PRIMAKOV, SOLANA AGREE ON CHARTER
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov and NATO Secretary- General Javier Solana have agreed on the wording of a charter between Russia and the alliance, Reuters reports today. The agreed text will be submitted to NATO governments and to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. No details on the charter were available. Before the latest round of talks, the main disagreement was over Moscow's insistence that NATO guarantee not to station nuclear weapons or "significant" numbers of conventional forces in any new NATO member state. Solana and Primakov met for six hours yesterday and again this morning before making the deal. Yeltsin did not attend the talks but spoke with both Primakov and Solana by telephone today.
...AS OTHERS WARN AGAINST HASTY AGREEMENT
The Advisory Council for Foreign and Defense Policy issued a statement yesterday warning against a rush to sign an agreement with NATO, Russian agencies reported. Duma deputy Aleksei Arbatov of Yabloko and foreign policy theorist Sergei Karaganov are both members of the council. The statement said that a poorly prepared accord could undermine Russia's interests, delay Duma ratification of the START-II arms control treaty, and create a zone of "instability" from Estonia to Azerbaijan. Former Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed also argued yesterday against reaching an agreement now, because "NATO is strong and we are weak," Interfax reported. At the same time, Lebed discounted suggestions that an expanded NATO might pose a threat to Russia. "The rich and satisfied will never attack the poor and hungry," he said. "Most often things happen the other way round."
RODIONOV FAVORS START-II...
Defense Minister Igor Rodionov says that despite his earlier doubts, he now supports ratification of START-II, AFP and Reuters reported yesterday. Rodionov was speaking after talks with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen in Washington. Many influential deputies in the Russian parliament oppose START-II. Asked about NATO enlargement, Rodionov said expanding the Western alliance would be a "mistake" that could damage U.S.-Russian relations. Nonetheless, Rodionov and Cohen signed agreements setting up joint working groups on anti-missile defense, peacekeeping, and Russian military reform. However, Rodionov told Interfax that he is concerned about recent statements by some U.S. politicians who favor opting out of the ABM Treaty. Such a step by the U.S. would destroy "the entire nuclear disarmament process," he said.
...DENIES REPORT ON UNSAFE NUCLEAR MISSILES
Rodionov has denied recent reports saying some of Russia's nuclear missiles switched themselves into combat mode, Russian news agencies reported yesterday. The Washington Times on 12 May cited a CIA report on problems in Russia's command-and-control system (see RFE/RL Newsline, 13 May 1997). In Moscow, the chief headquarters of Russia's strategic missile forces also released a statement denying the newspaper report.
MOSCOW'S CALCULATIONS BEHIND CHECHEN ACCORD
Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin and his deputy, Boris Berezovskii, told journalists yesterday that the Russian government signed the treaty with the Chechen Republic for three reasons. First, the accord demonstrated that the Russian Federation has dropped the "imperial" tradition in dealing with its periphery. Second, it could give Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov enough political room to stand up to his own militants and possibly to disarm some of them. Third, the accord may allow Russia to transport oil across Chechnya and thus reap enormous profits. Three draft agreements on oil and its transit are now in preparation, Russian news agencies reported. Meanwhile, maverick field commander Salman Raduev pledged yesterday not to lay down his arms until Moscow recognized Chechen independence. Maskhadov, on his return to Chechnya, celebrated the accord and called on the Chechen diaspora to help rebuild their country.
KULIKOV IN VLADIVOSTOK AS PROTESTS CONTINUE
Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov arrived in Vladivostok today as protests over extensive power cuts in the city continued, RFE/RL's correspondent in Vladivostok reports. Krai authorities decided to meet with Kulikov outside the city for fear that protesters would block the main road in Vladivostok for the third day running. In an interview with RFE/RL yesterday, Primorskii Krai First Deputy Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein denied that the krai administration was to blame for the energy crisis. He noted that the federal government owes money to Primore and said the Vladivostok authorities should answer for the power cuts and disorder in the city. Tolstoshein is a close ally of Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko. He was mayor of Vladivostok until last September, when Nazdratenko's enemy Viktor Cherepkov was reinstated by presidential decree.
