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Newsline - April 17, 2001




NTV CRISIS COMES TO A HEAD...

In an early morning move on 14 April, Gazprom took control of NTV, installed a new management, fired some journalists, watched as others walked out, and stationed new guards to prevent them from returning to the NTV building, Russian and Western agencies reported. Over the next two days, some NTV programs continued to air, some were dropped, and others appeared on other channels. Boris Jordan, Gazprom-Media's man at the station, said he has discovered "massive debts" and that he and his team will protect both shareholder values and journalistic freedom, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

...JOURNALISTS AND POLITICIANS SPLIT...

As many as 300 of NTV's 1,200 employees reportedly have left. Some were fired, while others left without their resignations being accepted by the new management. Many have formed a staff around Yevgenii Kiselev, the ousted general director of NTV, who is now in charge of TV-6. Kiselev and his staff have pledged to continue the fight. In an interview published in "Novaya gazeta" on 14 April, Vladimir Gusinsky, whose Media-MOST holding has lost control of NTV, said that "the times have returned when people who just want to work freely are put under pressure." Politicians and commentators were divided in their assessment of the Gazprom takeover largely along pro- and antigovernment lines. PG

...WHILE GOVERNMENT TURNS UP THE HEAT

Despite statements by President Vladimir Putin and the government that the NTV dispute is a private economic one, the Russian government has called those claims into question by its own actions since 14 April. Its officials have sought to link Gusinsky to a fire-bomb attack on Dmitrii Biryukov, who heads the Sem dnei publishing house, and to link another media magnate, Boris Berezovsky, to an apparent attempted flight from prosecution in a high-profile corruption case, Russian and Western agencies reported. The tax police have announced that they have charged an accountant at TNT television, where some of the NTV journalists took refuge, with tax evasion, AP reported on 16 April. Meanwhile, pollsters found that 50 percent of Russians accept the Kremlin's version of events that the NTV crisis is only about "the division of power and money," Interfax reported on 13 April. PG

PUTIN GOES TO CHECHNYA...

As Gazprom was taking control of NTV, President Putin made a lightning visit to Chechnya on 14 April. He said that Russia is "of course" not going to leave Chechnya, that it will keep forces there for as long as necessary, and that he is "satisfied" with the work of the troops, Russian agencies reported. But at the same time, he expressed "outrage" that the military is not paying soldiers and officers in a timely fashion, an issue he raised again upon his return to Moscow. PG

...MEETS WITH LOCAL OFFICIALS

Putin also met in Chechnya on 14 April with members of the Chechen administration, including its head, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, and Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov, Russian agencies reported. Kadyrov said the following day that the Russian president's visit was a signal that Chechen fighters will be unable to force a cease-fire and withdrawal of Russian troops as they did in 1996, nor will they succeed in retaking Chechen towns, Interfax reported. "The course toward the complete restoration of the constitutional system and toward Chechnya's return to the Russian legal system will not change under any circumstances," Kadyrov added. Ilyasov said he is "pleased" with the outcome of the meeting with Putin, at which Kurchaloi district head Makal Karamov said unspecified "very important issues" were discussed. On 16 April, the Chechen branch of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said it thwarted an attempt to assassinate Kadyrov in Grozny three days earlier, according to Interfax. Also on 13 April, the FSB said it had discovered and disarmed a land mine intended to kill persons coming to present their condolences in Avtury in connection with the murder the previous day of Adamalla movement Chairman Adam (Shamalu) Deniev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2001). LF

GROZNY'S DEPUTY PROSECUTOR MURDERED

Deputy Grozny prosecutor Vladimir Moroz died on 14 April of bullet wounds after unidentified assailants opened fire on his car, Interfax reported. Morozov was returning from an examination of the location at a Grozny market where three Russian women were shot dead earlier the same day. Two men have been detained in Grozny in connection with the murder of Morozov and unspecified other killings. LF

RUSSIA SENDS MORE TROOPS TO CHECHNYA-DAGHESTAN BORDER

An unspecified number of Russian marines is to be sent to the Tsumadin sector of the border between Daghestan and Chechnya on the orders of the commander of the North Caucasus Military District, Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 April, quoting an unidentified member of Daghestan's Security Council. Tsumadin was one of the districts attacked by Chechen fighters in the late summer of 1999. LF

'SEGODNYA' CEASES PUBLICATION

"Segodnya," the daily paper that was one of the flagships of Gusinsky's Media-MOST holding company, will no longer be appearing, Interfax-Moscow reported on 16 April. The paper's journalists had prepared an issue for that date but it was not printed, the news agency said. PG

PUTIN SEES INFLATION AS 'FUNDAMENTAL THREAT'

President Putin told the Finance Ministry on 16 April that inflation of 7 percent in the first quarter, up from 3.9 percent during the same period one year earlier, is "the fundamental threat to economic growth," ITAR-TASS reported. Putin called for a debt-free budget and also for the creation of a single agency to oversee debt issues. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said on 14 April that despite a slight decline, the Russian economy will achieve all the government's projections in 2001, and that inflation will fall to 8-10 percent by 2003, Interfax reported. On 16 April, Kasyanov said that income and production growth in the first quarter of 2001 inspires confidence, the news agency reported. PG

GOVERNMENT REORGANIZATION OUTLINED

Citing what it said were informed sources in the government, ITAR-TASS on 16 April said that Prime Minister Kasyanov is likely to reorganize the structure of his government on his first anniversary in office, 17 May. According to the sources, he is leaning toward having two deputies, one to manage the 1,200-strong cabinet staff and the other to deal with protocol functions and to coordinate the work of the ministries. Igor Shuvalov, the head of the government staff, is favored for the first position, with competition among current ministers Aleksei Kudrin, Viktor Khristenko, and German Gref for the second. Ten ministries will be directly subordinate to the prime minister, the news service said. Meanwhile, "Izvestiya" reported on 14 April that if Kasyanov does succeed in introducing such a structure, he may "become an eternal premier, because he will have no responsibilities, as all current issues will be solved by ministers." PG

UNITY, FATHERLAND FORM COORDINATION COUNCIL...

As the next step in their moves toward a merger, the Unity and Fatherland factions in the Duma formed a 16-member coordination council to prepare for the founding congress later this year, Interfax-Moscow reported on 13 April. Unity's leader in the Duma, Vladimir Pekhtin, said that People's Deputy and Russian Regions will also be represented on the council as part of the effort to create a "pro-presidential" majority in the parliament. PG

...OTHER PARTIES WARY...

