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Newsline - March 24, 2000




PUTIN APPEALS TO VOTERS TO TURN OUT FOR ELECTIONS...

On 24 March, the last official day of campaigning, acting President Vladimir Putin appealed to voters to participate in the 26 March presidential elections. Putin told nationwide television viewers "We are electing not only a head of state but also a commander in chief." He added, "We are electing a president whose task is not only to improve the economy, revive the country's prestige and restore its leading role in the world, but also to bring stability and prosperity to everyone," according to ITAR-TASS. Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute for Globalization Issues, has predicted that Putin is assured of victory in the first round of voting if more than 65 percent of eligible voters take part in the election, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 23 March. JAC

...PAYS LAST-MINUTE VISIT TO LUZHKOV

Putin met with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov on 23 March. A longtime foe of the Kremlin, Luzhkov recently announced his support for Putin's candidacy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2000). Putin praised Luzhkov's management of the capital city, noting "what has been done and is now being done in Moscow evokes my respect and even envy," ITAR-TASS reported. Sergei Markov, an analyst with the Moscow-based Institute of Political Studies, told "The Moscow Times" on 24 March that Putin is trying to secure a first-round victory by wooing Moscow's large electorate. He added that "Luzhkov is under a colossal threat. He could be removed from his post at any time after the elections." JAC

PUTIN PROMISES THAT REGIONS WILL TOE THE FEDERAL LINE...

Addressing a meeting of cabinet ministers on 23 March, acting President Putin declared that the understandings achieved at his recent meetings with the leaders of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are "a clear signal to Russia and the world community that despite some disagreements, the federal government and territories have importants priorities in common." He added that a favorable investment climate requires "a clearly defined and general constitutional system throughout the country." JAC

...AS BASHKORTOSTAN CEDES SOME OF ITS POWERS...

Acting President Putin and Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov signed an agreement on 23 March in Ufa in which Bashkortostan agreed to funnel all money through the federal treasury and relinquish its right to collect federal taxes and directly finance federal programs, RFE/RL's Ufa correspondent reported (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 23 March 2000). The agreement also enumerates the conditions for the center to provide financial aid to Bashkortostan, according to Interfax. Commenting on his visit to Ufa and Kazan, Putin said that the leaders of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan express their readiness "to function in the framework of a single Russian law." According to "Segodnya" on 24 March, Putin said that President Shaimiev is ready to sign an agreement similar to that signed by Bashkortostan. That agreement, the newspaper concluded, "can be considered a major victory for the Kremlin." JAC

YAVLINSKII SUBJECT TO LAST-MINUTE ATTACKS IN MEDIA...

Russian Public Television reported on 23 March that Yabloko leader and presidential candidate Grigorii Yavlinskii has been spending money from foreign sources on his presidential campaign in contravention of Russian law. The television station, which receives state funding and is considered close to Boris Berezovskii, suggested that Yavlinskii was receiving funds from two German foundations, the Friedrich Ebert and Friedrich Naumann Foundations, and alleged that he also received money from Media Most head Vladimir Gusinskii. The same day, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested that the large number of recent newspaper articles about Yavlinskii must have been "purchased" and therefore Yavlinskii has spent considerably more than the amount in his campaign fund. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" receives funding from Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group. JAC

...AS YABLOKO SUPPORTERS SAY VIOLENCE USED AGAINST THEM

Meanwhile, on 22 March, masked men raided Yabloko headquarters in Noginsk, Moscow Oblast, and beat Mikhail Smirnov, the head of a local opposition newspaper, "Samoupravlenie," "Segodnya" reported on 24 March. Yabloko spokesman Sergei Loktionov said that authorities in Tula, Belgorod, and Petrozavodsk detained Yavlinskii supporters who were trying to hand out campaign literature. JAC

CAMPAIGN HEAD SAYS PUTIN TO RESTORE RUSSIA'S GLORY

In an interview with "Vek" on 24 March, Dmitrii Medvedev, manager for acting President Putin's election campaign, said that with Putin at the helm, Russia has a chance to become a superpower again, according to Interfax. When asked whether Putin could become a Russian Napoleon, Medvedev noted that Napoleon managed to consolidate the French but commented that Putin's personality is the antithesis of Napoleon's. JAC

KREMLIN PURGE BEGINS EVEN BEFORE ELECTION

Igor Shabdurasulov, first deputy head of the presidential administration, announced on 23 March that he will resign his post soon after the presidential elections. "Kommersant- Daily" reported the next day that earlier Shabdurasulov had been excluded from the "unofficial election staff" in the Kremlin, in part because he "performed poorly" at promoting the pro-Kremlin movement Unity during last December's State Duma election. Shabdurasulov reportedly predicted that the movement would capture no more than 5-6 percent of the total vote. Shabdurasulov said on 24 March that he will resign in order to give Putin a "complete carte blanche with respect to cadres." JAC

