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Newsline - May 19, 2000




SO-CALLED 'LIBERALS' WIN TOP ECONOMICS POSTS...

Russian President Vladimir Putin filled more spots in his cabinet on 18 May, assigning former First Deputy Finance Ministry Aleksei Kudrin to the post of finance minister to replace Mikhail Kasyanov, who is now prime minister. Kudrin, who will also hold the post of deputy prime minister, worked closely with Putin in St. Petersburg and has a reputation as a "liberal" economist. German Gref, former deputy state property minister and head of the Center for Strategic Research, was tapped to head the newly created Ministry for Economic Development and Trade (see item below). Gennadii Bukaev was named the new tax minister, replacing Aleksandr Pochinok, who was shifted to head the Labor Ministry. Bukaev is the former tax chief for the city of Moscow. JAC

...AS BULK OF CABINET REMAINS IN PLACE

Putin also retained several ministers from his cabinet: Deputy Prime Ministers Valentina Matvienko, Viktor Khristenko, and Ilya Klebanov; Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko; State Property Relations Minister Farit Gazizullin; Anti-Monopoly Policy Minister Ilya Yuzhanov; Education Minister Vladimir Filippov; Atomic Energy Minister Yevgenii Adamov; Transportation Minister Sergei Frank; Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi; Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko; Natural Resources Minister Boris Yatskevich; Communications Minister Leonid Reiman; Media Minister Mikhail Lesin; and Federation and Nationality Affairs Minister Aleksandr Blokhin. Aleksandr Dondukov, a former chief designer at the Yakovlev aircraft design bureau, was named to head the newly created Science Industry and Technology Ministry. A fifth deputy prime minister with responsibility for agriculture remains to be named. Also appointed was Igor Shuvalov as chief of the government staff. JAC

PUTIN SHEDS MINISTRIES...

President Putin signed a decree on 18 May reorganizing the structure of the federal government by abolishing four ministries, five state committees, one agency, and three services, ITAR-TASS reported. In their place, two new ministries were created. Those ministries abolished were the Economics, Trade, Science, and CIS Affairs Ministries. Some of their functions will be absorbed by the two new ministries, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry and the Science Industry and Technology Ministry. Two ministries have been given shorter titles: the Fuel and Energy Ministry is now just the Fuel Ministry, while the Agriculture and Food Ministry is now just the Agriculture Ministry. The Sports and Tourism Ministry was downgraded to a state committee. According to Interfax, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said that the number of federal ministries will drop from 30 to 24 and other federal executive bodies from 39 to 33. JAC

...ELIMINATES OTHER FEDERAL AGENCIES

The State Committees for the North, Land Policy, Cinematography, Environmental Protection and Youth Policy, the Road Agency, and the Federal Services for Air Transportation, Migration, Monetary and Export Control were all eliminated. Functions of those committees will now be assumed by a variety of ministries. Also abolished were the Federal Road Agency and Federal Services for Air Transportation, Migration, Monetary, and Export Control. JAC

PUTIN NAMES HIS NEW MEN IN THE REGIONS

Also on 18 May, President Putin named his new presidential representatives for the recently created seven federal administrative districts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 May 2000). As expected, Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) head Sergei Kirienko was tapped to oversee the Volga district. Federal Security Service First Deputy Director Viktor Cherkesov was named for the Northwest district, General Viktor Kazantsev for the North Caucasus, CIS Affairs Minister Leonid Drachevskii for Siberia, First Deputy Interior Minister Petr Laytshev for the Urals district, former presidential representative to Leningrad Oblast Georgii Poltavchenko for the Central district, and Lieutenant-General Konstantin Pulikovskii for the Far East. Kazantsev recently headed Russia's military campaign against Chechnya, while Pulikovskii was a commander in the Chechen war from 1994-1996, according to Interfax. "The Moscow Times" reported on 19 May that Poltavchenko spent decades in the KGB before his assignment to Leningrad. JAC

FORMER JUSTICE MINISTER PREDICTS NO CHANGE FOR CONSTITUTION

Former Justice Minister and State Duma Legislative Affair Committee Chairman (SPS) Pavel Krasheninnikov told NTV on 18 May that he does not believe President Putin's recently suggested plans for reforming the Russian government will require changes in the Russian Constitution. He said the draft legislation that Putin announced on 17 May will likely be presented to the Duma on 1 June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 May 2000). He added that there are already several draft laws in the Duma, including one prepared by the SPS concerning regional leaders who violate the constitution and other federal laws. He predicted that the draft bill proffered by Putin changing the principles by which the Federation Council is formed will have problems in the upper legislative chamber. JAC

BERGER PREPARES GROUND FOR CLINTON VISIT...

