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Newsline - January 17, 2002


PASKO DENIES RUSSIAN PRESIDENT'S OFFER TO CONSIDER PARDON
Military journalist Grigorii Pasko's lawyer, Anatolii Pushkin, announced on 16 January that his client has declined an offer by President Vladimir Putin to review his sentence for espionage for possible pardoning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2001, and 7 January 2002), RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. In reference to the offer Putin made in front of journalists in Warsaw the same day, Pushkin said Pasko "welcomes Putin's proposal," but will not seek a pardon as he does not consider himself guilty and is demanding complete exoneration. VY

RUSSIAN PREMIER FOLLOWS PRESIDENT'S LEAD WITH RHETORICAL SUPPORT FOR TV-6'S WORKERS, NOT OWNER
Mikhail Kasyanov declared at a government briefing on 16 January that he supports the workers' collective of TV-6 and is sure that it will win the tender for the station's broadcasting rights, Russian media reported. Kasyanov's comments followed those made by President Putin at a press conference in Paris the same day, where he argued that "TV-6 for several years operated with a loss, which sparked the legitimate frustration of one of its shareholders," an allusion to LUKoil-Garant. "Vremya MN" noted on 16 January that Video International had completed a prognosis for TV-6 for 2002 that concluded TV-6 would become completely self-financing. Video International is a company that was formally headed by Media Minister Mikhail Lesin. And it was Lesin who encouraged TV-6's workers to form a new legal entity -- without embattled oligarch Boris Berezovsky -- in order to bid for the station's broadcasting rights (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 January 2002). JAC

NEW FEDERATION COUNCIL GATHERS FOR FIRST MEETING
As the Federation Council met for the first time on 16 January composed only of members selected under new rules, 15 new members were confirmed, including a former cabinet minister, Aleksandr Dondukov. Dondukov, a former minister for industry and science, will represent Belgorod Oblast Governor Yevgenii Savchenko. Another new senator is Yurii Ponomarev, the general director of the cellulose plant Pitkyarant, who will represent Karelia's legislature. According to polit.ru, only 16 spots remain vacant. Among its first actions, senators voted to adopt a bill tightening restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the Far North. They also approved bills recently passed by the Duma including the law on martial law, an amendment to the law on leasing, and the law on the all-Russia census. JAC

PRO-KREMLIN DEPUTIES SIGN UP ANOTHER SPONSOR
The pro-Kremlin People's Deputy group in the State Duma has concluded a "cooperation agreement" with the Metalloinvest firm, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 16 January. The daily asserted that this is the "first time in Russia" when a commercial organization officially registered its relationship with legislators. The daily noted that while it is "no secret" that commercial structures use deputies to achieve various aims, this relationship is generally "absolutely informal." For example, another deputies' group, Russian Regions, works closely with LUKoil, according to the daily. Metalloinvest President Dmitrii Gindin said that the cooperation between the company and the deputies will consist of meetings to discuss legislation, particularly laws on natural monopolies and tariff policies. According to Gindin, although the agreement does not state it directly, the company is ready to give the group financial assistance -- but only insofar as it can be done "legally under the law on elections." JAC

SKURATOV EYES PRESIDENCY
Former Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov is reportedly planning to run for the presidency of the Republic of Buryatia, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 January. Incumbent President Leonid Potapov has not yet announced whether he will seek a third term in the ballot scheduled for this summer, but local analysts expect him to run. According to the daily, the local Communist Party has decided to withdraw its support from Potapov and instead try to get Skuratov elected. Communist Party officials are allegedly still smarting from Potapov's support of Putin during the 2000 presidential election campaign. Skuratov was born in Buryatia and was recently elected to represent its legislature in the Federation Council. However, the election was later declared invalid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 November 2001). JAC

FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE HEAD UNCONCERNED ABOUT U.S. PRESENCE IN CENTRAL ASIA
The Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Mikhail Margelov, said on 14 January that Russian and international media reports that the U.S. is planning to set up permanent military bases in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and the other Central Asian states are not of great concern to him, ITAR-TASS reported. "Russia realizes that the U.S. has a very high interest in this region, not only within the framework of the antiterrorist operation," he said. "However, Russia is sure it will preserve its influence in the region even with an American presence there." Margelov reasoned that "the United States is well aware that efforts to counter Russia's historical and geographical impact on the region are doomed to failure," and they will not take that risk in the name of "phantom geopolitical projects." VY

RUSSIAN CHIEF OF GENERAL STAFF ENDS VISIT TO TURKEY
General Anatolii Kvashnin left Turkey for Moscow on 16 January after a three-day visit during which he discussed with his Turkish counterpart General Huseyin Kivrikoglu issues relating to bilateral military and military-technical cooperation, Russia-NATO relations, international terrorism, U.S. missile defense plans, and European security, Interfax reported. Kvashnin's visit was the first by such a highly placed Russian official since the demise of the USSR. He also met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem. Also on 16 January, Interfax reported that Russia plans to open a consulate in the Turkish city of Antalya later this year. LF

RUSSIA CRITICIZES NEW U.S. ENTRANCE VISA REQUIREMENTS AS TOO SEVERE
Beginning on February 1, the United States will implement new entrance visa requirements for Russian citizens that include a questionnaire which "Rossiiskaya gazeta" described on 15 January as "much more severe than those that existed in the Soviet era." Although the measures were drafted as antiterrorist precautions and initially were applied only against 26 Muslim countries, the extension of the strict measures to Russian citizens basically leaves them without a "legal way to enter the United States," NTV opined the same day. VY

PUTIN TELLS GOVERNMENT TO SOLVE HOMELESS CHILDREN PROBLEM
During his meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko on 15 January, President Putin said he is not satisfied with her report on the government's program for supporting homeless children, "Izvestiya" reported the next day. Putin said that while the government reported that the number of homeless children stands at some 1 million, the Prosecutor-General's Office has estimated that number at 2 million. In any event, the president said the government is not addressing the issue properly and should take immediate measures to remedy the situation efficiently. VY

