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Newsline - December 19, 1996

Chechen field commander Salman Raduev on 18 December released the 22 Russian policemen taken hostage by his men on the Chechen-Dagestan border on 14 December, Russian and Western agencies reported. Raduev had come under pressure to release the men from Russian and Chechen officials, including acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. Still unresolved, however, is the whereabouts of a North Ossetiyan government delegation abducted on 16 December in the Chechen village of Znamenskoe while traveling to Grozny for talks with Chechen officials on normalizing the situation on the border between the two republics. Meanwhile, six Russian civilians were killed in Grozny on the night of 17-18 December, according to ITAR-TASS. Following the murder of six Red Cross workers in Novye Atagi, a third humanitarian group, Medicins sans Frontieres, has suspended its operations in Chechnya, AFP reported. * Liz Fuller

Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said Boris Yeltsin will make some "unexpected" moves when he returns to work on or before 25 December, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 December. However, Yastrzhembskii denied rumors circulating in the Russian press that Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko may soon be appointed to an official position in the presidential administration. Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Anatolii Chubais said the American surgeon Michael DeBakey, who was a consultant during Yeltsin's recent illness, wrote to Yeltsin saying the president could enjoy another 10 working years as long as he returns to a full work schedule gradually, Reuters reported. Only a few photographs and brief video footage of Yeltsin have been released since his 5 November heart operation. * Laura Belin

Sergei Shakhrai, Yeltsin's deputy chief of staff and representative in the Constitutional Court, suggested that persistent attacks could soon prompt Chubais to resign voluntarily, NTV and Russian Public TV (ORT) reported on 18 December. The Procurator-General's Office is investigating a transcript published last month that apparently implicated Chubais in wide-ranging malfeasance during Yeltsin's re-election campaign. More recently, Communists in the Duma demanded Chubais' ouster as a condition for adopting the 1997 budget. Kommersant-Daily argued on 19 December that even if Chubais remains in office, his authority will be reduced and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's influence will increase. The paper also suggested that Shakhrai and Chubais (who are known to dislike each other) may develop a "good cop, bad cop" approach toward regional policy. Shakhrai is considered to be more sympathetic to regional interests, while Chubais has called for cracking down on so-called legal "separatism." * Laura Belin

Yeltsin signed a decree establishing a Main Directorate on Cossack Units in the presidential administration, which will be responsible for working out policy on the revival of Russia's Cossacks and coordinating the activities of all registered Cossack organizations, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 December. In April, Yeltsin signed several decrees on Cossack participation in the border guards and civil service (see OMRI Daily Digest, 18 April 1996). Meanwhile, Komsomosakaya pravda reported on 18 December that 3,000 Terek Cossacks blockaded the airport and train station in Mineralnye Vody (Stavropol Krai) until they were promised a meeting between Chernomyrdin and their ataman, Vladimir Shevtsov. The Terek Cossacks are demanding that some territory be transferred from Chechnya to Stavropol Krai, as well as immunity from prosecution for possession of firearms and the authority to guard the border between Chechnya and Stavropol. * Laura Belin

Presidential Chief of Staff Chubais told ITAR-TASS on 18 December that Yeltsin has resubmitted to the Duma an amended bill raising the minimum pension. Earlier reports said Yeltsin had vetoed the law on the grounds that it was too expensive. Chubais said the new version raises the minimum pension by 10% as of 1 January. The Duma had wanted the increase to take effect on 1 November. Also on 18 December, the Duma passed on second reading a bill raising the minimum wage from 75,900 rubles a month to 95,000 as of 1 January. The minimum wage, which is used as the basis for calculating a range of benefits, was last raised on 1 April. The Duma also overcame a Federation Council veto on a bill increasing child benefits for single parents. * Penny Morvant

The Duma passed in the third and final reading a draft law regulating relations between krais, oblasts, and the autonomous okrugs subordinated to them, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 December. Nine krais and oblasts of the Russian Federation contain autonomous okrugs. The bill would make okrugs subject to the laws of the corresponding oblast or krai. It stresses that elections to a krai's or oblast's legislative and executive bodies are held throughout all their territories without any exception. The Duma vote is in large part aimed at preserving the integrity of Tyumen Oblast, since the legislature of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug--one of two okrugs in Tyumen--has declared that the okrug's citizens will not participate in the 22 December Tyumen gubernatorial elections (see OMRI Daily Digest,16 and 18 December 1996). * Nikolai Iakoubovski

