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Newsline - December 11, 2001


RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TELLS POWELL RETREAT FROM ABM TREATY IS POSSIBLE...
Igor Ivanov said following his talks with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 10 December that his country continues to view the 1972 ABM Treaty as a "crucial element of international security," Russian and Western media reported. However, Ivanov said Russia "does not exclude and even takes into account" the possibility that the United States will withdraw from the treaty. "In fact, such an option is incorporated into the language of the treaty," he added. Ivanov also announced that U.S. President George W. Bush plans to visit Russia by mid-2002, and that by that time both sides should codify a "gentleman's agreement" discussed earlier on reducing each country's nuclear stockpile to 1,700-2,200 warheads. VY

...AS POWELL TELLS DUMA HE UNDERSTANDS RUSSIA'S MIXED FEELINGS TOWARD U.S.
Meanwhile, Powell told President Vladimir Putin during their meeting that the limited missile defense shield the U.S. wants to deploy would not undermine Russia's deterrence potential and is directed against "irresponsible states that might use this type of mass destruction weapon," RIA-Novosti reported on 10 December. Powell also met with the heads of Duma factions and committees, after which Duma deputy speaker and Yabloko leader Vladimir Lukin said: "Powell did not show all his cards, but he said he understands that the Russians might have mixed feelings concerning cooperation with America." VY

RUSSIAN PREMIER HITS THE ROAD TO DISCUSS OIL, ARMS...
Mikhail Kasyanov arrived in Ottawa on 10 December on the first leg of his voyage to Canada, Venezuela, and Brazil to discuss world oil prices, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. The daily said that Kasyanov hopes to use Canadian and Brazilian access to markets in Third World countries to sell Russian arms, including Tu-204 transport aircraft and Mi-38 medium-lift helicopters. During the South American segment of his trip, Kasyanov seeks to promote Russian weapons for the regional market, especially air-defense systems. VY

...AND PROPOSES TO CREATE A COUNCIL FOR THE ARTIC AND FAR NORTH...
Speaking in Ottawa on 10 December, Kasyanov also spoke of the possibility of forming a special government council for the Arctic and Far North, Interfax reported on 11 December. At a Russian-Canadian seminar devoted to problems of the Far North, Kasyanov said he is ready to head such a council. Among the priorities of the special council would be the preservation of the northern environment, the development of natural resources, and addressing the problems of indigenous communities. Kasyanov added that he is thinking of creating a special unit within the Russian government in which representatives of northern ethnic minorities would work and give recommendations on ways of running affairs in the northern territories of the Russian Federation, Interfax reported. VC

...AS RUSSIA PREPARES TO ASK FOR EXPANSION OF ITS ARCTIC TERRITORY
A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on 10 December that Russia has informed the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark that it is ready to submit an official request to the UN for the extension of Russia's exclusive economic zone in the Arctic Ocean by 1.2 million square kilometers, ITAR-TASS reported. The territory Russia seeks is extremely rich in hydrocarbon resources. The spokesman admitted that U.S. and Canada are "very reserved" about Russia's intentions to gain control of the territory. VY

PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER DEFINES PUTIN
Gleb Pavlovskii said that, as a politician, President Putin is a "type of Russian European" who by definition cannot be an enemy of the West, but is very aware of the differences between them, as was his model Peter the Great, "Novaya gazeta" reported 10 December. Pavlovskii also said he believes President Putin should provide more channels for Russians to display "patriotic energy," otherwise that emotion will reveal itself in ugly forms as it did in the pogrom at a Moscow market in late October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October 2001). VY

PUTIN WANTS TO CUT MORE DIAMONDS
Speaking at meeting on 10 December with Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, and ALROSA head Vyacheslav Shtyrov, President Putin said the Russian government will give the diamond production company more independence, but will retain general state control over the sector as a whole, ORT reported. Putin also said that although Russia is second after South Africa in the production of diamonds, it is only in fifth place in cutting the gems, and that in the next five years he wants Russia to make advancements in the processing of diamonds. VY

RUSSIA WANTS TO IMPROVE PRODUCTION-SHARING LEGISLATION TO FURTHER FOREIGN INVESTMENT...
Speaking in Moscow at an international symposium devoted to investment in the Russian energy sector on 10 December, Economic Development and Trade Minister Gref said that in the next year the amount of foreign capital in the Sakhalin-2 hydrocarbon project will reach $3 billion, Prime-Tass reported. Gref admitted that the best investment prospects in the sphere are based on "production-sharing agreements," but that current Russian law on the matter hinders further investment. Gref said that in order to remedy this, his ministry and the Industry and Science Ministry will create a joint working group to develop improved production-sharing legislation. VY

...AS PRIVATIZATION REVENUES RISE
First Deputy State Property Relations Minister Yurii Medvedev announced that revenues from privatization of state property this year will amount to more than 40 billion rubles ($1.3 billion), which is 15 percent higher than the targeted goal, RBK news agency reported on 10 December. VY

PRIMAKOV HAS BEST CHANCE TO HEAD CHAMBER OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY
The members of the Chamber of Trade and Industry believe that the election of Yevgenii Primakov as chairman of their body is predetermined and that under Primakov's guidance it will gain stature and prestige, "Russkii fokus" reported on 10 December. The newspaper said that it was the head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Arkadii Volskii, who first nominated Primakov for the position, and since that time no better candidate has emerged for the elections that are due to be held next week. Meanwhile, Primakov himself has already promised to use his contacts to advance Russia's business image abroad. VY

DID PROSECUTOR-GENERAL'S OFFICE CLEAR EX-FINANCE MINISTER IN MISUSE OF $450 MILLION?
The Prosecutor-General's Office announced that it will hand over to court the case of Colonel General Georgii Oleinik, the chief military financial officer who is accused of misappropriating some $450 million from the military budget, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 December. According to investigators, in 1996 Oleinik transferred those funds as payment for construction materials for military needs to the bank account of the Ukrainian-British company United Energy International Ltd. However, the materials were never supplied and the money disappeared. Despite this, the investigators claim, the Prosecutor-General's Office absolved former Finance Minister and current head of Northern Oil Andrei Vavilov, who authorized the deal, of criminal responsibility. The Prosecutor-General's Office did not find Vavilov guilty of criminal conduct, only negligence. VY

