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Newsline

Newsline - March 23, 1998



YELTSIN FIRES ENTIRE CABINET...

Following a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the Kremlin on 23 March, President Boris Yeltsin issued separate decrees firing the premier, First Deputy Prime Ministers Anatolii Chubais, Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov, and the rest of the Russian government. Yeltsin said later in a live address on NTV that the sackings were necessary in order to pave the way for a new cabinet that would concentrate on resolving social and economic problems rather than engaging in political infighting. Speaking on 21-22 March, Yeltsin had criticized the government's chronic inability to pay wages and pensions punctually. Yeltsin said the outgoing Chernomyrdin cabinet had lacked dynamism, initiative, and "fresh approaches." Many Russians "do not feel changes for the better" in their lives, the president had commented. LF

...PRAISES CHERNOMYRDIN

Yeltsin on 23 March praised Chernomyrdin as "thorough, reliable, and trustworthy," AFP reported. He added that he has asked Chernomyrdin to concentrate his efforts on the presidential elections in 2000, which Yeltsin described as the most "crucial question" for Russia's destiny. But Chernomyrdin denied that Yeltsin's remarks mean that he will contend the presidency, telling journalists that "I cannot be considered a candidate." LF

PRESIDENT SAYS NO POLICY CHANGE...

Yeltsin stressed in his television address that the dismissal of the government does not mean a change of course in our policy. It is an effort to make economic reforms more energetic and effective, to give them a political push, a new impulse." Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov was quoted as saying that Russia will continue its present foreign policy course. Chernomyrdin, for his part, downplayed the situation, saying the dismissal of his government is neither "a catastrophe" nor "grounds for panic," Reuters reported. He affirmed that the course of reform is "irreversible" and that "the rules of the game for business...will remain stable, although of course they will be improved." LF

...APPOINTS KIRIENKO ACTING PRIME MINISTER

Presidential press spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii told ITAR-TASS that Yeltsin has appointed 35-year-old Sergei Kirienko as acting premier. Kirienko is an ally of former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and a former governor of Nizhnii Novgorod. He was appointed first deputy fuel and energy minister in the spring of 1997 and succeeded Nemtsov as head of that ministry in November. Yastrzhembskii said Kirienko met with President Boris Yeltsin on 23 March and that the process of forming a new government has already begun. Under the constitution, the president has two weeks in which to name a new prime minister. LF

CHUBAIS, NEMTSOV TO REMAIN IN YELTSIN'S TEAM?

Former First Deputy Prime Minister Chubais said on 23 March that he has talked with Yeltsin and will remain a member of his "team," Russian agencies reported. He declined, however, to say in what capacity. Chubais added that he knew in advance of Yeltsin's decision to dismiss the government, which, he said, had been prepared for a long time. Yeltsin is also expected to meet with Nemtsov later today to discuss the latter's participation in the new government. LF

MASLOV TAKES OVER AS ACTING INTERIOR MINISTER

First Deputy Interior Minister Pavel Tikhonivich Maslov will serve as acting interior minister following Kulikov's dismissal from that post, ITAR-TASS reported. A native of Rostov, Maslov graduated from the General Staff Military Academy and was a deputy commander of Interior Ministry troops in the North Caucasus and deputy commander of the combined federal forces in Chechnya. He was appointed first deputy interior minister in January 1997. LF

DUMA SPEAKER COMMENTS ON GOVERNMENT'S DISMISSAL

Gennadii Seleznev told journalists on 23 March that Yeltsin has strengthened his position by taking a "preemptive step to dismiss the government." Seleznev said Yeltsin had thereby avoided a "negative assessment of the government's work," which, Seleznev said, most Duma deputies were certain to have given next month. Seleznev added that "most working people would have demanded the resignation of the government" at a nationwide day of protest scheduled for 9 April. LF

RUSSIAN RUBLE, STOCK MARKET TAKE A POUNDING

The Moscow stock market fell10 percentage points following Yeltsin's dismissal of the government, AFP reported. However, Russian agencies reported that after Yeltsin's televized address the market rallied to regain several percentage points. ITAR-TASS reported that stocks plunged as foreigners attempted to dump securities on the market "amid a complete lack of demand." Chernomyrdin told "entrepreneurial circles, above all bankers," not to become nervous because, he stressed, as the course of reform in Russia will not change. Also, the ruble fell by 10 percentage points against the dollar and is now trading at 6.0970 to $1. BP

