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Newsline - January 26, 2001




BORODIN AGAIN DENIED BAIL IN NEW YORK

A New York court on 25 January again refused to set bail for Pavel Borodin, the state secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union, Russian and Western agencies reported. (Borodin had first been denied bail immediately after his arrest.) Despite an offer from Russia's Ambassador to the U.S., Yurii Ushakov, to guarantee Borodin's future appearance, a federal magistrate said that "the court won't grant bail at this point." Another hearing will take place on 5 February. Meanwhile, Swiss prosecutors said they will press their case for Borodin's extradition. Indeed, Geneva prosecutor Bernard Bertossa said that he plans to widen the investigation into Borodin's affairs, including those which touched on former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Also on 25 January, the Duma voted down a resolution proposed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia to retaliate against American and NATO officials for Borodin's detention, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

WITNESS IN BORODIN CASE SAYS YELTSIN DEEPLY INVOLVED

In an interview published in the 25 January "Segodnya," Felipe Turover, a main prosecution witness in the Borodin case, said he is certain that Borodin will be extradited to Switzerland. Moreover, he said, Borodin will soon start talking once he recognizes that his lawyers are not defending him but rather the family of former President Boris Yeltsin. Once that happens, Turover said, Yeltsin and his entourage will be implicated in many if not all of Borodin's activities. Yeltsin "might have been unaware of some details," Turover said, "but he couldn't help knowing that something dubious was going on." PG

DUMA VOTES ON 'THIRD TERM' FOR GOVERNORS

By a vote of 235 to 170 with one abstention, the Duma gave final approval to legislation that will allow 69 regional leaders to run for a third term, with 17 of them having the option of running for a fourth, "Kommersant-Daily" and ITAR-TASS reported on 25 January. Unity deputies voted unanimously for the measure. PG

DUMA VOTE ON BUYING AND SELLING OF LAND SPARKS WALKOUT

On 25 January, the Duma voted by 229 to 168 on first reading to approve a new section of the civil code permitting the private buying and selling of non-agricultural land, Russian and Western agencies reported. Following the vote, Nikolai Kharitonov, the head of the Agrarian faction, led left-wing deputies from the chamber in protest. PG

DUMA GIVES FINAL APPROVAL TO PRESIDENTIAL IMMUNITY BILL

By a vote of 280 to 130, the Duma on 25 January gave final approval to a bill that provides immunity to former presidents unless a simple majority of both houses of the parliament lifts it in the event that such individuals are charged with serious crimes, Russian and Western agencies reported. The measure now goes to the Federation Council. PG

DUMA APPROVES LONGER TERM FOR CONSTITUTION COURT JUSTICES

On 25 January, the Duma voted 302 to 108 to give final approval to an amendment to the country's constitutional court law extending the term of office of justices from 12 to 15 years and removing the age limit of 70, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

DUMA SAYS TRIBUNAL SHOULD PROBE NATO'S USE OF DEPLETED URANIUM SHELLS

On a vote of 235 to 0, the Duma on 25 January passed an appeal to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to launch an investigation into NATO's use of depleted uranium shells there, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said that he is concerned about separatist tendencies in Kosovo and throughout the Balkans, the Russian agency reported. PG

DEBT SCANDAL SEEN GIVING PUTIN OCCASION TO REPLACE CABINET

Writing in the 25 January "Izvestiya," Semen Novoprudskii suggested that the mishandling of the Paris Club debt situation by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's cabinet could easily become the occasion for President Putin to dismiss it. Meanwhile, Interfax reported the same day that the Russian Finance Ministry opposes Duma-imposed limits on debt repayments. Such a ceiling, which some deputies have proposed should be set at $12 billion a year, would be an obstacle to talks with Russia's creditors. PG

PUTIN CRITICIZES, REORDERS RUSSIAN SPACE PROGRAM

At a 25 January session of the Security Council, President Putin complained that only "40 percent" of Russia's 1996-2000 space program was implemented, Russian agencies reported. The same meeting approved guidelines for space policy through 2010 and decided to separate space defense from the strategic rocket forces later this year. PG

PACE VOTES TO RESEAT RUSSIAN DEPUTIES...

By a vote of 88 for, 20 against and with 11 abstentions, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 25 January voted to restore Russia's full rights in that body, Russian and Western agencies reported. Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev said that PACE had made an "absolutely correct decision" on this point and also had contributed to a resolution of "problems in Chechnya" in a rapid and civilized way. PG

...BUT FOCUSES ON RUSSIAN EXTREMIST GROUP

A British delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Sarah Ludeforth, has forwarded to the PACE Committee on Rights and Liberties materials from a BBC story on the Russian Labor Party, thus creating another problem for Russia in that body, "Izvestiya" reported on 25 January. On this film, that party's leader Anatolii Kubanov dismissed his party's expulsion from Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia by saying that "expelling us from the LDPR for extremism is like expelling someone from the SS for anti-Semitism." PG

FM SAYS MOSCOW HASN'T DISCUSSED CHECHNYA WITH NEW ADMINISTRATION...

Responding to U.S. State Department comments about Moscow's handling of the Chechen situation, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that the Russian government has not yet had the chance to discuss Chechnya with the new administration, Interfax reported. The Foreign Ministry also issued a statement denouncing as a fake an alleged message from President Putin to U.S. President George W. Bush describing Moscow's approaches to START and missile defense, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow James Collins on 24 January met with Andrei Nikolaev, the chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, to discuss radar sites at Shemiya in Alaska and Vard in Norway, Interfax reported. Nikolaev said that both stations "give us apprehensions," to which Collins responded that the U.S. no longer has anything to do with the Vard site but that it is considering modernizing the Shemya radar site as part of NMD. PG

...AS DEFENSE MINISTRY HOPES TO PRESERVE ABM TREATY

Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the head of the Defense Ministry's International Military Cooperation Department, said in Moscow on 25 January that he hopes upcoming talks with the United States will help to keep in force the 1972 ABM Treaty, Interfax reported. If the U.S. unilaterally withdraws, he said, "Washington will assume a heavy responsibility." PG

MORE SEARCHES, ARRESTS AHEAD IN GUSINSKII CASE

Law enforcement sources told Interfax on 25 January that there will be more searches and arrests in Vladimir Gusinskii case involving Media-MOST. On the same day, prosecutors summoned First Deputy Chairman of the Media-MOST board Igor Malashenko, NTV anchorwoman Tatyana Mitkova, and Media-MOST lawyer Oleg Maklakov to appear on 26 January for questioning. PG