CHUBAIS OUTLINES PRIORITIES OF 1998 BUDGET
First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais says the main goal of the 1998 budget will be to promote industrial growth, an RFE/RL correspondent in Krasnoyarsk reported yesterday. Addressing a meeting of the Siberian Accord regional association, Chubais said the government seeks to lower taxes and energy prices for enterprises as well as to stimulate bank investment in domestic industry. Chubais defended the proposed sequester of 108 trillion rubles ($19 billion) from the 1997 budget and said the government also plans to increase overall revenues this year by 30 trillion rubles ($5.2 billion). He called for revising Russia's social benefits system, which, he said, currently costs 300 trillion rubles ($52 billion) a year, Interfax reported. Chubais argued that social benefits should be means- tested so that only those in need receive government aid.
FEDERATION COUNCIL OVERRIDES PRESIDENTIAL VETO ON TROPHY ART LAW
The Federation Council has overridden Yeltsin's veto on the trophy art law, which states that cultural valuables seized by Soviet troops from Germany at the end of World War II are Russian property. Russian news agencies and dpa report today that the final result of the postal ballot on the bill is 141 in favor, 14 against, and 14 abstentions. The upper house opted for this protracted voting procedure last month, on the eve of Yeltsin's meeting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Baden-Baden (see RFE/RL Newsline, 17 April 1997). Deputy Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi told Reuters that Yeltsin will appeal to the Constitutional Court to reject the law. When Yeltsin vetoed the legislation in March, he argued that it contravened international law and would complicate Russia's relations with many countries.
KOMSOMOLSKAYA PRAVDA EDITOR PLEDGES TO MAINTAIN INDEPENDENCE
Komsomolskaya pravda published an appeal yesterday by its new chief editor, Vladimir Sungorkin, asking readers not to believe reports that the paper has lost its independence. Sungorkin said the role of Oneksimbank, which recently purchased a 20% stake in the paper, should not be "demonized." He added that the investment would allow Komsomolskaya pravda to improve its distribution system and lower its price for readers. Sungorkin said the paper's editorial staff had long been divided over what he called "lobbying and propaganda on behalf of certain natural monopolies." Former editor Valerii Simonov had favored investment by the gas monopoly Gazprom rather than Oneksimbank (see RFE/RL Newsline, 9 May 1997). Meanwhile, today's edition of Izvestiya claims that the paper's staff, not the oil company LUKoil, own a controlling packet of shares in Izvestiya.
PRESIDENTIAL DECREE TIGHTENS CONTROL OVER BUDGET FUNDS
Yeltsin issued a decree yesterday increasing the role of the Central Bank in the management of budget revenues and expenditures, ITAR-TASS reported. By 1 January 1998, the government must hold open, competitive bidding to select commercial banks that will handle budget funds. The decree also orders regular audits of authorized banks. Critics have said that under the current system, government funds channeled through commercial banks often do not reach the programs for which they were intended.
NEMTSOV BRINGS ALLY TO FUEL AND ENERGY MINISTRY
Sergei Kirienko, a prominent Nizhnii Novgorod businessman and president of the Norsi oil company, has been appointed first deputy fuel and energy minister, ITAR-TASS reported yesterday. Kirienko is a longtime ally of First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who was appointed to head the Fuel and Energy Ministry last month. Kirienko is expected to oversee the ministry's day-to-day activities, since Nemtsov has many other duties in the government and little experience in the energy sector.
SITUATION CALM IN DAGESTANI VILLAGE
Order has returned to the village of Chabani-Makhi in Dagestan where one person was killed and three hospitalized in a confrontation yesterday between Islamic groups. Members of Tarikat Sufi orders and the Wahabis clashed briefly, and the Tarikats took 18 Wahabis captive, prompting some 200 armed Wahabis to take refuge in their mosque and call for support from other Wahabis in the area. Religious leaders were called in to mediate, and the two groups agreed to solve to solve their differences peacefully.
