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Newsline - February 24, 1995

The situation remained tense in Grozny overnight, according to a government press service report cited by Interfax. Snipers and small groups of militants systematically fired on federal troops, but no losses were sustained. Representatives of Russian troops and leaders of Chechen mountain clans met in Tolstoi-Yurt 22 February. The Chechens reported weakening support for Dudaev and growing friction among the different clans. At a Moscow news conference, Col.-Gen. Vladimir Semenov, commander-in-chief of Russian Ground Forces, said most of the soldiers involved in the Chechen fighting had less than one year of experience because senior soldiers were being demobilized. On 23 February, Yeltsin signed a decree giving the Chechen Republic special representation in his administration. The document claimed that the step was necessary to coordinate the activities of federal and republican bodies until representative bodies are set up in Chechnya. In Stavropol, Cossack leader Ataman Viktor Sharkov said Shelkovskaya and Naurskaya Raions should be transferred to the jurisdiction of Stavropol Krai. The districts were part of the krai until 1957. He said if that was accomplished, the Cossacks would send their troops there to protect the population and rebuild the economy. In particular, he stressed the need to protect the Russian population there from Dudaev's men. -- Robert Orttung, OMRI, Inc.

Vladimir Kvasov, Vyacheslav Smirnov, Viktor Mashinsky, Yevgeny Gusarov (former members of New Regional Policy), and Vladimir Bauer (a former leader of Russia's Choice) announced the formation of a new parliamentary faction, Duma-96, which intends to contest the December elections, Nezavisimaya gazeta reported on 24 February. So far the group has 23 members, short of the 35 required for official registration. The leaders are recruiting members among deputies representing single-member districts because they have a specific electorate and are more likely to be reelected. According to sources within the Duma, two other deputies' groups are in the process of formation, and in several cases the names on their lists coincide with the names on the Duma-96 list. According to Grigory Tomchin, of Russia's Choice, the recent explosion of new deputy factions is a result of the politicians' desire to gain reelection, rather than a reflection of differences within the existing factions, Interfax reported. He claimed that deputies from single-mandate districts will not be reelected because of general dissatisfaction with the Duma's work. It will be more difficult to win seats from party lists because Yeltsin's proposed legislation envisions only 150 seats for parties, rather than the previous 225. The deputies are trying to create new lists so that they will be among the top ten names on their party's list. -- Robert Orttung, OMRI, Inc.

The freedom of Russia's media is threatened, according to Mikhail Poltoranin, chairman of the State Duma press and information committee. Poltoranin blamed two trends for the recent violations: the declining economic independence of the press, and the government's creation of "unconstitutional organs of control" over the electronic media, Ostankino TV reported on 23 February. In 1994, Poltoranin tried unsuccessfully to set up regulatory bodies for the media outside the government. Although the Duma passed three of his committee's proposed media laws, all were vetoed or ignored by President Yeltsin. -- Laura Belin, OMRI, Inc.

Only 9% of Russians now approve of President Boris Yeltsin's performance, according to recent surveys by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion. Two-thirds of those surveyed say Yeltsin should not run for re-election next year, western agencies reported. Only 4% of respondents believe Yeltsin has managed the Chechen crisis well. In addition, 57% believe the president should resign. -- Laura Belin, OMRI, Inc.

President Yeltsin has rejected a draft law to raise the minimum wage to 54,100 rubles a month, Interfax reported on 23 February. In a letter to Duma Chairman Ivan Rybkin, Yeltsin said the law would cost an additional 159 trillion rubles and would lead to a sharp reduction in spending on social, investment, and other important programs. Yeltsin's economic adviser, Aleksandr Livshitz, said the presidential administration had drafted a decree containing measures to support those on low incomes in case the president rejected the draft. The veto, which had been widely expected, removes a major obstacle to a 6.25 billion standby loan from the IMF. -- Penny Morvant, OMRI, Inc.