PRIME MINISTER OUTLINES RUSSIA'S ECONOMIC PRIORITIES
Premier Kasyanov announced that in 2002 the top economic priorities for his government will be maintaining macroeconomic stability, the regulation and indexation of tariffs for Russia's natural monopolies, and the reorganization of the banking sector (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2002), RBK reported on 16 January. In keeping with these goals, he said he has decided to cancel the planned increase of railway fares that were initially planned by former Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, who was sacked this month for corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2002), because such a move must be preceded by a general reform of the sector. Kasyanov also said that the government has adopted a general strategy for the restructuring of the banking sector that envisages the preservation of the independence of the Russian Central Bank, the introduction in 2004 of international standards of accounting and bookkeeping, and in 2005 a minimum founding capital requirement for banks of 5 million euros. VY

DUMA CALLS FOR LIFE SENTENCES FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS
Vladimir Lysenko (Russian Regions) announced on 16 January that the Duma has sent a proposal to President Putin to allow sentences of life imprisonment for drug dealers and traffickers, and those found guilty of operating drug dens, "Vremya novostei" reported on 16 January. Lysenko went on to say that while the rapidly growing number of drug addicts in Russia has already resulted in social tension and threats to national security, only 40 percent of those accused of peddling illegal drugs were sentenced to prison in 2000. VY

RUSSIAN ARMY WANTS MORE STUDENTS
Lieutenant General Vasilii Smirnov, the deputy chief of the General Staff's Main Mobilization-Organizational Administration, said his agency has asked the government to reduce the number of higher education institutions granting students deferments from the military draft, RIA-Novosti reported on 16 January. Smirnov said that, according to the Defense Ministry, Russia's current demographic decline will hit the draft-age population (18 to 27 years of age) by 2005-2007. He said that without the implementation of the proposed measures, the population decline will allow the military to draft only some 45-50 percent of the young men it requires. VY

YASTRZHEMBSKII SAYS FURTHER TALKS WITH CHECHEN PRESIDENT 'POSSIBLE'...
Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said in an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 16 January that it would be "shortsighted" to rule out any further talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov on ending the war. But at the same time he said such talks are contingent on Maskhadov's acceptance of President Putin's insistence that the talks focus exclusively on the conditions under which Maskhadov's men lay down their arms. Yastrzhembskii also ruled out any talks with field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab, Interfax reported. LF

...WHILE ASLAKHANOV SAYS POPULATION WOULD ACCEPT A SETTLEMENT SIGNED BY MASKHADOV
Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, told journalists in Moscow on 16 January that support within Chechnya for an end to the fighting is increasing, Russian agencies reported. He said that talks could be held with Maskhadov provided the latter unequivocally condemns Basaev and his lieutenant, Movladi Udugov, but at the same time acknowledged that Maskhadov has no influence over either Basaev or small groups of fighters whose sole occupation, according to Aslakhanov, is to terrorize both the civilian population and the Russian military. Aslakhanov nonetheless predicted that the Chechen population would support any peace agreement Maskhadov signed because it would mean an end to the ongoing "sweeps" by Russian forces searching for Chechen fighters, in which civilians are frequently targeted. Dozens of Chechen civilians have been killed in such sweeps in the village of Tsotan-Yurt and the town of Argun since the beginning of this year. LF

INTERIOR MINISTRY TO MODIFY ACTIONS IN CHECHNYA
Russian Interior Ministry troops will not conduct further large-scale random sweeps of Chechen villages in the hunt for militants, First Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilev told journalists in Moscow on 16 January. Instead, they will mount small-scale "special operations" aimed at apprehending specific individuals. Local administrators, military prosecutors, and clergymen will accompany the troops engaged in such actions, Vasilev added. LF

ARMENIA HAILS TURKISH CONCESSION ON VISAS
The Turkish government's decision to soften its visa requirement for Armenian citizens visiting Turkey "will have a positive impact on contacts between the two peoples and improve the overall atmosphere," an Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 16 January. She said that Ankara has not yet officially notified Yerevan of the decision, which went into effect on 10 January, whereby Armenians may apply for a Turkish visa at their point of entry to that country rather than obtaining one beforehand. That procedure was in effect prior to the imposition of the visa requirement in October 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 October 2000). In Washington, where Turkish Premier Bulent Ecevit arrived on 16 January on an official visit, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker similarly welcomed the Turkish move, adding that the U.S. hopes it will contribute to an improvement in Armenian-Turkish relations, Reuters reported. LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT NAMES NEW CIVIL SERVICE COMMISSION
Robert Kocharian on 16 January appointed six of the seven members of the new civil service council, naming as its chairman Manvel Badalian, a member of the pro-government Miasnutiun majority parliament faction, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. "Haykakan zhamanak" on 17 January termed the choice of the hitherto little known Badalian "sensational," commenting that most observers expected the president to choose one of his trusted associates. The controversial council is intended to safeguard the independence and integrity of the civil service, but during the debates on the legislation providing for its creation deputies repeatedly questioned whether it will be truly impartial given that all its members are to be appointed by the president (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 25, 9 July 2001, and "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 July 2001). LF

ARMENIAN LEFT-WING ALLIANCE FORMALIZED
Six small left-wing extraparliamentary parties announced on 16 January their formal alignment in the Socialist Armenia Union, according to Noyan Tapan and Armenpress, as cited by Groong. They include the Democratic Party of Armenia (HDK), the "Homeland and Honor" Union, the Communist Party of Armenia, the Hnchak Social-Democratic Party, and the Union of Socialist Forces and Intellectuals. HDK Chairman Aram Sargsian told a press conference on 16 January that the union has an overall program to promote democratic socialism by implementing systemic reforms that will ensure social justice and enhance the role of the state. Sargsian said the union would prefer that Armenia become a parliamentary republic, but that if the presidential system is preserved it will nominate a candidate for the next presidential ballot. Sargsian ran unsuccessfully in the March 1998 presidential election. LF

IMPRISONED AZERBAIJANI REJECTS REVIEW OF HIS SENTENCE
Alikram Gumbatov, whom the Council of Europe considers a political prisoner whose sentence should be reviewed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2002), has written to Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov informing him that he is prepared to serve his life sentence, Turan reported on 16 January. Gumbatov said he "does not want the image and state interests of Azerbaijan to suffer" as a result of the pressure exerted on Baku by the Council of Europe. Gumbatov declared an independent republic in southeastern Azerbaijan in the summer of 1993. He was arrested later that year, escaped from pretrial detention in October 1994, and was recaptured in 1995. He was sentenced to death in February 1996 on charges of treason and attempting to mount a coup d'etat, but that sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. LF

