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Newsline - March 17, 1997

President Boris Yeltsin offered Nizhnii Novgorod Governor Boris Nemtsov the position of first deputy prime minister at a meeting on 17 March, ITAR-TASS reported. Anatolii Chubais has already been named a first deputy prime minister, and the president said that the two could form the rest of the government as they wished. Nemtsov announced that he will accept the post, despite saying as recently as 15 March that he intended to continue serving as governor. Nemtsov will be responsible for social affairs and the reform of natural monopolies. On 16 March, Samara Governor Konstantin Titov rejected an offer to serve as deputy prime minister, citing his desire to finish the job he started in Samara. -- Robert Orttung

Yevgenii Primakov arrived in Washington on 15 March for talks with his American counterpart Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and President Bill Clinton, Russian and Western agencies reported. Primakov will focus on preparations for the rescheduled 20-21 March U.S.-Russian summit in Helsinki, which was postponed one day to allow Clinton to recover from a minor knee surgery. Meanwhile, in another step to allay Russian concerns about NATO expansion, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana announced on 14 March that "in the current and foreseeable security environment," the alliance does not plan "additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" in Europe. Moscow has previously dismissed such assurances as insufficient, instead demanding that any NATO-Russia charter impose legally binding limits on NATO deployments in new East European members. -- Scott Parrish

In a 14 March interview, President Yeltsin cautioned that his upcoming meeting with Clinton might not resolve the dispute over NATO enlargement, saying the session would be "the hardest in the history of Russian-American relations," Reuters reported. Yeltsin insisted that a "categorical condition" of any Russia-NATO agreement was that the alliance not offer membership to former Soviet republics. He expressed "alarm" at NATO efforts to build ties with those states, including NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana's recent Central Asian tour. In an interview with the Finnish paper Helsingin Sanomat on 16 March, Yeltsin reiterated Moscow's view that any agreement with NATO must be a binding treaty subject to parliamentary ratification. -- Scott Parrish

Defense Minister Igor Rodionov and top military brass met on 14 March to discuss the morale of the Russian officer corps, ITAR-TASS reported. Afterwards, Army General Viktor Samsonov, chief of the general staff, blamed abysmal living conditions and chronic wage arrears for causing 500 officers to commit suicide in 1996. Another 20% of the officer corps have already submitted resignation requests, he revealed. Samsonov warned that "if we destroy the core of the officer corps, it will be difficult to revive the armed forces, even if we have sufficient financing." -- Scott Parrish

The former Chairman of the Evenk Legislative Assembly Aleksandr Bokovikov defeated incumbent Governor Anatolii Yakimov in the Evenk Autonomous Okrug's three-candidate gubernatorial elections on 16 March, with more than 60% turnout, ITAR-TASS reported. The results of the 22 December Evenk elections were canceled after the local electoral commission found numerous irregularities. Then, preliminary results showed challenger Bokovikov in the lead, but the final tally gave the race to incumbent Yakimov. Tyva Republican President Sherig-ool Oorzhak leads his race and may have won more than 50% of the vote, making a second round unnecessary, ITAR-TASS reported. Final results are expected Tuesday. Oorzhak leads the local branch of the pro-government Our Home is Russia. -- Robert Orttung

Former Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed's Russian People's Republican Party held its first congress in Moscow on 14-15 March. Lebed called on Yeltsin to resign and proposed that Russia take a "third course" that differs from "totalitarian socialism" and "criminal capitalism," Russian Public TV (ORT) reported. Lebed claims 10,000 members for the party. He also announced the formation of a new political bloc Union - Third Force, which includes Chess Champion Garri Kasparov and numerous small parties but not Lebed's former allies, the Congress of Russian Communities and the Democratic Party of Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. Lebed threw Georgii Getman, Chairman of the officers' club "Shield," out of the hall after he read an anti-Semitic verse. -- Robert Orttung

The State Duma passed a bill that would force the president to retire if he could not carry out all of his duties for a period of more than four months because of health reasons, by a vote of 287 to 23, with one abstention, ITAR-TASS reported. Yeltsin is likely to veto the bill, as he has rejected similar measures in the past. Also, the Duma on 14 March voted 176 to 75 to reject a moratorium on the death penalty. Russia agreed to abolish the penalty within three years as part of its commitment on joining the Council of Europe in February 1996. Additionally, the Duma voted to make 4 October a "memorial day" to honor 1993's parliamentary uprising against Yeltsin, AFP reported. -- Robert Orttung

