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Newsline - March 29, 2000




TOP OFFICIALS SAY COALITION GOVERNMENT NOT IN THE CARDS...

Boris Gryzhlov, leader of Unity's faction in the State Duma, said on 28 March that rumors about the possibility of a coalition government are false, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that "the current political situation can be characterized by the phrase 'the winner takes all.' It is entirely up to [President-elect] Putin whether or not to offer his recent rivals positions in the executive branch." He added that the post of prime minister will most likely be chosen from the ranks of the government's current cabinet officials. Dmitrii Medvedev, the head of Putin's election campaign team, said the same day that "the second and third places [in the presidential elections] are not prize-winning places this time." However, Duma Chairman (Communist) Gennadii Seleznev said on 29 March that he has discussed the idea of a coalition government with Putin, who he said "is not allergic" to this idea. And Seleznev added that Putin realizes that "if 30 percent of votes support the left, then it must be taken into consideration." JAC

...AS MALASHENKO SAYS PUTIN HAS ONLY TWO CHOICES

Media Most Deputy Chairman Igor Malashenko told Ekho Moskvy on 28 March that since "Unity is by no means a party," President-elect Putin will not be able to rely on it and he therefore has two choices. Either he can seek a union with the Communists, who received an unexpectedly large amount of votes in the presidential election, or he can work to establish his own political base. JAC

BEREZOVSKII NEWSPAPER SAYS PUTIN WILL LEAVE ECONOMY TO OLIGARCHS...

In one of many articles in Russian newspapers over the past few days examining President-elect Putin's likely policy toward the country's so-called oligarchs, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" argued on 28 March that Putin will continue to allow these business titans free rein in the economic sphere but will restrict their activities in politics. The daily, which receives financing from Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group, notes that Putin publicly refused Berezovskii's help during his presidential campaign and that he also criticized Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii Chubais. However, in terms of the world market and "the increasing competitiveness of domestic goods," the "government itself understood that it could not hope to do without the oligarchs' influence and resources in terms of building up Russia's prestige." JAC

...AS DUMA TO ASK FOR INVESTIGATION INTO ALUMINUM DEAL

In this context, the daily commented on Anti-Monopoly Minister Ilya Yuzhanov's earlier declaration that the recent acquisition by companies of more 60-70 percent of Russia's aluminum industry "does not violate anti-monopoly legislation since the investigation shows that in each case stakes of less than 20 percent have been bought" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2000). The daily characterized this decision on the aluminum deal as part of a policy of "non- interference of the state in economic disputes and battles waged by various clans." Meanwhile, State Duma Economic Policy Committee Chairman Sergei Glaziev (Communist) told reporters on 28 March that the lower legislative house is preparing to ask the government to probe the concentration of property in the aluminum industry. On 15 March, Yuzhanov had said that the identity of the real shareholders in the aluminum companies will "sooner or later" become clear as they start consolidating their blocks of shares. JAC

DEFENSE MINISTER GETS EXTENSION

President-elect Vladimir Putin has decided to extend Marshal Igor Sergeev's tenure as defense minister for at least another year. Sergeev's contract was due to expire on 20 April, when he turns 62, but will now be extended until 20 April 2001, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 29 March. The daily suggested that Putin probably did not want a shake-up in the armed forces to take place before the military campaign in Chechnya is completed. Speculation had been rife in the Russian media that Sergeev, who was close to former President Boris Yeltsin, would soon be replaced. JAC

KREMLIN, WHITE HOUSE TO EXPERIENCE BIG CHANGES IN JUNE?

"Kommersant-Daily" reported on 28 March that when President- elect Putin took over the directorship of the Federal Security Service, "he did not dismiss anyone for two months and everyone was already thinking that was how everything would stay. And then one day he signed a pile of edicts on dismissals, replacing the majority of his deputies." The newspaper added that these dismissals were prepared secretly, without the knowledge of the entire former apparatus. JAC

PUTIN POPULAR AMONG RUSSIANS LIVING IN CIS

In casting their absentee ballots in the 26 March presidential election, Russian citizens living in Ukraine, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan voted to support President-elect Putin at a higher rate than in many regions within Russia. For example, Putin won 86.3 percent of votes in Crimea, in Ukraine, 69.5 percent of votes in Belarus, and 80 percent of votes of Russians living in Kyrgyzstan, according to preliminary data, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 28 March. JAC