GAZPROM-MEDIA TAKES CONTROL OF NTV

After a court on 25 January seized the 19 percent share in NTV that had been owned by Media-MOST, Gazprom-Media gained a controlling stake in the NTV television company, Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh announced on the same day, Interfax reported. Kokh immediately announced a reshuffling of the company's board, but he said that both he and President Putin oppose changing the journalistic staff. "Putin told me," Kokh said, "'Shares and finances are undoubtedly your prerogative. but don't touch the journalists, don't touch the management -- that is already my prerogative because I am the guarantor [of the constitution] and should secure the unconditional observation of freedom of speech.'" PG

EVERY RUSSIAN REGION VIOLATES MEDIA FREEDOM IN ITS OWN WAY

An 800-page study of the state of media freedom in 87 of the 89 regions of Russia -- Chechnya and Ingushetia were not included -- found that "each region violates media freedom differently but each of them does so," according to a review of that document published in "Zhurnalist," no. 12. Moscow and St. Petersburg regions were rated the most free, with the non-Russian ethnic republics occupying most of the bottom rungs in the ranking. Meanwhile, according to the 25 January "Nezavisimaya gazeta," several Duma deputies want to give the federal government the exclusive right to license publications, a power the paper said would certainly be used to limit free speech. PG

MOSCOW BACKS ARCTIC ROUTE FOR NUCLEAR WASTES

Anatolii Gorshkovskii, the head of the Transport Ministry's department for arctic operations, told Interfax on 25 January that Moscow has no objections to Japanese plans to ship nuclear wastes from Western Europe to Japan via the Arctic Sea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2001). But he said he is unaware that Japan and Russia have discussed this issue, as environmental groups claim they have. PG

GAZPROM, FINNISH FIRM SEEK MOSCOW'S BACKING FOR NORTHERN PIPELINE

Following discussions between Prime Minister Kasyanov and his visiting Finnish counterpart Paavo Lipponen in Moscow earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2001), Gazprom Chairman Rem Vyakhirev and Fortum head Matti Vuoria have sent a letter asking the Russian government to back a $3-5 billion pipeline that would carry gas to Western Europe via the Baltic seabed, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 January. PG

GREF PREDICTS GROWTH TO SLOW TO FOUR PERCENT

Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said on 25 January that Russian economic growth in 2001 is likely to slow to 4 percent, ITAR-TASS reported. But he stressed that "this signifies a downtown in the growth rate and not an economic recession." Gref also said that problems remain in developing the legal structure of the economy and moving to de-bureaucratize government supervision of economic activity. PG

ADDITIONAL ECONOMIC DATA RELEASED

The State Statistics Committee said on 25 January that consumer inflation will be 2.4 to 2.6 percent in January, Interfax reported. In addition, it reported that overall agricultural production grew 5 percent from 1999 to 2000 to 844.9 billion rubles ($30.5 billion). The Economic Ministry website (www.economy.gov.ru) said on 25 January that the final figure for GDP growth in 2000 was 7.6 percent. PG

DUMA BACKS GOVERNMENT ON PARIS CLUB TALKS...

By a vote of 318 to five, the Duma on 25 January passed a non-binding resolution supporting Moscow's efforts to reschedule payments on Soviet-era debt to the Paris Club, Russian and Western agencies reported. The resolution said that "the enormous burden of payments on servicing Russia's foreign debt in 2001-2008 would seriously exacerbate the country's further socio-economic development." At the same time, the Duma reaffirmed that the Russian government will meet all its repayment commitments. PG

...BUT DOESN'T WANT TO HEAR SHOIGU

Prime Minister Kasyanov was supposed to deliver a report to the Duma on handling emergency situations but sent Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu in his place, "Izvestiya" reported on 25 January. But 377 deputies voted to reject Shoigu's appearance and to invite Kasyanov again. PG

RUSSIA'S DAVOS DELEGATION -- MINUS ONE

Russia's delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos includes Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, presidential economics advisor Andrei Illarionov and several other senior officials, but not Oleg Deripaska of Siberian Aluminum who was dropped because of a suit against him, "Vedomosti" reported on 25 January. PG

NASA OFFERS TO HELP IN MIR DEORBITING

Yurii Grigoriev, the director of the Mir program, said that the U.S. space agency NASA has offered to help Russia's mission control in bringing the Mir space station down from orbit, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 January. He said that Russian specialists are currently working out procedures for that cooperation to take place. The Mir station currently is scheduled to be deorbited in the first week of March. PG

U.S. MIGHT INSURE TURNER INVESTMENT IN NTV

The press service of the U.S. Government Corporation for Private Investments Abroad said that it could "in principle" insure media magnate Ted Turner against political risks connected with any investment in Russian independent television NTV, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 January. But the press service said that Turner has not yet asked for such insurance. PG

ANONYMOUS CALLER SHUTS VOLGOGRAD-ROSTOV RAILWAY

The Emergency Situations Ministry said on 25 January that an anonymous caller said that he had planted a bomb on a railway bridge across the Don River, thus forcing authorities to close rail traffic between Volgograd and Rostov, ITAR-TASS reported. No bomb has been found, and the identity of the caller has not been established. PG

HOW SOVIETS COPIED B-29 REVEALED

Russian and American historians on 25 January described to a meeting at the Russian Embassy in Washington how Soviet designers copied the U.S. B-29 bomber by taking it apart piece by piece and reverse engineering it into the Soviet's Tu-4, Reuters reported. The full story is to be published in the March 2001 issue of the Smithsonian Institution's "Air and Space" magazine. PG

DRINKING BEER NOT RECOMMENDED

Gennadii Onishchenko, the chief sanitary doctor of Russia, said in Moscow on 25 January that a switch from vodka to beer by Russian consumers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2001) is not healthy, ITAR-TASS reported. Indeed, he said, it is leading to the rise of "beer alcoholism." He noted that some domestic beer producers do not observe the necessary sanitary norms in the brewing and bottling process. PG