'NEZAVISIMAYA' TO CLOSE CIS DESK
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Tatyana Koshkareva and Director Rustam Narzikulov have decided to close the daily's desk specializing on CIS affairs, effective in February 2002, gazetasng.ru reported on 6 December. The recent resignation of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" Deputy Editor Alan Kasaev, who ran the CIS desk, prompted the decision. Since the mid-1990s, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" has published more about CIS issues than virtually any other newspaper in the former Soviet Union. The daily's main financial backer, Boris Berezovsky, served as deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council from October 1996 until November 1997 and as CIS executive secretary from April 1998 until March 1999. Koshkareva and Narzikulov have run "Nezavisimaya gazeta" since Berezovsky sacked founding Editor In Chief Vitalii Tretyakov in June 2001. In explaining his departure, Kasaev cited his opposition to the daily's "editorial policy and changes in the newspaper's political line." LB

ANOTHER TOP OFFICIAL OF THE UPPER HOUSE CALLS FOR LONGER PRESIDENTIAL TERM...
Valerii Goreglyad, leader of the pro-Kremlin Federation group in the Federation Council, told Interfax on 10 December that he favors extending the country's presidential term from four years to seven. According to Goreglyad, such an extension is necessary given Russia's current economic and historical realities. The country needs "radical reforms," but under the current system the president "must start to think about the next election" after his or her first year, and subsequently "needs to adopt populist measures." In an interview with Interfax the same day, Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak agreed with Goreglyad, noting that a four-year presidential term "for such a country as ours is short." JAC

...AND A NUMBER OF GOVERNORS AGREE
Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor Vladimir Butov also agreed that the term should be extended to "five or even seven years," while Pskov Oblast Governor Yevgenii Mikhailov said that the term should be increased to "at least five years." Last week, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov suggested that the presidential term should be extended (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2001). NTV reported on 10 December that although President Putin appeared before the media several times that day, he failed to comment on proposals to extend presidential terms. JAC

HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN CALLS FOR 89 COUNTERPARTS
Federal ombudsman for human rights Oleg Mironov said on 10 December that he would like to establish an office for the protection of human rights in each of Russia's 89 federal subjects, because "only then will a system be in place that can actually defend the rights of Russians," Interfax reported on 10 December. Mironov was speaking at a ceremony in central Moscow marking the anniversary of the UN General Assembly's Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. JAC

TATAR OFFICIAL SAYS PUTIN COULD BE FOLLOWING IN GORBACHEV'S FOOTSTEPS...
In an interview with "Vostochniy ekspress" on 7 December, Rafail Khakimov, an adviser to Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev, declared that Russia is repeating the mistakes that led to the Soviet Union's collapse, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 10 December. Khakimov cited the establishment under the Putin presidential administration of a vertical power structure, the use of force in managing ethnic groups, and Moscow's promotion of a unitary state. According to Khakimov, an "artificial" federalism contributed to the disintegration of the USSR 10 years ago. He added that a new union treaty could give Tatarstan better conditions than it has at present. JAC

...AS TATAR GROUP ACCUSES PUTIN OF IGNORING RUSSIAN MUSLIMS ON RAMADAN
The moderate nationalist group Tatar Public Center has criticized President Putin in Chally for a failing to make a statement to Russian Muslims on the occasion of Ramadan, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 10 December, citing Tatar Radio. In a letter to the Russian president, the center's leaders complained that Putin expressed greetings to the Muslim world only through Jordan's King Abdullah II. JAC

INCUMBENT SET TO WIN IN CHAVASH RACE
In an interview with regions.ru on 10 December, Vladislav Sakharchuk of the Moscow-based Political Situations Center predicted that incumbent Chavash Republic President Nikolai Fedorov will win in elections scheduled for 16 December (see also "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 5 December 2001). According to Sakharchuk, despite Fedorov's national reputation as an advocate for democracy and federalism he runs a fairly tight ship back home. All local heads are completely loyal to him, the republic's parliament is also reportedly under Fedorov's control, and "all attempts to form a viable opposition to Fedorov are blocked at the beginning." Also working in Fedorov's favor is the local election law under which the victor in the race needs to win only a simple majority above 25 percent; such a rule generally works in the favor of incumbents, according to Sakharchuk. JAC

DUMA DEPUTY CALLS FOR RADUEV'S PUBLIC EXECUTION...
Gadzhi Makhachev, who represents Daghestan in the Russian State Duma, argued on 10 December that Chechen field commander Salman Raduev, currently on trial in Makhachkala for his leadership of the mass hostage taking in Kizlyar in January 1996, should be sentenced to death and publicly executed, Interfax reported. LF

...WHILE JUSTICE MINISTER RULES OUT DEATH SENTENCE
Russian Justice Minister Yurii Chaika, however, told Interfax in Moscow on 10 December that the moratorium on the death penalty in Russia will remain in force. "We must keep our word" to the Council of Europe, Chaika added. Chaika is to travel to Strasbourg on 11 December for talks with senior Council of Europe officials. LF

INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN ORGANIZATIONS IN CHECHNYA ACCUSED OF ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES
Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 10 December, Russian State Duma deputy Viktor Ilyukhin (Communist Party) claimed that the U.S., Britain, and Pakistan are engaged in spying in Chechnya and provide financial support for Wahhabi organizations, while Israel finances public and political groups in Chechnya through such organizations as the International Red Cross and Medecins sans Frontieres, Interfax reported. Ilyukhin further accused Turkey of financing separatist leaders in the North Caucasus, including Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev and former acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. Also on 10 December, the Chechen office of the Federal Security Service informed the Chechen administration that unnamed international humanitarian organizations operating in Chechnya either engage in espionage as a means to pressure or discredit Chechen officials, or provide food and equipment to the Chechen fighters, Interfax reported. LF

CORRECTION:
"The Year of Russia in Ukraine" will be in 2003, and not 2002 as reported in "RFE/RL Newsline" on 10 December.