INTERNATIONAL REACTION TO GOVERNMENT DISMISSAL

The international community's reaction to Yeltsin's decision to dismiss Chernomyrdin's government has been both slow and cautious. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl declined comment but said he will telephone with Yeltsin later on 23 March. U.S. presidential spokesman Mike McCurry said Washington is "attempting to get more information from the Russian government" before it comments. U.S. President Bill Clinton is on the first day of his visit to Africa. A British Foreign Office spokesman said that no changes are expected in the U.K.'s or the EU's underlying relationship with Russia. (The U.K. currently holds the rotating EU presidency.) And the Finnish government said it will proceed with plans for Chernomyrdin's visit to Helsinki scheduled for 27 March. BP

FRENCH, GERMAN LEADERS SAY SITE OF SUMMIT UNIMPORTANT...

On the advice of Yeltsin's doctors, the venue of the upcoming French-German-Russian summit has been changed from Yekaterinburg to Moscow. Doctors advised the Russian president, who has reportedly been suffering from respiratory problems, against flying the 1,500 kilometers from the capital to Yekaterinburg. ITAR-TASS on 20 March quoted unnamed "high-ranking sources" in the French president's office and the German diplomatic corps as saying the change in venue is unimportant and will not affect the agenda. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Kohl are to take part in the meeting with Yeltsin. BP

...BUT YEKATERINBURG OFFICIALS MAY BE UNHAPPY

Officials in Yekaterinburg have declined to comment on the change of venue for the French-German-Russian summit. But Interfax on 20 March quoted unidentified sources in the Yekaterinburg Mayor's Office as saying nearly $9 million has been spent preparing for the summit. Three mansions where the leaders were expected to stay were renovated at a cost of $8.5 million and another $300,000 was spent on refurbishing the regional governor's office for the summit. Last week, $133,000 were spent on cleaning up the city. BP

BREAKTHROUGH IN DISPUTE OVER KURIL ISLANDS?

Several Japanese newspapers on 23 March reported that the Russian Foreign Ministry is prepared to recognize the 1956 treaty with Japan, which states that the four southern Kuril Islands will be returned to Japan following the conclusion of a formal peace treaty. The islands were occupied by Soviet troops in the last days of World War Two. Japan's Foreign Ministry has not yet issued a statement on the issue, nor has the Russian government made any comment on the Japanese press reports. Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has said the dismissal of Chernomyrdin's government will have no effect on Japan's commitment to signing a peace treaty with Russia by the year 2000. BP

U.S. DAILY ACCUSES RUSSIA OF AIDING IRANIAN MISSILE PROGRAM

Citing unnamed Russian and diplomatic sources, the "Washington Post" on 23 March reported that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has been recruiting scientists to train their Iranian counterparts to build long-range missiles. According to the U.S. daily, the Russian specialists have traveled to Iran to negotiate direct contracts with Iranian agencies in order to avoid any direct Russian government involvement. Unnamed Russian officials are quoted as saying that Russia intends to halt such activities following Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's January decree on tightening control over exports of goods and services that could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 1998). LF

RUSSIAN MAFIA BOSS SENTENCED IN ISRAEL

A Jerusalem regional court has sentenced Grigorii Lerner to six years in jail, AFP reported on 22 March. In addition to spending six years in jail, Lerner will pay a fine of $1.4 million. Lerner's lawyer had offered a plea bargain whereby Lerner pleaded guilty to 13 of the 14 charges against him. Among those charges were attempted corruption of government officials and the fraudulent acquisition of $14 million from Russian and Israeli banks to establish his own bank in Israel. Owing to insufficient evidence, the Israeli prosecutor-general dropped murder charges against Lerner in connection with the death of a Russian banker. BP

RUSSIAN OFFICER SENTENCED FOR SPYING FOR ISRAEL

Meanwhile, a Moscow military court has found Vladimir Tkachenko guilty of supplying Israel with high-resolution satellite photographs and has sentenced him to three years in prison, Reuters reported on 21 March. Tkachenko is a former lieutenant in the military's intelligence service. Russia's intelligence service allows the sale of some low-resolution photographs, but the court found those sold by Tkachenko to the Israeli secret service were classified. BP