STOCK MARKET JUBILIANT AT EXPECTED PUTIN WIN

The benchmark RTS-Interfax index closed at 235.99 on 23 March, a 6.11 percent rise over the previous day, according to Reuters. Traders cited the near certainty of acting President Putin's election victory as well as a recent Central Bank report that gold reserves are at their highest level since the August 1998 financial crisis. Also encouraging for the market was news of January's foreign trade surplus, which rose 135 percent compared with the same month the previous year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2000). JAC

SECURITY MEASURES INCREASED IN CHECHNYA

The Russian military on 24 March imposed security precautions in Chechnya, including a temporary ban on the use of private vehicles, in the hope of preventing anticipated terrorist acts by Chechen fighters in the runup to the 26 March Russian presidential poll, AFP reported. The previous day, Russian military commander Lieutenant General Ivan Babichev told journalists that Chechens who have lost their identity papers will be issued on request with papers empowering them to cast their ballots, Interfax reported. Russian armed forces spokesman Lieutenant General Vladimir Kozhemyakin told ITAR-TASS on 23 March that some 28 percent of the Russian servicemen currently deployed in Chechnya have already voted. LF

MOSCOW DENIES CHECHEN DISPLACED PERSONS WITHOUT FOOD

Russian Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu and Federal Migration Service head Sergei Khetagurov have both denied that displaced persons from Chechnya now in Ingushetia are no longer receiving food, Reuters and ITAR-TASS reported. In a telegram to acting President Putin on 20 March, Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev had claimed that the distribution of food to displaced persons in Ingushetia had been discontinued (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2000). LF

MILITARY PROSECUTOR DENIES RUSSIAN OFFICERS SOLD ARMS TO CHECHENS...

Russia's Deputy Military Prosecutor General Yurii Yakovlev told Interfax on 22 March that film footage claiming that Russian army officers stationed in Krasnodar had sold arms, including GRAD missiles, to the Chechens dated from 1997 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2000). Independent NTV had broadcast that footage the previous day. Yakovlev added that the three officers in question had been arrested for attempting to sell 180 missiles to residents of Abkhazia. LF

...AS BANKERS ARRESTED IN CONNECTION WITH CHECHEN MONEY- LAUNDERING

Three leading officials of Moscow's Trastkreditbank were detained on 22 March and will be charged next week with illegal financial activities, Interfax reported. All three detainees are women. The bank is alleged to have channeled some $20 million to unnamed Chechens for the purchase of weapons and to have been controlled by "a Chechen mob" since November 1999. LF

RUSSIA, U.S. PUSH JOINTLY FOR UN REFORM

Ahead of a UN General Assembly committee meeting on 23 March, Russia and the U.S. issued a joint statement saying they are to intensify cooperation aimed at promoting "broad agreement on practical ways and means" to reform the UN. Specifically, according to Russian ambassador to the UN Sergei Lavrov, that cooperation will include reforming the UN budgets for regular operations and peacekeeping missions. However, AP reported that following the joint announcement, Lavrov made a statement "implicitly criticizing" Washington for failing to meet its financial obligations vis-a-vis the international organization. The U.S., which owes the UN some $926 million in dues and arrears, is arguing that its contributions should be reduced. It is currently required to foot some 30 percent of the bill for peacekeeping operations, while Russia's contribution totals 1.8 percent. JC

ONE YEAR ON, RUSSIA SLAMS NATO FOR YUGOSLAV CAMPAIGN

In an article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 23 March, one day before the first anniversary of NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov argued that the operation only aggravated interethnic tensions in Kosova and led to the "purging" of most non-Albanians there. Because the Kosova crisis remains unresolved, he added, "the threat of a Balkan tragedy becomes more and more realistic." Reuters quoted General Leonid Ivashov, head of the Defense Ministry's international relations department, as saying the same day that the UN's chief administrator in Kosova, Bernard Kouchner, is actively seeking to help secure independence for Kosova. "Thanks to him and some NATO politicians," Ivashov commented, "the Albanians believe independence is guaranteed to them." Also on 23 March, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Russia will not send any police to Kosova as part of a special UN force for the province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2000). JC

ZYUGANOV COMPLAINS PUBLIC TELEVISION INSUFFICIENTLY CONTROLLED

Communist Party leader and presidential candidate Gennadii Zyuganov said on 23 March that if he were elected, he would establish a state television channel and introduce supervisory councils on television channels, Interfax reported. He said that "there is no state television in the Russia" because "[business magnate Boris] Berezovskii dictates his conditions to Channel One [Russian Public Television]." He added that the entourage of former President Boris Yeltsin sets the tone at Channel Two (Russian Television). JAC

FRENCH COMMUNISTS SNUB RUSSIAN COMRADES ON EVE OF ELECTION

In a resolution passed on 23 March, the Presidium of the Russian Communist Party's Central Committee expressed "surprise" that the French Communist Party has not invited its Russian counterpart to attend its 30th congress in Paris. That decision, according to the resolution, is a "stab in the back" at a critical time, namely, as the presidential campaign draws to a close in Russia. At the same time, Russia's Communists note that there are differences between the leaderships of the two parties but stress that this must not interfere with "a comradely dialogue." JC

'AND THE WINNERS ARE....'

