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Newsline - January 18, 2002


FSB INTERVENES IN REFORM OF RAILWAYS MINISTRY...
Deputy Railways Minister Anna Belova announced on 17 January that the government has reached a compromise with the Federal Security Service (FSB) on transforming the Railways Ministry into a shareholding company, "Vedomosti" reported. The FSB had argued that such a move would threaten Russia's national security, and that the ministry should remain under state control. However, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry lobbied strongly for the privatization of the railways, and eventually the FSB gave its approval under the stipulation that provisions be made banning the sale of Railways Ministry property and its confiscation in legal disputes. VY

...AS NEW MINISTER BEGINS PURGE
A few days after his appointment as railways minister on 5 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2002), Gennadii Fadeev began purging his ministry, "The Moscow Times" reported on 18 January. Seven of the 12 deputy ministers -- among them Yevgenii Vinogradov, Vladimir Mironov, and Pshimaf Shevtsukov -- as well as the heads of all 17 railroads and many department heads cleaned out their desks this week, the newspaper reported, quoting ministry officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. In addition, three first deputy ministers -- Aleksandr Tselko, Mikhail Ivankov, and Aleksandr Misharin -- are going to be fired, the newspaper reported, quoting another official who works in the ministry's press office. Meanwhile, Interfax reported that two allies of President Vladimir Putin from St. Petersburg -- Vladimir Yakunin, a deputy transportation minister, and Vladimir Kuznetsov, a department head in the Transportation Ministry -- are in line to be appointed first deputy ministers in the Railways Ministry. The ministry employs about 1.5 million people across the country. VC

MOSCOW STEPS UP MEASURES AGAINST BIOTERRORISM...
Nikolai Filatov, Moscow's chief health inspector, told journalists on 16 January that the Russian capital has launched a three-year program to combat bioterrorism that includes measures for protecting the city's water supply sources, subway, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, and food products, RIA-Novosti reported on 17 January. Filatov added that state and public offices, the French and Chinese Embassies, and other organizations have been the recipients of some 400 "hooligan" letters containing powder and threatening notes. While none of the letters were found to contain anthrax, authorities are maintaining a high level of alertness. VY

...AS FSB SAYS MOSCOW IS VULNERABLE TO TERRORIST ACTS
Meanwhile, the chief of the FSB Directorate in Moscow, Viktor Zakharov, said that the use of radioactive, biological, and chemical substances for terrorist acts pose a real threat to the city, Interfax reported on 17 January. According to Zakharov, Moscow harbors a number of "small terrorist cells and individuals" that are capable of carrying out such attacks. He said that "youth religious-extremist organizations" are another potential source of danger. However, independent Duma deputy Sergei Yushenkov said the same day on Ekho Moskvy radio that he considers Zakharov's statement as a "provocation causing fear and panic." He said that if the FSB has information related to planned terrorist acts it must do what it needs to do to prevent them, but should not engage in self-promotion. VY

PUTIN DISCUSSES RUSSIAN-JAPANESE RELATIONS
On 18 January, Russian President Putin met Japanese Prime Minister Juintiro Koizumi's envoy, former Premier Yoshiro Mori, Russian news agencies reported. Mori is stumping the upcoming international conference on Afghanistan's economic recovery, which is to take place in Tokyo on 21-22 January. Mori is accompanied by deputy Muneo Suzuki, the Liberal Democratic Party's representative for relations with Russia and the CIS, RIA-Novosti reported. This is the second visit by the former prime minister to Moscow in a week. On 14 January, Mori made a short stopover in Moscow on his way to Uzbekistan, during which he visited the Church of Christ the Savior and met with Patriarch Aleksii II, RBK news agency reported. VC

MOSCOW MAYOR CLASHES WITH CHUBAIS PROTEGE
Yurii Luzhkov has asked President Putin to intervene in the critical situation that has developed regarding Moscow's electrical power supply, which is provided by Mosenergo, an entity of Unified Energy Systems (EES), RosBalt reported on 18 January. In a letter he wrote to the president, Luzhkov indicated that the crisis began after EES appointed Arkadii Yevstafiev as the acting director of Mosenergo earlier this week. Luzhkov demanded that Putin demand Yevstafiev's dismissal, as the acting director "both by his experience and training is very far away from the energy area." Indeed, an economist by education and close associate of EES head Anatolii Chubais, Yevstafiev made his name during the presidential campaign of 1996, when he was detained for attempting to take some $530,000 from a government office. Yevstafiev was eventually released following strong pressure from former President Boris Yeltsin's entourage. VY

PUTIN CALLS ON 'CIVILIZED COUNTRIES' TO HELP DEVELOP RUSSIA
In a complete transcript of the interview Putin gave to Polish television channel TVP on 14 January, which was published on the president's official website (http://www.president.kremlin.ru), he shed some light on his vision for Russia in the 21st century. According to Putin, Russia's mission is the "economic employment of the huge territories that happen to be under the control of the Russian Federation, and working jointly together with Europe and other civilized [members of] mankind to reclaim these territories as a basis for raising the welfare level of the Russian nation as well as Russia's natural integration into the political, economic, and defense infrastructure of the civilized countries." VY

VOLOSHIN GOES ON TOUR
Presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin traveled to Yekaterinburg on 17 January, Russian agencies reported. The trip is one of seven Voloshin plans to make to each of the seven federal districts. Last September he visited the Northwest federal district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2001), and at the beginning of February he is supposed to conduct an "inspection tour" of the Central federal district based in Moscow, according to strana.ru. During his trip to Sverdlovsk, Voloshin met with Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel, presidential envoy to the Urals federal district Petr Latyshev, and the heads of federal structures in the district. The pro-Kremlin website strana.ru reported, according to unidentified sources, that during his visit Voloshin would look into Rossel's plans to seek a third term as governor. However, the website opined that "by all appearances, there was no haggling about the conditions under which the center would allow Rossel to remain as governor." JAC

MILITARY'S MAN IN BRUSSELS REASSIGNED...
Rear Admiral Valentin Kuznetsov, the chief of the directorate for international treaties at the Defense Department, will become Russia's military representative to NATO, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 17 January. Kuznetsov will replace Colonel General Viktor Zavarzin, who held the position for four years. Kuznetsov started out in army intelligence and speaks several foreign languages, according to the daily. JAC

