELATIONS OF POLL FALSIFICATION IN KYRGYZSTAN

A second local election official in the town of Kara-Buura confirmed on 21 March a colleague's admission of how administrators pressured and bribed local election officials to ensure the defeat in the 12 March runoff election of Ar- Namys Chairman Feliks Kulov, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2000). Meanwhile some 2,000 people continued to picket the local administration building in Kara-Buura for the 10th day. In Bishkek, some 200 demonstrators were prevented from gathering on the city's central square and relocated their ongoing protest to outside the Ministry of Agriculture. LF

KYRGYZ JOURNALIST CHARGED WITH EMBEZZLEMENT

Roza Kachieva, founder of the semi-private Shade TV station, has been charged with embezzlement, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 21 March. Kachieva was detained in mid-January. She attributes her arrest to her stated intention to prepare a series of programs on opposition politicians. LF

UN TO WITHDRAW MILITARY OBSERVERS FROM TAJIKISTAN

In a statement released on 21 March, the UN Security Council announced its decision to withdraw the UN observer mission from Tajikistan when its mandate expires on 15 May, AP reported. In a written report to the council the previous day, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that he is holding consultations with the Tajik government on opening a smaller UN office in Dushanbe "in the period of post-conflict peace- building and consolidation." Noting observers' criticisms that the parliamentary elections in Tajikistan in February and March failed to meet minimum standards of fairness, Annan nonetheless characterized the poll as "a significant achievement on the path to national reconciliation." LF




U.S. CONDEMNS SENTENCING OF BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONIST

The U.S. State Department on 21 March condemned "the conviction and sentencing on politically motivated charges" of Andrey Klimau (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2000). "The regime's treatment of Mr. Klimau was from the beginning a travesty of justice," the U.S. State Department said in a statement. The statement also noted that Klimau's prison term, together with the continuing "show trial" of former Belarusian Premier Mikhail Chyhir and the government's ban on opposition marches, shows that the authorities reject dialogue and demonstrate unwillingness to establish a climate for free and fair elections this fall. The International League for Human Rights has sent a letter to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka asking him to release Klimau and ensure that he receives a free and fair appeals trial. JM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER READY TO CONSIDER COALITION GOVERNMENT?

Economy Minister Serhiy Tyhypko said on 21 March that Premier Viktor Yushchenko has not rejected proposals to create a coalition cabinet that would include representatives of the parliamentary majority, Interfax reported. Such a proposal was voiced at a meeting between the majority coordination council and Yushchenko and Tyhypko the previous day. Tyhypko added that parliamentary caucuses have made no specific proposals about candidates for cabinet posts. JM

TWO RUKH FACTIONS QUARREL OVER KYIV HEADQUARTERS

Activists of the Popular Rukh of Ukraine, led by Hennadiy Udovenko, seized on 21 March the Rukh headquarters in Kyiv, which until now have been used by the Ukrainian Popular Rukh, led by Yuriy Kostenko, Interfax reported. According to Oleh Sheremet, who took part in that action, the move was part of a week-long "nationwide commemoration" in honor of Vyacheslav Chornovil, Rukh's former leader who died in an accident last year. Udovenko said he hopes that the action will be "the first step toward creating a joint coalition" with the Kostenko faction. Kostenko, for his part, commented that the action is part of the broader fight against "the national idea, the national government, headed by Viktor Yushchenko, and the national parties." JM

RADICAL RUSSIANS THREATEN TO KIDNAP LATVIAN AMBASSADOR

The radical Workers of Russia party, led by Viktor Anpilov, told a press conference that its supporters will kidnap Latvia's ambassador to Russia in retaliation for Riga's prosecution of Soviet-era war criminals, BNS reported on 21 March. "If Latvian authorities do not respond, we will have the right to call on our supporters to abduct the Latvian ambassador, for example, and hold him hostage," Anpilov said. He also suggested the creation of a partisan force named after convicted war criminal Vasilii Kononov, whose conviction on 21 January has triggered protests in front of the Latvian Embassy in Moscow. The embassy has been defaced by vandals several times over the past two months. MH

