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Newsline - May 29, 1997


President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree on 28 May barring foreigners or Russian companies that are more than 50% foreign-owned from buying shares in the gas monopoly Gazprom on the domestic market, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Some foreign investors have been using subsidiaries in Russia to circumvent rules stating that foreigners are allowed to buy only Gazprom's American Depository Shares (ADS). The ADSs cost about three times more than Gazprom shares traded in Russia. Reuters reported that current foreign holders of domestic shares in Gazprom would not be forced to sell them. First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov predicted that the decree would cause the value of Gazprom stock to increase by five or six times, ITAR-TASS reported. The decree does not change the overall limit on foreign-owned shares in Gazprom, which is set at 9% of the company's stock.


The Procurator-General's Office has drafted a bill that would grant amnesty to some 440,000 people currently under investigation in prison or pre-trial detention centers, Interfax reported on 28 May. Procurator-General Yurii Skuratov said he would discuss the bill with Yeltsin, after which it will be submitted to the State Duma for consideration. He did not say who would be covered under the proposed amnesty. Skuratov admitted that prison conditions in Russia "do not meet European standards in the field of human rights." In April, a report issued by Amnesty International charged that torture and inhumane conditions are widespread in Russian prisons and pre-trial detention centers (see RFE/RL Newsline, 4 April 1997).


Procurator-General Skuratov said 18 generals are being investigated for corruption and that charges will be brought soon against former Ground Forces commander Vladimir Semenov, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 28 May. When Yeltsin sacked Semenov in April, officials suggested it was primarily because of Semenov's ineffective leadership of ground troops in Chechnya. Skuratov also denied that the criminal case against former Yeltsin adviser Sergei Stankevich is politically timed. He said Stankevich would have been charged with bribe-taking sooner, but the State Duma refused to lift his immunity in 1994 and 1995. In addition, Skuratov said his office was close to solving the October 1994 murder of investigative journalist Dmitrii Kholodov and the March 1995 murder of television journalist Vladislav Listev. Law enforcement officials have announced many times that those cases have nearly been solved.


At least two people were killed and three injured when a bomb destroyed the car of Dagestan's Deputy Prime Minister Said Amirov in Makhachkala on 28 May, Russian media reported. Amirov was not in the car at the time. It was the fourth attempt to kill him in the past few years.


Addressing a meeting of the Dzhokhar's Way movement in Grozny on 28 May, maverick field commander Salman Raduev said he did not believe Russian leaders would abide by the Russian-Chechen peace treaty signed on 12 May, ITAR-TASS reported. He urged Chechen leaders to take a tougher stance in their talks with Moscow. Also on 28 May, Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev rejected as "nonsense" a prediction by Russian State Duma Security Committee Chairman Viktor Ilyukhin that, by the end of this year, Chechnya and Ingushetia will unite to create an independent Vainakh republic that would threaten the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, Interfax reported. The former Chechen-Ingush ASSR split into two component parts in the summer of 1992.


The Union of Student Councils plans to appeal to the Constitutional Court against Russia's electoral law, Nezavisimaya gazeta reported on 29 May. Half of the State Duma is elected using a proportional representation system, but those seats are divided only among parties that win more than 5% of the vote. The students say excluding parties that gain less than 5% is unconstitutional. However, they disagree with officials in the presidential administration who have advocated eliminating proportional representation altogether. The students believe the Communists would gain ground if the Duma were elected entirely in single-member districts. Several Duma deputies appealed against the 5% barrier to the Constitutional Court in November 1995, one month before parliamentary elections, but the court refused to hear the case. The Supreme Court recently rejected a similar appeal (see RFE/RL Newsline, 18 April 1997).