U.S. National Security adviser Samuel Berger met with Russian President Putin in Moscow on 18 May in preparation for the Russian-U.S. summit planned for next month. Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov described the talks as successful, noting the two leaders had discussed the U.S.-Russian dispute over Washington's proposed changes to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and its plan to implement a limited national defense system. That issue is expected to figure prominently during U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit early next month. Putin and Clinton are due to meet four times this year: next month in Moscow, at the G-7 plus Russia summit in Okinawa in July, at the UN General Assembly meeting in September, and at the APEC summit in November. JC

...WHILE U.S. OFFICIAL SAYS DEFENSE PLAN TO PROCEED WITHOUT RUSSIA'S APPROVAL

While Berger was preparing for Clinton's visit in Moscow, a U.S. official in Washington told reporters that Clinton will go ahead with plans for a national defense system without Moscow's approval if he decides such a system is necessary for U.S. security, AP reported. The official spoke on condition of anonymity. Chairman of the Russian State Duma's International Affairs Committee Dmitrii Rogozin (People's Deputy) was quoted the same day as warning against such a move, saying that "basically, we are against opening this Pandora's box." Rogozin, who is currently in the U.S., rejected the idea that North Korea, frequently identified by Washington as a "rogue state," could pose a nuclear threat to the U.S. "We are talking about two bamboo wooden crates carrying a box of matches, " he remarked, adding that "we know North Korea has no possibility to produce nuclear arms in the near future." JC

RUSSIA EXPRESSES ALARM OVER BELGRADE'S CRACKDOWN ON INDEPENDENT MEDIA

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced on 18 May that it is "seriously concerned" about the seizure the previous day of the independent Studio B television station, Interfax reported. The statement added that Moscow is also "seriously alarmed by reports that the situation in Belgrade may sharply deteriorate and that direct clashes with law enforcement units may occur." And it noted that the Foreign Ministry believes that "freedom of speech and the press is an integral part of the democratic process." JC

RUSSIA, NORWAY TO DISCUSS U.S. RADAR

Speaking after a meeting with his Norwegian counterpart, Thorbjoern Jagland, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the two sides have agreed to hold consultations at the level of expert over the U.S. radar station being built in Norway close to the Russian border, Interfax and Reuters reported. Russia has expressed concern that the site will be used to track ballistic missiles, while the U.S. stresses its purpose is to monitor debris from space. JC

PUTIN WANTS TO SEND PEACEKEEPERS TO SIERRA LEONE

President Putin has submitted a draft bill to the parliament providing for Russian troops to be sent to Sierra Leone as part a UN peacekeeping force, Interfax reported on 18 May. JC

RUSSIAN LOSSES IN CHECHNYA RISE TO 2,284 DEAD

First Deputy of the Army General Staff General Valerii Manilov told ITAR-TASS on 18 May that 2,284 Russian soldiers died and 6,645 were injured between 2 August 1999 and 18 May 2000. During the last week alone, 51 federal troops were killed and 70 injured. These figures included both Defense and Interior Ministry service personnel, Manilov added. PG

MANILOV SAYS CHECHENS CAN'T MOUNT LARGE ATTTACKS...

General Valerii Manilov said the remaining 3,000 Chechen rebels cannot mount any large-scale operations, Interfax reported on 18 May. If they try, he said, they "will immediately be obliterated." Manilov expressed his confidence in President Putin's plans to strengthen state power in the region, adding that he expects the transition to peace there will take 18 months to two years. Meanwhile, airborne troops commander General Georgii Shpak told ITAR-TASS the same day that his 4,150 paratroopers now control the mountainous regions of Chechnya. PG

...BUT RUSHAILO SAYS RUSSIANS UNABLE TO PREVENT AMBUSH

Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo told ITAR-TASS on 18 May that the Russian military knew in advance about a planned Chechen ambush last week but was unable to prevent the 11 May raid in which 18 Russian soldiers were killed. Meanwhile, military operations, including air raids, continued unabated on 18 May. PG

DUMA DEPUTY SAYS NO MORE AMNESTIES FOR CHECHENS

Aleksandr Gurov, the chairman of the Duma Security Committee, told ITAR-TASS on 18 May that "no more amnesties to Chechen militants will be granted." The original amnesty program expired on 15 May. Meanwhile, an article in "Kommersant-Vlast" (no. 19) reported that the earlier amnesty program had failed to attract Chechens to surrender. As a result, the magazine concluded, "the counter-terrorist operation will continue." PG

CHECHEN WEBSITE SAYS MOSCOW 'DESPERATE' FOR TALKS

The website of the Jihad in Chechnya on 18 May said that "the Russian leadership has once again made it clear that it wants to find a way to end its humiliating losses in Chechnya and is eager to start peace negotiations with the Mojahedin." The site called attention to the collapse of Moscow's plans to substitute local militias for Russian troops as the primary means of combating the Chechen government. The site added that these militias were refusing to fight the Mojahedin and were "too cowardly to conduct any type of operation" against the Chechen forces. PG

MOSCOW PROTESTS U.S. VISA FOR CHECHEN FOREIGN MINISTER

The Russian Foreign Ministry on 18 May summoned a U.S. diplomat to protest Washington's having provided a multiple-entry visa to Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov, Interfax reported. The ministry said that the U.S.'s action was tantamount to providing aid to terrorism. Earlier, presidential spokesman on Chechnya Sergei Yastrzhembskii said that the U.S. knew in advance that Moscow would be angered by the move, adding that Russia was considering retaliatory measures. PG

FOUR STATE DUMA VACANCIES TO BE FILLED BEFORE THE END OF THE YEAR

The Central Election Commission released information on 18 May about elections in four single-mandate districts for State Duma vacancies, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day. Candidates wishing to register to fill the seat in St. Petersburg to replace Yabloko member Sergei Stepashin, who left to head the Audit Chamber, must register starting on 22 July. Elections for Murmansk, where Deputy Gennadii Luzin died in a car accident shortly after winning his seat, will be held on 18 June. Elections for Ingushetia will be held on 2 July and for Chechnya on 20 August. JAC