RUSSIA "CANNOT FULLY COMPLY" WITH CFE TREATY

Colonel-General Yurii Baluevskii, a senior member of the Russian General Staff, argues that ongoing tensions in the North Caucasus prevent Russia from fully complying with the restrictions on the number of forces it can deploy in that region under the revised Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, Interfax reported on 20 March. LF

DAGESTAN AMENDS CONSTITUTION

On 19 March the State Council amended the article of the Dagestani constitution stipulating that representatives of the same ethnic minority could not hold the post of State Council chairman for two consecutive terms, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 March. The constitution thus now allows one individual to hold that post for two consecutive terms, and imposes no restrictions on the nationality of candidates. It also removes barriers to the re-election of incumbent State Council Chairman Magomedali Magomedov, whose term expires in July 1998. Opposition forces staged a mass demonstration in Makhachkala to protest the amendment. LF




OSCE, CANDIDATES REPORT ON ARMENIAN ELECTION VIOLATIONS

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observer mission in Armenia has submitted to the Central Electoral Commission data showing that there were unauthorized persons at 5 percent of the 800 polling stations monitored, Interfax reported on 19 March. The following day, a representative of presidential candidate Karen Demirchyan told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau that random checking of ballots from several Yerevan precincts revealed serious violations. He noted that in one district in the city of Erebuni, the number of votes cast exceeded the number of voters by 30 percent. Aghvan Vartanyan, campaign press spokesman for Prime Minister and acting president Robert Kocharyan, told journalists on 21 March that "we are doing everything possible" to ensure that the 30 March runoff between Kocharyan and Demirchyan is free and fair, ITAR-TASS reported (see also "End Note" below). LF

HAIRIKYAN BACKS KOCHARYAN'S PRESIDENTIAL BID

Union for Self-Determination leader Paruir Hairikyan, who polled only 5.41 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, has endorsed Kocharyan's candidacy in the runoff, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 March. Kocharyan's chief of staff, Aleksan Harutiunyan, told journalists that, in return, Hairikyan has been promised a senior position, possibly coordinating and overseeing state and legal reform. Harutiunyan praised Hairikyan's dissident activities during the 1970s and 1980s, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. LF

SHEVARDNADZE'S ATTACKERS TRAINED IN CHECHNYA

Georgian First Deputy Prosecutor-General Revaz Kipani told journalists on 21 March that the men who carried out the failed 9 February attempt to kill Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze were trained near Grozny, Interfax reported. He added that the assassination bid was financed by former Georgian Finance Minister Guram Absandze, whom Moscow extradited to Tbilisi last week. The previous day, Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze had said on national television that 11 people are wanted for questioning in connection with that assassination attempt and another six for their role in the bid to kill Shevardnadze in August 1995, ITAR-TASS reported. But Targamadze declined to comment on reports that Bessarion Gugushvili, who was prime minister under former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1991 and now lives in Finland, is implicated in the 1998 assassination bid. LF

TURKISH CYPRIOT DELEGATION WRAPS UP CENTRAL ASIAN, CAUCASUS TOUR

A delegation from the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus held talks in Baku on 19 March with presidential foreign policy adviser Vafa Gulu-Zade, the "Turkish Daily News" reported on 20 March. They handed over to Gulu-Zade a message from President Rauf Denktash to his Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliev. The Turkish Cypriot delegation, which was headed by former Foreign Minister Atay Ahmet Rasit, had previously visited Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. LF

TAJIK OPPOSITION RESPONDS TO GOVERNMENT CLAIMS

The United Tajik Opposition has released a statement rejecting claims by the government that the UTO is not complying with the peace accord, ITAR- TASS reported on 22 March. The government had released a statement last week claiming that members of the UTO had carried out a series of attacks on police in central Tajikistan. The UTO statement called on the government to study the facts and threatened to release a list government violations of the peace accord.. BP

NUMBER OF KYRGYZ LIVESTOCK DECREASING

Deputy Agriculture Minister Janybek Tumanov told journalists on 20 March that the number of cattle, horses, and sheep has sharply decreased, RFE/RL correspondents reported. He added that the reduction in the number of the sheep--from 11 million to just under 4 million over the past seven years--is the most damaging to the country. Mutton is the staple food of most of the country's rural residents and of many urban-dwellers as well. BP