GEORGIA LAUNCHES CRACKDOWN IN PANKISI GORGE
Georgian police under the personal supervision of Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili on 15 January implemented the first phase of an operation intended to establish the rule of law in the Pankisi Gorge northeast of Tbilisi, which is reputed to be a haven for drug smugglers and Chechen fighters, Caucasus Press reported. In the first stage of the operation, three police checkpoints set up at the entrance to the gorge have been moved further into the gorge to the outskirts of the village of Duisi. Shevardnadze said on 16 January that move had taken place without incident. But Khizri Aldamov, the self-appointed representative of the Chechen displaced persons in Georgia, warned the same day that moving the checkpoints to Duisi could trigger new tensions and possibly even bloodshed, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN OFFICIAL CALLS FOR NEW NONAGGRESSION AGREEMENT WITH ABKHAZIA
Emzar Kvitsiani, who is Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's representative in the Kodori Gorge, which straddles the territory of Abkhazia and Georgia proper, told journalists in Tbilisi on 16 January that he believes a new agreement should be signed with Abkhazia on the nonresumption of hostilities to supersede the agreement of 14 May 1994, Caucasus Press reported. Kvitsiani argued that the 1994 agreement is being constantly violated. It is not clear whether he mentioned the subsequent accords on the nonresumption of hostilities signed in May 1998, July 2000, and March 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 May 1998, 11 July 2000, and 19 March 2001). The Abkhaz leadership accused Kvitsiani of participating in the fighting last October in the Kodori Gorge on the side of a band allegedly composed of Chechen militants and Georgian guerrillas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 October 2001). LF

NEW ABKHAZ PEACE PLAN TO BE FINALLY READY?
The UN drafted document outlining the proposed future division of constitutional competencies within a unitary Georgian state between the central Georgian government and that of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia will be presented to the conflict sides by the end of this month, Georgian Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze told Caucasus Press on 16 January. Kakabadze said work on the document, which began in late 1999, is at the final stage. On 14 January, President Shevardnadze outlined the document's main points to journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2002). Also on 16 January, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili told Caucasus Press that he has been informed by the states belonging to the "Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia" group that the UN is not prepared to provide a peacekeeping force to replace the present Russian contingent serving in the Abkhaz conflict zone under the aegis of the CIS. The Georgian parliament has demanded the Russians' withdrawal. LF

GEORGIAN POLICE CONFISCATE COUNTERFEIT CURRENCY
Police in Tbilisi intercepted on 16 January a consignment of counterfeit 20 lari banknotes worth a total of 17,000 laris ($7,800), Caucasus Press reported. Police said the notes were printed in Tbilisi by a criminal gang. LF

SECURITY OFFICIAL CONFIRMS PLANS TO ASSASSINATE KAZAKH PRESIDENT THWARTED...
Addressing a session of the Mazhilis -- the lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament -- on 16 January, National Security Committee Chairman Major General Nurtay Dutbaev confirmed that last fall Kazakhstan's intelligence service, working in conjunction with its counterparts in other unnamed countries, prevented two planned attempts to assassinate Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev within a three-month period, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and strana.ru reported. Dutbaev said the potential killers have been taken into custody, but did not identify them. Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev claimed last November that international terrorists had planned on two occasions to kill Nazarbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2001), and implied that the founders of the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) were involved in those plans. At a 16 January press conference in Shymkent, South Kazakhstan Oblast, leading members of the DVK announced that they plan to bring a libel suit against Toqaev in connection with those allegations, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. LF

...AND PARLIAMENT APPROVES DEATH PENALTY FOR FUTURE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS
Also on 16 January, the Mazhilis voted in favor of amendments to the antiterrorism legislation to make any attempt on the life of the president punishable by the death penalty, strana.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2002). LF

NEW KAZAKH OPPOSITION ALLIANCE UNVEILS PROGRAM
At a press conference in Almaty on 14 January, representatives of the National Congress, Azamat, and the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan outlined the program of the United Democratic Party to which they aligned last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 January 2002), Interfax and globe.kz reported. As the first step toward abolishing the presidency and establishing a parliamentary republic, they advocate abolishing the present two-chamber parliament and replacing it with a unicameral body with 150 deputies; reforming the country's administrative-territorial structure to reduce the present 14 oblasts to five-seven; and electing local government bodies. They also want a ban on members of the president's family holding government positions and the equitable division among the population of the proceeds of exporting the country's oil wealth. The party plans to hold consultations with the DVK and other political parties on the possibility of adopting a joint action program. LF

KYRGYZ AUTHORITIES TARGET SECOND PARLIAMENT DEPUTY
Members of the Kyrgyzstan and Communist factions in the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of Kyrgyzstan's parliament) wrote on 16 January to speaker Abdygany Erkebaev protesting that National Security Service officials tried but failed the previous day to detain parliament deputy Bektur Asanov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. A search is also reportedly underway for materials that could be used to compromise Asanov's relatives. On 14 January Asanov joined the hunger strike in Bishkek to demand the release of arrested parliament deputy Azimbek Beknazarov. The number of hunger strikers has now reached 50. The organizers of an ongoing picket in Bishkek whose participants are similarly demanding Beknazarov's release said on 16 January that over 5,000 people have signed a petition backing that demand. LF

RUSSIAN BORDER GUARDS CHIEF VISITS TAJIKISTAN
Federal Border Guard Service Director Colonel General Konstantin Totskii discussed with President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on 16 January the results of last year's cooperation between Russian and Tajik contingents guarding Tajikistan's borders, and plans for cooperation in 2002, including Russian help in the training of Tajik border guard officers, Asia Plus-Blitz and Russian agencies reported. Totskii signed an agreement the same day with his newly appointed Tajik counterpart, Major General Abdurrakhmon Azimov, under which the Russian side will offload on to the Tajiks the responsibility for manning eight border posts that until now have been controlled by Russian border troops. Rakhmonov dismissed Azimov's predecessor, Lieutenant General Sayidanvar Kamolov, on 12 January in connection with his transfer to another, unspecified post, Interfax reported. LF

JAPAN URGES UZBEKISTAN TO SPEED UP ECONOMIC REFORM
Visiting Tashkent on 15 January, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whom he handed a letter from the present Japanese government urging Tashkent to proceed with economic reforms and offering to support such an initiative, Interfax reported. Seventeen Japanese companies are currently represented in Uzbekistan. LF