TSENTOROI FIGHTING CONTINUES

Kremlin Chechnya spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said on 28 March that fighting was continuing in the village of Tsentoroi, in eastern Chechnya, between federal forces and several hundred Chechen fighters led by field commander Abdulaev, Interfax and AP reported. Russian military spokesmen had claimed earlier that day that Russian air and artillery attacks had forced the Chechens to disperse. Fighting was also reported on 28 March near Argun, east of Grozny. LF

ONE CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDER KILLED, ANOTHER CAPTURED

Federal forces have captured Movladi Movzashev, who commanded the Chechen resistance in the southern district of Shatoi, and Chechen Security Ministry official Vahid Timaev, AP and Interfax reported on 28 March, quoting Russian military spokesmen. A second Chechen field commander, Khamzat Baraev, was killed during the battle for Komsomolskoe earlier this month, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

RUSSIA'S RESEARCH REACTORS DEEMED UNSAFE

Yurii Vishnevskii, head of the State Atomic Energy Inspectorate, is quoted by Interfax on 28 March as saying that Russia's research nuclear reactors are unsafe owing to a lack of funds to maintain such facilities. Of the country's 112 research reactors, 30 have been operating for at least 30 years, he noted. Last year, 90 malfunctions at the reactors were reported, compared with 102 in 1998. According to Vishnevskii, the largest number of malfunctions occurred last year at the Kursk plant. Also on 28 March, Atomic Energy Minister Yevgenii Adamov announced that his ministry is capable of extracting spent fuel from decommissioned nuclear submarines in less than 10 years, rather than the 20 years planned, Interfax reported. In all, some 535 tons of spent fuel are to be removed from 140 submarines. JC

ANOTHER GUILTY PLEA ENTERED IN BONY CASE

A former Bank of New York employee, Svetlana Kudryavtseva, pleaded guilty on 28 March to money-laundering charges. Kudryavtseva admitted that she had accepted $500 a month starting in 1996 to oversee bank accounts that then Bank of New York Vice President Lucy Edwards had set up illegally for Russian clients to avoid taxation. Kudryavtseva also admitted to lying to federal investigators about the scheme when they first questioned her, AFP reported. JAC

RUSSIA SAYS IT DOESN'T NEED U.S. FOOD AID

First Deputy Agriculture Minister Anatolii Mikhalev told Interfax on 28 March that Russia will manage to meet its grain requirements without a new U.S. food assistance package. He added that "there are problems with feed grain for livestock, but they are solvable." Last September, the Russian government had requested 5 million tons of food aid, and in December the U.S. responded by offering what was then considered an interim donation of 500,000 tons. Some 20,000 tons of seeds were later added to that amount. In February 2000, Kemerovo Governor and then presidential candidate Aman Tuleev accused the U.S. of being reluctant to find out why U.S. rice infected with a toxic fungus had been delivered to his region, ITAR-TASS reported. That agency also reported that Kemerovo has still not transferred 75 million rubles ($2.6 million) from the sale of U.S. food assistance to the federal Pension Fund, as was originally agreed. JAC

FARMERS WANT TO RESTRICT OIL PRODUCT TRADE AGAIN

The majority of agricultural enterprises in Stavropol Krai and other southern regions of Russia have reportedly had to stop sowing because of fuel shortages, "Izvestiya" reported on 29 March. The same day, Aleksandr Shiyanov, secretary of the legislature of Stavropol Krai was expected to request that the Federation Council act to reduce export quotas for oil products. JAC

SPS BACKING MATVIENKO FOR ST. PETE GOVERNOR?

"Segodnya" on 29 March quotes Sergei Stankevich, former aide to President Boris Yeltsin, as saying that the Union of Rightist (SPS) Forces will support Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko's candidacy in the May gubernatorial elections in St. Petersburg. An agreement to that effect, he noted, will be handed over to Matvienko by the end of this week. The leadership of the SPS has hinted that it will support Matvienko but has so far made no official statement to that effect. Earlier this month, Matvienko announced that then acting President Putin supported her candidacy in St. Petersburg (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2000). JC




ARMENIAN PRESIDENT BEGINS VISIT TO GEORGIA

Robert Kocharian arrived in Tbilisi on 28 March at the head of a delegation that also included deputy parliamentary speaker Tigran Torosian and five government ministers. During a 90-minute meeting, Kocharian and his Georgian counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, discussed bilateral relations and regional and international issues, including Armenia's participation in the TRACECA project and the possibility of requesting EU funding to upgrade the highway linking Tbilisi and Yerevan, Interfax reported. The two presidents also signed a joint statement on expanding relations and presented each other with state awards. LF

