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Newsline - April 2, 1997

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have signed the treaty on Russian-Belarusian union and initialed a union charter following last-minute talks in Minsk and Moscow, RFE/RL reports on 2 April. The final version of the treaty is much shorter than the draft approved by the joint Russian-Belarusian Parliamentary Assembly yesterday. It is mostly of a declarative nature, prompting complaints among parliamentary supporters of integration. Although the name of the Russian-Belarusian "community" has been changed to "union," Yeltsin stressed that Russia and Belarus remain sovereign states and will not hurry to form a common budget or establish a single currency. Instead, coordinating security policies and border controls will be the top priority. The treaty will be submitted to the State Duma and Federation Council for ratification after one month of public discussion.

The last-minute changes to the union treaty reflect deep divisions in the Yeltsin camp over how far and how fast integration with Belarus should proceed. An RFE/RL correspondent reports that among Yeltsin's associates, the main proponents of rapid integration are Deputy Prime Minister Valerii Serov, CIS Affairs Minister Aman Tuleev, Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov, presidential foreign policy adviser Dmitrii Ryurikov and Sergei Shakhrai, Yeltsin's representative to the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, nearly all the ministers who joined the government in last month's cabinet reshuffle have expressed concern about the economic consequences of integration with Belarus. The skeptics include First Deputy Prime Ministers Anatolii Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, Economics Minister Yakov Urinson, and State Property Committee Chairman Alfred Kokh.

Aleksandr Stupnikov, the NTV correspondent recently expelled from Belarus for not reporting "objective" information, says the charges against him are "ludicrous" and that journalists are routinely persecuted in Belarus, RFE/RL reported on 1 April. Many Russian journalists have rallied to Stupnikov's defense. The Union of Journalists and the Glasnost Defense Foundation have issued a joint statement complaining that the Russian president, government, and parliament have not condemned censorship in Belarus. At last week's CIS summit in Moscow, Belarusian President Lukashenka complained that a "propaganda campaign" against him in the media was aimed at derailing Russian- Belarusian integration.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has proposed radical field commander Shamil Basaev as first deputy prime minister with special responsibility for industry, Russian news agencies reported on 1 April. Basaev was Maskhadov's closest challenger in the January presidential elections. Meanwhile, the Chechen Interior Ministry has demanded the extradition from Moscow of some 70 people wanted for embezzlement of public funds, according to Interfax. Among them are ministers who served under former President Doku Zavgaev. Also on 1 April, a joint Russian-Chechen commission was created in Grozny to verify claims that 11 Russian servicemen are being held prisoner in the Chechen town of Argun.

Chechens holding hostage three Russian reporters, one Georgian reporter, and one Italian photographer are demanding $3 million in ransom. Dagestani Security Council Secretary Magomed Talboev, who is negotiating to secure the hostages' release, told Russian news agencies on 1 April that the journalists are being held in good conditions. ITAR-TASS and Radio Rossii, the employers of the captive journalists, have said they will not pay ransom. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov told ITAR-TASS that he favors transferring kidnapping cases to Sharia courts, where he said those found guilty of abduction would face execution by firing squad. Chechen authorities last week announced measures to prevent future kidnappings. Foreign journalists will be required to enter Chechnya by plane, stay at Grozny's airport hotel and travel around the republic with an armed escort at all times.

The Constitutional Court has ruled that federal taxes may be introduced only through legislation, overruling a directive issued by the federal government in April 1996, an RFE/RL correspondent reported on 1 April. The government directive met with particularly strong opposition in Siberia. Among other things, it imposed an additional tax on electricity supplied to industrial enterprises. The Krasnoyarsk Krai legislature appealed to the court, claiming that federal taxes may be imposed through laws passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council. The government apparently expected to lose the case and did not even send a representative to the court hearings.