...AS AMBASSADOR IS CHOSEN FOR KABUL
Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Mikhail Konarovskii, 57, is being reassigned to Afghanistan, Interfax reported on 17 January. According to ITAR-TASS, Konarovskii is an "expert in Afghan affairs," and prior to his posting to Sri Lanka worked as a deputy head of the Foreign Ministry's Second Asian department. JAC

MORE SENATORS SIGNED UP
Regions continue to appoint representatives to the Federation Council, which held its first session of the year on 16 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January). On 17 January, Tatarstan's legislature selected Irina Larochikina, one of its deputy speakers, as its representative, regions.ru reported. The same day, Moscow Oblast's Duma chose fellow deputy Igor Bryntsalov as its new representative. "Kommersant-Daily" reported that under the new regulations, senators have the right to travel to their home district two times a month at the government's expense. JAC

DUMA DEPUTY DIES
Duma deputy (Unity) Vladimir Lushin has died, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 January. Lushin, 58, was deputy chairman of the Defense Committee. He was elected to the Duma in 1999 on the Fatherland-All Russia's party list. JAC

OIL- AND GAS-RICH OBLAST GOVERNOR CONTEMPLATES MERGER
Tyumen Oblast Governor Sergei Sobyanin has reportedly ordered a Moscow polling firm to conduct an opinion poll of Tyumen residents asking whether they favor the liquidation of the Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs, which are part of Tyumen Oblast, "Novye Izvestiya" reported on 16 January. The daily noted that according to a recently passed law it is necessary for federation subjects considering a merger to first hold a referendum among those citizens that would be affected. The daily speculated that it is likely that the majority of the residents of the oblast would favor getting rid of the okrugs, because there are very few Khanty, Mantsi, or Nenets remaining. According to the newspaper, Ramazan Abdulatipov, an expert on nationalities and Federation Council member (Saratov), believes that Russia's misfortune is that it is constantly going from one extreme to the next: first it was a rapid process of confederation and now a process of excessive centralization. JAC

REPUBLIC DOESN'T HAVE CASH TO RAISE WAGES
On 17 January, the legislature of the Republic of Karelia adopted an appeal to President Putin, Prime Minister Kasyanov, and members the Federal Assembly to quickly transfer some 300 million rubles ($9.8 million) so the region will be able to pay the higher wages of state sector workers, such as teachers and doctors, regions.ru reported, citing RosBalt. Aleksandr Chazhengin, the chairman of the chamber's Budget Committee, warned that if the money is not sent, budget organizations in Karelia will begin withholding wages as soon as February. A newspaper in Nizhnii Novgorod reported last week that the majority of Russian regions have been placed in a tough financial situation by President Putin's decision to raise the wages of state sector employees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2002). JAC

CAMPS IN CHECHNYA FOR DISPLACED PERSONS TO BE CLOSED
Presidential Human Rights Commissioner for Chechnya Vladimir Kalamanov told Russian media on 17 January that all existing tent camps in Chechnya for displaced persons forced to flee their homes during the fighting will be closed down by the end of February. He said the estimated 1,500 inmates of those camps will be offered alternative accommodation either in two hostels in the town of Sernovodsk or in three apartment blocks in Grozny that will soon be made habitable. LF

ARMENIAN, TURKMEN PRESIDENTS DISCUSS GAS DEBTS, FUTURE SUPPLIES
Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Turkmen counterpart Saparmurat Niyazov discussed by telephone on 17 January Armenia's outstanding $12 million debt for supplies of Turkmen natural gas, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Russian agencies reported. It was agreed that Armenian government officials will travel to Ashgabat in the near future to try to reach agreement on rescheduling those debts. Also discussed was the possibility of Turkmenistan supplying Armenia with natural gas via Iran. The two presidents further agreed to draft a 10-year agreement on friendship and cooperation that is to be signed during a visit by Niyazov to Yerevan later this year. LF

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT COMMISSION REJECTS ALTERNATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES
The ad hoc parliament commission charged with reviewing various sets of proposed constitutional amendments rejected on 17 January a packet of amendments offered by six opposition parties that envisages the abolition of the presidency, according to Noyan Tapan and Mediamax, as cited by Groong. On 14 January, one of the authors of those proposals, parliament deputy Shavarsh Kocharian, argued that they should nonetheless be put to a nationwide referendum. President Kocharian said last month that only the amendments drafted by a commission he established three years earlier will be put to a referendum (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 42, 20 December 2001). LF

SENIOR AZERBAIJANI OFFICIAL ACCUSES COUNCIL OF EUROPE OF PRO-ARMENIAN BIAS
Parliament deputy Ali Akhmedov, who is the executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, denied on 18 January that there are any political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. Akhmedov said the pressure currently being exerted by the Council of Europe for the release by 21 January of 11 persons whom that body considers political prisoners is the result of "lobbying by Armenia's patrons in the Council of Europe" in retaliation for criticism of Armenia expressed during sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe by the head of the Azerbaijani delegation, Ilham Aliev. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH AFGHAN VETERANS
Eduard Shevardnadze met on 17 January with representatives of the Union of Veterans of the Afghan War who launched a protest earlier this month to demand the release of a hermit monk abducted in the Pankisi Gorge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2002). According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 17 January, the veterans have threatened to mobilize up to 10,000 men to locate and release Father Basil and restore law and order to the region unless the Georgian government takes decisive measures to do so. The Georgian Interior Ministry has already moved police posts into the gorge and arrested "several criminal elements," AP reported on 17 January, quoting Interior Ministry spokesman Pavel Gomelauri. LF

GEORGIA, ABKHAZIA HOLD FURTHER TALKS
Georgian and Abkhaz government officials together with representatives of the UN and the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone met for the second time in three days on 17 January in the village of Chuburkhindji in Abkhazia's Gali raion to discuss the presence of Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2002). Agreement was reached that the UN Observer Mission will resume patrols of the upper reaches of the gorge that were suspended last October after a UN-chartered helicopter was shot down. The Abkhaz also allowed the Georgian officials access to five suspected Georgian guerrillas detained by Abkhaz police in Gali several days earlier in circumstances that are unclear. LF

ABKHAZIA SETS NEW DATE FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Parliamentary elections will take place in the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia on 2 March, Caucasus Press reported on 18 January. The ballot was originally scheduled for 24 November 2001, but was postponed due to the fighting last October in the Kodori Gorge. LF