At a meeting with President Valerii Kokov and other members of the leadership of Kabardino-Balkariya in the republic's capital, Nalchik, on 15 March, Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin discussed Russia's draft economic agreement with Chechnya, Russian media reported. Russian security officials who also attended the meeting argued that peace in the north Caucasus is contingent on the Chechen leadership neutralizing freelance armed groups. On 16 March, NTV reported that a meeting of Chechen field commanders in Grozny, including maverick Salman Raduev, had agreed that all illicit military formations should be dissolved and Chechnya's standing army should not exceed 2,000 men. -- Liz Fuller

Georgia's Defense Minister Vardiko Nadibaidze met on 14-15 March in the Ingush capital, Nazran, with the presidents of Chechnya and Ingushetiya, Aslan Maskhadov and Ruslan Aushev, Russian media reported. Topics discussed included furthering peace in the Caucasus; guarding Georgia's border with Chechnya and Ingushetiya; and a possible meeting between Maskhadov and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, according to NTV. Last December Shevardnadze said Georgia's future relations with Chechnya would be governed by the constitutions of Georgia and the Russian Federation; he declined to attend Maskhadov's inauguration last month. -- Liz Fuller

The three presidents also discussed ways of securing the release of the four ITAR-TASS and Radio Rossii journalists abducted in Chechnya on 4 March, one of whom, Nikolai Mamulashvili, is a citizen of Georgia, ITAR-TASS reported. Chechen Vice President Vakha Arsanov said on 14 March that securing the journalists' release is "a matter of honor" for the Chechen leadership. -- Liz Fuller

Last week, Moscow police freed two children held hostage for ransom, Kommersant Daily reported on 14 March. Police captured five Georgians who were holding the 10-year-old son of a Georgian businessman, seized on his way home from school on 14 February. Also last week an 8-year-old daughter of a businessmen who had been snatched in Kharkiv (Ukraine) on 13 December was freed by police in Moscow. The kidnappers were demanding $1 million and $1.5 million respectively. A third hostage-freeing operation ended in a shoot-out on the banks of the river Moskva on 14 March, ITAR-TASS reported. -- Peter Rutland

During the first two months of 1997 the federal government collected 34.1 trillion rubles of budgetary revenue, only 55% of the expected level, ITAR-TASS and Segodnya reported on 14-15 March. Spending totaled 39.6 trillion rubles, or 50% of the projected level. The tax arrears included 12 trillion rubles of VAT, 8.6 trillion rubles of excise tax, and 5.3 trillion rubles profit tax. -- Natalia Gurushina

The State Duma passed amendments to the law on the Russian tax system, Kommersant-Daily reported on 15 March. The changes increase commercial banks' financial responsibility for transferring tax payments to the budget by imposing higher fines for each day of delay. Delay fines for taxpayers are now substantially reduced. Organizations will now be considered as having paid their taxes from the moment they submit payment documents to the bank, provided they have enough money in their accounts. The new law also bars retroactive tax increases. -- Natalia Gurushina

The Turkish government demands the return of the Turkish fishing vessel intercepted by Russian coast guards on 12 March for poaching in Georgian territorial waters, Turkey's ambassador to Georgia told Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze on 14 March. Criminal proceedings have been brought against the owner of the vessel, according to ITAR-TASS. Shevardnadze expressed his regrets at the death of one of the Turkish crew when the Russian coast guards opened fire, adding that "the Georgian authorities have had serious problems with Russian border guards working on Georgian territory," according to Reuters quoting the Georgian presidential press service. Also on 14 March, Shevardnadze proposed to a session of Georgia's National Security Council that "we should clarify relations with Russian border guards once for all," and urged the Georgian parliament to pass a related law that is currently under discussion, ITAR -TASS reported. -- Liz Fuller