ARMENIAN, RUSSIAN TROOPS LAUNCH JOINT MANEUVERS

Motorized infantry, tank and aviation units from the Armenian armed forces and Russia's military base in Armenia began three days of joint maneuvers in Armavir on 28 March under the supervision of the commander of the Russian Group of Forces in the Transcaucasus, Lieutenant General Vladimir Andreev, Noyan Tapan reported. The object of the exercises is to check the fighting trim of the troops and teamwork of various troops and units of the Russian and Armenian armed forces. LF

TWELVE SUSPECTS IN KARABAKH SHOOTING RELEASED

Investigators in Stepanakert said on 28 March that 12 persons taken into custody last week on suspicion of involvement in the 22 March attack on Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, have been released owing to a lack of evidence, RFE/RL's Stepanakert correspondent reported. It is unclear whether former Karabakh Defense Minister Samvel Babayan, three of whose bodyguards have reportedly confessed to the attack, was among those released. An unspecified number of suspects have been detained. Speaking in Tbilisi the same day, Armenian President Kocharian said that all the persons directly involved in the assassination bid are in custody, ITAR-TASS reported. He attributed the attack to local opposition to Ghukasian's campaign to impose law and order. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT CONGRATULATES PUTIN

In a message of congratulation to Russian President-elect Putin, Heidar Aliyev noted that the latter's 26 March election victory reflects the support of Russian citizens for democratic reform as well as for the strengthening of the state system and law and order, Turan reported on 28 March. He expressed confidence that the "traditional friendly relations" between Russia and Azerbaijan will be developed in the name of regional stability. "Dilis gazeti" on 28 March quoted Lyudvig Chibirov, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, as congratulating Putin and expressing the hope that after the 9 April Georgian presidential poll, Moscow and Tbilisi will devote greater attention to resolving the South Ossetian conflict. The same newspaper also quoted Abkhaz presidential aide Astamur Tania as saying that Putin regards Abkhazia as part of Russia's sphere of strategic interests and for that reason will not condone a resumption of hostilities in the region. LF

VETERAN GEORGIAN OPPOSITION LEADER CHALLENGES PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

Irakli Tsereteli, who for 11 years has headed the Georgian National Independence Party, which is not represented in the present parliament, has challenged Shevardnadze, Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, and former Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili, to a televised debate, Caucasus Press reported on 28 March. Shevardnadze, Abashidze, and Patiashvili are the three main candidates in the 9 April presidential election. Tsereteli is also one of the leaders of the Center for Georgia's Freedom and Democracy, which is campaigning for a nationwide boycott of that poll. LF

PARTICIPATION OF GEORGIAN INTELLIGENCE IN MURDER OF ABKHAZ VICE PREMIER DENIED

There is no connection between Georgian intelligence and the Tsvizhba brothers, who are believed to have ordered the murder in September 1995 of Abkhaz Deputy Prime Minister Yurii Voronov, Caucasus Press reported on 28 March, quoting Vitali Mikhelidze, who is deputy security minister of the Abkhaz government-in-exile. The Abkhaz authorities have recently detained a man in connection with the killing who, they claim, acted on instructions from the Georgian security services (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2000). LF

CIA DIRECTOR VISITS KAZAKHSTAN

George Tennet held talks with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Astana on 28 March, Reuters reported. No details of those talks were revealed. LF

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION SETS CONDITIONS FOR DIALOGUE WITH LEADERSHIP

Meeting with OSCE representative Jerzy Wenclaw in Bishkek on 28 March, opposition party leaders Jypar Jeksheev, Daniyar Usenov, and Omurbek SubanAliyev said they will accept an invitation from President Askar Akaev and government leaders to discuss the political situation only after the release from custody of Ar-Namys party chairman Feliks Kulov, RFE/RL's bureau in the Kyrgyz capital reported. They also said that dialogue should take place under the aegis of the OSCE. Meanwhile Kulov is proceeding with the hunger strike he declared last week to protest his detention, while some 150 of his supporters continue their picket in central Bishkek. Also on 28 March, a local official in Bishkek's Pervomai district rejected a request by five opposition parties to convene a meeting on 2 April to protest Kulov's arrest and the falsification of the outcome of the recent parliamentary elections. LF

ETHNIC UIGHUR SHOT DEAD IN KYRGYZ CAPITAL

Businessman Aripzhan Zaripov, the head of the Ittipak Society that represents Kyrgyzstan's 50,000-strong Uighur minority, was shot dead outside his home in Bishkek on 28 March, RFE/RL's bureau in the Kyrgyz capital reported. LF