Oleg Morozov, the leader of the Russian Regions group in the Duma, said on 13 April said the formation of a centrist coalition is "premature," Interfax reported on 13 April. Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev said on 16 April that the "Rossiya" movement has no intention of joining the centrist bloc, ITAR-TASS reported. Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov sharply criticized the entire bloc idea on 14 April. Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinsky said on 14 April that his group continues to favor a coalition with the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), Russian agencies reported. PG

...WHILE REGIONAL LEADERS HAVE MIXED REACTIONS TO UNIFICATION

Interfax polled a number of regional leaders on 16 April about their reactions to the proposed unification of the Fatherland party with Unity. Samara Governor Konstantin Titov said that his attitude toward the merger is skeptical, noting that Fatherland leader and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov was once Unity's chief opponent. On the other hand, Tyumen Oblast Governor Sergei Sobyanin declared that the new bloc has a good future; however, he said, parties on the right and left will be hurt by the consolidation of the political center. Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov expressed a similar view on 14 April, saying that "the merger of big, medium and small political parties and movements into a powerful moderate bloc will form a counterbalance to the left-wing movement and reduce political confrontation in society." Ingushetia's president, Ruslan Aushev, called the merger a unification of the two parties of power: Fatherland being the Moscow party, while Unity is the federal one. JAC

PLAN FOR CHANGING BORDERS, STATUS OF FEDERAL UNITS BEING PREPARED

The Ministry for Federation Affairs, Nationalities and Migration Policy is preparing legislation to change the borders of the subjects of the federation and to raise or lower their status accordingly, "Izvestiya" reported on 14 April. Valerii Kirpichnikov, the senior deputy minister, said his ministry must have expanded powers in order to carry this program out: "A federation should have a mega-ministry to handle federation-building," he said. PG

DUMA DEPUTY SAYS REFERENDUM ON ENLARGEMENT OF KRASNOYARSK KRAI PENDING

Duma deputy (independent) Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov said that a referendum will be held in the near future on the unification of Taimyr and Evenk Autonomous okrugs with Krasnoyarsk Krai, "Izvestiya" reported on 14 April. Niyazov added that "if there is constructive discussion with ethnic leaders, then it will be possible not only to unite this region, but also to include [the republics of] Khakassia and Tuva." Niyazov is the leader of the Muslim movement Refakh and was selected from Unity's regional list for Krasnoyarsk. According to the daily, leaders in Tuva and Khakassia are not excited about the proposal. Tuva President Sherig-ool Oorzhak has said that during a transition period, regions should not be expanded but local governments further developed, while the chairman of Khakassia's legislative assembly, Vladimir Shtygashev, has called the idea "bizarre." In the same issue of that newspaper, Deputy Federation Affairs Minister Valerii Kirpichnikov declared that some autonomous okrugs are "destined to merge with larger regions." JAC

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER EXPECTS 'TOUGH' DIALOGUE WITH U.S.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on 13 April said that he expects a "tough" discussion with U.S. officials when he visits Washington in mid-May, Interfax reported. But at the same time, he emphasized that the U.S. remains an important focus of Russian foreign policy and said that "Moscow cannot give in to provocations and switch to Cold War methods," AP reported. PG

RUSSIA NEEDS MORE ASSISTANCE TO DESTROY WEAPONS

Atomic Energy Minister Valentin Ivanov said on 16 April that Western countries have provided Russia with only $600 million of the $2 billion needed to destroy weapons-grade plutonium, Russian agencies reported. Meanwhile, in a move certain to please Western governments, President Putin signed a decree expanding the list of dual-use items subject to government control, Interfax reported on 13 April. At the same time, however, Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry announced on 16 April that it intends to go ahead with the sale of additional nuclear power plants to Iran and Israel, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

PUTIN WANTS TO PROMOTE HIGH-TECH FIRMS

At a meeting with representatives of high technology businesses on 13 April, President Putin said he wants to dramatically increase the share of high-tech businesses in Russia from 0.6 percent of GDP to the 4-6 percent such firms constitute in other countries, ITAR-TASS reported. At the same session, Prime Minister Kasyanov said that Russia has dozens of unique technologies that it can exploit, Interfax reported. PG

MOSCOW, IMF REACH ACCORD

Prime Minister Kasyanov said on 13 April that his government has reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund about Russia's economic and fiscal policies for 2001, Western agencies reported. This agreement will make it easier for Russia to negotiate rescheduling of its debts. Meanwhile, both Germany and the United Kingdom expressed their willingness to consider restructuring of Russia's especially heavy debt load in 2003, "Novye Izvestiya" and "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 14 April. But speaking on a 15 April ORT program, presidential economics adviser Andrei Illarionov said that he does not believe that a debt-for-investment exchange will be profitable for Russia. PG

MORE GOOD ECONOMIC NEWS FROM 2000

Russia's GDP rose 7.7 percent in 2000 compared to 1999, the Finance Ministry told Interfax on 16 April. Meanwhile, Russia's internal debt fell, its gold reserves went up by 2.2 times, and its exports exceeded imports, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

RUSSIAN SMALL BUSINESS PRODUCTION RISES...

The number of small businesses in Russia declined by 1.3 percent from January 2000 to January 2001, but the number of employees in such businesses rose by 1 percent and output by such businesses rose by 45 percent when comparing 2000 to 1999, Interfax-AFI reported. PG

...AS DOES ECONOMIC CRIME

The number of economic crimes for the first three months of 2001 was almost 9 percent higher than in the same period one year earlier, Vladimir Makarov, the deputy chief of the Interior Ministry's Main Administration for the Struggle with Economic Crimes, told Interfax on 13 April. PG

PUTIN TAKES CONTROL OF KREMLIN GROUNDS

President Putin directed on 13 April that the ownership of Kremlin museums, churches, and grounds be turned over to the presidential administration, Ekho Moskvy reported. The day before, he appointed the daughter of cosmonaut Yurii Gagarin to head the Kremlin complex, a move that "shocked" the museum establishment because of her lack of experience, "The Moscow Times" reported on 16 April. PG

RENEWED PROPAGANDA, COUNTERPROPAGANDA EFFORT URGED

In an article published in the 13 April "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Leonid Slutskii, the deputy chairman of the Duma Foreign Relations Committee (Liberal Democratic Party), argued that Russia made a fundamental mistake when it reduced its international propaganda effort after the end of the Cold War. It was "naive" to think that the rest of the world would do the same, Slutskii continued. He said that "Russia needs to revive its own media to defend itself against" what he called "ideological aggression" from abroad. PG

RUSSIAN LEADERS, PEOPLE MARK EASTER

President Putin greeted all Christians, Russian Orthodox and non-Russian Orthodox alike, on Easter, Russian agencies reported on 15 April. He stressed that "Orthodoxy played a special role in the history of Russia, in the establishment and strengthening of the state." Putin attended Easter services where he was greeted by Patriarch Aleksii II. Among others speaking out on Easter were Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, who reminded Russians of the dangers that are present when "the slogans of the defense of freedom cover selfish interests of party, financial, and other groups," Interfax reported on 15 April, and Communist Party leader Zyuganov, who hailed the patriarch for his contributions to Russia. PG

RUSSIANS DOUBT SINCERITY OF LEADERS' RELIGIOSITY

Three Russians out of four believe that politicians who attend church services are dong so for political, rather than religious, motives, according to a poll taken by the Public Opinion Foundation and reported by Interfax on 13 April. Only one Russian in seven believes that such actions are genuine. PG

PATRIARCH HOPES FOR SLAVIC UNITY

In an interview published in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 14 April, Patriarch Aleksii II said that he hopes "for the rebirth of unity of the three fraternal Slavic peoples." He said that many people around the world will try to keep Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians apart, but that their spiritual unity will eventually triumph. PG

TWO MORE VICTORY DAY-TYPE HOLIDAYS PROPOSED

The Duma Defense Committee called on 13 April for the establishment of two additional holidays to mark Soviet military victories: a 3 September holiday to mark the Soviet victory over Japan's Kwantung group of forces, and a 5 December one to mark the beginning of the Soviet counterattack near Moscow against Nazi forces. PG

BORODIN RETURNS TO MOSCOW

Russia-Belarus Union State Secretary and former Kremlin property manager Pavel Borodin returned to Moscow from Switzerland on 13 April after the Russian government posted his bail, Russian and Western agencies reported. Borodin thanked President Putin and everyone else who stood beside him during his ordeal. Meanwhile, Geneva State Prosecutor Bernard Bertossa said in an interview published in "Kommersant-Daily" on 13 April and in remarks quoted in Geneva's "Le Temps" on 14 April that he was surprised and disappointed by the decision to allow Borodin to return to Russia on bail before being questioned. "We'll see if he shows up in the future," Bertossa said on 14 April. PG