NIYAZOV TELLS AGRICULTURE HEADS TO MEET QUOTAS

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov told a meeting of the government on 20 March that if quotas for grain and cotton are not met, those responsible "at all levels" will held accountable, Interfax reported. Niyazov added that criminal charges might also be brought against some individuals. The president also met with the heads of banks and agricultural associations, telling them to do their best to help meet this year's quotas. BP




THOUSANDS MARCH AGAINST BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT

An estimated 10,000 people took to the streets in Minsk on 22 March to mark the 80th anniversary of an independent Belarusian state and to protest against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The crowd began marching toward the presidential palace but was stopped by police. A few dozen protesters were detained after minor skirmishes with police but were released later. Semyon Sharetsky, former parliament speaker and leading opposition figure, said Lukashenka can remain in power only "through the strengthening of his authority and [through] a state monopoly and militarization of the economy." The demonstration was authorized. PB

LUKASHENKA PUTS CENTRAL BANK UNDER STATE CONTROL...

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced on state television on 21 March that the Central Bank will be put under direct government control, Reuters reported. Lukashenka also named First Deputy Prime Minister Pyotr Prokopovich as bank chairman to replace Hennady Aleynikov, who the previous day had been sacked, along with most of the bank's board. Lukashenka accused his cabinet and bank officials of "muddle- headedness and unprofessionalism" in dealing with the crisis. He also said the devaluation of the Belarusian ruble was a "planned act by the West." Earlier, he had accused unnamed "speculators" and political opponents in Moscow of staging the currency's dive (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 1998). PB

...AS BELARUSIANS RUSH TO BUY HARD CURRENCY

Long lines were reported at exchange offices in Minsk, as Belarusians sought to convert Belarusian rubles into more stable currencies, AFP reported on 21 March. The ruble has recovered somewhat from the 16 March exchange rate of nearly 60,000 to $1. Several cases of panic buying and hoarding of goods were also reported around the country, as state-imposed prices went into effect at most shops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 1998). PB

U.S. DIPLOMAT WARNS KYIV ABOUT LOSS OF AID

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer said on 20 March that Kyiv is in danger of losing half of its annual aid from Washington, an RFE/RL correspondent in Kyiv reported. Pifer said that he does not believe U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will be able to report progress by the Ukrainian government on resolving disputes with U.S. businesses when she makes a report to Congress on 30 April. Pifer said that if Kyiv lost half of this year's approved $225 million in aid, it would be a clear signal by the U.S. that "Ukraine is not a good place to do business." PB

KUCHMA ON CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma urged young voters to go to the polls on 29 March to counterbalance the votes of older, conservative citizens, Reuters reported on 21 March. Kuchma said in Kyiv that "our task is to ensure" that young people will vote, saying they are the greatest supporters of progressive policies. Pensioners make up nearly one-third of the Ukrainian population and are the main supporters of the Communist Party, which is leading in all opinion polls. Kuchma said that he is ready to "cooperate with any parliament" but that both sides will have to compromise. He also criticized centrist parties for not uniting to form one bloc. PB

ESTONIAN PREMIER LAUNCHES TALKS TO PRESERVE STABILITY

Mart Siimann said on national television on 20 March that "power games" in the Tallinn City Council are forcing him to start talks with political parties to guarantee the country's political stability, ETA reported. "The minority government finds it harder and harder to rule one year before general elections," Siimann commented. Last week, several factions in the Tallinn City Council, including that of Siimann's Coalition Party, submitted a no-confidence vote against council head Edgar Savisaar and the city's three deputy majors, all of whom belong to the opposition Center Party. The Coalition and Center Parties have a long-standing cooperation agreement but for some time have not abided by that accord. JC

OFFICIALS FOUND GUILTY IN TALSI ACCIDENT

A Latvian court has ruled that three officials from the Talsi Firefighting and Rescue Service were responsible for an accident last summer in which nine children died, BNS reported on 20 March. The officials were given prison sentences of up to three years but were immediately released under an amnesty law passed last December. In June 1997, officials at a firefighting exhibition in Talsi, western Latvia, allowed some 30 people to crowd into the hydraulic- powered basket of a fire truck. The basket, which was designed to carry only 350 kilograms, fell from a height of nearly 20 meters when its crane tipped. Eight children aged 5 to 16 were killed instantly, and one died later in the hospital. JC