"Segodnya" reported on 23 March that Russia's Internet Academy has bestowed its first annual Intel Internet awards for the best Russian Websites based on criteria such as visual design, structure, and navigation. Winner of the main prize was , which is an online auction site. Ekho Moskvy's Website () won an award in the category of "traditional media on the internet." The Website, won the prize for information and politics. Other winners were the Website for the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg () and Sport segodnya (). JAC




ARMENIAN PRESIDENT, PREMIER VISIT WOUNDED KARABAKH LEADER

Robert Kocharian and Aram Sargsian on 23 March visited Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno- Karabakh Republic, who is recovering in a Yerevan hospital from gun wounds received during the unsuccessful attack on his life early on 22 March, Interfax reported. Ghukasian's brother Areg and one of the surgeons who operated on him both pronounced his condition satisfactory, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. In Stepanakert, police discovered "illegal weapons and ammunition" in the homes of former Defense Minister Samvel Babayan and his brother Karen, both of whom were taken into custody on 22 March on suspicion of involvement in the bid to assassinate Ghukasian. Karabakh First Deputy Prosecutor-General Aramais Avagian told Noyan Tapan on 23 March that no charges have yet been brought against any of the several dozen detainees. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI GENERALS CALL FOR NEW WAR OVER KARABAKH

Speaking at a press conference in Baku on 24 March, former senior Azerbaijani Defense Ministry officials argued that since all attempts to resolve the Karabakh conflict peacefully have failed, a new attempt should be made to win back control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent currently Armenian-controlled territories by force, Turan reported. Former Defense Minister Tajaddin Mehtiev argued that it would be possible to inflict a military defeat on Armenia if the Azerbaijani leadership and opposition close ranks. LF

AZERBAIJAN QUERIES LEGALITY OF OIL TARIFF CONCESSION...

Azerbaijani observers are puzzled over the implications of President Heidar Aliev's statement in Tbilisi on 22 March that Azerbaijan has agreed to use its profits to augment the tariff that Georgia will receive from the transit of Caspian oil, Turan reported on 23 March. The agency quoted unidentified experts as suggesting that the legal owner of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline would pay a certain amount (for example, 12 cents) to Georgia and Azerbaijan per barrel of oil carried via these countries. A concession by Azerbaijan to Georgia such as Aliyev hinted at would mean that Azerbaijan would be paid not 12, but 8 cents, while Georgia would receive not 12, but 16 cents. LF

...AND OPPOSITION SLAMS IT...

Opposition party leaders have criticized Aliev's announcement, Turan reported on 23 March. National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov pointed out that "the fees for oil, the oil pipeline, and oil transportation are not Heidar Aliev's property that he can present to his friend.... This is a strategic issue and it cannot be resolved in a hurry." Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar similarly argued that "infringing upon one's own interests in favor of the other side is an incorrect decision from both the political and economic viewpoints." Both Gambar and Azerbaijan Popular Front Party first deputy chairman Ali Kerimov termed Aliev's decision as yet another example of his placing personal interests above those of the state. LF

...AS GEORGIA CALCULATES PROFITS

Gia Chanturia, the chairman of the Georgian International Oil Corporation, told a news conference in Tbilisi on 23 March that the transit of the "main" Caspian oil via Georgia will bring in transit fees of $52.5 million annually, which will be equal to 10 percent of the state budget, Caucasus Press reported. He said that at the initial stage (2004-2008) Georgia will receive 12 cents for 1 barrel or 89 cents for 1 ton of oil; at the second stage, (2009-2018) it will get 14 cents for 1 barrel or 1.4 dollars for 1 ton and at the third stage (2019-2043) 17 cents and more for 1 barrel or1.26 dollars for 1 ton. An Azerbaijani official representing the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, the only Western consortium currently exporting Azerbaijani oil, said President Aliev's concession was motivated by the desire to expedite the start of construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. LF

AZERBAIJAN, GEORGIA SIGN FURTHER COOPERATION AGREEMENTS

Addressing the Georgian parliament on 23 March, President Aliyev characterized relations between his country and Georgia as "a strategic partnership" and "really friendly and mutually beneficial," ITAR-TASS reported. Several bilateral agreements were signed during Aliev's two-day state visit to Tbilisi, including on the exchange of information and on cooperation in the social protection of the population and between the two countries' Justice Ministries. LF