GORBACHEV GIVEN BUSH AWARD

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was presented the Bush Award by former U.S. President George H. Bush during a visit to Texas, Interfax reported on 13 April. PG

LIMONOV IN LEFORTOVO

Writer and leader of the left-radical National Bolshevik Party, Eduard Limonov, has been confined to Lefortovo prison on suspicion of involvement in the illegal acquisition of arms, Interfax reported on 13 April. But his lawyer said that no charges have yet been brought against him. PG

MUSCOVITES SUFFER FROM NOISE POLLUTION

Three million residents of the Russian capital suffer "acoustic discomfort," a Moscow medical official told Interfax-Moscow on 16 April. Produced by street noises that walls and windows cannot keep out, the noise is increasing the stress among Moscow residents. PG

ALCOHOL PRODUCTION SURGES

Russian distilleries produced 7.2 percent more alcohol in March 2001 than they did in the same month one year ago, Vladimir Yarmosh, the head of the Spiritprom research association, told Interfax on 16 April. PG

MOSCOW STILL HOPES FOR 'MIR-2'

Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said on 13 April that Russia is already working on "the ideology and concept" of "Mir-2" and will make an announcement about the details in about one year, Russian agencies reported. But he stressed that the project will require foreign funding and participation. Meanwhile, Russian space officials continued their discussions with the U.S. over sending American Dennis Tito, potentially the world's first space tourist, to the International Space Station later this month. The U.S. remains opposed, but Tito has paid Moscow $20 million for the trip. PG

RUSSIAN SCHOLARS PRODUCE ARTIFICIAL BRAIN

Vasilii Valtsev, an academician of the international informatics academy, told Interfax on 15 April that he and his Russian colleagues have successfully created what he calls a "brainputer," a computer modeled on the neuron system of the human brain. He said that the brainputer learns from its own mistakes and becomes increasingly intelligent. PG

'DECISIVE' MEASURES URGED TO HALT DEMOGRAPHIC DECLINE

Aleksandr Pochinok, the labor and social protection minister, said on 13 April that Russia must take "very decisive measures" to prevent the population of Russia from continuing to decline. He said he favors providing more subsidies to children but not halting abortions. Meanwhile, on the same day, a Duma roundtable said that Moscow has not yet developed a clear-cut program for working with migrant children, ITAR-TASS reported. PG

EVIDENCE OF ILLEGAL ADOPTIONS FOUND IN VOLGOGRAD

New evidence of the illegal adoption of children from Volgograd Oblast by foreign families was recently made public, ITAR-TASS reported on 16 April. According to the agency, investigators established that in 24 incidents Volgograd district courts passed resolutions on the adoption of children by Italian families without their prospective parents being present. And, in several incidents, directors of local orphanages accepted bribes from an Italian citizen who was arranging illegal adoptions. The agency reported that more than 600 children under the age of three were taken abroad from Volgograd Oblast between 1993 and 2000. JAC

ALUMINUM OLIGARCH ADDS ANOTHER REGION TO HIS COLLECTION?

Siberian Aluminum head Oleg Deripaska and Chelyabinsk Governor Petr Sumin signed a cooperation agreement on 13 April under which Sumin agreed to hand over the Ural Automotive Factory in exchange for Siberian Aluminum's promise to not lay off the plant's 20,000 workers, "The Moscow Times" reported on 16 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2001). Deripaska also agreed that Siberian Aluminum will invest 500 million rubles ($17.3 million) in the company. According to the newspaper, Siberian Aluminum will buy a controlling stake in the company at a closed investment tender to be held this summer. The daily reported last month that Deripaska is also trying to extend his company's control to Irkutskenergo, located in Irkutsk Oblast. JAC




ARMENIA, ESTONIA PLEDGE TO EXPAND TIES

Visiting Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves held talks in Yerevan on 12-13 April with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Kocharian called for "a more practical relationship" between the two countries, while Oskanian stressed Yerevan's interest in learning from Estonia's experience in the transition to democracy and a market economy. He also commented that the close cooperation between the three Baltic states should serve as an example to the countries of the South Caucasus. Ilves and Oskanian signed an agreement on avoiding dual taxation that is intended to bolster the present modest commercial ties between the two countries. LF

ARMENIA, RUSSIA AGREE TO CREATE JOINT MILITARY CONTINGENT

Yerevan and Moscow have agreed to create a joint military unit that "will play a large part in ensuring security" in the South Caucasus, Valerii Nikolaenko, secretary of the staff of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, told journalists in Yerevan on 14 April, RFE/RL's bureau in the Armenian capital reported. Nikolaenko stressed that there are "no aggressive aims" behind the planned creation of the group, and that both Armenia's and Russia's southern neighbors "can sleep calmly...if they don't harbor bad plans." LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT BRIEFS KARABAKH LEADER ON KEY WEST TALKS...

President Kocharian met in Yerevan on 13 April with Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, to inform him of the details of the OSCE-mediated talks that were held the previous week in Florida on resolving the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Also on 13 April, Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian told a press conference in Yerevan that the U.S., French, and Russian co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group showed "unprecedented cooperation" during the Key West talks. He suggested that the co-chairs will be "more careful" when drafting a new peace proposal to ensure that it acceptable to all three parties to the conflict. Turan cited Snark as quoting Oskanian as saying that the rejection of that new draft by any one of the sides could have "rather negative" consequences. LF

...WHILE AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT PROFESSES SATISFACTION

Speaking at Baku airport late on 14 April on his return from the U.S., President Heidar Aliyev said he is satisfied with the outcome of the Florida talks, but declined to divulge any details of what was discussed, assuring journalists simply that "everything is all right," Turan reported. But Aliyev expressed doubt that a peace agreement will be signed during his planned next meeting with President Kocharian, which is scheduled for Geneva in June. He also questioned whether involving Iran more closely in the negotiating process, as the OSCE Minsk Group reportedly plans to do, would be useful. On 16 April, Aliyev telephoned with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Key West talks and various aspects of bilateral relations, Russian agencies reported. LF

GEORGIA SEEKS TO DEFUSE ABKHAZ HOSTAGE CRISIS

Following the capture of three Georgian guerrillas in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion on 8 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 April 2001), the guerrillas retaliated on 12 April by abducting five recruits to the Abkhaz army -- two Abkhaz, one Georgian, one Russian, and one Turk -- in Gali. On 14 April, Abkhaz authorities then intercepted and impounded a Georgian fishing vessel with a crew of five that they claimed had trespassed in Abkhaz territorial waters. Georgian Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze traveled to Abkhazia on 16 April for talks with the Abkhaz leadership on securing the release of all the detainees. The Abkhaz reportedly offered to release the five Georgian fishermen in exchange for the five recruits. White Legion guerrilla leader Dato Shengelaia had earlier said he would release the recruits only in exchange for the three detained guerrillas. Also on 16 April, the Georgian Foreign Ministry expressed concern at a possible escalation of tensions in southern Abkhazia that could jeopardize the ongoing search for a solution to the conflict. The Abkhaz Defense Ministry issued a statement the following day protesting the detention of the conscripts and calling on the Georgian authorities to take the necessary measures to secure their release, Caucasus Press reported. LF