KAZAKHSTAN TIGHTENS CONTROL OF RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS
On January 17, the Mazhilis (the lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament) adopted amendments to the law on religious freedoms, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The amendments stipulate that any missionary organization working in Kazakhstan should register on the day its representatives arrive in the country. ITAR-TASS quoted Culture and Information Minister Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed as explaining that due to its geographical location, "Kazakhstan has always been at the focus of expansion-minded religious centers abroad," some of which, he continued, espouse "religious extremism and radicalism." LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S PRIME MINISTER ADVOCATES EXPANDED POWERS FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Addressing a two-day seminar in Astana on decentralization and local government, Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev argued in favor of delegating more powers to local authorities and strengthening their budgets, Interfax reported on 16 January. Presidential administration head Yerzhan Utembaev similarly argued that state functions should be decentralized because Kazakhstan has "a large but sparsely populated territory, with villages located far from each other and from regional centers." Making the posts of oblast and local administrators elective and a reduction in the existing 14 oblasts are among the demands recently set forth by the new opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan and the United Democratic Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 17 January 2002). LF

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT SESSION RESUMES, DISCUSSES BEKNAZAROV CASE
Deputies of the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of Kyrgyzstan's parliament) resumed on 17 January the session suspended three days earlier, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Two deputies reported on their meeting in Djalalabad on 15-16 January with arrested deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, who continues to insist that his arrest on charges of abuse of his official position was politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2002). The public committee established in support of Beknazarov issued an appeal to international organizations and diplomats on 17 January to take measures to ensure that human rights and freedoms are protected in Kyrgyzstan. Also on 17 January, the Temporary Committee for Human Rights formed the previous day appealed to President Askar Akaev to release Beknazarov, and to the IMF and the World Bank to suspend any further funding for Kyrgyzstan's "corrupt" leadership. LF

CHINESE PARLIAMENT DELEGATION DISCUSSES COOPERATION WITH KYRGYZSTAN
Members of a Chinese State Council delegation that visited Bishkek on 16-17 January met with First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, the speakers of both parliament chambers, and President Akaev to discuss expanding political, economic, and cultural cooperation, ITAR-TASS and RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Akaev and delegation head Ismail Aymat agreed that bilateral economic cooperation and trade lags behind political cooperation and should be intensified. LF

U.S. SENATE DELEGATION VISITS KYRGYZSTAN...
A U.S. Senate delegation headed by Senate majority leader Tom Daschle arrived in Bishkek on 17 January and met the same day with President Akaev, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The delegation inspected the Manas international airport near Bishkek that Kyrgyzstan has granted Washington the use of for a period of 12 months within the framework of the international antiterrorism campaign. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Muratbek Imanaliev denied on 17 January that any secret agreement has been signed on a permanent U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

...AND UZBEKISTAN
From Bishkek, the U.S. Senate delegation flew to Tashkent where they met with President Islam Karimov and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, Reuters and Russian agencies reported. The talks focused on cooperation in the antiterrorism campaign, the situation in Afghanistan, bilateral economic relations, and U.S. concern over the slow pace of democratization in Uzbekistan, according to Reuters. The delegation has also visited the town of Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border and the Khanabad air base, where some 1,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed. LF

UZBEKISTAN DENIES IT WILL HOST NATO BASE
Unnamed spokesmen for the Uzbek Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry have dismissed as "rumors" reports in the Russian and Western press that Tashkent is conducting talks with NATO on offering the alliance a base in Uzbekistan, ITAR-TASS and the National Information Agency of Uzbekistan's website reported on 17 January. The spokesmen said that no foreign troops will be deployed anywhere in Uzbekistan except Khanabad. LF

FOREIGN OBSERVERS TO MONITOR UZBEK REFERENDUM
An unspecified number of foreign observers will monitor the conduct of the 27 January referendum in which some 13 million citizens of Uzbekistan are called upon to approve or reject the creation of a bicameral parliament and the extension of the presidential term from five to seven years, the National Information Agency of Uzbekistan reported on 17 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2001). LF

TAJIK OPPOSITION LEADER DENIES NEGOTIATING WITH BIN LADEN
Speaking at a press conference in Dushanbe on 18 January, Islamic Renaissance Party Chairman Said Abdullo Nuri rejected as "slanderous and provocative" media allegations that he mediated several years ago in talks between Iranian intelligence and Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. LF

TAJIKISTAN HOPES FOR JAPANESE INVESTMENT
Meeting on 16 January with Muneo Suzuki, the special envoy of the Japanese prime minister, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov expressed the hope that the opening the following day of the Japanese Embassy in Dushanbe will result in an influx of Japanese investment and new technology, Interfax and Asia Plus-Blitz reported. He also expressed thanks for humanitarian aid supplied by Japan. Suzuki told journalists after the talks that Japan will send experts to Tajikistan to assess the possibility of participating in reconstruction of the Rogun hydroelectric power station. LF

MINSK TRACTOR FACTORY WORKERS WANT THEIR DIRECTOR BACK
Employees of the Minsk Tractor Factory (MTZ) have sent a letter to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka urging him to release their former director, Mikhail Lyavonau, and reinstate him in the post, Belapan reported on 17 January. Lyavonau was arrested some two weeks ago, dismissed from the post of MTZ director by Lukashenka, and formally charged on 17 January with abuse of office, negligence, and bribery. Lyavonau's lawyer told the agency the same day that his client denies all of the charges. The MTZ workers said in their letter that Lyavonau is innocent. "We do not oppose punishment of the people who break the law. But it is necessary to gather evidence of their guilt first and then place them in jail, not vice versa," they wrote. JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT OUTLINES AGRICULTURAL POLICIES IN 2002
President Lukashenka on 17 January met with managers of the agro-industrial complex in Brest Oblast and divulged some details of agricultural policies for this year, Belapan reported. Lukashenka said the state will raise purchase prices for agricultural products only to compensate for monthly inflation, adding that "you yourselves will soon be interested in not raising prices [for your products] because you will not be able to sell them." According to Lukashenka, the agricultural sector needs to cut production costs by 25 percent through better organization and work discipline. "If we fail to do that, we will ruin [our] agriculture," he said. Simultaneously, he warned that the government will not print additional currency to finance the upcoming spring sowing campaign. JM