Russian Defense Minster Igor Rodionov blasted NATO's plans to expand eastward after meeting with defense ministers from the 16 NATO countries on 18 December, international agencies reported. Rodionov dismissed alliance pledges not to deploy nuclear weapons in new member states, saying such promises could be revoked at any time. He renewed threats to take unspecified "countermeasures" if the alliance expands and said expansion would threaten START II. Rodionov's comments may be aimed at extracting the maximum concessions for Russian acquiescence to enlargement, but they could also signal that Moscow still hopes to torpedo the process. * Scott Parrish

FBI agents on 18 December arrested one of their own colleagues, Edwin Pitts, charging him with espionage for the Soviet Union and Russia, international agencies reported. Pitts is accused of passing information to the KGB beginning in 1987, when he worked in the New York office of the FBI conducting counterintelligence operations against suspected Soviet agents. Although Pitts apparently stopped working for the KGB's Russian successors in 1992, a recent Russian defector fingered him as a turncoat, and the FBI agents posing as Russian operatives induced him to reveal details of his past cooperation with Soviet intelligence. Like Harold Nicholson, the CIA officer recently arrested on charges of spying for Russia, Pitts' motivation was financial, and he received $224,000 in return for information on FBI agents, counterintelligence techniques, and codes. * Scott Parrish

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller discussed a wide range of issues in meetings with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov on 18 December, international agencies reported. Ciller said NATO expansion should "be handled very carefully," adding that Turkey, whose approval is neccessary for the admission of new members, "will not allow NATO to become a threat to Russia." Kommersant-Daily on 19 December speculated that Ciller hoped to trade Turkish opposition to NATO expansion for Russian agreement not to support Kurdish separatists. Ciller and Primakov did sign a joint anti-terrorism declaration, and each side pledged to respect the others' territorial integrity. But Primakov said Moscow is "not responsible" for the activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party and rebuffed Turkish concerns over the planned sale of S-300 air defense missiles to the Greek-controlled part of Cyprus. * Scott Parrish

One passenger was slightly injured when an explosion ripped through a train on the St. Petersburg metro shortly after midnight on 19 December, Russian and Western agencies reported. The metro director, Vladimir Garyugin, said the force of the explosion was similar to one that killed four people on the Moscow metro in June. No one claimed responsibility for the Moscow metro bombing. * Penny Morvant

On 18 December, the Duma passed on first reading a new privatization law, the first since 1991, Kommersant-Daily reported. The draft law was prepared in advance by a joint parliamentary-government commission: only the Liberal Democratic Party voted against the bill. Many of the innovations in privatization since 1991 have taken place on the basis of presidential decrees, leading deputies to argue that the new law was needed "the day before yesterday" to halt the "fire-sale of state property." The bill includes new procedures for deciding which firms are to be privatized, abolishes annual targets, and provides a legal basis for a broader range of privatization methods, including more freedom for federation subjects. * Peter Rutland

South Africa's De Beers has issued a statement urging the Russian government to ratify an agreement between the company and Russia's largest diamond producer Almazy Rossii-Sakha by the end of 1996, AFP and ITAR-TASS reported on 18 December. De Beers says it will not buy Russian raw diamonds under the terms of the current agreement next year. The new agreement would allow De Beers to become the sole buyer of all Russian raw diamond exports. De Beers was responding to a statement by Finance Minister Aleksandr Livshits in Smolensk on 17 December: he said the agreement with De Beers should pay more attention to the interests of the Russian diamond extracting and cutting industries. * Natalia Gurushina

An Armenian opposition representative, Vladimir Hakhverdyan, said that the investigation into the 25 September protests in Yerevan is complete and that trials will begin in January, Groong reported on 18 December citing Asbarez-on-line. The protests were triggered by reports of alleged vote-rigging in the 22 September presidential election. A number of supporters of the defeated opposition candidate Vazgen Manukyan burst into the parliament building and took the National Assembly speaker and his deputy hostage. According to Hakhverdyan, a group of opposition activists arrested in connection with the unrest, have been charged with inciting mass disorder and illegally possessing arms. * Emil Danielyan