KOCHARIAN SAYS NEW ARMENIAN PREMIER WILL BE IN OFFICE 'FOR A LONG TIME'

Armenian President Robert Kocharian told the Snark agency on 18 May that Prime Minister Andranik Markaryan will remain in office "for a long time." Markaryan continued his consultations with various parties in order to put together his government, promising to complete its formation in a few days, Interfax reported. The 20-strong Kaynutyun (Stability) parliamentary group is expected to obtain two ministerial posts in that government, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. PG

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT DENIES AGREEING TO LAND SWAP WITH BAKU

Presidential spokesman Vage Gabriyelyan on 18 May denied reports in the Armenian press that President Kocharian has agreed with Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev to a landswap as the basis for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, the Snark agency reported. There has been no such agreement, Gabriyelyan said. PG

ARMENIAN COMMUNISTS SAY 'NOT UNITING WITH RUSSIA' BUT 'FORMING ALLIANCE'

Communist faction representatives Norik Petrossian and Khoren Sargssian told Noyan Tapan on 18 May that their plans for having Armenia join the Russia-Belarus Union would strengthen Armenia's security. But they noted that "we are not uniting with Russia; we are making an alliance," and they insisted that the new union will not resemble the former USSR. PG

ARMENIA CRACKS DOWN ON DRAFT DODGERS

Officials at the office of the Armenian Prosecutor-General told Armenpress news agency on 18 May that they will press criminal charges against those who dodged the draft in the fall 1999 call-up. PG

AZERBAIJAN'S Aliyev SAYS NEW WAR IN KARABAKH WOULD BE 'INSANE'

President Aliyev said on 18 May that "it would be insane to resume military actions in Karabakh," Caucasus Press reported. Aliyev made his comment during an international conference on refugees and development. In other remarks, he lashed out at Azerbaijani officials who were blocking the distribution of humanitarian aid to refugees. PG

ALIEV, YAROV DISCUSS FREE TRADE, TERRORISM

Azerbaijani President Aliyev received CIS Executive Secretary Yurii Yarov on 18 May to discuss free trade and the setting up of a CIS counterterrorism center, Turan reported. During their talks, Yarov said that the staff of the CIS will be cut by about 16 percent and its budget reduced. PG

AZERBAIJANI POLICE SALARIES INCREASED

President Aliyev on 18 May ordered a 50 percent increase in the salaries of employees of the Interior Ministry, including the police, Turan reported. PG

OPPOSITION AGREES TO AUTHORIZED MARCH ROUTE

The Azerbaijani opposition on 18 May agreed to accept the march route proposed by the Baku authorities for the 20 May demonstration calling for the creation of democratic conditions in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. Meanwhile, police broke up an opposition demonstration in the Msally district of Azerbaijan, "Azadlyg" reported the same day. And the staff of the "Monitor Weekly" and "Bakinskiy bulvar" appealed to President Aliyev to overturn the illegal actions of the tax authorities, which have closed both publications, Turan said. PG

CHECHENS PLEASED WITH TREATMENT IN AZERBAIJAN

According to the 18 May issue of "Zerkalo," the approximately 100 Chechens being treated in Azerbaijani hospitals are happy with conditions there. The newspaper stressed that all of them were there legally, thus rejecting recent Russian claims to the contrary. One of them told the newspaper that many of the Chechens there are unhappy only that "the most serious crimes against humanity are interpreted as the internal affairs of a criminal state." PG

GEORGIA TO BLOCK CHECHENS FROM USING ITS TERRITORY

Georgian Minister of State Security Vakhtang Kutateladze told the parliament on 18 May that there is "a danger" that some Chechen groups may try to pass from Azerbaijan to Chechnya via Georgian territory and that some Chechen refugees already in Georgia may join them, the Kontakt news agency reported. Kutateladze said that Tbilisi is taking steps to prevent this from happening. PG

RUSSIAN BASE CLOSURES PREDICTED TO IMPROVE GEORGIAN-RUSSIAN TIES

Paata Gaprindashvili, the head of the treaties and legal issues department of the Georgian Defense Ministry, told Caucasus press on 18 May that Georgian-Russian relations will improve "considerably" after Moscow closes two of its four bases in Georgia by the end of 2000. The Russian military will shut down the bases at Gudauta and Vaziani between August and December; after that, Russian bases will remain only at Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Meanwhile, Georgia ended its military cooperation with Israel because Tbilisi does not have the money to pay for Israeli equipment, the Agentstvo Voennykh Novostei website reported on 18 May. PG

KAZAKHSTAN, RUSSIA AGREE TO JOINT GAS VENTURE

Astana and Moscow have agreed to set up a Russian-Kazakh joint venture in gas exploitation and transportation, Interfax reported on 18 May. The arrangement means that Gazprom will replace the Belgian company Tractebel as the exporter of Kazakhstan's gas. Kazakhstan Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev suggested that the new arrangement will allow that country to increase its gas exports to Europe. PG

