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Newsline - February 28, 1997

During a 27 February telephone conversation, President Yeltsin and his U.S. counterpart, Bill Clinton, agreed on an agenda for their scheduled 20-21 March summit in Helsinki, Russian and Western agencies reported. The meeting will focus on three broad topics--European security and NATO expansion, arms control, and bilateral economic ties. Other issues, such as the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy's evasion of U.S. export controls on supercomputers, could also come up. The Journal of Commerce reported on 27 February that the U.S. may ask Moscow to return the IBM RS/6000 SP computer it recently bought through an unspecified European middleman (see OMRI Daily Digest, 25 February 1997). The computer can perform 10,000 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), while U.S. regulations require individual approval of any sales to Russia of computers capable of more than 2,000 MTOPS. -- Scott Parrish

In a short, four minute radio address on 28 February, President Yeltsin said he was "reluctant" to sign the budget on 25 February because he doubted the government could fulfill its conditions, ITAR-TASS. Yeltsin blamed the Duma for altering the draft budget under the influence of "populism and lobbying interests." The government is already being forced to resort to issuing state bonds and even more nebulous "state guarantees" in lieu of cash payments. For example, gold miners are complaining that the Finance Ministry is paying off its 1.8 trillion ruble ($320 million) debt for gold deliveries with state bonds, Izvestiya reported on 28 February. Finance Minister Aleksandr Livshits told the Financial Times on 25 February that the government will try to limit state guarantees for commercial bank loans to 4 trillion rubles this year. -- Peter Rutland

President Yeltsin met on 27 February with Col.-Gen. Viktor Chechevatov, commander of the Far East Military District, Russian and Western agencies reported. Chechevatov, widely rumored to be a possible successor to Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, denied afterwards that he and Yeltsin had discussed personnel issues. Unlike Rodionov, who has repeatedly warned that the Russian military is on the verge of disintegration, Chechevatov termed the current situation "serious" but added that "the troops are controllable and capable of functioning." In his 28 February radio address, Yeltsin did not mention Rodionov, who the previous day canceled a scheduled 3-5 March visit to Armenia. The president reaffirmed his commitment to introducing a professional military. While admitting that the 1997 budget provides inadequate funding for military reform, he called on the armed forces to exploit unspecified "reserves" to finance it. -- Scott Parrish

The General Council of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR) resolved on 27 February to go ahead with a national day of protest on 27 March despite a government request that the action be called off, RTR reported. An early NTV report said Labor Minister Gennadii Melikyan met with FNPR Chairman Mikhail Shmakov in an attempt to halt the protest, but it later quoted Melikyan as saying their meeting was not directly linked to the day of action. After confirming that the protest would go ahead, the FNPR council appealed to President Yeltsin to sack the government because of its failure to prevent the growth in wage arrears, ITAR-TASS reported. Arrears total about 49 trillion rubles ($8.6 billion), of which 9.5 billion are owed by the state. Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov told the council that the KPRF will take an active part in the protest. -- Penny Morvant

Russian Public TV (ORT) has frequently drawn criticism from various opposition politicians; during the last week, the State Duma revoked the accreditation of an ORT correspondent and representatives of the Agrarian Union complained about ORT coverage of their recent conference, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 February. But increasingly, supporters of Yeltsin are also speaking out against the network. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov recently accused ORT of carrying out a campaign to discredit him (inspired by Presidential Chief of Staff Anatolii Chubais and Security Council Deputy Secretary Boris Berezovskii), and ORT General Director Sergei Blagovolin criticized his own network's coverage of Luzhkov, Izvestiya reported on 28 February. Izvestiya commented that Berezovskii remains the most influential figure at ORT, despite having officially left the network's board of directors in December. Blagovolin will likely be replaced soon, perhaps with ORT News Director Kseniya Ponomareva, the paper added. -- Laura Belin

President Yeltsin has decided to reshuffle his public relations team in apparent dissatisfaction with its work during his illness, Nezavisimaya gazeta wrote on 28 February. The paper also expects the presidential press service to be reorganized in the near future; presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said the press service "will diminish its activity, because President Yeltsin wants to increase the number of his own meetings with journalists." The paper argued that the reshuffle in Yeltsin's public relations team may be linked to Anatolii Chubais's possible move from presidential chief of staff to first deputy prime minister (see OMRI Daily Digest 27 February 1997). Both Yastrzhembskii and Mikhail Lesin, who resigned as chief of public relations for the presidential administration this week, are close to Chubais. -- Nikolai Iakoubovski

