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Newsline - March 1, 2001




BEST YEAR IN DECADE BRINGS RUSSIA BACK TO 1994 LEVEL

A document prepared by German Gref's Economic Development and Trade Ministry said that Russia's economic performance in 2000 was the best in a decade and brings the national economy back to the level it achieved in 1994, "but with far better quality characteristics and prospects," ITAR-TASS reported on 28 February. In other economic news, the ministry predicted that inflation will amount to 12-14 percent in 2001, and Pension Fund chief Mikhail Zurabov said that he expects pensions to rise 40 percent during 2001, Interfax-AFI reported. But the Federation of Independent Trade Unions announced that it will conduct a struggle to raise wages over the next few months to allow its members to keep up with inflation and even improve their economic standing, Interfax said. PG

U.S. NMD UNLIKELY TO BE EFFECTIVE ANYTIME SOON, GENERAL SAYS

Major General Vladimir Belous, the director of the Moscow Center for International and Strategic Studies, told ITAR-TASS on 28 February that for the next 10 to 15 years the American national missile defense (NMD) system will have "more of a political than a military significance" for Russia because the systems the U.S. will be able to build and deploy "will not be very effective." Another view on such defense came from Duma deputy (Yabloko) Aleksei Arbatov, who told Interfax on the same day that if Moscow succeeds in securing U.S. agreement on the creation of a non-strategic missile defense in Europe, that could lead to Russia's integration into NATO. PG

MOSCOW SAYS U.S. ROCKET TEST VIOLATES 1987 ACCORD

Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Romanov, the head of the Russian general staff's center for nuclear security, said in Moscow on 28 February that U.S. testing of the Hera rocket is in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) agreement that called on both countries to eliminate medium-range missiles, dpa reported. He said that the Hera is precisely such a missile. He noted that Moscow had scrapped its OTR-23 Oka missile with a similar range at the insistence of the U.S. at that time. PG

PUTIN LEAVES KOREA...

As he prepared to leave Seoul on 28 February, President Vladimir Putin again declared that Moscow will observe all agreements on strategic arms limitations. He also met the leaders of South Korean opposition parties in order to demonstrate that relations between the two countries will not depend on which group is in power, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said that South Korea has given final approval to purchase $700 million worth of Russian military and civilian equipment. And Primorskii Krai Deputy Governor Igor Belchuk said that the rail-line connecting Korea to the Trans-Siberian mainline could be ready within six months, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

...ARRIVES IN VIETNAM

President Putin on 28 February arrived in Hanoi for a two-day official visit during which he and Vietnamese leaders are expected to sign a declaration of strategic partnership, agree to the expansion of trade, and continue talks on an accord that would have Moscow build a nuclear power station in Vietnam, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

LESIN SAYS RUSSIAN PRESS FREER THAN AMERICAN

"Vremya novostei" on 28 February reported that Media Minister Mikhail Lesin believes that Russian media outlets have "more freedom of speech" than do their American counterparts. He said that "media in the United States express the views of only about 50 people," the wealthy owners of the media. In Russia, the situation is much better, he suggested. But not everyone in Russia agrees. "Segodnya" on 28 February reported its survey of people on the question of whether the human rights situation in Russia had improved or deteriorated since President Putin took office. Some 715 people said it had improved; 2,690 said it had deteriorated. PG

MORE MEDIA TRIALS

A Chita court on 28 February suspended local broadcasts of ORT and Mayak because of debts, Interfax-Eurasia reported. A Moscow court on the same day refused to release Media-MOST official Anton Titov from detention, Interfax said. The arbitration court prohibited Media-MOST from voting the 19 percent share of NTV stock in an upcoming 12 March shareholders meeting in Gibraltar, but Media-MOST officials dismissed the order, Interfax-AFI reported. And a New York court moved up the extradition hearing on Russia-Belarus Union State Secretary Pavel Borodin from 30 April to 2 April, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

GOVERNMENT NOT WORRIED BY NO CONFIDENCE CHALLENGE

Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko said on 28 February that the Russian government is unconcerned by Communist efforts to bring up a no-confidence vote in the Duma, Interfax reported. She said that recent economic gains make this a most unsuitable time for bringing up such a motion. Meanwhile, Duma deputy (Fatherland-All Russia) Vyacheslav Volodin told Interfax on the same day that his party views the no-confidence effort as "unpatriotic" and foolish because the Communists know very well that the Duma will not support their efforts. But Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said he will press ahead, although he declined to name the person he would propose as prime minister if the no confidence motion succeeded, Interfax reported. PG

PARTIES FAIL TO PROVIDE ANSWERS AND LOSE SUPPORT

Gennadii Osipov, the vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Institute of Social-Political Research, told Interfax on 28 February that parties across the political spectrum have failed to address the key questions agitating most Russians and consequently are rapidly losing support. Indeed, he said, the failure of the parties to suggest what they would do to meet the challenges Russia faces now means that many Russians have a very difficult time in distinguishing one party from another and consequently are increasingly less interested in what the parties actually do. PG

UNION OF RIGHTIST FORCES PUSHES ANTI-BUREAUCRACY LAW

Duma deputy (Union of Rightist Forces, or SPS) Viktor Pokhmelkin is pushing a draft law that would seek to rein in the bureaucracy and end "administrative tyranny and corruption in executive power structures and local self-government bodies," "Segodnya" reported on 26 February. The law makes complaints against the bureaucracy far easier as well as setting specific requirements for positions. Pokhmelkin said that opposition to the legislation "will be enormous," noting that only SPS and Yabloko currently support it. PG

OLIGARCHS GAIN CONTROL OF INDUSTRIALIST UNION

"Vedomosti" reported on 28 February that the "oligarchs" had ousted the "red directors" as the main force in the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. They had done so, the paper said, by shifting the election of the union's leaders away from the group's congress and allowing the president to be chosen by the executive council, which is dominated by big business. PG

PUTIN'S APPOINTMENT OF NAZDRATENKO QUESTIONED

In an interview published in the 28 February "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, Konstantin Pulikovskii, said that he does not believe that Putin's decision to appoint former Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko to head the State Fishing Committee will improve the situation in that branch of the economy. Meanwhile, Interfax-Eurasia reported that four people have announced their intention to run for Nazdratenko's former position in elections scheduled for 27 May. They include a 32-year-old company director, a pensioner, an unemployed resident of Vladivostok, and Duma deputy (Communist) Vladimir Grishukov. PG

RUSSIAN MUFTI URGES CHECHENS TO AVOID VIOLENCE DURING HAJ PERIOD

Talgat Tadzhuddin, the supreme mufti of Russia and the European countries of the CIS, on 28 February appealed to Chechen fighters to avoid violence during the 10-day period when Muslims around the world are making the pilgrimage to Mecca, Interfax reported. Russian Muslim officials told the news agency that the reason the number of Russian Muslims making the haj this year has declined from about 7,000 to 5,000 was because Saudi Arabian officials have placed new restrictions on the number of pilgrims. PG