Russia's Ambassador to Baku, Aleksandr Blokhin, told ITAR-TASS on 18 December he was displeased at the reported recent meeting in Baku between Terry Adams, chairman of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), and Chechen government official Eduard Khachukaev (See OMRI Daily Digest for 18 December 1996). Blokhin argued that the export of Caspian oil via Chechnya to Novorossiisk, which Adams and Khachukaev allegedly discussed, was regulated under the terms of the existing agreement between Transneft and the AIOC. A spokesman for Adams confirmed that he had met with Khachukaev but denied that the two men had discussed transit tariffs. * Liz Fuller

On 18 December a spokesman for the Adzhar Supreme Soviet denied press reports that a state of emergency had been declared in the capital, Batumi, but said that military vehicles had been moved to the city on 18 December to take part in maneuvers, according to ITAR-TASS of 18 December. Nezavisimaya gazeta on 19 December quoted a source within the Georgian parliament as claiming that all Russian troops stationed in Adzharia had been placed on full alert in connection with an anticipated attempt to assassinate Azdhar Supreme Soviet chairman Aslan Abashidze. * Liz Fuller

Speaking on state television, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov said on 18 December he is pinning his hopes for an economic revivial on renewed exports of natural gas to Western Europe, Reuters reported. He said that gas exports in 1997 will almost double to 40 billion cubic meters and that half the gas will be shipped to Western Europe via Russia, in accordance with an agreement with Russia's Gazprom. Last year, Turkmenistan exported 24 billion cubic meters of natural gas. In the late 1980s, Turkmenistan produced more than 80 billion cubic meters of gas a year. In 1993, Russia stopped delivering Turkmen natural gas to Europe, leaving the country to supply cash-strapped CIS countries. * Lowell Bezanis

The Tajik opposition on 18 December released 39 hostages captured in recent fighting, RFE/RL reported. Those freed were described only as "high-ranking" officials. The move was agreed at a meeting of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri on 10-11 December. Talks between the two leaders in Moscow scheduled for 19 December have been pushed back a day as Nuri's departure was delayed by an opposition meeting in Tehran on 18 December, according to Russian sources. In a brief interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta on 19 December, Rakhmonov said that a national reconciliation council must be set up but--a stipulation of the original cease-fire agreement signed in Tehran in 1994--but added: "It's not our fault the agreement has not been realized." * Bruce Pannier

In the Freedom House survey covered in the OMRI Daily Digest of 18 December, Kyrgyzstan was classified as "partly free."

Ukrainian Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety Minister Yurii Kostenko said Ukraine will remove nuclear fuel from the concrete shell over the damaged No. 4 reactor, Ukrainian TV and Western agencies reported on 18 December. The process could take 30-50 years, while the preparation for it will require 10-15 years, according to Kostenko. In opting for the fuel removal method, which will be financed by the West, Ukraine has rejected French-British and Russian projects to reinforce the concrete structure. The fuel must be removed to rule out the possibility of a chain reaction inside the devastated reactor. Kostenko said Ukraine has received only $185 million out of the $3.1 billion pledged by the G-7 to fund the closure of the Chornobyl by the year 2000. He reiterated that Ukraine will have to reopen the second block of Chornobyl, because the only functioning reactor, No. 3, cannot meet national electricity needs alone. * Oleg Varfolomeyev

Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on 18 December said that the Russian-Belarusian community has proved its viability, despite some shortcomings, Radio Rossii reported. His comments came at the sixth meeting of the community in Moscow. Meanwhile, Izvestiya criticized Russia's official support for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, warning that with the support of Gen. (ret.) Aleksander Lebed and the Russian patriotic opposition led by Sergei Baburin, Lukashenka may become a figure of extreme influence in the community. At the same time, Uladzimir Hlod, editor-in-chief of Belapan news agency's analytical service, called the draft agreement on further integration between Russia and Belarus a work of Russian chauvinist forces disappointed at the outcome of Russia's presidential election. The document calls for the countries' two legislative branches to be merged followed by a common presidential election. * Sergei Solodovnikov