TURKMEN, TURKISH PRESIDENTS DISCUSS GAS EXPORTS

On the first day of an official visit to Turkmenistan, Suleyman Demirel told his host, Saparmurat Niyazov, in Ashgabat on 28 March that Turkey has already agreed to purchase from Turkmenistan 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year and thus there is no need to reopen discussion of that issue, according to Interfax. Niyazov, for his part, said that the planned Trans- Caspian pipeline remains Turkmenistan's main choice of export route, despite parallel talks on gas sales with Russia and Iran. LF




OSCE, U.S. PROTEST CRACKDOWN ON BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION RALLY

The OSCE on 28 March said it is alarmed about the "unprovoked, unjustified, and exaggerated show of police force" to disperse the Belarusian opposition rally in Minsk on 25 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 28 March 2000). The previous day the U.S. State Department condemned the "brutal and unjustified" crackdown on the rally, adding that "the Lukashenka regime's suppression of this demonstration makes clear its disinterest in dialogue." And U.S. State Department official Phil Reeker said "a decision on the withdrawal of [Generalized System of Preference] benefits for Belarus for failure to respect worker rights will be announced soon." JM

UKRAINIAN COURT DEEMS TWO REFERENDUM QUESTIONS UNCONSTITUTIONAL

The Constitutional Court on 29 March announced that two questions set down in the presidential decree on the 16 April referendum contravene the constitution, Interfax reported. One of those questions deals with a vote of no confidence in the current parliament and the president's right to dissolve the parliament if such a vote is passed. The other is on adopting the country's constitution by means of a referendum. The court ruled that the four remaining questions may be included in the referendum ballot. As a result of this ruling, Ukrainians will be asked on 16 April to give the president the right to disband the parliament if it fails to form a majority within a month or adopt a budget within three months, to abolish lawmakers' immunity from criminal prosecution, to reduce the 450-seat parliament to 300 seats, and to introduce a bicameral legislature. JM

OFFICIAL SAYS SOVIET-ERA COLLECTIVE FARMS NO LONGER EXIST IN UKRAINE

"The Soviet-era system of collective farms has ceased to exist in Ukraine," AP quoted Deputy Agriculture Minister Roman Shmidt as saying in Kyiv on 28 March. Shmidt said 10,551 collective farms have been reshaped into 11,100 new agricultural enterprises, mostly joint-stock companies and cooperatives. The reform was in accordance with President Leonid Kuchma's decree last December. That decree, however, stopped short of allowing the free sale and purchase of land. Shmidt argued that after disbanding collective farms, some time will be needed to eradicate the Soviet-era mentality among Ukrainian farmers. "I am not sure if this Soviet collective farm system has ceased to exist in [the farmers'] minds," he noted. JM

EU-ESTONIAN COMMITTEE DISCUSSES INTEGRATION PROGRESS

The EU- Estonian inter-parliamentary committee, meeting in Tallinn on 28 March, discussed Estonia's progress in its integration program with the EU. Later, the co-chairmen of the committee, Per Stenmarck of the European Parliament and Tunne Kelam of the Estonian parliament, discussed various problems in Estonia's integration bid, namely the pace of passing laws that conform with the EU's acquis communautaire. Stenmarck added that Estonia's language law needs to be adjusted to meet EU norms and to allow equal competition for all businesses based in the EU, but he stressed that the law is generally sound and the EU understands fully that Estonian is the sole official language of the country. MH

LATVIAN PREMIER SELLS BUSINESS INTEREST

Earlier this year, Andris Skele sold his holdings in the New Technology and Business Development Corporation, formerly known as Ave Lat, BNS reported on 28 March. The sale of Skele's 100 percent holding earned the prime minister tens of millions of dollars in promissory notes. Skele's spokesman said that when Skele bought the company in April 1999, which then was a food processing giant, he had not expected to be so involved in politics again. It was only after the purchase, the spokesman stressed, that Skele was catapulted back to the office of prime minister. On returning to the prime minister's job in the summer of 1999, he transferred the shares of the company to an internationally recognized holding company in order to quash allegations of conflict of interest. MH

POLAND'S INTERIOR MINISTER FACES NO CONFIDENCE MOTION

Some 100 parliamentary deputies from the opposition Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) have demanded a vote of no confidence in Interior Minister Marek Biernacki, PAP reported on 28 March. SLD deputy Jerzy Dziewulski told journalists that the no confidence motion is a result of the country's deteriorating security situation and growing crime rate. Dziewulski added that Biernacki has become involved in a "political adventure" by proposing his candidacy as head of the National Remembrance Institute (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2000) and has neglected his cabinet duties. According to Dziewulski, the Interior Ministry poorly manages the police and has so far not complied with its pledges to introduce a central register of motor vehicles as well as new identity cards. According to the agency, the motion is unlikely to muster the 231 votes in the parliament that are required for passage. JM

