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Newsline - September 24, 2002


DEFENSE MINISTER DISMISSES GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S INVITATION TO SEND OBSERVERS TO PANKISI
Speaking at a news conference in Madrid, Sergei Ivanov confirmed on 23 September that Russia has been invited by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to send unarmed military observers to the Pankisi Gorge, ORT and other Russian news agencies reported. However, Ivanov said the invitation is not enough to assuage Russian concerns. "Our cooperation with Georgia can be reduced to a simple formula: how, when, and where to neutralize and destroy terrorists," Ivanov was quoted as saying. "All the rest is empty talk." Ivanov also accused Georgian authorities of allowing terrorists to leave Pankisi. He said Russia will continue to insist on Georgian compliance with UN resolutions on combating terrorism but added, "Russia will respect Georgia's sovereignty and has nothing against it entering any international alliance or against the construction of pipelines on its territory." VY

...AS SPS LEADER SAYS SHEVARDNADZE MUST GO...
Speaking to journalists in St. Petersburg, Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader and Duma Deputy Boris Nemtsov said President Shevardnadze is not in control of the situation in his country and should resign to create room for a more "modern leader," RosBalt reported on 23 September. He added that it is senseless to ask Shevardnadze to bring order to the Pankisi Gorge, but it would also be politically insane for Russia to act there unilaterally. He urged the government to involve the United States in Russian-Georgian talks. Unilaterally pressuring Shevardnadze could create an effect similar to that observed when Western sanctions against former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic provoked resistance even among those who opposed Milosevic. VY

...AND DEFENDS PARTY'S STAND ON REFERENDUM AMENDMENTS
SPS voted in favor of controversial amendments to the law on referendums on 20 September "in order to save democracy," Nemtsov said on 23 September, according to RosBalt. Nemtsov said that referendums have frequently been used for antidemocratic ends in several countries of the former Soviet Union, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. "Kyrgyz President [Askar] Akaev is also thinking about a similar referendum," Nemtsov claimed. He went on to note that "Russia is not Sweden; it is not Switzerland" and said that the changes would prevent "certain lickspittles from holding a 2007 referendum on granting the president a third term." In addition, Nemtsov criticized the Communist Party's proposed referendum as "dishonest." "The question about nationalizing the oil and gas industries and the energy, transport, and communications sectors is really about changing our system of government, about a civil war in which the blood of innocent people will be shed, about the flight of the oligarchs and capital from the country," he said. RC

STATE COUNCIL PROPOSES NEW FEDERAL ORGAN TO COMBAT DRUGS...
Deputy chief of the presidential staff Aleksandr Abramov announced that a special session of the State Council on 24 September will be chaired by President Vladimir Putin and will discuss illegal drugs as "a threat to Russia's national security," Russian news agencies reported. Abramov, who heads a special working group evaluating the country's antidrug policies, said his group has proposed creating a new federal agency to combat drug trafficking and bolstering border defenses along the frontiers with countries from which drugs are brought into Russia, especially Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. The working group has also suggested draconian antidrug laws and new legislation aimed at preventing drug addiction. Abramov, for instance, advocates creating a legislative basis for compulsory medical treatment for drug addicts. He estimates that 3 million-3.5 million Russians regularly use illegal drugs and at least 5 million young Russians have tried narcotics at least once. RIA-Novosti on 23 September quoted an unidentified State Council source as saying: "Drug addiction is a youth problem that is directly linked to the development of the state. Further deterioration can lead to the loss of an entire generation, which will cause far-reaching social and economic problems for Russia." VY

...AS CHINA SENTENCES RUSSIAN CITIZEN TO DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKING...
An unidentified 24-year-old female resident of Primorskii Krai has been sentenced to death by firing squad in the Chinese city of Kunmin for drug trafficking, data.ru and other Russian news services reported on 24 September. According to the report, the woman was initially involved in prostitution in Beijing, where she met several Azerbaijani citizens who hired her as a drug courier in China. Despite pleas from Russian diplomats, Chinese officials have refused to intervene in the woman's case. However, the court also sentenced her to a two-year probation period during which she will be held in a local prison. If she completes the probation period without incident, her death sentence will be reviewed. VY

...AND FEDERATION COUNCIL CHAIRMAN TO UNDERGO DRUG TESTING
Sergei Mironov and other unnamed national political figures will voluntarily undergo a blood test for illegal drugs on 26 September as part of the first public demonstration by the newly registered Party of Life, RosBalt reported on 23 September. According to Nikolai Levichev, a member of the party's ruling council who is widely considered the party's leading ideologue, the purpose of the demonstration is to show support for the new testing procedure, which was developed by Russian scientists. "When we become a parliamentary faction, we will introduce in the Duma a bill obligating representatives of a number of professions to undergo similar testing. Such methods of control have been adopted throughout the civilized world," Levichev was quoted as saying. He added that the role of the new party "is not to promote particular individuals or to take part in political shows, but to work concretely on issues that touch the lives of citizens." RC

LIBERAL WEEKLY ALLEGES LINKS BETWEEN WALKING TOGETHER AND SKINHEADS
"Novaya gazeta," No. 70, reported on alleged links between the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together and Moscow skinhead groups. According to the weekly, the head of the northeast section of the Moscow chapter of Walking Together, Aleksei Mitryushin, was formally the head of a skinhead group called The Rabid Stallions, which the paper says "particularly distinguished itself" during the June soccer riots in downtown Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 13 June 2002). Mitryushin is quoted in the article as admitting his past connection with The Rabid Stallions and said that his colleagues at Walking Together are aware of it. The weekly also quoted an unidentified police source describing a Walking Together demonstration on 9 May. "Confident columns approach Red Square. The teens take off their armbands with swastikas, unpin their 'White Power' badges, and hide their brown leather jackets in bags. They pull on T-shirts with the face [of President Putin] and the slogan 'Together on one path!' And they march on," the source said. Finally, the weekly quoted an unidentified alleged member of a skinhead group called United Brigade-88. "Walking Together approached us.... They use us, but we have our own interest -- financial. Back then a meeting was called to defend NTV at Ostankino, and we were ordered to break it up. We were given a certain sum of money," the source was quoted as saying. RC

