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Newsline - January 2, 1997

... In a taped television address broadcast on New Year's Eve, President Boris Yeltsin said, "The most important thing for me in 1997 is to make life in Russia better and calmer, to put an end to delays in the payment of pensions and wages, to have order introduced in this country at last," ITAR-TASS reported on 31 December. Campaigning for re-election last spring, Yeltsin promised to end wage and pension delays, but a series of presidential decrees issued in August rescinded almost all of his campaign spending promises (see OMRI Daily Digest, 20 August 1996). -- Laura Belin

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told ITAR-TASS on 1 January that the government allocated about 8 trillion rubles ($1.5 billion) for salaries in December, paying almost all wage arrears. The army was the only exception, he said, promising that 780 billion rubles ($142 million) still owed to soldiers will be paid in January. As for pensions, Chernomyrdin said 3 trillion rubles in financial aid were allocated to the Pension Fund in December; pension arrears total about 14 trillion rubles. He expressed hope that pensions would begin to be paid on time in February, after which the government would start to pay back pensions owed, settling all debts in the area within the first half of 1997. -- Laura Belin

"It feels now like August 1917. No one saw the revolution coming, but it came in three months. By March 1997, things could blow up," Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov told Reuters on 1 January. Zyuganov also noted that while Russia has been calm of late, an 11-year cycle of sun spot activity would soon bring the country to a "very disturbed period. By 1999, it will be very tough." In writings and speeches, Zyuganov frequently draws historical analogies; he has compared present-day Russia to the "time of troubles" at the beginning of the 17th century and the unstable months before the October Revolution of 1917. However, he has firmly rejected the revolutionary aspirations of marginal left-wing radicals, calling instead for compromise and dialogue between the government and opposition. -- Laura Belin

About 1,500 homes in the far northern city of Murmansk were left without heat in sub-zero temperatures after a utility owed money by the city authorities refused to provide extra natural gas, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 December. City authorities said a train with liquefied gas was sent to Murmansk, and that some of the emergency supplies would be sent to other towns in Murmansk Oblast that are afflicted with gas shortages. -- Laura Belin

An assembly of organizations representing various ethnic groups in the Volga and Urals issued a statement protesting the 22 December presidential election in the Marii-El Republic, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 December. The statement noted that candidates who do not speak the Mari language were allowed to contest the election, in violation of Marii-El's constitution. Many of Russia's 21 ethnic republics have constitutional provisions stating that candidates for office must be proficient in the republic's titular language. However, federal authorities have repeatedly said that language restrictions violate the Russian Constitution. According to the 1989 census, the Mari people make up 43% of the republic's population, while ethnic Russians comprise 47%. The runoff election in Marii-El will be held later this month between candidates representing the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. -- Laura Belin

Aslan Maskhadov resigned as Chechen prime minister on 1 January in order to run in the 27 January presidential election, NTV reported. Chechen election law requires all government officials running for office to step down by 2 January. As of that date, 19 candidates had submitted the required 10,000 nomination signatures to enter the presidential race, and some 10 candidates had been nominated for each of the 63 parliamentary seats. Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin told ITAR-TASS on 31 December that Russia would not interfere in the elections, although he said he hopes that all 350,000 refugees from Chechnya will be allowed to take part. So far, voting facilities are only being arranged for refugees living in neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetiya. -- Peter Rutland

The Duma on 27 December passed a bill regulating the destruction of Russia's estimated 40,000 metric ton stockpile of chemical weapons, ITAR-TASS reported. The law charges the president and government with laying out a schedule for the destruction of the stockpile, and codifies safety standards. It also attempts to soften local opposition to the destruction of chemical weapons at the depots where they are currently stored (see OMRI Russian Regional Report, 4 December 1996) by granting federal subsidies to neighboring regions. Russia, like the U.S., has signed but not ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which will enter into force this April. The lack of appropriate legislation has hindered efforts to begin liquidating the Russian stockpile. The bill now goes to the Federation Council for consideration. -- Scott Parrish