POLAND TO SEND ANOTHER 600 TROOPS TO KOSOVA

Responding to last month's appeal by NATO's Supreme Commander Europe General Wesley Clark, Poland has agreed to send another 600 troops to Kosova, AP reported on 28 March. Army spokesman Adam Stasinski said the troops will help reinforce NATO in the city of Kosovska Mitrovica, the scene of violent confrontations between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. He added that the troops will be deployed there in late April or early May. Poland already has 770 soldiers serving with the 37,000- strong peacekeeping force in the Serbian province. JM

CZECH PREMIER CONFIRMS APPOINTMENT OF NEW INTERIOR MINISTER

Czech Premier Milos Zeman said on 28 March that he will name Stanislav Gross as interior minister, the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported. Zeman reportedly warned Gross in a telephone call to "be prepared" for President Vaclav Havel to "exert pressure on you." Havel and Gross met for informal talks the same day, Havel's spokesman said. The appointment will reportedly occur before a meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the Social Democrats (CSSD) on 9 April. Gross is a leader of a rival wing within the CSSD that has often disagreed with Zeman's policies. PB

'MEIN KAMPF' PROVES BIG HIT IN CZECH REPUBLIC

The publisher of a controversial Czech version of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" said a second printing of the book is being planned after the first printrun sold out in three days, CTK reported. Michal Zitko, director of the Prague-based Otakar II publishing house, said the "unprecedented media campaign, for which I did not pay and in which I did not participate," led to the quick sale of 4,000 copies from the first printing. Zitko went ahead with the printing despite objections from Jewish and Romany organizations and a formal request from the German embassy in Prague claiming that the State of Bavaria owned the copyright to the book. Zitko said the book is "part of our history, and everyone should have the right to know it and make up his own mind.... I wanted to make people familiar with who Hitler was and what his ideology was so that they could protect themselves from it in the future." PB

SLOVAKIA CONFIDENT AT EU NEGOTIATIONS...

Jan Figel, Slovakia's chief negotiator with the EU, said on 28 March that by June, Slovakia wants to close negotiations on at least half of the eight chapters it has opened with the union, TASR reported. Figel made his comments after submitting position documents to EU officials in Brussels. Figel said Slovakia will initially negotiate on science and research; small and medium-sized enterprises; education; statistics; economic competition; culture and audio-visual policy; external relations; and common foreign and security policy. He said he expects the first four to be negotiated quickly because they are "straightforward" and Slovakia is not requesting any transitional periods. Figel added that Slovakia wants to open negotiations on another seven chapters this year. Jan Marinus Wiersma, the EU representative to Slovakia, said Slovakia's process is going quicker than expected and noted that the opening of eight chapters is a good sign since originally it had expected to only open five. PB

...AS IT PREPARES PROGRAM ON NATO MEMBERSHIP

Slovak Premier Mikulas Dzurinda chaired a cabinet committee meeting on 28 March to assess the country's plan for NATO accession, TASR reported. The program will be presented at NATO headquarters in Brussels next week by Slovak Defense Minister Pavol Kanis and Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan. Implementation of the plan will cost some 1.2 billion crowns ($27.8 million) this year alone. Dzurinda noted that preparations over the next two years by countries seeking membership are crucial to being accepted into the alliance in the next wave. The next NATO summit to possibly decide on new members is planned in 2002. Dzurinda added that Slovaks have to be better informed about the advantages of joining NATO. A recent survey showed that 51 percent of respondents favor becoming a member of the alliance. Kanis said Bratislava must try to assure NATO of the "irreversibility of developments in Slovakia." PB

HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER DISMISSES CRITICISM ON ANTI- SEMITISM

Viktor Orban has dismissed a statement by the executive director of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Authorities, Gusztav Zoltai, that anti-Semitism is institutionalized in Hungary, Hungarian media reported on 29 March. At a Strasbourg meeting of the executive committee of the European Jewish Congress, Zoltai accused the Hungarian cabinet of not distancing itself from anti-Semitic groups. Orban has also rejected comments in foreign newspapers criticizing Hungarian media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 March 2000), saying that press freedom is dictated by choice and that Hungarian readers can choose from a wide range of media sources. MSZ




BALKAN RECONSTRUCTION CONFERENCE OPENS...