RUSSIA WILL MODERNIZE RAIL LINKS TO NORTH KOREA...
Railways Minister Gennadii Fadeev announced in Nizhnii Novgorod on 21 September that in 2003 his agency will upgrade the 240-kilometer link between the Trans-Siberian Railway (TransSib) and the North Korean railroad system, Russian news agencies reported. Fadeev also said that the TransSib is currently carrying about 90,000 containers per year, although it has a capacity of about 1.5 million. He revealed that Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and China are in the process of creating a transcontinental transport consortium with the potential to bring Russia several billion dollars of annual revenue. Fadeev said that his ministry's short-term goal is to increase cargo on the line from Asia to Europe to 150,000 containers per year and from Europe to Asia to 50,000. VY

...AS CARGO MOVES INTO THE FAST LANE
The first express container train from St. Petersburg to Khabarovsk departed on 22 September, RosBalt reported on 23 September. The train, which is carrying 123 containers, will make the trip in nine days and 13 hours, compared to the normal traveling time for freight trains of 20-25 days. According to railroad officials, the new express freight trains will depart from both cities once each week. RC

REAL DEATH TOLL FROM GLACIER SLIDE LIKELY TO BE MUCH HIGHER THAN OFFICIAL TALLY
Seventeen people have been officially declared dead, while at least 95 remain missing following a glacier avalanche in North Ossetia on 20 September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2002), Interfax and Reuters reported late on 23 September, citing the head of the republic's government Mikhail Shatalov. An Interior Ministry official noted that it will be difficult to determine the exact number of victims since a large number of them are refugees from South Ossetia and other parts of Georgia who as a rule do not register their place of residence, Interfax reported. In an interview with the agency, Shatalov ruled out the possibility that the avalanche had been triggered by terrorists. Among those missing are not only the well-known actor and director Sergei Bodrov, but also several members of the republican parliament, republican election commission, and North Ossetia State University, "Izvestiya" reported. The republic has declared 26 September a day of mourning, strana.ru reported. JAC

NTV JOINS U.S. CABLE NETWORK
NTV, Russia's third-largest national television broadcaster, has announced that it has signed a contract with EchoStar, one of the largest U.S. satellite-television operators, polit.ru reported on 24 September. Under the deal, EchoStar will make NTV programming available to U.S. viewers. Subscribers to EchoStar's cable system DishNetwork will receive NTV as part of their basic package and other cable clients will be able to purchase it. VY

VOLGA REGION APPEALS TO CENTER FOR DEBT RELIEF
Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast Governor Gennadii Khodyrev has sent an appeal to President Putin asking him to postpone the oblast's payment of 670 million rubles ($21 million) to the federal Finance Ministry from the end of this year to next year, "Vedomosti" reported on 20 September. Khodyrev noted that the oblast needs the help this year because it must pay $50 million to external creditors. The region took out a Eurobond for $100 million in 1997. An unidentified source at the ministry told "Vedomosti" the Kremlin is unlikely to agree to Khodyrev's request because it has refused other regions in similar situations. JAC

KREMLIN FEARS ELECTION FAILURE
Meanwhile, another unidentified Kremlin source told RIA-Novosti on 23 September that it fears the second round of mayoral elections in Nizhnii Novgorod scheduled for 29 September will be declared invalid because a large number of voters will vote against all candidates. The former frontrunner, Andrei Klimentiev, whose registration as a candidate was canceled on the eve of the 15 September first round (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September 2002), has called upon his supporters to vote against all candidates. JAC

ELECTION TSAR TO TRY TO HOLD ONTO POST
Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told reporters on 23 September that he intends to seek a second term, polit.ru reported. Veshnyakov's current term and those of other commission members expire in March 2003. It is believed that Deputy Chairman Valentin Vlasov will be transferred to diplomatic work, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 September. According to the daily, Vlasov will be named ambassador to Malta. Sergei Bolshakov, a member of the current commission and a former election official from Sverdlovsk Oblast, is considered by some sources as a likely replacement for Vlasov. JAC

VOLOSHIN CALLED THE REAL LOSER IN SIBERIAN RACE
Newly elected Governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai Aleksandr Khloponin said he is sure presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin supported the candidacy of his competitor, krai legislature Speaker Aleksandr Uss, in the 22 September race, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 23 September. Khloponin reportedly alleged that the Defense Ministry, at Voloshin's behest, ordered troops in the krai to vote for Uss. According to the daily, Khloponin's campaign staff believes that Voloshin and his deputies work closely with Russian Aluminum head Oleg Deripaska, who also backed Uss. Earlier, other publications speculated that Khloponin was supported by the so-called St. Petersburg faction in the Kremlin and government. JAC

CRIMINALS, OLIGARCHS BELIEVED TO DOMINATE RUSSIAN ELITE
RBK conducted a survey in which they found only 8 percent of respondents consider politicians to be members of the country's elite, "Profil," No. 34, reported. Bandits or criminals were the most popular choice with 28 percent of respondents. Oligarchs came in second with 23 percent, followed by scientists with 18 percent, artists with 7 percent, military figures with 1 percent, and others with 15 percent. JAC

LOCAL COURT JOINS CAMPAIGN OF PRESSURE AGAINST POLITICAL OPPOSITION IN KALMYKIA
Registration of candidates for 20 October presidential elections in the Republic of Kalmykia has closed, and nine candidates have been registered, strana.ru reported on 23 September. Among them are current President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Natalya Manzhikova, the head of the local branch of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS). According to "Vremya MN" on 21 September, a municipal court in Elista, the republic's capital, has ordered the SPS branch to accept 150 new members. SPS has been resisting doing so because they believe that the sudden petition of 150 people to join the party is a ploy by local authorities to overwhelm the small organization with its own people and elect new leaders for the branch. Earlier, the party's press service reported that members of the local political elite had allegedly been pressuring local SPS members to accept alternative leadership with threats against their lives and livelihoods (see "RFE/RL Newsline,"31 July 2002). JAC

STATE SECTOR KEEPS GROWING?
Unemployment in Russia has dropped for the ninth consecutive month, but the number of new jobs created was higher in the "stagnant state sector" than in private business, "Vedomosti" reported on 20 September. According to the State Statistics Committee, the number of unemployed fell in August to its lowest level since April 1994. Yevgenii Gavrilenkov, chief economist at the Troika Dialog brokerage, pointed out that although labor productivity in the state sector has not increased, the government has raised wages for state-sector workers. According to data from June, the number of jobs in industry, construction, agriculture, and transportation declined, while jobs in the financial, arts and culture, health-care, and trade sectors rose. However, co-Chairman of Brunswick UBS Warburg Denis Rodionov suggested that official statistics understate the creation of new jobs among small and medium-sized enterprises. JAC