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT STIFFENS CONTROL OVER ECONOMY
Alyaksandr Lukashenka has issued an edict that introduces new fines for companies and empowers the State Control Committee, police, Finance Ministry, tax, and local authorities to impose fines on economic entities for violating various business regulations, Belapan reported on 16 January. In particular, companies may be fined for failing to fulfill contracts with the government, while managers will have to pay fines for failing to ensure timely receipt of money under export contracts or for overstepping the law-fixed terms for obligatory sale of foreign currency proceeds to the state. The edict gives the State Control Committee the right to impound property and freeze funds of companies found guilty of violating business regulations. JM

WORLD BANK CONSIDERS BELARUS'S ECONOMY LEAST REFORMED BUT 'MOST DURABLE' IN CIS
The World Bank's report "Transition: The First Ten Years," which was presented in Minsk on 16 January, said Belarus's economy is the least reformed but simultaneously appears to be "most durable" in the CIS, Belapan reported. "While continued state ownership did little to promote more efficient operational or strategic decision-making at the enterprise level, it did deter the large-scale asset stripping, tunneling, and tax evasion that has damaged growth in the early stages of transition in some other CIS countries," according to the report. It noted, however, that the Belarusian government shielded the economy from the decline experienced by other CIS countries primarily owing to Russia, which subsidized Belarus directly by offering cheap energy resources and indirectly by accepting barter in mutual trade. According to the World Bank, if Belarus embarked on the path of economic reform now, its initial conditions would be far more favorable than those of the other CIS countries in the early 1990s. JM

PROBES INTO DISAPPEARANCES OF BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION FIGURES NOT A PRIORITY FOR PRESIDENT
Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau briefed journalists on 16 January on the successes in combating crime and investigations that are under President Lukashenka's personal control. A correspondent of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported that the disappearances of opposition politicians Yury Zakharanka and Viktar Hanchar are not on Lukashenka's list of priority investigations. JM

OUR UKRAINE APPROVES ELECTION LIST
A congress of former Premier Viktor Yushchenko's election bloc Our Ukraine on 16 January approved its election list, Ukrainian media reported. The first five on the list are: Yushchenko; lawmaker Oleksandr Stoyan, the head of the Trade Union Federation of Ukraine; lawmaker Hennadiy Udovenko, the leader of the Popular Rukh of Ukraine; lawmaker Yuriy Kostenko, the leader of the Ukrainian Popular Rukh; and lawmaker Viktor Pynzenyk, the leader of the Reforms and Order Party. Yushchenko told the congress that Our Ukraine pledges "to free the country from everything that hampers its development." He added that Our Ukraine is seeking to change the "ruthless, bureaucratic, and corrupt" executive power system in the country. Asked by journalists about possible allies in the future parliament, Yushchenko named the Unity bloc led by Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko and the pro-presidential For a United Ukraine led by Volodymyr Lytvyn. JM

UKRAINE, BRAZIL SIGN SPACE, ECONOMIC ACCORDS
On 16 January in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his Brazilian counterpart Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed a joint declaration on expanding friendship and cooperation between the two countries, UNIAN reported. The two sides also signed eight bilateral accords, including on cooperation in space industry, oil and gas prospecting and extraction, power engineering, and banking. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES CD PIRACY BILL ON FIRST READING...
The Verkhovna Rada on 17 January voted by 238 to five, with four abstentions, to pass on first reading a bill on combating CD piracy, AP reported. The U.S. government has introduced trade sanctions (to take effect on 23 January) to pressure Ukraine to draft such legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2001). The bill allows for prosecutors to enter alleged CD production premises with a warrant that is based on specific allegations. A rejected government version of the bill, which reflected the U.S. demands, would have allowed prosecutors to enter CD production facilities any time and examine documents and equipment, with or without a warrant. JM

...DEMANDS PROBE IN CAR ACCIDENT OF PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION CHIEF
The Verkhovna Rada on 16 January submitted an inquiry to the police and the Prosecutor-General's Office about the accident involving an automobile carrying the head of the presidential administration, Volodymyr Lytvyn, STB Television reported. Lawmakers doubt the official version of the accident, which claims that a car belonging to a pensioner who died in the accident swerved into the wrong lane, causing the crash. JM

UKRAINIAN AIRPORT EVACUATED AFTER BOMB THREAT
Authorities on 16 January evacuated all staff members and passengers from the Odesa international airport after an explosion rocked a cafe near the airport and police received information that there was another bomb in the airport, ICTV Television reported. In addition, a Vienna-bound flight from Odesa was rerouted to Graz after a bomb threat was phoned in while the plane was in the air, AP reported. Austrian Airlines announced that security officials examined the aircraft and luggage but found no explosives. JM

ESTONIAN COALITION AGREEMENT ALMOST READY
Reform Party Deputy Chairman Heiki Kranich said on 16 January that the coalition agreement with the Center Party is almost completed and may even be signed the next day, BNS reported. The two parties have agreed that they will raise pensions by 200 kroons ($11.26) instead of 138 kroons, in part by using funds that will be saved by terminating the image project "Put Estonia on the Map," for which 40 million kroons had been planned. They have also agreed to accelerate the merger of the Economy Ministry with the Roads and Communications Ministry, keep the Education Ministry in Tartu, and initiate constitutional amendments for direct presidential elections. SG

LATVIA TO FORM A STATE LANGUAGE COMMISSION
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Prime Minister Andris Berzins issued a joint directive on 16 January forming a state language commission to oversee Latvian-language protection and to open a debate on problems faced by minority languages, BNS reported. They appointed poetess Mara Zalite as the commission's head. Vike-Freiberga told a press conference that she will select the commission members by late January together with Zalite. By late February, Zalite should formulate with the assistance of the State Chancellery the commission's statutes and funding requirements for the next three years. Berzins suggested that international experts be invited to join the commission so the body will work not only on state language problems in Latvia, but also initiate a debate on minority-language issues on a global scale. SG