BELARUSIAN KGB BUSTS GANG OF URANIUM TRADERS
The Belarusian KGB has thwarted a sale of 1.5 kilograms of uranium worth some $250,000 and arrested six people from an international criminal group, Belapan reported on 17 January, quoting the KGB press center. The KGB used an undercover agent to pose as a buyer in order to trap those trying to sell the uranium. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT WIDENS POWERS OF ACCOUNTING CHAMBER...
The Verkhovna Rada on 17 January amended Article 98 of the Ukrainian Constitution, widening the powers of the Accounting Chamber, UNIAN reported. According to the amendment, the Accounting Chamber has acquired the right to control not only the use of budget funds but also the composition of state and local budgets' revenues in the section outlining the funding of the powers of local state administrations and the executive powers delegated to local self-government. JM

...ADOPTS LAW ON CABINET OF MINISTERS
The Verkhovna Rada also passed a law on the Cabinet of Ministers stipulating that members of the government, by the nature of their activities, are politicians rather than civil servants whose status is described under the civil service law. The law states that the Cabinet of Ministers reports to the president but is subordinate and accountable to the Verkhovna Rada. Under the law, a new cabinet is formed no later than within 60 days of the president's inauguration or the resignation of the previous cabinet. JM

KYIV MAYOR SUES OVER BUGGED TELEPHONE CALLS
Kiev Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko has filed charges against all those who made public the recording of his telephone conversation with Our Ukraine bloc leader Viktor Yushchenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2002), New Channel Television reported on 17 January. In Omelchenko's opinion, electronic and print media are among those who must go on trial together with Dmytro Ponomarchuk from the Ukrainian Popular Movement for Unity, who was the first to make the recording public. JM

SIIM KALLAS TO BE NAMED AS ESTONIAN PRIME MINISTER CANDIDATE
The Center and Reform Parties decided on 17 January that Finance Minister and Reform Party Chairman Siim Kallas will be their candidate for prime minister, ETA reported. Center Party Chairman and Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar will become the head of the coalition council of Estonia's new Center-Reform bloc. The Reform Party is expected to retain all of its current ministerial portfolios: finance, environment, justice, culture, and regional affairs, but it is still undecided whether Toomas Savi will remain chairman of the parliament. President Arnold Ruutel is scheduled to announce Kallas's candidacy on 18 January after meeting with him and Savisaar. SG

LATVIA'S SOCIAL DEMOCRATS TO COOPERATE WITH RUSSIAN COUNTERPARTS
The council of Latvia's Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDSP) has decided to develop a cooperation agreement with Russia's United Social Democratic Party (ROSD), LETA reported on 17 January. LSDSP Secretary-General Janis Dinevics said the Russian party proposed the agreement, which would state that it will not cooperate with any other "would-be social democratic party in Latvia," including Juris Zuravlovs' Social Democratic Welfare Party. He answered complaints that the agreement would bring reproaches from right-wing political parties and the media by noting that the agreement would likely be signed in Latvia not by the ROSD's leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, but by party board member Aleksandr Yakovlev, who has been awarded Latvia's highest honor, the Three Star Order. LSDSP Chairman Juris Bojars proposed that the agreement include a stipulation that Russia's Social Democrats will facilitate the signing of the Latvian-Russian border treaty. SG

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH BUSH
U.S. President George W. Bush reaffirmed to Valdas Adamkus on 17 January that Lithuanian efforts to join NATO are being noted and appreciated, ELTA reported the next day. Repeating that Russia will not have any veto rights on new members, he called Lithuania a front-runner among the applicant states. Bush also thanked Lithuania for its support in antiterrorist actions and active role in Balkan peacekeeping operations. NBC television crews filmed the meeting, parts of which are expected to be broadcast in the television special "The Bush White House: Inside the Real West Wing." Earlier on 17 January, Adamkus met with IMF Managing Director Horst Kohler, who informed him about a recent IMF study that affirms that the three Baltic states are financially able to join NATO and the EU while ensuring macroeconomic stability. Adamkus also spoke with House Policy Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (R-California) and dined with members of the American NATO Committee. SG

PUTIN PLEDGES TO REDUCE POLAND'S TRADE DEFICIT WITH RUSSIA...
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski went to Poznan on 17 January, where they attended a Polish-Russian economic forum and visited an international trade fair, Polish media reported. Putin assured the economic forum that Russia will do everything possible to cut Poland's $3 billion trade deficit with Russia, which is largely the result of Polish dependence on Russian natural gas. Kwasniewski pledged that the planned expansion of the EU to the east will not damage Polish-Russian economic relations. Earlier the same day Putin met with Prime Minister Leszek Miller in Warsaw. Miller told Putin that Warsaw wants to verify earlier gas supply agreements with Russia in order to reduce supply volumes. The sides agreed that representatives of Gazprom and the Polish Oil and Gas Company will met in mid-February to discuss the issue. JM

...COMMENTS ON APOLOGIES FOR PAST WRONGDOINGS
Before leaving for Russia, Putin said in Poznan that any possible apologies by the Russians and the Poles for wrongdoings of the past will not improve the relations between the two countries, Polish Radio reported. Putin was apparently referring to the expectation voiced in some Polish media that he would apologize to the Poles during his visit for the Katyn massacre. Putin said making apologies for the past could give rise to "a balance sheet of who apologized how many times." And he added: "I think it would be more objective to note that we see the problems of our history and that we shall draw conclusions from this. We have great respect for the Polish people, we see all the problems of our past, and of course we shall draw conclusions for the future." JM

POLISH PARLIAMENT REJECTS EARLY EU REFERENDUM
The Sejm on 17 January voted by 328 to 96, with 12 abstentions, to reject a motion by the right-wing League of Polish Families (LPR) to hold a referendum on Poland's EU entry during this year's local government elections. Apart from the LPR, the motion was supported by the Self-Defense caucus. The same day the parliament elected nine members of the parliamentary committee for special services. JM

CZECH ARMY BUILDING FACILITY FOR TREATMENT OF BIOLOGICAL ATTACK VICTIMS
The Czech army is building a specialized hospital to treat victims of a possible biological attack as part of its new system of protection against such weapons, AP reported on 17 January. The head of the army's medical services, General Jan Petras, said the facility will also carry out research but will not store any dangerous substances. He said the Czech army will continue to honor the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Earlier reports said the facility is to be located near Hradec Kralove, some 100 kilometers east of Prague, but Petras refused to disclose its location. He said the hospital will be "a top facility that will work with classified information," and as such, "it falls under the rules of secrecy." MS