LUZHKOV CALLS FOR FEDERAL BODY FOR COMPATRIOT AFFAIRS

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov on 28 February called for the creation of a special institution to handle the affairs of Russian compatriots living abroad, Interfax-Moscow said. He suggested that the body should have the status of a state committee or federal agency. Luzhkov's proposal came at an international conference on "Moscow and Russian Compatriots -- From Support to Cooperation." Luzhkov said that in 1999 the federal budget allotted only 2.5 rubles ($0.08) for each of the 20 million ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republics. And he came out against plans by the Russian Culture Ministry to provide support for a movie about Mazepa, a Ukrainian hero. Luzhkov also said that Russians living in former Soviet republics face special challenges because of declining support for the Russian language in these countries. In other comments on the same day, he said that his administration will continue to support the Black Sea Fleet of Russia. PG

FEDERAL OFFICIALS FOCUS ON MOSCOW CITY CORRUPTION

The Interior Ministry's investigation committee currently is supervising 30 cases involving corruption by Moscow city bureaucrats, Interfax reported. The committee said that some of the officials had accepted thousands of dollars in bribes. City property head Dmitrii Malyshev was arrested on 28 February for having taken a $70,000 bribe. PG

SENDING MILOSEVIC TO TRIBUNAL SEEN COMPROMISING MOSCOW

Gennadii Osipov, the vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Interfax on 7 March that handing over former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the war crimes tribunal at The Hague would compromise not only him but the Russian authorities. On the same day, the tribunal released a statement specifically rejecting a Russian suggestion that the tribunal should be closed down, Reuters reported. The leadership of the court believes, its spokesman said, that "it is somewhat paradoxical to consider shutting down the tribunal at a time when it is working better than ever and issuing a number of important judgments. PG

GORBACHEV COMES OUT AGAINST BALTICS IN NATO

Speaking on "Ekho Moskvy" on 28 February, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said that if NATO takes in the three Baltic countries without the participation of Russia, Moscow "is sure to retaliate." But he added that if the inclusion of the three took place with Russia having a role in the discussions, then the situation would be very different. PG

STEPASHIN, WORLD BANK DISCUSS GOVERNMENT REFORM

Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin and officials of the World Bank discussed reforming the structure of the state administration in Russia, Interfax-API reported on 28 February. Among the measures they discussed was the fight against corruption. PG

COAST GUARD DETAINS 17 SHIPS IN JANUARY

The Federal Border Service said its sea defense units detained 17 fishing vessels during January alone and imposed fines totaling $119,000, Interfax reported. The report came as Russian and Japanese officials continued talks over the possible return of a Russian vessel which fled Russian waters a week ago and is now in a Japanese port. PG

CONFLICT OVER 'MIR' CONTINUES

Rosaviakosmos head Yurii Koptev said on 28 February that Russia has taken all necessary procedures for decommissioning and deorbiting the "Mir" spacecraft, Interfax reported. He said Russia, which now spends only 50 percent as much on space exploration as does India, had no choice but to bring the station down. Energiya General Director Yuri Semenov agreed that the station should come down but that it might not have been necessary to do it so quickly, ITAR-TASS reported. But many politicians and journalists continued to suggest that the deorbiting of the "Mir" is an act of betrayal. An example of this position was contained in "Zhizn (Moskovskie vedomosti)," no. 7, which suggested that Moscow had agreed to bring the station down in a part of the Pacific Ocean where American naval divers can retrieve it "to create efficient space-based armed forces and an anti-missile system." PG

RUSSIAN NAVY SAID TO BE 'DYING'

An article in "Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie," no. 7, said that fuel and money shortages have pushed the Russian navy to "the verge of collapse" and that unless major changes are made soon, it will be possible to say that "the Russian navy is dying." The number of ships, planes, exercises, and training time all fell drastically last year. And the inability of the government to pay for ships has hurt shipyards which are no longer in a position to build the vessels the navy needs. PG

SOVIET PASSPORT HOLDERS NOW STATELESS

As of 1 March, individuals who have only Soviet passports and who have arrived in the Russian Federation from former Soviet republics are to be considered as stateless and must seek residence permits and undergo naturalization procedures, "Izvestiya" reported on 28 February, citing a Foreign Ministry announcement. Meanwhile, Russian and Georgian diplomats continued to discuss visa arrangements between the two countries, "Tribuna" reported the same day. Approximately 300,000 Georgians want to remain in Russia and most will do so illegally, the paper said, noting that "Russia doesn't need 300,000 illegal aliens." PG

LEADER DENIES RIFTS AMONG CHECHEN FIGHTERS, REJECTS WAHHABISM...

In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 28 February, Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov denied persistent rumors of tensions between himself and radical Islamist field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab. He said the latter are "part of the resistance to the Russian army," and "they, like all the others, fight the Russian occupying forces under a unified command." Maskhadov nonetheless made clear his personal rejection of radical Islamist ideology. "I am against all tendencies, including wahhabism, that divide Muslims, my people into two camps [and] give our enemies the chance to provoke a fratricidal civil war. Today too, I am against the spreading of any ideology that is unacceptable to my people," Maskhadov said. He said that those responsible for spreading wahhabism in Chechnya "are in Russia and Daghestan." LF

...CALLS FOR PEACE TALKS

Maskhadov reaffirmed his readiness for peace talks with Moscow, which he said are "inevitable," as "all wars have to be ended eventually." But he warned that only a formal peace treaty and the establishing of "normal, good-neighborly, civilized" relations between the Russian Federation and Chechnya can prevent a new conflict from erupting in the future. He confirmed that his representatives have discussed with a group of Russian State Duma deputies the possibility of appealing to Maskhadov and Russian President Putin to end the fighting. Alluding to Moscow's insistence that he should apologize to the Chechen people for allegedly precipitating the most recent conflict, Maskhadov said that he is prepared to apologize for the sufferings the Chechen population has endured during the struggle for independence, and to allow the Chechen people to decide on its future leadership and relations with Russia. LF

CHECHEN PROSECUTOR DENIES REPORTS OF NEW MASS GRAVE

The Chechen Prosecutor's office denied on 28 February media reports that a grave containing 10 bodies had been discovered in Grozny's Oktyarbr Raion the previous day, ITAR-TASS reported. The office also declined comment on the identity of 16 bodies recently found in a communal grave on the outskirts of the city. Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles has called for a "full and thorough" investigation into those deaths, while Human Rights Watch reported on 27 February that three of the dead have been identified as young Chechen men detained by Russian troops in December. LF