The Russian Supreme Court's Military Board has charged a former official of a military metallurgical firm with treason, Interfax reported on 28 May. Arrested in January 1994, Vadim Sintsov is accused of giving information to the British intelligence service and taking bribes from representatives of various foreign companies. If convicted, Sintsov faces at least 12 years' imprisonment. Earlier this month, Moisei Finkel, a former employee of a closed Defense Ministry research institute in St. Petersburg, was convicted of passing submarine secrets to the U.S. and given a 12-year sentence. Finkel had attempted to protect himself by approaching the Federal Security Service and offering to serve as a double agent, but he was nonetheless arrested, Moskovskii komsomolets reported on 17 May.


Vladimir Potanin has been elected president of Oneksimbank by the bank's board of directors, Russian news agencies reported on 28 May. Potanin headed the bank from its creation in 1993 until he was appointed first deputy prime minister in August 1996. He returned to Oneksimbank, one of the most powerful Russian banks, after losing his post in the March cabinet reshuffle.


The World Health Organization reported on 28 May that 750 people in Russia die of smoking-related illnesses every day, according to Interfax. About two-thirds of Russian men and one-third of Russian women smoke, and both percentages are rising. Meanwhile, an annual study released by the United Nations Population Fund reported that a growing number of Russians and persons from other former Soviet republics are infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, an RFE/RL correspondent in Washington reported. Since 1994, the number of HIV-infected people in Kaliningrad Oblast has increased 18 times. (Russian health officials have estimated that 100,000 Russians could be infected with HIV by the end of this year, The New York Times reported on 17 May.) The UN report also noted that other sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise across the region.


Igor Farkhutdinov, the governor of Sakhalin Oblast, denied recent reports in the Japanese newspaper Hokaido Shinbun that Russian border guard units will be removed from the disputed Kuril Islands, ITAR-TASS reported on 28 May. Farkhutdinov said the Kurils are and will remain Russian. They are certain to be among the issues discussed when First Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov visits Japan in early June. Meanwhile, Japanese companies are reconsidering an invitation to take part in oil exploration projects off the coast of Sakhalin Island. Russia has extended a similar offer to Saudi Arabia's Delta Corporation for investing in the same project. On 28 May, the oblast Duma passed laws exempting the Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 projects from local and regional taxes.


The St. Petersburg Electoral Commission has ruled that a referendum seeking to remove the city's governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, can go ahead, ITAR-TASS reported on 28 May. Although the commission found some 80,000 signatures on petitions invalid, supporters of the referendum submitted more than 165,000 valid signatures, enough to call the plebiscite. The city legislature must decide within 30-60 days when the referendum will be held. City residents will be asked whether the policies carried out by the governor have lowered their standard of living, and whether they think Yakovlev should step down. Yakovlev's supporters say such a referendum would not be binding, even if a majority voted for the governor's resignation.


Russia has not recognized the Taliban government and says it is unlikely to do so in the near future. ITAR-TASS reported on 29 May that Pakistan is ready to arrange an official meeting between the Russian and Taliban ministers of foreign affairs. However, sources in Pakistan and Iran say Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Mohammad Ghauz was taken prisoner on 28 May by Gen. Abdul Malik in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban have suffered a major loss in battles there on 28 May and have retreated from the city. So far, besides Pakistan, only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have recognized the Taliban government.


Border guards along the Tajik-Afghan border said on 28 May that the arrival of refugees is now imminent, according to RFE/RL's Tajik service. The scheduled repatriation of some Tajik refugees from Afghanistan did not take place on 28 May as had been expected. The Tajik government made no announcement about the reason for the delay.


Turkmenistan is to receive World Bank loans totaling $64.5 million to develop transportation systems in Ashgabat, Mary, and Chardjoi, according to a 29 May ITAR-TASS report. Some of the money will be used for improving water supplies in the Dashkhowuz region, which is suffering from the effects of the shrinking Aral Sea.


Kazak Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin said his country wants to attract $23 billion in direct investment by 2000, according to Interfax. Last year, direct investment totaled $1.2 billion. Kazakstan is continuing its sale of leading enterprises, which critics have attacked as selling out the country to foreigners. Interfax reported on 28 May that the U.S. company Excess Industries has won a tender for two power and heating plants in Pavlodar. The American company will pay $5 million in back wages and invest $60 million in the plants in the near future.


Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 28 May that he and his Abkhaz counterpart, Vladislav Ardzinba, agreed during a telephone conversation several days earlier to resume talks, ITAR-TASS reported. Shevardnadze said they had discussed various measures aimed at normalizing relations, not all of which could be implemented immediately. Shevardnadze again said that Georgia will call for the withdrawal of the CIS peacekeeping force currently deployed along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia if its mandate is not broadened in accordance with the decision of the CIS heads of state at their March summit. Meeting in Tbilisi on 28 May with his Ukrainian counterpart, Aleksandr Moroz, Georgian parliamentary chairman Zurab Zhvania suggested that an international peacekeeping force that included a Ukrainian contingent could replace the CIS peacekeepers.


Natik Aliev, president of Azerbaijan's state oil company, SOCAR, signed an agreement in Baku on 27 May with representatives of Iran's OIEC oil company. According to Interfax on 28 May, the agreement finalizes OIEC's acquisition of a 10% stake in the consortium to exploit Azerbaijan's Lenkoran-Deniz and Talysh-Deniz oil deposits. The two fields are located on the Caspian shelf and have estimated combined reserves of 80-100 million metric tons. The major partners in the consortium are France's Elf-Aquitaine (40%), SOCAR (25%), and Total (10%). The German company Deminex and Belgium's Petrofina are reportedly negotiating for 10% and 5%, respectively, of the remaining undistributed share. On 28 May, SOCAR signed a preliminary agreement with Russia's LUKoil on exploring the Yalama deposit, off Dagestan.


Heidar Aliyev called on 28 May for the abolition of concessions to students enabling them to avoid military service, according to Interfax. Addressing a meeting to mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918, Aliyev said that "defense of the Fatherland and restoration of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity is the chief task for young people in our country." Interfax quoted an unnamed member of the Azerbaijani government as saying a planned military parade to mark the anniversary was canceled the previous day because it could have been misinterpreted by foreign observers.


Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Lazarenko, signed on 28 May agreements on the division of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet and the conditions for stationing the Russian part on Ukrainian territory, ITAR-TASS reported. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma attended the signing ceremony in Kyiv. Chernomyrdin told reporters later that Ukraine had agreed to allow Russia to keep its share of the fleet at Sevastopol for the next 20 years. During that period, Ukraine will lease port facilities to Russia. He said the documents also addressed the technical and financial aspects of the stationing of the Russian and Ukrainian parts of the fleet on the Crimean peninsula. In addition, Chernomyrdin and Lazarenko signed agreements on long-term economic and technical cooperation. Russian President Boris Yeltsin is scheduled to visit Kyiv on 30-31 May to sign a wide-ranging political treaty with Ukraine.


Alyaksandr Lukashenka told a news conference on 28 May he is ready to open talks with the opposition on possible changes to the constitution. Adopted in November 1996 in a controversial referendum, the constitution gave broad powers to Lukashenka, who has imposed restrictions on opposition parties and media. The opposition has refused to recognize the text. Lukashenka said he was ready to listen to all opposition proposals for reforming the political system and the constitution. He urged the opposition to come up with constructive ideas and to avoid what he called "political clashes."


Lukashenka also said he supports the Russia-NATO treaty, signed the previous day in Paris. But he added that he regretted that Russian President Boris Yeltsin had failed to inform him about his decision to re-target nuclear missiles away from NATO member countries. He also said Yeltsin's statement came "as a bit of a surprise." Lukashenka noted the treaty had not reduced the "strategic significance of Belarus" for the defense of the CIS.