SMOKE NO LONGER GETTING IN MUSCOVITES' EYES
The high concentration of smoke and other pollutants in the air around Moscow has eased, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 September, citing the city's Environmental Protection Office. Air quality was particularly poor in the capital during the first half of September as a result of sparse rainfall and forest fires in the surrounding areas that created a thick smog (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 September 2002). Weather specialists reported that visibility was low on the morning of 23 September due to fog rather than smog. JAC

SIBERIAN CITY BESIEGED BY LADYBUGS
Hordes of ladybugs have invaded the city of Gorno-Altaisk in Altai Krai, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 September. According to the agency, millions of ladybugs arrive in the city every September and coat the walls of houses and office buildings. Because of allergies, the number of residents seeking medical help rises dramatically with the arrival of the ladybugs. A well-known local gardener and biologist, Yurii Buryi, appealed to fellow residents not to destroy the insects but to collect them and put them under trees since they destroy pests that can harm trees. The bulk of the ladybugs are expected to leave the city in two or three weeks. JAC

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT FACTION ELECTS NEW LEADER
The Agro-Industrial People's Union (AAZhM) parliament faction on 23 September elected as its leader Vladimir Badalian, who quit the opposition People's Party of Armenia last year due to that party's increasingly tough opposition to the policies of the current leadership, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Badalian is now considered a loyal supporter of President Robert Kocharian; his daughter is engaged to Kocharian's elder son. AAZhM faction members recently accused faction head Hmayak Hovannisian of incompetence, after which he stepped down amid mutual acrimonious statements (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 31, 23 September 2002). LF

ARMENIA COMMISSIONS NEW SWITCHING STATION
The Agarak switching station close to the Armenian-Iranian border went into operation on 19 September, according to Noyan Tapan and Armenian Television, as cited by Groong. An Armenian-Iranian joint venture, the station will stabilize and increase the volume of electricity exchange between the two countries. LF

KARABAKH PREMIER REQUESTS INCREASE IN ECONOMIC AID FROM ARMENIA
President Kocharian met on 23 September with Arkadii Ghukasian and Anushavan Danielian, the president and prime minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, to discuss the socioeconomic situation in the enclave, Noyan Tapan reported. Danielian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he believes Armenia should increase its annual financial assistance to Karabakh from 9 billion drams ($16.07 million) to 12 billion drams given that Stepanakert does not impose either customs duties or VAT on goods imported from Armenia. He calculated that such taxes would have brought Karabakh an additional 6 billion drams annually. The Karabakh budget for 2002 envisages 12.35 million drams in expenditures and only 2.84 billion drams in revenues, which means the Armenian aid covers the budget deficit. Danielian predicted that foreign direct investment will exceed $5 million this year and rise "dramatically" in 2003. LF

AZERBAIJAN, RUSSIA SIGN AGREEMENT ON CASPIAN DELIMITATION...
Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev arrived in Moscow on 23 September for a working visit, the high point of which was the signing the same day with Russian President Vladimir Putin of the long-awaited agreement delimitating the two countries' respective sectors of the Caspian Sea bed. In April, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko said the agreement had been finalized and would be signed during Aliev's visit to St. Petersburg in early June. But in June, Khristenko said that certain "technical aspects" of the wording of the agreement still needed to be finalized (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 June 2002). Noting that Russia earlier signed a comparable agreement with Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 1998), Putin predicted that the continued application of the principle of dividing the seabed and the mineral resources that lie beneath it while agreeing on the common use of the sea's waters and surface will result in mutual agreement between all five Caspian littoral states on the status and equitable division of the sea. Iran and Turkmenistan still reject that principle. LF

...POSITIVELY ASSESS BILATERAL RELATIONS...
During their talks on 23 September, Putin said he is "glad" that relations with Azerbaijan "have been developing so intensively of late," ITAR-TASS reported. He noted that trade and economic cooperation in particular have expanded since the beginning of this year. Aliev for his part said the turning point in bilateral relations came during Putin's visit to Baku in January 2001. Representatives of the two countries' governments signed two bilateral accords on 23 September, on the mutual recognition of education diplomas and on cooperation in the military-industrial sector. LF

...AS STATE DUMA SPEAKER VISITS BAKU
President Aliev assured visiting Russian State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev in Baku on 22 September that Azerbaijan regards Russia as "a strategic partner," Turan and Russian news agencies reported. At the same time, Aliev expressed his concern at the failure to resolve the Karabakh conflict, noting that since Putin's advent to power Russia has modified its earlier bias toward Armenia. But at the same time Aliev expressed regret that the investigation launched in 1997 into allegedly illegal shipments of Russian arms to Armenia has been shelved. He assured Seleznev that Russian oil companies are welcome to participate in developing Azerbaijan's hydrocarbon resources, and that Azerbaijan will continue to export oil via the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline. Speaking to journalists the same day, Seleznev deplored the recent acts of violence against Azerbaijanis in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 September 2002). On 23 September, Seleznev met with Azerbaijan's top Islamic cleric Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakhshukur Pashazade and with representatives of the country's Russian minority. LF

TURKEY TO CONTINUE MILITARY AID TO AZERBAIJAN
During talks in Baku on 21 September, Lieutenant General Saffet Kayan, who heads the logistics department of the Turkish armed forces' General Staff, assured Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev that Ankara will continue to provide financial and technical support to the Azerbaijani armed forces, including to the Air Force, Turan reported on 23 September. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT INVITES RUSSIA TO SEND MILITARY OBSERVERS TO PANKISI...
During his traditional Monday radio broadcast, President Eduard Shevardnadze suggested on 23 September that Russia send unarmed military observers to the Pankisi Gorge to monitor the ongoing "anticrime and antiterrorism" operation there, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. But "Vremya novostei" on 24 September quoted Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii as saying that no such official Georgian proposal has been received in Moscow. Yastrzhembskii added that Russia is interested only in "real interaction" in ridding the gorge of international "terrorists." Also on 23 September, Georgian Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili said the "active phase" of the operation in Pankisi will be completed within 10 days, while State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania said that virtually all Chechen fighters and criminals left the gorge for Russia when the operation got under way, Caucasus Press reported. LF