METALS OLIGARCH TIPPED TO WIN WEEKEND ELECTION

Norilsk Nickel General Director Aleksandr Khloponin is the odds-on favorite to win 28 January gubernatorial elections in Taimyr Autonomous Okrug, "Segodnya" reported on 26 January. According to the daily, incumbent Governor Gennadii Nedelin, who has ruled the region since 1990, was expected to easily win re-election until Khloponin announced his intention to enter the race. Norilsk Nickel is the chief employer in the region, and relations between Nedelin and the company were friendly until two years ago. Then, the two started to spar over the distribution of financial resources between the company and the region. According to the daily, many of Nedelin's supporters have switched over to Khlopinin's side, and Nedelin's only chance of victory now is if the local election commission bans Khloponin from running. This seems unlikely, although the local election commission chairman admitted recently that the campaign has been far from clean (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 24 January 2001). JAC

SHOIGU AGAIN TRAVELS TO FAR EAST TO FIX HEATING PROBLEMS

Emergency Situations Minister Shoigu left Moscow for Primorskii Krai on 25 January on orders from Prime Minister Kasyanov to fix the region's heating system, Interfax reported. Kasyanov told cabinet members that day that he expects heating and electricity supplies to be back to normal by 1 February. Together with Shoigu will be a gaggle of representatives from the ministries of finance, transportation, economic development and trade, energy, the State Construction Committee and Unified Energy Systems. Last month, Shoigu led a similar group of officials with a similar mission (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 6 December 2000). In an interview with "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 25 January, Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko opined on theme of electricity reform. He suggested that stabilizing the country's internal fuel balance makes more sense than restructuring Unified Energy Systems. JAC

ULTRA-NATIONALIST GROUP ACTIVE IN KARELIA

The Republic of Karelia's Supreme Court ruled on 25 January to ban the activities of the organization, Russian National Unity (RNE) ITAR-TASS reported. The court was responding to a petition from the republic's Justice Ministry. According to the agency, supporters of RNE have been distributing leaflets in the republic. In 1999, a Moscow city court banned the activities of RNE in that city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 April 1999). JAC

U.S. CALLS FOR CHECHEN PEACE TALKS

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on 24 January advocated beginning a political dialogue in Chechnya that will lead to a political settlement, an RFE/RL correspondent in Washington reported. Boucher did not say whom he thought Russia should select as a negotiating partner. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's four-year term expires in the next few days. Boucher said it is not yet clear whether the 22 January announcement of a partial Russian troop withdrawal from Chechnya "represents a change in Russian strategy that could resolve the stalemate in Chechnya." LF

RUSSIAN TROOP WITHDRAWAL FROM CHECHNYA ON HOLD?

Rear-Admiral German Ugryumov, who is deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), told officers at the Khankala military base in Grozny on 25 January that no troops will be withdrawn from Chechnya until a thorough assessment of the military situation there has been conducted, ITAR-TASS reported. Announcing on 22 January that he had transferred command of the "anti-terrorist" operation in Chechnya from the Defense Ministry to the FSB, President Putin had said an unspecified number of forces would be withdrawn. Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov told Interfax on 25 January that the Russian troop presence would be reduced by half, from 80,000 to 40,000. Interfax also quoted Russian Defense Ministry officials in Moscow as saying the same day that the withdrawal will begin in mid-February. LF

HAS RUSSIA USED DEPLETED URANIUM MUNITIONS IN CHECHNYA?

An article published in "Novaya gazeta" on 22 January suggested that Russian forces in Chechnya may on occasions have used armor-piercing shells with a uranium core, specifically during the March 2000 battle to wrest control of the village of Komsomolskoe from Chechen fighters subordinate to Ruslan Gelaev. LF




WORLD BANK TO HELP RAISE FUNDS FOR ARMENIAN CENSUS

World Bank official Vigen Sarkisian said on 25 January that the Bank will approach several international agencies, including the U.S. government's agency for statistical information, with a request to contribute towards the estimated $2.2 million cost of conducting the census scheduled to be held in Armenia in October 2001, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The Armenian government had said earlier this month that the census may have to be postponed as this year's budget allocates only $200,000 towards the cost (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2001). LF

ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN ACCEPTED INTO COUNCIL OF EUROPE...

The official ceremony marking the acceptance of Armenia and Azerbaijan into full membership of the Council of Europe took place in Strasbourg on 25 January. In his English-language address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe after the ceremonial hoisting of the two countries' flags, Armenian President Robert Kocharian stressed that "Armenia has always associated itself with Europe, its history, its values and culture," and that "the priorities and objectives of Armenia are in full conformity with the values and practices of Europe and its institutions," Noyan Tapan reported. Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, who spoke in Azerbaijani, for his part said "we will remain committed to the Azerbaijani people's and government's ideals and principles of humanism and respect for democracy and freedoms based on human rights." He also said that Azerbaijan will continue implementing reforms "in a well-thought out way," but "not because anyone wants us to implement them." LF

...AS PRESIDENTS FOCUS ON KARABAKH CONFLICT

President Kocharian in his address to the Parliamentary Assembly acknowledged that "we still remain a weaker link in the wider system of European security," Noyan Tapan reported. He said the Karabakh peace process "has in the past few years acquired certain new and positive elements," and said he considers the OSCE Minsk Group as the most appropriate format for continuing attempts to resolve the conflict. But he also argued, as Armenian officials have consistently done, that the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should be recognized as an equal party to the conflict, and that a solution requires "a broader formulation" of the concept of sovereignty. Aliyev in his address accused Armenia of "large-scale aggression" against Azerbaijan, and the international community of failing to condemn that "fearful tragedy," Reuters reported. Aliyev again said that the Karabakh war had left over one million Azerbaijani refugees and displaced persons. "Yeni Azerbaycan," the newspaper of the eponymous ruling party, of which Aliyev is chairman, quoted the Azerbaijan State Statistics Committee on 12 January as giving the total number of refugees and displaced persons as 791,824. The two presidents told a news conference later on 25 January that Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov made new proposals on resolving the Karabakh conflict during his visits to Yerevan and Baku on 21-22 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2001). LF

ISRAELI PRESIDENT VISITS GEORGIA

Arriving in Tbilisi on 25 January for a two-day official visit, Moshe Katsav met with his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze for what the latter termed "useful and resultative talks" marking "the beginning of a strategic partnership." The two presidents pledged to broaden cooperation, especially in the economic sphere, and signed a declaration that noted inter alia Israel's role as one of the most prominent foreign investors in Georgia. Katsav also expressed appreciation that during Shevardnadze's tenure as Soviet Foreign Minister, over a million Jews were able to emigrate from the USSR to Israel. LF