The House of Representatives has elected the heads of its permanent committees, Belarusian TV reported on 18 December. Yuryi Malumau will head the Legal Committee; former KGB head Uladzimir Yahorau will head the National Security Committee; Syamyon Livishits will head the Economics Committee; Anatol Krastsky will head the state and Local Authorities Committee; Alyaksandr Zenchenka will head the Budgetary and Finance Committee; Mykola Kutsko will head the Agricultural Committee; Uladzimir Pletyukhau will head the Education and Culture Committee; Stanislau Hovorushkin will head the Labor, Health, Social Issues, and Sports Committee; Yuryi Kulakovsky will head the Human Rights and International Relations Committee; and Leanid Rachkau will head the International Relations and CIS Committee. A day earlier, Belapan reported the parliament voted to abolish abstentions in voting. Deputies must now vote for or against laws and resolutions. All resolutions on that day were passed unanimously. * Ustina Markus

The Rigikogu adopted the 1997 state budget on 18 December by a vote of 62-32, ETA reported. The volume of the budget is 12.512 billion kroons ($1 billion). The largest source of revenues come from the VAT, which should bring in 5.775 billion kroons, and a 44% personal income tax, which should amount to 2.25 billion kroons. The rest of the revenues will be secured through a corporate income tax (1.1 billion kroons), an alcohol exise tax (983.2 million kroons), a tobacco exise (326 million kroons), and a motor fuel exise (896 million kroons). The Social Ministry will get 2.184 billion kroons; the Education Ministry, 2.26 million kroons; the Interior Ministry, 1.546 million kroons; the Transport and Communications Ministry, 1.64 million kroons; and the Defense Ministry, 732.2 million kroons. The budget also includes expenses for preparing Estonia for entry into the EU. * Ustina Markus

A report prepared by EU experts has found corruption at all levels of the Latvian government, Latvian Radio reported on 17 December. It reported that about 50% of profits generated from criminal activities are spent on bribing government officials, especially customs and police officers. The report stated bribery is rife everywhere, adding that most organized crime in Latvia relates to Russia. In other news, the Latvian human rights bureau has found that several points in Latvian law do not meet international human rights standards. Those include regulations allowing only Latvians to work as private detectives, employees of armed security and aircraft services, lawyers and their assistants, firefighters, and pharmacists and veterinary licenses. * Ustina Markus

Some 3,000 workers participated in three Solidarity-sponsored demonstrations in Warsaw on 18 December. The loudest demonstration was organized by the Gdansk Shipyard's Solidarity branch to demand greater state funding for the bankrupt company. Demonstrators threw firecrackers and smeared red paint on the walls of the government building. Another group, from the Swidnik helicopter factory, demanded more money in the stage budget to enable the Polish army to buy local armament industry products, including Sokol helicopters produced in Swidnik. The third group, from the power engineering industry, protested against the liberalization of energy prices. * Jakub Karpinski

Petr Pithart, the Czech premier in 1990-1992, was elected chairman of the first Czech Senate at its constituent session on 18 December, Czech media reported. Pithart was proposed by the coalition Christian Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People's Party, but his candidacy was opposed by Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS). Klaus's party claimed that Pithart had failed in his post of premier. Pithart, a former dissident, was a leader of the Civic Movement which competed against the ODS in the 1992 elections. President Vaclav Havel supported Pithart's candidacy, describing him as an educated and understanding man. The 81-member Senate failed to elect Pithart in the first round of voting, when Pithart received only 39 votes. In the second round, he received 41 votes. Klaus has expressed disappointment over the election of his former political rival. * Jiri Pehe

The parliament, in a special session called by the opposition, voted on 18 December to postpone debate on the constitutional bill on the president's direct election until 15 February, Slovak media reported. The opposition plans to launch a referendum drive on the issue in the new year. If it collects 350,000 signatures, the president will be required to call a referendum within 30 days. In other news, the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists on 18 December protested the "protection of the republic" amendment that was approved the previous day, saying it threatens constitutionally-guaranteed civic rights and freedoms as well as journalists' right to freely exercise their profession. Also on 18 December, the Slovak Helsinki Committee criticized the amendment's vague formulations, saying that it "raises serious concerns among the public and chaos in the legislation," TASR reported. * Sharon Fisher