The head of the Russian Army's General Staff, General Viktor Samsonov, and the chairman of the Russian Duma's Defense Committee, Lev Rokhlin, both told Russian TV (RTR) on 14 March that they thought Defense Minister Igor Rodionov had acted "absolutely correctly" in confirming the allegations of illicit Russian arms transfers to Armenia. Samsonov added that the investigation into the allegations had been conducted by the Presidential Main Control Department. Also on 14 March, Azerbaijan's parliament appealed to Yeltsin and to the Russian parliament to investigate the allegations, punish those responsible, and ensure that the weaponry in question is withdrawn from Armenia, ITAR-TASS reported. Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Hasan Hasanov summoned foreign ambassadors on 15 March and read a statement calling for an international inspection of Armenia's military hardware under the terms of the 1990 CFE Treaty, Turan reported. Responding to U.S. Ambassador Richard Kauzlarich, Hasanov dismissed as "an outrageous lie" Armenian claims that Azerbaijan had received arms, including hundreds of tanks, since 1994.-- Liz Fuller

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana visited Uzbekistan on 13-14 March, holding talks with government officials, Western and Russian sources reported. Solana focused on NATO's new Atlantic Partnership Council, an extension of the Partnership for Peace program. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov brought up Russia's concerns about NATO expansion saying "without Russia, there can be no real European security," but added that the decision on joining any alliance is a "sovereign right of any state." Solana moved on to Turkmenistan on 14 March. Confronted with questions about NATO expansion or participation in a multi-country military exercise scheduled for September in Kazakstan, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov again stressed Turkmenistan's neutrality and added "(NATO) expansion westward or eastward doesn't worry us." Turkmenistan will not send troops to the September military exercise. -- Bruce Pannier
The Prime Ministers of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan met in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on 14 March, RFE/RL and Radio Mayak reported. The three were seeking to broaden cooperation in the Economic Union the three countries formed in 1994. At the conclusion, 13 agreements were signed covering industrial cooperation, a legal base for the free movement of labor among the three countries, coordination on migration, and others. The most important document was on the creation of a common economic area during 1997-1998. The presidency of the Economic Union shifted from Kazakstani Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin to his Kyrgyz counterpart, Apas Jumagulov. -- Bruce Pannier and Naryn Idinov

Bahrom Sadirov, whose group was responsible for taking 16 foreigners hostage in February and 23 people hostage in December 1996, was captured on 14 February, in a joint operation by forces of the Tajik government and the Tajik opposition, Russian and Western sources reported. Sadirov ransomed UN workers and Russian journalists for the return of his brother from Afghanistan. The action was notable for being the first instance when government troops worked together with forces loyal to the United Tajik Opposition. Sadirov's brother Rezvon was not caught and his whereabouts are unknown. -- Bruce Pannier

The UN Security Council voted on 14 March to extend the mandate of its military observer mission in Tajikistan by another three months, ITAR-TASS and Reuters reported. The council noted great progress in the situation in Tajikistan, particularly the military protocol signed in Moscow during the 28 February-8 March talks between representatives of the Tajik government and the United Tajik Opposition. -- Bruce Pannier

Some 10,000 people marched through the center of Minsk on 15 March to mark the day the 1994 constitution was adopted, international media reported. Despite the presence of large numbers of security forces, no clashes were reported. The day before, police arrested up to 100 people, including two Americans and two Germans, at a rally of about 1,000 people protesting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's policies. The four foreigners were released after several hours. Opposition leader Yuryi Khadyka was arrested on 13 March in a late-night raid intended to stem the protests, Reuters reported. He has begun a hunger strike. Last spring, when Khadyka was arrested for participating in anti-Lukashenka demonstrations, he went on a three-week hunger strike before being released. Khadyka's wife said the new hunger strike was in protest of his being sentenced to five days' incarceration for resisting arrest. -- Ustina Markus

In line with his campaign to improve tax collection, Leonid Kuchma declared his 1996 income and assets, Reuters reported on 15 March. Last year the Ukrainian president earned 13,355 hryvnyas ($7,300). He also owns a dacha outside Dnipropetrovsk worth $8,000. Kuchma said he had no income from business activities in Ukraine or abroad. -- Ustina Markus