ABKHAZ OFFICIAL DENIES PRESIDENT INCAPACITATED

Allegations by Georgian officials that Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba is incapacitated by illness are "a provocation...spread with the purpose of discrediting the Abkhaz leadership," Abkhaz Prosecutor-General Anri Djergenia told Interfax on 13 April. Georgian intelligence chief Avtandil Ioseliani had told a Georgian parliament session the previous day that Ardzinba is "crippled" by disease (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2001). LF

GEORGIAN OFFICIAL DENIES CRITICIZING PRESIDENT

Vano Merabishvili, the chairman of the Georgian parliament's Committee for Economic Policy, on 17 April denied having said in an interview with the "Washington Post" that President Eduard Shevardnadze "is tired" and has no real interest in implementing reforms, or that Shevardnadze's new crusade against corruption is aimed solely at securing financial aid from the West, Caucasus Press reported. Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania, who is currently in Tehran with a Georgian parliament delegation, condemned Merabishvili's alleged remarks. LF

GEORGIA, CHINA SIGN NEW AGREEMENTS

Prior to his departure for Tehran, parliament Chairman Zhvania met in Tbilisi on 13 April with Chinese Deputy Premier Li Lanqing to discuss bilateral economic relations, especially in the spheres of energy, oil production and refining, telecommunications, forestry, and agriculture, Caucasus Press reported. Li met later the same day with President Shevardnadze, after which four interstate agreements were signed, under one of which Beijing will allocate Georgia a 30 million yen ($4 million) long-term credit and a 5 million yen grant. LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S PRESIDENT CALLS FOR DECENTRALIZATION OF GOVERNMENT...

President Nursultan Nazarbaev told a meeting of government ministers and regional officials in Astana on 13 April that it is time to proceed to the "gradual and wise" decentralization of executive structures, Russian agencies reported. He said that later this year the trial elections will be held for local level officials, and at some unspecified time such elections will also be held for the post of oblast governor. But at the same time he warned that if candidates for such posts -- who must be at least 25 years old and university graduates -- seek to promote clan, national, or religious interests, they will be deprived of the right to participate in the ballot. Nazarbaev had earlier argued that elections for the post of oblast governor could "destabilize the situation" in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2000). LF

...ASSESSES ECONOMIC TRENDS...

Nazarbaev told the same meeting in Astana on 13 April that GDP grew by 10 percent during the first three months of this year compared with the corresponding period in 2000, Interfax reported. Industrial production increased by 11.1 percent and agricultural output by 5 percent. Nazarbaev had predicted those figures last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 March 2001). He suggested that the parliament should increase this year's planned budget revenues and spending in light of the promising first quarter statistics. At the same time, Nazarbaev noted that industrial output fell in March compared with December 2000 by 20 percent in Almaty Oblast, 12 percent in South Kazakhstan, 8 percent in Qyzyl-Orda, and 6 percent in Northern Kazakhstan. LF

...AND SLAMS MINISTERIAL ABSENTEEISM

Nazarbaev also echoed on 13 April criticism by Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev three months earlier that too many members of the cabinet waste time commuting between Astana and the former capital, Almaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2001). Nazarbaev also criticized several senior officials, including Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik, Economics Minister Zhaqsybek Kuleekev, and National Bank Chairman Grigorii Marchenko for taking too many expensive trips abroad, Reuters reported. LF

KAZAKH PARLIAMENT UPPER CHAMBER APPROVES MEDIA LAW AMENDMENTS

The Senate (the upper chamber of Kazakhstan's bicameral parliament) on 17 April approved the draft media law amendments passed by the lower chamber last month, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2001). The amendments limit retransmission of foreign broadcasting and define websites as media outlets, but do not require their registration with the Justice Ministry. LF

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION HOLDS PROTEST RALLY...

Some 500 people attended a demonstration in Bishkek on 13 April organized by nine political parties and the editorial staff of the banned opposition newspaper "Asaba," RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Participants included some parliament deputies; journalists from "Asaba," who taped over their mouths to symbolize their inability to criticize the government; and some 20 supporters of jailed former Vice President Feliks Kulov. They adopted an appeal to the Kyrgyz authorities demanding a halt to persecution of the independent media; the release of Kulov and jailed Erkindik party leader Topchubek TurgunAliyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2000 and 20 March 2001); measures to ensure the independence of the judiciary; the appointment of an independent political figure to the recently created post of state ombudsman; the annulment of a Bishkek City Court ruling restricting public gatherings; permission to convene a public demonstration on 1 May; and a moratorium on further electricity, heating and gas price hikes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2001). LF

...TRIGGERING LEGAL ACTION

On 16 April, acting Bishkek City Prosecutor Marat Koshoev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that police in the city's Pervomai district have launched an investigation into the demonstration, whose organizers are likely to face administrative charges punishable by fines of up to 6,000 soms ($120) or 15-days imprisonment. Koshoev also said on 16 April that the Bishkek municipal authorities will not grant permission for the rally that the opposition planned to convene on 1 May. LF

TURKEY AGREES TO RESCHEDULE KYRGYZSTAN'S DEBT...

Following three days of talks in Bishkek, a visiting Turkish delegation headed by Minister of State Abdulhalik Cay reached agreement with the Kyrgyz government late on 13 April on rescheduling payment of Kyrgyzstan's $43 million debt to Ankara, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. That sum will now be repaid over a period of 20 years at 2 percent interest. Under the previous schedule, Bishkek would have had to repay some $13 million this year. Cay met on 11 April with Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev and on 13 April with President Askar Akaev to discuss bilateral economic cooperation and Akaev's participation in the summit of Turcophone states to be held in Istanbul on 26-27 April. LF

...BUT SIMILAR AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIA DELAYED

Kyrgyz government spokeswoman Cholpon Ibraimova told RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau on 14 April that a visit by Prime Minister Bakiev to Moscow, which according to Interfax was scheduled for 16-19 April, has been postponed until 27-29 April. A formal agreement is to be signed during that visit on rescheduling approximately one-third of Bishkek's total $150 million debt to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001). Interfax on 13 April quoted Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Trade and Industry Arzymat Sulaimankulov as saying that Bishkek will offer Moscow a controlling share in 30 of the country's major enterprises as payment for its debt. LF

IMF REVIEWS IMPLEMENTATION OF TAJIKISTAN'S ANTIPOVERTY PROGRAM

The IMF's Executive Board on 12 April reviewed compliance by the Tajik government with the three-year Poverty Reduction and Growth Program agreed in 1998, according to the IMF website. The fund has already disbursed some $84 million under that program, and following the review Dushanbe will be able to draw a further $8 million. Commenting on the state of the Tajik economy, Deputy Managing Director Eduardo Aninat noted strong growth last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2001), but also rising inflation and unspecified "significant policy slippages" that threatened temporarily to derail the program. He warned that the Tajik government must place greater emphasis on strengthening the fiscal system and ensuring tax collection, and that "effective and extensive structural reforms in agriculture, the general business environment and governance will be crucial" in ensuring economic stabilization and sustained growth. He also called for using part of the proceeds from privatization to reduce the country's external debt. LF

TURKMEN PRESIDENT TELEPHONES IRANIAN COUNTERPART

In a telephone conversation on 16 April, Saparmurat Niyazov and Mohammad Khatami discussed bilateral relations and joint projects in the spheres of agriculture, construction, and trade, Interfax reported. The two presidents also agreed that the postponement until this fall of the planned summit of Caspian littoral states will enable specialists to prepare most thoroughly a proposed solution to the issues to be discussed at that forum. LF

TURKMEN GAS PRODUCTION, EXPORTS UP

Turkmen gas production during the first quarter of 2001 grew by 23 percent compared with the corresponding period last year, Interfax reported on 13 April, quoting the Turkmen Institute for State Statistics and Information. Exports of natural gas in January-March 2001 increased by 30 percent compared with the first three months of 2000 to over 10 billion cubic meters, of which 7.5 billion cubic meters were delivered to Ukraine and 1.5 billion cubic meters to Iran. Turkmenistan is under contract to supply Ukraine, Iran, and Russia with a minimum of 46 billion cubic meters of gas this year. In 2000, Turkmenistan doubled gas extraction from 22.8 to 47 billion cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2001). LF

INDEPENDENT JOURNALISTS' UNION CREATED IN UZBEKISTAN

Ruslan Sharipov, a leading member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, on 16 April announced the founding the previous day of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan. Sharipov explained that the union is "tremendously important and necessary" since virtually all media outlets in Uzbekistan serve to promote the views of the present regime and freedom of speech is limited. To date, 14 journalists have joined the new union. LF




RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER IN MINSK...