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov on 27 February decreed that kidnapping will be punishable by death in Chechnya. Chechen Interior Minister Kazbek Makhashev told Kommersant-Daily that 349 people were reported to have been kidnapped in the republic between December 1994 and January 1997, although the actual number may be much higher. Two Russian TV (RTR) journalists were recently released and one Italian reporter remains in captivity. The kidnappings could be result of conflicts between Chechen field commanders, or part of an effort to show Maskhadov's inability to control the republic. The kidnappers may simply be criminals intent on extorting money. The Chechen decree came on the anniversary of Russia's admission to the Council of Europe. The council has protested Russia's failure to carry out its promise to eliminate the death penalty. Over the past year, Russia has executed more than 50 convicts, although none since August. -- Robert Orttung

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov met with British Prime Minister John Major in London on 27 February to discuss European security and bilateral ties, ITAR-TASS reported. A member of the Russian delegation told the agency that Primakov was "satisfied" with the talks, adding that Major had expressed support for concluding a NATO-Russia charter prior to the alliance's planned July summit, at which prospective East European members will be invited to begin accession talks. Primakov, however, said that the content of the charter, which Moscow insists take the form of a legally binding agreement, is more important than its timing. Noting recent critical commentary on NATO's expansion plans in the British press, ITAR-TASS noted that Primakov's visit, which includes a 28 February address to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, is aimed at influencing British public opinion on the issue. -- Scott Parrish

Russian Ambassador to Turkey Vadim Kuznetsov has expressed Moscow's concerns over the trial of nine people who were allegedly involved in the highjacking of the Avrasya ferryboat in January 1996, Cumhuriyet reported on 27 February. Kuznetsov said he is disturbed at the Istanbul State Security Court's decision to try the ongoing case as "interference in the vessel's direction" rather than a terrorist act. He also said Russia is prepared to sell Turkey a wide variety of arms, including assault helicopters, missile systems, tanks, and light arms. Kuznetzov delivered his twin messages to Turkish reporters the day after Turkish Defense Minister said Ankara would look "elsewhere" for its military hardware needs if the U.S. does not annul a congressional suspension imposed on a delivery of weapons originally headed for Turkey. -- Julide Mollaoglu

A group of miners from the town of Salair in Kemerovo Oblast broke into the local city administration building on 27 February to protest wage arrears, ITAR-TASS reported. The staff of the loss-making Salair lead and zinc mining enterprise have not been paid for nine months but have been able to purchase bread in exchange for tokens, according to Kommersant-Daily on 28 February. On 25 February, when bread deliveries did not arrive in the town's shops, the workers decided to march on the building; another group stormed the enterprise's accounting office and demanded a meeting with the oblast administration. Kemerovo Oblast deputy head Dmitrii Chirakadze said the authorities have sent money to Salair to cover the wages of budget workers and social benefits in an attempt to help the miners' families, but the workers have not yet been paid. -- Penny Morvant

The State Privatization Committee (GKI) has approved a plan for the privatization of Rosneft, Ekho Moskvy reported on 27 February. The state will retain 51% of the shares, 25% will be offered to Rosneft workers, and 24% will be sold in public auction, which is expected to raise 500 billion rubles ($88 million). Rosneft is about the ninth largest oil company in Russia: in 1996 produced 13.1 million metric tons of oil and refined 4.8 million tons. Rosneft plans to issue Eurobonds worth $200 million in March, Segodnya reported on 25 February. Izvestiya on 27 February wrote that the Ministry of Fuel and Energy plans to create a new oil conglomerate comprising Rosneft, Slavneft, Vostochnya Oil, and Sibur, which would control 15-20% of the oil sector. Unlike the natural gas industry, the oil industry was broken up into 16 independent companies after 1991. -- Peter Rutland

Three Abkhaz soldiers were shot dead in Abkhazia's troubled Gali district by unidentified gunmen, according to a 25 February Sakinform report monitored by the BBC. The commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces, Maj.-Gen. Dolya Babenkov, warned that his troops will "adequately react to any terrorist acts," ITAR-TASS reported. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Konstantin Ozgan accused Georgia of starting a "terrorist war" against its breakaway republic. Igor Akhba, the Abkhaz representative to Russia, said that the recent outbreak of violence is a sign of an impending "forcible resolution" of the Abkhaz conflict by Georgia. Meanwhile, according to 26 February BGI (news agency) report monitored by BBC, Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba said that the republic's parliament is currently preparing a declaration of independence from Georgia. -- Emil Danielyan