ANOTHER SECURITY OFFICIAL ATTACKED IN KARACHAEVO-CHERKESSIA

The head of the Security Council of the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Boris Batchaev, was hospitalized in Cherkessk late on 27 February after being beaten up by a single assailant armed with a baseball bat, Interfax reported the following day. Batchaev headed the Karachai National Movement that backed Vladimir Semenov's 1999 presidential campaign. The republic's interior minister, Aleksandr Papura, narrowly escaped death in a grenade attack last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 2000). LF

450,000 TEACHERS TAKE PART IN PROTEST

Interfax reported on 28 February that 450,000 teachers and students nationwide took part in demonstrations the day before in support of better pay and working conditions for teachers. In fact, the number of participants may have been even higher as the news service said its data reflect reports from only 52 of the subjects of the federation. Meanwhile, in the wake of these protests and complaints about funding cutbacks for higher education (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2001), representatives of both the Fatherland-All Russia and the Communist parties said they will demand increased government funding for schools and universities. PG

MINISTER OUTLINES PROCEDURE FOR REDUCING NUMBER OF REGIONS

Minister for Federation, Nationalities, and Migration Affairs Aleksandr Blokhin provided more details about new draft legislation under which regions could merge with each other, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 28 February. According to Blokhin, who was speaking in Novosibirsk the previous day, under the draft bill, which is still being reviewed by the Kremlin's legal department, a region that wants to join another would have to obtain the official agreement of federal organs, the majority of the population of the region, as well as that of neighboring regions, if the change in the status of the given region would affect their interests. Even if all sides agree, including Moscow, parties or individuals opposed to the merger would be able to challenge it in court. JAC

ANOTHER PROSECUTOR COMPLAINS ABOUT REGIONS' NONCOMPLIANCE WITH FEDERAL LAWS

In an article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 28 February, First Deputy Prosecutor-General Yurii Biryukov reported that his office has uncovered 3,273 illegal acts of regional governments over the last six months and that regional governments continue to write laws as they wish. The majority of examples cited by Biryukov in his article were from the ethnic republics, although Sverdlovsk Oblast was also cited at least three times. Meanwhile, the lawyer representing Tatarstan in the case brought against it by the local prosecutors for its laws that do not correspond to federal laws has asked Tatarstan's Supreme Court to consider whether the prosecutor has the legal authority to bring such a complaint, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 28 February. JAC

INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER IN REGION SHUT OUT OF PRESS CONFERENCES...

One of the most popular independent publications in Omsk Oblast has lost its right to attend public press conferences, RFE/RL's Omsk correspondent reported on 28 February. In response to this problem and the fact that Omsk Oblast officials control all television channels and the majority of the newspapers available in the region, the Union of Journalists and Association of Omsk Journalists have opened an independent press center in Omsk, from which the independent press agency Do-Info can operate. Do-Info chief editor Viktor Korob told RFE/RL that the opening of the center will create a platform for the distribution of different points of view. JAC

...AS NEW 'KREMLIN-BACKED' MEDIA UNION OPENS REGIONAL BRANCH

Meanwhile, in Nizhnii Novgorod, the Media Union, a newly created organization which is considered to be close to the Kremlin, announced that it is opening a new regional branch there, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 28 February (see "RFE/RL Security Watch," 27 November 2000). Media Union head Aleksandr Lyubimov said that his group is ready to serve in the capacity of a main body between the media, authorities, and business. JAC

2002 CENSUS TO ASK ETHNIC QUESTION

The special commission charged with conducting the all-Russian census in 2002 has confirmed the program for that process, Interfax reported on 28 February. The basic census will include 14 questions, including native language, citizenship, and nationality. An additional eight questions will be given to every fourth Russian family. PG

PATRIARCHATE RESPONDS TO TOLSTOY PARDON REQUEST

Patriarchate spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin said on 28 February that the excommunication of Leo Tolstoy in 1901 was not a curse but rather a reflection of the fact that "the convictions of the writer very seriously diverged from Orthodox teachings," Interfax reported. Chaplin's statement was a response to a request (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2001) by Tolstoy's great-great grandson for the removal of the anathema on the great Russian writer. PG

ONE SOLUTION FOR DEBT PROBLEM: DEBT FOR TIGERS

The Russian Academy of Sciences and the World Wildlife Fund have proposed that members of the Paris Club of creditors might be willing to cancel some of Russia's external debt in exchange for conservation measures that would allow tigers and other endangered species to survive, "The Moscow Times" reported on 28 February. In its report on this article, dpa noted that Poland, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Philippines, and Mexico are among the countries which have succeeded in swapping debt for wildlife protection. PG

SHRINE BUILT FOR DEAD ROMANOVS AND LIVE PUTIN

An Orthodox congregation in the Krasnyi Sad settlement in Rostov Oblast has build a shrine in honor of the Russian royal family and the election of Putin as president of the Russian Federation, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 28 February. Both Putin and the local authorities have provided support for this enterprise, the paper said. PG




ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SHOOTINGS TRIAL AGAIN ADJOURNED

Judge Samvel Uzunian on 28 February adjourned for 25 days the trial of 13 men charged in connection with the Armenian parliament shootings on 27 October 1999, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. That postponement, which was protested by lawyers representing the families of the eight victims of those killings, is to allow Nairi Hunanian, the leader of the five gunmen who actually committed the murders, to familiarize himself with the 48-volume case. Hunanian has refused legal help, saying he will conduct his own defense. A senior prosecutor dismissed as unfounded Hunanian's complaint that investigators violated the law by keeping him in pre-trial detention for over one year. LF

KARABAKH PRESIDENT MEETS OSCE CHAIRMAN-IN-OFFICE

Arkadii Ghukasian, the president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, met in Yerevan on 27 February with visiting Romanian Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office Mircea Geoana, Noyan Tapan reported. Ghukasian reportedly told Geoana that any attempt to resolve the Karabakh conflict should proceed from "current realities" rather than "far-fetched models." Armenian National Television, as cited by Groong, quoted Ghukasian as saying that he and Geoana discussed Karabakh's "security, its subordination to Azerbaijan...and its links with Armenia, the more the better." Ghukasian also met on 28 February with Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian to discuss economic issues, and with President Robert Kocharian to evaluate the most recent international efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. LF

WAR VETERANS KARABAKH HQ DESTROYED BY FIRE

The Stepanakert headquarters of the local branch of the Yerkrapah Union of Veterans of the Karabakh War was gutted by fire during the night of 27-28 February, RFE/RL's Stepanakert correspondent reported. A spokesman for the city fire department said arson is suspected. Members of the Karabakh branch of Yerkrapah supported the enclave's former Defense Minister Samvel Babayan, who was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment earlier this week on charges of planning to assassinate Ghukasian and seize power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2001). LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT MEETS WITH U.S. OIL MOGUL...