Sergei Ivanov arrived in Minsk on 16 April for two days of talks with Belarusian officials on military cooperation, ITAR-TASS reported. Ivanov said on his arrival that he will discuss issues that will "fill the military part of the Russia-Belarus Union Treaty with substance." He said such topics include the drafting of a military doctrine for the union and the harmonization of Russian and Belarusian legislation regarding defense issues. Ivanov said such topics should help develop the idea of a "regional military group of the union state." A meeting of the joint board of the Russian and Belarusian defense ministries is to be held on 17 April. Ivanov is to meet with his Belarusian counterpart Leonid Maltsev during his visit. PB

...AND BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT IN SVERDLOVSK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka flew to Yekaterinburg on 16 April for a visit to Sverdlovsk Oblast aimed at increasing military cooperation and bilateral trade, ITAR-TASS reported. Lukashenka signed an economic cooperation agreement on the same day with Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel that calls for the joint production of trolleys, buses, and refrigerators, and by which Russian companies are to help modernize several enterprises in Belarus. Lukashenka also toured several arms factories. Belarusian Ambassador to Russia Viktor Grigoryev said: "we don't hide the fact that we want to make our army strong and equip it with modern arms." PB

LUKASHENKA'S DECREE RESTRICTING FOREIGN AID GOES INTO EFFECT

Belarusian President Lukashenka's decree banning foreign financial assistance for election-related activities or even seminars in Belarus went into effect on 16 April, Belapan reported. The decree, which was issued on 12 March, bans foreign funds for "changing the constitutional system; seizing power or overthrowing the government; stirring up social, ethnic, or racial enmity; preparing and holding elections; recalling members of parliament; and organizing strikes, street demonstrations, seminars, and other forms of mass propaganda work among the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2001)." PB

BELARUS EXPELS CZECH JOURNALIST

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said on 13 April that it detained and expelled Czech journalist Michal Plavec for "improper conduct," CTK reported. It said Plavec, who is also an official in the Czech-based People in Need foundation, had "coordinated the work of a foreign organization in Belarus and has time and again been involved in unsanctioned mass actions accompanied by arrests." The Czech Foreign Ministry said this reasoning is "fabricated and unfounded." Plavec was working for the Czech weekly newspaper "Respekt." PB

U.S. GRANTS ASYLUM TO FORMER KUCHMA BODYGUARD, MISSING JOURNALIST'S FAMILY...

The U.S. State Department confirmed on 16 April that Washington has granted political asylum to Mykola Melnychenko, the former bodyguard of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and the wife and two daughters of the missing journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, Reuters reported. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the decision to grant asylum was based on "standard international practice," and did not signal a change in U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Melnychenko has been in hiding in Europe since releasing audio tapes he says he recorded in the president's office that link Kuchma to Gongadze's disappearance. Kuchma has called Melnychenko a "traitor and a spy" and claims the tapes are forged. A headless corpse found outside Kyiv was initially reported, after testing, to be Gongadze's, though a later test performed outside of Ukraine said the tested tissue samples were not the journalist's. PB

...AS KYIV IN 'AMAZEMENT' OVER ACTION

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called U.S. Ambassador to Kyiv Carlos Pascual on 14 April to demand an explanation for the granting of asylum and to express its "deep amazement regarding the decision," AP reported. The Prosecutor-General's Office said that Melnychenko has been charged with libel and forgery and that the decision to grant him asylum "ran counter to the spirit of Ukrainian-U.S. partnership." PB

THOUSANDS RALLY TO SUPPORT UKRAINIAN PREMIER

Some 2,000 people demonstrated outside the parliament in Kyiv on 17 April to show support for embattled Premier Viktor Yushchenko, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko, who was to issue a report to the parliament on the government's work later in the day, faces a vote of no-confidence later this week. Some 217 parliament deputies signed a petition last week calling for the government to be removed. A no-confidence vote by some 226 deputies is needed for the government to be ousted. Yushchenko is regarded favorably by the West because of his attempts at reforming the country's economy. PB

KUCHMA STEPS IN TO SAVE OPPOSITION RADIO?

The German press agency dpa reported on 13 April that President Kuchma instructed the National Council for Television and Radio to make a second review of the debts of Kyiv's Radio Kontinent before rescinding its broadcasting frequency. Earlier in the day, Mykyta Poturaev, the deputy head of the council, declared that Radio Kontinent's frequency would be given to another station because the station has failed to repay a 400,000 hryvni (approximately $300,000 at the time) credit it received from a state bank in 1996. Radio Kontinent Director Serhiy Sholokh said his station will appeal the decision, which he said is politically motivated. The independent Radio Kontinent has original music programs but rebroadcasts news from Deutsche Welle, the BBC, and the Voice of America. PB

ESTONIA'S PRO PATRIA UNION ELECTS PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE

The congress of the Pro Patria Union on 14 April in Tallinn elected Tartu City Council Chairman Peeter Tulviste as its presidential candidate, BNS reported. Tulviste took 264 votes while parliament Deputy Chairman Tunne Kelam received 249 votes. The 55-year-old Tulviste is a psychologist who was the Rector of Tartu University from 1993 to 1998. While Kelam has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate for several years, Tulviste expressed his willingness to run only in March. Sociologist Andrus Saar explains Tulviste's sudden rise in part as a sign of internal dissatisfaction with the party's present politics and that he is likely to gain support outside the party. The congress also re-elected Prime Minister Mart Laar as the union's chairman. SG

LATVIAN PRESIDENT SAYS LANGUAGE REQUIREMENTS FOR MEDIA MAY CHANGE

Vaira Vike-Freiberga told a press and business club meeting organized by the magazine "Karjera" (Career) that current provisions requiring media to use Latvian for at least 75 percent of their broadcasts are aimed at strengthening the position of the state language, but that "laws governing the language use in media are not everlasting and it is quite possible that the provisions will change in a couple of years," BNS reported on 14 April. Latvian National Radio and Television Council (NRTC) Chairman Ojars Rubenis said that more lenient state language-use requirements could be introduced for radio companies, but he regards the requirements for television companies as optimum. The NRTC, however, has filed a court claim to stop "Bizness & Baltija" radio from simply retransmitting Russkoye Radio's broadcasts from Moscow. SG