POLISH PRESIDENT NOT WORRIED ABOUT U.S. SENATE DELAY

Aleksander Kwasniewski on 22 March said the decision two days earlier by the U.S. Senate to delay debating NATO expansion is "not serious." Kwasniewski was speaking after an informal meeting with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana in Berlin. Solana called the U.S. decision a "procedural" affair. PB

NATO SATISFIED WITH PROSPECTIVE MEMBERS

Meanwhile, NATO officials said on 20 March that they are pleased with progress to date by Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels reported. NATO said that about 70 percent of the "force" goals have been met and that the rest could be completed by June. "Force" goals are NATO procedures setting standards for troop size, weapons availability, logistics, and communications, among others. PB

CZECH SOCIAL DEMOCRATS DROP DEMAND FOR NATO REFERENDUM

The leadership of the opposition Social Democratic Party (CSSD) on 20 March endorsed a decision by the party's parliamentary faction to stop demanding that NATO membership be put to a referendum, CTK reported. CSSD chairman Milos Zeman, who still favors such a plebiscite, did not participate in the meeting. The CSSD leadership recommended that its parliamentary representatives vote in favor of the agreement on joining NATO. CSSD Deputy Chairman Lubomir Zaoralek told journalists that the party's deputies have done "everything they could" to have the legislature approve a bill on the referendum. "Unfortunately," he said, that proposal was rejected every time. MS

BONN WILL NOT OBSTRUCT CZECH, POLISH ENTRY TO EU

Hans-Friedrich von Plotz, state secretary at the German Foreign Ministry, says Bonn has no intention to link the EU entry of the Czech Republic and Poland to "bilateral questions that have roots in World War Two and the post-war period," CTK reported on 21 March . Von Plotz was responding in the Bundestag to a written question by Christian Social Union deputy Erika Steinbach. Also on 21 March, Sudeten German leader Franz Neubauer said he opposes the admittance of the Czech Republic to the EU unless Prague first "distances itself from the persecution" of the Sudeten Germans at the end of the war. Neubauer repeated the demand that Prague recognize the right of Sudeten Germans to return to their former homeland. MS

SLOVAKIA TO RETURN DAM DISPUTE TO THE HAGUE

Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar told Hungarian ambassador to Bratislava Jeno Boros on 20 March that Slovakia will ask the International Court of Justice in The Hague to rule on Hungary's failure to abide by the court's ruling whereby the two sides must reach an agreement by 25 March, CTK and AFP reported. Earlier, Boros had handed Meciar a copy of a letter from Prime Minister Gyula Horn to the Hague court explaining why Budapest has postponed signing the agreement. Hungary wants further studies carried out to evaluate the environmental implications of building an alternative dam to Nagymaros. MS

HUNGARY, ROMANIA SET UP JOINT PEACEKEEPING UNIT

Meeting in Budapest on 20 March, visiting Romanian Defense Minister Constantin Dudu Ionescu and his Hungarian counterpart, Gyorgy Keleti, signed the long-postponed agreement to set up a joint 1,000-strong military peacekeeping unit, Hungarian media reported. The Hungarian contingent is be based in Hodmezovasarhely and the Romanian one in Arad. The two sides drew lots to decide the first commander of the battalion, who will be a Romanian officer. The previous day, representatives of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Romania met in Vienna to discuss the setting up of a Central European Initiative for Cooperation in Peacekeeping. MSZ




KOSOVARS BACK RUGOVA

More than 80 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in the 22 March parliamentary and presidential elections organized by the Kosovo shadow-state government. The vote will be held at a later date in the Srbica, Klina, and Glogovac districts, which are at present under tight Serbian police control. The Serbian authorities declared the vote illegal and in some localities attempted to confiscate ballot papers and boxes, which, however, election officials succeeded in hiding before the police arrived, Albanian Television reported. Several ethnic Albanian opposition parties boycotted the vote on the grounds that elections should not be held so soon after the Serbian police crackdown in the Drenica region. Albanian Television said that the huge turnout indicates massive popular support for shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova, who is running unopposed for re- election. PM

U.S. CONGRESSMEN SAY MILOSEVIC IS "HIDING SOMETHING"