MORE CLASHES ON ARMENIAN-AZERBAIJANI BORDER
Armenia and Azerbaijan on 12 May, the third anniversary of the cease-fire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh, accused each other again of cease-fire violations along the common border. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said Azerbaijani positions in Tauz Raion were shelled from Armenia, according to Interfax. An Armenian Defense Ministry official told RFE/RL that Armenian troops killed 17 Azerbaijani soldiers who were attacking Armenian positions. Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev yesterday described the recent outbreak of hostilities as "accidental incidents" that should not be considered a breach of the 1994 cease-fire agreement. He said the fact that the truce has largely held without the participation of international forces testifies to the "sincere desire" of the warring sides to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute peacefully.
RUSSIAN OIL COMPANY TO BOOST COOPERATION WITH AZERBAIJAN
Aleksandr Putilov, the board chairman of Russia's Rosneft oil company, and Natik Aliev, the president of the Azerbaijan State Oil Company, say they will soon sign an accord on "strategic partnership," Russian agencies reported yesterday. Putilov, who was in Azerbaijan earlier this week, proposed to Azerbaijani President Aliyev that a consortium of Russian and Azerbaijani oil companies be established to develop an unspecified oil shelf in the Caspian Sea. Putilov said the consortium might include LUKoil, which is the only Russian company so far involved (through its membership in Western consortia) in multibillion-dollar contracts with Azerbaijan. Putilov added that his proposals had the backing of Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Aliyev said Baku is "interested" in cooperating with the Russian oil industry.
FURTHER ARRESTS IN NORTHERN TAJIKISTAN
The Leninabad branch of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan yesterday appealed to international organizations to put pressure on the government to stop the wave of arrests that have followed the 30 April assassination attempt on President Imomali Rakhmonov. According to RFE/RL correspondents in northern Tajikistan, the appeal says the Interior Ministry has taken many people into custody and sent them to Dushanbe for interrogation. It acknowledges that some of those detained may be connected with the attack, which killed 2 people and wounded more than 70. But it also says that many innocent people are being arrested, including participants in rallies in northern Tajikistan in May 1996. The appeal also asks the government not to repeat mistakes made during the Tajik civil war in 1992-93, when many people were detained or even lost their lives on dubious charges.
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT CRITICIZES TREATY WITH ROMANIA
The Ukrainian parliament has criticized the Ukrainian-Romanian Treaty on Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations, which was initialed on 3 May, Interfax reported yesterday. Deputies said the treaty deviates from Ukraine's foreign-policy concept of protecting the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. They asked the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry yesterday to explain why the treaty was signed. In particular, the parliament is concerned that the Foreign Ministry might have exceeded its powers by making concessions to Romania on Serpents Island. The treaty states that no offensive weapons can be placed on the island. Meanwhile, President Leonid Kuchma starts a three-day official visit to the U.S. capital today.
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS FINED
Semyon Sharetsky, a former speaker of the disbanded parliament, has been fined 5 million Belarusian rubles ($190) for taking part in an illegal anti-government rally, Belarusian media reported. Alexander Bragin, the chairman of the court that fined Sharetsky, told journalists that Sharetsky said after the verdict he does not feel guilty in front of his country and the people. Scores of people were clubbed, beaten, and detained during the 15 March demonstration in Minsk, which was organized to mark the anniversary of Belarus's constitution and to protest President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's authoritarian rule. Opposition leader Valery Shchukin, also a member of the disbanded parliament, was recently convicted of organizing the rally. He was fined 22.5 million Belarusian rubles ($850).