During a meeting with a group of U.S. Congressmen in Washington, Armenian Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanyan called for a "new kind" of U.S. aid to Armenia, RFE/RL reported on 26 February. Arzumanyan argued that Armenia, the second largest per capita recipient of U.S. aid among the former Soviet states, has reached the point where it needs more development and technical assistance, rather than humanitarian aid, in order to attract foreign investment. A spokesman for the Armenian Embassy in Washington, Mikael Bagratuni, told RFE/RL that the Armenian delegation requested a meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright but was told that she is "recuperating from her around-the-world trip." -- Emil Danielyan

Kazakstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his visiting Turkmen counterpart, Saparmurad Niyazov, discussed a wide range of regional issues, particularly the Caspian Sea, and signed a clutch of intergovernmental agreements in Almaty on 27 February, Russian and Western media reported the same day. Nazarbayev was quoted as saying that the two-day official visit represents a "breakthrough in all respects" and said the two countries have "immense" common interests, specifically pointing to their desire to export hydrocarbon reserves. Both presidents declared their belief that the Caspian should be temporarily divided into national sectors to avoid conflict while the sea's legal status is defined. The two sides also signed several agreements on cooperation, including investment protection, double taxation, and cooperation in the spheres of science, technology, health care, and tourism. -- Lowell Bezanis

The Tajik Presidential Guard and the United Tajik Opposition forces have been launching attacks against forces loyal to the outlaw Sadirov brothers since 25 February, Russian and Western media reported on 27 February. The Tajik government claims to have killed 21 members of the gang and driven the pro-Sadirov group out of the Obi-Garm area, while the UTO forces claim to have killed another 25. The region's difficult terrain makes it unlikely that the Sadirov band will be quickly defeated. Meanwhile, the latest round of inter-Tajik talks, begun on 26 February, continued in Moscow on 27 February and are expected to go on for another week, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. In other news, 13 metric tons of emergency medical supplies, for combating an outbreak of typhoid fever in Tajikistan reached Dushanbe from Moscow on 27 February, Russian media reported the same day. The Tajik authorities have thanked Russia for aid estimated at 4 billion rubles ($700,000). -- Lowell Bezanis

The OMRI Daily Digest of 26 February incorrectly reported that Topchubek Turgunaliev, the chairman of the Erkin Kyrgyzstan party, will reside in Bishkek and report monthly to the authorities. In fact, he is being sent to Penal Colony no. 34, 30 km from Bishkek, to serve his four-year sentence, RFE/RL reported on 26 February.

The parliamentary Human Rights Commission has said that banning the death penalty in Ukraine now would be "untimely," ITAR-TASS reported on 27 February. It proposes a gradual introduction of life imprisonment, saying that it is taking into consideration public opinion and the lack of facilities for maintaining life prisoners. The Council of Europe sharply criticized Ukraine last month for failing to honor its commitment to stop executions. Meanwhile, the parliament has passed an amendment granting Ukrainian citizenship to all citizens of the former USSR who have been permanent residents in Ukraine since the country gained independence in 1991. Another amendment stipulates that Ukraine will not extradite Ukrainian citizens, except in special cases stipulated by international law and approved by the Ukrainian parliament. In other news, the radical right Ukrainian National Assembly has expelled several of its extremist members in an effort to become a parliamentary-style party, NTV reported on 27 February. -- Oleg Varfolomeyev

The Ukrainian newspaper Nezavisimost has published an article alleging that several Ukrainian deputies have been collaborating with Russia to remove President Leonid Kuchma from power, Izvestiya and NTV reported on 27 February. According to several unconfirmed documents, a team was to start a disinformation campaign linking the November killing of deputy Yevhen Shcherban to Kuchma and Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. An official from a "foreign power" (meaning Russia) is reported to have felt that Kuchma should be removed by the end of the year because of his pro-Western orientation and that those who participated in his ouster could replace him. In mid-January, a similar article appeared in Vseukrainskiye vedomosti alleging Russian officials were plotting a disinformation campaign that would lead to Kuchma's impeachment. There has been no official reaction from Kyiv to the article, and the editor-in-chief of Nezavisimost was unavailable to respond to NTV's questions. -- Ustina Markus