Heidar Aliyev held talks in Baku on 28 February with visiting Chevron President Richard Matzke to discuss that company's possible participation in the consortium created to implement the planned Baku-Ceyhan oil export pipeline, Turan and Interfax reported. Matzke reportedly expressed satisfaction with progress in exploiting the Apsheron oil and gas field. Chevron owns a 30 percent stake and Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR holds 50 percent in the consortium formed to develop those deposits. LF

...AND WITH NAKHICHEVANI PROTESTERS

President Aliyev also met in Baku on 28 February with residents of the Nakhichevan village of Nehram, who informed him of the social problems that compelled them to stage protests last year, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2000). Aliyev ordered the Azerbaijani government to take measures to resolve those socio-economic problems. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI EDUCATION MINISTER SENTENCED ON SWINDLING CHARGES

On 28 February, following a two-month trial, court sentenced former education minister and vice president of Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences, Rafig Feizullaev, to 11 years' imprisonment on charges of financial deception, Turan reported. Feizullaev was found guilty of illegally obtaining some 1.5 billion manats ($325,000) from seven people between 1993-1999, allegedly to open a private university. Feizullaev, who repeatedly queried the legitimacy of the court, pleaded not guilty to the charges. He said he had paid most of the money to a member of the presidential administration as a bribe to secure his appointment as minister. LF

OSCE OFFERS TO HOST TALKS BETWEEN GEORGIA, SOUTH OSSETIA...

Visiting Tbilisi on 28 February on the second leg of his tour of the South Caucasus states, OSCE Chairman-in-Office and Romanian Foreign Minister Geoana told Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze that the OSCE is prepared to host a further round of talks, to be held in Romania, between the Georgian authorities and the leadership of the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia on the latter's future political status within Georgia, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 4, 26 January 2001). LF

...WANTS TO PROLONG MANDATE FOR MONITORING GEORGIAN-CHECHEN BORDER

Geoana also said in Tbilisi on 28 February that he will do his best to persuade the OSCE to prolong for a further eight months the mandate of the 42 observers it has deployed along Georgia's border with Chechnya, Caucasus Press reported. That mandate is due to expire in April. Shevardnadze, for his part, expressed his gratitude to the OSCE for deploying those observers, adding that he hopes the OSCE will also agree to his request to deploy observers along Georgia's border with the Russian republic of Ingushetia. Georgian Minister of State Gia Arsenishvili told journalists in Tbilisi the same day that he thinks Georgia's border with Daghestan should also be controlled by OSCE monitors, according to ITAR-TASS. Speaking in Moscow, Russian Federal Border Service Director Konstantin Totskii said on 28 February that Russia will soon increase the number of border guards deployed on the Chechen side of the Georgian-Chechen border, and also the number of border posts. LF

MAVERICK GEORGIAN PRIEST ASSAULTS JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES

Excommunicated Georgian Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili and a group of his followers broke into a private home in Tbilisi on 27 February and physically attacked a group of Jehovah's Witnesses gathered there, Caucasus Press reported the following day. Mkalavishvili has physically attacked members of that sect on several previous occasions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 August 2000). LF

UKRAINIAN SHIP SAILING UNDER GEORGIAN FLAG DETAINED WITH ILLEGAL ARMS CARGO

The Ukrainian-registered vessel "Anastasia," which sails under the Georgian flag, was detained by Spanish customs close to the Canary Islands on 27 February with an undeclared cargo of 640 tons of arms and ammunition, Caucasus Press reported on 28 February. According to Georgia's Transport and Communications Minister Merab Adeishvili, Georgia cannot be held responsible as the vessel does not belong to the Georgian merchant marine. LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S PARLIAMENT POSTPONES DISCUSSION OF FINANCIAL AMNESTY

The lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament decided on 28 February to postpone a scheduled debate on draft legislation that would allow senior officials to return to Kazakhstan capital exported illegally without incurring any criminal responsibility for doing so, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. At a joint session on 22 February of several parliamentary committees charged with economic and legal affairs, it was proposed to impose a tax of between 5 and 12 percent on all such capital returned to Kazakhstan, according to Interfax. That agency quoted unnamed officials as estimating that the amnesty could result in the legalization of some $500 million currently held in foreign banks. LF

KYRGYZSTAN TO RAISE ELECTRICITY TARIFFS

Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev told a cabinet session in Bishkek on 28 February that the planned increases in electricity tariffs will take effect as of 12 March, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. He said the price hike is essential in order to replace worn out equipment and pay off debts accumulated by the Kyrgyzenergo company, which is to be privatized (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2001). A senior energy official said that industrial enterprises will have to pay between 4 and 10 percent more for electric power, farmers 6.5 percent, and state-funded organizations 28 percent. The increase will not apply to households that consume less than 90 kW hours per month. Finance Minister Temirbek AkmatAliyev said that the government will simultaneously increase budget expenditures in 2001 by 750 million soms (about $15 million), of which half will be allocated for increased social benefits for families whose per capita income does not exceed 300 soms (about $6) per month. LF

RUSSIAN EMIGRATION FROM KYRGYZSTAN INCREASES

Almost 18,000 Russians left Kyrgyzstan last year, over 50 percent more than in 1999, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 28 February quoting Russian embassy official Boris Assaulyuk. The emigres included 1,460 doctors, 1,803 economists, and 5,340 engineers. Some 25,000 more Russians have submitted emigration requests to the Russian embassy but have not yet left Kyrgyzstan. Half a million Russians, most of them qualified professionals, are believed to have left Kyrgyzstan since 1992. At present, Russians account for some 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan's total 4.8 million population. LF

TAJIK OFFICIAL SAYS ECONOMIC FACTORS PRECLUDE ADMITTING AFGHAN FUGITIVES

Interfax on 28 February quoted Tajikistan's deputy prime minister Saidanvar Zukhorov as saying that Dushanbe cannot allow the Afghans gathered on its southern border with Afghanistan to enter Tajikistan because "Tajikistan has only just emerged from a state of civil war." Zukhorov said that Dushanbe is still experiencing difficulties providing decent living conditions for its own citizens who were made homeless in the 1992-1997 conflict, and that admitting the Afghan fugitives would cost "billions of dollars for food, housing, and medical services." But he said Dushanbe will continue to provide the displaced persons, whose numbers are estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, with as much aid as it can afford. LF

CACHE OF SUBVERSIVE LITERATURE DISCOVERED IN NORTHERN TAJIKISTAN

Some 7,500 books and pamphlets and 1,500 leaflets calling for the overthrow of the Tajik government have been confiscated from a member of a criminal group in the town of Chkalovsk, in northern Tajikistan, Interfax reported on 28 February quoting a Tajik Interior Ministry source. The man is reportedly a supporter of the Muslim extremist party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, some 100 of whose members have reportedly been arrested since the start of the year. LF