GEORGIAN MILITARY CLARIFIES RETURN HOME OF KFOR CONTINGENT

Members of the Georgian peacekeeping contingent serving with KFOR in Kosova were sent back to Tbilisi for insubordination before their eight-month tour of duty was complete, "Segodnya" reported on 22 March. The newspaper claimed that the Georgian troops had refused to accept orders from the Turkish officers under whom they served and had locked themselves in their barracks and declared a hunger-strike. Georgian military officials admitted that the Georgian Defense Ministry has failed to pay on time the $600 per month to which the men were entitled. A Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman denied last week that Georgian peacekeepers have returned home because of friction with the Turkish contingent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2000). LF

LAST GEORGIAN DESERTERS SURRENDER

All the 60 or so Georgian servicemen who deserted from their unit at the Kodjori training camp earlier this month have now returned, Caucasus Press reported on 24 March, citing "Rezonansi" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 200). LF

SUSPECT ARRESTED IN MURDER OF ABKHAZ VICE PREMIER

Russian and Abkhaz police recently arrested a man on suspicion of involvement in the September 1995 assassination of Abkhaz Deputy Prime Minister Yurii Voronov, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 23 March (see "OMRI Daily Digest," 13 September 1995). The suspect, named as Albert Tarba, is believed to have acted on instructions from Georgian intelligence with the aim of destabilizing the internal situation in Abkhazia. LF

KYRGYZ DEMAND ARRESTED OPPOSITION LEADER'S RELEASE...

Some 250 people demonstrated on 23 March outside the Kyrgyz Security Ministry to demand the release of opposition Ar- Namys Party Chairman Feliks Kulov, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Kulov was arrested the previous day on suspicion of participating in illegal activities by members of the Kalkhan anti-terror squad while he headed the Security Ministry in 1997-1998 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 1999 and 23 March 2000), according to Reuters. Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek on 23 March, Security Ministry department head Ikramadin Aitkulov said that Kulov has been charged with abuse of power while he served as security minister and deputy premier and with violating the rights and interests of the state and individual citizens. He said that Kulov is also suspected of misappropriating some $22,000 that the Security Ministry had received from unnamed commercial firms. LF

...AS PROTESTS OVER POLL OUTCOME CONTINUE

The OSCE mission in Bishkek issued a press release on 23 March stressing its concern over the situation that has arisen in Kyrgyzstan since the two rounds of voting for a new parliament on 20 February and 12 March as well as over the violations committed before and during the vote, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Also on 23 March, some 300 people continued their protest in the town of Kara-Buura to demand the annulment of the 12 March parliamentary runoff in that constituency, in which Kulov was defeated. LF

TAJIKISTAN ELECTS UPPER CHAMBER OF PARLIAMENT

Regional assemblies in Tajikistan's five electoral districts on 23 March elected five deputies each to the upper house of the new parliament, Reuters and Asia-Plus Blitz reported. They include the mayor of Dushanbe, the prosecutor-general, and the heads of the writers' union and Academy of Sciences. The remaining eight members of the upper house were named by President Imomali Rakhmonov last week. LF

UZBEKISTAN TO LIBERALIZE BANKING SYSTEM

President Islam Karimov has issued a decree intended to increase the independence of commercial banks and make it easier for them to issue low-interest loans to farmers and small and medium- sized businesses, Interfax reported on 23 March. Banks are to set up a special fund to issue such loans, and the proceeds from doing so will be tax exempt for five years, provided they are reinvested in the fund. LF




BELARUS SEEKS COOPERATION ACCORD WITH NATO

Valyantsin Rybakou, head of the department for international security in Belarus's Foreign Ministry, told journalists on 23 March that Belarus is seeking a cooperation agreement with NATO, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Rybakou noted that Minsk proposed signing such an accord more than two years ago, but Brussels has not responded. He proposed that NATO sign a charter with Belarus similar to those the alliance has concluded with Russia and Ukraine. Rybakou noted that the Partnership for Peace program does not fully suit Belarus's interests since, he argued, it is intended for countries that want to join the alliance. JM

UKRAINE ASKED TO RELEASE TURKISH FISHERMEN

The Turkish Foreign Ministry on 23 March summoned the Ukrainian ambassador to Ankara to protest the killing of a Turkish fisherman and the sinking of a Turkish boat the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2000), AP reported. "An intervention that leads to the loss of life is not an acceptable matter within international law," the ministry said in a statement, calling for the immediate release of the fishermen and their boats. The statement noted that Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and his Ukrainian counterpart, Borys Tarasyuk, have agreed to cooperate to prevent such incidents in future, according to Reuters. Interfax reported that Tarasyuk proposed to Cem that Kyiv and Ankara hold "immediate consultations in connection with the violation of Ukraine's exclusive economic zone in the Black Sea by Turkish fishing boats." JM