During an 18 December television debate, Vladimir Meciar said he thinks Slovakia could join NATO later if it fails to be included in the first wave of expansion, CTK reported. He added that the alliance "will not leave Slovakia behind" and "it can wait." Meciar said his government's support for a referendum on NATO membership will not change anything concerning its aim of joining the alliance, "but such a serious historical decision must have public support." He noted that while the public supports joining NATO, it is opposed to troop and nuclear missile deployment on Slovak territory. Regarding Western criticism of his governing practices, Meciar said that Western countries should be sending positive signals to Slovakia. He also noted that "Slovakia has complicated life for itself by taking impractical steps." * Anna Siskova

The electoral commission in the town of Smederevska Palanka on 18 December ruled that the governing Socialists won the 17 November municipal elections, Nasa Borba reported the following day. The commission's ruling comes after a court decision recognizing a Zajedno victory in the town. A similar court ruling in Serbia's second largest city of Nis which also recognized opposition victories has not been contested by the local electoral commission, at least for the moment. Meanwhile, at least 100,000 people marched in Belgrade on 18 December, with some of the protesters walking past the Russian Embassy to register their protest and anger at Moscow's support for the regime. About 30,000 students tried to march to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's residence, but they were turned away by police. * Stan Markotich

In the latest sign that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is standing firm in his resolve to not recognize the opposition's victories in the recent municipal elections, about 2,000 Milosevic loyalists demonstrated in the village of Sremska Mitrovica, near Belgrade, to show support for the regime, RTS 1 reported. The demonstrators, almost all elderly, showed their support for the authorities by unfurling banners reading, "We love you, Slobo" or "Slobo--Peace and Progress," and injunctions against opposition demonstrators such as, "Think with your head, not your feet." * Stan Markotich

Three houses belonging to Muslims but located on Croat territory were dynamited last weekend, the UN police announced on 18 December. UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko added that the explosions in Capljina brought the total number of such incidents on Croat territory over the past three months to 35. Ivanko charged that the authorities should try to prevent such acts or at least try to catch the guilty parties. He noted, however, that nobody has been caught to date, AFP reported. Meanwhile, the UNHCR charged the Bosnian Serb authorities with preventing Muslims from returning to their homes in the Sipovo area in western Bosnia, near Mrkonjic Grad. The UN noted that the local Serbs had previously been helpful, and suggested that the authorities in Pale may have meanwhile issued orders to block any returns. The Dayton agreement provides for freedom of movement and the right to go home, but those provisions have scarcely been enforced. * Patrick Moore

Kofi Annan on 18 December said he doubts the UN International Police Task Force (IPTF), currently operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina under a limited mandate, is an adequate force to find and apprehend Bosnian war criminals, AFP reported. Annan said the governments in the region must be pressed to cooperate, a position already articulated by NATO. The head of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili, has promoted the idea of a separate international police force to hunt down war criminals, saying the NATO-led peace force in Bosnia is not trained for "police work" (see OMRI Daily Digest, 17 December 1996). The still vague proposal suggests that the new police force might operate under the EU, the UN criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or the OSCE. But critics say none of those organizations have the means or the experience to track down suspects. * Daria Sito Sucic

The Croatian Defense and National Security Council on 17 December claimed that "pressure is still being exerted by those who support the existence of Yugoslavia at all costs and who are against the creation of an independent Croatian state," AFP reported. The council, chaired by President Franjo Tudjman, stressed that those people have plans to push Croatia back into a Balkan or southeast European "melting pot." Those "foreign scenarios" aim to stage simultaneous demonstrations in Zagreb, Belgrade, and Sarajevo. In other news, Tudjman on 16 December replaced four government ministers who were either considered to be too independent or suspected of corruption. Senior police officers have pledged support for one of them, former Interior Minister Ivan Jarnjak, saying he is the only person who would be capable of handling the chaos that would ensue if Tudjman were to die in office, AFP on 18 December, quoting the independent weekly Globus. * Daria Sito Sucic