The Norwegian environmental organization Bellona has claimed that a fire recently broke out aboard a Russian ballistic missile submarine on patrol in the Barents Sea, forcing the boat to return to port for repairs, Aftenposten reported on 22 February. The giant Typhoon-class missile submarine suffered a fire in its electrical system and returned to its base at Nerpichya Guba, in the Kola peninsula's Zapadnaya Litsa fjord on 11 February, Reuters reported. The account said the fire did not lead to any radioactive leaks. When on patrol, the Typhoon carries 20 SS-N-20 ballistic missiles, each armed with 10 individual nuclear warheads. "The general decay in Russia's military forces has also affected the bases in Litsa Fjord. Five of the six Typhoon submarines are currently in port undergoing repairs," Aftenposten reported. In a related development, Admiral Felix Gromov, chief of the Russian Navy, reported on 23 February that three foreign submarines had recently been detected in the Norwegian and Barents seas near Russia's border, Interfax reported. -- Doug Clarke, OMRI, Inc.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has ordered tighter security at Russian nuclear facilities to prevent thefts of radioactive materials, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 February. He made the decision despite Interior Minister Viktor Yerin's claim that not a single milligram of weapons-grade nuclear material had disappeared from the facilities. Yerin, however, admitted that 80% of the police check points at nuclear projects lacked the equipment to detect nuclear materials. Valery Menshchikov, a Security Council expert, said there is an "enormous amount" of fissile nuclear material at Russian storage facilities. As an example, he said that near Tomsk there are 23,000 containers filled with plutonium-239 and enriched uranium inside "a normal building which offers no protection against external sources of damage as, for example, the fall of an aircraft." -- Doug Clarke, OMRI, Inc.

Russia has called for the indefinite prolongation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the April-May review conference, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 February. Grigory Berdennikov, Russia's permanent representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament, called on other countries to "take the same stand." He said that would provide "a guarantee of irreversibility for the process of nuclear disarmament rather than a mandate for the nuclear powers' interminable possession of nuclear arms." He said Russia is seeking the total elimination of nuclear weapons. -- Michael Mihalka, OMRI, Inc.

President Yeltsin has announced that he will personally oversee army reform, Interfax reported on 23 February. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow during a wreath-laying ceremony, he said, "Chechnya proved once again that we are dragging our feet with army reform. The matter cannot be dragged out anymore as the army is beginning to crumble." Meanwhile, service chiefs said the army and the navy are pressing ahead with reforms which will give them modern, mobile, and well-equipped units, despite economic limitations, ITAR-TASS reported. They said that although Russia's military doctrine is peaceful, the defense of the fatherland would require a military that is capable of repulsing enemy attacks. However Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said, "If there is money, there will be reforms. If there is no money, no reforms will go ahead," Ekho Moskvy reported. -- Michael Mihalka, OMRI, Inc.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that the Economics Ministry will present a government program addressing economic reform for 1995-97 by 15 March, Interfax and Western sources reported on 23 February. Chernomyrdin noted the importance of creating financial stabilization, achieving stable low inflation rates, and improving the environment for both domestic and foreign investors. Steps must be taken to modernize the economy, consolidate the industrial infrastructure, and boost exports. Chernomyrdin said 60 major bills must be approved by the State Duma, including those concerning effective state property control, joint-stock companies, banks, the stock market, tax reform, investment incentive, stage two of the privatization campaign, and private real estate guarantees. The prime minister said the government must approve the bills before 12 December when parliament's mandate expires. -- Thomas Sigel, OMRI, Inc.

The State Duma agrarian committee has completed the draft of Russia's Land Code and will submit it to the Duma Council for consideration, Interfax reported on 23 February. The agrarian committee chairman, Alexei Chernyshyov, said the draft is based on decrees presented by the government and Russia's Choice deputies. The Land Code establishes state, municipal, and private forms of ownership for land. It also allows foreigners to be participants in land transactions provided they rent land plots. The draft provides for strict control and tough restrictions on deals concerning agricultural land, including a moratorium on the sale of certain land plots. The majority of collective and Soviet farms have been reorganized into joint-stock companies, cooperatives, and associations and the land has become "the property of common ownership," he said. To date, more than 20 million hectares of land have been handed over to 44 million city and village families for ownership, gardening, and other purposes. -- Thomas Sigel, OMRI, Inc.