KAZAKHSTAN CALLS FOR CASPIAN DELIMITATION TALKS

Kazakhstan Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev told the Russian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Yurii Merzlyakov, on 18 May that Astana would like to see the talks with Moscow on delimiting the Caspian Sea speed up, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Tokayev said that the drawing of such a median line would benefit Russia as well as Kazakhstan. PG

KAZAKHSTAN WANTS RUSSIA TO END WEAPONS TESTS AT KAPUSTIN YAR, ASHULUK

Kazakhstan Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev said that Astana hopes the Russian authorities will stop their tests at the Kapustin Yar and Ashuluk military proving grounds in Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 May. The prime minister said he was making that request because several recent tests had sent missiles off course into civilian areas. PG

KAZAKHSTAN TO INCREASE DEFENSE BUDGET

Kazakhstan plans to increase its defense budget from the current 0.5 percent of GDP to 1 percent in 2001, Khabar television reported on 18 May. Meanwhile, CIS Air Defense Coordinating Committee chairman, General Anatolii Kornukov, visited Kazakhstan to promote the integration of the air defense systems of the two countries, the station reported. PG

KAZAKHSTAN TO RECEIVE $400 MILLION LOAN

The Asian Development Bank plans to provide Kazakhstan with $400 million in loans and another $16 million between 2000 and 2003, Interfax reported on 18 May. Some of the funds will be used to fight locusts, some to restructure agriculture, and some to improve the highway between Almaty and Bishkek. PG

KYRGYZSTAN'S KULOV TO BE TRIED BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

The Kyrgyzstan National Security Ministry told Interfax on 18 May that it will insist on a closed trial for opposition leader Feliks Kulov. In a related development, human rights groups in that country said that those held in Kyrgyzstan's prisons and detention facilities are subjected to torture, the Russian news agency said. Meanwhile, five people told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that they are prepared to set themselves alight as part of their effort to secure Kulov's release. PG

TAJIK-CHINA HIGHWAY TO OPEN THIS FALL

Kyrgyzstan's highway building directorate told Asia-Plus on 18 May that the second phase of the Tajikistan-China highway will open this fall. That deadline will be met, however, only if finances and building materials become available on time, officials said. PG

PUTIN VISITS UZBEKISTAN

Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Tashkent on 18 May to discuss military and energy cooperation with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Russian agencies reported. The two sides reached agreement on the dispatch to Russia of 5 billion cubic meters of gas, Gazprom chairman Arem Vyakhirev told ITAR-TASS. Putin and Karimov also discussed Afghanistan and security issues. But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov cast doubt on some of the accords by pointedly calling for implementation "in practice" of bilateral accords, ITAR-TASS reported. On 19 May, Putin is scheduled to visit Turkmenistan before returning to Moscow. PG

UZBEKISTAN TO SELL 49 PERCENT OF PETROCOMPANY TO FOREIGNERS

Uzbekneftegaz Chairman Ibrat Zainutdinov told Interfax on 19 May that Uzbekistan will sell 49 percent of the shares of that company to foreign investors. The government will also sell stock in its other petroleum companies--Uzneftegazdobycha, Uzneftepererabotka, and Uzburneftegaz, he said. PG

U.S. GIVES UZBEKISTAN CREDIT FOR GRAIN PURCHASES

The U.S. government has given Uzbekistan a $10 million credit to permit Tashkent to purchase American grain, Interfax reported on 18 May. Uzbekistan will purchase 52,000 tons of grain under the terms of the 30-year loan. PG




BELARUS'S FORMER PREMIER RECEIVES THREE-YEAR SUSPENDED PRISON TERM

The Minsk City Court on 19 May found former Premier Mikhail Chyhir guilty of abusing his authority in 1995 by giving a company a break on import duties. The court sentenced Chyhir to a three-year prison term suspended for two years. The court also ordered him to pay $220,000 in damages. Chyhir said he is innocent, adding that he will appeal the verdict. "The sentence is legally void, it's all lies and fabrication. This is a shame for the Belarusian state, not for me," AP quoted him as saying. Chyhir pledged to continue his opposition political activities and run for president in next year's election. JM

LUKASHENKA ADRESSES UNION PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY...

Addressing a session of the Belarus-Russia Union Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk on 18 May, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said that in the event of an emergency, Belarus and Russia can mobilize an "even larger" force than the 300,000-strong military group he had mentioned earlier, Belapan reported. Lukashenka noted that the U.S. Congress resolution on Belarus of 3 May (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 9 May 2000) provides "a biased account of political processes in Belarus and is based from beginning to end on inventions, provocative judgments, and conclusions of the same sort." He said the problem of human rights violations in Belarus is "far-fetched and overblown beyond reason in the West." Lukashenka also stressed that this fall's parliamentary election in Belarus will be held on a "first-past-the-post" basis. JM

...BLAMES MOSCOW FOR ERECTING TRADE BARRIERS

Lukashenka also accused Russia of failing to meet its obligations under the union treaty by maintaining high prices for energy and imposing trade barriers. "If you do not accept our goods, there will be no political or economic union," Reuters quoted him as saying. "If Russia wants the union, it must resolve the issue of promoting our goods on Russian markets." Lukashenka noted that Russia has not cut prices for its oil, gas, and electricity exports so that they are the same as internal Russian prices. He said such a situation makes Belarusian goods noncompetitive on the Russian market. And he added that Russia has also violated its customs union with Belarus by introducing double taxation on Belarusian exports and erecting new customs posts. "If the situation does not change, we will have to resort to similar measures. That would re-establish the border," he warned. JM