UN OFFICIAL ACCUSES RUSSIA OF SABOTAGING ABKHAZ SETTLEMENT

Dieter Boden, who is the UN Secretary General's special envoy for Abkhazia, has accused Moscow of hindering a political solution to the Abkhaz conflict by its objections to unspecified provisions of the settlement plan drafted by the UN, Caucasus Press reported on 25 January. Russia's representatives to the UN Security Council declined last summer to discuss that draft, saying they were not empowered to do so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 August 2000). LF

GEORGIAN POLICE PREVENT DEMONSTRATION BY FORMER PRESIDENT'S SUPPORTERS

Georgian police on 25 January prevented supporters of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia from staging a march to the state chancellery in Tbilisi to demand Shevardnadze's resignation and the release of persons they consider political prisoners, Caucasus Press reported. Police rounded up the protesters, forced them into buses and drove them miles outside the city limits before releasing them. Parliament deputy Djemal Gamakharia (21st Century) condemned the police measure as a violation of human rights, and claimed that the whereabouts of some 50 demonstrators are still unknown. LF

EU CONDEMNS SENTENCE ON KYRGYZ OPPOSITIONIST

In a statement issued on 25 January, the EU's Permanent Council expressed "grave concern" at the circumstances surrounding the trial and seven-year jail sentenced handed down on opposition Ar-Namys Party chairman and former Kyrgyz Vice President Feliks Kulov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2001). Echoing a U.S. State Department spokesman, the EU statement said that "the handling of the case by the Kyrgyz authorities nourished the suspicion that the case may be politically motivated." The statement urges the Kyrgyz authorities to ensure that "due transparent process" is observed during the appeal case. It further recalled that the EU earlier expressed similar concern about the recent court cases against Kyrgyz human rights activist Ramazan Dyryldaev and opposition politician Topchubek Turgunaliev. LF

KYRGYZSTAN, TAJIKISTAN BRING LEGAL ACTION AGAINST U.S. TOBACCO GIANT

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have filed suit in a Florida court against Philip Morris Inc. and other U.S. tobacco companies for hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for damage to smokers' health, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 January. Russia earlier filed a similar suit. LF

TURKMENISTAN NAMES NEW AMBASSADOR TO U.S.

President Saparmurat Niyazov has appointed Mered Orazov as Turkmenistan's ambassador to the U.S., "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 January quoting Turkmenistan.ru. Orazov was until recently rector of the Turkmen State University. LF

UZBEKISTAN CUTS NATURAL GAS SUPPLIES TO KYRGYZSTAN

Uzbekistan cut natural gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan during the night of 24-25 January, partly in retaliation for Bishkek's $1.35 million unpaid debt for earlier supplies, and partly because of a pipeline accident, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Kyrgyzgas Director General Turgunbek Kulmurzaev said the reason he cannot discharge those debts is that Kyrgyz consumers owe his company a total of 236 million soms (about $4.8 million). He added that a gas company in neighboring Kazakhstan has agreed to supply some gas to Kyrgyzstan for the next few days. The deputy presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed an agreement last month rescheduling Kyrgyzstan's gas debts and specifying the amount of gas Uzbekistan is to supply Kyrgyzstan in 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2000). LF




MINSK HAGGLES WITH MOSCOW OVER UNION OFFICIAL APPOINTMENT

Belarusian Deputy Premier Leanid Kozik said on 25 January that Russian Premier Mikhail Kasyanov exceeded his powers in appointing Igor Selivanov as acting state secretary of the Belarus-Russia Union to replace Pavel Borodin, who was arrested in New York on money laundering charges. According to Kozik, the appointment should have been made by the Union Supreme Council, that is, with Minsk's approval. Russian Deputy Premier Viktor Khristenko responded the same day that Kasyanov made the appointment quite lawfully as prime minister of the union government. Khristenko added that the office of state secretary must not remain vacant for long because the next meeting of the Union Council of Ministers is scheduled for 29 January. In a follow-up, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that the question of the future fate of Borodin is "under Russian President Vladimir Putin's control," Interfax reported on 25 January. Russian Duma Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka sought to place a Belarusian official in Borodin's job but failed. JM/PG

BELARUS REPORTS LASTING ECONOMIC BOOM

The Ministry of Statistics has reported that Belarus is witnessing continued economic growth. According to official data, the country's GDP in 2000 increased by 6 percent compared with1999. Industrial production grew by 8 percent and agricultural production by 8.6 percent compared with the previous year. JM

BELARUSIAN TRADE UNIONS OKAY LEADER'S PRESIDENTIAL BID

The Presidium of the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions on 25 January endorsed the proposal by "trade unionists and other citizens" to field Federation leader Uladzimir Hancharyk in this year's presidential elections, Belapan reported. RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported the same day that the Federation nonetheless fears possible reprisals by the authorities because of Hancharyk's presidential bid. According to some opinions voiced during the Federation Presidium's gathering, the Minsk City authorities have recently applied "large-scale pressure" to city working collectives in order to split the trade union movement and create a government-controlled trade union structure in the capital. JM

PACE VOICES CONCERN ABOUT MEDIA FREEDOM IN UKRAINE

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 25 January adopted a resolution expressing its deep concern about "intimidation, repeated aggressions, and murders" committed against journalists in Ukraine and condemning the Ukrainian authorities for violations of the freedom of expression, Reuters reported. The resolution calls for an independent probe into the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and the tapes that allegedly implicate President Leonid Kuchma in Gongadze's presumed death. Meanwhile, the Paris-based human rights group Reporters Without Borders accused the Ukrainian authorities of serious failings in the investigation of Gongadze's disappearance. "Everything indicates that Gongadze was murdered because he was an inconvenience for the authorities... Those who are responsible for this murder should be searched for at the top of the state...in the direction of the Interior Ministry," Reporters Without Borders head Robert Menard said in Strasbourg. JM

KYIV TO SILENCE BBC, VOA, DEUTSCHE WELLE IN UKRAINIAN?