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT RATIFIES PRISONER EXCHANGE TREATY WITH RUSSIA
The parliament on 15 January ratified the prisoner exchange agreement with Russia signed last June, ELTA reported the next day. There are now about 100 Lithuanians imprisoned in Russia and about 40 Russians in Lithuanian prisons. The agreement provides for the opportunity to hand over prisoners who have less than six months remaining in their prison terms to their home countries if both countries and the prisoner give their consent. The agreement must still be ratified by the Russian State Duma, and the Duma's International Relations Committee chairman, Dmitrii Rogozin, told reporters after a meeting with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis in Moscow on 16 January that the Duma will not ratify the more important Lithuanian-Russian border treaty before Russia, Poland, and Lithuania submit a joint proposal to the European Union on visa requirements for Kaliningrad residents. SG

POLISH, RUSSIAN PRESIDENTS HAIL NEW OPENING OF RELATIONS
"The difficult stage [in Polish-Russian relations] in the 1990s is behind us," Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told a news conference following his meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Warsaw on 16 January, Polish media reported. "We see the visit as a groundbreaking event in the relations between our countries... Over the past few years it has been our desire to reach a qualitatively new level in our relations," Putin said at the same news conference. Putin added that he and Kwasniewski discussed bilateral economic ties, EU expansion, cultural cooperation, and combating international terrorism. Putin said Poland's entry into the EU "should not have a negative effect on Russian-Polish relations or create any barriers for our citizens." JM

PUTIN SAYS POLISH VICTIMS OF STALINIST REPRESSION CAN SEEK 'REHABILITATION' UNDER RUSSIAN LAW
Answering a question from a Polish journalist about calls for compensation to surviving Poles deported to Siberia after the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939, Putin ruled out financial compensation similar to that being paid out by Germany to Third Reich slave laborers. But he added: "We do not want to close our eyes to the negative sides of the Stalinist regime. As is well-known, in Russia there is a law on the rehabilitation of individuals who were wronged during political repressions. I feel that the opportunities for the implementation of this act may also be used by Polish citizens who were wronged in those days." JM

POLISH, RUSSIAN BUSINESSMEN HOLD ECONOMIC FORUM
Some 400 businessmen from Poland and Russia gathered on 16 January for a two-day economic forum held in Warsaw on the first day and Poznan on the second day. There were several cooperation accords signed at the forum on 16 January, including on cooperation between two Polish banks and Russia's Vneshtorgbank, the assembly of Polish buses in Kaliningrad Oblast, cooperation in shipbuilding, and regional cooperation between Poland's Lubuskie Province and Russia's Pskov Oblast. Russian Transport Minister Sergei Frank declared at the forum that investment by Polish firms in Russia will be facilitated, Polish Radio reported. JM

CZECH GOVERNMENT APPROVES LOAN FOR PURCHASING GRIPEN FIGHTERS...
The government on 16 January approved a draft bill on financing the purchase of JAS-39 Gripen supersonic fighters through a nearly 77 billion crown (over $2.1 billion) loan, CTK reported. The purchase of the fighters is to be covered by 58.5 billion crowns, and an additional 18.4 billion crowns is to be used for financing equipment for the aircraft. The bill must be approved by the Chamber of Deputies, and the cabinet's decision has met with criticism from the opposition. Petr Necas, the chairman of the chamber's Defense and Security Commission, said the government's decision is "just as hasty and ill-considered" as was the decision to purchase the planes, and that the sum agreed upon demonstrates that the financing costs are higher than the 50 billion crowns initially announced by the cabinet. Karel Kuehnl, the leader of the Four Party Coalition, said it is necessary to reconsider whether the Czech Republic really needs the fighters, how many of them, when will they be purchased, and what alternative means could be used for the defense of Czech airspace. MS

...ALONG WITH BILL ON INCREASING POWERS OF CZECH SECRET SERVICES
The cabinet also approved on 16 January a draft amendment to laws on secret services and their control by the parliament, CTK reported, quoting government spokesman Libor Roucek. The amendments allow the heads of the services to request aid and information from any Czech source, rather than from administrative bodies alone, as is presently the case. The heads of the secret services are also to be allowed greater scope in managing state budget resources, in consultation with the relevant ministries. The draft defines the services as "armed bodies of the state." It grants members of the Military Defense Intelligence (VOZ) and Czech police that carry out operations for the Office for Foreign Relations and Information the right to posses and carry arms, and to use them in case of "extreme necessity." The draft envisages creating a single seven-member parliamentary commission to control the activity of both VOZ and the Czech Security Information Service (BIS), rather than two separate commissions as is presently the case. MS

AUSTRIANS UNITED IN CRITICISM OF ZEMAN'S ATTACK ON HAIDER
Alfred Gusenbauer, the chairman of the Austrian opposition Social Democratic Party, on 16 January joined earlier critics of Prime Minister Milos Zeman's attack on Joerg Haider, the former leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPO), CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 January 2002). Gusenbauer said Zeman's labeling of the FPO as "postfascist" amounted to "inadmissible interference" in internal Austrian affairs and did nothing but strengthen the arguments of those who oppose the admission of the Czech Republic in the EU. Earlier, Zeman's statement was criticized by the FPO and by Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Austrian Ambassador Klaus Daublebsky conveyed to Foreign Minister Jan Kavan his country's position, but was not received by Zeman, who said he will receive the ambassador after his return from a visit to Yugoslavia early next week. Kavan told CTK that he has "taken note" of the Austrian position, and that he and Daublebsky agree that all problems related to bilateral relations should be solved in "an atmosphere of good neighborly relations." MS

CZECH OPPOSITION PARTY TO TAKE LOAN FROM SUPPORTERS
The Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) intends to cover its 70 million crown ($1.93 million) debt to the insurer Ceska Pojistovna by taking a loan from its supporters, ODA Chairman Michael Zantovsky told journalists on 16 January, CTK reported. Zantovsky said the ODA intends to pay 10 million crowns to Ceska Pojistovna within one month and an additional 2 million crowns within 1 1/2 years. The remaining 56 million crowns is to be transferred by the insurer to the Educational Programs Foundation, to which the ODA will pay in installments initially of 5 percent, and later to 10 percent of its income. However, the ODA partners in the Four Party Coalition said on 16 January that they still have reservations about the plan and will decide whether to accept it on 18 January, when the Christian Democratic and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union national committees will hold separate meetings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2002). MS