Vitaly Budko, chairman of the Coal Industry Workers' Union, announced that the union has decided to give the government until 15 March before staging an all-out strike, agencies reported on 23 February. The miners had earlier said they would picket government buildings at the end of February and go on strike on 1 March, if the government did not pay wage arrears. Budko said if a payment schedule could be agreed on before mid-March, there would be no need for a national protest. He said the government had taken steps "that make it possible to hope that the miners demands will be met in full," Interfax reported. Budko also said the union's ruling body had called on miners in Vorkuta to cancel their planned regional strike called for 1 March and to act jointly with the union. Yury Vishnevsky, the Vorkuta miners' leader, said his men would decide on 27 February whether to go ahead with the strike on 1 March. -- Penny Morvant, OMRI, Inc.

Col.-Gen. Vladimir Semenov, commander of Russia's Ground Forces, told Interfax on 23 February that he doubts a joint CIS air defense system could be set up any time soon. He said the elements of the old system were still intact in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but added "everything is in shambles" in Transcaucasia--Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan--where the 19th Air Defense Army used to be stationed. He said it would be very costly to restore the system. As an alternative, he proposed a territorial air defense system based on mobile air defense and ground units. -- Doug Clarke, OMRI, Inc.

Sejm speaker and prime minister candidate Jozef Oleksy announced on 23 February that the new cabinet lineup is complete and prepared for submission to the Sejm. The current education minister, Aleksander Luczak, of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) will serve as the sole deputy prime minister, but without portfolio. Grzegorz Kolodko of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) will lose his post as deputy prime minister but will stay on in the cabinet as finance minister and head of the government's economic committee. According to Gazeta Wyborcza, Kolodko will also be appointed to oversee the consolidation of the government ministries. No other names are to be disclosed until after Oleksy meets with President Lech Walesa on 27 February. But both major dailies quoted leaked lists indicating that Oleksy has opted to exclude from the new cabinet the three most controversial PSL ministers: Agriculture Minister Andrzej Smietanko, Foreign Trade Minister Leslaw Podkanski, and Michal Strak, chief of the public administration. The PSL proposed multiple candidates for each of "its" ministries, apparently to burden Oleksy rather than the party leadership with excluding the compromised ministers. SLD officials indicated that Oleksy's candidates for defense and foreign affairs are not those backed by Walesa. -- Louisa Vinton, OMRI, Inc.

On 23 February President Arpad Goncz appointed Lajos Bokros Finance Minister, Tamas Suchman Minister without portfolio in charge of privatization, and Gyorgy Suranyi head of the Hungarian National Bank, MTI reported. All three named financial stabilization, cuts in expenditure, market liberalization, the acceleration of privatization and fight against the black market economy as their priorities during parliamentary hearings on 22 February. The appointments were greeted both inside and outside Hungary as a major step towards restoring international confidence in the commitment to reform and foreign investment of the government of Gyula Horn. -- Edith Oltay, OMRI, Inc.

Volodymyr Hrynyov, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's top advisor on regional matters, has warned that the current political deadlock within the Crimean Parliament, as well as between the Crimean legislature and the president, could lead to a dangerous power vacuum that could allow organized crime groups to yield more influence on the peninsula, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 23 February. During his visit to Simferopol, Hrynyov told Interfax that he feared that the power struggle between Crimean President Yury Meshkov and parliament could lead to either Meshkov's resignation or the legislature's dissolution, leaving Crimea vulnerable to increasingly powerful and dangerous organized crime activity. The aide said that closer political and economic cooperation between Crimea and Ukraine could help improve the region's ailing economy. With that in mind, the Ukrainian government has signed a forward contract with the Crimean government for the purchase of this year's grain harvest with a 50% advance payment to help finance the spring sowing. Recently, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma issued a decree granting Crimea budgetary autonomy, and allowing the Crimean government to keep all the tax revenues collected for use in the region. -- Chrystyna Lapychak, OMRI, Inc.