Rugova told journalists in Pristina on 22 March that the large turnout shows the Kosovars support the cause of "independent statehood, freedom, democracy and peace." He also thanked numerous foreign election observers, primarily from the U.S. and Albania, who wanted to come to Kosovo to monitor the vote but who were denied visas by the Serbian authorities. The Yugoslav embassy in Skopje denied visas on 21 March to 14 U.S. congressmen who planned to observe the election. A spokesman for the group said the denial of the visas indicates that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is "hiding something" in Kosovo. The congressman added that Milosevic must understand that the international community will not allow him to repeat the "genocide and ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo that he carried out in Bosnia. PM

U.S. REJECTS SERBIAN CHARGES

Serbian authorities in Kosovo on 21 March arrested six U.S. humanitarian aid workers and sentenced them to 10 days in jail on the grounds that the six did not have residency permits valid for Kosovo. The U.S. embassy in Belgrade the following day issued a statement in which it denied the Serbian charges against the aid workers, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the Serbian capital. The statement added that the Serbian move violates the guidelines set down by the recent London conference of the international Contact Group to enable Belgrade to rejoin international institutions. It also said Washington will bring up the incident at the next meeting of the Contact Group, which is slated for 25 March. PM

BOSNIAN SERBS BACK MILOSEVIC

Prime Minister Fatos Nano said in Tirana on 20 March that Kosovo should be given a status within the Yugoslav federation equal to that of Montenegro. The next day in Ljubljana, however, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov said that the idea of making Kosovo a third Yugoslav republic "will lead nowhere." In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel told a local radio station that Kosovo should receive "a special status leading toward autonomy." In Banja Luka on 22 March, the Bosnian Serb parliament approved a declaration slamming attempts to internationalize the Kosovo question. The text said that "a certain section of the international community [supports] separatism" in the province. The declaration added that the legislators support the Belgrade authorities "in their efforts to give an adequate response to all expressions of Albanian terrorism" in Kosovo, RFE/RL reported. PM

GLIGOROV REJECTS KOSOVO LINK

In Ohrid on 20 March, Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov told an international conference on Balkan cooperation that Macedonia is "vitally interested" in containing and seeking a quick end to the tensions in Kosovo. He called for direct Serbian- Albanian talks aimed at finding a political solution "in an atmosphere of mutual toleration." Gligorov welcomed the concern of the international community over Kosovo and urged foreign diplomats to become even more active in Balkan affairs and better coordinate their activities with one another. He rejected what he called suggestions that the unrest in Kosovo could easily spread to the ethnic Albanian minority in Macedonia. Gligorov argued that the political status of Macedonia's Albanians is "greatly different" from that of the Kosovars. He said Macedonia is making progress in its efforts to achieve European standards on minority rights, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Ohrid. PM

SACIRBEY BLASTS TUDJMAN PLAN FOR BOSNIA

Croatian President Franjo Tudjman discussed the plan he announced the previous week for the demilitarization of Bosnia with Herzegovinian Croat leaders in Zagreb on 21 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 1998). Muhamed Sacirbey, who is Bosnia's ambassador to the UN, told an RFE/RL correspondent at the Ohrid conference the same day that Tudjman's proposal is aimed at leaving the Muslims defenseless. He added that Tudjman and the Herzegovinian Croats also want to dissolve the joint Croat and Muslim Bosnian federal army "because it is the only federal institution that wields real power." Sacirbey stressed that the Herzegovinians hope to dissolve the federation, re-establish their wartime Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna, and ultimately join Croatia. In Sarajevo, Bosnian military officials said Croatia and Yugoslavia must also be demilitarized if any demilitarization of Bosnia is to be effective. PM

DJUKANOVIC CALLS NEW PARTY SERBIA'S TOOL

Supporters of Montenegro's former President Momir Bulatovic founded the Socialist People's Party of Montenegro (SNPCG) in Podgorica on 21 March. Bulatovic and his backers thereby completed their break with the governing Democratic Socialist Party (DPS), which is led by President Milo Djukanovic, who opposes Bulatovic and Milosevic. Djukanovic said on 22 March that the SNPCG represents the interests of Milosevic and of Serbia in Montenegrin politics and that the DPS, which seeks more autonomy for Montenegro, will not form a coalition with it. PM

ALBANIA HEADING FOR TROUBLE WITH STRASBOURG?