...ASSESSES FINANCIAL BENEFIT FROM BTC
Shevardnadze also discussed during his 23 September radio broadcast the anticipated financial benefits to Georgia from the construction and use of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil-export pipeline, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. He pointed out that construction of the pipeline, which is expected to be completed in early 2005, will create thousands of new jobs and raise Georgia's GDP by 10 percent. Transit fees alone once the pipeline is operational will bring Georgia $63 million annually, Shevardnadze forecast. LF

KAZAKHSTAN, SLOVENIA SIGN ECONOMIC-COOPERATION AGREEMENT
During talks in Astana on 23 September, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his visiting Slovenian counterpart Milan Kucan discussed the prospects for expanding bilateral economic cooperation and for the export of some of Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea oil via the planned Constanta-Trieste pipeline, ITAR-TASS reported. Kucan told a press conference after the talks that Slovenia sees partnership with Kazakhstan as an opportunity to enter the Russian and CIS markets, while it in turn could offer Kazakhstan access to EU markets, Interfax reported. Kazakhstan's Industry and Trade Minister Mazhit Esembaev and Slovenian Economy Minister Tea Petrin signed an agreement on bilateral trade and economic cooperation, However, as Nazarbaev pointed out, the legislative basis for such cooperation still requires improvement. LF

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT MEETS WITH U.S. OFFICIALS
Askar Akaev met in Washington on 23 September with U.S. President George W. Bush, whose approval he secured for an economic-recovery plan to be presented to prospective international donors next month, Reuters reported. In a joint statement issued after the talks, the United States affirmed its intention of continuing support for Kyrgyzstan aimed at strengthening that country's borders and improving the defense potential of its armed forces, akipress.org reported. The joint statement also stressed the importance of regional economic cooperation. Both Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Akaev that Kyrgyzstan's active support for Operation Enduring Freedom does not absolve his leadership of its obligations to protect human rights and strengthen democratization, according to AP. LF

KAZAKHSTAN, KYRGYZSTAN REACH COAL-FOR-ELECTRICITY AGREEMENT
Meeting on the sidelines of the 20 September Eurasian Economic Community prime ministers' meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan's Imanghaliy Tasmagambetov and Kyrgyzstan's Nikolai Tanaev signed an agreement under which Kazakhstan will repay its debt for electricity supplied between 1994-1997, akipress.org reported. In addition, Kyrgyzstan undertook to supply Kazakhstan with 1.1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in exchange for 500,000 tons of coal and 15,000 tons of heating oil. LF

TURKMENISTAN, UZBEKISTAN TO PROMOTE CROSS-BORDER TRADE
During a telephone conversation on 23 September, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov agreed to establish border markets at customs posts between Dashoguz and Khorezm oblasts in order to promote cross-border trade, turkmenistan.ru reported the following day. Turkmenistan will offer for sale oil products, while Uzbekistan will supply textiles, shoes, rice, fruits, and vegetables. Turkmenistan's Dashoguz Oblast has a sizeable Uzbek population (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 2002). LF

PACE RAPPORTEUR SEES DEFICIT OF DEMOCRACY IN BELARUS
According to a report that will be presented to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on 27 September by Wolfgang Behrendt, the PACE special rapporteur on Belarus, the country still falls short of the Council of Europe's democracy standards, Belapan reported on 24 September. Behrendt's report was distributed the previous day among delegates attending the ongoing PACE session in Strasbourg. Behrendt notes that Belarus has a flawed electoral process, a poor human rights record, underdeveloped civil society and local self-government, and a legislature with limited powers. The reports also questions the independence of the country's judiciary. A draft resolution based on the report states that PACE might consider restoring special guest status to Belarus on condition that the country's legislature takes steps toward democracy. The resolution advises against including the issue of Belarus's membership on the Council of Europe's agenda. JM

BELARUSIAN PROSECUTORS NOT TO INVESTIGATE WIRETAPPING OF OPPOSITION LEADER
The Prosecutor-General's Office has rejected without explanations United Civic Party Chairman Anatol Lyabedzka's complaint about what he defined as illegal wiretapping of a telephone conversation he held with Boris Nemtsov, the leader of Russia's Union of Rightist Forces (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 10 September 2002), Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 23 September. A transcript of that conversation, which took place on 24 August, was published by the Russian newspaper "Sovetskaya Rossiya" on 2 September and subsequently reprinted by "Sovetskaya Belorussiya," Belarus' largest government-controlled newspaper. "It was immediately clear for me that it was Belarusian special services that eavesdropped on my conversation with Boris Nemtsov, and now the Prosecutor-General's Office is covering for them," Lyabedzka told RFE/RL. JM

U.S. HALTS SOME AID TO UKRAINE OVER IRAQ SUSPICIONS
Washington has blocked $55 million in previously approved aid to Kyiv over suspicions that Ukraine may have illegally sold Iraq a Kolchuga radar system capable of helping bring down U.S. aircraft, Reuters reported on 23 September, quoting an unidentified senior U.S. official. The official noted that the U.S. administration, which said on 1 August that it had no evidence proving that Ukraine violated UN sanctions by making an arms deal with Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2002), has received information suggesting that the Kolchuga system might have in fact reached Iraq. "We have informed the Ukrainian government and NATO allies that we have reached this assessment, that there has been a pause in certain types of assistance, and that a policy review is under way," the official added. The official also said the U.S. Department of Justice authenticated a section of Mykola Melnychenko's tape recordings in which a Ukrainian arms trader, who has since been killed in a car crash, tells President Leonid Kuchma that Iraq was seeking to buy four "Kolchuga" systems (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 23 April 2002). Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz on 24 September appealed to the Verkhovna Rada to hold a closed parliamentary session with the participation of the president and cabinet members to discuss the alleged illegal arms sales by Ukraine, UNIAN reported. JM

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION HOLDS ANOTHER ANTI-KUCHMA RALLY...
More than 5,000 people gathered on 24 September in front of the Ukrainian parliament to demand that President Kuchma resign, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported. "People came here to show that protest action did not end on 16 September [when an antipresidential rally in Kyiv attracted some 30,000 people]," Reuters quoted opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko as saying. Inside the parliament, opposition lawmakers and Kuchma's allies clashed in a battle of words over the opposition's demand that the Verkhovna Rada urgently discuss the political situation in the country and a resolution "recommending" that Kuchma immediately step down in accordance with Article 108 and Article 109 of the Ukrainian Constitution. "Confrontation is growing. We are heading for a deep and long-drawn-out political crisis, one that we have not seen in the 11 years of Ukraine's independence," Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko commented. JM

