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Newsline - March 7, 1997

President Boris Yeltsin's allies have praised his 6 March address to the parliament, but Communist Party (KPRF) deputy chairman Valentin Kuptsov dismissed the speech as "the typical farce." KPRF leader Gennadii Zyuganov said that rather than making new promises, Yeltsin should report on what progress has been made on keeping promises from his previous addresses to the parliament, ITAR-TASS and Russian TV (RTR) reported. Nezavisimaya gazeta on 7 March ran a blank space on its front page in lieu of a photograph of Yeltsin. The paper noted that no Russian photographers were allowed into the room where the president was speaking, although correspondents from Western agencies were admitted. An Izvestiya commentary noted that Yeltsin repeated Zyuganov's criticisms of the authorities practically word for word, even though the president himself had appointed those authorities. -- Laura Belin

In his presidential address, Yeltsin promised that ministers would be fired and the entire structure of government overhauled. However, no concrete changes were announced by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on 6 March to the "enlarged" meeting of the government, which included regional leaders and the heads of State Duma factions. As Radio Mayak noted, Chernomyrdin's speech was the familiar list of achievements and problems. Chernomyrdin promised a "new cycle of reform" to tackle continuing difficulties at the microeconomic level. At a press conference afterward, Chernomyrdin described Presidential Chief of Staff Anatolii Chubais as "a brilliant professional, an economist of high class," adding that specific decisions about government appointments will be made in a few days. -- Peter Rutland

Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii confirmed on 6 March that some of his associates have been offered ministerial posts, but he said they had not yet decided whether to join the government, NTV and Ekho Moskvy reported. Assessing Yeltsin's address to parliament, Yavlinskii said the president identified the right problems but did not outline clear solutions. He said the speech made him wonder "if the president and his assistants are so well informed of the problems, then why have both the administration and the government been virtually idle for all this time?" On 4 March, Duma deputy and Yabloko Deputy Chairman Vyacheslav Igrunov announced that Yabloko members would not accept any cabinet posts unless "radical changes" were made to the 1997 budget and the entire direction of current economic policy was altered, ITAR-TASS reported. -- Laura Belin

The Chechen government has decided against a proposal to expel all journalists from the breakaway republic until the conclusion of negotiations between Russian and Chechen authorities, Reuters reported on 7 March, citing Chechen Interior Minister Kazbek Makhashev. The four Russian journalists kidnapped in Chechnya on 4 March remain missing, along with an Italian photographer kidnapped two weeks ago. Citing acting Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov, Russian media reported on 6 March that the Chechen government would expel all journalists in the interests of their safety. Udugov also said the kidnappings were hampering the negotiation process. Two Russian Public TV (ORT) correspondents kidnapped in January were released one month later. Also on 6 March, one Dagestani policeman was killed and four were wounded in a shootout with unidentified gunmen at the Chechen border, ITAR-TASS reported. -- Laura Belin

By a vote of 235-39, the Duma passed a resolution on 7 March granting amnesty to those who committed "socially dangerous actions" during the Chechen conflict, ITAR-TASS reported. The amnesty resolution was supported by the Communist, Our Home is Russia, and Russian Regions factions but opposed by Yabloko, Popular Power, and the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia. The amnesty, however, does not cover those engaged in several types of criminal activity--including weapons contraband and the theft of economic aid to Chechnya--which may limit its application to many Chechen fighters and some Russian soldiers involved in the conflict. It also does not apply to foreigners. A separate resolution, which passed by 228-0, empowered the presidential commission on prisoner exchanges to release Chechens whom Russian courts have already convicted of crimes, if it will help secure the release of Russians still held captive in Chechnya. -- Scott Parrish

Army General Vladimir Semenev told ITAR-TASS on 6 March that he has rejected Defense Minister Igor Rodionov's recent request that he resign over allegations of using military labor for the construction of his dacha outside Moscow. Semenev, who has been suspended from duty since Rodionov charged him with misconduct last November, is waiting for a final decision on his fate by President Yeltsin, who must either confirm or reject Rodionov's order removing him from his post. Denying repeated accusations of corruption, he complained that in the three months since his suspension, no credible evidence of misconduct has been produced against him. ITAR-TASS added that the presidential commission on top military appointments has yet to receive "documentary evidence" of either financial misconduct by Semenev. -- Scott Parrish