Candidates representing the left opposition benefited from the low turnout in legislative elections in Volgograd and Ryazan Oblasts, RFE/RL reported on 31 March. Communist candidates won 12 of the 16 seats up for grabs in the Volgograd regional legislature. The other four seats went to managers of local joint stock companies. Communists also won seven of the 36 seats in the Ryazan regional legislature, while the Agrarians won four, independents 14, and a local officers' representative one. Turnout was too low to declare a winner in the other 10 districts. Communist-backed candidates won gubernatorial elections in Volgograd and Ryazan last December. Left opposition candidates are believed to benefit from low turnout in general, as the left-leaning electorate is older and more likely to vote.

Yevgenii Savostyanov is visiting Vladivostok in order to resolve "by peaceful means" the long- running power struggle between Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko and Vladivostok Mayor Viktor Cherepkov, RFE/RL reported on 1 April. Savostyanov arranged the first meeting between the two bitter enemies since Cherepkov was restored to the mayoral office by presidential decree six months ago. Savostyanov dismissed rumors that Yeltsin will sack both Nazdratenko and Cherepkov and introduce presidential rule in the krai. Elections last week to the Vladivostok city Duma--supported by Nazdratenko but opposed by Cherepkov--were declared invalid after fewer than 15% of voters turned out.

IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus says the fund will resume issuing monthly installments of a three-year $10 billion loan to Russia. He called on Russian officials to simplify the tax system and to target the largest tax evaders in an effort to change attitudes toward non-payment of taxes, Reuters reported on 2 April. Camdessus says opportunities for corruption could be eliminated by "removing unnecessary government regulations and controls" and by "establishing an arms-length relationship between business and government." He called on the State Duma to pass key economic legislation and "to lead a responsible debate" about Russian economic policy. Duma deputies hostile to the government's economic policies and to the IMF, in particular, have a solid majority in the lower house.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has abruptly postponed scheduled talks with Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba in order to rethink its position on Abkhazia, Interfax reported on 1 April. The move comes after the CIS summit's decision to extend the mandate of the CIS peacekeeping force in Abkhazia. Meanwhile, the Abkhaz parliament has passed a resolution rejecting the summit decision. Ethnic Georgians forced to flee Abkhazia during the 1993 hostilities plan a mass demonstration outside the parliament building in Tbilisi tomorrow, despite a plea from parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania not to do so, RFE/RL reported.

Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin has signed a resolution creating a national oil and gas company, Interfax reported. State shares in joint ventures currently held by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources will be handed over to the new company, called Kazakhoil. Kazhegeldin gave the ministries 15 days to complete the transfer. Under the new resolution, Kazakhoil will become a registered shareholder in the potentially lucrative Caspian Pipeline Consortium. The Kazakh government will retain the right to manage these shares, however.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev has told Yeltsin that Russian will be given the status of state language in Kyrgyzstan, alongside Kyrgyz, Russian TV reported. Yeltsin's aide Dmitrii Ryurikov said the Russian president is satisfied with the treatment of Russian-speakers in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian state to receive full programming from all three major Russian TV channels. Russian currently has the status of "official" language but not "state" language, in which the affairs of government are conducted.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Greek counterpart, Konstantinos Stephanopoulos, have signed a treaty on friendship and cooperation, RFE/RL reported. Karimov was on an official visit to Athens. The two leaders also signed agreements on avoidance of double taxation, protection of investments, and cooperation in economics, technology, education, science, culture, and tourism. Karimov said Greece and Uzbekistan are more united than divided. Stephanopoulos called Uzbekistan a key nation in Central Asia.

Law enforcement authorities in Dushanbe say four men they apprehended in late February in connection with "multiple crimes" do not belong to the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), as was previously believed. ITAR-TASS reported on 1 April that the four men are members of outlaw bands and are guilty of virtually all major crimes committed in Tajikistan since 1994, including the killings of Russian servicemen. The men, whose names are being withheld, were found in possession of pistols and materials necessary for making home-made bombs.

Police in the Belarusian capital dispersed about 400 demonstrators who gathered yesterday to protest the signing of the union treaty between Belarus and Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. Police and protesters, most of whom were from the opposition Popular Front, engaged in a stand-off for more than an hour. After unsuccessful efforts to persuade the crowd to disperse, police moved in and broke up the rally. Some protesters were detained by the police. The previous day, Belarusian police detained Irina Vazhnik, a member of the Popular Front, and her husband for distributing leaflets calling on people to take part in opposition demonstrations, RFE/RL reported.