AUSTRIAN CHANCELLOR ATTEMPTS TO CALM ROW WITH PRAGUE
Wolfgang Schuessel said on 17 January that neighboring countries with centuries-long common history should find a dignified style of coexistence, "both before the Czech accession to the EU and afterward," Reuters reported. In an obvious allusion to the latest dispute triggered by Czech Premier Milos Zeman's description of Austria's Freedom Party (FPO) as "postfascist," Schuessel said: "We do not need a war of words, but positive words of friendship, which are sometimes painfully missed." In turn, Austrian Environment Minister Wilhelm Molterer, who negotiated with Prague the agreement on the Temelin nuclear power plant, said that "there will be no veto of the Czech accession to the EU" as a result of the referendum initiated by the FPO. Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, quoted by CTK, said she is confident that bilateral relations will "calm down," adding that "we must not allow ourselves to be pushed into the whirl of emotions in which a worsened atmosphere would preclude further dialogue." MS

CZECH SENATE APPROVES LOWER HOUSE VERSION OF ELECTORAL BILL
The Senate on 17 January approved the bill on amending the electoral law, which was passed by the Chamber of Deputies last year. Fifty-two out of the 74 senators present voted in favor of the amendment, which would make it possible to hold parliamentary elections in mid-2002. Under the amendment, balloting is to take place on two consecutive days in 14 electoral districts. The proportional system has been maintained and the d'Hondt system is to be used for the calculation of mandate distribution. The electoral hurdle is 5 percent, and an additional 5 percent is added for each member of an electoral alliance. This means that the Four Party Coalition, which is composed of three formations following the merger of the Freedom Union with the Democratic Union, must garner at least 15 percent to be represented in the legislature. The amendment must yet be signed by President Vaclav Havel. MS

CZECH ODA LEADER SAYS PARTNERS CANNOT DECIDE ON LISTS WITHOUT ODA CONSENT
Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) Chairman Michael Zantovsky said on Czech radio on 17 January that ODA's partners in the Four Party Coalition cannot decide on who will run on the joint lists for the 2002 elections without the consent of the ODA, CTK reported. The Christian Democratic Party (KDU-CSL) and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union are threatening to remove ODA candidates from the lists unless the ODA comes up with a solution for settling its debts that is acceptable to the other members of the alliance. Zantovsky said the coalition would lose its credibility if it does not respect its own binding agreements, and that any change in the agreement on the joint lists must be approved by all the members of the alliance. But KDU-CSL Chairman Cyril Svoboda said he "personally" thinks the solution proposed by the ODA for settling its debts is "not satisfactory," and that the Four Party Coalition should strike out the names of ODA candidates from the lists for the June 2002 elections to the Chamber of Deputies. He added that he "does not rule out" the possibility that ODA candidates could be included in the November 2002 local and Senate elections if the party has solved its debt problem by that time. MS

SLOVAK PREMIER READY TO MEET HUNGARIAN COUNTERPART TO DISCUSS STATUS LAW...
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda on 17 January briefed President Rudolf Schuster on the dispute with Hungary concerning the Status Law and told journalists after the meeting that if no agreement is reached with Budapest on the matter, he is prepared to go to Budapest or invite his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban to Bratislava to try to bridge their differences, TASR and CTK reported. Dzurinda said in response to Schuster's warning that if no agreement is reached, the Slovak parliament "would have to interfere...which is likely to provoke negative reactions on both sides," by saying he disagrees with the president's position that an agreement should have been reached before the Status Law came into effect in Hungary on 1 January, and that he believes no deadlines should be set. The premier said Foreign Ministry State Secretary Jaroslav Chlebo and his Hungarian counterpart Zsolt Nemeth are scheduled to meet in Budapest on 23 January and "if there is a chance of an agreement, I shall gladly send the foreign minister [Eduard Kukan] to Budapest." Dzurinda added that the best solution would be to exempt Slovakia from the law's implementation altogether, but admitted that he would also agree to making some of the Status Law's provisions not applicable on Slovak territory. The premier said he will "never agree" to having Slovakia "placed at disadvantage" by introducing foreign legislation on its territory or accepting discrimination among Slovakia's citizens. MS

...AS HUNGARIAN EMBASSY SAYS ORBAN'S 'GREATER HUNGARY' STATEMENT MISTRANSLATED
The Hungarian Embassy in Bratislava on 17 January said a statement attributed to Premier Orban, in which he allegedly made reference to "Greater Hungary" in a statement broadcast on Hungarian radio on 9 January, was due to mistranslating, TASR reported. The embassy reproduced the text of the statement, in which Orban said that "apart from the existing spiritual links, we have been waiting for 80 years for a legal link between the ceded parts of the Hungarian nation [and Hungary itself], a link that could strengthen the ties between those living on both sides of the border and that takes into consideration the large number of Hungarian families that live on either side as citizens of different countries." The media in Slovakia reproduced the statement as reading: "At last, after 80 years the Hungarian nation is uniting and is forming Greater Hungary." MS

ROMANY LANGUAGE TO BE USED IN SLOVAK SCHOOLS
Klara Orgovanova, government commissioner for Romany issues, said on 17 January that the Slovak Roma should be allowed the chance to be educated in their mother tongue in addition to the Slovak language, CTK reported. She said that for this purpose the Romany language needs codification in Slovak, as the dictionary and the grammar book put out in 1971 uses Czech-Romany translation. Orgovanova said the decision has been taken to "translate these books as suits Slovak needs," and that she hopes the effort will be successfully completed in the first quarter of 2002. She added that she does not believe the Romany language should be used as the only teaching language in Romany schools, but "could be a sort of helping language in classes where Romany pupils prevail." She also said she will promote creating a secondary school that would primarily prepare Romany students for working in state administration. MS

EU PLEDGES AID TO SLOVAKIA
The EU pledged on 17 January to grant Slovakia 43.5 million euros ($38.5) to help the country meet requirements for admission into the organization, AP reported. Part of the money is earmarked to improve the living conditions of the Romany minority. MS