A two-day donors' conference opened in Brussels on 29 March as part of the EU's Balkan Stability Pact. Representatives of some 44 countries and 37 international organizations are taking part. Balkan participants are Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Romania. Pact Coordinator Bodo Hombach told the "Berliner Zeitung" that he hopes to receive at least $1 billion in pledges for projects he wants to launch immediately. He will need several billion dollars more to fund some 100 additional projects slated to start "within the next two years," he added. Among projects devoted to economic development, some $2.7 billion will be needed for infrastructure alone. Other projects range from protecting minority rights to supporting independent media. Hombach stressed that any money spent on peaceful development in the Balkans is a good investment. He argued that supporting stability in the region "is cheap in relation to what conflicts cost." PM

...AS DOUBTS ABOUT PACT CONTINUE

Hombach will need to use all the powers of persuasion that he honed in his German political career to convince skeptical governments and other donors of the seriousness of his projects, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on 29 March. Many critics charge that Hombach is a political appointee unqualified for the post and that since his appointment in 1999 he has been more concerned with his own salary and perks than with the Balkans. Other critics note that the pact has awakened more hopes within the Balkans than it can possible fulfill. Its ability to fulfill its mission has been further hampered by rivalries elsewhere in the EU bureaucracy, the Frankfurt daily added. Hombach's office seeks to screen potential projects and line the best ones up with sources of funding. The pact does not fund projects on its own (see also "End Note" below). PM

BOSNIAN LEADER APPEALS FOR BUILDING MATERIALS

Mirza Hajric, who is an adviser to Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, said in Washington on 28 March that what returning refugees "need is not some planning, not endless bureaucracy [but rather ample supplies of] building material waiting for them upon arrival.... Within two to three weeks they can build their own houses themselves," AP reported. He argued that unnecessary delays are caused by the current process of enlisting construction companies to build the houses. Hajric stressed that security remains a concern in only about 20 percent of Bosnia and that "dozens of thousands of families" are ready to return to their homes in the remaining 80 percent. PM

IZETBEGOVIC SAYS BRCKO COULD BE MODEL FOR BOSNIA

Izetbegovic said in Brcko that great efforts must be made so that people of all nationalities can return to their homes in the Brcko district, "Oslobodjenje" reported on 29 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 March 2000). If a multiethnic administration is successful in Brcko, it could serve as a model for all of Bosnia, he continued. PM

BOSNIAN SERB ARMY REJECTS BOSNIA-WIDE FORCE

Slobodan Jelicic, who is deputy defense minister of the Republika Srpska, said in Brussels that the Bosnian Serb army (VRS) seeks membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace Program, "Vesti" reported on 29 March. Jelicic stressed, however, that the VRS must join the program as a distinct force and not as part of a larger Bosnian army including Croatian and Muslim forces. Jelicic argued that the Dayton peace agreement clearly recognizes the VRS as a distinct force. NATO has repeatedly told the VRS that it is welcome in Partnership for Peace only as part of a Bosnia-wide army. PM

U.S. 'DISAPPOINTED' BY ALBANIAN FAILURE TO DISARM

State Department spokesman James Foley said in Washington on 28 March that "we continue to stress to the [ethnic] Albanian leadership in [Kosova] that we are serious about [earlier] messages of zero tolerance for violence and extremism," AP reported. He was referring to recent press reports that armed ethnic Albanian militants in southwestern Serbia have not made good on a promise to wage their struggle by political means only (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 March 2000). PM

RETURN OF CONTACT GROUP?

Leading officials from the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and Russia met in Paris on 28 March in the first gathering in more than one year of the international Contact Group for the former Yugoslavia. The officials issued a statement calling for the careful preparation of the fall Kosova local elections and for the early restoration of civilian administrative structures in the province. The officials also expressed support for the Serbian opposition and for the government of Montenegro. They did not act on a French suggestion that the countries' foreign ministers meet soon. PM

LAYWER CALLS FOR FREEING FRENCH COLONEL IN KOSOVA AFFAIR

William Bourdon, who is the attorney for Colonel Jean-Michel Mechain, filed a formal request in Paris on 28 March for the release of his client from police custody. The colonel is under investigation for allegedly leaking to the press confidential documents about divisions and differences of opinions among the French in Kosova. One document said that many French officers regard Bernard Kouchner, who is the French head of the UN's civilian mission in the province, as anti-Serb. In other news, London's "The Times" reported that NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson and the alliance's Supreme Commander Europe General Wesley Clark recently cancelled scheduled visits to Mitrovica after the CIA learned that Serbian forces planned to shoot down their helicopter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2000). PM

CROATIAN BANK SCANDAL WINDING DOWN?