SLOVAK DEMOCRATIC CENTER PARTY CHAIRMAN RESIGNS
Ivan Mjartan, the chairman of the extraparliamentary Democratic Center Party, has submitted his resignation, the daily "Sme" reported on 16 January. Mjartan mentioned the party's failure in the recent regional elections as prompting his decision. Mjartan was Slovakia's first ambassador to the Czech Republic and unsuccessfully ran in the 1993 presidential elections. MS

SLOVAK HISTORIANS, JEWISH COMMUNITY PROTEST DISTINCTION OF TISO DIPLOMAT
Slovak historians and a Jewish community official on 16 January expressed dismay over a high state distinction awarded to Jozef Mikus, a diplomat who served the Slovak fascist puppet state headed by Jozef Tiso, AP and CTK reported. The 92-year-old Mikus was decorated on 1 January 2002 by President Rudolf Schuster, who awarded him the Pribina's Cross for his lifetime activity in the struggle for Slovak independence. Historians Jozef Jablonicky, Ivan Kamenec, Dusan Kovac, Eduard Niznansky, and Katarina Zavacka said Mikus had served the Tiso regime, supported its collaboration with Nazi Germany, and displayed xenophobic attitudes toward Jews and Czechs. Jaroslav Franek of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities called the award "a mistake." The Presidential Office said in response that President Schuster "only followed the recommendation made by Justice Minster Jan Carnogursky." Carnogursky's father also served the Tiso regime. The minister told the daily "Sme" that "when assessing contemporary Slovak citizens, one should not display one-sided political attitudes." Following World War II, Mikus resided in the United States, where he taught at a college and worked as a translator. MS

HUNGARIAN PREMIER, FOREIGN MINISTER SPEAK IN SUPPORT OF STATUS LAW
In his weekly interview with Hungarian radio on 16 January, Prime Minister Viktor Orban reiterated that the Status Law and the Hungarian-Romanian memorandum of understanding do not jeopardize jobs in Hungary. Meanwhile, Economy Ministry Undersecretary Judit Szekely said the 81,320 figure set by the cabinet one day earlier as the maximum number of work permits to be issued to foreigners this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2002) applies to all foreign job applicants -- not just those seeking seasonal work. In related news, Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said at a conference in Budapest that the implementation of the Status Law has been a great success, and the cabinet will strive to apply the law without creating tension. Martonyi said the government will adhere strictly to the Hungarian-Romanian memorandum of understanding and will make further efforts to reach an agreement with Slovakia on the law. MSZ

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH REPORTS ON DISCRIMINATION IN HUNGARY
The annual report on Hungary by the international organization Human Rights Watch states that the majority of the population enjoys civil and political freedoms and a modernizing economy, but those on the margins of society continue to be exposed to discrimination and harassment, Hungarian media reported on 17 January. The report said anti-Semitism and homophobia remain prominent in Hungary, and took note of the difficulties experienced by the Roma minority and overcrowded prisons. In response to the report's criticisms, government spokesman Gabor Borokai said a number of similar reports have been issued and the cabinet is aware of the existing problems. "For our government, the primary concern is what Hungarians think," Borokai said. "While we do pay attention to these kinds of reports, at the same time we also prepare our own assessments of the Hungarian situation." MSZ

FORMER UCK SPOKESMAN CALLS FOR SERBIAN PRESIDENT OF KOSOVA...
Yes, that's correct. Adem Demaci, who was Kosova's leading communist-era human rights dissident and later the political spokesman for the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), said that Rada Trajkovic should be president of Kosova because she is "the most intelligent member of the parliament," "Vesti" reported on 17 January. His remarks appear to have been prompted by reports that Trajkovic favors a pragmatic approach that will concentrate on the rights and status of Serbs in Kosova rather than on issues affecting the province's relations with Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 15 January 2002). He added, however, that it is "not realistic" to expect that any ethnic Albanian politician will call for anything short of independence for Kosova. PM

...WHO CALLS HIS REMARKS A 'WELCOME MESSAGE'
Trajkovic, who heads the 22-member Serbian Povratak (Return) faction in the 120-member Kosova parliament, told "Vesti" on 17 January that Demaci's message suggesting her as a presidential candidate should be heeded by Albanians and Serbs alike. She stressed that, by proposing her for the presidency, he shows that he accepts that Kosova is part of Serbia and of Yugoslavia. Trajkovic added that Demaci's message is also a signal that Serbs and Albanians can and will live together peacefully. PM

PETRITSCH SAYS BOSNIA CANNOT STAND ON ITS OWN...
Wolfgang Petritsch, the international community's high representative in Bosnia, said at NATO headquarters in Brussels on 16 January that it would not be wise to reduce the 18,000-strong SFOR to 12,000 as some have proposed, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 December 2001, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 September 2001). Petritsch argued that "we are on the way, but we have not yet reached this so-called point of no return where Bosnia-Herzegovina is indeed a viable and self-sustaining state. The overall concern is the security and the status of security and safety of the people in Bosnia Herzegovina." PM

WORLD BANK GRANTS LOANS TO ROMANIA
Agreements for a $20 million World Bank loan intended to complete the second stage of a Romanian project for supporting the socially underprivileged, as well as a $5.5 million loan for promoting ecological agriculture were signed at the presidential palace in Bucharest on 16 January, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. President Iliescu and Andrew Vorkink, the World Bank director for Central and Southeastern Europe, attended the ceremony. MS

ROMANIAN PREMIER REFUTES ALLEGATIONS ON ILLICIT LINKS...
Adrian Nastase said on 16 January that he has no intention of engaging in a dispute with "anonymous persons" who cannot be sued because they hide behind "anonymous documents," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Nastase made the comments in response to a document distributed via the Internet to several Romanian publications in which he and the ruling Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PSD) are accused of links with businessmen suspected of large-scale corruption. Nastase said the document called "Armageddon II" is a "diversion" aimed at both deflecting the attention of public opinion from the main objectives that must be pursued at present -- among them NATO membership -- and at undermining his cabinet's effort to fight corruption. It is no mere coincidence, the premier said, that the document was distributed at a time when the cabinet is planning to set up the National Anticorruption Prosecution authority. MS