The National Council for Television and Radio has announced an open tender for the 101.9 FM band, on which the Kontinent radio station rebroadcasts Ukrainian-language programs from the BBC World Service, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle, Interfax reported on 25 January. Kontinent director Serhiy Sholokh accused the government of planning to shut down the last remaining independent mass media in Ukraine or to frighten them into silence. The BBC World Service supported Kontinent, saying that offering Kontinent's frequency for sale "is a clear breach" of the council's 1997 decision to give Kontinent that frequency for 10 years. The BBC added that the tender terms "make it almost impossible for the station to retain its frequency." The council responded that Kontinent's license for broadcasting expired last year. JM

UKRAINE'S SHADOW ECONOMY SAID TO BE GROWING

Yevhen Marchuk, secretary of the Council of National Defense and Security, told journalists on 25 January that Ukraine is suffering from a continued expansion of the shadow economy sector and an outflow of hard currency abroad, Interfax reported. According to Marchuk, 52 percent of money turnover in Ukraine takes place outside the country's banking system. Marchuk said there are a lot of short-lived companies in Ukraine that "make operations with billions of hryvni and subsequently disappear," contributing to hard currency outflow. Marchuk did not mention any specific names. JM

LASCO PRIVATIZATION ROCKED BY MILLION-DOLLAR BRIBE CHARGES

The long-drawn-out effort to privatize the state-owned Latvian Shipping Company (LASCO), which is one of the largest maritime cargo companies in the world, has been further complicated by accusations by state proxy Eizens Cepurnieks that former Prime Minister Andris Skele offered a $1 million bribe to Riga Mayor Andris Argalis and Saeima (parliament) chairman Janis Straume to garner support for one of the bidders for LASCO, BNS and LETA reported on 25 January. Cepurnieks' accusations came to light in an interview in the 25 January edition of "The Baltic Times," where the president of the Latvian chapter of "Transparency International," Inese Voika, said Cepurnieks had told her on 17 January that he had learned of the bribe from prominent businessman Normunds Lakucs, who along with For Fatherland and Freedom party leader Maris Grinblats is said also to have been at the meeting. Voika was quoted by The Baltic Times as saying "this story sounded too unbelievable, but anything should be checked. I told it to several journalists before but it somehow never had been published." When asked by reporters about the alleged meeting, all parties strenuously denied it had ever occurred, accused each other of lying and demanded a full investigation of the charges. Meanwhile, Cepurnieks himself is in Spain on vacation, and has said he will not return to Latvia until 1 February, at which time he is to meet with prosecutors looking into the charges. Prime Minister Andris Berzins, noting that "Cepurnieks has created great chaos with his statements," said during an interview on Latvian State Radio that he is ready to demand Cepurnieks' immediate resignation as LASCO state proxy, without waiting for his return to Latvia. MJZ

WILL LITHUANIA'S ECONOMICS MINISTER BE THE NEXT TO RESIGN?

One day after the resignation of former Transport Minister Gintaras Striaukas, ELTA reported on 25 January that Lithuanian Seimas (parliament) chair Arturas Paulauskas is calling for the resignation of Economics Minister Eugenijus Maldeikis over accusations of unethical conduct concerning controversial meetings Maldeikis had with representatives of the Russian natural gas giant "Gazprom." Maldeikis has asked Lithuania's ethics commission to review his case, and Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas said he will await the opinion of the commission before making any decision on demanding Maldeikis' resignation. On a related note, the strain of the ongoing scandals within the Paksas government has left its mark both on Maldeikis, who suffered a heart attack on 24 January, and on Finance Minister Jonas Lionginas, who was diagnosed on 23 January as suffering from hypertension, according to "Lietuvos aidas." MJZ

POLISH PRESIDENT SAYS NO CHANGE IN KALININGRAD

Following a meeting with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in Warsaw on 25 January, Aleksander Kwasniewski said "there has been no change [in Kaliningrad Oblast] that should cause a revision of our views and evaluations," PAP reported. Kwasniewski was referring to reports in "The Washington Times" earlier this month maintaining that Russia has recently placed nuclear tactical weapons in the Kaliningrad exclave (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 2001). Premier Jerzy Buzek's aide Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska told journalists the same day that "if some new tactical missiles have recently appeared in Kaliningrad, it was a subsequent attempt at testing [the reaction of] the Americans and the NATO-aspiring Baltic states." She added that the move "definitely was not directed against Poland." JM

EU TO FINANCE POLISH AGRICULTURAL DEVELOPMENT

Poland on 25 January signed a deal with the European Commission on EU aid for the development of rural areas, PAP reported. Poland is to receive 168 million euros ($158 million) every year for six years from the fund called the Special Accession Program for Agriculture and Rural Development. JM

NORWAY OPENS DOOR TO POLISH MEDICAL PERSONNEL

Labor Minister Longin Komolowski said on 25 January that Norway has jobs for more than 4,000 Polish doctors and nurses, PAP reported. Komolowski's statement followed the signing of two accords on the employment of 500 Polish doctors, including 100 dentists, and 3,700 nurses in Norwegian clinics. JM

CZECH PRESIDENT SEES 'NO REASON TO APOLOGIZE' TO CUBA

President Vaclav Havel, reacting to a statement by the Cuban government that called on the Czech authorities to apologize for the conduct of deputy Ivan Pilip and human rights activist Jan Bubenik who are detained in Havana, said on 25 January he "has no reason to do so and neither does the Czech Republic," CTK reported. Also on 25 January, the Chamber of Deputies approved a resolution condemning the detention of the two Czech citizens and demanding their immediate release. European Commission President Romano Prodi, in a letter to Havel, on the same day wrote that the EU "very much shares your concern" over the fate of Pilip and Bubenik and "is doing all it can" to bring about their release. MS

CZECH PREMIER SAYS CONSTITUTIONAL COURT RULING HAS NO IMPACT ON 'OPPOSITION AGREEMENT'

Milos Zeman told journalists on 25 January that the so-called "opposition agreement" between his own Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) will not be affected by the ruling of the Constitutional Court on amending the electoral law, CTK reported. Zeman said the CSSD and the ODS agreed to amend the law and in line with the agreement jointly submitted the bill. The court's ruling, he said, must be viewed "like a natural disaster, for which one cannot blame the government." Havel told journalists on 25 January after meeting with leaders of the newly-established regions that he believes 14 electoral districts, instead of the 35 proposed in the rejected amendment or the eight districts existing at present, would be a "rational" idea, since the number of the new regions is also 14. MS

CZECH LOWER HOUSE ELECTS DEPUTY OMBUDSMAN...