At a closed session yesterday, the government voted to scrap the post of European affairs minister and to name Andra Veidemann, the holder of that post until now, as minister for ethnic relations, ETA reported. The move follows Prime Minister Mart Siimann's decision to assume responsibility himself for issues related to European integration. Veidemann is tasked with finding solutions to inter-ethnic problems. Some 30% of the population is non-Estonian, most of whom are Russian speakers from the CIS. Also yesterday, the parliament voted in favor of including a total ban on tobacco advertisements in an advertising bill, which is due to go into effect next year. Economics Committee chairman Tiit Made and parliamentary speaker Toomas Savi proposed the motion during a second reading of the bill.
LATVIAN GOVERNMENT INCREASES STATE BUDGET
The Latvian government has passed amendments to this year's state budget increasing revenues and expenditures by 35 million lats (some $65 million) each, BNS reported yesterday. Finance Ministry officials told journalists in Riga yesterday that despite the planned changes, the budget will remain balanced. Revenues will be raised through increased resources from the State Property Privatization Fund and will be used to finance several investment projects.
POLAND TO PRIVATIZE TELECOMMUNICATIONS
Polish Telecommunications Minister Andrzej Zielinski told journalists in Warsaw yesterday that the government will sell a minority share in its state-owned telecommunications company, Telekomunikacja Polska SA. The government will likely start offering shares in the middle of next year on the domestic and foreign stock exchanges. The sale is intended to increase the company's existing capital by some 15%, thereby helping to modernize Poland's aging telephone network. Zilelinski also said the government plans to introduce competition in domestic long-distance telephone services as of January 1999. This would end Telekomunikacja Polska's monopoly and allow other operators to build networks to expand Poland's telephone infrastructure.
CZECH PRESIDENT IN U.S. TO DISCUSS NATO
Vaclav Havel arrived yesterday in the U.S. for talks on the timetable and prospects of NATO's expansion. Havel told journalists before his departure he wants not only to lobby for the Czech Republic but also to discuss in general the meaning of the Alliance and the principles of a new European security system. Havel also said that the European Statesman Award he will receive in New York later this week is for him part of the "psychological pre- conditions for the political integration of Europe". Havel is to share the award, presented by the Institute for East- West Studies, with German President Roman Herzog for the Czech-German reconciliation accord, signed earlier this year.
SLOVAK CONSTITUTIONAL COURT RULES ON REFERENDUM
The Constitutional Court has rejected a government request to rule whether the constitution can be changed by a referendum. A court official told CTK today that since the government is not permitted by law to take part in calling a referendum, it cannot participate in a dispute over the interpretation of the basic law. Premier Vladimir Meciar's government made the request in connection with the 23-24 May referendum on direct presidential elections, which Slovak President Michal Kovac called after receiving a petition organized by the opposition. The government says a referendum cannot change the constitution.
SLOVAK PREMIER'S PARTY WANTS EARLY ELECTIONS
Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), the main party in Slovakia, has submitted a proposal to the parliament to shorten the current legislature's term by four months. The HZDS wants the next parliamentary elections to be held in June 1998. The last parliamentary elections took place in early fall 1994. The government coalition does not have the three- fifths majority of deputies needed to pass a constitutional amendment on calling early elections. The HZDS says the parliamentary election should be brought forward because presidential elections are scheduled for next spring and local elections for next fall.
SLOVAK PREMIER MEETS OPPOSITION LEADER TO DISCUSS EU
Christian Democratic Movement Chairman Jan Carnogursky, speaking to journalists after his meeting yesterday with Meciar, said the prime minister told him that Slovakia might not be invited to talks on EU membership because of unsolved domestic issues. The two leaders subsequently agreed that Slovakia's major political parties should meet to discuss Slovakia's internal political problems after the May parliamentary session. Leaders of other parliamentary parties had mixed reactions to the idea of the meeting of major parties. Some called the initiative ill-concieved, while others have welcomed it.