Andriy Bihun, commercial attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, told RFE/RL yesterday that the main obstruction to investment in Ukraine "is the government which creates an unfavorable climate for investors." His comment comes after the U.S. electronics firm Motorola announced last week it is leaving Ukraine because of the "unfavorable investment climate." Motorola planned to invest some $500 million in Ukraine. Bihun said the Communications Ministry granted Motorola a license to operate a mobile phone system in Ukraine but later insisted that Motorola apply for permission to use the GSM- 900 frequency. Meanwhile, the state-backed company KyivStar, one of three winners for a recent tender for GSM-900 cellular frequency licenses, announced it intends to invest $30 million in its mobile telephone network this year.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Alexander Kuzmuk says Ukraine wants to establish special relations with NATO. But he adds that as long as Ukraine intends to stay outside military blocs there is no question of it joining NATO. Kuzmuk was speaking to journalists on 1 April after meeting with visiting Gen. George Joulwan, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe. Joulwan told reporters that Ukraine's further participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program would serve to strengthen relations between Ukraine and NATO. He added that it would also increase confidence and mutual understanding between Eastern European countries.

Hennady Udovenko says that talks on concluding a treaty with Romania could be concluded soon, ITAR-TASS reported from Kyiv on 1 April. He urged both sides to work together to overcome differences. His statement comes after the latest round of talks between the two countries stalled.

The international commission investigating the sinking of the ferry Estonia will not name who was responsible for the installation of locks on the bow door, whose failure likely caused the disaster that killed 852 people, RFE/RL reported on 1 April. The Estonia sank on 28 September 1994 en route from Tallinn to Stockholm. The commission's members are from Estonia, Sweden, and Finland. Its task is to say why the incident occurred, not who was responsible. A final report is expected to be released in late April or early May.

The Supreme Electoral Commission has confirmed the results of the 23 March local elections, BNS reported. The Conservatives received the largest number of mandates in municipal councils, chalking up 493 (33.22 percent). The Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDDP) finished second with 212 mandates (14.29 percent), while the Christian Democrats were in third place with 180 mandates (12.13 percent). The Lithuanian Social Democrats received 136 mandates (9.16 percent), the Lithuanian Centrist Union -- 135 (9.10 percent). Other parties received less than 5 percent of the votes.

The Polish National Assembly votes today on amendments to the draft constitution proposed by President Aleksander Kwasniewski following consultations with the main political parties, RFE/RL's correspondent in Warsaw reports. The assembly's Constitutional Commission recommended last week that most of those amendments be accepted. The assembly will also decide today on the whole text of the constitution in the final vote. A two-thirds majority is needed for the document to pass. The constitution's passage is virtually assured, because the four biggest parties in the parliament, both from the government and the opposition, worked together on the draft. The constitution is also to be put to a referendum.

Ukraine and Poland are introducing joint controls at the Zosin-Ustilug road border crossing today, RFE/RL's Warsaw correspondent reports. The operation--the first of its kind between the two countries--is the direct result of a bilateral agreement signed last month. If successful, other border crossings will adopt the same procedures. Under the new regime at Zosin-Ustilug, travelers to Ukraine will be checked on the Ukrainian side of the border by a joint patrol, while people traveling in the opposite direction will be checked on the Polish side by a joint Polish-Ukraine team.

Vaclav Havel says he is opposed to a referendum on NATO membership. Since membership is "basically a treaty between states," it does not need to be approved in a plebiscite, Havel told Czech TV yesterday. Havel was speaking on the eve of a two-day visit by French President Jacques Chirac to Prague, RFE/RL reported. The French president is expected to express support to Prague's bid for early membership in EU and NATO. He has already given similar pledges to Hungary and Poland.