The High Council of Justice fired Tirana City Court Chief Justice Qazim Gjonaj on 21 March on the grounds that he distributed arms to civilians during the March 1997 unrest. Gjonaj has admitted giving out the weapons, which he received from the secret service, "Koha Jone" reported. Gjonaj told the daily, however, that he returned all the arms after the anarchy ended. He added that the arms allegation was simply an excuse for his sacking, which he described as "political" following his recent criticism of the Socialist-led government. A high-ranking Council of Europe official told an RFE/RL correspondent at the Ohrid conference on 21 March that the council is concerned about the independence of the Albanian judiciary and will consider suspending Albania's membership if such sackings continue. FS

ROMANIAN CABINET MINISTERS CHALLENGE PREMIER

Privatization Minister Valentin Ionescu and Finance Minister Daniel Daianu are opposed to a preliminary agreement that Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea reached with the opposition Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) on 20 March. Ciorbea accepted a PDSR suggestion in order to secure the party's support for the draft budget shortly to be submitted to the parliament. The agreement stipulates that the privatization law will be amended to allocate most privatization revenues to the restructuring and modernization of loss-making state enterprises. Ionescu said the PDSR proposal was a "trap" that would result in a situation similar to that created when the PDSR was in power. Daianu said he "refuses" to make any amendment to the draft budget, which says that 80 percent of privatization revenues will go to the state budget, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. MS

MORE MERGERS, SPLITS AMONG ROMANIA'S LIBERALS

The Executive Committee of the Liberal Party on 21 March announced its decision to merge the recently formed Liberal Federation and the National Liberal Party (PNL). It also declared "null and void" a decision taken two days earlier by federation chairman Nicolae Cerveni to suspend Dinu Patriciu's as executive chairman of the federation. Cerveni had suspended Patriciu because of the latter's attempts to merge the federation with the PNL. On 22 March, Cerveni responded by expelling from the Liberal Party eight members of the Patriciu group, including the entire leadership of the former Liberal Party '93, which had merged with Cerveni's National Liberal Party-Democratic Convention to form the Liberal Party in 1997. The Liberal Federation now consists of only the tiny Cerveni wing and national Liberal Party-Campeanu wing. MS

HUNGARIAN ETHNICS TO CONTINUE GOVERNMENT PARTNERSHIP

The Council of Representatives of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), meeting in Miercurea-Ciuc on 21 March, decided to continue its participation in the governing coalition. UDMR chairman Bela Marko said all members of the ruling coalition must "assume responsibility" for the mistakes made in the past and must correct them. The council rejected by an overwhelming majority a proposal by members of one of UDMR's radical wings that the federation leave the coalition, which has not accepted the UDMR's demands for autonomy. MS

COMMUNISTS WIN MOLDOVAN ELECTIONS

With 83 percent of the votes counted, the Party of Moldovan Communists is leading the field in the 22 March parliamentary elections, having won some 30 percent support, BASA-press reported on 23 March. The pro-reform Democratic Convention of Moldova is second, with some 20 percent, closely followed by the pro- presidential For a Prosperous and Democratic Moldova Bloc (18 percent). The conservative pro-Romanian Party of Democratic Forces won some 9 percent of the vote. No other party seems to have passed the 4 percent electoral threshold. Turnout is estimated at about 67 percent. Final results are due by 24 March. MS

ODESSA MEETING FAILS TO RESOLVE MAIN TRANSDNIESTRIAN ISSUES

Talks in Odessa on the status of the separatist Transdniestrian region failed to resolve the main outstanding issues, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported on 20 March. Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi, separatist leader Igor Smirnov, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin attended the talks. Chisinau and Tiraspol agreed, however, that, as a confidence-building measure, each would reduce the number of its troops deployed in the security zone from 2,000 to 1,500 troops. It was also agreed that Ukraine would send peace-keeping observers to the security zone. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, who attended the meeting, ruled out any withdrawal of the Russian contingent from the Transdniester until a final settlement of the conflict has been reached. MS

BULGARIAN-RUSSIAN PRELIMINARY AGREEMENT ON GAS SUPPLIES

Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Evgeni Bakardzhiev and Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev reached a preliminary agreement in Moscow on 20 March aimed at resolving the long-standing dispute between the two sides over gas supplies to Bulgaria, ITAR-TASS reported. Under that agreement, annual deliveries of gas to Bulgaria will be increased from 6,000 to 8,000 million cubic meters a year, while transit rights for Russian gas deliveries through pipelines on Bulgarian territory will be incrementally increased from 6 million cubic meters to 19 million cubic meters by the year 2010. Vyakhirev said a final agreement is to be signed "within weeks." MS




A NEW OLIGARCHY EMERGES IN ARMENIA


by Emil Danielyan

Yet another election in Armenia has been marred by procedural violations. It was hoped that the 16 March presidential ballot would put the country back onto a democratic track, but instead the political scene is once again polarized, threatening the country's long-term stability and development.