A Russian military delegation headed by Col.-Gen. Viktor Smirnov, commander of the Missile and Space Defense Forces, has arrived in Kyiv for talks about Russia's continued use of an early-warning radar station on Ukrainian territory, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 February. The Ukrainian side will be represented in the talks by the commander of the Air Defense Forces Oleksandr Stetsenko. Ukraine and Russia want an agreement on an early warning system in case of a missile attack and a system to monitor the cosmic air space. The same day, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Andreev said Russia will not participate in August naval exercises on the Black Sea with other NATO and Partnership for Peace countries because it would "complicate the situation in the region." -- Ustina Markus

According to the Chairwoman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Tatsyana Pratsko, Belarus is "on a par with Iran or Iraq" as regards human rights, Belapan reported on 26 February. Pratsko said the least respect is being shown for civil rights, such as personal freedom and security, equality before the law, presumption of innocence, freedom from interference in private life, and freedom of movement. Pratsko considers the requirement of residence registration to be "the crudest violation of the right to free choice of abode." Other rights most frequently abused are freedom of speech, the right to receive and spread information, and the freedom to hold peaceful demonstrations, she noted. -- Sergei Solodovnikov

President Lennart Meri on 27 February named Deputy Chairman of the Coalition Party Mart Siimann as candidate for prime minister, ETA reported. Siimann, a 50-year-old psychologist, was the director-general of state-run Eesti TV and the private station RTV. He is required to submit his government's program to the parliament within 14 days. If it is approved by a majority of deputies, he has seven days to present his cabinet to the president for final approval. Siimann is likely to get the support of about two-thirds of the parliament, but it is still unclear if any other parties will join the minority coalition. Siimann has said that he will retain most ministers from the previous government. -- Saulius Girnius

The Saeima on 27 February approved the appointment of Roberts Zile, head of the parliamentary budget and finance committee, as finance minister, Reuters reported. The portfolio has been at the center of controversy since October 1996, when Aivars Kreituss had to resign after being expelled by the Democratic Party Saimnieks (DPS). Premier Andris Skele filled the post temporarily but later resigned as premier in the wake of the controversy caused by the appointment of DPS candidate Vasilijs Melniks as new finance minister (see OMRI Daily Digest, 21 January 1997). Unable to find a candidate acceptable to Skele, the DPS has had to accept Zile, who is a deputy of For the Fatherland and Freedom. -- Saulius Girnius

Solidarity has sent a note to Sejm speaker Jozef Zych outlining its position on constitutional issues, Polish media reported on 27 February. It argues that "it is imperative to guarantee the protection of the right to life from conception to natural death." The constitution preamble should invoke God's name and stress the heritage of Christian faith and culture, according to Solidarity. It should also stress the achievements of the pre-war Second Republic and pay tribute to patriotic resistance "against foreign domination from 1944 to 1989." Solidarity insists that two drafts of the constitution be put to a referendum. Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, the secretary of the Catholic Episcopate, has come out in support of the Solidarity statement "as a first step toward negotiations." The main parliamentary parties, including the co-ruling Democratic Left Alliance, were very critical of the statement. Labor Union leader Ryszard Bugaj called it "unacceptable." -- Jakub Karpinski

The lower house on 27 February voted to strip three deputies from the extremist Republican Party of their parliamentary immunity, Czech media reported. Republican leader Miroslav Sladek is suspected of spreading national and racial hatred when he told a January demonstration against the Czech-German declaration about his regret that more Germans were not killed during World War II. The two other deputies, Josef Krejsa and Rudolf Smucr, are wanted by the police for kicking wreaths during a memorial ceremony in Terezin, the site of a Nazi ghetto for Jews during World War II. Another two Republican deputies suspected of assault and national and racial hatred, respectively, were not stripped of their immunity. Most governing coalition deputies voted in favor of stripping the immunity of all five, while most Social Democratic deputies voted against. -- Victor Gomez

The leaders of the Czech governing coalition on 27 February agreed at a special deregulation conference that rent controls are to be almost completely lifted by 2000, Czech media reported. Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus said that from that year on, rent controls will apply only to housing for certain segments of society, such as those who are disabled. The coalition also agreed that rent controls be gradually lifted and at different speeds in communities of different sizes. According to a Finance Ministry proposal, rents are to increase in Prague by 100% this year, while they will go up by 62% in cities with more than 100,000 residents. The state will also offer social assistance to low income earners as compensation for the deregulation. -- Victor Gomez