A Belarus government spokesman in Minsk said on 23 February that Belarus had no intention of abandoning the CFE agreement on conventional arms reductions in Europe and that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's 17 February announcement of a halt in the destruction of weapons required by the treaty was prompted by a lack of money and not by concern over NATO's expansion. The spokesman explained that because of the large amounts of ex-Soviet equipment in Belarus it had to spend more than the U.S., Britain, and France combined to meet the treaty limits. While it had received a large amount of money for this purpose last year from the U.S., the spokesman said this had not been enough. However Lukashenka denied this interpretation the same day. Interfax quoted him as making it clear his decision was motivated by a "visible imbalance of forces in the world" rather than a lack of funds. -- Doug Clarke, OMRI, Inc.

The Belarusian parliament continues to disagree with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's amendments to the Law on the Cabinet of Ministers and President, Interfax and Belarusian Radio reported on 22 February. Lukashenka is seeking to amend the article in the law which allows a popular referendum to dismiss the president. He says that the constitution already allows for the dismissal of the president under a variety of circumstances and therefore a referendum is unnecessary and unconstitutional. Lukashenka also seeks to change the article which states that in the event of the president's disability, power would be transferred to the chairman of the Supreme Soviet and only revested with the president once parliament has received a report on his recovery. According to Lukashenka, there is nothing in the constitution addressing the temporary disability of the head of state. -- Ustina Markus, OMRI, Inc.

Slovakia's unemployment rate grew by 0.6% in January to reach 15.2%, Narodna obroda reported on 23 February. A total of 387,086 people were registered as unemployed at the end of the month. In 11 districts the unemployment rate was above 20%, in 14 it was higher than 15%, and only 3 districts had a rate lower than 10%. The highest rate (28.9%) was in the district of Rimavska Sobota, while the lowest (5.1%) was in Bratislava. Of total unemployed, 48.9% were women. -- Sharon Fisher, OMRI, Inc.

In a visit to Slovakia on 23 February, Czech Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Ivan Kocarnik said the clearing agreement between the Czech Republic and Slovakia will be stopped by the end of 1995 and the two countries will trade in convertible currency, Sme reports. Kocarnik nonetheless confirmed his interest in the continuation of the customs union. -- Sharon Fisher, OMRI, Inc.

The parliament, elected in September 1992, held its last session on 23 February, Interfax and BNS reported. Holding further sessions would have been a great hindrance for many deputies who are seeking reelection on 5 March. Prime Minister Andres Tarand noted that the parliament had been very productive, adopting 426 laws and 100 decisions, declarations, and appeals in two and a half years. He said that a recent poll had indicated a positive attitude among Estonians toward the government and parliament and more confidence in the future. By a 52-1 vote (with two abstentions) the parliament approved a law on foreign loans and their state guarantees. The law states that foreign loans in one year can not exceed 15% of the year's budget and the sum total of foreign loans must not exceed 75% of budget revenues for the fiscal year. -- Saulius Girnius, OMRI, Inc.

Prime Minister Adolfas Slezevicius devoted his attention on 23 February to two main issues: his trip the next day to Moscow and "deprivatization," an RFE/RL correspondent reported. Agreements on mutual travel, border crossings, and customs cooperation will be signed during his meeting with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The talks will also deal with border delimitation, return of Lithuanian embassy buildings in Paris and Rome, long term agreements on purchasing oil and gas from Russia, and other issues. Slezevicius also noted that he was opposed to the Seimas' decision to include the Ignalina atomic power plant and Kedainiai chemical plant in the list of enterprises not to be privatized until the year 2000. Similarly, he opposes the no-confidence motion against Industry and Trade Minister Kazimieras Klimasauskas that the Seimas commission for investigating economic crimes is intending to initiate for not taking a stand in the Kedainiai plant's earlier privatization. -- Saulius Girnius, OMRI, Inc.