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER STRESSES IMPORTANCE OF RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA, IRAN
Briefing parliament deputies on his visit last week to Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2001), speaker Armen Khachatrian said that during his talks with Russian officials he consistently stressed that Armenia is Russia's only strategic ally in the South Caucasus, ITAR-TASS reported. Khachatrian further argued, as other Armenian politicians have done, that bilateral economic ties should be elevated to a level comparable with the close military cooperation between the two countries, thus creating new jobs in Armenia and new markets for Armenian manufactured goods. He added that the creation of a political "axis" made up of Armenia, Iran, and Russia could prove "extremely important" for Armenia's economic development. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION RALLY POORLY ATTENDED
Only some 100 supporters of center-right political parties loyal to former President Levon Ter-Petrossian attended an unsanctioned rally in Yerevan on 10 December to mark International Human Rights Day and focus attention on alleged abuses of human rights by the present leadership, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Organizers blamed the poor turnout on widespread apathy and disillusion with politics. LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT CALLS ON KARABAKH TO DEMONSTRATE POLITICAL, ECONOMIC PROGRESS
Addressing a session on 8 December of the Armenia-Nagorno-Karabakh Interparliamentary Commission, Armenian President Robert Kocharian urged the leadership of the unrecognized republic to demonstrate through its progress toward democratization and economic reforms that it is keeping pace with international trends, Noyan Tapan reported on 10 December. Also discussed at the session was a 9 billion dram ($16 million) Armenian credit that will constitute the lion's share of the total 12.4 billion drams in revenues envisaged in the enclave's budget for 2002. Those monies will be spent on salaries, pensions, and allowances, according to Arminfo on 10 December, as cited by Groong. On 8 December, Karabakh parliament Chairman Oleg Yesayan told journalists in Yerevan that he would like the Armenian parliament's delegation to the Council of Europe to provide the Karabakh leadership with more detailed information concerning the discussions within that forum of the Karabakh conflict and mediation process, Arminfo reported. LF

RUSSIAN DIPLOMAT DEPLORES HIATUS IN KARABAKH SETTLEMENT PROCESS
The current situation with regard to mediating a solution to the Karabakh conflict is "extremely complex," Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov told journalists in Moscow on 10 December, according to Arminfo and Interfax. He expressed regret at the suspension of one-on-one talks between President Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliev, commenting that neither side appears ready for compromise and "the stands of both parties are based primarily on their own interests." He added that the OSCE Minsk Group, of which Russia is one of the three co-chairs, is trying to compensate for the lack of direct contact between Kocharian and Aliev. LF

AZERBAIJANI JOURNALISTS LAUNCH HUNGER STRIKE
Three journalists with the opposition daily "Yeni Musavat" began a hunger strike on 7 December to protest an attack the previous day on one of their female colleagues, Turan reported. Two more journalists joined the protest on 10 December. The edition of "Yeni Musavat" for 10 December failed to appear as no publishing house would agree to print it. LF

GEORGIAN ANTICORRUPTION GROUP TARGETS 'YOUNG REFORMERS'
A team of investigative journalists who focus on corruption has made public documentation detailing the commercial activities of a group of parliament deputies headed by former speaker Zurab Zhvania and former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, Caucasus Press and Glasnost-North Caucasus reported on 10 December. That documentation suggests that the group controls some 500 Georgian companies and has lobbied to enact legislation that facilitates corrupt practices, and thus adversely affects Georgia's economic development. The journalists have demanded that Zhvania and Saakashvili be stripped of their parliamentary immunity and that the prosecutor-general investigate the materials implicating them. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT NAMES ENVOY FOR ABKHAZIA...
President Eduard Shevardnadze has signed a decree formally appointing Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze to the post of his personal envoy for resolving the Abkhaz conflict, Caucasus Press reported on 11 December. Shevardnadze offered that post to Abashidze last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2001). Abkhaz parliament in exile Chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili hailed Abashidze's appointment, noting that Abashidze is a "renowned politician" who "has some influence" in Russian political circles. Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia have been circulating a petition calling for Abashidze's nomination as mediator, according to Caucasus Press on 6 December. LF

...AS UN OFFICIAL SAYS RUSSIA HAS WITHDRAWN OBJECTIONS TO SETTLEMENT DOCUMENT
Moscow has withdrawn its objections to a UN-drafted document outlining the future formal relations between Georgia and Abkhazia within a sovereign Georgian state, the "Financial Times" on 11 December quoted UN envoy for the Abkhaz conflict Dieter Boden as saying. Russia's UN delegation has refused to endorse that draft on at least two occasions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April and 5 November 2001). In an interview published in "Moskovskie novosti" on 4 December, Shevardnadze described the softening of the Russian position as "a significant step forward," which Georgia "appreciates." LF

GEORGIAN WHO CONTRACTED TB WHILE IN PRISON TO DEMAND DAMAGES
Paata Tskhirtladze, who was jailed on rape charges that were not substantiated and contracted tuberculosis while in prison, intends to bring a lawsuit against the Georgian Interior Ministry to demand compensation, "Akhali taoba" quoted his lawyer as saying on 10 December. Four days earlier, Caucasus Press gave the number of prisoners in Georgian jails currently undergoing medical treatment for TB as 411. LF

ARMENIAN YOUTHS CLASH IN SOUTHERN GEORGIA
Thirteen people were injured in fighting among some 25-30 Armenian youths in the predominantly Armenian populated town of Ninotsminda in southern Georgia on 9 December, Caucasus Press reported the following day, quoting Gigla Baramidze, the deeply unpopular local governor. He did not explain what prompted the fighting, but added that it engendered "panic" among local residents and that additional guards have been deployed along the Georgian-Armenian border. LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S PARLIAMENT APPROVES BUDGET IN FINAL READING
Deputies of both chambers of Kazakhstan's legislature voted on 10 December to approve the final draft of the budget for 2002, Interfax reported. Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev, whose request that deputies not raise the initial planned revenues and expenditures was ignored (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2001), expressed the hope that both revenues and expenditures will be larger in 2003 than in 2002. But he acknowledged that any increases will depend on the regional situation and on world market prices for oil and precious metals, which are Kazakhstan's main exports. LF

IMF APPROVES NEW LOAN FOR KYRGYZSTAN
The IMF's Executive Board has given final approval to a new $93 million Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility loan for Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 7 December, quoting the government press service. The first tranche, worth approximately $15 million, will be released immediately. An IMF press release dated 30 November commended Kyrgyzstan's recent achievements in macroeconomic stabilization and the approval by parliament of a "prudent" 2002 budget. But on 10 December, the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of parliament) began a debate on amending the budget. LF