Anna Sabatova, former spokeswoman of Charter '77, was elected on 25 January by the Chamber of Deputies to the position of deputy ombudsman, CTK reported. Sabatova received 92 votes, 42 more than former ODS Senator Jan Voracek. Sabatova's husband, Human Rights Commissioner Petr Uhl, said he will resign on 31 January, when his wife will be sworn in. Uhl said he wants to avoid any possible situation leading to a conflict of interests. MS

...REJECTS BILL ON REFERENDA

A bill on referenda drafted by the government failed on 25 January to obtain the backing of at least 120 deputies in the Chamber of Deputies, and is consequently considered to have been rejected. The bill would have allowed the population to be consulted on important internal and foreign policy matters. It was backed by 98 deputies from the CSSD and opposed by 68 deputies from different parliamentary groups. The rejection of the bill means that no referenda on questions such as EU membership or the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant can be conducted, and Deputy Premier Pavel Rychetsky said the cabinet is unlikely to submit another bill before the end of its term in office. Some deputies favored submitting separate bills on different referenda and refused to support a bill that dealt with plebiscites in general. MS

CZECH PREMIER DENIES HE HAS CHANGED POSITION ON SUDETEN GERMANS

Zeman told CTK on 25 January that he has not changed his position on the 1945 Benes decrees. The denial comes after ODS chairman Vaclav Klaus said on 24 January that by agreeing to meet with Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber earlier this week, Zeman has shifted away from the consensual Czech position that there will be no talks with regional leaders "about the past." Zeman said there was no difference between his meeting Stoiber and a regional leader from the Italian province of Lombardia, and that he had refused to discuss the Benes decrees during the meeting in Bavaria. The chairman of the organization representing the Germans expelled under the decrees, Johann Boehm, confirmed that Zeman "refused to discuss the past, saying he viewed the issue as closed politically and open only for historians to deal with." MS

NO TRACE OF DEPLETED URANIUM AT SLOVAK U.S. TRAINING BASE

Tests performed at the western Slovak Malacky air base show neither traces of depleted uranium, nor increased radiation, according to Chief of Staff General Milan Cerovsky. The air base has been used by the U.S. air forces in Europe for training, in line with an agreement signed by the two countries in 1999. The tests were carried out after media speculation that weapons containing depleted uranium had been used in Malacky, AP reported on 25 January. MS

INTEREST GROUP DEMANDS BANNING OF HUNGARIAN EXTREMIST PARTY

An organization calling itself The Forum for the Defense of People Persecuted by Fascism in Hungary asked the Prosecutor-General on 25 January to ban the extremist Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) for its recent proposal to have war-time Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy retried (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2001). The organization's chairman, Endre Kadar, said that MIEP's "revisionist policy" infringes on the stipulations of the 1947 Paris peace treaty, MTI reported. In other news, the Christian Democratic Party on 25 January has also protested against the proposed retrial of Bardossy. MSZ




YUGOSLAV MINISTER: MILOSEVIC WILL BE TRIED IN SERBIA

Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic said in Sofia on 25 January that the government insists that former President Slobodan Milosevic be tried in Serbia and not in The Hague. "We are interested in cooperating with the Hague tribunal. But we believe that handing Milosevic over is not the only way to cooperate... [The trials of Milosevic and others] will be the beginning of [a process of national] reconciliation... and will take several years. We believe that trying these people in Yugoslavia will enable society to face [up to] the crimes that were committed, and this will be part of building new democratic institutions," Reuters quoted Svilanovic as saying. PM

DEL PONTE: SERBIA'S MILOSEVIC WILL BE TRIED IN THE HAGUE

Carla Del Ponte, who is the Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, said in Belgrade on 25 January that Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica prevented "any meaningful dialogue" during her three-day visit to the Serbian capital (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2001). "My feeling is that he was practically forced to meet me. For half an hour I had to listen to him saying things which I already knew, since he had already said them to the press. I tried to get into dialogue but it was practically impossible. He obviously wanted to make a political declaration," the "Guardian" quoted her as saying. Del Ponte stressed that Milosevic and other indicted war criminals must be tried in The Hague, adding that she "cannot wait years until fugitives are transferred" to the Dutch city. She noted that "the important thing is that [Serbian Prime Minister Zoran] Djindjic and others recognize the obligation to cooperate. They say they must implement a new law and need two or three months before they can be fully active in cooperation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2001) PM

EU: SERBIA TO GET AID DESPITE NON-COOPERATION WITH HAGUE

European Commission President Romano Prodi said in Geneva on 25 January that he has "full confidence" in Kostunica and places "no conditions" on him in return for EU aid. Prodi rejected attempts to link EU aid to Belgrade's cooperation with the tribunal, adding that Kostunica "needs time," Reuters reported. In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the U.S. is "disappointed" with the results of Del Ponte's visit. In Podgorica, Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic said that "all serious and responsible people must accept cooperation with the tribunal... I believe full cooperation...is necessary," AP reported. PM

DJINDJIC TAKES CHARGE OF SERBIAN GOVERNMENT

Djindjic and his reform government were sworn in on 25 January. As prime minister, Djindjic has arguably the single most powerful job in Belgrade. Djindjic said: "We shall not organize a witch hunt, but we won't let the members of the former regime hold on to the assets they plundered from the people," AP reported. He added that "my government won't lie to you, and we won't steal. And this is a solemn pledge." The governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition has already outlined a broad package of political and economic reforms. They include promoting democracy and transparency while eliminating crime and corruption. One high priority is depoliticizing the police, military, media, and judiciary. PM

SERBIAN GOVERNMENT SACKS MILOSEVIC'S SECURITY CHIEF

One of the first acts of the new government was to appoint former police official Goran Petrovic to head the huge security apparatus. His predecessor, Rade Markovic, resigned just hours earlier, Reuters reported. Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic said that Petrovic knows the problems of the security forces well and can be counted on to "democratize" them. PM

GUERRILLAS FIRE ON BRITISH KFOR TROOPS

Some 10 unidentified men wearing olive green uniforms fired on British KFOR troops near Ukmemet along the border between Serbia and Kosova, KFOR said in a statement from Camp Bondsteel on 25 January. The 10 men then returned to the demilitarized zone just inside the Serbian side of the frontier. There have been no reports of incidents since then. PM

DID SERBIAN FORCES BURN BODIES OF KOSOVAR VICTIMS?