The Constitutional Court has ruled that government directives on issuing and trading National Property Fund (FNM) bonds are unconstitutional, Slovak media reported on 27 February. Forty-six deputies had appealed to the court to examine the directives, which, they argued, contravene the laws on mass privatization and securities. The court ruled that, under Slovak law, only the Securities Bourse, the RM-System Slovakia, and legal entities authorized by the Ministry of Finance, can organize securities markets.
As the Slovak government granted the FNM the power to do so, the government went beyond its powers, according to the court. The government now has six months to amend the directives to comply with the law. -- Anna Siskova

The Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is not entirely opposed to direct presidential elections, HZDS deputy Jan Cuper said. He added that a constitutional guarantee should be introduced to prevent the abuse of power in that office, otherwise the presidency could be used to create an authoritarian regime. Cuper noted that Premier Vladimir Meciar is drawing up an amendment to the Constitution that, he noted, should "solve" the problem of the Constitutional Court's power, Slovak media reported. According to Meciar, the Constitutional Court should not be empowered to interpret the constitution but rather should focus on deciding whether laws are in accordance with the constitution. In other news parliamentary spokesman Ivan Gasparovic (HZDS) has discussed with U.S. Ambassador Ralph Johnson the Slovak referendum on NATO membership. -- Anna Siskova

The cabinet on 27 February approved proposals to meet most demands by farmers who have been protesting since the beginning of this week, Hungarian media reported. Tax procedures are to be simplified and farmers' tax and social insurance burdens eased. Small-scale protests are continuing throughout the country, and farmers' representatives will decide whether to accept the government's offer later today at a mass rally in Kiskoros, south Hungary. Istvan Jakab, president of the National Federation of Farmers, said the cabinet's concessions meet only some of the federation's demands. He added that his organization intends to proceed with plans to stage a nationwide road-blocking protest on 10 March. Meanwhile, Sandor Orosz, chairman of the parliament's agriculture committee, acknowledged the legitimacy of the farmers' demands but criticized the cabinet for "giving in" to the protests. -- Zsolt Mato

Forty-six students in the southern town of Gjirokaster have launched a hunger strike to show solidarity with hunger strikers in the city of Vlora, where students are demanding the resignation of the government (see OMRI Daily Digest, 27 February 1997), local media reported. Meanwhile in Tirana, Premier Alexander Meksi told the parliament that the country is on the verge of total economic collapse. International media reported that police blockaded main roads in the capital city, cordoning off much of the university area. Students staged a second day of protests and boycotted classes. -- Stan Markotich

Bogoljub Karic, one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in Serbia, is rumored to be considering forming a Social Democratic Party to directly challenge President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia in republican elections slated for this year, Belgrade independent media reported on 27 February. Dnevni Telegraf said that Karic's party would include such high-profile members and possible parliamentary candidates as former Serbian Premier Milan Panic. While Karic himself did not confirm the reports, his television station BK Television reported he will run for president in elections also slated for this year. But Vecernje novosti runs an article today downplaying announcements of Karic's interest in politics, noting he has not yet announced his candidacy. In other news, deans of several faculties voted to sack the controversial and staunchly pro-Milosevic rector of Belgrade University on 27 February. The deans, however, have no authority to enforce that decision. -- Stan Markotich

Following the UN report on the violent clashes in Mostar earlier this month, both Croatia and Bosnian Croats have begun a crackdown on Mostar's Croatian warlords (see OMRI Daily Digest, 27 February 1997). Croatia has arrested the leader of Mostar's paramilitary mafia, Mladen Naletilic Tuta, while Bosnian Croats have arrested five Croatian men and issued warrants for the arrest of another three, according to Reuters. But UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko said the arrest of criminals and the UN police report were two separate issues. He noted that if this were a crackdown on organized crime, it was "extremely welcome." But at the same time, he said the UN cannot confirm any of the arrests. Some analysts suspect the Croatian government of bluffing, since it has come under pressured from the international community to exert influence on Bosnian Croat hard-liners in Mostar. Meanwhile, U.S. ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith has met with Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic to underscore Zagreb's obligation to help the Bosnian peace process, Hina reported on 27 February. -- Daria Sito Sucic