BELARUS-RUSSIA LEGISLATURE ENDORSES UNION BUDGET

The Belarus-Russia Union Parliamentary Assembly on 18 May adopted in the first reading the union budget for 2000. The budget amounts to 2.23 billion Russian rubles ($80 million). Russia is to contribute 65 percent and Belarus 35 percent. The money is to be used to finance 30 joint programs. In another resolution adopted the same day, the assembly blasted the U.S. Congress for its 3 May resolution on Belarus. The assembly said the resolution "intentionally and blatantly distorts the state of affairs in Belarus, extremely incorrectly interprets relations between Belarus and Russia as well as the progress of Belarusian-Russian integration processes within the framework of the Belarusian-Russian Union." JM

ISRAELI DIPLOMATS FLEE MINSK BECAUSE OF INCREASED RADIATION

The Israeli Embassy's staff on 18 May left Minsk because of concerns over increased radiation levels in Belarus following wild forest and peat fires in radioactively contaminated areas in Belarus and Ukraine, Reuters reported. The dpa agency on 19 May quoted "The Jerusalem Post" as reporting that a Jewish immigration agency has prepared an emergency plan to evacuate some 30,000 Belarusian Jews. Belapan on 18 May quoted an official from the State Hydrometeorological Committee as saying that no significant changes in radiation levels have recently been observed. The USIS told Belapan on May 18 that the U.S. is not evacuating its diplomatic staff in Minsk and that no other embassy in Belarus has followed the example of the Israeli diplomats. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT ADOPTS THREE-YEAR PRIVATIZATION PLAN...

The parliament on 18 May voted by 242 to 100 to adopt the government's privatization program for the next three years, Interfax reported. Lawmakers from the Communist, socialist Left Center, and Popular Rukh caucuses voted against the plan. The program calls for privatizing some 600 large and strategic enterprises, resulting in revenues totaling $1.5 billion in 2001 and $1 billion in 2002. This year's privatization revenues were set earlier at $500 million. JM

...FAILS TO LAUNCH PROBE INTO EX-SPEAKER

The parliament failed to approve the motion by a parliamentary investigative team to appeal to the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into alleged mishandling of legislative funds by former speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2000). The team charged Tkachenko of misusing 50 million hryvni ($9.3 million). The motion was blocked by leftist lawmakers. JM

ESTONIAN CENTRAL BANK NOMINATES NEW CHAIRMAN

The council of the Bank of Estonia has nominated former Finance Minister Mart Opmann as the new central bank chairman, ETA and BNS reported 18 May. Opmann would succeed Vello Vensel, who resigned owing to health reasons before he could take up his seat at the central bank. Opmann, a member of the Coalition Party, defeated Kalev Kukk, a former transport and communications minister. AB

U.S. INVESTOR ENDORSES ESTONIAN-LATVIAN UTILITIES MERGER

U.S.-based NRG Energy, which is negotiating to buy a strategic interest in Estonia's two largest power stations, told ETA 18 May that the company endorses the planned merger of the Estonian and Latvian state-owned energy firms. The Narva power plants have been separated from Eesti Energia as independent subsidiaries, but the government plans to retain a 51 percent stake. The "Eesti Express" daily commented on 18 May that the planned merger of the two utilities is bad news for the Scandinavian power companies Fortum and Vattenfall, which regard the Baltic energy market as "already in their pockets." AB

RIGA TO HOST EBRD ANNUAL MEETING THIS WEEKEND

Latvia's capital, Riga, will host the annual meeting of the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development this weekend, AP reported 18 May. EBRD Acting President Charles Frank told LETA 18 May that Latvia has a positive investment climate and the bank is planning to participate in new Latvian power projects. The Riga and Latvian governments have spent over 6.6 million lats ($11.4 million) on building facilities and improving infrastructure for the event. AB

U.S. DIPLOMAT URGES LITHUANIA TO STAY COURSE ON DEFENSE SPENDING

A high-ranking U.S. diplomat has urged Lithuania not to undermine its own credibility by reducing its defense spending, BNS reported 18 May. Walter Andrusyszyn, director of the European Security and Political Affairs Office at the U.S. State Department, made the comments at a roundtable discussion with journalists in Vilnius. Andrusyszyn encouraged the country and its political leaders to live up to its public commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. Public opinion on increasing defense spending has become controversial in Lithuania because some opposition parties have charged that it is diverting critical resources from social spending. AB

POPE THANKS POLES FOR BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS

Pope John Paul II appeared live on Polish Television late on 18 May to thank his countrymen for festivities marking his 80th birthday and a gala concert held in his hometown of Wadowice, in southern Poland. "On the day when I am completing 80 years of my life I cannot fail to be in this place where my life began. In my thoughts and prayers I return to Wadowice," the pontiff told some 20,000 people gathered on the town central square. Meanwhile, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the same day in Lublin that John Paul II is not considering retirement, denying the circulating rumors that he might leave the Vatican owing to his age and ill health. JM