The body of Petro Shevchenko, 43, a correspondent from Kiyevskiye vedomosti, was found hanging in an abandoned boiler room on 13 March, Ukrainian radio reported the following day. Shevchenko had filed a series of stories on disputes between Luhansk Mayor Oleksandr Danilov and the local branch of Ukraine's security service. Days before his death, Shevchenko told colleagues he was afraid the security service was after him. Although a suicide note was reportedly found, the editors of Kiyevskiye vidomosti do not believe Shevchenko killed himself and have started their own investigation. There are a number of unsolved cases of suspicious deaths of journalists in Ukraine. On 15 March, President Leonid Kuchma responded by empowering the prosecutor general, the head of the Security Service, and the interior minister with responsibility for investigating the case. -- Ustina Markus

Lennart Meri on 16 March approved the new government of Mart Siimann, international media reported. The new government is similar to the government of former Prime Minister Tiit Vahi, who quit last month after 22 months in office amid accusations that he was involved in dubious real estate deals in Tallinn. Only two ministers changed portfolios. Andres Varik, secretary general of the Country People's Party, is to succeed Ilmar Mandmets as agriculture minister. Education Minister Rein Loik, who decided to step down, is to be replaced by Mait Klaassen. Regional Affairs Minister Tiit Kubri's position will remain vacant for the time being, BNS reported. Siimann has already promised to continue the previous government's economic policies and reforms. -- Jiri Pehe

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development considers Estonia the best-developed nation in Eastern Europe, BNS on 16 March quoted EBRD board member David Hexter as saying in Tallinn. According to Hexter, EBRD loans are higher per head to Estonia than to any other country in Eastern Europe. He said the reason for the extensive lending is a strong ethic in Estonia's business sphere and a large number of strong banks. -- Jiri Pehe
The Latvian Foreign Ministry authorities on 15 March condemned as "unacceptable" Russian President Boris Yeltsin's strong opposition to the Baltic states' joining NATO. Yeltsin said in a statement on 14 March that Russia is against any of the ex-Soviet Republics' joining NATO in any form. The ministry's statement said that Yeltsin's statement was inconsistent with the principles of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The ministry further said that those principles recognize the sovereign rights of all countries to choose their means of security, including membership of defense organizations and alliances. -- Jiri Pehe

The head of the visiting IMF mission to Latvia, Emanuel van der Mensbrugghe, said on 13 March that the Latvian economy improved last year as inflation fell from 23 percent in 1995 to 13 percent, BNS reported. Mensbrugghe attributed the improvement to a strict fiscal policy under which the state budget deficit was reduced considerably. The IMF mission head also praised monetary policy by the Bank of Latvia, in particular the bank's efforts to increase its foreign currency reserves to the level of three months' imports. -- Jiri Pehe

Polish parliament's Constitutional Commission on 14 March compromised on the thorny issue of how to refer to God in the preamble to the draft constitution, Polish media reported. The compromise preamble, proposed by Freedom Union leader and former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, refers to people's responsibility before God or their own conscience. The Roman Catholic Episcopate proposed that the word "or" be replaced by "and" or a comma, but Mazowiecki said nobody should force non-believers to refer to God. The episcopate's secretary, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, said the alternative "God or conscience" is unacceptable. The episcopate's attitude is crucial if the draft is to be accepted in a popular referendum. The next stage for the draft constitution is the Sejm and Senate joint session, scheduled for 21-22 March. -- Jakub Karpinski

Half a year before the parliamentary elections scheduled for fall 1997, Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) is leading the co-ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in popularity, Rzeczpospolita reported on 17 March. According to a public opinion poll conducted on 8 and 9 March, 29% of respondents would vote for the AWS and 26% for the SLD. The co-ruling Polish Peasant Party, like the opposition centrist Freedom Union, would get 12%, the Labor Union 9%, the Movement for Poland's Reconstruction 8%. -- Jakub Karpinski

The Social Democratic Party (CSSD), the largest opposition party in the Czech parliament, re-elected Milos Zeman chairman at its congress held 14-16 March in Bohumin, Czech media reported. The congress did not re-elect Karel Machovec as one of the CSSD's five deputy chairmen. Until the congress, Machovec had been the strongest opponent of Zeman in the party leadership. Petra Buzkova, who is also critical of some of Zeman's policies, was re-elected a deputy chairman. The congress endorsed Zeman's speech, in which he called for confrontational policies toward the right-of-center coalition government. In what appeared to be a change of one of the party's most controversial stances, the congress stopped short of demanding a referendum on the Czech Republic's membership in NATO; it merely recommended that a referendum be held. -- Jiri Pehe