LITHUANIAN WAR CRIMES CASE TO RESUME

The trial of suspected war criminal Aleksandras Lileikis is expected to resume at the Vilnius Regional Court in the near future after an appellate court returned the case to the lower court. Legislation passed in February allows for defendants to be tried in absentia while monitoring proceedings by closed- circuit television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2000). An attorney for Lileikis, whose trial was suspended last year because of the defendant's poor health, said his client is even more infirm now and that the retroactive implementation of the law on trials in absentia violates the constitutional rights of Lileikis, ELTA reported. MH

POLISH CABINET'S POPULARITY DROPS STILL LOWER

The CBOS polling center on 21 March said Premier Jerzy Buzek's cabinet is supported only by 20 percent of Poles, the lowest popularity rating for a Polish cabinet in the past eight years. Forty-six percent of respondents oppose the current government, while 69 percent said they do not expect it to improve the country's economic situation. Fifty-four percent believe the country's economy has deteriorated since the present government took power in 1997, while 26 percent said nothing has changed and 13 percent believe the economy has improved. JM

SPEAKER URGES SOLIDARITY LEADER TO FACE U.S.-STYLE PRIMARIES

Parliamentary speaker Maciej Plazynski urged Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) leader Marian Krzaklewski on 21 March to take part in primaries if the latter decides to run for president, PAP reported. According to Plazynski, primaries would be "a good means of strengthening Krzaklewski as the AWS candidate in the presidential elections". Krzaklewski had earlier said that rather than primaries, he would prefer to have an AWS presidential candidate selected by AWS statutory bodies. Plazynski said the situation in the AWS is bad and that "primaries would be an opportunity for a very serious political discussion in the whole country." Plazynski refused to say whether he will run against Krzaklewski. The same day the Solidarity trade union criticized the idea of holding of U.S.-styled primaries as "dangerous" and undermining the AWS leadership. JM

CZECH PRESIDENT, PREMIER FAIL TO AGREE ON POLICE REORGANIZATION

At a 21 March meeting, Vaclav Havel and Milos Zeman failed to agree on what steps should be taken to improve the effectiveness of police squads for fighting organized crime and investigating corruption, CTK reported. They refused to reveal the details of their discussions. Havel and Zeman have recently been involved in a public spat over the effectiveness of the two police squads: while Havel believes they are doing their job well, Zeman has called for their reorganization. Presidential spokesman Ladislav Spacek said any reorganization might disrupt the work of the squads. Among other things, the two squads are currently investigating corruption allegations connected to the governing Social Democrats and their "opposition agreement" partner, the Civic Democratic Party, "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported. VG

NATO SUPREME COMMANDER VISITS CZECH REPUBLIC

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Wesley Clark has praised the Czech Army for participating in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosova but noted that Czech troops in the Balkans form only a small segment of the country's armed forces, CTK reported on 21 March. Clark, who was on a two-day visit to the Czech Republic, said the Czech Army needs to improve its financing system as well as the training of commanders and their knowledge of English. VG

PUBLICATION OF 'MEIN KAMPF' STIRS REACTIONS IN CZECH REPUBLIC

The decision by the Prague-based Otakar II publishing house to publish a Czech translation of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" has provoked a negative response from Jewish groups, NGOs, and other quarters, CTK reported. Most critics decry the fact that the book was published without explanatory footnotes. A Prague lawyer has said the publisher could be charged with spreading racial hatred. Otakar II director Michal Ditko said the book is a "historical document." He added that its publication could serve as a preventative measure against "malignant ideologies." VG

SLOVAK PRESIDENT DISCUSSES ROMANY MINORITIES WITH HUNGARIAN COUNTERPART

Rudolf Schuster met with his Hungarian counterpart, Arpad Goncz, in Budapest on 21 March for talks that focused on Slovakia's efforts to gain membership in the EU, minority rights in both countries, and regional and economic cooperation, TASR reported. The Slovak head of state said he would like to integrate Hungary's experiences with its Roma minority into a recently formed Czech-Slovak project dealing with the issue. However, Goncz said the issue cannot be resolved at an international level. Instead, he said the problems of the Romany minority must be addressed in each community where Roma live, Slovak Radio reported. Schuster said relations between the two countries have never had such great prospects as they do today, and he thanked Hungary for its support of Slovakia's efforts to join NATO and the EU. Also on 21 March, Slovak Education Minister Milan Ftacnik and his Hungarian counterpart, Zoltan Pokorny, signed an agreement on the mutual recognition of university diplomas. VG