TURKMEN AUTHORITIES WARN BAPTIST CONGREGATION

Three Turkmen officials have told Keston News Service that the Baptist congregation in Ashgabat will be fined if it attempts to break the seals placed on the city's sole remaining functioning Baptist church last month, Keston News Service reported on 28 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2001). City officials argued that religious activity by groups that failed to comply with a 1997 requirement to reregister with the Turkmen Ministry of Justice is illegal. LF

UZBEK, RUSSIAN DEFENSE OFFICIALS CONCLUDE TALKS

Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, who heads the Russian Defense Ministry's Department for International Military Cooperation, has concluded three days of talks in Tashkent with Uzbek Defense Minister Kadyr Gulyamov, Interfax reported on 28 February. Those discussions focused on military-technical cooperation, regional security, including the threat posed by guerrillas of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, counterterrorism measures, the situation in the districts of Uzbekistan that border on Afghanistan, and the possibility of training Uzbek servicemen at Russian military colleges. Ivashov was also scheduled to meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, according to ITAR-TASS on 27 February. LF




STATE TV JOURNALIST COUNTS U.S. SPIES IN BELARUS

Alyaksandr Zimouski said in a "special edition" of his weekly program "Rezanans" on Belarusian Television on 28 February that some 430 "workers of U.S. special services" were brought to Belarus by the U.S. embassy as diplomats during the past eight years, Belapan reported. According to Zimouski, U.S. intelligence activities in Belarus now focus on discrediting all aspects of Belarus's policies, provoking and escalating political and economic controversies between Belarus and other countries, financially supporting the Belarusian opposition, and stirring up "separatist sentiment and interdenominational controversies." Zimouski noted that earlier the U.S. intelligence services focused on recruiting agents and informers in Belarus. JM

UKRAINIAN POLICE DISMANTLE TENT CITY, ARREST ANTI-KUCHMA PROTESTERS

Some 400 policemen on 1 March cordoned off the tent city erected by opponents of President Leonid Kuchma on Kyiv's central Khreshchatyk Street, dragged some 100 occupants out of the tents, and dismantled the camp, Reuters and AP reported. Opposition activists and witnesses said some 30 protesters were detained. "This is the beginning of Kuchma's solution to this problem [of anti-presidential protests] by force," AP quoted opposition lawmaker Yuriy Karmazin as saying. "It was an absolutely correct decision by the authorities to show that they are the authorities, and everyone should remember that for the future. Nobody is against the opposition sitting in tents. They have a specific site allocated to them, as all civilized nations do, and let them sit there as long as they like," Kuchma commented. JM

INTERNATIONAL GROUP'S STUDY OF MELNYCHENKO'S TAPES PROVES INCONCLUSIVE

The Vienna-based International Press Institute on 28 February said it cannot prove the authenticity of the tapes publicized by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, which link Kuchma to the disappearance and murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Acting on a request from a Ukrainian parliamentary commission, the institute said it consulted a number of technical experts who stated that it was nearly impossible to determine whether the digitally-recorded tapes had been manipulated. Simultaneously, the institute said it is hard to believe that the hundreds of hours of recordings have been doctored. "If the existing evidence had consisted only of the approximately 25 minute-long recordings related to the Gongadze case, one could possibly imagine some manipulations or doctoring by a 'potential aggressor,'" the institute said in a statement. An RFE/RL correspondent who recently met with Melnychenko wrote in the 28 February "Daily Telegraph" that Melnychenko has 1,000 hours of recordings. JM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER REJECTS 'ULTIMATUM' FROM DEPUTY PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER

Viktor Yushchenko on 28 February said that "the government will never participate in a dialogue of ultimatums with any political force," the "Eastern Economist Daily" reported. Yushchenko was commenting on deputy parliamentary speaker Viktor Medvedchuk's statement that the cabinet may be dismissed unless a coalition government is created (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2001). Yushchenko added that Medvedchuk's statement is "a prologue for destabilizing the situation in Ukraine" and "an attempt to change Ukraine's future," Interfax reported. "We are convinced that this is a purely clannish approach toward organizing Ukrainian politics," Yushchenko said on behalf of his cabinet, which discussed the domestic political situation at a closed-door session. JM

TALKS BEGUN WITH SECOND BIDDER FOR ESTONIAN RAILROAD

The council of the Estonian Privatization Agency (EPA) decided on 28 February to open negotiations with the Baltic Rail Service (BRS) on the privatization of the 66 percent share of Eesti Raudtee (Estonian Railroad), ETA reported. The EPA ruled that the initial winning bidder, Rail Estonia, had failed to present a strategic investor by the deadline of 28 February and that its faxed request for extending the negotiations was not acceptable. The third-place bidder, the Railway Privatization People's Company (RER), which had begun a court action against the initial privatization decision, informed the EPA that it would not oppose its negotiations with BRS. SG

SOCIAL DEMOCRATS REMAIN MOST POPULAR POLITICAL PARTY IN LATVIA

A poll of 1,037 residents from 8 to 15 February by the SKDS sociological research company indicated that the popularity of the Social Democratic Party declined by 1.1 percent from January to 17.7 percent, BNS and LETA reported on 28 February. By increasing its rating by 5.3 percent to 13.6 percent, the People's Party takes over second place from For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, whose rating fell 0.7 percent to 10.3 percent. The popularity of Latvia's Way grew by 2.6 percent to 13.4 percent. The only other party breaking the necessary 5 percent barrier for parliamentary representation was For Human Rights in a United Latvia, whose rating increased by 0.5 percent to 5.6 percent. The number of undecided fell by 3.3 percent to 15.2 percent while 7.8 percent (up 2 percent) said that, if election were held now, they would not vote. SG

IAEA TO GRANT LITHUANIA $1.4 MILLION FOR COOPERATION PROJECTS

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed El Baradei told Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Oskaras Jusys in Vienna on 28 February that the IAEA plans to allocate about $1.4 million for technical cooperation projects with Lithuania during the next four years, BNS reported. Lithuania has made a commitment to take out of operation the first unit of its nuclear power plant in Ignalina by 2005. A joint group of IAEA and Lithuanian experts recently completed a mission, which produced preliminary recommendations regarding the strategy for closing the unit. El Baradei described IAEA cooperation with Lithuania as successful, noting good results in the improvement of nuclear safety and the completion of basic stages in the development of radiation monitoring infrastructure in the country. SG

FORMER POLISH DEPUTY PREMIER NOT TO RETURN TO CABINET

Premier Jerzy Buzek met with former Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Janusz Tomaszewski on 28 February to discuss "scenarios" of the latter's return to the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), PAP reported. Tomaszewski withdrew from politics in September 1999 after he had been accused of collaboration with communist-era secret services. Last week the Lustration Court cleared Tomaszewski of the collaboration charges. Tomaszewski said that he is expecting proposals, adding that Buzek will be able to make them after the AWS national board adopts a formal decision on Tomaszewski's return. Government spokesman Krzysztof Luft said later the same day that Buzek and Tomaszewski agreed that "the issue of the return of Mr. Janusz Tomaszewski to the government is not on the agenda now, a few months before the end of the [cabinet's] term." JM