Rudolf Balaz, head of the Slovak Bishops' Conference, expressed support in Pravda on 15 March for the country's opposition, actors, and students, who have been protesting against government policies. "I support trade unions, representatives of culture, actors, students, and all other citizens who demand a dialogue with the ruling political power and the restoration of government respect for the citizens," Balaz said. Balaz called for the ruling coalition -- consisting of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, the ultra-right Slovak National Party, and the extreme-left Workers Party -- to change their way of governing the country. The government rejected Balaz's arguments, saying it was "unusual for a high representative of the Catholic Church to call for citizens to protest against a democratically elected government." -- Jiri Pehe

Some 50,000 people gathered for a rally organized by the Hungarian Justice and Life Party on 15 March to protest government policies, Hungarian media reported. The extra-parliamentary party's leader, Istvan Csurka, demanded the registration of all foreigners in Hungary and spoke against European integration efforts. "The demands imposed on the nation by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and [billionaire philanthropist George] Soros cannot be met," Csurka said, suggesting Hungary was being exploited by foreign banking interests and presumably including Soros because he is a Hungarian-born Jew. Another rally was held in front of the U.S. Embassy by a neo-Nazi party led by Albert Szabo, who told some 300 uniformed followers and a few onlookers that they are "fighting Zionist capitalism's takeover of Hungary." A national holiday in commemoration of the 1848-1849 fight against Austrian rule, the 15 March anniversary has been exploited by extremist groups for years. -- Zsofia Szilagyi

Visiting Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea joined thousands of Hungarians across Hungary and in neighboring countries in marking the 149th anniversary of the 1848-1849 revolution. His greeting of the Hungarian national day -- both in Romanian and in Hungarian- was unprecedented in recent democratic politics and was subsequently criticized by Romanian nationalists. Speakers urged national cohesion and promoted social and economic progress as inevitable for the advancement of the nation. Simultaneously with government speeches, opposition politicians also held rallies, campaigning against the government. -- Zsofia Szilagyi

EU officials are due in Tirana on 17 March to assess Albania's needs after a countrywide spree of rioting and looting, international agencies reported. EU foreign ministers decided to send advisers to Tirana but failed to agree on any peacekeeping or military intervention. Tirana's airport remains closed and tensions high. Though periods of calm returned on 16 March, most cities remain largely in the hands of armed civilians. Newly free opposition leader Fatos Nano says he supports the recently formed coalition government that is trying to restore order. But the Socialist Party leader says he will not cooperate with President Sali Berisha. Nano had been in a Tirana jail since
he managed to escape during the unrest which swept the capital and was subsequently pardoned by Berisha. Berisha announced a new coalition government and elections, but his grip on power remains tenuous. -- Michael Shafir

The Republika Srpska parliament on 15 March ratified a treaty establishing special relations between Bosnian Serbs and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, despite Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic's initial urging against it, international and local media reported. Out of 72 deputies, 61 voted for the agreement, which was signed last month by the Bosnian presidency's Serbian member, Momcilo Krajisnik, and Yugoslav President Zoran Lilic. The pact was controversial because it was signed by Krajisnik rather than Plavsic, who is the president of the Bosnian Serb entity. Serb nationalists said that Krajisnik's signature de facto concedes that Bosnia-Herzegovina is a single state. Plavsic had said the pact was against the Serbian constitution and the Dayton peace agreement. Under pressure from other deputies, however, Plavsic backed down and agreed to the pact. -- Daria Sito Sucic

Franjo Tudjman on 15 March was a guest at the dedication of an aluminum factory south of the divided town of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, local and international media reported. He also visited Medjugorje, the Catholic shrine in Herzegovina, where some 7,000 Croat teenagers were bused in to cheer him, according to AFP. Tudjman praised the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina for their part in fighting Serbs and "other extremists who wanted to endanger this area," referring to the Croat-Muslim war. He said Bosnian Croats in many ways set an example for all Croatians. Meanwhile, the deputy high representative in Mostar, Sir Martin Garrod, walked out of the factory-dedicating ceremony because of insulting remarks about the EU and Hans Koschnick, a city former EU administrator, by the factory's president, Mijo Brajkovic, a former mayor of the Croat-held part of Mostar. -- Daria Sito Sucic