LITHUANIAN SHIPPING COMPANY TO END FERRY TO STOCKHOLM

The Lithuanian Shipping Company (LISCO) has decided to discontinue running its Klaipeda-Stockholm ferry line beginning on 19 April, "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 17 April. Although trips to Stockholm are popular for passengers, cargo volumes on the route are too small to cover operating expenses. LISCO will use the "Palanga" ferry for a new route to the southern Swedish city of Karlshamn. The company expects that about 60 percent of the passengers who traveled to Stockholm will use the ferry and that freight cargoes will double. The ferry will make the trip in 14 hours three times a week. The price of passenger tickets will be the same as they were to Stockholm, while freight rates will be the same as those to Ahus, LISCO's other ferry route to Sweden, which also travels three times a week. SG

POLISH GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCES TENDER FOR FIGHTER PLANES

The Polish government has opened a tender for bids on a contract to modernize its fleet of fighter planes to meet NATO standards, PAP reported on 13 April. Deputy Defense Minister Romuald Szeremietiew said that potential bidders have been "sent specific conditions through diplomatic channels." He added that the tender, which could be worth $2.5-3.5 million, will close at the end of May and the government will make its decision by the end of June. He did not say if the tender was for new or used fighters. Poland currently has 12 Soviet-built MIG-29 fighters that meet NATO standards, AP reported, but must have 16 such fighters by 2003 and 60 by 2006. DW

WITNESS TO MURDER OF POLISH EX-MINISTER ARRESTED

Polish prosecutors have charged a 24-year-old woman for failing to inform police of the murder of Jacek Debski, AP reported on 14 April. Debski, a former sports minister, was shot in the head by an unknown assailant on 11 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 April 2001) while in the company of the woman, and police suspect she may know the killer's identity. Media reports have tied Debski to criminal gangs, and police suspect he may have been killed for failing to deliver on promises of favorable government treatment. DW

ANTI-SEMITIC ELEMENTS REMOVED FROM GDANSK EASTER DISPLAY

Banners that could be construed as anti-Semitic in an Easter display at the church of Father Henryk Jankowski were removed on 13 April at the order of senior Catholic clergymen, AP reported. Following a heated national debate over the responsibility of Poles in the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941, Jankowski, a priest well-known for his links to the 1980s Solidarity movement, included in his display on 12 April the passage: "Jews killed the Lord Jesus Christ and the Prophets and now they are persecuting us." Jankowski denied that the display had any anti-Semitic overtones, saying he'd merely quoted from the Bible. DW

CZECH POLICE RESPONSE TO RACIST CONCERT 'SUFFICIENT'

One week after widespread criticism of police handling of a concert promoting racism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2001), Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said that the police response to a similar concert held northeast of Prague on 14 April was "sufficiently resolute," CTK reported. About 150 skinheads gathered in the town of Strenice, near Mlada Boleslav, to take part in a graveyard ceremony and concert. Police detained 10 participants, who were later released, and deported a Slovak who had attended the previous weekend's concert in Senohraby. DW

CZECH FOUR PARTY COALITION, SOCIAL DEMOCRAT GOVERNMENT POSSIBLE?

Four Party Coalition head Karel Kuehnl and Social Democrat Chairman Vladimir Spidla admitted that a post-election coalition between their two groups is a possibility, CTK reported. Appearing together on a Prima Television discussion program on 15 April, both admitted to a government being possible, if difficult. Spidla said he could "imagine that such a coalition agreement could be circumstantial enough for both parties to sign it." For his part, Kuehnl said he would not "rule out political cooperation with any party before the elections," although he added that "it is very difficult for us to agree on certain things and we do not agree at all on others." Reacting the next day to Kuehnl's statement, Civic Democratic Alliance Deputy Chairman and coalition shadow cabinet member Michael Zantovsky said this is "nothing new," but that he believes the coalition could win the next elections outright. DW

PRAGUE COURT REJECTS NOVA DIRECTOR'S COUNTERSUIT

The Prague City Court rejected a complaint on 11 April by Vladimir Zelezny, the embattled general director of popular private Nova TV, against Nova's former service provider, CNTS, and its media representative, CTK reported on 16 April. The court rejected Zelezny's demand that CNTS stop publishing statements he made on his "Call the Director" program and pay him 1 million crowns ($25,700) in damages. Zelezny was ordered to pay $27 million to CNTS owner and former partner Ronald Lauder by an international arbitrator and currently faces charges in the Czech Republic of tax evasion and damaging a creditor. DW

SLOVAK HUNGARIAN COALITION PARTY REJECTS RUMORS OF SCHISM

Slovak Hungarian Coalition (SMK) Chairman Bela Bugar denied media reports of a split within his party over the issue of public administration reform, TASR reported on 13 April. Despite reports of disputes at the party's recent Republic Board session, the government-proposed reform plan was approved unanimously and there were only what Bugar called "dramatic statements" by different factions. Regarding the issue of Vice Chairman Pal Csaky's interest in the chairmanship, Bugar said Csaky had turned the position down when he was nominated following the joining of three parties into the coalition. Both Bugar and Csaky stated that no change in the party leadership will come before the 2002 elections. DW

HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER WANTS TO ABOLISH RETIREMENT AGE

The government intends to reform and strengthen the state pension system and may abolish the mandatory retirement age, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Hungarian media on 14 April. Orban said everyone should have the right to decide when to retire, but noted that those who decide on early retirement will receive smaller pensions. He said that "we urge hundreds of thousands of people to return to the state-controlled system from the private pension schemes." Opposition Free Democrat parliamentary member Tamas Bauer accused the government of wanting to "destroy everything that it does not control." The idea of abolishing the mandatory retirement age only serves election campaign purposes, Bauer concluded. MSZ

HUNGARY'S SMALLHOLDERS WANT NEW CABINET POST

The coalition member Independent Smallholders' Party (FKGP) no longer considers Phare Funds Minister Imre Boros an FKGP cabinet member, and therefore it wants a new ministerial post without portfolio under the coalition agreement, Bela Beres, chief of staff to FKGP Chairman Jozsef Torgyan told a Hungarian internet journal on 14 April. During his tenure as interim agriculture minister, Boros has launched an investigation into Torgyan's affairs while he served as agriculture minister. In other news, Zsolt Lanyi, a reform Smallholder, said the party's "civic section" expects to see some 1,200 delegates at its Budapest convention on 5 May. Lanyi said that, according to rumors, Torgyan's supporters will be paid 2,000-5,000 forints ($6-16) if they attend a rally proposed by Torgyan for the same day. MSZ




GRAND COALITION IN MACEDONIA?

The ruling coalition in Macedonia is very likely to be expanded and reshuffled soon, the Skopje daily "Dnevnik" reported on 17 April. It seems clear that the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) will join the governing coalition, which is made up of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), and the Liberal Party (LP). The transformation of the government coalition has been under discussion since the outbreak of violence earlier this year. The new members of the coalition will be granted an unspecified number of ministries. The broad coalition will prepare early elections for February or March 2002. UB

MONTENEGRIN PRESIDENT: KOSTUNICA MORE CONCERNED WITH NEIGHBORS THAN WITH SERBIA

Milo Djukanovic said in Podgorica on 15 April that Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica is interfering in the campaign for the 22 April Montenegrin parliamentary elections. Djukanovic added that Kostunica devotes more time to the affairs of Serbia's neighbors than he does to the problems of Serbia itself, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM

YUGOSLAV MINISTER: MONTENEGRINS IN SERBIA TO BECOME 'FOREIGNERS'

Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic said in Belgrade on 17 April that Montenegrin citizens living in Serbia will be treated as foreigners if Montenegro declares independence, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. He added that those who do not wish to be treated as foreigners must receive Serbian citizenship, and that the procedure to do so will be a long one. PM

POWELL CALLS FOR END TO VIOLENCE IN KOSOVA...