...WHILE ROBERTSON STRESSES 'IN TOGETHER, OUT TOGETHER'
Meeting in Brussels on 16 January, NATO's North Atlantic Council agreed to maintain the Atlantic alliance's presence in Bosnia and to reduce SFOR's size only in agreement with the high representative, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said, "it's possible that some reductions [in SFOR] can be gained, partly through a regional rationalization of forces, but also in looking at the transition to the more civil aspects of maintaining law and order. But no decisions have been taken, and the principle of 'we went in together, we are succeeding together, and we will leave together' remains the principle and the policy so far as SFOR troop levels are concerned," Reuters reported. Petritsch said he is glad that Robertson stressed the principle of "in together, out together." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's name is particularly linked to that principle. PM

SLOVENIAN PRESIDENT WANTS REFERENDUM ON NATO MEMBERSHIP
Milan Kucan said in Ljubljana on 16 January that an issue as important as joining NATO requires a referendum, dpa reported. He added: "Slovenia expects to receive an invitation for membership at the alliance's November summit in Prague." He stressed that "NATO membership will provide Slovenia with the highest possible level of national security through collective defense," Reuters reported. Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek said NATO offers the best insurance for Slovenia's long-term security. He added that membership is in no way a liability. The government has launched a campaign to revive support for membership in NATO. Drnovsek said that the recent decline in popular backing for it is the result of disappointment over not having been asked to join previously. A recent poll puts support for membership at 47.7 percent and opposition at 29.7 percent. PM

WHAT IS BEHIND CROATIA'S OIL TRANSPORT BAN?
Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Slavko Linic said in Zagreb that the new ban on the transport of oil and oil products by road is motivated by environmental considerations, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 16 January. But trucks of Croatia's state-run oil company INA are exempt from the ruling. Bosnia and Slovenia have both protested the measure, which will adversely affect Slovenian oil shipments to Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2002). PM

CROATIAN LEGISLATIVE SESSION BEGINS
The parliament, or Sabor, opened its 19th session in Zagreb on 16 January, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Items on the agenda include new measures to promote private enterprise as well as a discussion of proposed new identity cards. PM

SERBIAN MINISTER WARNS MILITARY TO STAY OUT OF POLITICS
Yugoslav Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic said in Belgrade on 16 January that it is "inadmissible" that high-ranking army officers meddle in politics and comment on the workings of the federal and Serbian governments, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Zivkovic added that such officers "should be sacked at once." He was apparently referring to General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who heads the General Staff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 January 2002). PM

ANOTHER ROUND IN THE ALBANIAN SOCIALIST FEUD
Prime Minister Ilir Meta has agreed at a meeting with Socialist Party leader Fatos Nano in Tirana on 15 January to reshuffle his cabinet, Reuters reported. Security chief Fatos Klosi reportedly acted as mediator. Nano is demanding more party influence over the government, which he calls corrupt. Meta stresses that the government will make its own decisions but has pledged to fight corruption (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 7 December 2001, and "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2001 and 10 January 2002). It is not clear if the two reached an agreement regarding Nano's presidential aspirations. In other news, KFOR announced in Prishtina that it is continuing an airlift of food and medical supplies to communities in northern Albania cut off by snow, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on 17 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2002). PM

...WHILE DUBIOUS MOGUL SAYS HE MAY SET UP OWN POLITICAL PARTY
Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, the Romanian billionaire whom the media suspects of being behind the latest banking scandals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2002), said in an interview with the private Antena 1 television channel on 16 January that he is "seriously considering" giving up business and establishing his own political party, Mediafax reported. Vantu said the formation would be called the Romanian Popular Party, and its primary objective would be creating 800,000 jobs. He also said the scandal to which his name has been linked is a "continuation of the scandal created shortly before the 2000 elections" pertaining to the collapse of the National Investment Fund, and that the main target of the allegations is actually the PSD. The opposition National Liberal Party, Democratic Party, National Peasant Party Christian Democratic, and the Union of Rightist Forces "aim at discrediting the ruling party by demonizing me," Vantu said. According to media reports, Vantu, who has set up a bank in which former Premier and current Senate Chairman Nicolae Vacaroiu acted as a chief adviser, has financed a foundation that supported President Ion Iliescu's re-election. In the interview with Antena 1, however, Vantu said he has never financed the PSD, because "as a businessman, I do not believe in the values of the left." More recently he claimed he backed the parties of the right in the 2000 elections. MS

WHAT IS THE STUMBLING BLOCK IN THE BALKANS?
Erhard Busek, who is the new head of the EU's Balkan Stability Pact, said in Vienna on 16 January that Kosova remains the biggest problem in the region because it has no government and hence no one authorized to speak for it, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He added that additional problems are the security situation in Macedonia and the dysfunctional domestic political situation in both Montenegro and Albania. But Busek's predecessor, Bodo Hombach, said in Berlin that the EU's own bureaucracy has held back progress in the Balkans. He stressed that the only way for the countries of Southeastern Europe to become prosperous is by admitting them to the EU. PM

ROMANIAN PREMIER 'CLOSELY FOLLOWING' MOLDOVAN EVENTS
Premier Nastase said on 16 January that he is "closely following" the events in Moldova, which he described as a "chain of developments aimed at eliminating the Romanian national identity," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Nastase said Bucharest "does not wish to interfere in Moldova's internal problems," but added that it is "questionable" whether the introduction of Russian-language compulsory classes is legitimate in a situation where "two-thirds of the country's population is Romanian, while the Russians are less than one-third." Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said the events in Chisinau raise questions in regard to Moldova's European and democratic evolution. The National Liberal Party (PNL) in Romania said earlier that the country's government "must react" to the Chisinau protests. PNL Senate group chief Radu F. Alexandru said his party is following the events in Chisinau "with concern and emotion," and will "do everything it can to support the protesters." While the demonstrations continued on Chisinau's main square on 16 January, the government postponed its regular weekly meeting, which had planned to debate the decision to introduce Russian-language classes. MS

BULGARIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL 'WORRIED' BY SITUATION IN THE JUDICIARY
Prosecutor-General Nikola Filichev said on 15 January that he is worried that "destabilization and tension in the judiciary" might result in "curtailing the judiciary's ability to fight crime and protect the rights of citizens," BTA reported. Several magistrates have challenged in court the appointment of judges and of Filichev. The case against Filichev's 1999 appointment by the Supreme Judicial Council has been challenged by Nikolai Kolev and will be heard by the Supreme Administrative Court on 1 February. Magistrates have also challenged the appointments of Ivan Grigorov as president of the Supreme Court, and of Vladislav Slavov as president of the Supreme Administrative Court. The latter two cases will be heard on 8 February. Meanwhile, Sofia Mayor Stefan Sofiyanski said on 16 January that he will appeal against the Prosecutor-General's Office's decision to charge him with abuse of office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2002). MS