Judges from the International Court of Justice in The Hague have begun a four-day, fact-finding tour of the stretch of the Danube disputed in the ongoing trial over the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam, a Slovak Foreign Ministry official told RFE/RL on 1 April. The judges will inspect first the Gabcikovo project in Slovakia and then the aborted Hungarian side of the project at Nagymaros. The trial is due to resume in mid-April, when the two countries will each have two days to respond to the other's arguments. A final verdict is not expected before the fall.

Michal Kovac has distanced himself from Premier Vladimir Meciar's statements that the U.S. and Russia agreed Slovakia should not be invited to NATO membership talks. Kovac says that from the countless talks he has had with representatives of NATO countries and from his personal talks with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, it is quite clear that "Slovakia will decide on its fate itself insofar as it is capable of putting the principles of democracy into practice." Kovac released these comments to the media on 1 April.

Jan Slota says that Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme- right French National Front, will visit Bratislava at the end of April or the beginning of May. Slota attended the front's congress in Strasbourg last weekend. He told Radio Twist his party wants Le Pen to be received in Slovakia at government and parliamentary levels. Slota objected to dubbing Le Pen's supporters "fascists or Nazis." Instead, he described them as people who want "turn France into a state for the French again." He also confirmed his efforts to create a "community of nationally-oriented European parties."

The Coalition Consultative Council--the top decision-making body of the two Hungarian coalition parties--says the most important aspect of the "Maczo controversy" is not Agnes Nagy Maczo's eventual dismissal as deputy parliamentary speaker but the question of whether to allow anti-Semitic tones in parliamentary debates, the Hungarian press reports. Maczo, who is a deputy of the Smallholders' Party, last week made remarks in the house that many consider to have been anti-Semitic. The council wants the Smallholders to answer the question of whether they accept political anti-Semitism, RFE/RL reported.

Gyula Horn says he expects a final agreement over public financing of Churches and the ownership of former ecclesiastical property will be reached in June, the Hungarian press reports. Church and government representatives met recently to discuss the issue. Horn said he firmly intended to ensure that Churches and affiliated institutions are not disadvantaged in any way. A preliminary agreement stipulates that 1% of income tax revenues be allocated for this purpose. If insufficient, the total sum will be supplemented by budget funds.

Bashkim Fino went to Gjirokaster yesterday, his first trip to his troubled political home base since becoming head of the coalition government last month. He was greeted by cheering, heavily-armed rebel leaders from Gjirokaster and Tepelene. Fino met with elected officials as well as with the rebels and insurgent Committees of Public Salvation, Reuters reported. The Democratic Party of President Sali Berisha has threatened to pull out of the coalition government if officials from the Socialist Party--to which Fino belongs--maintain contacts with the rebels.

Fino used his trip to Gjirokaster to announce the abolition of SHIK, the secret police, which is widely seen as an arm of President Sali Berisha's Democratic Party. Fino said he and Berisha met with SHIK boss Bashkim Gazidede and his deputy, Bujar Rama, last weekend and formally accepted their resignations, Reuters reported on 1 April. Fino also blocked funds for the agency. "We are going to build a new intelligence service, with a new face," he said. Elsewhere in Gjirokaster, there was an attack on the home of the Greek consul. The incident is not expected to overshadow Fino's trip to Greece today, since both sides are determined to work together closely in the face of the current crisis.

Romano Prodi paid a half-hour surprise visit to Gjirokaster this morning to talk with Fino about plans for a multinational force to secure the delivery of relief supplies to Albania. Both governments are anxious to press ahead with the project, despite the imbroglio that arose following the fatal maritime collision last week. Italian Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta said yesterday that the multinational intervention force should be ready within 10 days. His Albanian counterpart, Shaqir Vukaj, is in Italy to help prepare the way. Meanwhile, the rebel Committee of Public Salvation in Vlora says Italian troops are welcome there, AFP reported. An Albanian government spokesman told Radio Tirana yesterday that the maritime collision and the intervention force are unrelated issues. He blasted "left extremists and Mafiosi" for previously threatening the Italians.