The Bosnian Council of Ministers on 27 February reached agreement on a bill regulating the country's foreign debt, Oslobodjenje reported. The draft law was proposed by the Office of the High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Boro Bosic, the council's Serbian co-chairman, said it has been forwarded to the parliament for urgent consideration. The adoption of such a law is one of the conditions for a stand-by loan from the IMF and for an international donors' conference on postwar aid to Bosnia, Hina reported. In other news, economic experts from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Croatia met on 26 February in Banja Luka, Bosnia's Serbian entity, to discuss privatization and employment in the Bosnian Federation and the Republika Srpska, Onasa reported. Eric de Mill, chief of the UN Development Program mission to Bosnia, presided over the meeting. -- Daria Sito Sucic

Croatia and Indonesia on 27 February signed agreements on economic and technical cooperation and on air traffic, Hina reported. The two countries are expected to sign soon agreements on avoiding double taxation and protecting investments. Also, the Croatian and Indonesian oil companies--INA and Kondur Petroleum-- have signed a letter of intent on technical assistance in the exploitation of oil and gas. Croatian Premier Zlatko Matesa is visiting Indonesia at the invitation of Indonesian President Suharto. His visit is aimed at promoting economic cooperation between the two countries. -- Daria Sito Sucic

The Slovenian legislature on 27 February voted in favor of Premier Janez Drnovsek's cabinet, Radio Slovenija reported. The new government was formed after three months of wrangling since the November 1996 elections. It is dominated by Drnovsek's Liberal Democratic Party and includes members of Marjan Podobnik's conservative Slovenian People's Party and the Pensioners' Democratic party. The new government is expected to be able to count on the support of 49 of the legislature's 90 members. -- Stan Markotich

At the request of Interior Minister Gavril Dejeu, the cabinet on 27 February dismissed Gen. Costica Voicu, head of the Romanian police force, Libertatea reported. Col. Pavel Abraham, until now chief of the Criminal Investigations Department, has been named Costica's successor. Government spokesman Eugen Serbanescu said Costica was replaced in order to improve the way the ministry functions. Responding to the move, former Interior Minister Senator Doru Ioan Taracila accused the government of politically interfering in the ministry's work. -- Zsolt Mato

Donald Johnson, head of the OSCE mission in Moldova, has urged the OSCE Permanent Council not to endorse the memorandum between Moldova and the breakaway Dniester Republic, Infotag reported on 27 February. The memorandum on resolving relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol was initialed last June but has not yet been signed. Johnson said the document does not correspond to the "basic OSCE principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova." He added that the signature of the document could set an "extremely unfortunate precedent," warning that each side has different interpretations of parts of the document. While Moldova called for revisions, the Dniester authorities insisted on signing the memorandum without any amendments. -- Zsolt Mato

Bulgaria's interim government on 27 February announced it will increase the price of heating, electricity, and coal by 257%, the Bulgarian press reported. Services offered by the Bulgarian Telecommunications Company are to be raised eight-fold. The new prices will go into effect in March. In the meantime, the government will try to find ways to compensate the country's poorest citizens. Some 20 million ECU provided by the EU will be distributed among 150,000 families beginning on 23 March. Meanwhile, the National Statistics Institute has revealed that 89% of Bulgarians say that they are poorer than they were last year. The number of those who are living off their savings has doubled since 1995. Almost every fourth Bulgarian has run up debts. In other news, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, speaking in Bonn,
commented that "Bulgaria is on the brink of economic catastrophe," international agencies reported. He appealed to Sofia not to delay economic reforms any longer. -- Maria Koinova

A UN mission arrived in Sofia on 27 February to assess the need for humanitarian aid, international agencies reported. "Bulgaria needs humanitarian aid and any support is welcome," Vice President Todor Kavaldzhiev told Bulgarian Radio the same day. Hungarian-born American philanthropist George Soros has donated $1.8 million through the Sofia branch of his Open Society Foundation, mainly to secure medicines for the Institute for Emergency Aid in Sofia and other hospitals outside the capital, RFE/RL reported on 25 February. Part of the assistance will go to set up soup kitchens around the country and to support the disabled and needy university and school students. -- Maria Koinova

[As of 1200 CET]

Compiled by Victor Gomez and Jan Cleave