SLOVAK PRESIDENT'S SON WILL NOT GET BACK HIS PASSPORT
The Supreme Court ruled has ruled that Michal Kovac junior, the son of the president, will not get back his passport. Kovac was stripped of his passport last year when he was on his way to Munich to be questioned about his alleged participation in a fraudulent scheme against the Slovak Technopol company. A Munich state attorney had issued an arrest warrant for him. The Supreme Court says Kovac is being prosecuted for fraud in Slovakia and that the investigation in Slovakia takes precedence because he is a Slovak citizen. Kovac's lawyer says he will turn to the Slovak Constitutional Court. Kovac was kidnapped in September 1995 by unknown assailants and taken to Austria. A Vienna court later ruled against a German extradition request, saying Kovac was taken to Austria by force.
ESTONIAN PRESIDENT IN BUDAPEST
Lennart Meri met with his Hungarian counterpart, Arpad Goncz, in the Hungarian capital yesterday to discuss the promotion of business and cultural ties, Estonian and Hungarian media reported. The two leaders underscored the need to sign agreements on protecting investments and avoiding double taxation. Meri and Goncz also pledged to support each other's aspirations to join the EU and NATO. Addressing the Hungarian parliament, Meri stressed that aspiring members of the EU and NATO want to be "providers, not simply consumers, of security." This is the first visit to Hungary by an Estonian head of state since the Baltic State regained independence in 1990.
ALBANIA FACES NEW POLITICAL CRISIS
The future of both the broad-based coalition government and the 29 June elections is unclear today as the Socialists and other opponents of President Sali Berisha's Democratic Party (PD) meet to discuss their course of action. Some media reports from Tirana suggest that at least the Socialists have already decided to boycott the vote. Berisha, for his part, announced this morning that the election will go ahead as scheduled. The crisis follows the parliament's passage yesterday of the PD's draft election law without consulting other parties or international mediators. Details of the law have not been made public, but observers say the text is unlikely to meet opposition demands for proportional representation, free access to the media, and changes in a law barring former communists and police informers from office. The Socialists and other opposition parties had earlier threatened to boycott the elections unless those points are included in a new law.
U.S., OSCE BLAST ALBANIAN ELECTION LAW
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns slammed the law, saying its passage violates the principle of consensus on which the current Albanian government is based. Franz Vranitzky, the OSCE's chief mediator for Albania, said the Democrats "introduced into the parliament [their own] election bill without consulting the other Albanian parties and the OSCE." He added that the PD thereby violated an earlier agreement on maintaining a consensus. Meanwhile, Berisha praised the new law, saying that it meets European norms. He also chided the opposition over their threats to boycott the vote.
CROATIA MOVES TO MEND FENCES WITH U.S., BOSNIA
President Franjo Tudjman's office announced in Zagreb yesterday that Foreign Minister Mate Granic and Development Minister Jure Radic will lead a delegation to Washington tomorrow. The Croats will review bilateral relations with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the Croatian capital. The move follows a meeting of Tudjman's Council for Defense and National Security to discuss President Bill Clinton's recent tough letter to his Croatian counterpart (see RFE/RL Newsline, 13 May 1997). Also yesterday, Tudjman sent his special envoy Franjo Greguric to Sarajevo to discuss implementing the Dayton agreement with presidency members Alija Izetbegovic and Kresimir Zubak.
MONTENEGRIN PRIME MINISTER WINS A ROUND AGAINST MILOSEVIC...
The steering committee of governing Democratic Socialist Party (DPS) has unanimously re-elected Milo Djukanovic as party vice president, Nasa Borba reported yesterday. State President Momir Bulatovic and other backers of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic have been trying to undercut the prime minister, who favors more autonomy for Montenegro. Many observers think that Djukanovic's faction within the Montenegrin leadership may block Milosevic from assuming the federal presidency later this year. Djukanovic built up his wealth and power through sanctions-busting during the international community's blockade of federal Yugoslavia in the course of the Croatian and Bosnian wars.