A mission from the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs says 400,000 Albanians are threatened by hunger in the wake of the current strife and the collapse of the central state apparatus. A spokesman added that while famine is not imminent and that the quantities of food needed are modest compared with Bosnia and some African crisis spots, it is still necessary to "fill the gaps," Reuters reported on 1 April. The spokesman said that anarchy and banditry are the main problems, not the destruction and dislocation that plagued relief efforts in Bosnia. Elsewhere, the Albanian Interior Ministry reports that 10 people died the previous day in incidents stemming from the proliferation of weapons among civilians, AFP reported.

Montenegrin President Momir Bulatovic insists on firing various ministers critical of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, RFE/RL reported. But Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic refuses to do so, arguing that only parliament can make the decision. In Sarajevo, Bosnia's Energoinvest company says it will no longer import any gas from Russia. The decision came after Russia's Gazeksport cut deliveries to Bosnia to a bare minimum because of unpaid bills. In Banja Luka, today's Nasa Borba writes that Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic's position is increasingly under threat after her Serbian Democratic Party overruled her objections to a new treaty on relations with Belgrade. Over the weekend, Muslim and international officials charged that the Pale-Belgrade agreement could lead to the economic division of Bosnia by setting up special ties between the Republika Srpska and federal Yugoslavia.

Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Severin says his country still needs OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Max van der Stoel for the protection of national minority rights in Romania as well as for the protection of the Romanian national minorities' rights in neighboring countries. Van der Stoel met with Severin yesterday at the beginning of his three-day visit to Romania, RFE/RL reported. Severin told Van der Stoel that the problem of the Babes-Bolyai university in Cluj should be solved by setting up a Romanian and a Hungarian department within the university, rather than creating two ethnic universities. Van der Stoel will also meet with President Emil Constantinescu, Premier Victor Ciorbea, and leaders of the UDMR--the Hungarian ethnic alliance.

Tokyo is to grant Romania a $ 177 million credit for Transportation Ministry projects to build a container-terminal in Constanta and improve roads in the southwestern part of the country. In other news, Lockheed President Norman Augustine says the company is interested in investing in the Romanian arms industry. He adds that the company has already started lobbying in the U.S. Congress and the White House for Romanias admission to NATO, RFE/RL reported on 1 April.

The United Social Democratic Party of Moldova (PSDUM) says it supports President Petru Lucinschi's political program but does not want to be considered a pro-presidential party, Infotag reported on 1 April. Anatol Taranu, co-chairman of the PSDUM, told a news conference in Chisinau that his party will back Lucinschi insofar as he implements his program. Eugen Sobor, another PSDUM co-chairman, said that while the party strives to attract "prestigious personalities" to its ranks, it does not wish to turn itself into a mass party. He added that it "will close its doors to renegades who have tried many parties in the last years."

At least a third of all homeless children in Chisinau are ill with syphilis, RFE/RL reports on 2 April. In addition, at least half of these children suffer from various infectious skin diseases, according to statistics released by police. The number of homeless children in Moldova is rising steadily. In 1996 alone, shelters in Chisinau received more than 1,500 children--an increase of 25% over the previous year. Most of them are from homes affected by alcoholism or extreme poverty.

Bulgaria's chief prosecutor has accused the previous Socialist government of doing everything possible to help late Prime Minister Andrei Lukanov win his case against Bulgaria at the Council of Europe's Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, RFE/RL reported on 1 April. Ivan Tatarchev says an investigation is being launched to clarify the activities of former Premier Zhan Videnov and his justice minister, Mladen Chervenyakov. The court ruled last month that the human rights of Lukanov were violated when he was arrested in 1992 on charges of misappropriation. It ordered the state to pay his widow and two children more than $ 20,000 in legal costs and compensation. Lukanov was assassinated last October.

Alberto Mussalem, representative of the World Bank in Sofia, says that since Stefan Sofiyanski's caretaker cabinet took office in February, inflation has fallen sharply, while treasury and hard-currency reserves have increased. RFE/RL's correspondent in Sofia quotes Sofiyanski as saying Bulgaria is on the brink of "relative financial and economic stabilization." Sofiyanski said price liberalization will not lead to economic hardship for the country's citizens. He added that the World Bank has pledged $40 million for grain imports and that the U.S. will soon donate $25 million worth of forage grains for livestock.