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met in Skopje on 13 April with top leaders from Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2001). They included the Albanians Ibrahim Rugova, Hashim Thaci, and Ramush Haradinaj, as well as Serbian leader Rada Trajkovic and the UN's Hans Haekkerup. Powell told a press conference: "We call on Kosovars to join us in denouncing and isolating extremists whose actions are eroding international support for Kosovo and sympathy for its people," Reuters reported. He added that "in the meeting that I just completed, yes, I did hear the leaders say that they will foreswear violence, and I encouraged them to speak out candidly to all the people that they represent and the people they are leading [and tell them] that violence is not the answer." Powell also told the Albanians that violence in Macedonia "is eroding international support for Kosovo." PM

...AND FOR HOLDING ELECTIONS

Powell also said in Skopje on 13 April that "elections should be held as soon as possible [in Kosova] this year. Let's not move forward with any precipitous acts that might be a source of any new instability... Your dreams for a peaceful and democratic future depend on such restraint," Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 February 2001). PM

KOSOVA ELECTIONS ON TARGET

Haekkerup, who is the UN civilian administrator for Kosova, said in Durres, Albania, on 15 April that general elections will take place in Kosova before the end of 2001. He stressed that the elections "are very important and will help [promote] stability in the Balkans," AP reported. He appealed to Kosovar Albanians "to integrate as much as possible the Serbian minority," which makes up about 7 percent of Kosova's population. Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta said that he has "asked the Belgrade authorities to bring their influence to bear on the Serbian minority...so that they can become involved in Kosova's institutions in the future." Meta stressed that his government does not regard Kosova "from a narrow Albanian perspective, but from a broader, regional one," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. In New York, the UN's Jean-Marie Guehenno said that plans for the elections are moving ahead and that the ballot will most likely take place before the end of 2001, AP reported. PM

KOSOVA SERBS PROTEST TAX COLLECTION

An unspecified number of Serbs blocked at least five roads leading north from the divided city of Mitrovica on 17 April to protest the UN's setting up of tax-collection points on the boundary with Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. Some 4,000 people attended a protest rally in Mitrovica at midday. Serbs put up their first road block on 16 April, one day after the UN civilian administration set up a tax-collection station at Donje Jerinje to collect sales and excise taxes on goods arriving from Serbia, including alcohol, fuel, and tobacco products. UN spokesman Frank Benjaminson added that the establishment of a tax-collection station "should also curb smuggling," AP reported. Local Serb leaders charged that the station is a "customs checkpoint" aimed at dividing Kosova from Serbia. They added that the taxes will drive up the cost of living for consumers. AP noted that Serbia itself set up customs checkpoints on its borders with Montenegro and Kosova in February. PM

PRESEVO GUERRILLAS FREE FIVE SERBS

The Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedja (UCPMB) freed three Serbian civilian hostages on 14 April and two Serbian soldiers the next day, Reuters reported. Speaking in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson called the moves "a decisive step towards a political resolution of the current tensions," Reuters reported. Meanwhile, in Konculj, a UCPMB commander said that NATO's decision to readmit Serbian forces into the demilitarized buffer zone along the border with Kosova is nothing more than "political marketing," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 15 April. PM

SERBIAN LAWYERS: DISBAND MILOSEVIC'S DEATH SQUAD

Rajko Danilovic, Dragoljub Todorovic, and Nikola Barovic said in an open letter to Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic that they believe that a special unit in the state security forces (RDB) is nothing more than a "death squad" and should be disbanded, "Danas" reported on 17 April. The three lawyers have been investigating some well-known political murders and disappearances, including the disappearance of former Serbian leader Ivan Stambolic. PM

POWELL TELLS BOSNIANS: 'VIOLENCE IS NOT THE ANSWER'

Powell said in Sarajevo on 13 April that "Violence is not the answer," AP reported. He stressed that "the United States is proud to have helped end the terrible [1992-1995] war, [but] we are concerned at the recent reappearance in this country of extremist elements like those that caused so much destruction and misery several years ago." Powell reminded his audience that "Bosnia needs to make more progress to become a member of Europe... It needs an election law, one military -- not three -- and regulatory and legal reform." The secretary added that "all indicted war criminals must be brought to justice." PM

BOSNIAN PEACEKEEPERS ARREST INDICTED WAR CRIMINAL

Four SFOR peacekeepers in civilian clothes arrested Dragan Obrenovic near Zvornik on 15 April, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. He arrived in The Hague the next day. Florence Hartmann, who is spokeswoman for chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, said that she hopes that the arrest will soon be followed by additional ones. The Hague-based tribunal recently indicted Obrenovic in secret for war crimes in conjunction with the massacre of at least 7,000 mainly Muslim males in and near Srebrenica in 1995. PM

NATO'S SECRETARY-GENERAL HAILS ARREST OF BOSNIAN SERB OFFICER

Lord Robertson said in a statement in Brussels on 15 April that the charges against Obrenovic include "the extermination of thousands of Bosnian Muslim males, complicity of genocide, violation of the laws and customs of war, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the [1949] Geneva Conventions, including murder, torture, and racial and religious persecutions," AP reported. Robertson added that each indicted war criminal "sent to The Hague makes it easier to build a lasting peace in the Balkans." In Washington, the White House called the arrest "an essential step in consolidating the peace and promoting the rule of law in Bosnia." Obrenovic's lawyer told Bosnian Serb television that he is "shocked" and "appalled" by the arrest. Several thousand Serbs demonstrated in Obrenovic's defense. PM

STANDOFF CONTINUES BETWEEN BOSNIAN FEDERATION, CROATIAN PARTY

Shortly after Powell spoke in Sarajevo on 13 April, officials of the mainly Croatian and Muslim federation called on SFOR peacekeepers to take control of barracks in which Croatian units loyal to the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) have moved in with regular federal troops, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2001). The government added that it considers any soldiers or police who are not wearing federal emblems to be paramilitaries, and that it is concerned that the pro-HDZ units may have access to federal weapons and equipment. Beriz Belkic, who is the Muslim representative on the joint presidency, told "Dnevni avaz" of 17 April that he is prepared to talk to any representatives of the HDZ who have not actively supported the creation of the breakaway "Croatian self-administration." PM

HERZEGOVINIAN CROAT LEADER TO FACE MURDER CHARGES?

The international community's high representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, and the UN's Jacques Klein are preparing to arrest hard-line HDZ leader Ante Jelavic, "Jutarnji list" reported on 17 April. The arrest will be on charges relating to the 1999 car-bomb death of moderate Bosnian Croat police official Jozo Leutar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 1999 and 19 September 2000). There is no independent confirmation of the report. PM

THOUSANDS HAIL RETURN OF BOSNIAN TEENAGE KIDNAP VICTIMS

Several thousand people gathered in Tesanj in the early hours of 16 April to welcome back four teenage girls whom kidnappers had held for five days, AP reported. The four were freed thanks to cooperation between police from both Bosnian entities and to the personal initiative of Muslim cleric Senad Becic, who used his car to chase one of the kidnappers before overpowering him. PM

SIDEX STEEL MILL TO BE PRIVATIZED

Romanian Privatization Minister Ovidiu Musetescu said on 13 April that negotiations for the sale of the giant Sidex steel mill are to begin on 19 April, Mediafax reported. Musetescu said the sole offer for Sidex came from the British-Indian owned LNM Holdings Ispat. The offer, seen as "very serious" by Musetescu, provides for a 40 percent production raise over the next five years, while layoffs for the same period are to follow only a "natural pattern." Negotiations will include the topic of the factory's more than $600 million debt. Musetescu said Sidex's privatization will lead to a 80 percent reduction of the losses accumulated by the top 100 state-owned companies. ZsM

MOLDOVAN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENTS SPEAK OF PARTNERSHIP...

Meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said on 16 April that Russia continues to be Moldova's "strategic partner," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Voronin, who began his first foreign visit just 10 days after his official election by parliament said: "Russia has always been, is, and will be, a strategic partner" in all areas, including "joint actions on the international stage." He stressed that owing to the "socio-economic situation" in Moldova, "we need to join our efforts precisely in the integrating processes and in restoring a lot of what has been destroyed during [the last] 10 years." Putin said Moscow and Chisinau "will work to sustain our economic links in order to reach together the targets that Moldova has set for itself." As for Moldova's possible joining of the Russia-Belarus Union, Voronin said the topic is still on the agenda, but it needs time to be investigated. ZsM

...AND ON THE TRANSDNIESTER CONFLICT

Referring to the Transdniester conflict, Putin said Russia is "ready to guarantee that all sides participating in the settlement process will abide by the agreements" that he believes could be reached "in the near future," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Putin also added that Russia can play a "positive role." Meanwhile, in Moscow, Voronin discussed the same topic with Yevgenii Primakov, chairman of the Russian State Commission for the Transdniester conflict. ZsM

VORONIN CAN STAY ON AS PARTY LEADER

The Moldovan Constitutional Court ruled on 13 April that President Voronin can remain as chairman of the Party of Moldovan Communists, Flux reported. The court issued the ruling in reply to a request lodged by two Popular Party Christian Democratic deputies, who asked the court to examine whether Voronin can hold both functions. The court replied that it didn't even discuss the request, as the constitution contains no provisions referring to this matter. However, the constitution does not allow the president to hold any other paid posts. After being elected president, Voronin announced his intention to stay on as PCM leader. The PCM 's chairman is to be elected at the party's congress scheduled for 22 April. ZsM

NEW IMF SUPPORT FOR BULGARIA TO BE DISCUSSED AFTER ELECTIONS

Johannes de Beaufort Wijnholds, the IMF's executive director for Bulgaria, said in Sofia on 16 April that any new agreements between the IMF and Bulgaria will be on hold until after the 17 June parliamentary elections, BTA reported. Wijnholds said Bulgaria is performing well economically and making good progress on reforms. Wijnholds will meet with Finance Minister Mouravei Radev and National Bank Governor Svetoslav Gavriiski on 17 April. PB

BULGARIAN DIPLOMATS MEET WITH DETAINED MEDICAL WORKERS IN LIBYA

Lyudmil Spassov, the Bulgarian ambassador to Libya, and the diplomatic staff of the embassy met in Tripoli on 14 April with the six Bulgarian medical workers charged by Libya with intentionally infecting 393 children with HIV, BTA reported. The five nurses and one doctor reportedly told the ambassador of problems they encountered during detention and discussed issues about their defense. Their trial has been postponed several times and is scheduled to begin this summer. PB




BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT POSITIONS HIMSELF FOR RE-ELECTION


By Jan Maksymiuk

Speaking before the National Assembly on 10 April, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka admitted that he is not gravely concerned about when exactly the presidential ballot will take place in Belarus. "It seems to me that, according to the constitution, it is the right of the Chamber of Representatives to set a presidential election date, is it not? As you decide, so it will be," Lukashenka said, in response to a query from a lawmaker who wanted to know which election day would suit the incumbent president.

Lukashenka's words, of course, should not be taken at face value. The Chamber of Representatives -- which was carefully staffed by the executive branch in a phony ballot last October -- will set the date of presidential elections as instructed by the presidential administration. As of now, the only certain fact is that the decision on the election date must be made no later than 27 June, while the presidential ballot should take place no later than 27 September.

Lukashenka appears to be testing the nerves of the opposition: he knows the date of the elections, while his opponents do not and are forced to remain in a state of uncertainty. Thus far, this tactic has proved advantageous to Lukashenka: the democratic opposition has not agreed on a single candidate and has not made any significant steps to advertise potential challengers to the incumbent president among the electorate. Meanwhile, Lukashenka is being vigorously advertised as a presidential candidate by the state-controlled media.

A recent poll by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) graphically reflects the Belarusian situation in which only one politician is presented favorably by the state-monopolized media. The poll found that Lukashenka can count on 41.4 percent of the vote in presidential elections, while his potential challengers have ridiculously low support: former Premier Mikhail Chyhir -- 3.3 percent; Trade Union Federation of Belarus head Uladzimir Hancharyk -- 1.5 percent; and former Hrodna Oblast Governor Syamyon Domash -- 1.2 percent. However, the poll also found that 32.3 percent of Belarusians do not want Lukashenka to serve a second term, while 26.1 percent are undecided on this issue. NISEPI argues that those undecided would also not vote for Lukashenka if he were confronted by an appropriate challenger.

Lukashenka is apparently aware that he has lost his decisive support among the electorate over the past seven years of his rule and that he may lose the ballot under unfavorable circumstances. Therefore, he is taking every measure to avoid any surprises in the election campaign.

Last month, Lukashenka issued a decree introducing rigorous state control over foreign free assistance to Belarus. The decree was unanimously perceived abroad as a move oriented primarily toward blocking the training of some 14,000 election observers in Belarus, which is being conducted under the aegis of the OSCE. Lukashenka did not conceal the true intention of the decree in his 10 April address to the National Assembly, when he said that the West wants "to falsify" the Belarusian elections by installing its own election monitoring system in the country. He pledged to prevent such a development.

The legislative elections in October 2000 -- in which mass violations of election procedures and falsifications of election results were reported by independent observers -- assured Lukashenka that the executive authorities have a tight grip on electoral commissions and that he may count on a repetition of their performance in the presidential campaign. Lukashenka announced that he is not going to change the election law, which gives clear preferences to the administration in manning the electoral commissions of all levels. Changes in the election law were one of the key demands of the OSCE to democratize the election process in Belarus. It seems that Lukashenka is not concerned about possible nonrecognition of the ballot by the international community and wants to stay in power at the expense of further deepening Belarus's isolation.

What really matters for him is how Russia will react to the election campaign in Belarus. Thus far, the Kremlin has not shown its preference regarding Belarus's next ruler. But there are some trifles that are worrying Lukashenka. Moscow has not apportioned any of the $100 million loan promised to help stabilize the Belarusian currency (the decision on the loan was made almost six months ago). And the reception of Lukashenka in the Kremlin by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the 5th anniversary of the Russian-Belarusian Union was rather frigid. "If we lose these elections, Russia's days will be numbered," Lukashenka threatened shortly after his trip to Moscow. This could only mean that the Kremlin has not yet given its go-ahead to Lukashenka.

All Belarusian commentators tend to agree that the Kremlin -- with its economic and media leverage in Belarus -- can easily unseat the Belarusian autocratic leader and install a new, more moderate one. But the same commentators add that there actually are no serious reasons for Putin to strike down Lukashenka who -- irrespective of his erratic and autocratic behavior -- remains loyal to Russia and its interests. There is also a possibility that the Kremlin will not make any official or unofficial moves to influence the Belarusian elections. Such a development would signal to Lukashenka that he can put all of his administrative machinery in motion and hold, as he has pledged, "the most democratic and honest elections in the world."


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