Washington-based U.S. National Public Radio quoted Serbian eyewitnesses as saying that Serbian forces burned the corpses of up to 1,500 ethnic Albanian atrocity victims in 1999. The burnings allegedly took place at the Trepca lead mining and metallurgical complex near Mitrovica. If the story is true, the figure would account for about one-half of the Kosovars still reported missing from the 1998-1999 conflict, AP reported on 25 January. PM

SERBIAN WITNESSES: KOSOVAR BODIES BURNED TO HIDE EVIDENCE

One witness said that the bodies were first dug up from mass graves that NATO satellites had identified in their search for evidence of war crimes, AP reported from Washington on 25 January. The bodies were too large to fit inside Trepca's furnaces, so they were first ground up in an ore-processing machine, the witness added. The witnesses gave only their first names. One of the men said: "The point was not to hide the bodies in mass graves but to totally destroy them. It would be as if these people never existed." He added: "I think our people understood that sooner or later some of these Western organizations, like the Hague tribunal, might come into Kosovo. We needed a good way to destroy the evidence," Reuters reported. Another witness added: "This was a horrible scene because there were so many--like a factory assembly line, but with bodies." PM

MONTENEGRIN PRESIDENT WANTS REFERENDUM, PRESIDENTIAL VOTE AFTER ELECTIONS

Djukanovic told a Podgorica news conference on 25 January that he wants a referendum on independence and new presidential elections to follow soon on the heels of the 22 April early parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2001). "After the formation of the new parliament, I will propose at its first regular session calling a referendum on the legal status of Montenegro. It is fully logical that after the referendum, citizens should say whom they want to lead them in the next period," Djukanovic added. The president stressed that he expects the EU to respect the will of the Montenegrin voters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2001). PM

CROATIAN POLICE SMASH ARMS, DRUGS RING

Hina quoted police sources in Zagreb on 25 January as saying that the police have broken up a major arms and drugs smuggling operation. Police arrested two alleged ring-leaders and 10 smugglers. Among the goods seized were a cache of weapons and 71 kilograms of marijuana. Most of the weapons came from the stocks of the former Yugoslav army. PM

OLD DIRECTOR IS NEW DIRECTOR OF SLOVENIAN TELEVISION

The Radio and Television Council voted by a narrow majority to keep Janez Cadez as head of Radio and Television Slovenia, "Dnevnik" reported on 26 January. PM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZED FOR MARKET REFORMS HOSTILE REMARKS...

President Ion Iliescu's remarks hostile to market reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2001) were harshly criticized the next day, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. National Liberal Party (PNL) First Deputy Chairman Valeriu Stoica said Iliescu is "sabotaging his own government" and hinted that the PNL might consider withdrawing support from the cabinet. Democratic Party leader Petre Roman said the remarks "entail a sense of deja vu," but added that Iliescu's remarks might have been inaccurately carried by the media. Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania Executive Chairman Laszlo Borbely deemed the remarks "strange," commenting that as president Iliescu is entitled to his opinions, but "decision-making in these matters belongs to the cabinet and the parliament." But extremist Greater Romania Party First Deputy Chairman Corneliu Ciontu said Iliescu has "realized his mistakes" and the government must follow suit. MS

...PROMPTING PRESIDENTIAL SELF-DEFENSE

The "abusive interpretation" of his remarks is "an unpleasant surprise" for President Iliescu, presidential spokeswoman Corina Cretu told journalists on 26 January. Cretu said the president had "merely pointed to some inconsistencies" in the policies of the World Bank towards Romania, but considers the bank and the IMF to be "Romania's natural partners" in the country's "quest for development." IMF representative in Romania Stephane Cosse, in an interview with RFE/RL's Romanian service, refused to comment on the president's remarks, saying he was "unaware of the context in which they were made." MS

EU TELLS ROMANIA 'PROMISES ARE INSUFFICIENT'

Guenter Verheugen, European commissioner for enlargement, told journalists on 25 January after meeting Adrian Nastase in Brussels: "I have frankly told the Prime Minister that so far we are not fully satisfied with Romania's performance in the accession process. It is important for Romania to catch up." He added that "We want to see clear results. Promises, written papers, are not sufficient," Reuters reported. MS

ROMANIA MOVES MOTION ON ILASCU IN STRASBOURG

Romania's delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 25 January moved a draft resolution stipulating that the case of Ilie Ilascu, who is detained in Tiraspol, be re-tried in a Council of Europe member state, Romanian Radio reported. The draft, which is supported by 38 parliamentarians from 18 countries, will be debated in one of the sessions of the assembly. Gyorgy Frunda, chairman of the Romanian Senate's Commission on Human Rights and a member of the Romanian delegation in Strasbourg, said the case is "complex" because both Moldova's ambassador to the Council of Europe and the chairman of the Moldovan Supreme Court have confirmed that Ilascu "has shot and killed two people." Frunda said the judicial review must establish whether he did so in self-defense, and added that it is "inadmissible that he be detained in inhuman conditions and denied medical care." MS

MOLDOVAN PREMIER LOOKS AHEAD TO ELECTIONS

Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis told journalists in Chisinau on 25 January that he expects the Braghis Alliance to win at least 30 seats in the 25 February parliamentary elections. Braghis said he is counting on the support of "broad strata of the population," as the alliance includes representatives of different parties and different population groups. He also said that the Party of Moldovan Communists' (PCM) recent declaration that the Braghis Alliance has few chances in the electoral contest was determined by his refusal to run in the contest on the communist ticket. Braghis said he believes the alliance will "attract a large part of the communist electorate," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. MS

MOLDOVA TO ABOLISH PARLIAMENTARY IMMUNITY?