TAJIKISTAN, SAUDI ARABIA TO UPGRADE DIPLOMATIC TIES
During talks on 9 December, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and visiting Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov reached agreement on revising the intergovernmental General Cooperation Agreement, opening diplomatic representations, and on expanding economic cooperation, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 11 December, quoting presidential spokesman Zafar Saidov. They also discussed regional problems including the situation in Afghanistan. On 10 December, Rakhmonov met in Jiddah with Islamic Development Bank President Muhammad Ali, and then traveled to Medina to visit Muslim holy places. LF

MINSK REPORTS 4 PERCENT GDP GROWTH
From January to November, Belarus's GDP rose by more than 4 percent, while agricultural and industrial output rose by some 5 percent compared with the same period last year, Belapan reported on 11 December, quoting a government spokesman. JM

BELARUSIAN ARTISTS PROTEST CENSORSHIP
Some 20 artists staged a street protest in downtown Minsk on 10 December, displaying their censored works as well as caricatures of top Belarusian officials, banned books, and paintings depicting Belarus's national emblem Pahonya, which was prohibited by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime. Artist Alyaksandr Pushkin, who presided over the event, wore an inquisitor's cloak adorned with iron chains and dried fish to symbolize the "dried-up life" under censorship in Belarus, Belapan reported. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT DECREES CRACKDOWN ON MONEY LAUNDERING
Leonid Kuchma has signed a decree on combating money laundering, Interfax reported on 10 December. The decree, which will take effect on 1 January 2002, introduces obligatory control over all financial transactions that are termed as "considerable" or "dubious." The decree will remain in force until an appropriate law is passed. JM

UKRAINIAN MINISTER REJECTS CHARGES OF ARMS SALES TO CHECHENS, TALIBAN
Ukrainian Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko on 10 December rejected accusations made by Russian State Duma deputy Viktor Ilyukhin earlier the same day that Ukraine has been selling arms to Chechen fighters and Afghanistan's Taliban since 1996, STB television reported. In particular, referring to sources in Russia's Defense Ministry and secret services, Ilyukhin said Ukraine supplied more than 200 tanks, 200 armored personnel carriers, and 30 light aircraft to Afghanistan via dummy companies in 1996. Leonid Rozhen, the head of Ukraine's Committee for Military-Technical Cooperation Policy and Export Controls, told Interfax that Ilyukhin's allegations are "absurd," and aim to "discredit Ukraine in the international arena, put Ukraine at loggerheads with Russia, and remove our state from the international arms market." JM

UKRAINIAN COMMUNIST LEADER WANTS RUSSIAN AS OFFICIAL LANGUAGE
Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko said in Moscow on 10 December that Russian should become an official language in Ukraine, ITAR-TASS reported. Following a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and participants in a congress of Ukrainians in Russia, Symonenko said it is necessary to adopt "a new law on languages" that would give Russian official status in Ukraine along with Ukrainian. Last month, the Ukrainian parliament considered on first reading four bills on languages: three of them proposed Ukrainian as the state language, while one gave this status to both Ukrainian and Russian. Parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch said in Kyiv on 11 December that the language problem has been raised prior to upcoming parliamentary elections by "some political forces that are looking for something to win votes." JM

TALKS CONTINUE OVER FATE OF ESTONIA'S RULING COALITION
The meeting of the coalition council decided on 10 December that the boards of the Pro Patria Union and the Moderates will send a written statement to the Reform Party asking it to explain its conduct in the Tallinn City Council, where it formed a coalition with the Center Party, ETA reported. Pro Patria Union Chairman and Prime Minister Mart Laar said that the three-party coalition should stay together as he cannot envision the possible formation of another coalition in the parliament. Reform Party Chairman Siim Kallas also argued for maintaining the coalition in an article published in "Eesti Paevaleht" the same day. The coalition council meeting devoted considerable time to discussing an increase in the 2002 state budget as proposed by the Moderates, and in urging Reform Party deputies to withdraw their recommendation that planned ID cards should be voluntary and not obligatory. SG

LOW INFLATION IN BALTIC STATES IN NOVEMBER
The Statistics Departments of Estonia and Lithuania announced that the consumer price index (CPI) in their countries remained steady in November, while in Latvia it increased by 0.2 percent compared to October, BNS reported on 10 December. In comparison to November 2001, the CPIs in the three states were 4.2, 1.9, and 3.1 percent, respectively. In Estonia, food prices increased by 0.2 percent in November, but prices of other goods fell by 0.4 percent and those of services rose by 0.1 percent. Lithuanian officials had expected falling gasoline prices to lower the CPI, but costs of clothing and footwear increased much more than expected. In Latvia, higher food expenses raised the prices of goods by 0.3 percent, while those of services increased by 0.1 percent. SG

LITHUANIAN CHRISTIAN DEMOCRAT PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE CALLS FOR ESTABLISHING VICE PRESIDENCY
Christian Democrats (LKD) Chairman Kazys Bobelis told a press conference on 10 December that if elected president he would establish the post of vice president, BNS reported. He said that one of the duties of the vice president would be to meet guests of rank considered too low for a president. The LKD council on 8 December unanimously elected the 78-year-old Bobelis, the oldest parliamentary deputy, to be their candidate for Lithuania's president next fall. In clear opposition to nine other right-wing and centrist political parties, the council also expressed its support for the proposal by the Social Democrats to save money by holding local council elections, which are scheduled for the spring of 2003, at the same time as the presidential elections. The LDK decision seems to be influenced by poll results indicating that Bobelis is the second or third most popular political figure in the country with a far higher approval rating than his party. SG

FRANCE REASSURES POLAND OF SUPPORT FOR EU BID
"I heard the confirmation of the French position, namely that [EU] enlargement can take place in 2004 and that it is envisaged that Poland will be in that group," Polish Premier Leszek Miller told journalists in Paris on 10 December, following his meeting with French counterpart Lionel Jospin. Doubts were raised about France's commitment to enlargement after French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine suggested that Bulgaria and Romania would be isolated if 10 more advanced candidates were admitted without them, AP reported on 10 December. "I heard official confirmation that this is not the official position of France," Miller commented on the suggestion from journalists that France wants Bulgaria and Romania, which are not scheduled to enter the EU until 2007, to be among the first entrants. JM