Former Finance Minister Boris Fedorov punctured the publicity around the recent decision to reintroduce a state monopoly on alcohol in an interview with Rossiiskie vesti on 31 December. He noted the existence of presidential decree no. 918, issued in 1993, entitled "On Restoration of the State Monopoly on the Manufacture, Storage, and Sale of Spirits." This mandated the licensing of all alcohol production and sales, but the decree was not implemented. Adding to the confusion, Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Davydov said on 30 December that the government's earlier plan to introduce quotas on alcohol imports will now be dropped, although all imports will be licensed, ITAR-TASS reported. The IMF had been a strong critic of the plan to introduce import quotas. -- Peter Rutland

The Russian Foreign Ministry on 31 December called in the U.S. charge d'affaires to protest a 29 December incident in which it claims a Russian diplomat was beaten by New York police, international agencies reported. Moscow wants an apology from Washington over the incident, involving Yurii Obnosov, first secretary at the Russian mission to the UN, and his Belarusian colleague, Yurii Oranzh. New York Police spokeswoman Eve Serrano, however, said Obnosov and Orange, who appeared intoxicated, assaulted police who tried to cite them for illegal parking. As they failed to identify themselves, she added, they were taken into custody following a "slight struggle" but quickly released after their identities were verified. The State Department is withholding comment pending a full investigation, but New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani rejected the Russian charges, and urged Moscow and Minsk to recall the two diplomats. -- Scott Parrish

Presidential foreign policy aide Dmitrii Ryurikov said on 1 January that "overcoming the concept of NATO expansion eastwards" will be a "major goal" of Yeltsin's foreign policy during 1997, RFE/RL reported, citing Interfax. Ryurikov said the NATO issue would be at the center of Yeltsin's scheduled 4 January meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Ryurikov added that Moscow views NATO expansion as "as a kind of offense," arguing that "it was Russia that won the Cold War by doing away with military confrontation for the good of all countries." Writing in Segodnya on 31 December, military commentator Pavel Felgengauer said Russian officials anticipate no "practical benefits" from NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana's scheduled mid-January visit to Moscow; they expect him to offer only "general theses" rather than address specific Russian concerns about enlargement. -- Scott Parrish

The Collegium of the Moscow City Court reversed a sentence imposed against Muscovite Aleksandr Seregin by a lower court for draft dodging, Komsomolskaya pravda reported on 26 December. Seregin, a member of the Anti-military Radical Association, insisted on his right to perform alternative service, as guaranteed by the constitution adopted in December 1993. He was convicted on the grounds that there is currently no law defining alternative service (see OMRI Daily Digest, 25 October 1996). The decision of the Collegium sets a an example for courts that have usually postponed their decisions on conscious objectors. -- Nikolai Iakoubovski

In a special investigative report on 29 December, NTV's "Itogi" examined the privatization of Russia's lucrative aluminum industry since 1992. British entrepreneur David Rubin was able to acquire a controlling packet of shares in the Bryansk and Sayansk aluminum works and a third of the Krasnoyarsk plant shares, at a time when the domestic price of aluminum was less than half the export price. Rubin's firm, Transis Commodities, was headed by Lev and Mikhail Chernyi, and by Viktor Lisin, a close associate of Oleg Soskovets, the former head of the Russian Metallurgy Committee who was appointed first deputy prime minister in May 1993, and who was dismissed in June 1996. The program alleged that Transis milked profits from the Russian plants and avoided taxes by manipulating the prices of bauxite imports, and received approval for these practices from a Russian government meeting in August 1994 chaired by Soskovets. The Krasnoyarsk factory has broken away from the Transis group and seemed to have been a source of information for NTV. In the first eight months of this year, aluminum exports hit $2.7 billion, yet most of the producers and domestic bauxite suppliers are insolvent. -- Peter Rutland

The Central Bank intends to keep the ruble's value within a corridor set at 5,500-6,100 rubles/$1 as of 1 January, declining to 5,750-6,350 rubles/$1 by 31 December 1997. This will amount to a ruble depreciation of 9% over the year--less than the expected 12% domestic price inflation. In 1996 while inflation was 22% the ruble rose by 19.8%, from 4,640 rubles on 3 January to 5,560 rubles on 31 December 31. This mere 2% real appreciation in the ruble in 1996 contrasts with a 43% real appreciation in 1995, when the 130% annual inflation outstripped the nominal fall in the ruble/dollar exchange rate. The Central Bank introduced the managed currency corridor in July 1995 and switched to an inclined corridor, allowing gradual devaluation, in July 1996. -- Peter Rutland