POLISH CENTRAL BANK CUTS KEY INTEREST RATES BY 1 PERCENT

Following a decision by the Monetary Policy Council, the National Bank on 28 February decided to cut each of three key interest rates by 1 percent, Polish media reported. The intervention rate was reduced to 18 percent, the Lombard rate to 22 percent, and the rediscount rate to 20.5 percent. The intervention rate defines the upper limit of interest rates on short-term loans (up to four weeks), the Lombard rate is the rate at which banks can borrow emergency funds from the National Bank, and the discount rate is the cheapest form of bank refinancing. National Bank head Leszek Balcerowicz said the move was prompted by a continuing drop in inflation and reduction of Poland's current account deficit. JM

IRAQ LIFTS BAN ON POLISH IMPORTS

Iraqi Trade Minister Muhammad Mahdi Salih has said Iraq lifted the ban on importing goods from Poland after the Polish government "modified its position on the fourth round of aggression launched by the United States and its ally, Britain, against Iraq," the BBC reported on 28 February, quoting Iraqi Radio. The minister noted that Iraq made this decision after the Polish government officially clarified its position on the U.S.-British airstrikes and said it does not support them. Iraq introduced the ban after the Polish premier's adviser made a remark that was interpreted as Warsaw's approval for the airstrikes. Warsaw took an unusual step by publishing an official denial in an Iraqi newspaper (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2001). Polish exports to Iraq in the first nine months of 2000 were worth $327,000. JM

POLISH LAWMAKER REPORTEDLY FORCED TO END SIT-IN IN MINISTRY

Lawmaker Gabriel Janowski has told PAP that at midnight on 28 February he was "led out by force" from the Treasury Ministry. Janowski staged a sit-in in at a parlor beside the minister's office since 16 February, protesting against the government's plans to sell some Polish sugar plants to foreign investors. "My immunity as a deputy was violated, and I'm going to speak on this matter from the Sejm rostrum," Janowski added. Treasury Minister Andrzej Chronowski, who resigned this week, said he could not perform his duties because Janowski "paralyzed the work of the ministry." Marek Borowski of the opposition Democratic Left Alliance commented that the reason given by Andrzej Chronowski for his resignation is absurd. Borowski noted that if it were possible to get rid of ministers in this way, the opposition would asked Janowski to stage a sit-in the prime minister's office. JM

STROEV VISIT SIGN OF WARMER CZECH-RUSSIAN RELATIONS?

The arrival of Russian Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev on 28 February for a visit to Prague less than a month after a trip by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov indicates an improvement in relations between the Czech Republic and Russia, Czech Foreign Ministry spokesman Ales Pospisil told CTK. "Mr. Stroev's visit fits into a new scheme of Czech-Russian relations," he said. A general cooling of relations between the two countries after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was exacerbated by Russian objections to the Czech Republic joining NATO in 1999, Czech protests against Russian actions in Chechnya, and the imposition of visas on Russian citizens traveling to the Czech Republic. Stroev will be in Prague until 2 March and will meet with Senate Chairman Petr Pithart, President Vaclav Havel, Prime Minister Milos Zeman, and others. DW

CZECH REPUBLIC SUPPORTS SLOVENIAN RAPID ENTRY INTO NATO

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, on a one-day visit to Ljubljana, said that the Czech Republic wants Slovenia to join NATO as soon as possible, CTK reported 28 February. "I would welcome it if the alliance [at Prague's NATO summit in the autumn of 2002] invited...Slovenia and Slovakia to join it," he said. In talks with Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, he also discussed problems the countries have had with mutual neighbor Austria over nuclear energy. Regarding the Czech nuclear plant at Temelin, Kavan said the Czechs "expect Austria to fully respect our decision to use nuclear energy," but that it was "up to the Czech Republic to dispel the [Austrian] apprehensions and prove that they are unfounded." DW

CZECH PREMIER MUST PAY JOURNALIST DAMAGES IN LIBEL SUIT

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman was found guilty of libel in Prague City Court on 28 February and must pay a journalist damages of 300,000 Czech crowns ($8,000), CTK reported. In June 1999, Zeman accused Ivan Brezina of writing newspaper and magazine articles promoting nuclear energy for the state-owned power utility CEZ, operator of the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant. Zeman must also make a public apology. Zeman has lost a series of libel suits and has issued apologies -- sometimes years later -- to several political opponents, including Civic Democrat Deputy Chairman Miroslav Macek and former Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec. Zeman has said he will appeal the verdict. DW

SLOVAK LEFTIST DAILY TO BE RUN BY FORMER EDITOR OF CZECH CONSERVATIVE NEWSPAPER

Petr Sabata, who headed the largest Czech daily, "Mlada fronta Dnes," from 1993 to 2000, became the new chief editor of the Slovak daily "Pravda" on 1 March, CTK reported on 28 February. "I like this job offer as 'Pravda' is the first serious newspaper on the Slovak media market and it has a great future," Sabata commented on his appointment. Despite the fact that Sabata edited the right-of-center "Mlada fronta Dnes" in Prague, he said he will not change the leftist orientation of "Pravda." According to polls, "Pravda" is the third most popular daily in Slovakia -- it is read by 6.5 percent of Slovaks, while 24.8 percent claim to read "Novy Cas" and 6.6 percent peruse "Sport." JM

HUNGARY WILL MAINTAIN BAN ON FOREIGN OWNERSHIP OF LAND

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi on 28 February said that Hungary wants to maintain a ban on the purchase of farmland by foreigners for 10 years after the country joins the EU, even though the EU is against such a transition period. Speaking after a meeting of the parliament's European Integration Committee, Martonyi firmly rejected the idea that Hungary and the EU could make a bargain during accession talks on the issues of land ownership and free flow of labor. EU Ambassador to Budapest Michael Lake had earlier suggested such a bargain, but Martonyi said the two issues cannot be linked to each other as they cannot be compared in importance. MSZ

HUNGARIAN OPPOSITION CALLS FOR INQUIRY INTO TV FINANCES

The Alliance of Free Democrats is asking the Prosecutor's Office to investigate possible crimes in misusing the funds of state-run Hungarian Television during the tenure of television President Laszlo Zsolt Szabo, who resigned on 27 February. In related news, Socialist Party Deputy Chairwoman Ildiko Lendvai said her party is calling for the establishment of a parliamentary investigative committee, and for a probe by the State Audit Office into the finances of the TV. MSZ