An international donor conference held on 14 March in Zagreb promised a further $21.8 million toward the reconstruction of eastern Slavonia, the last Serb-held region of Croatia, bringing the total amount pledged to $75 million, Novi List reported on 17 March. But the aid is less than the international officials were hoping for. Croatian Reconstruction and Development Minister Jure Radic said about $2 billion is necessary for reconstruction and for the return of displaced persons, Hina reported. Croatia can promise $1 billion, but the rest will have to be collected from the international community, Radic said. In other news, the U.S. said it abstained from voting on a new IMF loan to Croatia to send a strong message of displeasure with Zagreb's failure to turn over indicted war criminals to the Hague-based war-crimes tribunal, Reuters reported. -- Daria Sito Sucic

The draft of the 1997 budget was approved by the Romanian government on 15 March and will be submitted for parliament's approval on 19 March, the media reported on the same day. Most of the expenditure in the budget (over 10% of the GDP) will go to social protection, Finance Minister Mircea Ciumara told the press. The government constructed the budget on the assumption that inflation in the first half of the year will be 90%, dropping sharply to 30% in the second half of 1997. -- Michael Shafir

In several towns in Transylvania, Romania's Magyar community on 15 March marked the anniversary of the 1848 revolution. Unlike in previous years, when the celebrations met the hostility of the government and of Romanian nationalists who attribute to the Magyars irredentist intentions over Transylvania, this year Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea sent a message to the Romanian Hungarian minority and government officials participated in the ceremonies. The Party of Social Democracy in Romania, on the other hand, protested that the government was marking "the anniversary of another state" and recalled "atrocities" committed by the 1848 revolutionaries against ethnic Romanians in Transylvania. As expected, the Party of Romanian National Unity and the Greater Romania Party also protested against the celebrations. -- Michael Shafir

Razvan Temesan, the head of Romania's largest commercial bank, Bacorex, was detained by police on 14 March on charges of abuse of office. Although released, he remains under investigation on suspicion of having cost the state some $100,000 by approving payment of more than $1 million to a private company at an exchange rate lower than the official rate, Romanian television reported on 14 and 15 March. Bancorex fired Temesan and his deputy a few hours before his arrest. In a related development, President Emil Constantinescu on 14 March told a seminar of police and army officers that Romania cannot join the Euro-Atlantic structures unless it can stop organized crime, illegal emigration, and terrorism. -- Michael Shafir

The council of war veterans and reservists from Rabnita, in the breakaway Transdniester region of Moldova, set up a group to create an "anti- NATO committee," BASA-press reported on 14 March. In a press release, the council said that "NATO's true purpose is to weaken and diminish the military and economic potential of the CIS and particularly that of Russia" and called for anti-NATO groups to be set up in every settlement. A group representing Cossacks who came to the region to fight on the separatist side also expressed concern over the possible expansion of NATO and called on President Boris Yeltsin to renounce his intention to withdraw the troops. -- Michael Shafir

Interior Minister Bogumil Bonev on 16 March told the state radio that former Premier Zhan Videnov is to be prosecuted for criminal negligence that resulted in a severe bread shortage, RFE/RL reported. Bonev said both Videnov and his adviser, Kasimir Raidovsky, have been banned from leaving the country. He said Videnov neglected problems with the grain balance in Bulgaria and, when informed about the problem, did not stop exporting grain. Videnov was forced to resign on 28 December last year. -- Michael Shafir

The Socialist Party has signed a coalition agreement with the left-wing Agrarians and Ecologists in preparation for the 19 April early elections, RFE/RL reported on 15 March. Former President Zhelyu Zhelev on 14 March became chairman of a new seven-party coalition called the Alliance to Save Bulgaria. The alliance envisions itself as an alternative to the main anti-Communist opposition coalition led by the Union of Democratic Forces. In other news, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Walter Slocum, on an official visit to Sofia, said Washington understands Bulgaria's desire to join NATO, RFE/RL reported on 16 March. Slocum said all applications of NATO candidates will be considered "very seriously" and added that the U.S. supports the efforts of the interim Bulgarian cabinet and President Petar Stoyanov to reform the economy. -- Michael Shafir

[As of 1200 CET]

Compiled by Susan Caskie and Sava Tatic