In his New Year's address to the nation, Eduard Shevardnadze said he hopes 1997 will be a year of reconciliation among Georgians, Abkhaz, and South Ossetians, ITAR-TASS reported on 31 December. Shevardnadze condemned the calls by some Georgian politicians to resolve the Abkhaz conflict by force as "thoughtless" while adding that Georgia will never agree to Abkhazia's outright independence. Shevardnadze called for a "more active" Russian mediation in the Abkhaz conflict and said despite "certain difficulties and problems" in relations with Russia, his government will continue the strategic partnership policy with the latter. -- Emil Danielyan

Rescue workers on 30 December managed to clear a path into a 4 km-long tunnel connecting Georgia and Russia that had been blocked off by an avalanche in the Caucasus Mountains on 26 December, international agencies reported. Some 300 people, including one newborn baby who died of hypothermia, were trapped in the tunnel. Some 60 truck drivers, fearing that their vehicles and cargoes could be stolen, decided not to leave the tunnel until traffic is resumed. The avalanche followed floods in West Georgia that, according to ITAR-TASS, washed away more than 50 bridges and destroyed several hundred houses and buildings, causing an estimated $10 million in damages. -- Emil Danielyan

Speaking on national TV, Levon Ter-Petrossyan said that in 1997 Armenia will have to end the trade-route blockade and deal with international pressure due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, ITAR-TASS reported on 1 January. The president said the two challenges can be successfully overcome if people maintain solidarity and the country remains stable. He also said that the new year will be marked by an economic revival, an improvement in living standards, and a stronger rule of law. -- Emil Danielyan

Askar Akayev on 28 December told government officials that while living standards had not improved during 1996, "new dynamic sectors of the national economy" would correct that trend in 1997. Akayev was alluding to the Kumtor gold mining operation which is scheduled to begin production in 1997. Akayev said the government will take measures to keep the national currency, the som, stable at the present rate of 15-17 some/$1, cut annual inflation to 15%, and raise the minimum wage and pensions by 30%. -- Bruce Pannier

Iranian Vice President Hassan Habibi arrived in Tajikistan on 30 December at the head of an 80-member delegation, the largest Iranian group to visit the Central Asian state so far, international press reported. Habibi on 31 December signed agreements with Tajik Prime Minister Yakhye Azimov on double taxation, cooperation in education, culture, trade, and industry, and a memorandum on developing auto and rail transportation. ITAR-TASS reported on 30 December that Tajikistan is seeking help in exploiting its gas reserves, estimated at 800 billion cubic meters, and its 130 million tons worth of oil reserves. In Tehran, United Tajik Opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri met with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati on 30 December to discuss the recently signed Tajik peace agreement. -- Bruce Pannier

Belarusian Radio on 30 December discussed some of the problems of synchronizing Russian and Belarusian economic reform, as called for in the April 1996 Treaty on the Formation of a Community. It pointed out that in Russia, 65% of large and medium-size companies have been privatized, while in Belarus that figure is less than 15%. Russia has completed voucher privatization, which began in October 1992. By July 1994, Russian citizens had converted more than 97% of those vouchers. By contrast, only 16% of Belarusians eligible for vouchers have so far used them. The rest of the vouchers remain unused, the radio said, because their holders are uncertain they will be able to retain newly acquired assets and because there is nothing to trade them in for--since nothing is being put up for privatization. Natalya Zhyernasek, a specialist from the Ministry of State Assets, said Russia and Belarus noted that Russian and Belarusian law allows citizens of either country to participate in both the Russian and Belarusian privatization processes. She added that economic reform can be carried out by corporate structures and financial-industrial groups, citing Belarus's role in creating the Gazprom subsidiary Slavneft. -- Ustina Markus