In protest of the State Duma's decision to revoke the accreditation of ORT correspondents for one month, the private radio station Ekho Moskvy announced on 6 March that it will not allow any of the 259 Duma deputies who voted for the measure to appear on the air for one month. The Union of Journalists' Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech also denounced the Duma's action as a "shameful attempt to return society to political censorship," ITAR-TASS reported. Meanwhile, ORT pledged to file a complaint with the president's Judicial Chamber on Information Disputes, a consultative body. -- Laura Belin

Daniel Tarschys met Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov and Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev on 6 March to discuss Russia's adherence to the obligations it assumed on joining the council in February 1996, Russian media reported. At the time, the council called on Russia to impose an immediate moratorium on executions and abolish the death penalty within three years. But Moscow continued executions until August 1996; and the new criminal code, which entered into force on 1 January, still provides for the death penalty on five counts. Tarschys hailed Russia's recent tentative moves toward abolishing the death penalty but stressed the council "impatiently awaits further steps in this direction." -- Scott Parrish

Yakutiya (Sakha) Prime Minister Valentin Federov on 6 March signed a directive canceling a 1996 agreement with the Defense Ministry that permitted spent booster rocket stages to fall on the republic's territory, ITAR-TASS reported. Sakha authorities were angered by the Defense Ministry's decision earlier this week to launch a military satellite from the new Svobodnyi cosmodrome, despite their appeal for further environmental and safety checks (see OMRI Daily Digest, 4 and 5 March 1997). Under the June 1996 agreement, 1,142 square kilometers in a virtually uninhabited part of the republic were set aside as a "landing area" for spent booster stages. Military officials expressed "bewilderment" at Federov's action, saying the recent booster launch had neither left debris in the area nor caused any damage. -- Scott Parrish

In the continuing struggle between Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko and Vladivostok Mayor Viktor Cherepkov, a Vladivostok district court has annulled all decisions taken by the Primorskii Krai Duma after its term expired on 15 January, Radio Rossii reported on 6 March. The Duma had voted to extend its term and cancel elections scheduled for 30 March. The same day, another court hearing banned a referendum that Cherepkov had planned for 23 March in a bid to strengthen his own powers. Meanwhile, a woman undergoing a Caesarean section died due to a power-cut during the operation, NTV reported on 5 March. Half the buildings in Nakhodka are without heating, including schools and hospitals. Vladimir Chubai, head of the krai's Trade Union Federation, said the region's coal miners have not been paid since September. -- Peter Rutland

Mark Goryachev, an adviser to the chairman of the State Property Committee, was kidnapped in St. Petersburg on 5 March , Russian media reported. Goryachev became widely known as a successful businessman during perestroika and was elected in 1993 to the previous Duma, where he gained notoriety for punching Liberal Democratic Party of Russia Vladimir Zhirinovskii. According to Kommersant-Daily on 6 March, police investigators suggest Goryachev may have faked his own kidnapping because he had found it difficult to pay bank loans. --
Nikolai Iakoubovski

According to the State Statistical Committee, consumer price inflation in February was 1.5%, down from 2.5% in January 1997 and 2.8% in February 1996, ITAR-TASS reported on 6 March. The price of the subsistence minimum basket of goods (consisting of 25 commodities) increased by 3.1% to 236,300 rubles ($41.5). Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told the government that in January and February 1997, the population's real income was up 7% on the same period last year, while the number of people with incomes below the minimum subsistence level dropped by 14%. -- Natalia Gurushina

The international investment fund Cambridge Capital Management (CCM), which has a 17.2% equity stake in the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Combine (NLMK)--has filed a suit against NLMK in the Lipetsk arbitration court, AFP reported on 6 March. CCM says that the NLMK administration and the Trans-World Metals Group, which has a 10% stake in NLMK and manages the company, have not granted representation on the company's board to CCM and some other outside owners. Meanwhile, David Rubin, head of Trans-World Metals, published an open letter to Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore in the Wall Street Journal warning that the Russian government may use this and other disputes to try to renationalize some metals companies, Kommersant-Daily reported on 7 March. Trans-World Metals reportedly controls 50% of aluminum production in Russia. -- Natalia Gurushina