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT VOTES ON TRUNCATED DUNA TV BOARD

The parliament on 21 March voted in favor of a four-member, instead of eight-member, board of trustees for the satellite Duna Television, Hungarian media report. As in the case of Hungarian National Television and Hungarian Radio, the opposition failed to nominate joint candidates to the board of trustees. The parliament, therefore, voted only on the four ruling coalition representatives. The opposition Hungarian Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats objected to the vote. MSZ

HUNGARY RAISES TISZA POLLUTION ISSUE IN BRUSSELS TALKS

The repeated contamination of the Tisza River raises the issue of Romania's liability, Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told reporters in Brussels on 21 March. Romanian Foreign Minister Petre Roman, who is also in Brussels, admitted that the recent cyanide spill along the Tisza could have been prevented if greater attention had been paid to the potential risks when planning and building the reservoir near Baia Mare. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen said "the polluter pays" principle must be applied in the dispute. MSZ




NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL WARNS KOSOVARS TO END HATRED

Lord Robertson said on 21 March that the people of Kosova risk losing international support if they do not set aside their ethnic hatreds, Reuters reported. Robertson wrote in a report to NATO titled "Kosovo One Year On" that "hard-won success could drift away" if Western countries do not continue their commitment to building democracy in the Serbian province. Robertson called the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia a success. He said "Serb forces are out, KFOR is in, and the refugees are home." But he said ethnic Albanians must demonstrate "that they, too, are committed to a democratic and multiethnic Kosovo." Robertson's full report is available at: http://www.nato.int. Robertson also confirmed that U.S. jets used depleted uranium rounds during the air campaign last year when firing at Yugoslav armored vehicles. He said the rounds were non-critical byproducts of the uranium refining process. Some experts say uranium-tipped shells are harmful to the environment. PB

PEACEKEEPERS EXTEND 'CONFIDENCE ZONE' IN KOSOVA DIVIDED CITY

French-led peacekeepers (KFOR) extended a security zone in the violence-plagued town of Mitrovica on 22 March, AP reported. KFOR troops posted maps in which all residents of the town--divided between Serbs and ethnic Albanians--can move freely. The maps list forbidden activities such as demonstrations, the carrying of weapons, and the use by Serbs of two-way radios to report on the movement of ethnic Albanians. In other news, a bomb blast damaged a bridge on a key road in northern Kosova near Laziste. The damage stopped traffic. The perpetrators are unknown. PB

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH ACCUSES SERBS OF ORGANIZED RAPE

The international human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on 21 March that Serbian and Yugoslav military officers are responsible for organized rapes of ethnic Albanian women during NATO's bombing of the province last year, AFP reported. HRW said in a report that it has recorded 96 rapes committed by Serbian security forces immediately before and during the 11-week bombing campaign. It said the number of sex crimes is much higher but that most victims decided not to report what happened to them. The report says the rapes were not isolated incidents but were used to deliberately torment the civilian population, extort money, and cause people to flee their homes. In other news, international officials in Kosova said that the trials of three Serbs accused of murder and of committing war crimes has been postponed owing to fear of Serb protests, Reuters reported. PB

MINISTER SAYS YUGOSLAV ARMY READY TO RETURN TO KOSOVA

Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanice said on 21 March that the failure of the international peacekeeping force in Kosova (KFOR) justifies Yugoslav troops' resuming control over the province, AP reported. General Ojdanic said on state television that Serbia "has the right to thank the peacekeepers, say goodbye, and take over the responsibility for Kosovo's future." Ojdanic was the commander of Yugoslav forces during NATO's 78-day air bombardment of Yugoslavia and has been indicted by the war crimes tribunal at The Hague for war crimes. He said KFOR troops failed "to fulfill the provisions of the Security Council resolution" and his army's return is justified by "continued terrorist attacks and ethnic cleansing of non-Albanians in the very presence [of KFOR]." He said a return by the Yugoslav army would guarantee the "preservation of national values, the constitution, and territorial integrity." PB