POLAND'S LEPPER PLEDGES TO GIVE UP HIS PARLIAMENTARY IMMUNITY
Self-Defense leader Andrzej Lepper promised on 10 December that he will forego his parliamentary immunity if a court asks the Sejm to strip him of it for legal proceedings, PAP reported. "It's a question of honor for me," Lepper said. Dozens of courts have opened cases against Lepper for slandering public officials or organizing violent antigovernment protests. He has recently augmented his record of public scandals by calling the foreign minister a "scoundrel" and accusing five top politicians of bribery. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Poland has refused to review Lepper's materials that allegedly cast new light on the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 11 December 2001). JM

CZECH GOVERNMENT OPTS FOR GRIPEN FIGHTERS
The government decided on 10 December to purchase 24 Gripen supersonic fighters for the Czech air force, CTK and international agencies reported. Prime Minister Milos Zeman told journalists after the cabinet meeting that the government plans to finance the purchase through a loan that would need parliamentary approval because, "on this issue, a consensus of political forces is necessary." Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik said the purchase of the aircraft and interest on the loan will cost Czech taxpayers some 65 billion crowns ($1.75 million), but related costs, including spare parts and pilots' training, will amount to another 35 billion crowns over the next 35 years. President Vaclav Havel said he backs the decision. The fighters are to become operational by 2005. But approval by the parliament is uncertain, since both the opposition Civic Democratic Party and the Four Party Coalition said they are against the deal, and the ruling Social Democratic Party does not have a majority in the parliament. Tvrdik said on Czech television that if the parliament does not approve the funds, the cabinet will either have to "reconsider its budget priorities," or ask NATO to protect Czech airspace. MS

PRAGUE COURT RELEASES UZBEK DISSIDENT
Uzbek human rights activist Mohammad Solih was released from detention on 11 December following a court decision in Prague, CTK reported. The court concluded that there is no danger that Solih, whose extradition has been demanded by Uzbekistan for his alleged involvement in terrorist acts, will try to flee the Czech Republic before the authorities make a decision on the extradition request. Solih is to be interrogated by a representative of the Prosecutor-General's Office on 12 December. On 10 December, President Havel said that if need be, he will vouch for Solih's remaining in the Czech Republic, and that he would like to meet with him personally. Solih was detained upon his arrival in Prague on 28 November to visit RFE/RL. MS

AUSTRIAN LEADERS IRRITATED OVER VERHEUGEN'S STATEMENT ON TEMELIN...
Austrian political leaders reacted "with irritation," according to a CTK report on 10 December, to Guenter Verheugen's statement that the energy chapter in negotiations with the Czech Republic can only be reopened "for very serious reasons" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2001). At a joint press conference, the heads of parliamentary groups represented in the Austrian parliament said that the EU commissioner for enlargement "erred" in stating that the chapter can only be reopened with the consent of the other 14 EU members. Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner reiterated at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels the same day that her country "reserves the right" to reopen the chapter. There was no reaction from the other participants. MS

...WHILE ZEMAN SAYS ENERGY CHAPTER WILL NOT BE REOPENED WITHOUT EU CONSENT
Premier Zeman on 10 December reacted to Ferrero-Waldner's statement in Brussels by saying that the energy chapter can only be reopened with the consent of all 15 EU members, CTK reported. The same day, Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and Austrian Environment Minister Wilhelm Molterer approved in Vienna a timetable of steps aimed at the implementation of the Brussels agreement between the two countries' premiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2001). MS

U.S. HELSINKI COMMISSION PRAISES CZECH PRESIDENT FOR VETOING CHURCH BILL
U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Representative Christopher H. Smith praised President Havel on 10 December for having recently vetoed the bill on churches passed by the Chamber of Deputies, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2001). Smith said that the current requirements for the registration of churches in the Czech Republic are already strict, and that the bill would only make the situation worse. MS

DETAINED FORMER CZECH BIS AGENT TO GO ON HUNGER STRIKE
Former Security Information Service (BIS) captain and anti-communist dissident Vladimir Hucin intends to go on a hunger strike until he is found not guilty by a court of justice, CTK reported on 10 December, quoting Right Bloc Party Chairman Petr Cibulka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2001). Cibulka said his extraparliamentary formation backs Hucin, who has been in custody since March. MS

SLOVAK PREMIER ORDERS PROBE INTO BROTHER'S PURCHASE OF FLAT
On 10 December, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda ordered the Supreme Inspection Office to probe its housing policies, CTK reported, citing Slovak television. Dzurinda was reacting to a report in the daily "Sme" that claimed his brother Miroslav purchased from Slovak Railways, where he is a department director, a luxurious flat through the company's "social program." Miroslav Dzurinda refused to comment on the affair. MS

ANTIRACIST CAMPAIGN LAUNCHED IN SLOVAKIA
The People Against Racism organization on 10 December marked the Day of Human Rights by launching a campaign called "Racism Is Also Your Own Problem," CTK reported. In a statement released by the organization, its members said that "tolerance is what Slovakia needs most," and that "at a time when a multicultural society is slowly emerging worldwide, the voices of understanding must become stronger than those of racism, discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice." A similar campaign was organized by the organization last year, and its members said their efforts contributed to the lowering of negative attitudes toward Roma. They said that while in 1999 as many as 86 percent of Slovaks rejected having a Rom as a neighbor, the rate has since dropped to 65 percent. MS

FRENCH PRESIDENT ASSURES HUNGARY OVER EU EXPANSION PLANS
Jacques Chirac told visiting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on 10 December that individual performance of candidate countries will continue to be the main consideration for accession to the EU, and that prepared candidates will not have to wait for less prepared candidates. However, Orban said Chirac did not dissociate himself from a recent proposal by French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine that a group of 12 countries, including Romania and Bulgaria, should be admitted simultaneously for the sake of EU stability. In an interview with the conservative newspaper "Le Figaro," Orban was asked whether he would cooperate or form a coalition with the extremist Hungarian Justice and Life Party. He answered that his vocabulary does not include the word "exclusion." "The will of the voters must be respected," he said, adding that he hopes the election results will not force him to engage in coalition governing, and that his party will win an outright majority. MSZ