HUNGARY'S FIDESZ ANNOUNCES PETITION DRIVE FOR 2012 OLYMPICS
FIDESZ Chairman Zoltan Pokorni announced on 17 January that his party will launch a nationwide drive to collect signatures supporting Hungary's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. He told reporters that the signatures will be presented to Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, when he visits Hungary in March. Pokorni described the games not only as a major cultural and sporting event, but also a major economic venture that could put Hungary "on a fast track." He estimates the costs of infrastructure upgrades necessary for staging the Olympics at 2,000-2,500 billion forints ($7-9 billion). This would include the construction of a highway ring around Budapest, a new subway line, new Danube bridges, and the expansion of Budapest airport. Opposition Socialist Party candidate for prime minister Peter Medgyessy and party Chairman Laszlo Kovacs called on Socialist supporters to back the initiative, although they said FIDESZ is treating the Olympics as a campaign issue. MSZ

BUNDESTAG SPEAKER PLEDGES GERMAN SUPPORT FOR HUNGARY'S EU ACCESSION
Wolfgang Thierse, the speaker of the German Bundestag, told Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi in Budapest on 17 January that the EU agrees that differentiated treatment of candidate countries is necessary and the slowest candidates should not determine the pace of expansion, Hungarian media reported. Thierse also said that Germany's Social Democrat deputies are already working on a draft resolution that will call on the government to do its best to assist Hungary's accession into the EU. Germany and France will not slow down accession talks, despite the fact that this year is an election year in Hungary, he added. MSZ

BUDAPEST GHETTO COMMEMORATION TURNS INTO POLITICAL DEMONSTRATION
A commemoration on 17 January marking the 57th anniversary of the liberation of the Budapest Jewish Ghetto by the Soviet Union's Red Army turned into a political demonstration, with Budapest Mayor Gabor Demszky speaking out against growing anti-Semitism in Hungarian society, Hungarian and international media reported. Demszky told a crowd of some 3,000 that this phenomenon had been propagated by state media organs. "I would like to talk to the new ghetto walls about those who freely speak the fascist language of their predecessors," he said. The commemoration, which in previous years has taken place at Budapest's Dohany Street synagogue, was for the first time held in front of Hungary's parliament building. Some commemorators held antigovernment signs, while other signs read "Free Country Without Fear," or "Stop the Building of Ghetto Walls." Foreign Minister Martonyi was whistled down during his speech when he quoted Pope John Paul II as calling for unity among religions. The event, organized by representatives of Hungary's Jewish community, was also attended by Chief Rabbi Peter Kardos and by Socialist Party premiership candidate Medgyessy. MSZ

BOSNIA TURNS OVER SIX ARABS TO THE U.S...
Ivica Misic, who heads Bosnia's antiterrorism team, told Reuters in Sarajevo on 18 January that the authorities have handed over six Algerian nationals to the U.S. Embassy. The previous day, Bosnia's Supreme Court ordered the release of the six, who had been detained in October 2001 on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities. The court ruled that there is not enough evidence to justify holding them (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 September 2001 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 September 2001, and 2 November 2001). The handover was delayed by an all-night standoff outside the jail between police and some 300 relatives and supporters of the men. At about 5:00 a.m., police used batons to disperse the protesters and enable the transfer of the prisoners to take place. RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported that the Bosnian presidency will meet on 18 January in a scheduled meeting. An additional item on the agenda will be to discuss the legality of the handover in light of the court's ruling. PM

...WHO WILL GO TO GUANTANAMO
In Sarajevo on 18 January, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement that "we have taken custody of these individuals due to our concern about their activity in [Bosnia], which both posed a credible security threat to U.S. personnel and facilities and demonstrated involvement in international terrorism," Reuters reported. In Stuttgart, Germany, a U.S. military spokesman said that the six are now in the custody of U.S. armed forces in an unspecified "secure location," AP reported. A U.S. military statement added: "The authorities of Bosnia-Herzegovina and United States government believe that the six detained Algerian nationals still pose a significant threat." Speaking on condition of anonymity, a high-ranking U.S. official in Europe said that the men will soon be taken to the detention facility in Guantanamo, Cuba. PM

BOSNIA BANS OIL IMPORTS FROM CROATIA
The Council of Ministers agreed in Sarajevo on 17 January to ban imports of oil and oil products shipped by road from Croatia as of 20 January, Hina reported. The move is aimed at preventing Croatia's state-run INA oil company from reaping unfair advantage from a Croatian ban on Slovenian and other foreign oil transporters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 17 January 2002). In Ljubljana, the government decided to lodge a complaint against Croatia with the European Commission and the WTO, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

FOG FORCES ROBERTSON TO POSTPONE TRIP TO MACEDONIA
A NATO spokesman said in Skopje on 18 January that thick fog over the Macedonian capital has forced Secretary-General Lord George Robertson to briefly postpone a planned visit, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2002). Speaking in Albania the day before, Robertson warned against any renewal of violence in Macedonia. "There's no excuse for anybody to resort to violence. The Lake Ohrid agreement must be implemented, and must be implemented soon," AP quoted him as saying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2001). PM

ROMANIAN OPPOSITION PARTY LEADERS SIGN MERGER AGREEMENT
Valeriu Stoica, the chairman of the National Liberal Party (PNL), and Theodor Melescanu, the chairman of the Alliance for Romania (APR), on 17 January signed the protocol of the merger between their formations, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The merger is to be approved at a PNL extraordinary congress on 19 January. Melescanu will become PNL first deputy chairman and APR Deputy Chairman Viorel Catarama will be one of the PNL deputy chairmen. Catarama is a former prominent leader of the PNL and has already held the position to which he now returns. Stoica and Melescanu said the merged formation intends to become the "other political pole" in Romanian politics as an alternative to the ruling Social Democratic Party. MS

MACEDONIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS SECURITY SITUATION 'DETERIORATING'
Ljubco Georgievski said in Skopje on 17 January that "our intelligence indicates a renewed outbreak of the crisis in Macedonia," AP reported. EU envoy Alain Le Roy dismissed such allegations recently as unfounded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2002, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 and 18 January 2002). There has been speculation in recent weeks that Macedonian hard-liners close to Georgievski may be seeking an excuse for a new armed campaign against Albanians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2001). An ambush of paramilitary police by armed Albanians in November chastened the hard-liners for a time (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 November 2001). PM