Of the 12 presidential hopefuls who contended the first round of voting, none secured the 50 percent of the vote needed for an outright victory. The two leading candidates, Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian and former Communist leader Karen Demirchian, will therefore compete in a runoff on 30 March. Most observers in Armenia believe Kocharian will emerge as the new president, not least because of serious irregularities that cast a shadow over the first round.

This year's electoral fraud was markedly different from that of the September 1996 ballot, which was apparently rigged in favor of then President Levon Ter- Petrossyan. Whereas 18 months ago higher-level electoral commissions systematically falsified election returns, the 1998 vote saw attacks on polling stations and the buying of votes. OSCE observers and defeated candidates say the most frequently reported violation on polling day was the stuffing of hundreds of ballot papers marked for Kocharian into ballot boxes by groups of 20-30 men (often armed) who intimidated and beat opposition proxies (official representatives of opposition candidates). Buying votes (at prices varying from $5 to $20 per ballot) reached an unprecedented scale. Intimidation was particularly widespread in rural areas, which may have contributed to Kocharian's 8 percentage point lead over Demirchian in the first round.

The Armenian authorities have claimed that the violations were not premeditated and that the election is an improvement over 1996 presidential poll. This view is not shared by the rival camp, which is convinced Demirchian could have won in the first round had the vote been truly free and fair. On 30 March, Demirchian, who does not have the support of strong grass-roots structures, will face Kocharian, who is backed by the state apparatus and a tight network of quasi-mafia groups.

The result of the second round of voting is unlikely to reflect Demirchian's undoubted popularity. An election victory widely perceived to have been secured by dishonest means will increase the mistrust many Armenians already have toward Kocharian following the first round and will jeopardize the emergence of the "national consolidation" to which he aspires. (Similar mistrust of Ter-Petrossyan was one of the key factors that precipitated his resignation in early February.)

In addition, two strongmen who are not known as ardent advocates of democracy--Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian and Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian--are likely to emerge more powerful from the election. Local "clans" associated with those two ministers are believed to have made a significant contribution to Kocharian's victory by providing financial and other resources. The attacks on polling stations, for example, have been blamed on senior members of the Yerkrapah Union of Karabakh War Veterans, whose chairman is Vazgen Sarkisian.

Those clans also have control over a substantial portion of economic activities in the country and played a major role in the government oligarchy that emerged under Ter-Petrossyan. After Ter-Petrossyan's resignation, the oligarchy lost its main ideological wing, the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), whose quasi-liberal ideology facilitated the material enrichment of the ruling elite. Kocharian is likely to assign the role of "ideological front" to the nationalist Dashnak party, which was persecuted by Ter-Petrossyan. and is now expected to take over the education and culture portfolios.

The Dashnaks will have no disagreement with the "power ministries," as far as a tough Armenian stand on Nagorno-Karabakh and nationalism are concerned. But it remains to be seen whether the Dashnaks will put up with the "plunder of the people," against which the Dashnaks have pledged to fight. The two groups are, however, united in their hostility toward the free market. The Dashnaks are advocates of "true socialism," while the clans loyal to the two Sarkisians have made fortunes owing to their privileged position and want neither free competition nor the rule of law to disrupt their monopolist activities.

Economic liberalization and legal safeguards are essential conditions for the economic recovery that Kocharian has pledged. But the way the presidential election is being handled suggests he may not be able to establish those conditions. Kocharian, who argues that Karabakh is not the main impediment to Armenia's development, will not be able to blame the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan for continued economic hardship.

Moreover, the emergence of the new oligarchy does not bode well for the prospects of democratization in Armenia. And this year's presidential election will certainly not help overcome the lack of "democratic traditions," which, according to Kocharian, was responsible for the voting irregularities. The author is a Yerevan-based correspondent for RFE/RL's Armenian Service.


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