...BUT BULATOVIC WANTS LAST WORD
President Bulatovic told Montenegrin TV last night, however, that Milosevic will have Montenegro's backing should he seek the federal presidency. The Montenegrin president added that the DPS will in any event back the presidential candidate of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Podgorica. The show of support for Djukanovic within the DPS and Bulatovic's latest statement suggest tensions will continue within the party and the parliament.
NEWS FROM AROUND FORMER YUGOSLAVIA
The trial opens in Zagreb today of Croatian employees of George Soros's Open Society Foundation on charges of tax evasion and violation of currency laws. Soros' organization in New York called yesterday for international condemnation of Croatia. In Skopje, Macedonian officials said that two Albanians were killed and two Macedonian border guards wounded when 100 Albanian refugees tried to enter Macedonia near Gostivar. And in the Serbian capital, Nasa Borba reports today that a strike of medical and social personnel seeking unpaid wages has entered its third day and is spreading throughout the country.
KOSTOV NAMED BULGARIAN PREMIER
President Petar Stoyanov today officially asked Ivan Kostov, the leader of the United Democratic Forces alliance, to form the next government. Kostov is scheduled later today to fly to Germany. He will be accompanied by interim Foreign Minister Stoyan Stalev. Outgoing caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Sofiyanski, who began a visit to Germany yesterday, is discussing projects that include rebuilding Sofia airport and constructing new hotels and roads. An RFE/RL Sofia correspondent reported that Sofiyanski will also confer with Deutsche Telekom about the privatization of Bulgaria's state-owned telecommunications company.
ROMANIA AMENDS LAND OWNERSHIP BILL
The government yesterday approved a draft law amending the land ownership bill to provide for the restoration of ownership of nationalized agricultural land incorporated into State Agricultural Enterprises (IAS) by the Communists. The previous version of the bill, passed under former President Ion Iliescu, provided for the restitution of land incorporated into agricultural cooperatives but excluded land incorporated into IASs. Under the amended bill, ownership cannot exceed 10 hectares and restitution applies only to original owners and their first-generation inheritors. Romanian citizens residing abroad are eligible to claim back property. The parliament has yet to approve the bill.
ROMANIAN PARLIAMENT REJECTS OPPOSITION MOTION
The Chamber of Deputies yesterday rejected an opposition motion criticizing the Ministry of Transportation's intention to impose a road-use tax on all vehicles. At a press conference, Adrian Nastase, the deputy chairman of the main opposition formation, the Party of Social Democracy in Romania, accused the cabinet of "improvising" and "lacking a clear strategy" in implementing economic reform. Nastase also protested the intention of the ruling coalition to change the procedure for lifting parliamentary immunity, saying it showed the government wanted to "politically cleanse" the legislature.
OBSTACLE TO ROMANIAN LIBERAL PARTIES' PLANS TO UNIFY
Ion Diaconescu, the chairman of the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR), says the planned unification of three liberal (centrist) parties cannot go ahead without the approval of the CDR. A wing of the National Liberal Party-Democratic Convention (PNL-CD) led by Nicolae Cerveni, the Liberal Party '93, and the National Liberal Party-Campeanu announced last weekend their intention to merge in June. The two last-named parties are not members of the CDR alliance, while the PNL-CD has split over the planned unification. The anti-Cerveni wing, led by PNL-CD senator Alexandru Popovici, has the unofficial backing of the CDR leadership. Diaconescu warned that no CDR member party can merge with parties outside the CDR without endangering its membership in the alliance.
TRANSDNIESTRIAN LEADER WANTS RELATIONS WITH CHISINAU BASED ON RUSSIAN-BELARUSIAN TIES
Igor Smirnov says relations between the breakaway Transdniester region and Chisinau should be based on the example of "the emerging union between Russia and Belarus." Smirnov told a news conference in Tiraspol yesterday that the Chisinau-Tiraspol memorandum signed last week in Moscow views Moldova and the Transdniester as "two independent states that must build a common entity" without either side forfeiting "any rights." He said each side must have its own "armed forces, currency, and state symbols," Infotag reported. Smirnov said the Transdniester will have its own constitution and "the right to maintain international relations in scientific, cultural, technological, and other fields." Above all, he said, the Transdniester will be able to maintain separate economic ties with other states.