The Liberal Party '93, the National Liberal Party-Democratic Convention (PNL-CD), and the National Liberal Party-Campeanu Group decided on 17 December to set up a new alliance called the National Liberal Union (UNL), Radio Bucharest reported. Dinu Zamfirescu of the Liberal Party '93 deplored the fact that the National Liberal Party (PNL) is attempting to "impose unacceptable conditions" on the unification of liberal formations. PNL first deputy chairman Viorel Catarama said on 12 December that his party must have a 60% representation in any future joint Liberal conference that will decide on the unification of Liberal formations. The Party of Civic Alliance (PAC) has also rejected Catarama's formula. It is unclear, however, how the UNL will get its act together, since the PNL-CD is a member of the Democratic Convention of Romania and the other two parties are not. PNL-CD vice chairman Alexandru Popovici said on 18 December that any unification must take place within the CDR.Question marks also loom over the future of the National Liberal Alliance, set up by the Liberal Party '93 and the PAC a few months earlier. * Michael Shafir

The leaderships of the Democratic Convention of Romania and the Democratic Party-National Salvation Front in Harghita county have protested against the appointment of an ethnic Hungarian to the post of county prefect, Radio Bucharest reported on 18 December. Ethnic Hungarians form the majority of the county's residents. The decision to appoint three members of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) as prefects was reached as a result of discussions among the new governing coalition parties. UDMR Senator Attila Verestoy told RFE/RL that based on its strength in parliament, the UDMR was entitled to five prefects but has agreed to have only three. Adevarul reported that President Emil Constantinescu and Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea promised ethnic Romanian members of parliament that they would "be on guard" against "infringements of the constitution and the country's laws"--an allusion to the UDMR program that calls for "local, territorial, and personal autonomy." * Michael Shafir

Responding to an invitation from the Tiraspol authorities, Russia, Belarus, and Abkhazia will send observers to the 22 December presidential election in the breakaway region, local and international media reported on 18 December. The Russian delegation will include members of the State Duma from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic faction and from the Communist Party faction. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadii Tarasov said the presence of the delegation will "not upgrade" the "purely local character" of the ballot. He said Russia continued to favor the settling of the dispute by granting the region special status within Moldova. The head of the OSCE permanent mission in Moldova, Donald Johnson, said no OSCE observers will be delegated because the organization "supported and continues to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova." * Michael Shafir

The city of Sofia on 18 December opened the capital's first 24 permanent soup kitchens to serve free meals to the poor, RFE/RL reported. The kitchens will offer warm soup and bread once a day to around 3,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians live in increasingly miserable conditions, with average monthly wages and pensions declining constantly, the latter to 5,700 leva ($12.3). The previous day, the Polish Red Cross--following a request from the Bulgarian Red Cross and Red Crescent--arranged for two cargo planes to send 9 metric tons of food to Bulgaria. Meanwhile, Demokratsiya on 19 December reported that of the 1.6 million Bulgarians dependent on central heating, 111,000 have had the heating in their homes turned off because they cannot afford it. Standart noted that all state-controlled heating companies will face bankruptcy when the price of Russian gas goes up in January. * Stefan Krause

The Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce (BSK) and the two big trade union confederations on 18 December signed an accord stipulating that Bulgarians receive their salaries every third day, if the country is hit by hyperinflation, or weekly, if monthly inflation reaches 40-50%, Standart and Kontinent reported. According to experts of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria, the inflation rate for 1996 is 300%, and BSK Chairman Bozhidar Danev said inflation is running at 25-27% in December alone. * Maria Koinova in Sofia

An Italian delegation led by Deputy Attorney-General Alberto Mariatti left Albania on 18 December after meeting with various Albanian official bodies to discuss greater cooperation in fighting organized crime, Rilindja Demokratike reported. The largest problem both countries face is the smuggling of arms, drugs, and people. In recent years, Albania and Italy have drastically raised their level of cooperation and have engaged in more mutual exchanges of crime-related information. Last week, the Italian and Albanian interior ministers signed a cooperation agreement in Tirana. * Fabian Schmidt

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrived in Albania on 18 December to meet with President Sali Berisha to discuss strengthening ties. Arafat expressed his commitment for the Middle Eastern peace process and thanked Albania for its consistent support of the Palestinian cause, describing it as a "brotherly country," international agencies reported. Communist-era Albania had sided with the Palestine Liberation Organization during its prolonged armed struggle with Israel. Like most other Communist countries, it refused to recognize Israel. * Fabian Schmidt

[As of 1200 CET]

Compiled by Penny Morvant and Victor Gomez