HUNGARIAN POLICE TO INVESTIGATE CHARGES AGAINST MEDGYESSY
Police announced that they are launching an investigation into whether Socialist Party prime ministerial candidate Peter Medgyessy was guilty of abuse of influence in persuading Socialist members of Budapest's 5th District Council to vote in favor of the sale of the Gresham Palace, Hungarian media reported on 11 December. Medgyessy, as the head of a consulting firm, attempted in 1998 to persuade the Socialist deputies to vote for the sale of the palace, an old building in downtown Budapest. The Socialists and most other council members approved the sale to a company that builds luxury hotels, and Medgyessy's firm collected the fee. Medgyessy himself allegedly received a $100,000 fee. He has already filed libel suits against the daily "Magyar Nemzet" and the weekly "Magyar Demokrata" for accusing him of wrongdoing in the Gresham case. MSZ

HUNGARIAN COMMUNIST LEADER SEEKS KADAR STATUE
The Hungarian Workers' Party has collected some 200,000 signatures to date in a bid to have a statue of late Communist Party leader Janos Kadar erected in Budapest's downtown square, party Chairman Gyula Thurmer told the state news agency MTI on 9 December. Thurmer called Kadar "the most popular figure of 20th-century Hungarian history," and an "internationally known and famous personality" who deserves a statue. The party's governing board will decide on 15 December what to do with the signatures. MSZ

YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT'S PARTY BOYCOTTS SERBIAN COALITION TALKS
Officials of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) failed to appear at what were to have been reconciliation talks within the governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition in Belgrade on 10 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The session was aimed at ending the current crisis within the DOS, which was prompted by the recent resignation of Dragan Marsicanin (DSS) as speaker of the Serbian parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 10 December 2001). In a letter to his coalition partners on 9 December, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica demanded Marsicanin's reinstatement. The other members of the DOS said in a statement on 10 December that they refuse to accept "ultimatums" regarding the question of the speaker. They called on Kostunica to "remain on the path of reform." The DSS recently sided with the parties of the former regime in a parliamentary vote on new labor legislation. Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said that he is pleased with the statement. PM

KOSTUNICA'S PARTY CALLS FOR NEW SERBIAN ELECTIONS
The private Beta news agency reported on 11 December that the DSS has called for the dissolution of the Serbian parliament and the holding of early elections. DSS parliamentary faction leader Dejan Mihajlov said that his party wants action on its call for elections and an urgent vote on a DSS bill on cooperation with The Hague-based war crimes tribunal. Mihajlov called on the parliament to demand that the government ask Serbian President Milan Milutinovic to announce the elections and dissolve the parliament, as specified in the constitution. Elections would then have to be held within 60 days after the dissolution. Observers note that Kostunica regularly leads public opinion polls ahead of other politicians. He has broad appeal among traditional nationalists and those who fear economic reforms. Djindjic has a more forward-looking approach, but has had difficulty shaking his long-standing image as a wheeler-dealer. PM

KOSOVA PARLIAMENT TO ELECT PRESIDENT SOON
The new legislative body will elect a president on 13 December, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 10 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2001). Ibrahim Rugova, who heads the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), is considered the favorite. At the parliament's opening session, Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) leader Hashim Thaci called UN civilian administrator Hans Haekkerup "the greatest violator of human rights" for not allowing members of Thaci's party to address the assembly. PDK deputies briefly walked out after Thaci found his microphone turned off when he began to speak. He was allowed to speak after returning to the hall, but his microphone went dead again after he criticized Haekkerup, Reuters reported. PM

AUSTRIAN EXPERT TO HEAD EU BALKAN STABILITY PACT
EU foreign ministers agreed in Brussels on 10 December to the appointment of former Austrian Vice Chancellor Erhard Busek to head the Balkan Stability Pact for a one-year, renewable term, the Vienna daily "Die Presse" reported. Busek said he is happy that his "long years" of engagement in the region have received recognition. The daily added that his victory came over opposition from the Scandinavian countries, which sought the post for Denmark's Soren Jessen-Petersen. Busek replaces Germany's Bodo Hombach, who returns to private business. Busek sought the post that Hombach won in 1999 and did not hide his disappointment at losing. Unlike Busek, who has wide experience in the Balkans, Hombach was regarded as a political appointee with no previous contact with the region. The Stability Pact acts as a clearinghouse for development projects. It does not initiate projects of its own or deal with security issues. Critics charge that it is overly bureaucratic and ineffective. PM

SERBS ELECTED TO KOSOVA PARLIAMENT'S PRESIDENCY
On 10 December, the Kosova parliament elected a seven-member presidency that includes two Serbs, Gojko Savic and Oliver Ivanovic, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. They are both from the Serbian Povratak (Return) coalition. The speaker of the parliament, Nexhat Daci (LDK), is from the Bujanovac region of southern Serbia. He is also the president of the Kosova Academy of Sciences and a professor of chemistry at Prishtina University, and did postgraduate work in the U.K. Daci's fellow LDK member in the presidency is Fatmir Sejdiu. The fifth member, Hadzizulfi Merdza, represents the province's smaller ethnic minorities. PDK deputies will be elected to the remaining two seats at a later date. PM

SERBIAN LEADER TO PROTEST LACK OF BELGRADE ROLE IN KOSOVA PARLIAMENT
Serbian parliamentary faction leader Rada Trajkovic said that the 22 deputies from Povratak are willing to work with other deputies, but will not compromise on what she called the "essence of Kosovo: Kosovo within Serbia and Yugoslavia," Deutsche Welle's Serbian Service reported on 11 December. She acknowledged that Povratak's task will be "very difficult." Trajkovic said that Povratak will lodge a formal protest with the international community because Belgrade journalists and Serbian and Yugoslav officials were not invited to the opening of the parliament. She added that Povratak will not take part in the election of the Kosovar president, because the Serbian deputies "do not recognize that institution," "Vesti" reported. Some Serbian leaders said previously that "Rugova is not my president." PM

FORMER SERBIAN LEADER ENTERS NO PLEA IN THE HAGUE
Former President Slobodan Milosevic declined to enter a plea on charges of genocide in the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict at The Hague-based war crimes tribunal on 11 December, Reuters reported. Presiding judge Richard May entered a "not guilty" plea on the former Serbian leader's behalf. Milosevic is accused of 29 counts of genocide, complicity in genocide, crimes against humanity, and other war crimes. He similarly refused to enter a plea in response to previous charges of war crimes in Kosova and Croatia. Milosevic says he refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the tribunal. PM