...AND OCCUPY STATE TV STUDIO TO DEMAND AIRTIME
Some 200 opposition activists led by opposition leaders Oleksandr Moroz, Tymoshenko, and Petro Symonenko on 23 September occupied for 90 minutes the headquarters of the UT-1 television network, demanding that National Television Company Director Ihor Storozhuk give them 10 minutes on air to broadcast a statement on the planned 24 September rally, UNIAN reported. Storozhuk refused and a blank screen was shown in place of the regular nightly news. However, he reportedly agreed "to do everything possible" to grant the opposition airtime for open debate on 24 September. "For the past week, the UT-1 program was littered with any imaginable information except that on what was actually taking place in Ukraine. For more than a week, the opposition's views have been distorted or ignored," Symonenko told journalists in explaining the goal of the occupation. Kyiv prosecutors have launched a criminal case against the opposition activists who occupied the UT-1 facilities. JM

ESTONIAN RAILWAYS GETS MORE TIME TO REGISTER U.S. LOCOMOTIVES
The Railways Board decided on 23 September to extend to 1 November Estonian Railways' deadline for registering its recently acquired U.S.-made locomotives, ETA reported. Earlier in the month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 September 2001), the board canceled the railroad's safety license and threatened to withdraw its operating license, which would result in the stoppage of all rail traffic, if those locomotives were not registered as having equipment installed ensuring they could not be operated in the event that alarm, emergency, and braking equipment was turned off. The board inspected the railroad last week and did not find any trains that posed a hazard. It accepted the schedule the railroad proposed to register all of its locomotives and other rolling stock by 1 November. SG

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT SUPPORTS CONSTRUCTION OF NEW NUCLEAR REACTOR
Speaking in Vilnius on 23 September on the first day of the three-day seminar "Prospects and Alternatives of a New Nuclear Power Plant at Ignalina," President Valdas Adamkus said that the experience of European countries and the United States "has proved that nuclear-power plants are a reliable source of energy able to satisfy the demands of a rapidly growing economy." BNS reported. He affirmed that even though the reactors of the existing nuclear-power plant at Ignalina are scheduled to be closed in 2005 and 2009, Lithuania should consider building a new nuclear reactor at the site that meets modern technical and safety standards. This should be done after a realistic assessment of the present economic situation, financial capacity of the state, and possible involvement of foreign investors. The seminar, sponsored by NATO and the Lithuanian Energy Institute, is attended by nuclear-energy experts from the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, and other countries. SG

NATO INFORMAL SUMMIT OPENS IN WARSAW...
In Warsaw on 24 September, NATO defense ministers began a two-day informal summit that is expected to address the issue of a U.S.-proposed 20,000-strong multinational rapid-reaction force, terrorism threats, and the upcoming NATO summit in Prague, Polish and international news agencies reported. Polish Radio reported that NATO Secretary-General George Robertson opened the Warsaw meeting by stressing that the Atlantic alliance needs new defense capabilities in order to eradicate and destroy threats posed by weapons of mass destruction. JM

...AS U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY SAYS NO DECISION YET ON IRAQ
On the eve of the NATO forum in Warsaw, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Premier Leszek Miller, and Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski to discuss the war on terrorism, NATO-Russia relations, and NATO's cooperation with Ukraine, PAP reported. Rumsfeld said U.S. President George W. Bush has not yet made a decision on a possible military intervention in Iraq. JM

CZECH PRIME MINISTER THROWS COLD WATER ON TALK OF 'GRAND COALITION'
Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said on 23 September that he would prefer early elections to forming a governing coalition with the right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS), CTK reported on the same day. "In my opinion, it would be better to seek early elections than to form a grand coalition with the ODS," Spidla said, responding to suggestions from within his Social Democratic Party (CSSD) that the party consider alternatives to the current, tripartite coalition. Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said on 22 September in the wake of a government crisis that early elections were preferable to constant concessions to the CSSD's coalition partners, CTK reported the same day. ODS leader Vaclav Klaus has meanwhile hinted at a desire for a power-sharing deal with the CSSD, but only with someone other than Spidla as a counterpart in talks. BW

CZECH COURT ACQUITS FORMER COMMUNIST OFFICIALS
A Prague court on 23 September acquitted Milos Jakes and Jozef Lenart, two former high-ranking Czechoslovak Communist Party officials, of conspiring with the Soviet Union after the August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion that crushed the Prague Spring, CTK reported the same day. The prosecution charged that the two participated in negotiations at the Soviet Embassy on 22 August 1968 to form a pro-Moscow government and agreed to participate in the government. "Having assessed all available evidence, the court has concluded that the action being examined is not a criminal offense," Judge Hana Hrncirova said, according to CTK. The case took seven years to bring to court, and prosecutors said they plan to appeal the verdict. BW

CZECH POLLS SIGNAL DEMAND FOR EU REFERENDUM
Czech demand for a referendum on membership in the EU is higher than ever at 89 percent, according to a recent STEM poll cited by CTK on 23 September. Roughly 60 percent of those surveyed said they would participate in a referendum. Of those respondents, 78 percent said they would vote in favor of accession while 22 percent were against membership. Pollsters noted that support for EU membership has been stable in the long term, CTK reported. The results come as a Senate-approved bill setting an EU referendum for the first half of 2003 awaits a vote in the lower house. AH

FLOOD DAMAGE TO CZECH INDUSTRY ESTIMATED AT 11.7 BILLION CROWNS
August flooding in the Czech Republic caused an estimated 11.7 billion crowns ($378 million) in industrial damage, CTK reported on 23 September. The manufacturing sector was hit hardest, with roughly 3.4 billion crowns in direct damage and another 3 billion crowns in lost sales, Industry and Trade Ministry spokeswoman Vladimira Rihova said. Overall, 53 companies in the manufacturing industry were affected, Rihova added. The utilities sector suffered total damages of 2.5 billion crowns. "Power supplies in southern, central, and western Bohemia have returned to normal; the situation is considered to be consolidated in northern Bohemia, and intensive efforts are under way in Prague," Rihova said. BW