Irkutsk Governor Yurii Nozhikov on 1 March halted the oblast's payment of federal taxes, complaining that Irkutsk gave 4 trillion rubles ($700 million) to the federal budget in 1996 and got nothing in return. He also noted that the oblast owes 600 billion rubles in unpaid wages to budget organization workers. But during his visit to Moscow on 4 March, Nozhikov agreed to end his "tax revolt," Segodnya reported on 5 March. He met with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, who promised to transfer 310 billion rubles to Irkutsk in 1997; and with Procurator-General Yurii Skuratov, who threatened him with legal action if he did not resume tax payments. Tula Governor Nikolai Sevrugin and Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko have also threatened to stop paying taxes to Moscow if federal debts to their regions are not paid. -- Peter Rutland

Following two days of talks in Moscow, delegations from Georgia and South Ossetia have agreed on the breakaway region's political status, according to a 6 March BGI report monitored by the BBC. First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov, the chief Russian mediator, said the agreement envisages that Georgia's territorial integrity will be preserved and that South Ossetia will have unspecified "special powers for self-determination." The two have also set up a joint "special commission" to deal with the region's economic reconstruction. -- Emil Danielyan

A spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Yerevan has denied Azerbaijani accusations that alleged Russian arms supplies to Armenia were transported via Iran (see OMRI Daily Digest, 6 March 1997), RFE/RL reported on 6 March. He described those charges as "propaganda." In addition to the trilateral cooperation agreement between Iran, Armenia, and Turkmenistan, Tehran wants to form an Iranian-Armenian-Greek "axis" that might also include Georgia. -- Emil Danielyan

Azerbaijani Security Minister Namig Abbasov has accused Russian secret services of spying on Azerbaijan and trying to undermine its government, AFP reported on 5 March, citing the Turan news agency. Abbasov pointed to the case of Salman Ibrahimov, a Georgian arrested late last year in Baku, allegedly for spying on behalf of Russia. He also reiterated claims that Moscow is determined to replace Azerbaijan's present leadership with a more malleable one. Recently, Baku charged that Moscow has been clandestinely funneling military support to Armenia. -- Lowell Bezanis

Moscow police apprehended two Tajik Security Ministry agents who arrived at the Nikolaevka rail station on 5 March in possession of nearly 8,000 kilograms of opium, ITAR-TASS reported. The two were taking part in a training program at the Moscow Academy of the Russian Federal Security Service as part of a CIS agreement on cooperation between secret services. Meanwhile in Turkmenistan, authorities say some 16 tons of hashish were confiscated in February alone. Seven tons were found aboard a train en route from the Afghan city of Herat to Europe via Turkmenistan. -- Bruce Pannier

Russia reassured India that it would derail Ukraine's $550 million tank deal with Pakistan by refusing to deliver components necessary to complete the tanks, The Times of India reported on 6 March. Ukrainian stocks of Russian-supplied components are reportedly only sufficient to build 30-35 T-80 UD tanks. So far, Kyiv has delivered 15 out of the scheduled 320 tanks to Islamabad. Since the deliveries began last month, the Russian press has been denouncing the deal and Ukraine's decision to develop its tank industry without Russia. When Kyiv first unveiled the tank at the Abu-Dhabi arms fair in 1995, it claimed to be able to produce the vehicle and all of its component parts domestically. Moscow claims it supplies 90% of the separate components and spare parts for the T-80 series tanks, including its 125mm gun. -- Ustina Markus

beat several elderly women with metal bars at an "empty saucepans march" on the Kyiv city
administration building, international agencies reported on 6 March. Some 500 retirees, mostly women, marched through Kyiv to protest low pensions in an action organized by an association of pro-communist organizations. Pensions in Ukraine, $30 on average, are often months overdue and shrunk by inflation. Meanwhile, the Ternopil league of Ukrainian women in western Ukraine appealed to thelocal mayor to cancel International Women's Day on 8 March, Den reported on 6 March. Ternopil women blasted the holiday as a communist legacy. President Leonid Kuchma has called 8 March a "holiday of spring, youth and love." -- Oleg Varfolomeyev

Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrived on 6 March in Moscow to hold a series of meetings with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and a number of leading Russian politicians, international agencies reported. The two leaders are to discuss the pace and strategy of the integration of the two states. Russia and Belarus have recently been coming up with a number of initiatives concerning the substance of the integration process. The options under consideration include incorporation of Belarus by Russia, which Lukashenka has recently ruled out; the signing of a new union treaty between equal republics; and the creation of a supranational legislative structure, whose decisions would be binding for both countries. The leaders would also have to decide on further economic integration, unification of legal norms, and transport and energy systems. -- Sergei Solodovnikov