Ukraine's budget deficit in 1996 totaled 8.6 billion hryvnyas ($4.57 billion), Reuters reported on 31 December. That is double the figure forecast when the budget was drawn up. Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko said that GDP fell for the fifth consecutive year and that, according to the most optimistic forecasts, it is not expected to reach the 1990 level for another 11 years. Lazarenko said wage arrears have not been paid because of "other commitments." On a more positive note, he added that Ukraine has paid off all its accumulated gas debts to Russia and Turkmenistan. -- Ustina Markus

Secretary of the National Security Council Volodymyr Horbulin said the council has approved a program for the development of Ukraine's armed forces until the year 2005, UNIAN reported on 28 December. Horbulin said the program took all foreign-policy factors into account and was based on the state's financial resources. Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk noted that three operational and command directorates would be established on the model of the Carpathian and Odessa military districts and the Northern Command. The program envisages a new structure made up of mobile rapid-reaction units. The ground forces, air force, air-defense force, and navy will all remain part of the Ukrainian army. Kuzmuk also said this was the first time that the state has specified that the task of the armed forces is to ensure national security. -- Ustina Markus

Following the detention of a second large group of illegal immigrants, Lithuania's border guards have said they will increase border controls, Reuters reported on 31 December. Eleven Afghan immigrants were detained that same day 1 kilometer from the Belarusian border. On 29 December, 42 illegal immigrants of various nationalities were detained on the border with Poland. A total of 1,696 illegal immigrants were held in detention in 1995. The figure for 1996 is expected to be higher. -- Ustina Markus

Polish organizations in Lithuania have protested Lithuanian Education Minister Zigmas Zinkeviczius's statements last month on Polish-Lithuanian relations, Gazeta Wyborcza reported on 2 January. Zinkeviczius told Valstieciu laikrastis in December that schools using languages other than Lithuanian will be closed and that people who have an insufficient knowledge of Lithuanian will not be considered Lithuanian citizens. He added that Belarusian is the main minority language in Lithuania and that Polish organizations are seeking to impose the Polish language by force. Artur Plokszto, a Polish deputy in the Seimas, said Poles in Lithuania are demanding Zinkeviczius' resignation. Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas said Zinkeviczius had presented his own views, not those of the Lithuanian government. Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius has also distanced himself from Zinkeviczius's statements. -- Jakub Karpinski

President Aleksander Kwasniewski, in a nationally televised new year's eve address, described Poland as a "secure country that has normal relations with its neighbors," Polish media reported on 2 January. In a centrist, conciliatory speech intended to reinforce his view of the presidency as "above party politics," Kwasniewski said the successes of Poland's transition can be attributed in part to such opposition leaders as former President Lech Walesa and former Prime Minister Jan Olszewski. He also described Poland's communist inheritance as "dismal." Meanwhile, Solidarity opposition leader Marian Krzaklewski called the government's decision to increase as of 1 January the prices of natural gas, electricity, and heat by 18%, 17%, and 10%, respectively, as provoking "social confrontation." -- Ben Slay

Vaclav Havel, in his traditional New Year's Day address broadcast on Czech TV, called on Czechs to avoid reconciling themselves to evil and negative societal trends. The president spoke for only nine minutes, as he is still recovering from a recent lung cancer operation. Havel, who has visibly lost weight and seems to have some difficulty breathing, began his speech on a personal note, saying that twice last year he came "face-to-face with death"--that of his wife and his own hospitalization. He said the two experiences have prompted him to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life. He also noted the "unsavory" political squabbling during the election year of 1996 as well as the various banking and financial scandals. He stressed that people should not assume that such developments are a normal part of public life. -- Victor Gomez

Although all Czech parliamentary parties spent millions of crowns on the two election campaigns in 1996, some of them made profits, thanks to a law that guarantees money from the state budget for each seat they secure in the parliament, Mlada fronta Dnes reported on 2 January. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia registered the largest profit. It chalked up 56 million crowns ($2 million) after spending only 3.5 million crowns on its campaign for the lower house. The leading coalition party, the Civic Democratic Party, received 161.5 million crowns after a 120 million crown campaign in the lower house election and a 40 million crown expenditure on the Senate vote. (The parties received no money for the Senate election.) The Social Democrats spent 80 million crowns on their lower house campaign and 40 million crowns on the Senate campaign. They received a total of 140 million crowns from the state. -- Victor Gomez