MOLDOVAN REACTIONS TO CHISINAU-TIRASPOL MEMORANDUM
Left-wing forces in Moldova have welcomed the signing of the memorandum, while right-wing groups criticize the move, Infotag and BASA-press reported yesterday. The Movement for Democratic and Prosperous Moldova, which supports President Petru Lucinschi, says the document preserves the country's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity. The Party of Moldovan Communists views the signing of the memorandum as a "victory of common sense over hostility, offense, and mistrust." At the other end of the political spectrum, the Moldovan National Peasant Party says the document infringes on the country's independence, constitution, and efforts toward European integration. It argues that the driving force behind the memorandum is a group promoting "the country's colonization by Russia." Other right-wing parties have similarly criticized the memorandum.
EASTERN EUROPE'S HEALTH IN CRISIS
by Kitty McKinsey
An epidemic is sweeping Eastern Europe. Citizens of the former communist countries--especially middle-aged men--are dying in staggering numbers from cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver. In most of these countries, life expectancy is dropping sharply because of the rise of diseases that are largely preventable and mostly self-induced.
A few figures illustrate the catastrophic situation in Eastern Europe. According to the World Bank and the World Health Organization, in Hungary the prevalence of cancer in males is the highest ever recorded in the world. Also in Hungary, where every fifth male is considered to be an alcoholic, the rate of cirrhosis of the liver is 14 times that of Sweden, which also has a reputation for heavy drinking. In Poland, lung cancer kills half of all Polish men who die before reaching 65. In both Bulgaria and Romania, life expectancy at birth has been declining since 1989.
The trend began some years ago but has become more pronounced in most of these countries since the collapse of communism in 1989 and the transition to market economies. In fact, the marked decline in life expectancy, especially in countries like Hungary and Russia, caused the British magazine The Economist to ask in an article last year, "Is capitalism lethal?"
On the contrary, say experts on health in the region. They argue that the epidemic of chronic diseases is a legacy of the communist system, which made huge strides in controlling infectious diseases like tuberculosis but failed to address the more recent causes of killer diseases, namely, individual lifestyles. Bad habits--such as excessive smoking, drinking, and unhealthy diet--persist in most countries of the region.
Experts point out that the former communist countries face a double burden of having to fight an explosion of disease with less money. The public health establishment in former communist countries is still struggling to recover from the collapse of the command economy and the switch to the market. The public health systems and the medical establishments can no longer count on government subsidies, and some countries--like Bulgaria--are facing gaps in basic medical services.
The root of the problem lies in the approach of the communist system to health care. As in many other fields, the communists stressed quantity over quality. Emphasis was placed on providing ever more hospital beds and training ever more doctors. Little regard was paid to the overall state of health of the population. The surviving old system is largely ineffective in combating modern diseases caused by unhealthy lifestyles. The challenge now for the former communist countries is to treat the huge numbers of sick people with funds that are no longer increasing or, in many cases, are decreasing.
Most of the countries in Eastern Europe have come to understand that they can no longer afford the large health system that they have had. However, so far, little has been done in most Eastern European countries toward effective restructuring of the system or toward making the switch from preferring quality over quantity in the provision of health care.
Observers say that Eastern European countries must take major steps toward disease prevention and health education--banning cigarette smoking, getting people to exercise more, encouraging healthier diets--with money saved by cutting hospital beds and laying off some doctors. But such a program has proven difficult to sell to the public and especially to doctors who would lose their jobs. Experts agree that the reform of the region's health-care systems is likely to a very long process.