Prime Minister designate Mart Siimann announced on 6 March that his recent talks with other political parties revealed that a broad-based government would face "serious, and perhaps insurmountable differences," hence he will form a minority government backed by the Coalition Party and three smaller pensioners' and farmers' parties, ETA reported. Siimann said that he would present his cabinet, including some changes in relation to the one led by Tiit Vahi, to the parliament for approval on 11 or 12 March. Center Party Chairman Edgar Savisaar said that the political consultations had improved communication and mutual understanding among the parties, but he doubted the new government would have a long life. -- Saulius Girnius

Arpad Goncz began an official two-day visit to Riga on 6 March with talks with President Guntis Ulmanis, which focused on the enlargement of the European Union and NATO, BNS reported. Latvian Interior Minister Dainis Turlais and Hungarian Interior Ministry Political Secretary Gabor Vilagos signed an agreement on combating terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. Education and Science Minister Juris Celmins and Hungarian Culture and Education Deputy State Secretary Peter Medgyez signed an agreement on cooperation in education, culture, and science. Latvia also submitted draft agreements on the promotion and protection of investments, avoidance of double taxation, and free trade relations. -- Saulius Girnius

The shipyard that was the cradle of the Solidarity movement in August 1980, has finally gone bust. The shipyard's liquidator, who is taking care of the interests of the already bankrupt company, on 6 March began giving pink slips to 3,800 shipyard employees who will receive three months severance pay and other indemnities -- totaling $8.54 million -- to be paid by the treasury. The immediate cause of the liquidator's decision was the refusal of Pekao SA bank to grant the shipyard a $100 million credit to finance the construction of five ships. The value of the shipyard's property has been estimated at $88 million (excluding land); 200 people will remain employed to guard that property. Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz asked the Szczecin shipyard to analyze possibilities of cooperation with the Gdansk shipyard that would save as many jobs as possible and preserve the shipyard's property. -- Jakub Karpinski

A Czech court ordered on 6 March that bankruptcy proceedings be started against the giant steel company Poldi Kladno, Czech media reported. The decision came only two days after a company called ProWin bought the Bohemia Art company that was the principal owner of Poldi Kladno. The steel giant, employing some 5,000 people, has faced severe economic problems for more than a year. The government has been trying to force out Vladimir and Marko Stehlik, who bought Poldi Kladno several years ago and later formed Bohemia Art as an umbrella company. Both Stehliks are currently under investigation for dubious business deals. The new court-appointed administrator of the company immediately fired Marko Stehlik from his post as Poldi director. Vladimir Stehlik is currently in police custody. -- Jiri Pehe

Czech Finance Minister Ivan Kocarnik announced on 6 March that his ministry will propose to the government to make budget cuts amounting to 11 billion crowns ($400 million), Czech media reported. Kocarnik said the cuts would take place across the board. Kocarnik's proposal followed his recent announcement that the latest figures show the state budget with a 6.7 billion crown deficit in February, a development pointing to a slowdown in economic growth. Opposition Social Democratic Party Chairman Milos Zeman said on 6 March that the decline in budget receipts is, among other things, a logical consequence of the present government's inability to collect taxes. Zeman contended that the current right-of-center government, led by Vaclav Klaus, does not have any breakthrough economic policies in stock. -- Jiri Pehe

Association of Workers Deputy Chairman Jan Borovsky on 6 March announced that his party will ask its supporters to vote "no" on NATO membership in the upcoming referendum, Slovak media reported. The party is also against the second and third referendum questions, which ask Slovaks whether they favor deploying nuclear weapons and having foreign military bases in Slovakia. Only the ethnic Hungarian parties are encouraging their supporters to vote "yes" on all three questions. Also on 6 March, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Kornblum visited Bratislava where he noted the Slovak government's unwillingness to heed certain recommendations, particularly on the passage of the minority language law. Meeting with Kornblum, Slovak Foreign Ministry State Secretary Jozef Sestak criticized the U.S. government report on NATO expansion, especially the section comparing the observance of democratic principles in Slovakia with the situation in Albania, CTK reported. -- Sharon Fisher