Around 2,000 Macedonian students demonstrated in front of the parliament building in Skopje on 23 February against higher education being taught in the Albanian language, AFP reported the same day. The students argued that teaching in Albanian serves as a pretext for the breakup of Macedonia. Following the police crackdown on a self-proclaimed Albanian-language university on 17 February, police arrested more Albanian activists on 22 February. The former leader of the Party of Democratic Prosperity (PPD) and a founder and current leader of the Party for the Peoples Union, Nevzat Halili, and a professor at the Albanian-language university, Musli Halimi, were arrested, the Macedonian-Albanian newspaper Flaka reported on 23 February. Meanwhile, the current leader of the PPD, Abdurrahman Aliti, met with British ambassador to Macedonia Tony Milson, Flaka reported on 24 February. Milson stressed that a policy of dialogue will bring results and praised the contribution of the PPD in averting the conflict. -- Fabian Schmidt, OMRI, Inc.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke said that a new international group has been set up to support the joint Croat-Muslim federation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nasa Borba reported on 24 February. The "Friends of the Federation" will have their work cut out for them, and Novi list cites Bishop Pero Sudar as saying that Croats are being driven from their apartments in Sarajevo by Muslims and not given new housing. The Muslims are also having problems with the UN, which has now accused their military of conducting "an orchestrated campaign of harassment" against UNPROFOR, although government forces have not been as obstructive as the Serbs. News agencies also report that government and Serb officials met at Sarajevo airport on 23 February for a second day of apparently inconclusive meetings about humanitarian and other practical questions, as well as about the fighting in the Bihac pocket. -- Patrick Moore, OMRI, Inc.

Novi list on 24 February reprints a commentary from the latest issue of the Roman Catholic Church's weekly Glas Koncila. The editorial takes to task unnamed officials of the government or the ruling Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) for trying to use Catholicism as part of a "state ideology." The author notes that Christianity cannot be a political ideology and that democratic countries do not need official ideologies. The commentary particularly takes issue with those who have said that the church should not preach "love thine enemy" under the present circumstances in Croatia. On the contrary, while Croatian Catholics should defend their country out of patriotism, the article continues, they must never hate their enemies but rather love them as brothers. The commentary reflects views typical of Pope John Paul II and especially of Croatia's Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, who has kept a healthy distance from the government and openly criticized its war against the Muslims in 1993. The HDZ's attempts to use Catholicism for its own ends have struck many observers as bizarre, since President Franjo Tudjman is not know to be a particularly religious man and since his party contains agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims and others who reject the idea of making the HDZ a Christian democratic party. -- Patrick Moore, OMRI, Inc.

Nasa Borba reported on 23 February that on the previous day the Executive Commission of the European Union allocated some $120,000 in assistance to Nasa Borba, an independent daily, so that it may acquire much-needed newsprint. The aid is slated to be directed through the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), headquartered in Brussels. -- Stan Markotich, OMRI, Inc.

Radio Bucharest reported on a Romanian Foreign Ministry press release on 23 February that said "significant progress" had been made at the latest round of high-level negotiations in Bucharest on the basic treaty with Hungary. The ministry said the two sides had also come closer to an agreement on the article concerning the rights of national minorities. This article had been one of the main stumbling blocks in the negotiations. The Romanian side has submitted new proposals which will be discussed at the next high-level meeting, most likely next week in Budapest, according to the press release. -- Michael Shafir, OMRI, Inc.

The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, met on 23 February with Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu, Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu, the chairmen of the two houses of Romania's parliament, Adrian Nastase and Oliviu Gherman, as well as Viorel Hrebenciuc, the secretary of the government in charge of the Council on National Minorities. Radio Bucharest and Romanian Television reported that Melescanu told his guest about the progress in the negotiations with Hungary on the basic treaty. Max van der Stoel said he was under the impression that the efforts "necessary for a Romanian-Hungarian dialogue are being intensified" and expressed his hope that these will also bear fruit. After the Vacaroiu-van der Stoel meeting, the government spokesman said they had discussed, among other things, the pending education law's provisions on teaching in the languages of national minorities. The Hungarian minority says the law (which has been passed by the Chamber of Deputies and is to be discussed in the Senate) is discriminating. -- Michael Shafir, OMRI, Inc.