New Year's Eve celebrations took place throughout Slovakia to commemorate the gaining of independence on 1 January 1993. Together with other government representatives, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar attended celebrations at the Banska Bystrica State Opera, where he addressed citizens just before midnight, TASR reported. Meciar evaluated 1996 as a "good" year and asked Slovaks to find compassion for others. President Michal Kovac, in a New Year's address broadcast by Slovak TV on 1 January, criticized the ruling coalition's policies, which, he said, are limiting Slovakia's chances of Western integration. He urged Slovaks not to resign themselves to having someone else make decisions for them. Kovac expressed support for direct presidential elections, which have been demanded by the center-right opposition "blue coalition." Kovac said that although he would prefer not to run for re-election, he will reconsider if direct elections are held. -- Sharon Fisher

Michal Kovac on 31 December returned the controversial "protection of the republic" amendment to the parliament for further discussion, Slovak media reported. The president said he opposed clauses in the law allowing the imprisonment of those who "call for mass riots with the intention of subverting the country's constitutional system, territorial integrity, or defense capability." Kovac said the amendment was unacceptable as a whole and that its adoption would contravene the constitution. The parliament approved the amendment last month. -- Sharon Fisher

Arpad Goncz, in his New Year's address, said that the government's austerity measures have pulled Hungary out of its economic crisis, Hungarian media reported on 2 January. Goncz noted that the austerity program has had far-reaching social consequences that large sections of the population, including pensioners, have had to bear. He added that although Hungary has developed new political institutions and a market economy over the past six years, it will take much longer to change the attitudes and habits of a multi-faceted society. It is the duty of society, not of the state, to pull the country out of the morass of inappropriate values caused by historical developments, he noted. -- Zsofia Szilagyi

At least 200,000 people braved the bitter cold to attend a gala open-air New Year's Eve party in central Belgrade, international media reported. Leaders of the Zajedno movement congratulated their followers and predicted victory over President Slobodan Milosevic, whom they accuse of having stolen the 17 November local elections. The crowds were entertained by some of the country's leading rock groups, and the once ubiquitous riot police were nowhere to be seen. The next day, demonstration organizers urged their followers to stay home and make as much noise as possible with pans, drums, and other implements during Serbian TV's main evening newscast to protest its biased coverage. The event was a success, although some 5,000 students also demonstrated on the streets of the city center. The protests show no sign of losing momentum. -- Patrick Moore

Meanwhile, the Serbian president made a New Year's speech on television but did not directly refer to the protests, VOA noted. However, he mentioned in passing internal and external attempts to destabilize the country. He also promised a new economic program that would "change the face of Serbia." Such grandiose rhetoric has long been typical of his political style, but it is doubtful whether his promises will meet with the eager popular approval they did in the late 1980s. On 31 December, Dutch diplomat Minno Censtro discussed the question of the election results with federal Yugoslav Foreign Ministry officials, who said they would "respect the will of the people," the BBC reported. It is unclear, however, what this will mean in practice. On 1 January, Montenegrin parliament speaker Svetozar Marovic urged Serbian authorities to accept an OSCE report that backs the opposition's position on the elections. -- Patrick Moore

Patriarch Pavle opened a two-day synod of 30 bishops on 2 January, AFP noted. Only the five bishops from Bosnia-Herzegovina did not attend the session aimed at discussing the ongoing protests. The church has openly embraced Serbian nationalism since the disintegration of the communist system, but many believers and some of the bishops feel it has been too close to the political authorities both under the communists and under the ex-communist Milosevic. Such persons identify more readily with the Bosnian Serb leadership under Radovan Karadzic, who does not have a communist past. In any event, Pavle called on the authorities not to use violence against the demonstrators, Vatican Radio reported on 1 January. -- Patrick Moore