POLAND TO ASSIST UKRAINE WITH REFORMS

Ukrainian Deputy Premier Yuriy Yekhanurov and Polish Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz have signed a declaration whereby Poland will share its experience with and provide training for Ukrainian experts in implementing reforms, Interfax and PAP reported on 23 March. Balcerowicz told journalists in Kyiv that the areas of assistance include the reform of the state administration, privatization of key branches of the economy, the reform of the pension system, as well as consultations on the development of small and medium-sized businesses. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES AMNESTY, TAX EXEMPTIONS FOR SLAVE LABORERS

The Supreme Council has passed in the first reading an amnesty bill that paves the way for the release of some 33,000 Ukrainian short-term convicts. The bill, proposed by the president, primarily applies to juveniles, those with children under 16 years of age, the elderly, war veterans, disabled persons, and those suffering from tuberculosis. The parliament also passed a bill granting tax exemptions on compensation payments to Ukraine's Nazi slave laborers and victims of Nazi persecution. It is expected that some 600,000 Ukrainians will receive $2,500-$7,500 each from Germany's government and industries under a deal concluded between survivors' groups and Germany the previous day. JM

LITHUANIAN RULING PARTY SPLITS

Just days after a setback in the local elections, the ruling Conservatives appear to have split. Thirteen members of the parliament loyal to former Premier Gediminas Vagnorius have founded a new faction, ELTA reported on 23 March. The new faction includes Vagnorius, several former cabinet ministers, and several recently ousted Conservative Party members. In particular, it criticized the government's decision to oust the board chairman of state- owned Taupomasis Bankas (Savings Bank), Romualdas Visokavicius. According to ELTA, Visokavicius could be replaced by Algimantas Krizinauskas, a former finance minister. MH

COALITION PARTNER RELUCTANT TO SUPPORT SOLIDARITY LEADER'S PRESIDENTIAL BID

Leszek Balcerowicz, leader of the Freedom Union (UW) and finance minister, told Polish Radio on 23 March that "it would be difficult" for the UW leadership to support the candidacy of Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski in this year's presidential elections. According to Balcerowicz, the UW electorate's "views, preferences, and antipathies" determined that viewpoint. JM

WORLD BANK URGES POLAND TO CURB CORRUPTION

The World Bank has urged Poland to begin fighting corruption, starting at "the highest levels," Reuters reported on 23 March. "All our interviewees pointed to corruption at the highest levels of power as the most serious problem in Poland and said it was growing," the World Bank said in a report commissioned by Finance Minister Balcerowicz. The World Bank talked to parliamentary deputies, officials from the administration and judiciary, businessmen, academics, and non-government organizations. It also based the report on newspaper articles and Interior Ministry and Supreme Audit Chamber reports. The main problem areas are pay-offs to deputies to back or block certain laws, irregularities in awarding state orders to private companies, and manipulations in the privatization process. JM

CZECH FOREIGNERS LAW TO BE CHANGED

The Czech government's Council for Human Rights said on 23 March that the new law on foreigners contravenes international agreements signed by the Czech Republic in 10 ways, CTK reported. The council notes that the law contains excessive financial demands for residency permits and complicates the stay of students and foreign experts. On 22 March, the government asked the Interior Ministry to draft an amendment to the law by June. VG

CZECH JAILS RUNNING OUT OF ROOM

The general director of the Czech prison service, Kamila Meclova, announced on 22 March that the country's overcrowded prisons will no longer be accepting convicts who have been sentenced to two years in prison or less, "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported. As of 23 March, any new convicts sentenced to such prison terms will be temporarily turned away until space becomes available. Czech prisons now house some 24,000 inmates. In other news, a group of about 25 Chechen refugees have been peacefully occupying the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Prague since 23 March. They say they received an anonymous telephone death threat from a Russian-speaker, Czech media reported. VG

GEREMEK SAYS NO STRAIN IN CZECH-POLISH RELATIONS

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek on 23 March dismissed recent media reports about a strain in Czech-Polish relations owing to a spy scandal, CTK reported. The Czech press had reported earlier in the week that the Polish government rejected a candidate for the post of military attache at the Czech Embassy in Warsaw on the grounds that he had engaged in spying activities in Poland. The alleged Czech spy had been working in Poland since the 1980s. VG

CORRECTION

"RFE/RL Newsline" incorrectly reported on 23 March that Czech GDP grew by 0.2 percent last year. In fact, it fell by 0.2 percent.