Gyorgy Giczy, chairman of the opposition Christian Democrats has announced that he will deliver a speech at a rally staged by the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) in Budapest on March 15, one of the country's national days, Hungarian media reported on 6 March. Istvan Csurka, president of the extra-parliamentary MIEP, said that protesting farmers in eastern Hungary have also decided to participate in his rally. In other news, the farmers on 5 March rejected Prime Minister Gyula Horn's invitation to hold further negotiations on the new tax and social-insurance code, after government officials seemed determined to stick to their original plans during a morning consultation. The farmers announced on 6 March that a convoy of 300 tractors will drive through downtown Budapest on 10 March to further protest the government's agricultural policy and legislation. -- Zsofia Szilagyi

President Sali Berisha met with leaders of the opposition on 6 March in an attempt to calm fighting in the southern part of the country. Emerging from the meeting was an announcement of a blanket amnesty for all involved in hostilities, except those who had "committed crimes," CNN reported on 7 March. According to the terms, armed rebels were to hand over all weapons, beginning at 6 a.m. local time today, at which point the military were to cease all actions for a 48-hour period. In addition, Berisha and the opposition agreed to the formation of a multiparty commission to investigate pyramid scheme investments, as the collapse of several of those had led to thousands losing their life savings and ultimately triggered the armed conflict. Finally, Berisha has also reportedly agreed to the idea of holding early elections. -- Stan Markotich

Rebels throughout the southern part of the country have signaled their intention to continue the conflict. One rebel leader, identified as Captain Tato by Greek television, vowed "We won't turn over our weapons until our demands are met." Surrounded by well-armed supporters, Tato reiterated the call for Berisha's immediate resignation. "He [Berisha] wants our guns, but we want his head," he reportedly said. And just before the announcement of the amnesty, leaders in Sarande reiterated their list of demands, which include Berisha's resignation, a new coalition government, and compensation for those who lost their savings in the investment schemes. -- Stan Markotich

Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said on 6 March that the Bosnian elections were rescheduled from July to September, international media reported. That is the third postponement of the elections -- originally scheduled for September 1996, along with the general elections, then moved to November, and then again to July 1997. U.S. Defense Minister William Cohen sharply criticized the delay, and blamed civilian authorities for the setback. Cohen said the delay will not stand in the way of a U.S. pullout from Bosnia in June 1998, although "it complicates matters," AFP reported. But the U.S. State Department fully supported the decision to postpone the polls, and said there was a greater hope to have free and fair elections, Reuters reported. High Representative Carl Bildt also welcomed the OSCE decision. -- Daria Sito Sucic

The Bosnian Serb parliament on 15 March will ratify a controversial pact with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, despite objections by the Muslim and Croat partners in the central government of Bosnia-Herzegovina (see OMRI Daily Digest, 3 March 1997), Oslobodjenje reported. The accord only calls for ratification by the Yugoslav federal parliament and the Bosnian
Serb assembly, although international treaties and foreign relations lie within the jurisdiction of Bosnia's central government in Sarajevo. The U.S. State Department supported a protest by Bosnia's Muslim presidency member, Alija Izetbegovic, who said the pact was unconstitutional, Nasa Borba reported on 5 March. The high representative for Bosnia, Carl Bildt, urged Yugoslavia not to ratify the agreement before it has been approved by Bosnia's multiethnic parliament. Bosnia's Muslim Party of Democratic Action said its deputies will not ratify the agreement, Oslobodjenje reported. -- Daria Sito Sucic

The state-run Radio and Television Serbia on 6 March announced that it would no longer provide relays of programs broadcast on BK Television, international media report. BK, owned and run by wealthy entrepreneur Bogoljub Karic, has the capacity to reach an estimated 60% of Serbia's population, but in recent weeks the station has stepped up criticism of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In addition, reports have recently circulated that Karic is preparing to launch a political party to run against the governing Socialists in republican presidential and parliamentary elections -- slated for later this year -- and has plans to solicit the support of such influential and popular individuals as American businessman and former Premier of Yugoslavia, Milan Panic (see OMRI Daily Digest, 28 February 1997). -- Stan Markotich