CZECHS REJECTION OF JUSTICE REFORM COULD DELAY EU ACCESSION

Alois Cihlar, the deputy justice minister, said on 18 May that the parliament's rejection of two government bills on reforming the criminal justice system could complicate the country's entry into the EU, CTK reported. Cihlar said the EU's last report tabbed "the situation in the justice sector as one of [the country's] weak points." He said this sector of society in the Czech Republic is worrisome for the EU. There are reports that Justice Minister Otakar Motejl is considering resigning due to the parliament's rejection of his reform plans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 May 2000). PB

INVESTIGATION OPENED INTO LEAK OF CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER'S STB FILES

Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said on 18 May that an investigation has been launched to determine how the "classified" Communist-era secret police file of Foreign Minister Jan Kavan could have been leaked and made into a book, CTK reported. Gross said he regards the leak as a criminal act and said "unprofessional handling of secret documents damages the country." Gross said it will be difficult to determine who was responsible for allowing the file to go public because Kavan's file "has been loaned several times to other people." PB

CZECHS TO SELL SHARE IN SUCCESSFUL CARMAKER

The Czech government announced on 19 May that it will sell its 30 percent share in the Skoda car factory to Germany's Volkswagen, which is the majority owner, AP reported. The deal must be approved by the cabinet. The government's share is believed to be worth some 13 billion crowns ($317 million). PB

VIETNAM LOOKS TO SLOVAKIA TO MODERNIZE ITS ARMY

Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra said in Bratislava on 18 May that his country is interested in cooperating with Slovakia in the armaments industry, CTK reported. The Slovak Defense Ministry said Van Tra held talks with his Slovak counterpart, Pavol Kanis, before visiting Slovak arms factories and inspecting the mobile anti-aircraft complex BRAMS as well as the light-armored vehicle ALIGATOR. Van Tra said the Vietnamese army was interested in modernizing its hardware in Slovakia because most of Vietnam's equipment is from former Warsaw Pact countries. PB

SLOVAKS IGNORE CALLS BY OPPOSITION TO PROTEST

A call by the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) for nationwide protests against the government on 18 May were sparsely attended, and only a few dozen people turned out in the capital, Bratislava, CTK reported. Augustin Huska, a senior HZDS official, attributed the poor turnout to the relative well-being of people in Bratislava. He added that "the peak of the rallies will only be staged at the end [of the protest campaign], and it has never happened that less than 80,000 demonstrators gathered." Despite the low turnout, the HZDS is still the most popular political party, favored by some 29 percent of Slovaks. Second is the populist Smer (Direction) with 22 percent support, and Premier Mikulas Dzurinda's Slovak Christian and Democratic Union is third with 12 percent. PB

HUNGARIAN PREMIER PROMISES PROSPERITY

Viktor Orban said on 18 May in Budapest that Hungary will experience strong economic growth for at least the next 10 years under a "new economic model," Reuters reported. Orban made his comments at a conference organized by his FIDESZ-MPP party. Orban added that unemployment will sink and wages will rise as foreign companies seek "high-skilled" and "relatively inexpensive labor" in Hungary. Orban said Hungary's strong turnaround in only 10 years was because people are "driven by memories of communism." But the governor of the National Bank of Hungary, Gyorgy Suranyi, said it is important "not to lose our sense of proportion and patience." He agreed that inflation is falling and growth is strong but said Hungary must be prepared for external events and the effects they can have on an economy, such as the Russian financial crisis of 1998. PB




SERBIAN POLICE CHARGE PROTESTERS

Police wielding truncheons and firing tear gas charged some of the 10,000 mainly young demonstrators who had gathered in Belgrade to protest the regime's latest action against the non-state media (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 May 2000). The police attacked after the rally had ended and protesters broke up into smaller groups, the BBC's Serbian Service reported. At least 17 demonstrators and four police were hospitalized. News agencies report numerous cases of demonstrators with blood streaming down their faces and young women bruised by batons. The Interior Ministry has not announced how many people police detained during the crackdown, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 19 May. Several thousand people took part in protests the previous evening in Novi Sad, Kraljevo, Kragujevac, and in unspecified other towns, the private Beta news agency reported. PM

STUDENTS PLAN NEW PROTESTS

A spokesman for the Otpor (Resistance) student movement told RFE/RL's South Slavic Service on 19 May that the students plan fresh demonstrations later in the day. "We have to react in some way. [We want] people to come--in the first place students from Belgrade University--and talk about what we are going to do, because this calls for decisive action, or rather reaction, to all of these arrests and also this media shutdown, to the beating of our fellow citizens yesterday evening, and to the other forms of repression," the spokesman said. PM

OPPOSITION: REGIME IS IN 'PANIC'

Some of the protesters chanted on 18 May: "Kill yourself Slobodan and save Serbia." This is an allusion to the fact that both parents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic committed suicide and that his wife is believed to have tried to kill herself on more than one occasion. Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic told AP that "the disproportional use of force tonight shows that Milosevic's fascist-communist coalition is in panic." Djindjic told Reuters that "no dictatorship was removed without victims.... That's the price we have to pay." Alliance for Change leader Vladan Batic said in Moscow that the regime has "declared war on the people," "Vesti" reported. PM