ETHNIC ALBANIAN POLITICIAN KILLED IN KOSOVA
Unidentified gunmen killed Ismail Hajdaraj outside his home in Peja in the evening of 17 January, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. A spokesman for the UN civilian administration (UNMIK) declined to comment on any possible motive for the killing. Hajdaraj was a member of the Kosova parliament for Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosova (LDK). An RFE/RL correspondent in Prishtina said there has been an increase in unspecified pressure on LDK officials recently. It is not clear if there is any connection between Hajdaraj's death and attacks on other LDK officials over the past year, or whether the killing was politically motivated. PM

ANNAN CALLS FOR COMPROMISE IN KOSOVA
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York on 17 January that the time has come for the Kosova parliament to reach a "constructive compromise" and choose a leadership for the province, AP reported. "I hope that those elected will use their mandates wisely and will reach out to one another, in the spirit of mutual respect and tolerance and constructive compromise," Annan said. He added that "the time it is taking to elect a president and form a government is an indication of the difficulties that will have to be overcome" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 January 2002). Referring to the killing of Hajdaraj, Annan stressed that Kosova's political leadership "must clearly and openly reject violence and terrorism." PM

ALBANIAN WRITER CALLS ON CHIRAC AND EU ON BEHALF OF KOSOVAR PRISONERS
Ismail Kadare, who lives in France and is widely regarded as the greatest living Albanian writer, called on French President Jacques Chirac and the EU to work for the release of the remaining Kosovar "political prisoners" in Serbian jails, Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service reported on 16 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2001). Kadare noted that Chirac and the other EU leaders have influence in Belgrade, adding that he does not understand why the EU tolerates the fact that Serbia holds the last political prisoners in Europe. He said that he made his appeal in response to a letter he received from unnamed prisoners. PM

ROMANIA TO PROMOTE NEW MEASURES TO FACILITATE NATO MEMBERSHIP EFFORTS
After a meeting of the cabinet chaired by President Ion Iliescu, the head of state and Premier Adrian Nastase told journalists that the cabinet has decided to launch special measures aimed at improving Romania's chances of being admitted to NATO at the organization's Prague summit later this year, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The measures include the continuation and intensification of reforms in the military, the coordination of activities of all ministries, and international lobbying. Romania is also to host a meeting in March of premiers of the 10 NATO candidate countries to coordinate their positions. Nastase said that such measures must be combined with the intensification of the struggle against corruption, as well as with measures aimed at improving the situation of the needy. He announced that the cabinet will grant aid to help the weakest strata pay heating bills during the winter. He also said NATO accession is closely related to success in the struggle against corruption. Within those measures, the cabinet deemed the performance of Bucharest prefect Ioan Mihai Luican "unsatisfactory," and replaced him with Military Prosecutor Gabriel Oprea, who is also a law professor. Nastase also announced that Petre Lificiu is replacing Aurel Constantin Ilie, who has been appointed ambassador to Russia, as environment minister. MS

ROMANIAN CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT WIDENS
According to "Business Eastern Europe," Romania's current account deficit rose to $1.6 billion in the first 10 months of 2001 from $956 million during the same period of 2000. The rise was due mainly to a rapid increase in the foreign trade deficit, which soared to $2.2 billion from just $1.1 billion in January-October 2000. However, the services deficit narrowed from $200 million in 2000 to $141 million, while the income deficit was reduced from $285 to $244 million. Romania's gross foreign debt totaled $11.1 billion at the end of October 2000. MS

MONTENEGRIN-SERBIAN TALKS TO CONTINUE
U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia William Montgomery said in Podgorica on 17 January that talks between Montenegrin and Belgrade political leaders will take place in seven days' time, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In Belgrade, Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said he hopes that Serbia and Montenegro remain together in one state (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 December 2001). PM

RUSSIAN NEWS AGENCY LAUNCHES ANOTHER BALKAN CANARD
The office of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said in a statement in Belgrade on 17 January that there is no truth to a report by the Rome bureau of ITAR-TASS, which quoted Kostunica as saying that Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic have been arrested, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The Rome bureau of the Russian news agency put out a report in September on Kosova that was also totally false (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2001). PM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS MOLDOVAN AUTHORITIES' DECISION ON RUSSIAN CLASSES 'UNNATURAL'
President Iliescu said on Romanian television on 17 January that the decision by the Moldovan authorities to introduce compulsory Russian-language classes in schools is "unnatural and undemocratic," Mediafax reported. Iliescu said the protests organized by the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) against the decision are "well-founded," and that Romania "will try to help" the protesters. But he added that his country "cannot interfere in Moldova's internal affairs." MS

MOLDOVAN GOVERNMENT REFUSES TO DISCUSS CHISINAU PROTESTS
Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev told a delegation of the parliamentary group of the PPCD that participated in closed-door government meeting that his cabinet "owes nothing" to the protest demonstrators in the capital, and is refusing to place the protest demonstrations on its agenda, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The premier said a special governmental commission will discuss and respond to the protest petition that was signed by 25,000 people who oppose the introduction of compulsory Russian-language classes. As the protests in Chisinau continued, PPCD leader Iurie Rosca said in a letter to Justice Minister Ioan Morei that not the PPCD, but its parliamentary group, organized the meeting of protest and that the right of parliamentarians to meet with their electors is enshrined in the constitution. Rosca warned that the threat to outlaw the PPCD will not diminish, but rather strengthen the protest. MS

PACE CHAIRMAN MEETS MOLDOVAN OFFICIALS
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Chairman Lord Russell-Johnston met on 17 January with President Vladimir Voronin and said after the meeting that the main topic discussed was the Transdniester conflict, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. He said the Council of Europe has always opposed Transdniester's "separatism," which is, he said, linked to "the mafia and to corruption." Russell-Johnston, who is ending his tenure later this year, said he hopes an agreement on border delimitation with Romania will soon be reached and that the dispute with Ukraine over setting up joint border controls will also be settled. He refused to comment on the ongoing protest demonstration in Chisinau, saying the problem is "strictly the competence of the Moldovan government." Voronin told journalists that the protest is "too insignificant" to have been brought up in the discussions with Russell-Johnston. MS

RUSSIAN CONTINGENT IN TRANSDNIESTER GETS NEW COMMANDER
General Boris Sergeev has been appointed commander of the Operative Group of Russian Troops in the Transdniester, Infotag reported on 17 January. Sergeev replaces General Valerii Yevnevich, who has been appointed deputy commander in chief of Russian peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, the Transdniester, Abkhazia, and Ossetia. Sergeev was chief of staff of the Transdniester contingent under Yevnevich. MS