SERBIAN OPPOSITION GROUPS TO AGREE ON DATE FOR RALLY

The opposition Serbian Renewal Movement of Vuk Draskovic said on 21 March that it expects to reach an agreement with other opposition parties on a date for a mass demonstration against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, dpa reported. Party spokesman Ivan Kovacevic said the rally will be held in Belgrade's Republic Square under the slogan "Stop the Terror." He said it could take place later this month. In other news, about 5,000 people demonstrated for the fourth straight day in Kraljevo on 21 March. They are protesting the authorities' crackdown on opposition media. PB

UN REFUGEE CHIEF ENCOURAGED BY BOSNIAN RETURNS

Sadako Ogata, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said in Sarajevo on 21 March that the international community must continue to aid the return of displaced people to their pre-war homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, AP reported. Ogata made her comments after touring various parts of the country. She said that although progress is still small, she is encouraged by the recent return of some 2,000 Muslims to villages around Prijedor in Republika Srpska, more than 4,000 Serbs to the Bosnian-Croat controlled town of Drvar, and nearly 20,000 Bosnian Serbs and Croats to Sarajevo. Ogata said these "attempts have to be encouraged." The UNHCR says there are still some 836,000 displaced people living within Bosnia and some 330,000 living abroad. PB

OSCE MISSION HEAD IN BOSNIA TRIES TO LOCALIZE ELECTION FOCUS

Robert Barry said on 21 March in Sarajevo that the OSCE is trying to focus the upcoming elections on local issues, Reuters reported. Barry said "this is not an election about the Dayton agreement...this is an election about who represents you at the local level." He said people have to ask themselves if they are "satisfied with the education system, housing, or municipal services." The 8 April election will cost some $12 million and is being paid for and organized by the OSCE. Some 21,000 people representing 67 parties are running for posts in 146 municipalities. Barry said about 2.5 million people are expected to vote. PB

GERMANY, ALBANIA PLEDGE COOPERATION

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told his Albanian counterpart, Paskal Milo, that Berlin will provide further aid to strengthen democracy and stability in Albania, AP reported. Fischer said after a meeting in Berlin with Milo that the two countries will work together to create "stability and democracy" in the Serbian province of Kosova. Milo said he assured EU Commissioner for Foreign Policy Javier Solana in Tirana last week that Albania is working to "discourage every extremist element that could damage the already difficult peace process in Kosova." He added that the Albanian government opposes all forms of extremism as well as the idea of creating a Greater Albania. PB

ROMANIAN PRESIDENTIAL COUNSELOR CLARIFIES DISPUTE OVER 'HOT LINE' WITH KREMLIN

Constantin Degeratu, who recently ended his term as army chief of staff, confirmed on 21 March that during former President Ion Iliescu's tenure (1990-1996), the "hot line" with the Kremlin and other members of the former Warsaw Pact had not been disconnected and that talks had been under way with Russia on modernizing the line. Degeratu said that the National Security Council, chaired by then-President Iliescu, had ordered such talks, and he added that Moscow delivered free of charge updated equipment in May 1995. The talks were interrupted when Emil Constantinescu became president in November 1996, but the line was disconnected only three days ago. Degeratu said Romania had notified Russia in September 1999 of its intention to disconnect the line but had received no reply. MS

EU WELCOMES ROMANIAN ECONOMIC STRATEGY

The European Commission's Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen on 21 March welcomed Romania's medium-term economic strategy as a guarantee that the country's efforts to meet EU membership criteria will continue even if the government changes hands after elections, Rompres reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2000). He said the strategy's objectives and the proposed means to achieve them are "satisfactory." He added that the EU is prepared to help Romania close down environmentally risky mines but added that the clean-up of the Tisza River must be paid for by those who caused the recent environmental damage. Verheugen also urged Romanian authorities to "pay special attention" to child-care facilities. VG

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR APPROVAL OF BUDGET

Petru Lucinschi on 21 March called on the Alliance for Democracy and Reforms "not to destabilize" the country's political situation and ensure that the 2000 budget is passed by the parliament, BASA-Press reported. The president was responding to the ADR's accusations that he has caused disarray in the country's political life. VG

BULGARIA INTRODUCES ISLAMIC CLASSES IN REGIONAL SCHOOLS

The Bulgarian government has introduced elective classes in Islam at elementary schools in 22 cities with large ethnic Turkish populations, AP reported on 20 March, citing Bulgarian Radio. VG