Some 3,000 angry account- holders in Istarska Banka demonstrated in Pula on 28 March to demand that the National Bank unfreeze their accounts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 March 2000). An RFE/RL correspondent reported on 29 March from Zagreb that depositors will be allowed "limited access" to their accounts. He added that Istrian political leader Ivan Jakovcic has meanwhile distanced himself from some of his earlier remarks suggesting that Prime Minister Ivica Racan is partly responsible for the scandal. National Bank Governor Marko Skreb may be forced to resign as a result of the imbroglio, which made public tensions between the larger and smaller members of the governing six-party coalition, the correspondent noted. Skreb denied charges from within Jakovcic's party that he engineered the collapse of Istarska Banka in order to enable the Rijecka Banka to buy it out, "Novi List" reported. Some members of Racan's government are rumored to have ties to Rijecka Banka, the RFE/RL correspondent added. PM

MESIC THREATENS REFERENDUM ON PRESIDENCY

Croatian President Stipe Mesic said on 28 March that he will call a referendum on whether to limit or "abolish" the powers of the president if unnamed members of the government persist with what he called moves to "abolish" his powers. Mesic charged that the initiatives to limit his authority come from members of the larger two-party coalition, who are unhappy that a member of the smaller four-party coalition won the presidency. Earlier this year, before the presidential vote, all political parties agreed on the need to reduce the powers enjoyed by the late President Franjo Tudjman. Since his election, Mesic has stressed that he will use the presidency as a check on the government. PM

YET ANOTHER RAILWAY STRIKE IN CROATIA

Railway workers stopped trains throughout Croatia for one hour on the morning of 29 March to protest management's plans to shut down some loss-making local lines. Management argues that Croatian Railways must reduce losses and become more efficient. The leaders of the three railway workers' unions say that the cuts will mean big job losses. The unions add that management can reduce waste by fighting corruption within its own ranks. PM

ROMANIAN GOLD MINING COMPANY AGAIN POLLUTES RIVERS

Some 10,000 tons of lead residue has spilled into the Rivers Vaser and Viseu, tributaries of the Tisa (Tisza) River. The incident was caused by the Aurul company in Baia Borsa that was responsible for the cyanide spill in early February. The company failed to notify the authorities of the spill, which occurred on 27 March during heavy rainfalls that resulted in the breaking of a five-meter stretch of a dam, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau and Reuters reported. Samples of water from the Tisa show lead is 2.7 times over permitted levels. Environment Minster Romica Tomescu visited the area on 28 March, together with World Bank director for Romania Andrew Vorkink, who is currently in Romania to see how the bank can help that country cope with ecological problems as well as improve health care and wildlife conservation. MS

U.S. CONGRESSMAN DEFENDS REMARKS ON FORMER ROMANIAN PRESIDENT

U.S. Helsinki Commission co-chairman Christopher Smith has said he stands by his 23 March remarks about former President Ion Iliescu and his Party of Social Democracy in Romania, an RFE/RL correspondent in Washington reported on 28 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline,' 27 March 2000). Smith said he had expressed a "legitimate concern about an issue that concerns the national interest of the U.S." During his term in office from 1990-1996, Iliescu was "indifferent" to corruption, Smith noted. But he added that his remarks must not be interpreted as an effort to influence the 2000 electoral process in Romania. Smith had spoken during a U.S. Congress hearing on corruption in former communist countries. MS

ROMANIAN DEMOCRATS CRITICIZE CONSTANTINESCU

Democratic Party Senator Costel Gheorghiu, a member of the house's Defense Commission, has harshly criticized President Emil Constantinescu for having signed an ordinance on 13 March allowing the transit of 5,000 KFOR troops through Romanian territory over a three-month period. Gheorghiu said on 27 March that Constantinescu had acted "in cooperation" with former Defense Minister Victor Babiuc. He said that the ordinance contravenes the defense law, which stipulates that such transit must be approved by the parliament and that the government must request such approval. Gheorghiu said the president's act established a dangerous precedent," adding that NATO "does not appreciate servile attitudes" and promotes respect for the rule of law. In other news, Democratic Party Senator Cazimir Ionescu on 27 March resigned from the party, saying its leadership has "marginalized" him. MS

OSCE HEAD IN MOLDOVA SAYS PUTIN'S ELECTION TO HELP RESOLVE SEPARATIST ISSUE

William Hill said on 28 March that the election of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency will help solve the problem of Moldova's separatist Transdniester region, ITAR-TASS reported. Hill said he expects Putin to take a more active role in the dispute, adding that the most important part of reaching a resolution is finalization of an agreement on the region's special status. He said the presidents of Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia, as well as Transdniesterian separatist leaders, will meet in Kyiv this summer to discuss a draft of the agreement. In other news, the Moldovan Information and Security Service dismissed as a "provocation" Russian reports that a rehabilitation and training center for Chechen rebels is being run in Moldova. PB