BOSNIAN GOVERNMENT OFFERS THE HAGUE GUARANTEES FOR MUSLIM GENERAL
Alija Behmen, the prime minister of the Muslim-Croat federation, signed a letter to The Hague-based war crimes tribunal in Sarajevo on 10 December. He pledged to guarantee that former general and cabinet minister Sefer Halilovic will return for his trial if allowed to return to Bosnia now, AP reported. Halilovic voluntarily went to The Hague in September after being indicted for crimes committed by his forces against Croats during the 1993-1994 Muslim-Croat conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 25 September 2001). The tribunal has asked Sarajevo for more information regarding its offer of guarantees for former Generals Mehmed Alagic and Enver Hadzihasanovic, as well as Colonel Asim Kubura. The court previously allowed Biljana Plavsic to go to Belgrade and General Pavle Strugar to go to Podgorica pending their respective trials. Both turned themselves in voluntarily. The tribunal denied a similar request by Momcilo Krajisnik, who was forcibly captured by NATO peacekeepers and sent to The Hague. PM

CROATIAN-SLOVENIAN BORDER TREATY STALLED
On 10 December, the Croatian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee returned to the government the agreement reached in the summer between Croatian and Slovenian officials aimed at resolving the 10-year-old border dispute, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3 August and 11 December 2001). Committee officials said that the bill could not pass a legislative vote at this time. PM

HAGUE TRIBUNAL REVEALS INDICTMENTS AGAINST TWO BOSNIAN SERBS
In The Hague on 10 December, officials of the tribunal made public a previously sealed indictment of Mitar Rasevic and Savo Todovic with 18 counts each of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the first two years of the Bosnian war, AP reported. Both were indicted in June 1997 together with Milorad Krnojelac, who was subsequently arrested and sent to The Hague. The three men held leading positions in the Foca Kazneno-Popravni Dom concentration camp and are accused of torturing and killing Muslims and Croats. Krnojelac is awaiting the verdict in his case. PM

HERZEGOVINIAN SLEIGHT-OF-HAND
The Herzegovinian branch of the late Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) will be represented officially by Josip Merdzo in place of its president, Ante Jelavic, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported from Mostar on 10 December. Wolfgang Petritsch in effect banned Jelavic from public or political office in the spring because of Jelavic's attempt to create a Croatian parastate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 9 March 2001). The HDZ balked at the ruling. The use of Merdzo as the HDZ's official representative is aimed at denying Petritsch an excuse for prohibiting the HDZ from registering for the fall 2002 elections. PM

FORMER ROMANIAN PRESIDENT PLANNING POLITICAL COMEBACK?
In an interview with Romanian radio on 10 December, former President Emil Constantinescu said that he has refrained for one year from making public political declarations in order "to give the current rulers time to fulfill their promises," but has not been politically inactive during that period. Constantinescu said he has met with former and current foreign leaders, and has closely followed internal political developments. Constantinescu also said that, although the political forces that backed him in the past are now weak, "I still think I represent something important in Romanian society," and that his decision not to run for a second term was prompted by the need to provide "a moral reference point for the Romanians." He said he does not intend to set up a political party, but commented that "I am an active Romanian citizen, who will always be interested in what happens in his country." Constantinescu harshly criticized the current Romanian leadership, saying its domestic antiterrorism campaign opens the way to the infringement of human and civic rights, and that the ruling Social Democratic Party wants to fight against corruption while it is represented in the parliament by people who were involved in corruption themselves. MS

TRANSYLVANIAN INTELLECTUALS PROPOSE ROMANIA'S 'REGIONALIZATION'
Eleven Romanian and ethnic Hungarian intellectuals from Transylvania sent a memorandum to the parliament and to political parties on 10 December, proposing Romania's transformation into what was termed as "a regional state," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Copies of the memorandum were also sent to the European Parliament. The signatories emphasized that the proposal has "nothing in common with secession or any kind or irredentism." They said Romania's future development must be based on a new local administration structure that takes into consideration the specific features of the countries' different historic regions or their different levels of economic development. They also said the "regional model" could contribute to the debate on the future of the EU as a "federate system" in which different "constitutional regions" such as Scotland, Catalonia, or Bavaria, can play an important role, and would also enhance Romania's "regaining of its European identity." Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor called the proposal "an aberration and a further escalation of the policies promoted by the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania." MS

ROMANIAN OPPOSITION SUBMITS MOTION ON HARGHITA, COVASNA SITUATION
On 10 December, 55 senators representing the PRM, the National Liberal Party, and the Democratic Party submit a motion in the Senate for a debate on the situation in Harghita and Covasna counties as reflected in the latest report of the Romanian Intelligence Service, and Premier Nastase's refusal to report to the parliament on the allegations included in that document, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Ioan Rus and his Hungarian counterpart Sandor Pinter signed an agreement in Bucharest on 10 December on the readmission of illegal immigrants. MS

ROMANIA, BALTIC STATES AT OPPOSITE ENDS OF EU SUPPORT SPECTRUM
Popular support for EU enlargement is largest in Romania and weakest in Estonia and Latvia, AFP reported on 10 December, citing a recent Gallup Poll commissioned by the EU. Eighty percent of Romanians and 74 percent of Bulgarians are of the opinion that membership of their country in the EU would be "generally, a good thing," while only one in three Latvians and Estonians, and 41 percent of Lithuanians, share that opinion. Among leading candidates for EU membership, support runs from a low of 39 percent in Malta, to 46 percent in the Czech Republic, 51 percent in Poland, and 60 percent in Hungary. MS

UNICEF REPORT SAYS ROMANIA'S POPULATION DROPPING SHARPLY
A report compiled by UNICEF and the Romanian National Statistics Institute said Romania's population in 2020 will be under 20 million -- a drop of some 2.9 million from the current figures, Mediafax reported on 8 December. MS