SLOVAK PARTY LEADERS MEET WITH PRESIDENT
Leaders of the Slovak parties that won seats in parliament met with President Rudolf Schuster on 23 September to discuss efforts to form a new government, TASR reported the same day. The outcome of the 20-21 September elections gave the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), New Citizens Alliance (ANO), Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), and Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) a combined 78 parliamentary seats in the 150-seat parliament. The four parties, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's SDKU, which finished second in the balloting, have announced their intention to form a majority government. To allow time for negotiations, Schuster said he will wait until 27 September to ask any of the parties to form a government. Final results showed that the opposition HZDS won 19.5 percent, SDKU 15.09 percent, Smer 13.46 percent, SMK 11.16 percent, KDH 8.25 percent, ANO party 8.01 percent, and the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS) 6.32 percent of votes. Translated into parliamentary seats, the results gave HZDS 36, SDKU 28, Smer 25, SMK 20, KDH and ANO 15 each, and the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS) 11. BW

EU COMMISSIONER SAYS SLOVAK ELECTION RESULTS SURPRISED HIM
European Union Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen said on 23 September that the Slovak election results surprised him, TASR reported the same day. "It is clear that voters knew the importance of the election," Verheugen said. "For Europeans and other observers, it is important that no one is interested in forming a coalition with HZDS and the unreformed Communists, and the rest are part of a democratic process," the commissioner said. Prior to the elections, Verheugen implored Slovaks not to vote for the return of 'old forces' to power, a reference mainly to Vladimir Meciar's HZDS, which could have complicated the NATO membership process and Slovakia's accession to the EU. BW

SLOVAK CALLS BEGIN FOR PARTY LEADER MECIAR TO STEP DOWN
HZDS lawmaker Olga Keltosova said she is annoyed that her party won a plurality in the elections but will be excluded from power, and she suggested that Meciar step down as the party's leader, "Narodna obroda" reported on 24 September. Keltosova told the newspaper that when a party wins an election but does not succeed in forming a government, the party leader usually steps down. Keltosova said she would welcome such a move in the HZDS and believes the party can function without Meciar. BW

SLOVAK COMMUNISTS WANT TO FORM CONSTRUCTIVE OPPOSITION
KSS Chairman Jozef Sevc told President Schuster on 23 September that his party intends to become a constructive opposition in parliament, TASR reported the same day. Other likely opposition parties, including HZDS and Smer, have already ruled out any cooperation with the unreformed Communists, who won seats in the Slovak parliament for the first time since the 1993 division of Czechoslovakia. BW

HEARING ON MISSING FILE DELAYED IN HUNGARY...
Some 54 files are missing from the records of the Historical Office, office Head Gyorgy Marko told RTL Klub television on 23 September. The Office conducted an internal investigation after it was discovered that a document was missing from Economy Ministry Political State Secretary Gabor Szalay's file and had been replaced with a photocopy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2002). Marko said many of the documents in question could be at the National Security Office, and a smaller number in courts. Parliament's National Security Committee postponed a hearing on the matter set for 23 September because Interior Minister Monika Lamperth has not lifted regulations preventing Sandor Sersli, the former head of the ministry's records office, from being questioned on the matter. The committee had also planned to question Marko, former Interior Minister Gabor Kuncze, and Imre Gondos, the chairman of the panel of vetting judges. MSZ

...AS POLL REITERATES THAT PUBLIC DOESN'T CARE
A poll conducted on 11-12 September by the Median Market Research agency shows that the majority of respondents are not concerned about the secret-service pasts of politicians, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 23 September. Some 75 percent believe the parliamentary commission headed by Imre Mecs, which is investigating government officials' communist-era secret-service activities, should wind up its work. About 49 percent of the population is not interested at all in learning which politicians collaborated with the communist-era secret services, while only 15 percent do care, according to the poll. Even among those who support opposition parties, most do not believe that the recent scandals have harmed the government. The agency published a poll with similar results in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 2002). MSZ

HUNGARIAN RADIO CHAIRMAN COMPLAINS ABOUT GOVERNMENT PRESSURE
Karoly Szadai, chairman of the board of trustees of Hungarian Radio, on 23 September said he will approach President Ferenc Madl and parliamentary speaker Katalin Szili over what he called "government pressure that could jeopardize the basic functioning of the state-owned radio network," Budapest dailies reported. Szadai said he is preparing to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on whether the present system, whereby the government finances the state-owned media, is legitimate. Szadai said most members of the board fear that "government control of the purse strings will create political pressure." The board consists of five opposition deputies and four representatives of the governing coalition. MSZ

HUNGARIAN EDUCATION MINISTER ASKS CHURCHES TO HELP RESOLVE SCHOOL DISPUTE
Education Minister Balint Magyar on 23 September asked the country's leaders of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Jewish faiths to help to end social exclusion and discrimination manifested in the opening of a tuition-based school in Jaszladany. Romany children are essentially barred from attending the school as a result of the high fees. Meanwhile, the mayors of four villages where residents had resisted the relocation to their communities of Romany families from the town of Paks concluded an agreement on mutual cooperation and reconciliation with Paks. The mayors of the four villages claim that local residents are not guided by ethnic bias in opposing the resettlement of the Roma, but that some Romany families continuously break laws, refuse to observe minimum norms of coexistence, and terrorize residents in neighboring communities, Hungarian radio reported. MSZ

CROATIAN GOVERNMENT REFUSES TO HAND OVER WAR CRIMES SUSPECT...
Prime Minister Ivica Racan on 23 September announced that his government is "not going to hand over" indicted General Janko Bobetko to The Hague war crimes tribunal, noting that the move risks "plunging" Croatia into international isolation, Hina and international news agencies reported. Responding to an amended indictment received on 23 September from the UN court that includes an arrest warrant and handover request, Racan said the government will officially respond to the tribunal later this week, AP reported. He said his government will ask the country's Constitutional Court to rule on the indictment, the news agency reported. The ongoing dispute over the fate of the former chief of Main Staff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19, 20, and 23 September 2002) will provide a test of the country's constitutional law on cooperation with The Hague, Racan added, according to Hina. AH