Parliamentary deputy speaker Tunne Kelam says that Russia's opposition to referring to the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty in an Estonian parliament declaration on the Russian-Estonian border pact is a "typical pretext not to sign the accord," BNS reported on 28 May. Kelam was responding to recent comments by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov (see RFE/RL Newsline, 26 May 1997). The Estonian official compared those comments to "previous excuses" not to sign the agreement such as humanitarian issues and technical problems. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mart Siimann told journalists in Tallinn on 28 May that the summit meeting of the Baltic, Polish, and Ukrainian presidents the previous day was "in no way directed against Russia." Siimann's statement followed Russian press reports suggesting the summit had an "anti-Russian tone" and was scheduled to take place at the same time as the Russian-NATO meeting for a "certain purpose."


Latvia's Green Party is opposed to Lithuanian plans to construct an off-shore terminal at Butinge for the transshipment of oil and oil products, BNS reported on 28 May. Green Party Co-Chairman Askolds Klavins said that if there were an oil leakage or an accident at Butinge, the Latvian environment would suffer because winds and sea currents would spread pollution to the Latvian coasts. The oil terminal will be situated 1.3 km from the Latvian border with Lithuania. The total cost of the project is estimated at $260 million.


The Constitutional Tribunal ruled on 28 May that the abortion law lacks clarity and must be re-examined by the parliament, RFE/RL's Warsaw correspondent reported. The law allows women to terminate pregnancies until the 12th week for difficult social and economic reasons. A court official told journalists that the law poorly defined what "difficult conditions" meant. A two-thirds majority in the parliament is needed to override the court's ruling. However, it is unlikely to do so since the election campaign is under way and abortion is certain to be a major issue. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in September.


Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati told journalists in Warsaw on 28 May that "Poland certainly wants to see Slovakia in NATO even after the recent controversial Slovak referendum." He added that "it is in Poland's interest to have a nation that is a member of NATO at its southern border." He noted that Poland wants its "friends" to put in their domestic affairs in order and enter NATO as soon as possible.


Leaders of the three government coalition parties on 28 May announced radical stabilization measures aimed at dealing with growing economic problems. Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus told journalists the new set of austerity measures will be "painful" and will result a temporary economic decline and rising unemployment. The measures include budgetary cuts, wage restrictions, and possibly new import barriers. The coalition leaders also announced that Education Minister Ivan Pilip will replace Finance Minister Ivan Kocarnik and Czech Ambassador to London Karel Kuenhl will take over the trade and industry portfolio from Vladimir Dlouhy. Parliamentary Security Committee Chairman Petr Necas is Interior Minister Jan Ruml's replacement, and Czech Ambassador to Germany Jiri Grusa is to become minister of education.


Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar argued in a television debate on 28 May that the door to NATO is not yet closed for Slovakia. He said it is still being decided which countries will be invited to the talks on admission. Meciar denied that either his government or Interior Minister Gustav Krajci is responsible for the failure of the 23-24 May referendum on NATO membership and direct presidential elections. He said the referendum was invalid not because it was flawed but because not enough voters turned out at polling stations. Meanwhile, the Slovak Foreign Ministry has issued a statement saying that U.S. State Department spokesman John Dinger's statements on the referendum were rash and inappropriate (see RFE/RL Newsline, 28 May 1997).


Csaba Tabajdi, state secretary at the Prime Minister's Office, and Russian Minister for Nationalities Vyacheslav Mihailov met in Budapest on 28 May and initialed an agreement on cooperation in minority affairs, Hungarian media reported. The agreement says the two sides will study each other's minority policies and exchange delegations annually. Tabajdi said that owing to the large ethnic minorities the two countries have outside their state borders, he considers Russia to be Hungary's "strategic partner."


Judge Rustem Gjata ruled in Tirana on 28 May that a decision by Prime Minister Bashkim Fino to sack police chief and deputy Interior Minister Agim Shehu was illegal, Indipendent reported the following day. Shehu is a member of the Democratic Party and has often been accused by the opposition of using the security forces for political purposes. Gjata argued that "the appointment and sacking of high [security] officers is in the competence of the president only." Gjata is a communist-era judge whose previous rulings have often been in line with the policies of President Sali Berisha. Justice Minister Spartak Ngjela, who supported Fino's decision, has refused to comment on Gjata's ruling.