ZENOVICH CHALLENGES LEGALITY OF SMIRNOV'S ELECTORAL VICTORY
Tom Zenovich, who finished a distant second in the "presidential" elections held on the Transdniester on 9 December, told journalists the next day that he has "more than enough" evidence to challenge the outcome of the ballot in court, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Zenovich said polling stations were "stuffed with Smirnov's people, who worked for him in every possible way." He said voting ballots were handed to people without asking for their ID cards, and that the lists included persons who left the Transdniester many years ago. He also said two of the polling stations had the same number. Final results released on 10 December gave Smirnov 85 percent of the vote, Zenovich 7.2 percent, and Aleksandr Radchenko 4.8 percent. MS

SMIRNOV READY TO RESUME TALKS WITH MOLDOVA
"If I am elected for another term, I shall hold talks with the Moldovan president, be that [Vladimir] Voronin or any other person," ITAR-TASS quoted separatist leader Igor Smirnov as saying on the eve of the ballot on 8 December. Ignoring Voronin's statement of 6 December that he will no longer meet with Smirnov, the separatist leader said that in future negotiations he will continue to insist on "the creation of a common state, consisting of two equal independent entities -- Moldova and Transdniester." MS

FORMER MOLDOVAN PREMIER OPPOSED TO EARLY LOCAL ELECTIONS
Former Premier Dumitru Braghis said on 7 December that the main purpose of the administration headed by Voronin in proposing to reintroduce the Soviet-era local administration system is to allow for early local elections, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. "The communists want to ensure comfortable armchairs for their comrades in the territory," Braghis said. Braghis admitted, however, that some members of his own Braghis Alliance favor a recentralization of the local administration. MS

BULGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CONFIRMS U.S. AID IN SCRAPPING SS-23S
Upon his return from Brussels, where he participated in a meeting of NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Solomon Pasi confirmed on 8 December that Bulgaria will receive "substantial financial assistance" from the United States to scrap its Soviet-made SS-23 missiles, BTA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2001). MS

ROMANIAN EMBASSY IN SOFIA LAUNCHES VOLUME ON VLACH MINORITY
A book on the Vlach minority in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and other countries in the region, was presented on 10 December at the Romanian Embassy in Sofia, Romanian Radio reported. The publishing of the book on the Vlachs, who speak a Romance language close to Romanian, was sponsored by the National Foundation for Romanians From Everywhere. MS

BACK TO THE FUTURE IN SLOVAKIA?


A rather unusual meeting is scheduled to take place on 12 December in Bratislava, Slovakia. It's not, however, the subject matter of this event that's out of the ordinary. In fact, this seminar -- titled "NATO: Stability, Security, and Cooperation" -- is one of many such meetings taking place on a regular basis in NATO candidate countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe. What is out of the ordinary about this particular event is the organizer and driving force behind it: former Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar.

Meciar's organization of this meeting to promote Slovakia's NATO accession is the latest chapter in his ongoing effort to reinvent himself as a pro-integration, pro-democracy force on the Slovak political landscape.

As regards NATO, Meciar's attempted political reinvention is not without some irony. The former prime minister is widely regarded as the main reason why Slovakia was excluded from the list of first-round candidates to join the alliance. The political chicanery that was standard fare under Meciar's watch -- including the kidnapping of former President Michal Kovac's son, allegedly at the hands of Meciar's security service, and his manipulation of a referendum that would have allowed Slovaks to express their preference on joining NATO -- severely harmed Slovakia's reputation in the eyes of the West.

This was unfortunate because at the outset of the NATO enlargement process, Slovakia was considered to be among the first group of candidates that would be invited to join NATO, along with the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. Earlier this year, these three countries celebrated their second anniversary as full members of the Atlantic alliance; Slovaks are hoping that their country's progress since Meciar's departure from the political scene three years ago will enable them to receive an invitation to join the alliance in the next round.

If such an invitation is to be extended, it will happen next November at the Prague NATO summit, only a short time after important parliamentary elections in Slovakia. At present, Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party is enjoying a comfortable lead in public opinion polls. The HZDS also performed quite well in recent elections held on 1 December for newly established regional parliaments and regional executives, although low turnout (26 percent countrywide) should temper drawing any broader conclusions on the vote.

The fact that next year's elections are scheduled to take place just weeks before the NATO summit has prompted top Western officials to view that vote as a key test of Slovakia's readiness to join Western "clubs." Last month, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson warned Slovaks to vote with care if they want to join NATO. Robertson said "people in Slovakia need to go into the elections in autumn of next year with their eyes wide open, knowing that they make a decision only a month before the Prague summit."

The EU has also weighed in on this subject. Speaking on 14 November, EU Ambassador to Slovakia Walter Rochel said that the EU will "fully respect the Slovak voters' decision" in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2002. But he added that "it will finally be the EU who decides with whom it wants to sign the accession treaty."

Whether these admonitions from external sources will have the desired effect upon Slovak voters remains to be seen. Such warnings from the West run the risk of sparking resentment among the Slovak electorate. Meciar has seized on this possibility, saying on 5 December that the results of next year's elections should not be linked with Slovakia's bid to join NATO.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda generally has been the recipient of considerable praise from Western leaders. But such plaudits go only so far in domestic political terms in Slovakia. Opinion polls indicate that Dzurinda is the least popular politician in his homeland. Meciar and populist-nationalist Robert Fico, who leads the Smer party, are the country's two most popular political figures.

Saddled with the formidable task of cleaning up in the aftermath of the Meciar era, Dzurinda and his allies have been unable to meet expectations of a marked improvement in Slovakia's economic and social condition and are now on the political defensive as a result.

Meciar, for his part, is working to guard himself against being depicted as politically responsible for Slovakia's ills. He said on 5 November that "the illusion that I am to blame for everything is gone. I have been out of the government for three years and Slovakia has more problems than it had before."

In those three years since Slovaks jettisoned Meciar from power, the ruling coalition has managed to recast Slovakia's image to the point where Slovakia is repositioned on the first track to EU enlargement and poised to be included in the next NATO enlargement round.

The defeat of Meciar's HZDS three years ago was viewed as a defining moment in Slovakia's post-1989 development for the precise reason that it enabled the country to shed the unfavorable image acquired over the better part of the 1990s. Meciar's political resurgence and continued strength in the polls could well force Slovak voters to confront the same question in the next elections as they faced last time around: Whether the possible return of Meciar to a position of greater influence will really enable Slovakia to complete its return to Europe.

Christopher Walker is head of policy and communication in the President's Office at the EastWest Institute. The views expressed are his own.

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