The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Miguel Angel Martinez, arrived in Chisinau on 22 February for a one-day visit, Western and Romanian media reported. In an address to the Moldovan parliament, Martinez said Moldova's candidacy for the Council of Europe will be examined "in the first quarter of this year," Reuters reported. Martinez also said the constitution adopted by Moldova in July 1994 laid a solid framework for a democratic state, giving priority to human rights. He said Moldova's approach to national minorities could serve as a model for other former Soviet republics and for the former Yugoslavia. Martinez also met Moldovan President Mircea Snegur, Prime Minister Andrei Sangheli, the chairman of the parliament, Petru Lucinschi, and Foreign Minister Mihai Popov. Martinez met also with the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the self-styled Transdniester republic, Grigore Marcuta. Reuters quoted Martinez as telling the Moldovan parliament that Russia could join the Council of Europe only if it proved it dealt with human rights in a "civilized way." he said the crisis in Chechnya has "had a negative impact on the timetable of Russia's accession" to the Council. -- Michael Shafir, OMRI, Inc.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Hennadii Udovenko began a two-day visit to Moldova on 23 February. Quoting Moldpres, Radio Bucharest said on 23 February that Udovenko told his Moldovan hosts that Ukraine will not obstruct the transit of the 14th army troops and munition through its territory. However, he added that the transit is linked to "complicated matters," such as ecological problems, but also security problems posed by the arsenal and munition of the Russian army. -- Michael Shafir, OMRI, Inc.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke visited Slovakia and Romania February 23 to discuss NATO enlargement issues, Reuters reports. After meeting Slovak president Michal Kovac in Bratislava, Holbrooke told reporters "I must stress that the United States considers central Europe of great importance for stability throughout Europe." In Bucharest, he praised Romania's role as a an "active participant" in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. He also discussed the U.S. plan to have NATO offer Russia "a security framework that we see parallel with NATO expansion." He stressed that this plan "would not give Russia veto power over NATO." Holbrooke further said that NATO would be sending a team to Eastern Europe to discuss expansion. Radio Bucharest reported that Holbrooke was "delighted" with the U.S. strategic relationship with Romania, thought political relations were "quite good," but was disappointed with the state of economic relations where American investments were lagging behind those in Hungary and the Czech Republic. He blamed the slow privatization process for this state of affairs. -- Michael Mihalka and Michael Shafir, OMRI, Inc.

The National Assembly on 23 February passed an amendment to the restitution law, which provides that tenants can stay another three years in restituted property, Demokratsiya reported the following day. Some 130 of the 240 deputies voted for the bill. The amendment had already been passed on 9 February, but President Zhelyu Zhelev had rejected it on 22 February (see 23 February OMRI Daily Digest). Demokratsiya wrote that the Socialist Party "blocks restitution for three more years," while Trud assesses that "the new prolongation of the restitution law does not solve the problem." -- Stefan Krause, OMRI, Inc.

Greek border guards detained and expelled 2,929 illegal Albanian immigrants between 17 and 21 February, Western agencies reported on 22 February. That is an average of some 600 Albanians expelled every day. According to Greek officials the expulsions are a reaction to an increased influx of illegal Albanians via the snowbound mountainous area since milder weather allowed people to cross the unmarked border. According to Greek estimates about 300,000 Albanians work illegally in Greece. Greek Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias is expected to discuss a possible regulation of seasonal work for Albanians in Greece with his Albanian counterpart, Alfred Serreqi, during his visit to Albania in March. -- Fabian Schmidt, OMRI, Inc.

[As of 12:00 CET]
Compiled by Victor Gomez and Pete Baumgartner