A hunger strike by some 20 Macedonian students from the Pedagogical Faculty (PF) in a Skopje park near parliament entered its third day on 6 March, MILS reported. The hunger strikers are conducting their protest in the open because a permit issued for erecting tents there has been declared invalid for environmental and public-safety reasons. The hunger strikers were supported by 3,000 to 4,000 protesters, who marched for the 19th consecutive day. The protesters included students from Kumanovo, Ohrid, Skopje, and Stip, along with other citizens. The protesters are demanding suspension of both a law on the PF passed on 30 January (allowing instruction in Albanian) and of minority university admission quotas, along with the resignation of Education Minister Sofija Todorova. University officials addressed the protesters, asking them to suspend the strike until the Constitutional Court rules on the law. -- Michael Wyzan

A press release from the Foreign Ministry vowed on 6 March to pursue efforts to sign a basic treaty with Ukraine, which is regarded as boosting Romania's chances of admission to NATO, Reuters reported on the same day. The ministry warned against "recent agitation" against the pending treaty, saying it was "fueled by circles alien to Romania's interests, which want the country to stay out of European and Euro-Atlantic structures," and called the drive "unpatriotic." On 6 March, the media reported that hundreds of leaflets denouncing the intention to agree to a loss of territories incorporated into the Soviet Union had been distributed overnight in Timisoara. There had been earlier reports of such leaflets in Bucharest, Suceava, and Turnu Severin. Police launched an investigation to trace the authors of the leaflets. -- Michael Shafir

A Council of Europe (CE) delegation of rapporteurs is investigating the possibility of removing special monitoring of Romania's implementation of the commitments it took upon joining the organization, Romanian media reported. Delegation leader Gunnar Jansson said the monitoring might end in April, but the decision is to be made by the CE General Assembly on 25 April. In related news, the EU commissioner in charge with relations with CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPEan countries, Hans van den Broek, on 6 March arrived in Bucharest in an attempt to boost cooperation between the EU and Romania. He said the EU will effectively support the new government's economic reform program. -- Zsolt Mato

The government decided on 3 March to dismiss Andrei Hropotinschi, the editor in chief of the government daily Moldova suverana, BASA-press reported on 6 March. Hropotinschi, in fact, had announced on 15 February that he would resign on grounds of his strong backing of former Premier Andrei Sangheli in November's presidential race. Constantin Andreev, currently a reporter for the daily, was named by State Minister Nicolae Cernomaz as the most likely candidate to succeed Hropotinschi, but the Moldova suverana deputy editor in chief, Tudor Topa, told BASA press that "neither I, nor the staff, will accept to work under Andreev." In other news, the Communications and Information Ministry announced on 6 March that the airing of Ukraine's first channel television programs will be stopped on 10 March because the channel refuses to pay its debts to Moldovan television for the period July 1996-March 1997. Since February 1996, the channel has aired six hours daily. It covers over 80% of Moldova. -- Michael Shafir

Bulgaria's Supreme Administrative Court declared void the registration of one of the two rivaling synods of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, headed by Patriarch Maksim, Reuters and local media reported on 6 March. Patriarch Maksim was elected in 1971, but his synod has never been registered by the communists. After almost 5 years of intrachurch feuding over his legitimacy, the former Socialist government registered Maksim in December 1996. However, his opponents, backed by the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces, enthroned former Metropolitan Pimen as patriarch in July 1996. It was Pimen who conducted the blessing ceremony when President Petar Stoyanov took office in January 1997. "It is not possible to withdraw as patriarch, not only because I do not have any grounds to, but because I would commit a sin before God and would be betraying those who have elected me," Patriarch Maksim commented after a meeting with Stoyanov. -- Maria Koinova

Bulgaria's interim government on 6 March abolished visas for Western Europeans, RFE/RL and Pari reported. The move is aimed at strengthening the country's position in seeking visa concessions for Bulgarian citizens and at fostering tourism from EU countries. The government also took measures to restrict the illicit trade in Bulgarian passports, deciding that a criminal check will be required before a new international passport is issued. "We have to stop serving as a transit point to Europe for people from the Third World," Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev commented. Citing budget cuts, the ministers also decided that Bulgaria will reduce staff at its missions in Ethiopia, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and North Korea. In other news, the head of the Bulgarian Intelligence Service, Brigo Asparuchov, on 6 March was replaced by a little-known 34-year-old lawyer, Dimo Gyaurov, a deputy of the Union of Democratic Forces in the recently dissolved parliament. -- Maria Koinova

[As of 1200 CET]

Compiled by Jan Cleave and Sava Tatic