KOSOVAR LEADERS WARN OF DESTABILIZATION

Representatives of Kosovar political parties issued a declaration in Prishtina on 28 February in which they warned that any reduction in the size of the security zone on the Serbian frontier with Kosova could increase tension in the province by bringing Serbian forces closer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2001). Former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci said that the zone should be widened rather than narrowed. Moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova noted that "we agreed that the safety ground should not be reduced because it can endanger the safety of Kosova and also NATO soldiers' lives," Reuters reported. Speaking in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said of plans to reduce the size of the zone that "we will move as quickly as we possibly can, but we will also do it with prudence and with care because this is a dangerous situation and we don't intend to make it worse" PM

SERBIAN COMMANDER: 'I DON'T TRUST ALBANIAN TERRORISTS'

General Vladimir Lazarevic, who commands the Yugoslav Third Army in southern Serbia, told a press conference in Nis on 28 February that he sees no reason to withdraw the elite Prishtina Corps from the Presevo region, as NATO has suggested as a confidence-building measure, "Vesti" reported. Lazarevic stressed that the army is "impatiently" waiting for details of NATO's ideas on reducing the size of the security zone so that it can implement its own plan for the area. He added that the military aspects of the operation "will not be easy because of the resistance of the Albanian terrorists." Lazarevic, who commanded the Prishtina Corps during the 1999 ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosova, said that he "hopes" that the reduction in the size of the zone will be a first step toward the return of Serbian troops and police to the province. One of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's advisers wrote two articles in "NIN" in December in which he suggested that Serbia could "return to Kosovo" with the help of the international community. PM

NO RESULTS FROM NATO TALKS IN MACEDONIA

Major General Robert Dierker and a NATO delegation held talks in Skopje on 28 February with Macedonian officials on the tensions along Macedonia's frontier with Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2001). An unnamed Macedonian official told Reuters that the visitors "came empty-handed. It seems they came to win some time until NATO decides what to do. They made no specific proposals." Defense Ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov said that President Boris Trajkovski and Defense Minister Ljuben Paunovski "reiterated Macedonia's intention to use all possible political and diplomatic means to solve the issue and resort to force if all other efforts fail. The NATO delegation gave full support to measures the Macedonian government has taken so far to deal with the situation. They said KFOR will take measures to calm the situation. KFOR will strengthen border patrols." PM

NATO APPEALS TO MACEDONIA

Daniel Speckhard, who is deputy assistant to NATO Secretary-General Robertson, told reporters in Skopje on 1 March that the alliance wants a peaceful solution to the crisis on the border between Macedonia and Kosova. "This must be solved by political means because solving it by other means may solve the short-term problem, but it can create larger problems for the interethnic relations in your country," Reuters quoted Speckhard as saying. He was presumably referring to the fact that Macedonia's population is some 23 percent Albanian (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 February 2001). PM

MACEDONIAN MINISTER SLAMS 'MOST SERIOUS PROVOCATION'

Paunovski said in Skopje on 28 February that Albanian guerrillas in Kosova fired a missile that afternoon from a grenade launcher at a Macedonian border patrol tower but missed their target. He called the attack "the most serious provocation yet," Reuters reported. Sporadic shooting between Macedonian forces and the guerrillas followed for five hours after the attack. PM

MACEDONIAN ALBANIAN LEADER WARNS OF WORSENING SITUATION

Arben Xhaferi, whose Democratic Party of the Albanians is a member of the government, said that he fears that established Albanian political parties will not be able to control radicals making up the guerrilla bands, Reuters reported from Skopje on 28 February (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 February 2001). Xhaferi stressed that "there are reasons to be concerned." PM

SERBIA LAUNCHES PROBE OF MILOSEVIC

The Belgrade prosecutor's office has asked police to begin an investigation of press reports that former President Slobodan Milosevic transferred 173 kilograms of gold to Switzerland between 21 September and 2 November 2000. According to the reports, Milosevic had the gold sold and placed the proceeds in the bank accounts of companies in Greece and Cyprus. "Danas" on 1 March quoted unnamed sources close to the governing coalition as saying that the "deadline" for Milosevic's arrest is 10 March. Meanwhile in New York, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's spokesman said of the investigation: "We don't want to interfere with that in any way, but [Milosevic's] indictment by the [Hague-based tribunal] stands and the government of Yugoslavia is obligated to turn him over to the tribunal for trial," RFE/RL reported. PM

HAGUE ISSUES INDICTMENTS FOR DUBROVNIK SHELLING

The war crimes tribunal issued a 16-page indictment on 1 March in conjunction with the 1991 shelling of Dubrovnik and pillaging of surrounding communities by Serbian and Montenegrin forces. "Several people" were indicted, but it is not clear who they are, AP reported. Charges include murder, cruel treatment, attacks on civilians, plunder, and unjustified devastation of civilian institutions and historic monuments. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has apologized to Croatia for the role of Montenegrin forces in Milosevic's campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2000). PM

KOSTUNICA MEETS WITH CROATIAN SERBS

Yugoslav President Kostunica met in Belgrade on 28 February with Milorad Pupovac and other Croatian Serb leaders, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. On the agenda were the continuing normalization of relations between Belgrade and Zagreb, the situation of Croatia's Serbian minority, and setting up of Serbian media in Croatia. Pupovac told the Zagreb daily "Republika" of 1 March that the present Croatian government seeks to solve minority problems within the larger context of promoting civil and cultural rights. He added that the government prefers not to discuss minority rights as such because the issue is politically unpopular. PM

MONTENEGRIN LEADERS CONFIDENT ON EU

Foreign Minister Branko Lukovac told RFE/RL's South Slavic Service in Podgorica on 28 February that the government is pleased with the results of a recent two-day conference on Montenegro in Brussels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2001). Lukovac added that unnamed EU officials told him that they will respect any decision by Montenegrin citizens about their future, even though the EU prefers that Montenegro remain with Serbia in a federal Yugoslavia. PM

ALBANIAN PARTIES MAKE FIRST-EVER ELECTION PACT

Representatives of the rival Socialist Party and Democratic Party agreed in Tirana on 28 February on ground rules for a general election widely expected in June (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 February 2001). They agreed to compile a code of ethics for political parties and to ask parliament to set up a committee to review voters' lists and electoral district boundaries, Reuters reported. The two parties also agreed to hold regular political talks every two weeks, dpa reported. PM

BOSNIAN CROAT NATIONALISTS DECLARE FEDERATION NULL AND VOID

Ante Jelavic, who is the leader of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, told a rally in support of two convicted Croatian war criminals that the Bosnian federation is a Muslim "national entity without the Croats," "Novi List" reported from Busovaca on 1 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2001). Jelavic added that the HDZ will organize a "national assembly" on 3 March that will take "historical decisions," which presumably means the unilateral declaration of a separate Croatian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Croatian government and the international community have called this idea a non-starter. High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch's spokesman said in Sarajevo that "this is more extremist nonsense from Mr. Jelavic." At the rally, speakers condemned the Hague-based tribunal. In reference to Croatian President Stipe Mesic, who supports the tribunal, crowds chanted "kill him, kill him," AP reported. PM