DUTCH AUTHORITIES DEPORT ILLEGAL BULGARIAN IMMIGRANTS
The Netherlands deported 58 Bulgarian nationals who violated the terms of their visas or worked in that country without permits, AFP reported on 16 January. The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry called on Bulgarians who travel abroad "not to compromise the privilege of traveling without a visa in Europe." Since May 2001, Bulgarian citizens have been allowed to travel without visas to EU countries that are signatories of the Schengen agreement. MS

ROMANIA TO CLOSELY MONITOR LAW GRANTING BENEFITS TO ETHNIC HUNGARIANS


Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is expressing doubts over Hungary's determination to observe a bilateral memorandum stipulating the conditions under which Romania's Hungarian minority can benefit from a Hungarian law granting certain rights to ethnic Hungarians living abroad.

The Law on Hungarians Living in Neighboring Countries -- also known as the Status Law -- was passed by Hungary's parliament in June 2001. It allows ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Slovenia to enjoy advantages -- including an annual three-month work permit in Hungary as well as medical care and pension benefits -- on the basis of an identity card issued by Hungarian authorities.

Romania, which is home to an ethnic Hungarian minority of 1.7 million people -- the regions' largest -- protested mainly over the provision granting working rights for ethnic Hungarians, saying it would discriminate against Romanians seeking employment in Hungary. Bucharest also objected to the stipulation in the law that would have allowed organizations representing ethnic Hungarians in Romania to issue the Hungarian ID card, saying it would have amounted to a breach of Romania's sovereignty.

But under a memorandum signed on 22 December in Budapest by Nastase and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary agreed to allow all Romanian citizens -- regardless of their ethnic origin -- to apply for work permits within its territory. In addition, organizations representing the Magyars will only make "recommendations" to Hungarian authorities, which would issue the cards in Hungary proper.

However, Nastase on 11 January criticized a statement allegedly made by Hungarian Democratic Forum Deputy Zsolt Nemeth. Nemeth, whose party is a junior partner in Orban's coalition government, was quoted by Nastase as saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Romanian to work in Hungary.

Romanian government spokesman Claudiu Lucaciu told RFE/RL that such statements could lead Romanian officials to suspect that the Hungarian side agreed to the memorandum "in bad faith."

"This is an agreement between the two governments -- that is, to allow Romanian citizens to access the Hungarian workforce market -- and that is why the prime minister [Nastase] expressed a certain level of fear that if things are indeed as presented by some Hungarian political leaders, and discrimination on ethnic criteria will continue, then one could consider that the agreement was concluded in bad faith," Lucaciu said.

But Hungary's government, in response, said it will fulfill all obligations assumed in the memorandum.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told the Hungarian parliament on 11 January that Budapest is interested in fully implementing the memorandum. Martonyi said the document is good for ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, as well as for relations between the two countries.

However, Budapest said on 15 January it will limit the number of foreign workers in 2002. A government spokesman said only 81,320 foreign workers will be admitted -- a number equal to the job vacancies in 2001.

The decision -- months ahead of general elections scheduled for April -- follows harsh criticism from Hungary's Socialist-led opposition that the deal with Bucharest will cause an exodus of cheap seasonal labor to Hungary.

Controversy over the Status Law has dominated otherwise good relations between Romania and Hungary over the past year.

After World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory to newly formed Central and Eastern European states. As a consequence, some 3.5 million Hungarians live outside of their homeland.

Hungary has enjoyed steady economic growth since the fall of communism and is a front-runner to join the European Union. It says the Status Law is aimed at helping ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries preserve their cultural and national identities and at offering them economic support to continue living in their native regions.

But Romania and Slovakia -- which hosts the second-largest Hungarian minority in the region, some 600,000 -- both complained about the extraterritorial character of the law and unofficially expressed fears that the measure might finally lead to territorial claims from Hungary.

To allay Romanian suspicions, Hungary in the December memorandum pledged not to offer any kind of support to Romania's ethnic Hungarian political organizations without prior approval from Romanian authorities.

Romanian Prime Minister Nastase and his Hungarian counterpart Orban also agreed in the document that ethnic Hungarian organizations will only be permitted to offer general information about the documentation necessary to obtain a Hungarian ID card.

At Romania's insistence, the document also stipulates that the procedure to obtain a Hungarian identity card -- the receiving of applications, issuing, and forwarding -- take place "primarily" on Hungarian territory, thus limiting what Romania calls the law's "extraterritoriality."

Bela Marko, the leader of Romania's ethnic Hungarian party, the UDMR, says his party's role will be limited to gathering application forms -- beginning on 21 January 21 -- at its local headquarters and passing them to the Hungarian authorities.

"As I said, we won't establish any separate territorial offices. We will receive people at some of UDMR's regional headquarters, where they will leave their applications," Marko told RFE/RL. "According to the agreement between the two governments, we will only inform people and will not give any recommendations."

In a move likely to cause dissatisfaction among mixed families, the memorandum provides for Romanians married to ethnic Hungarians -- who were initially supposed to enjoy the same benefits as their spouses -- to be excluded from the law's provisions. Bucharest said the exclusion is necessary to eliminate discrimination between Romanians married to ethnic Hungarians and other Romanians.

But despite obtaining some apparently important concessions from Budapest, Romanian officials still have suspicions regarding the actual implementation of the memorandum.

On 14 January, Nastase ordered the creation of a government commission to monitor the implementation process and report possible irregularities.

"This means that Romania wants to carefully monitor the implementation of the law, especially on its national territory," according to government spokesman Lucaciu. "And that is why the prime minister ordered the prefects [government's regional representatives] not to allow any initiative to establish offices meant to register applications for Hungarian ID cards or to issue these IDs."

Romanian President Ion Iliescu said on 15 January that he hopes the Hungarian side will observe and implement the memorandum "in good faith."

In the memorandum, Romania and Hungary agreed that Budapest will review the Status Law and initiate the necessary amendments in six months. But to what extent Budapest will be ready to amend the law will most likely depend on the outcome of Hungary's general elections.

Eugen Tomiuc is an RFE/RL correspondent.

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