The Clinton administration on 31 December said that Bosnia-Herzegovina has severed intelligence and military ties with Iran, international agencies reported. The statement followed a story published the same day in the Los Angeles Times claiming the CIA has evidence that Iranian agents secretly delivered some $500,000 in cash to Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic before his party's campaign for the September general elections in Bosnia. The newspaper said the story was based on classified documents it had obtained. Meanwhile, the CIA has provided U.S. Congressional committees with a classified report on Iranian activities in Bosnia. An unclassified version is expected to follow soon. State Department spokesman John Dinger said Izetbegovic recognizes his relationship with the U.S. is more important than that with Iran. As a result, the U.S. will go ahead with a plan to train and equip the Bosnian Federation forces with military gear, Dinger added. -- Daria Sito Sucic

Michael Steiner, who is deputy to the international community's High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Carl Bildt, has been chosen Bosnia's foreign personality of the year, Dnevni Avaz reported on 31 December. The poll was organized by Bosnian publications. The biweekly magazine Dani said Steiner's work "brings back the almost-lost credibility of international diplomacy and the existence of morality." In other news, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic has said that 1997 will be a year of consolidation for the country, AFP reported. But Izetbegovic also said he is dissatisfied with the slow progress of peace implementation in Bosnia, adding that time is running out. He added that he hoped the current situation would soon be eased. But if it is not, "it will be time for us to wonder if we want a peace of this nature," he commented. -- Daria Sito Sucic

Kosovar shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova has rejected criticism that his strategy is too "passive," Koha Jone reported on 31 December. He countered that "our policy is active" and that "this is appreciated by the international [community]." Political activists in Kosovo and Albanian President Sali Berisha have recently urged that Kosovar Albanians take to the streets to support the Serbian opposition in its struggle against the regime of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Rugova pointed out that the "resistance of the people of Kosovo is institutional." He added that as a result of its peaceful policy, Kosovo has "many friends abroad." At the same time, he noted that only the U.S. government has helped Kosovo. -- Fabian Schmidt

Nicolae Militaru, Romania's first post-communist minister of defense, has died of a heart attack, aged 71, international agencies reported last week. Militaru belonged to a group of military men and politicians who unsuccessfully plotted against communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1970s and again in the 1980s. That group also included former President Ion Iliescu. The authorities reportedly found about the plot, but Militaru suffered nothing more than harassment. After 1989, it was alleged that Militaru had gotten off lightly because he had links with the KGB, whom Ceausescu did not want to annoy. Those and other allegations played a role in Militaru's resignation a few months after his appointment as national defense minister in late 1989. Militaru, who repeatedly denied any KGB links, ran for president in the 1996 elections. He came in last of 16 candidates, garnering less than 1% of the vote. -- Michael Shafir

In a televised address to the nation on New Year's Eve, Zhelyu Zhelev apologized for the country's economic crisis, Bulgarian media reported. He said no other politician would make such an apology but would prefer instead to blame others. Zhelev, however, pointed out that he was not responsible for the economic and social misery, adding that the president in Bulgaria has merely ceremonial functions. Zhelev characterized 1996 as "perhaps the most difficult year" since 1989, because people lost even their hopes for a better future. He called for compassion for the socially weak and for "merciless analysis" and public debate over developments during the past seven years. Zhelev also demanded that politicians explain why "the Bulgarian transition failed while [the transition of] other nations was successful." -- Maria Koinova in Sofia

The nationalist Balli Kombetar and the monarchist Legality Movement have formed an alliance. According to ATSH on 29 December, the parties have said they want to unite nationalist forces "in order to prevent the restoration of communism in Albania and [to establish] a powerful opposition" to the governing Democratic Party. The parties demanded a referendum about Albania's future constitutional status, adding that citizens should decide whether there is to be a parliamentary or presidential democracy or a constitutional monarchy and whether King Leka Zogu should return from his South African exile. The two parties do not intend to create a single formation and want to keep their separate identities. They have invited other right-wing parties to join the alliance. Meanwhile, Balli Kombetar deputy leader Hysen Selfo has confirmed that Abaz Ermenji is still party leader, Zeri i Popullit reported on 31 December. Ermenji left Albania for France last year following a dispute with Selfo over Balli Kombetar's recognition of the May election results. -- Fabian Schmidt
[As of 12:00 CET]

Compiled by Jan Cleave