The Constitutional Court on 25 January ruled that a bill proposed by 34 deputies to amend the Constitution to abolish parliamentary immunity in Moldova is in line with existing legal procedure. The bill's backers argued that all citizens are equal before the law and parliamentarians must not enjoy any privilege. They also say other legislatures, such as the Austrian and the Swiss, have also abolished such immunity. In line with existing legislation, the parliament may start debates on the bill six months after the court's ruling and must end them within six months. If it does not do so, the court's ruling losses its legal force and the procedure must be started anew. MS

BULGARIA, YUGOSLAVIA SIGN ACCORDS

During his one day visit to Bulgaria (see above), Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic and his Bulgarian counterpart, Nadezhda Mihailova, signed a re-admission agreement to combat illegal immigration. Illegal refugees who cross from one country to the other will be sent back across the border. Svilanovic and Mihailova also pledged to cooperate in joint infrastructure projects, including the construction of cross-border highways and cleaning the River Danube of the debris left by NATO's air strikes in 1999, Reuters reported. MS

BULGARIAN LEFTISTS FORM PRE-ELECTORAL ALLIANCE

The main opposition Socialist Party (BSP) on 25 January announced it has reached an agreement with 14 extraparliamentary formations and civic movements to set up an alliance for the general elections scheduled for later this year, Reuters reported. A BSP spokesman told the agency that the party's goal is "to form a wide coalition government that would have broad public support, rather than a cabinet backed by a single party." The alliance is called Coalition for Bulgaria and includes, apart from the BSP, three social-democratic parties, two movements representing the Roma minority, a leftist agrarian party, several civic movements and the non-reformed Bulgarian Communist Party. MS

RUSSIA UNHAPPY WITH BULGARIA VISA REGIME

The Russian embassy in Sofia on 24 January said it "regretted" Bulgaria's intention to introduce visa requirements for Russian nationals as of 1 June 2001, ITAR-TASS reported. In a note handed to Deputy Foreign Minister Marin Raikov, Ambassador Vladimir Titov wrote that "the Bulgarian decision will inevitably have negative consequences on the development of our historic ties and on bilateral cooperation between the two countries." MS




CITIZENS' PLATFORM RIDES A WIND OF CHANGE


By Jan Maksymiuk

"We really want to change things. We are honest guys, not sweaty career-chasers or profiteers," Andrzej Olechowski told a 4,000-strong cheering crowd in the Olivia Hall in Gdansk on 24 January. People from different Polish regions came to Gdansk to take part in the official foundation of the Citizens' Platform (PO), a new political initiative launched by Sejm speaker Maciej Plazynski, Senate deputy speaker Donald Tusk, and independent politician Andrzej Olechowski. The enthusiastic atmosphere during the Gdansk convention was something Poland has not seen on the political scene for years.

Olechowski, who came second in last year's presidential ballot with 17 percent backing, announced immediately after the election campaign that he planned to utilize his election support to create a new "political platform" in order to prevent the Democratic Left Alliance's (SLD) from taking over the power in the country. Olechowski's alliance with Plazynski came into being after the latter had expressed his dissatisfaction with the planned internal reform of the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS). That reform entailed transforming the AWS into a federation of parties, slackening its ties with the Solidarity trade union, and weakening the personal clout of Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski in the ruling coalition. But even though formally all those moves were made and Krzaklewski was replaced by Premier Jerzy Buzek in the post of AWS leader, Plazynski said the changes were not radical enough, and have not freed the AWS from the sway of the trade unionists led by Krzaklewski. Plazynski ignored the offer of the post of AWS deputy head and joined Olechowski and Tusk.

Tusk, a prominent figure in the centrist Freedom Union (UW), said goodbye to his party after its national congress in December. At that congress, Tusk lost the election for the post of UW chairman to former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek in a fairly close vote, but what made him particularly resentful of his party colleagues was the outcome of the election of the UW's 100- strong national council, where his supporters won only a handful of seats. It seems that the UW, which emerged in the mid-1990s by uniting the Democratic Union (UD) -- led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki -- with the Liberal Democratic Congress (KLD) of Donald Tusk, has still not blended the two political ingredients completely.

"It is our goal to release the energy dormant in Poles, in every one of us," Olechowski told journalists two weeks ago, noting that the new platform's goal is to introduce a new, strong representation in the parliament. According to Olechowski, the PO's main program tasks are to promote education, boost economic growth, introduce a flat-rate income tax and free people with the lowest incomes from paying this tax, combat corruption, and restructure the agricultural sector. The Platform's three leaders are also proposing the reduction of the numbers of local government councilors, direct elections for town and city mayors, and the abolition of the national party lists in elections to the Sejm.

The announcement of the Plazynski-Tusk-Olechowski initiative has triggered numerous defections from the UW, revealing that the split in the party runs deep and not only along the old UD-KLD fault-line. As expected, Tusk was followed by a number of his colleagues from the former KLD, including Jacek Merkel and former Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki. On 18 January, several hundred members of the UW's Economic Forum declared their intention of joining the Plazynski-Tusk-Olechowski initiative. Massive defections to the new initiative were also reported in the UW's regional branches in Malopolska and Silesia (southern Poland) as well as in Pomerania (northern Poland). On 21 January, a split occurred in the UW's youth branch -- the Young Democrats Association. The association's leading body voted by 30 to 16 to renounce a cooperation accord with the UW and forge ties with the Citizens' Platform.

In the hope of preventing further defections, the UW held a gathering of its territorial activists in Warsaw on 20 January. Geremek told the forum that, according to his estimates, no more than several hundred people will leave the party, which has some 23,000 members. "The report of my death was an exaggeration," Geremek said, paraphrasing author Mark Twain, in commenting on the UW's current situation. He admitted, however, that the creation of the PO took the UW by surprise.

Many participants in the UW forum called Tusk's exit a "typical betrayal," but some said the UW itself is to blame for the ongoing defections. According to those critics, the UW leadership made mistakes by not proposing a candidate in last year's presidential elections, turning down Olechowski's offer to cooperate in those elections, and blocking the way for the promotion of young activists in the party.

Meanwhile, first polls suggest that the PO may be highly successful in its bid to create a centrist alternative to the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the right-wing AWS. The Pentor polling agency said 38 percent of respondents "view positively" the creation of the new political initiative, while the PBS center found that 23 percent want to vote for the PO in parliamentary elections. If these predictions prove true, the PO may emerge as Poland's major parliamentary force, second only to the SLD, which is generally tipped to win the parliamentary elections with no less than 40 percent backing.

"There were three of us in the beginning. Thousands joined in two weeks' time. I'm sure there will be millions very soon," Plazynski told the fervent PO convention. Even if his expectation is somewhat exaggerated, it is obvious that the Citizens' Platform has caught a favorable political wind in its sails and is steering to become a major force in this fall's parliamentary ballot.


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