CROATIAN PRESIDENT HAILS FREE PRESS

Mesic told an OSCE-sponsored conference on media freedom in Zagreb on 28 February that he is glad the gathering is taking place in his country, because "those who have experienced the misuse of the media can best discuss the issue," dpa reported. He added that "controlled media [under the communists and HDZ] taught us to respect freedom of the press." PM

EU TO SUPPORT ROMANIAN CHILDCARE SYSTEM

The chief of the European Commission delegation to Romania, Fokion Fotiadis, said on 28 February that in consideration of Romania's commitment to the reform of the childcare system, the EU will continue its financial and logistical support for childcare, Mediafax reported. Attending a conference on Romania's strategy regarding children rights, Fotiadis said the EU evaluation shows that a decision to decentralize the childcare system was correct. He said Romanian authorities should reduce the number of children entering the system by preventing child abandonment and aiding poverty-stricken families. He promised the EU's financial help in securing the program's success, in addition to a 25 million euro (some $24 million) Phare program that was just started. ZsM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT ACCUSES JUDGES OF CORRUPTION

After reviewing the Romanian Justice Ministry's report for 2000, President Ion Iiescu on 28 February said the justice system is corrupt, Mediafax reported. He also criticized the "uneven practices" of the panels, as well as the drawn out length of court cases. Judges and prosecutors at the meeting accused the media of presenting an unfair negative picture of the justice system. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said the government is the judiciary's ally, adding, however, that in the process of property restitution, "under the justice system's tolerant eyes" mafia members were given property that never belonged to them. ZsM

MOLDOVAN ELECTORAL COMMISSION RECOUNTS INVALID BALLOTS

At the request of both the Democratic Party (PD) and the Party of Revival and Accord (PRC), Moldova's Central Electoral Commission began to recount ballots declared invalid in the 25 February early elections, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The parties request was based on a "suspiciously high number of invalid ballots." Both parties failed to reach the 6 percent threshold necessary to enter parliament, with the PD garnering 5.05 percent of the vote and the PRC 5.72 percent. ZsM

RIGHT-WING LEADER OPTIMISTIC ABOUT MOLDOVA'S PROSPECTS

In an interview with the Bucharest-based daily "Adevarul," Moldovan Christian Democratic People's Party (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca said on 28 February that his country's anticipated rapprochement to Russia "could catalyze national liberation movements and democratic processes" in Moldova. Rosca said the communist victory in the 25 February parliamentary elections will slow down the country's "separation" from Russia, but it won't block Moldova's "historical perspectives." Although worried about the possible federalization of the country and of new Russian military bases in Moldova, Rosca argues that the processes of "separation from Russia and of an approach towards Romania and the West are irreversible." ZsM

BALKAN AIRLINES FLEET REDUCED FURTHER

A crew of British pilots arrived in Sofia on 27 February to fly three Boeing 737 airliners that had been leased to the grounded Balkan Airlines, BTA reported. The planes are owned by General Electric. After the planes leave Bulgaria, the Balkan Airlines fleet will be reduced to one Tupolev Tu-154 and three An-24s, which can only fly domestically, BTA reported. In recent weeks, several Balkan Airlines planes have been sold or returned to the companies by Zeevi Holdings Group -- the Israeli company that is the majority owner of Balkan Airlines -- to the companies that leased them. PB




IS THE KING THE WILD CARD IN BULGARIA'S ELECTION?


By Julia Guechakov

Simeon II acceded to the Bulgarian throne at the age of six in 1943 after the death of his father. He ruled under regencies until 1946, when a referendum called by the country's then-Communist regime abolished the monarchy and sent the royal family into exile.

Fifty years later, the deposed monarch returned for the first time to his homeland and was enthusiastically welcomed by hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians. Since then, he has come back for several more visits, and has had his Bulgarian citizenship restored and former property returned. But despite numerous contacts with politicians and other public figures in Bulgaria, Simeon has not played an active role in domestic politics.

That, however, may be changing. Earlier this year, Simeon expressed a desire to resettle permanently in Bulgaria. The statement prompted a group of lawmakers to ask the country's constitutional court for an interpretation of residency requirements for presidential candidates.

No mention was made of Simeon's case. But some politicians and analysts were quick to conclude that the lawmakers were aiming to clarify if the former monarch could run in the country's presidential elections due near the year's end.

The court ultimately ruled that a presidential candidate must live in Bulgaria for the greater part of the five years preceding a given election. That condition rules out any current presidential ambitions on the part of Simeon, who now lives in Spain.

However, the constitution does not rule out a possible run by the former monarch for a parliamentary seat. Simeon has been deliberately vague regarding his political ambitions, and has never laid out a political agenda. But in an emotional statement following the court ruling, he said those supporters "who were looking for a way to vote for Simeon would have the opportunity to do so." Many took this to mean the former king had cast his sights on the country's June parliamentary elections.

Political analyst Ognian Minchev says Simeon's possible ambitions may cause a shift in Bulgarian politics. He adds that many politicians may try to use the popular former king to improve their own political fortunes:

"Because of [these politicians being pushed to the sidelines of Bulgarian politics], the personality and the intentions of Simeon the second are a very useful means which could be employed, under certain circumstances, to bring those marginal political figures back to the center stage in political life."

A recent independent poll suggests that up to 8 percent of voters would support a party backed by Simeon, which would place it a comfortable third behind the anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and the opposition Socialist coalitions.

The UDF, which polls estimate would win 22 percent of the popular vote if the parliamentary elections were held now, could stand to lose a substantial portion of its supporters if a Simeon-backed party becomes an election-season reality. Earlier this month, senior UDF officials ruled against backing Simeon in parliamentary elections, and yesterday (Tuesday) expelled two prominent members who called for such support. Minchev explains the threat to the UDF this way:

"Simeon does not enter Bulgarian politics saying that he is ready, together with the UDF, to work toward a common goal. He enters Bulgarian political life independently and thus becomes a UDF competitor for votes in June parliamentary elections."

Minchev says Simeon's popularity is in large part due to voters' disillusionment with the political establishment and the hardships suffered during the country's difficult transition to a market economy. He adds that as an outsider, Simeon could give voters a fresh, untarnished alternative:

"We could say that Simeon is the last illusion of many ordinary Bulgarians -- that someone could come in from the outside and put Bulgaria in order."

For now, the two main political forces in Bulgaria seem unwilling to face the challenge of a potentially strong third force, even though such a force might turn out to be more imaginary than real. Julia Guechakov is an RFE/RL senior editor based in Prague.


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