Toward a More Divisive Union

by Paul Goble

Current efforts by the presidents of the Russian Federation and Belarus to promote a closer union between Moscow and Minsk have sharply divided both countries and exacerbated divisions within the CIS. Those efforts could also lead to tensions between Moscow and the West.

The limited partnership agreement that Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka initialed today seems certain to produce something far less than the union they say they seek. Both countries have long been divided over the desirability of new and closer links. And those splits will only deepen during the 30 days' debate on the agreement that officials in both countries say will take place before any final accord is signed.

In general, democratic reformers in both states have opposed that accord, while communists and extreme nationalists have embraced it. Consequently, in pushing for this "union," Yeltsin finds himself in curious company. His latest stand is enthusiastically supported by his communist and nationalist opponents; it is just as enthusiastically decried by his reformist supporters.

Some of the latter, including newly appointed Deputy Premier Boris Nemtsov, reportedly are concerned about both the secrecy in which the latest agreement was prepared and the speed of moves toward integration that it anticipates. Others are worried about the direct financial costs to Russia, the rock on which earlier efforts to unify the two Slavic countries foundered. Even government spokesmen suggested these costs could be high. And Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Vladimir Lukin said they could be "dangerous for Russia."

Yet a third group of reformers argued that unity with increasingly authoritarian Belarus could undermine Russia's still precarious democracy. Liberal Russian deputy Grigorii Yavlinskii, for instance, said that "you cannot talk about negotiating integration with a state where there is political repression."

Meanwhile in Belarus, Lukashenka continues to rely on the most authoritarian institutions and groups as he promotes closer ties with Russia. At the same time, Democrats protest in Minsk's streets and increasingly find themselves in jail.

The Yeltsin-Lukashenka accord is also increasing divisions among the already divided CIS countries. Many leaders of the non-Russian countries are clearly worried that Yeltsin's push for unity with Belarus presages a Russian effort to embrace them as well. They are especially likely to draw such conclusions because that is precisely the road map for Russia's future that Andrannik Migranyan and Konstantin Zatulin sketch out in a report they prepared for the Russian leadership and then published anonymously in last Wednesday's Nezavisimaya gazeta.

Some officials in the CIS countries are increasingly worried by Moscow's opposition to their efforts at interstate cooperation even as Russia moves to create its own special ties within the Commonwealth states. Others are disturbed by the broader implications of Yeltsin's apparent adoption of the Russian nationalist agenda, a shift that many fear will lead Moscow to adopt a harsher line toward them.

But the most fateful result of pursuing Moscow-Minsk union is likely to be the implications for relations between Moscow and the West. Such a union highlights the potential for Russian mischief in the region, which East European countries seeking to join NATO have routinely pointed to. That is because Lukashenka has insisted that uniting the two countries is the best possible response to any expansion of the Western defense alliance. For this reason, if none other, the latest moves undercut the very diplomacy that Moscow has sought to conduct.

But Yeltsin's support for this accord, in the face of reformist opposition in Russia, once again raises the question of just where Yeltsin's sympathies lie. Almost the only support Russian reformers have been willing to give Yeltsin for his latest move is to suggest that he has tacked to the right in order to undercut the backing that the communists and nationalists now enjoy and at the same time to enhance his own. But even they do not sound entirely convinced by their own arguments.

And because Russian reformers' attitudes toward Yeltsin have often been a bellwether for those of Western governments, the latter, too, may be increasingly unconvinced that Yeltsin's latest move is only a tactic. Indeed, some Western leaders may become convinced that the Russian president, who at the recent Helsinki summit advertised himself as a newly energized reformer, is not the man they thought he was. To the extent that they conclude that Yeltsin is unreliable, they are likely to adopt a somewhat different approach toward Moscow.

Precisely because such a Moscow-Minsk union would have such negative consequences all around, it is virtually certain not to take place any time soon, regardless of what the two presidents said today.