SLOVAK PARTIES DISCUSS COALITION PROBLEMS

Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda has submitted a document on problems within the governing coalition to members of Slovak Democratic Coalition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2000), TASR reported on 23 March. The document was drawn up by the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL). Among other things, the SDL asserts that the SDK no longer exists as a party, even though Dzurinda claims that it does. Christian Democratic Movement leader Jan Carnogursky, whose party is a member of the SDK, said Dzurinda should accept the country's political realities. Carnogursky and other parties within the SDK are proposing that the SDK be turned into a looser six-party coalition. SDK members are scheduled to discuss the proposal on 26 March. VG

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT DEBATES BILL ON BANNER DISPLAY

Marta Matrai of the governing Federation of Young Democrats- Hungarian Civic Party has proposed to the parliament that the national flag be displayed on all public buildings at all times, Hungarian media reported on 23 March. Andras Csaky of the coalition member Democratic Forum said the amendment aims at strengthening national awareness. Opposition Free Democrat Imre Mecs replied by saying that "patriotism is an issue of conscience that produces its opposite when forced." His remarks were received with "pleasure" by Independent Smallholder Zsolt Lanyi, who commented that Mecs's comments "show who is a real Hungarian." MSZ

FIDESZ SUBMITS MEDIA ACT AMENDMENT

Szilard Sasvari, a member of FIDESZ and chairman of the parliament's cultural and press committee, has submitted a motion on amending the media law. In an attempt to resolve the recent dispute between the coalition and the opposition parties, Sasvari proposed six- member boards of trustees of public media outlets, instead of the current eight-member boards. According to the proposal, each of the six parliamentary groups would nominate one member of the boards. The strongest coalition party would provide the chairman of the board, while the deputy chairman would be nominated by the strongest opposition party. The opposition Free Democrats signaled earlier that they would support six-member media boards. MSZ




ETHNIC ALBANIAN MILITANTS PLEDGE POLITICAL STRUGGLE

Unnamed political representatives of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac said in a formal statement on 24 March that they "are committed to a political solution [to the problems of southwest Serbia's Albanian minority] in cooperation with the international community," AP reported. The statement did not include a pledge of a unilateral cease- fire or an offer to disarm as some Western diplomats had hoped. But in Washington the previous day, State Department spokesman James Rubin said that "it's an important statement in moving the problem there from the military to political sphere." In Gjilan, Januz Musliu of the Political Council for Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac told Reuters after nine hours of meetings with U.S. and Kosovar Albanian officials: "Our stance and our engagement will be in accord with our own national and international interests, especially with those of the United States and the North Atlantic Alliance." PM

NATO LEADERS MARK ANNIVERSARY OF KOSOVA CAMPAIGN

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson and Supreme Commander Europe General Wesley Clark are slated to visit Kosova on 24 March. They will mark the first anniversary of NATO's bombing campaign that forced the Serbian leadership to end Operation Horseshoe, which was the code-name for a campaign launched in early 1999 to expel the ethnic Albanians who make up some 90 percent of Kosova's population. Robertson and Clark were originally scheduled to arrive at 9:00 a.m. local time, but the trip was delayed for what an unnamed NATO official called "operational reasons." When Reuters asked if that meant because of security concerns, the official replied: "I won't go into that." Later, KFOR spokesman Major Nick Naudin said that the planned trip by the two leaders to the divided city of Mitrovica has been canceled. Reuters suggested that it would be an embarrassment for NATO if it could not guarantee the two men's security there. PM

U.S. OPPOSES PARTITION OF MITROVICA

NATO peacekeepers on 24 March put up signs in parts of the Serb-held area of northern Mitrovica indicating that those areas are a "confidence zone" in which all people may move about freely. The zone now stretches from northern Mitrovica across the bridge over the Ibar River and into mainly Albanian southern Mitrovica. Local Serbs told AP, however, that KFOR "will make a terrible mistake if they tried to enforce the zone. We know their are doing all this to enable the Albanians to take everything." The previous day in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stressed Washington's opposition to the partition of the northern Kosova city. PM

ALBANIA CONDEMNS 'EXTREMIST ACTS

'The Albanian government said in a statement on 24 March that there has been a "tangible improvement" in the situation of Kosova's ethnic Albanians since NATO forces occupied the province in June 1999. The government added, however, that "the latest incidents in Kosova...clearly show that there are still many difficulties ahead," dpa reported from Tirana. In an apparent reference to southwestern Serbia, "the Albanian government declares that it condemns any extremist act by any side. Albania is ready to contribute to the prevention of such acts that might plunge Kosova into a new crisis." Yugoslav President Slobodan "Milosevic and his clique are persistently trying to destabilize the situation, undermine stabilization processes, and edge Kosova towards a new chaos," the government noted. PM

MILOSEVIC HONORS WAR DEAD

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic placed a wreath near the tomb of the unknown soldier in the Avala region of Belgrade on 23 March. He wrote in the guest book: "May there be eternal glory to the heroes of the fatherland who fell in defense of the freedom and dignity of their people and [in defense] of their state from the [threat posed by the] new fascism," "Vesti" reported. The next day, officially sponsored "anti-NATO rallies" took place in several municipalities in different parts of Serbia. Reuters reported from Belgrade, however, that many Serbs question why the government is using their money to "celebrate a defeat." Such individuals also called for a "more dignified" commemoration of the war dead. PM

EU PLEDGES SUSTANTIAL AID FOR MONTENEGRO...