DEMONIZING THE BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION


By Jan Maksymiuk

The Freedom March-2, staged by the Belarusian opposition in Minsk on 15 March, attracted an estimated 20,000 protesters and, as its organizers unanimously agreed, was a success. Compared with the Freedom March-1, which took place on 17 October 1999, the protest ended without incident. There were no clashes with riot police; though heavily present in the city on that day, police troops were not deployed along the march route. After adopting a resolution calling for political talks between the regime and the opposition, the marchers dispersed peacefully, while the younger ones attended an open air rock concert. Thus, it seems that the opposition scored a considerable propaganda victory in its fight against the government's extremely biased electronic media.

Minsk City Deputy Mayor Viktar Chykin--who is also leader of one of Belarus's two Communist Parties--commented that the march took place with virtually no breach of the law. According to Chykin, the march organizers fulfilled all promises made to the city authorities regarding the conduct of the event. However, in an overtly Orwellian twist of reasoning, Chykin the next day accused the march organizers of blocking traffic, disrupting public transportation, and preventing people from getting home on time. And he announced that the authorities will no longer grant permission for marches to be held in the city. Belarusian Television, for its part, ensured that the 16 March main newscast included opinions of Minsk residents who were unhappy about the march.

According to Belarusian opposition parties, the Minsk authorities imposed a ban on marches under pressure from the presidential administration and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who, they argue, was annoyed by the success of the opposition event. Lukashenka told Belarusian Television that the Freedom March-2 brought together up to 7,500 people. A majority of the protesters, he said, were rich people in "mink coats" who are "offended" by his "unpopular" economic decisions that have diminished their wealth.

It is hard to say how many Belarusians believed this statement. On the other hand, the regime has consistently presented Belarus's political opposition as a group of people devoid of broader popular support. Lukashenka himself has not lost an opportunity to portray his political foes as the country's "scum," "dregs," or "drop-outs." "Political analysts" in Belarusian Television's main newscast readily transmit such designations to the entire country.

It seems that this time, however, the regime has sensed it is in danger of losing control over the opposition's media image. The Freedom March-1, which ended in violent clashes between young protesters and riot police, provided a good opportunity for the state-controlled media to portray the opposition as a destructive and demoniac force that wants only destabilization and bloodshed. Some commentators also noted that the October march, during which protesters burned a draft copy of the Russia-Belarus Union treaty, offended many in Russia and diminished the readiness of Russian television channels to objectively cover the Belarusian regime-opposition standoff. The Freedom-2 March has done much to counter the opposition's negative media image, as has the confession by a defector from the Belarusian Interior Ministry saying that last year's clashes were deliberately provoked by the police.

Some Belarusian commentators say the ban on marches in downtown Minsk is aimed at provoking more clashes during the various protest actions that the Belarusian opposition is planning for the spring. In this way, they argue, the authorities will sustain the popular portrayal of Belarusian oppositionists as trouble-makers and social outcasts. The commentators add that it would be no problem for the regime to arrest several dozen protest organizers and do away with the "opposition problem" for a long time. The regime, however, will not do this because it appears to need a bugbear to frighten the population and persuade Belarusians that there are people in Belarus even more unpredictable and harmful than Lukashenka.

Whatever the true reason for the ban on marches, it is clear that Lukashenka will not comply with the international community's appeal to sit at the negotiation table with the opposition and resolve Belarus's political standoff in a peaceful way. It seems that permanent and controlled confrontation in Belarus suits Lukashenka's authoritarian rule as the country and its people sink deeper into economic poverty and political isolation.

No one should expect the opposition protests to change the political climate in Belarus any time soon. Indeed, as last year's massive protests in Serbia showed, they may not change anything at all. The Belarusian opposition must still find a way to augment its political demands with economic proposals that could elicit broader public sympathy and build a social force able to confront the regime. For the time being, Belarus's opposition parties seem unable to mobilize support among the country's industrial workers or peasants.

At the same time, those parties have virtually no option but to practice street democracy. "Demonstrations can be avoided when a country guarantees free access to the media, when it holds free and democratic elections. When all this is non-existent, the authorities should allow street demonstrations," opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich commented. It seems that the Lukashenka regime is bent on denying its opponents even that possibility.


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