BULGARIA SENDS ENVOY TO AFGHANISTAN
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Elena Poptodorova told journalists on 17 January that diplomat Angel Orbetsov will be sent to Kabul the next day as a "special envoy," BTA reported. She said Bulgaria may become the first country to send a diplomatic representative to Afghanistan's new government. She also said that the Bulgarian offer of humanitarian aid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2002) for Afghanistan consists of blankets and tents, and will be considered at the donors conference in Tokyo on 21-22 January. Poptodorova added that at the conference concrete possibilities for the participation of Bulgarian companies in the reconstruction of Afghanistan will be discussed, and that Sofia "expects experience to be a factor in the selection" of the companies that will participate in that country's reconstruction. Also on 17 January, Defense Minister Nikolai Svinarov told journalists that up to 40 Bulgarian enlisted professional soldiers will leave by mid-February to participate in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan as part of the British-led International Security Assistance Force. The decision of the Bulgarian government is yet to be approved by the parliament. MS

EBRD TO FINANCE BULGARIAN PROJECTS
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) announced on 17 January that in the next three years it will extend to Bulgaria loans in value of up to 500 million euros ($540 million), AP reported. The money will be available for financing 42 projects for privatization, and banking and infrastructure development. One of the projects envisions the purchase of a 20 percent stake by the EBRD in Bulgaria's DKS, the country's largest savings bank, which is slated for privatization. MS

BULGARIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH FORCES AMERICAN MOVIE OFF THE AIR
Bowing to protests from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, State television decided to cancel the planned television broadcast of the film "The Last Temptation of Christ," AP reported on 17 January. The film, which is directed by Martin Scorsese, is based on the novel of the same name by Greek writer Nikos Kazantsakis, and was to be aired on 18 January. MS

THE DEMISE OF THE RUSSIAN PRESIDENT'S PARDONS COMMISSION


No heart is more merciful than the tsar's, the old saying goes. Russian President Vladimir Putin stood that proverb on its head on 27 December 2001 when he issued a decree dissolving the presidential Pardons Commission and giving its functions to new commissions in Russia's 89 regions, based in the office of the president or governor. This move raises some important questions.

The first presidential pardons commission was established in the late 1980s by then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Its job was to consider petitions from prisoners and recommend whom the president should pardon or release in one of the periodic amnesties that heralded important public holidays. Traditionally around 15 officials did the job, from law enforcement agencies like the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the Justice Ministry. They worked behind closed doors and recommended fewer than 10 pardons each year -- although some of these went to prisoners convicted of serious crimes, even murder. A similar role was earlier played by the USSR Supreme Soviet.

1992 saw the appearance of a new breed of commission, when then-President Boris Yeltsin appointed the first public body under the chairmanship of the well-known writer, Anatolii Pristavkin. Over time Pristavkin was joined by writers like Bulat Okudzhava and religious leaders like Father Alexander Borisov, all of whom were moral authorities in their own right. The most remarkable thing about this commission was that it courted public opinion and its members were unanimously committed to abolishing the death penalty. The commission met twice weekly and would recommend over 2,000 prisoners for clemency each year. Possibly its greatest triumph came in 1999, after the Constitutional Court had ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in the absence of a nationwide jury system. The commission ensured in July 1999 that the more than 1,000 prisoners still on death row had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

President Putin's decree ends a long game of cat-and-mouse with Pristavkin. Since he became president in 2000, Putin is said to have delayed responding to the commission's recommendations, then sent them for a second opinion from federal law enforcement agencies. In October 2000, penal institutions throughout Russia received a letter from the Justice Ministry instructing them to restrict the number of petitions to the president. In 2001, Pristavkin complained that he was being smeared, and that his commission's recommendations no longer reached President Putin himself. He said no one had benefited from clemency in the first half of the year.

The new pardons procedure poses more questions than answers at this stage. The first of these is what will happen to the thousands of petitions that were scheduled for consideration by the presidential commission? Pristavkin has said they will be sent to pardons commissions in the regions where they originated. But these commissions do not actually exist yet. Nor is it known what their mandate will be when they are set up, or who will staff them.

Opinions are mixed about decentralizing the clemency system. Those who welcome it say that it will take prisoners out of a "federal lottery" and increase their chances of receiving a pardon. In Saratov, for instance, where no prisoner was pardoned in 2000, officials and academics are in favor. Saratov, however, is a sophisticated manufacturing zone in central Russia, with an interest in prison reform and a much-vaunted social consensus between its governor, Dmitrii Ayatskov, and civil society. It also has one of the most articulate new regional parliamentary ombudsmen, Alexander Lando. Other regions are not so well endowed, and it is far from certain that prisoners there would improve their chances of clemency under the new system. The one certain thing, critics say, is that the appearance of 89 local commissions will encourage bribery on an industrial scale.

Corruption aside, important constitutional issues are also at stake. Every convict in Russia has the right to petition for clemency under Article 50 of the constitution, and pardon is the exclusive gift of the head of state. No role is foreseen here for governors. To be constitutional, the new commissions must still send their recommendations to the president -- and if they do, how will the procedure be any more manageable than before?

To people living outside Russia, the importance attached to "clemency" is hard to understand. It seems like a hangover from tsarist times that Russia would be better off without. In practice, however, it is a realistic way for prisoners to achieve remission on various grounds, in a country with no effective parole system. Russia's Penal Code is still severe and sends people to prison for offences that in other countries might be punished by fines or community service. Although the courts can grant early release to prisoners, they have proved reluctant to do so. It is this gap in the criminal justice system that the president's Pardons Commission has tended to fill. To their credit, Pristavkin and his fellow commissioners always portrayed their work in this wider context.

Pristavkin's commission often said its aim was to humanize the penal system and prepare public opinion for Russia's ratification of Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights. This protocol abolishes the death penalty forever in peacetime, and when it joined the Council of Europe Russia promised to ratify it by 1999. That deadline passed over two years ago. By dismissing Russia's chief advocate of Protocol 6, President Putin has sent a provocative signal to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg that is unlikely to be ignored.

It is often said that Russia needs more clemency, not less. Will 89 pardons commissions provide it? That is yet to be seen. Pristavkin has been given a courtesy post as "presidential adviser." President Putin might be advised to make rapid progress on the death penalty and on parole if he wishes to sell his changes to the outside world.

Marjorie Farquharson writes on human rights issues and travels frequently to the Russian Federation.

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