Leaders of the 15 EU member states said in a draft communique on 24 March that Montenegro must receive considerable economic assistance if its democratic reforms are to succeed, dpa reported from Lisbon. "The European Council underlines the urgent need for substantial assistance to Montenegro in order to ensure the survival of democratic government and to avoid another crisis in the region," the statement added. The leaders did not specify an amount of money but called on relevant EU bodies to act quickly to find the necessary funds. Elsewhere in the communique, they leaders said that a "democratic, cooperative Serbia, living at peace with its neighbors, will be welcome to join the European family." In the meantime, however, sanctions will remain in place as a "pressure for democratic change," the communique added. PM

...CALLS FOR BETTER COORDINATION IN KOSOVA

In their Lisbon communique of 24 March, the EU leaders added that "the international community needs a more coherent and action- oriented strategy for providing economic and political support to [Kosova] and the region. To this end, [the EU recognizes] the need to provide support in a much more coordinated, coherent fashion and to ensure that the efforts of the Union and its member states receive appropriate recognition," the statement added. NATO and the UN civilian administration currently play the key roles in Kosova. PM

HAGUE COURT HIKES BOSNIAN CROAT'S SENTENCE ON APPEAL

The Hague-based war crimes tribunal on 24 March extended the prison sentence for Zlatko Aleksovski from two and one-half to seven years. The tribunal ruled that the initial sentence reflected neither the fact that he was commander of a prison camp in 1993 nor the severity of crimes committed there against Muslim inmates. He is charged with displaying exceptional cruelty toward prisoners and with using those inmates as human shields. PM

CROATIAN OPPOSITION LETS BUDGET PASS

Parliamentary deputies belonging to the Croatian Democratic Community of the late President Franjo Tudjman and to the far-right Croatian Party of [Historic] Rights have abstained from an upper-house vote on the government's budget, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 23 March. The two parties have a majority in the upper house and could have obstructed passage. The budget now goes to the lower house for consideration. Meanwhile at Velika Kopanica on the main Zagreb-Lipovac highway, several hundred refugees and returnees from Slavonia blocked traffic to protest what they called insufficient budget funding to enable refugees to return home and rebuild their communities. PM

FORMER ROMANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HOT LINE NEVER PASSED 'EXPLORATORY TALKS'

In an interview with Mediafax on 23 March, former President Ion Iliescu said talks with Russia on setting up a hot line were initiated by the Kremlin, were "exploratory," and were conducted at "expert, not negotiator, level." He added that the Supreme Council of National Defense, which he headed, never discussed or approved the line, and he described the debate over the line as "clear electoral diversion whose obvious purpose is to deflect the attention of people from the country's real problems." Earlier on 23 March, retired General Vasile Ionel, who was Iliescu's counselor on defense matters, said that after "discussions at expert level," Iliescu concluded that the time for concluding an accord was "not ripe, as long as we still do not have a [basic] treaty with Russia." MS

ROMANIAN LIBERALS TORN BY CONFLICT

National Liberal Party (PNL) Chairman Mircea Ionescu-Quintus said on 23 March that a decision taken by the party's Standing Central Bureau in his absence from the country last week had infringed on his powers as PNL chairman. The bureau had designated First Deputy Chairman Valeriu Stoica as "negotiator with all [other] parties." Ionescu-Quintus said he may call an extraordinary PNL congress and announce he will run for another term. Earlier, he had said he will step down in 2001. Ionescu-Quintus also said some members of the bureau had joined the PNL after quitting other parties but had done little for the PNL, "being concerned only about their positions." Also on 23 March, the bureau revised its decision on Stoica to name him as negotiator with only those parties that are members of the Democratic Convention of Romania, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. MS

ROMA PROTEST RACISM IN ROMANIA

Dozens of Roma marched through downtown Bucharest on 23 March to protest against racism, AP reported. VG

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES ELECTORAL LAW CHANGES

The Moldovan legislature on 23 March passed a series of amendments to the country's Electoral Code, Basa-Press reported. Under the amendments, the minimum threshold for political factions to gain representation in the parliament has been increased from 4 percent to 6 percent, while the threshold for independent candidates has been lowered from 4 percent to 3 percent. The amendments also bar "foreign or rebroadcast television and radio stations, as well as foreign publications and their satellite newspapers" from running electoral campaign advertisements. Any candidates who violate the law will be disqualified. The changes also call for state television to offer two hours of commercial time to each candidate "but not more than two minutes a day." VG

BULGARIA'S FOREIGN DEBT DECREASES SIGNIFICANTLY

Bulgaria's foreign debt has dropped by almost $1 billion since the end of last year, AP reported, quoting Bulgarian Finance Minister Muravei Radev. The minister said the country's foreign debt now totals $9.07 billion; in December it stood at $9.984 billion. The latest figure is equal to about 78 percent of the country's GDP. He said the government is drafting a law on containing debt growth for the next three to five years and reducing it thereafter. In other news, the Bulgarian cabinet approved four defense cooperation accords with Romania on 23 March, BTA reported. VG




PUTIN'S RISE TO POWER DELAYS CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM


By Donald N. Jensen

Vladimir Putin's coming to power has sidelined proposals to reduce the constitutional powers of the Russian presidency. In fact, an elected Putin administration would be more likely to deepen the crisis of government by amending the constitution to further strengthen presidential power.