ROBERTSON: REGIME 'NEARING END'

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said in Helsinki on 18 May that "this is the time for democratic change in Serbia. The Serbian people are not going to take these totalitarian tactics lying down and they are clearly speaking out for freedom. This crackdown on the press is an act of panic by somebody who is cornered. Milosevic is indicted for war crimes...and he has inflicted enormous misery on the region and on the people of his own country. It may well be that he is coming to the end of his regime. This clampdown on the press is the classic way that tottering dictators seek to prop themselves up," AP reported. PM

SESELJ: 'NO MORE WAITING'

Referring to the crackdown, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj said in Belgrade on 18 May that "the state has waited too long to face the evil, and there is no more waiting. We won't allow American agents to come to power." He stressed that Otpor is organized and financed by the West, "Politika" reported. Spokesmen of Milosevic's Socialists told a press conference that Studio B Television "was in the service of NATO" and that Western media are waging an orchestrated campaign to discredit the Serbian authorities. PM

SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH APPEALS FOR CALM

The Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church said in a statement in Belgrade on 18 May that state authorities should "immediately stop the violent shutting down of non-state media centers," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The bishops also called on all political organizations and citizens "to refrain from all kinds of violence and appeals for a civil war." PM

'BELGRADE WITHOUT EYES, EARS'

Is how the weekly "NIN" on 19 May described the current electronic media scene in the capital following the clampdown. Radio B2-92 is nonetheless still available on the Internet at: http://www.ituner.com/perl/display.pl?file=ituner/station.html&key=793. Staff of the daily "Blic" returned to their offices on 18 May, but police continue to bar employees of Studio B, Radio Index, and B2-92 from going back to their work places, Reuters reported. PM

DRASKOVIC, MILOSEVIC SUPPORTERS JOIN TOGETHER IN VALJEVO

Valjevo town council deputies from Milosevic's Socialists and Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement joined forces to pass a motion calling for local elections, "Danas" reported on 19 May. Deputies from the Alliance for Change walked out of the chamber after their resolution calling for an end to political violence failed to pass. PM

BIG ANTI-GOVERNMENT DEMONSTRATIONS IN SKOPJE

Some 40,000 people turned out on 18 May to hear former Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski call for the government to resign. He said that the authorities are corrupt and that they have not delivered on their election promises to raise the standard of living. Crvenkovski added that the government has lost the confidence of the international community, Reuters reported. His Social Democrats have also accused the authorities of failing to extract benefits from NATO in return for Macedonia's support of the alliance in the 1999 Kosova conflict, AP reported. PM

CROATIAN NCO'S DISCHARGED

The Defense Ministry said in a statement on 18 May that it has discharged five non-commissioned officers who recently took part in the destruction of a World War II monument (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 May 2000). Their superiors were also disciplined, AP reported. The statement provided no further details. PM

CROATIAN GOVERNMENT BACKTRACKS ON TAX CUT

The government has cancelled plans to cut valued-added tax from 22 to 19 percent, dpa reported from Zagreb on 18 May. The government concluded that the cut will adversely affect the state budget. The VAT is extremely unpopular in Croatia, where many people have difficulties making ends meet. PM

REFUGEES PROTEST ORDER TO LEAVE CROATIAN HOTELS

Several hundred Croatian displaced persons and refugees demonstrated in Zagreb on 18 May to protest a recent government decision that they must leave the hotels where they have been housed for several years and move to cheaper quarters. Some protesters said that their new quarters are "fit only for animals," dpa reported. Other protesters accused the government of turning its back on Croats while earmarking funds for the resettlement of Serbs, "Jutarnji list" noted. PM

SLOVENIA'S KUCAN WANTS EU TO CONSIDER CANDIDATES INDIVIDUALLY

President Milan Kucan said in Strasbourg on 17 May that the EU should admit candidates individually on their own merits rather than in groups, Reuters reported. He charged that the group approach could keep well-prepared candidates like Slovenia waiting for a long time for others to catch up. He raised the question of whether "perhaps once again...the special interests of individual member states are rising to the surface" in switching to a group approach from one that takes each country on its own merits. PM

CZECH PRESIDENT BACKS ROMANIAN REFORMS

Vaclav Havel met with his Romanian counterpart, Emil Constantinescu, during an eight-hour visit to Bucharest on 18 May, Mediafax reported. The two discussed increasing bilateral trade and cooperation within the Central European Free Trade Area. They also agreed to intensify joint efforts in the fight against organized crime. Constantinescu said he appreciates the Czech Republic's decision not to impose visa requirements on Romanian citizens. Havel, for his part, said his country "fully supports" Romanian efforts of democratization and economic reforms--"processes that are taking place in the period since President Constantinescu came to power." He also said that he backs Romania's bid to join NATO. ZsM

NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN ROMANIAN MONEY-LAUNDERING AFFAIR

Adrian Costea, the chief suspect in the money-laundering affair being investigated by French and Romanian prosecutors, denied on 16 May all charges against him and even accused the Romanian authorities of not fulfilling contractual provisions related to a gasoline delivery business. Costea's comments were made in a long interview aired by ProTV on 16-17 May. He admitted to planning former President Ion Iliescu's election campaign in 1996 and printing election materials, but he said he was not paid for that work. In an interview with Deutsche Welle on 18 May, Iliescu said the election materials were produced by Costea on his own initiative, stressing there was no contractual agreement. French prosecutors are continuing their investigation. Two of the most important witnesses in the affair, Iliescu's campaign manager, Iosif Boda, and former government general-secretary Viorel Hrebenciuc, did not show up for questioning. ZsM