BULGARIAN RULING PARTY'S POPULARITY WANES

The results of a poll released on 29 March show that the approval rating of Bulgarian Premier Ivan Kostov is at a record low, Reuters reported. Only 28 percent of respondents said they are satisfied with the government, led by Kostov's Union of Democratic Forces. This is the party's lowest approval rating since taking power nearly three years ago. Nearly 62 percent said they were disappointed in the government. BBSS Gallup pollster Kancho Stoichev said people are unhappy with "rising unemployment, low salaries, lack of transparency in privatization, and corruption." The government had a 34 percent approval rating one year ago. PB

KOSTOV SAYS PUTIN'S WIN WILL IMPROVE RELATIONS

Bulgarian Premier Kostov said he is hopeful that Vladimir Putin's win in the 26 March Russian presidential election will have a "positive effect" on bilateral relations, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 March. Kostov said Bulgaria wants Russia to continue with the democratic process and have "authoritative government and authoritative state institutions." He added that Sofia hopes to improve lagging bilateral trade because "each lost export dollar means lost jobs." PB




AGREEMENT ADVANCES TRANSPORT CORRIDOR AROUND SERBIA


By Ron Synovitz

After nine years of bickering, Romania and Bulgaria have agreed on a site for a Danube River bridge that will allow trans-Balkan traffic to bypass Serbia. The agreement, signed in Bucharest on 27 March, is one of the first concrete results of the Balkan Stability Pact.

The bridge is a key link in a EU project known as Pan- European Transport Corridor Four. That project aims to create a major north-south transport route linking Greece and western Europe through Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. Under the 27 March agreement, the new bridge will cross the Danube about 20 kilometers east of Serbia at the Bulgarian town of Vidin and the Romanian river port of Calafat.

For years, Bucharest had lobbied for a bridge to be built further to the east--a move that would have put the north-south transport corridor closer to Bucharest as well as increasing the amount of transit fees received by Romania. Romanian officials finally agreed on the Vidin-Calafat site under pressure from the EU.

Currently, the main road and rail routes between western Europe and the Balkans pass through Yugoslavia. But all of Serbia's Danube bridges were destroyed in NATO's air campaign last year. Serbia's only existing route across the Danube today--a tiny road on the "Iron Gates" dam between Serbia and Romania--is north of Belgrade.

Even before NATO's air strikes, the EU had been eager to create an alternative transport route bypassing Serbia. Belgrade's neighbors suffered trade losses totaling billions of dollars when the main transport route was cut by international sanctions against Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Those sanctions forced much of the trans-Balkan traffic to pass along inferior roads in Bulgaria to the Romanian city of Giurgiu--the site of the only existing bridge between Romania and Bulgaria. In the mid-1990s, truck drivers typically faced a border delay of 10 days there, and the crossing earned itself the nickname "Bottleneck Bridge."

Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov praised the idea of a transportation route to the west that bypasses troubled Serbia. "Trans-European Corridor Four is an alternative way between southeastern Europe and Central Europe that does not pass through Yugoslavia," he commented. "And that is why it is very important for our country."

Kostov says construction of the bridge will start later this year and will take about two-and-a-half years to complete.

Romanian Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu is also happy about the project. He noted that the new transport corridor will pass through what he called "a stable region."

Bodo Hombach, the EU's special coordinator for the Stability Pact, said the union will do its best to complete the bridge as soon as possible. Hombach also noted that the EU is committed to clearing debris from destroyed bridges within Serbia to reopen the river to navigation sometime this summer.

In the meantime, Hombach said, EU experts already have started evaluating and coordinating details on the finances needed to improve road and rail links near Vidin and Calafat.

Plans for the new bridge call for four lanes of road traffic and two railroad lines. The project also includes $200 million of financing through the Stability Pact to improve road and rail lines in western Romania--particularly through the Jiu Valley and the Carpathian mountains.

The Balkan Stability Pact was established last summer by the EU and the Group of Eight countries to aid the political and economic reconstruction of southeastern Europe in the aftermath of the Kosova conflict. Balkan members are Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, and Macedonia.

A donor conference opens in Brussels on 29 March under the auspices of the Stability Pact to support reconstruction in the Balkan signatory countries.

The European Investment Bank is in charge of the program to repair and expand the region's infrastructure, including transport projects.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is leading programs to develop the private sector, and the World Bank is responsible for the overall aid strategy. The author is an RFE/RL senior correspondent based in Prague.


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