The Russian Constitution, ratified in December 1993, provides for an extraordinarily strong chief executive and a weak legislature and judiciary. Popular support for that document stemmed from the desire to be permanently rid of the stalemate between the executive and legislative branches that had paralyzed the national government for the previous two years. The strong presidency was tailored for Boris Yeltsin, who many liberals and Western governments believed to be the best guarantor of reform. It also reflected both Yeltsin's desire to maximize his own political power and Russia's historical and cultural preference for a strong leader.

Despite formally strong presidential powers, the weakness of Russia's institutions and the rule of law contributed to the strong personalization of authority and the chronic difficulty in implementing government decisions. Yeltsin ruled largely by decree, signing more than 1,000 a year, many of which were largely ignored. And on many issues, he ignored the elected State Duma, whose powers, budget, experience, and professionalism were limited.

Most important, this imbalance allowed businessmen, regional leaders, and many others to exert disproportionate pressure on the presidential apparatus. Key government programs involving the transfer of state assets worth billions of dollars, such as privatization and the 1995 loans-for-shares auctions, were decided by presidential decree with the support of the so-called "oligarchs." For most of his presidency, Yeltsin tried to govern by balancing these interests. During his final years in office, however, an exhausted and infirm president was coopted by some of them.

Changing the constitution to address these problems would be one answer. Despite the inherent difficulties of such an undertaking, there have been many proposals to scale back the presidency. Some plans have suggested tinkering with succession procedures or the power to declare and wage war. Others have called for a parliamentary system in which the legislature would appoint the prime minister and the cabinet or in which the Duma would appoint a prime minister who had enhanced powers and selected the government, while the presidency would be scaled back. Another blueprint provided for strong powers for the president, albeit diminished compared with Yeltsin, the introduction of a vice presidency, and increased autonomy for the government. According to this scheme, the Duma would have the right to appoint and remove the prime minister and his ministers.

There have been three major attempts to go forward with these changes.

The first was in response to Yeltsin's endorsement of the 1994 invasion of Chechnya. The proposed amendments, however, failed to gain the necessary two-thirds support in the Duma.

The second bid occurred in 1997, in response to Yeltsin's health problems. A broad coalition of parties, factions, and regional leaders proposed a wide range of amendments, including proposals addressing the problem of presidential disability. Yeltsin resisted those proposals, arguing that it would be premature to amend the constitution only a few years after it had been adopted. In the end, the parliament and the president agreed on an antecedent law, passed in 1998, on the procedures for constitutional amendment. The system itself, however, remained unchanged.

The third attempt was triggered by the economic crisis of August 1998. In an effort to gain the Duma's approval of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister, Yeltsin signaled his willingness to consider amendments. A pact was drafted, but Yeltsin backtracked when Chernomyrdin's candidacy failed to gain approval a second time and a compromise candidate, Yevgenii Primakov, was approved instead. Subsequent efforts by Primakov first to revive the pact and later to draft a new one convinced Yeltsin that Primakov was too independent, and the prime minister was removed accordingly. Yeltsin conceded, however, that the constitution needed revision, but only after the presidential elections in 2000.

Putin's interim presidency, a product of this system, has halted the momentum for downsizing the executive branch. The presidential succession was less a genuine transfer of power than the final act of a months-long drama in which political and business interests sought to find a successor to Yeltsin who would protect their interests. The fact that Putin was both acting president and prime minister during the three-month transition has further weakened the other federal structures.

In recent weeks, moreover, Putin has hinted he may try to reverse the country's decline by seeking additional powers. He has supported extending the term of the presidency from four to seven years. The Kremlin has also revived the idea of directly appointing Russia's governors--their popular election, introduced in the mid-1990s, was a major factor in the ebbing of authority from the federal center.

Stronger presidential powers, however, are unlikely to solve Russia's political problems. More effective would be to build effective coalitions with the rest of the federal government and with the regions to ensure better governance and more enduring popular support. Power-sharing agreements that fell short of amending the constitution but were observed by all parties would also help establish the ground rules of political behavior. Such steps would require, however, the avoidance of strong-arm tactics and less reliance on the oligarchs. During his interim presidency, at least, Putin has been either unwilling or unable to act in this direction. The author is associate director of RFE/RL's Broadcasting Division.


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