...AS PRIME MINISTER EQUATES AGING GENERAL'S ACTIONS WITH 'STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE'...
"The government will defend Bobetko from unjustified indictment by all legal, political, and diplomatic means," Racan said on 23 September, according to dpa. Echoing veterans' and other groups' rejection of the aging general's culpability, he equated Bobetko's actions with Croatia's "Homeland War" of 1991-95, according to AP. "Our fight was just and legitimate.... No one has a right to incriminate our struggle for independence, not even The Hague tribunal," AP quoted him as saying. Prosecutors insist Croatia's former chief of Main Staff "individually and/or in concert with others, planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted in the planning, preparation or execution of persecutions of Serb civilians of the Medak Pocket on racial, political or religious grounds," according to the indictment (available at http://www.un.org/icty/indictment/english/bob-ii020826-e.htm). According to AP, Racan highlighted as "unacceptable" the charges that Bobetko "planned, instigated, or ordered" the killing of civilian Serbs. AH

...AND BRACES FOR INTERNATIONAL REPERCUSSIONS
"We are aware that our stand may come at a price," AP quoted the prime minister as saying on 23 September, "But the Croatian government is prepared to assume the responsibility and the risks that may be entailed in this struggle." He added, according to Reuters, "I hope we shall not plunge into international conflict, isolation, and sanctions." The tribunal, with which Racan and his country have pledged to cooperate in the past, could report Croatia's noncompliance to the UN Security Council. A Croatian diplomatic source quoted by Reuters said the country "might now enter a confrontation with the international community," adding that it is "a crucial moment for the future of Croatia." Croatia's minister for European integration, Neven Mimica, said he hopes the dispute does not lead to a deterioration of relations with the European Union, Hina reported on 23 September. Mimica said that while Zagreb's relationship with The Hague tribunal is one of cooperation, "if one partner makes a move that destabilizes the other, it cannot be called 'cooperation,'" the news agency added. AH

FINAL RESULTS OF MACEDONIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS ANNOUNCED
On 22 September, the State Election Commission announced the final results of the 15 September parliamentary elections, Makfax news agency reported. The strongest faction, with 59 of the 120 seats, will be that of the Together for Macedonia coalition, which is led by the Social Democratic Union (SDSM). A representative of Together for Macedonia announced that it will challenge the results before the Supreme Court because preliminary results indicated that the coalition would have 60 seats. The coalition led by Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) won 34 seats. The Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), led by former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, took 16 seats; the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), seven; the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), two; and the National Democratic Party (PDK) and the Socialist Party took one seat each (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 September 2002). Election Commission spokesman Zoran Tanevski said that new balloting must be conducted at two polling stations. UB

YUGOSLAV PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE ATTACKED AT RALLY
A melee broke out at a 23 September political rally in Cacak when a few hundred people began hurling eggs and other objects at Serbian presidential candidate Miroljub Labus, AP reported. The instigators were reported to be supporters of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic, Beta news agency reported. Labus, who is also Yugoslav deputy prime minister, told the protestors at the rally that "you cannot scare me." Labus entered the race as a huge dark horse, but has been consistently closing the gap on Kostunica in opinion polls. PB

SERBIA DETAILS MONEY RAISED THROUGH PRIVATIZATION
Serbian Economy and Privatization Minister Aleksandar Vlahovic said in Novi Popovac on 24 September that Serbia has earned some 254 million euros ($248.6 million) through the sale of state companies this year, Tanjug reported. Vlahovic, speaking at the Novi Popovac cement factory, said 54 companies have been sold thus far and that his ministry would like to privatize 400-600 more by the end of 2002. Five sales alone brought some 170 million euros. Additionally, Vlahovic said a consortium of seven domestic and foreign banks with a 60 million euro fund has been set up to grant loans to entrepreneurs and workers who want to purchase stock in their companies. PB

YUGOSLAV ARMY TO SEND TROOPS HOME TO SAVE FOOD RATIONS
Yugoslav Major General Milan Jevtic said on 23 September in Belgrade that the military will let some troops go home on weekends in order to help save food rations for the winter, AP reported. Jevtic said that in order to "preserve supplies and combat readiness, we are encouraging units to send approximately 25 percent of troops to spend weekends at home." He added that the army "lacks food for winter and has to borrow new uniforms from the federal reserves." Jevtic said that 98 percent of the $660 million budgeted for the military in fiscal year 2002 had been spent by 15 September, most of it to pay bills for past food rations. The government decided earlier this year to reduce compulsory military service from 12 to nine months in another cost-cutting measure. PB

UN POLICEMAN ON TRIAL FOR MURDER OF PASSION
An Egyptian working with the UN police in Kosova was accused in a Pec court on 23 September of murdering his interpreter after a failed love affair, Reuters reported. The murder trial is the first in Kosova involving an international official. Sherif Abd Elaziz, 33, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His Albanian interpreter, Vlora Berbati, 23, was found dying of gunshot wounds at Elaziz's home on 5 January. Three other international police officers are awaiting trial in Kosova. PB

EIU UPBEAT ON ROMANIA'S MEDIUM-TERM PROSPECTS
The Economist Intelligence Unit's (EIU) September report on Romania expects "significant progress on structural reform" in the medium term, Romanian media reported on 23 September. The EIU considers that Romania's chances of being invited to NATO at the alliance's Prague Summit in November "have improved greatly" due to strengthened relations with the United States. The report adds that "only dramatic, unforeseen circumstances would prevent Romania" from attaining NATO membership. According to the EIU, the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) stands to benefit the most from NATO accession and expects the party to remain in power "at least until the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2004." But the EIU considers Romania's aim of becoming an EU member by 2007 "unrealistic." The forecast also warns that exclusion from another round of NATO enlargement, in addition to exclusion from the 2005 EU enlargement, "would weaken the reformist wing of the ruling PSD, create political problems for the government, and undermine reform efforts." ZsM

ROMANIAN NGOS PROTEST DRAFT LAW ON POLITICAL PARTIES
At a 23 September press conference in Bucharest, leaders of four NGOs protested against the draft law on political parties, arguing that it infringes on citizens' right to organize political organizations, as stipulated by the constitution, Mediafax reported. Pro Democracy Association Chairman Cristian Parvulescu said the stipulation in the bill requiring 50,000 members for establishing political parties is "unacceptable and against all democratic principles." The NGOs proposed a version that would allow groups of as few as three people to establish parties. The organizations will ask President Ion Iliescu not to promulgate the law and are determined to appeal to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. As parliament's two houses have adopted different versions of the bill, the final version is to be voted on in a common session. ZsM