ROMANIAN CHEMICAL PLANT EMITS NOXIOUS CLOUD

Officials in northern Bulgaria reported massive air pollution coming from Romania on 18 May, AP reported. Environmental officials said a giant cloud of ammonia--emitted from a chemical plant in the Romanian town of Turnu Magurele--blanketed the Bulgarian river port of Nikopol. It was reportedly five times more concentrated than accepted levels and was the third such incident in the past two months. Residents of Nikopol are reported to keep gas masks in their homes because of the frequent incidents of pollution emanating from Romania. PB

PREMIER URGES BULGARIANS TO BE PATIENT

Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov asked his countrymen on 18 May to "be patient...[and] show understanding for the period we are in," AP reported. Kostov said on state television that the government is "in a difficult period," but he added that massive closures of loss-making companies and the privatization of others should "stimulate economic growth...improve people's lives and restore their trust [in the government]." The average monthly salary in Bulgaria is about $100 and unemployment is nearly 19 percent. Allegations by former Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev that Kostov knew about intelligence reports naming top government officials as being involved in corruption has sunk the government's approval rating to an all-time low since it came to power in 1997. Three of his aids have quit and are under investigation for corruption. PB




WHERE ARE BELARUS'S DISAPPEARED OPPOSITIONISTS?


By Jan Maksymiuk

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on 9 May urged the Belarusian authorities to account for the disappearances of Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, and Anatol Krasouski. Boucher's pronouncement testifies to the fact that the international community remembers what some might consider the most sinister aspect of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's rule--namely, unaccountable disappearances of prominent public figures who were opposed to the regime.

Yury Zakharanka was interior minister under Lukashenka from July 1994 to October 1996. He later switched to the opposition and become one of the most active and popular opposition figures. He disappeared while walking home on 7 May 1999 and has not been heard from since. According to some commentators, Zakharanka sealed his fate in 1998 when he started developing the idea of creating an independent union of police and army officers. The regime, the same commentators argue, could not remain indifferent to someone who was trying to foment dissent among the groups widely considered to be the pillars of Lukashenka's authoritarian rule.

Viktar Hanchar was one of the most active members of Lukashenka's electoral team in 1994 and a deputy premier for a short time following Lukashenka's election as president. After his dismissal, Hanchar joined the opposition. He was elected a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the 13th convocation and appointed head of the Central Electoral Commission. Hanchar refused to recognize the results of the 1996 controversial referendum. In 1999, Hanchar, in his capacity as head of the legitimate Central Electoral Commission, supervised the organization of the opposition presidential elections. He disappeared with his friend Anatol Krasouski on his way home on 16 September 1999, following Lukashenka's fierce appeal to his power ministries earlier the same day to deal harshly with domestic "extremists" who "destabilize" the situation in Belarus.

Official probes into these disappearances have brought no results to date. Widespread rumors in Belarus ascribe the disappearances of Zakharanka and Hanchar to some secret "death squadron" acting on an order from top officials or even from Lukashenka himself. According to the most horrific rumor, both Zakharanka and Hanchar were dropped from a helicopter into the Prypyat marshes in southern Belarus and thus will remain unaccounted for. Regardless of whether these rumors are true, they demonstrate that few people in Belarus, if anyone at all, believes that Zakharanka and Hanchar are still alive.

In December last year, when former National Bank Chairwoman Tamara Vinnikava reappeared--presumably in the West (she telephoned to Belarus from an unknown location)--after her mysterious disappearance from house arrest in Minsk six months earlier, the official media suggested that Zakharanka and Hanchar may one day resurface in the same way. Such a possibility, however, does not seem very likely to independent commentators. Even if it remains unclear what Vinnikava did to offend Lukashenka and provoke her arrest, she has never challenged that regime, as both Zakharanka and Hanchar did. Therefore, her situation was rather different from theirs.

In the 11 May "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," Iryna Khalip wrote a commentary on Zakharanka's disappearance under the title "General Who Was Betrayed." (Zakharanka had the rank of general but was demoted by Lukashenka to that of a colonel after he joined the opposition.) Khalip wrote the following:

"Yury Zakharanka has been betrayed by his own people. Cops. Those who showed respect to this man. I understand: All of them knew perfectly well that the task [of removing him] was accomplished professionally and that it would be impossible to find him. But some traces always remain....

"Yury Sivakou, while he was still interior minister, declared that to find Zakharanka was a question of honor for the police. However, no policeman has responded to these words, perhaps because long ago they hopelessly forgot about the notion of 'honor' or dismissed it owing to its total uselessness.

"Traces, incidentally, were left. One needed only to follow them. According to an official version, the last person who saw Zakharanka was a barman in the "Tsyniya" cafe.... But there was also a witness who saw how Zakharanka was forced into a Zhiguli car.... However, when district police officers reported this to their superiors in the city directorate, the latter advised the former to shove this testimony you know where and never mention the existence of such a witness."


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