COUNCIL OF EUROPE CRITICIZES MOLDOVA'S COMPLIANCE WITH PACE RECOMMENDATIONS
The Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers has criticized the Moldovan government for not fully complying with the Parliamentary Assembly's (PACE) April resolution, Flux reported on 23 September. A communique issued to PACE by the council's chairman, Lydie Polfer, said the council is satisfied with the Moldovan government's "determination to continue working toward full compliance" with the resolution. It noted, however, that it expects "full execution" of the recommendations regarding the independence of Teleradio Moldova, reform of territorial organization and local government, and the settlement of the "political crisis" in the Gagauz-Yeri autonomous region. ZsM

BULGARIAN, YUGOSLAV GOVERNMENTS SIGN AGREEMENT ON FIGHTING CRIME
In Sofia on 23 September, Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov and his Yugoslav counterpart Zoran Zivkovic signed an agreement on preventing and combating crime, BTA reported. The agreement envisions better cooperation between the countries' respective border police, the exchange of liaison officers, and the establishment of a hotline between the their interior ministries. Zivkovic underscored the good-neighborly relations between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, but added that such friendly relations facilitate cross-border crime. UB

CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION CRITICIZES BULGARIAN PRESIDENT
Nadezhda Mihailova, the chairwoman of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), criticized President Georgi Parvanov for his behavior during his official visit to Russia last week, mediapool.bg reported on 23 September. According to Mihailova, Parvanov attacked the Bulgarian government for having introduced a strict visa regime for Russian citizens. Mihailova added that Parvanov also failed to advocate the Bulgarian government's position in connection with the state-owned Bulgartabac tobacco company's property in Russia. "For us, these positions are more those of a Russian president, but not of a Bulgarian president. A Bulgarian statesman may not criticize Bulgarian positions on a number of key issues from Moscow," Mihailova said. Parvanov was on his first official visit to Russia on 19-22 September and met twice with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. UB

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT SUPREMELY CONFIDENT OF RE-ELECTION


Armenian President Robert Kocharian has given the first indications of his re-election strategy, letting it be known that he expects to win a convincing victory in the presidential election scheduled for 19 February. Kocharian indicated on 17 September his intention to poll more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of voting, enough to avoid a run-off ballot two weeks later.

Kocharian's statement attests to the growing self-confidence of the 47-year-old leader who has weathered many political storms in the course of his four-year presidency. It also shows that he is apparently unperturbed by recent attempts by Armenia's diverse opposition groups to form an electoral alliance against him. Critics fear that various-level government officials, who are in a position to affect the election results, may have thus received a clear signal to make every effort, both legal and illegal, to ensure Kocharian's first-round victory.

Meeting with journalists in an open-air Yerevan cafe, Kocharian argued that two rounds of voting would be a luxury his struggling country cannot afford, as it would prolong political tensions and uncertainty. "If it becomes possible to hold only one round of elections, then tension will last less, which would have a positive effect on the economy," he said, adding that there should be as few presidential candidates as possible. Kocharian went on to express his hope that a loose coalition of 16 Armenian opposition parties, formed earlier this month, will field a single candidate.

This line of reasoning surprised local commentators, most of whom believed until this point that a joint opposition candidate could wreck the incumbent's re-election campaign as was the case in the disputed presidential election of September 1996, when just weeks before the ballot the opposition rallied forces behind National Democratic Union (AZhM) chairman and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian. The dominant view in Armenia was that many apathetic voters would go to the polls only if they were offered a clear alternative to the current regime, and not a string of bickering opposition challengers.

Incidentally, some leaders of the opposition coalition also think that its widely anticipated failure to agree on a single candidacy before the first round of the February election would reduce, not boost, Kocharian's re-election chances. Among them is Artashes Geghamian, one of the most popular and ambitious Armenian oppositionists. Geghamian's reluctance to endorse any presidential contender except himself has already opened cracks in the 16-party grouping.

Other opposition leaders -- including Stepan Demirchian of the People's Party and AZhM Chairman Manukian -- have long suspected Geghamian of maintaining secret ties with the authorities. But they too appear unwilling to withdraw their candidacy in anybody's favor, which means that Kocharian is unlikely to face only one strong opposition challenger on 19 February.

One thing the opposition leaders do agree on is that Kocharian is more preoccupied with clinging to power than saving Armenia from more upheavals. Interviewed by RFE/RL on 18 September, Geghamian alleged that the president is eager to avoid a run-off just because "it is very difficult to repeat a falsification of election results." Manukian, for his part, said Kocharian feels that he can hardly prevail in a one-on-one showdown with an opposition candidate in the second round.

Few observers believe that Kocharian, who became president in 1998 in a two-round election strongly criticized by international monitors, is popular enough to win outright this time around, although some opinion polls (not always reliable in Armenia) give him the highest approval ratings. According to the most recent voter survey conducted by the opposition Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party, Kocharian would garner 21 percent of the vote if the election were held now. Demirchian and Geghamian would receive 17 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

In effect, Kocharian has already launched his election campaign, making more and more public appearances designed to convince Armenians that things are getting better despite persisting hardship. He usually visits construction sites or successful businesses, always accompanied by several television crews that rarely fail to convey to the nation his optimism and sense of accomplishment.

Having no party of his own, Kocharian mainly relies on the so-called "power class" made up of senior civil servants, government-connected wealthy businesspeople, and several loyal parties represented in the government, primarily the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun and the Republican Party of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. Despite sharing a vested interest in Kocharian's re-election, these various interest groups often wrangle over government posts and other power levers. A renewed flare-up of those tensions during local elections scheduled for 20 October could seriously damage the Kocharian campaign.

Ironically, the desire to secure a first-round re-election victory cost the previous Armenian president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, dearly in 1996. International monitors never accepted official results of that election, which gave victory to Ter-Petrossian, who ordered tanks into the streets of Yerevan to enforce them. Nor did his opponents, who had put forward Manukian as their joint presidential candidate, concede their defeat. The Pyrrhic victory undercut Ter-Petrossian's legitimacy and paved the way for his forced resignation in February 1998.

One of the ex-president's closest associates, Vano Siradeghian, later acknowledged that the 1996 vote was falsified, saying that Ter-Petrossian would not even agree to a run-off with Manukian. In a famous televised interview given in December 1998, Siradeghian revealed that back in 1996 he and then-Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian had a brief conversation as "distressing news" came in from polling stations. "I asked him if Levon is ready for a second round," Siradeghian said. "Vazgen said: 'No, he is not ready.' And the second round didn't occur."

Emil Danielyan is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Yerevan.

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