Fatos Nano repeated warnings in Tirana on 28 May that his party may boycott the June elections unless the state of emergency is lifted. Parliamentary speaker Pjeter Arbnori of the Democrats, however, rejected the idea. He told Dita Informacion that the state of emergency is no longer as tough as originally and does not hinder election campaigns or meetings. He also called on the opposition to use their influence with the southern insurgent committees to persuade them to dissolve before the ballot.


The Socialist Party leadership proposed on 28 May in Tirana that Nano run for parliament from Vlora, Dita Informacion reported the following day. The local party branch in Vlora has welcomed the idea. Also in Vlora on 28 May, the local organization of the Democratic Party has said they do not want Berisha to hold an election rally in the town, which was the center of the anti-Berisha revolt earlier this year. In other news, monarchist Legality Party leader Guri Durollari announced in Tirana that his party is ending its electoral alliance with the Democrats, the Albanian Daily News reported. Some opposition politicians have charged claimant to the throne Leka Zogu with being too close to Berisha.


U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pledged in The Hague on 28 May to intensify efforts to catch and bring to justice indicted war criminals from the former Yugoslavia. Referring to her upcoming visit to that region, she said: "I'm going to be delivering a new, tougher message to both [Croatian President Franjo] Tudjman and [his Serbian counterpart Slobodan] Milosevic that their lack of cooperation is a their full membership in the international community.... I am confident that a price will be paid for the atrocities that ravaged Bosnia for four years. Until it paid by those who perpetrated the crimes, it will be paid by those who protect them." Meanwhile in Sarajevo, U.S. envoy Robert Gelbard handed over to the Bosnian presidency a letter from President Bill Clinton pledging tough action to help implement the Dayton agreement in the coming weeks.


The three candidates approved by the electoral commission on 27 May launched their campaigns in Zagreb the following day. President Franjo Tudjman of the Croatian Democratic Community used the backdrop of a ceremony honoring air force pilots to stress his and his party's record in achieving independence and sovereignty. The Social Democrats' Zdravko Tomac and the Liberal-led coalition's Vlado Gotovac each promised at separate press conferences to call new parliamentary elections should Tudjman win the 15 June presidential vote. Polls suggest that the best the opposition can expect to do is to force the incumbent into a second round of voting.


Representatives of the leading Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) and Independent Democratic Serbian Party met in Vukovar on 28 May to conclude local power-sharing arrangements, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the east Slavonian town. The mayor of Vukovar will be a Croat and the council president a Serb. In Beli Manastir, the mayor will be a Serb and the council chief a Croat. UN administrator Jacques Klein stepped in to block the HDZ from shutting out the Serbs and making a deal with a small hard-line Croatian party in Vukovar. And in Zagreb on 27 May, Foreign Minister Mate Granic and his Yugoslav counterpart, Milan Milutinovic, signed an agreement on diplomatic and consular relations. Granic said he is unhappy with the situation of Croats in Serbia, while Milutinovic insisted that all Croatian Serbs who want to go home should be allowed to do so. The two countries will seek to draft by mid-June agreements on border regulations and on road and rail transportation.


The UN Security Council on 28 May voted to extend the mandate for the 1,100 peacekeepers in Macedonia until the end of the year. In Ljubljana, Slovenian officials say they have been told by NATO representatives in Brussels that Slovenia will be included in the first round of NATO expansion, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported. Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek, for his part, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that Slovenia will bring NATO only benefits and not burdens. In The Hague, Carl Bildt said on 27 May in his farewell speech as chief international representative in Bosnia that Europe's poor performance in the former Yugoslavia since 1991 proved that "only the United States can act and only the United States can deliver" in the Balkans. In Sarajevo, over 500 foreign and local companies launched a trade fair to promote the rebuilding of Bosnia's infrastructure. In Podgorica, the governing Democratic Socialist Party reached agreement with the opposition Popular Concord coalition on parliamentary control of the Montenegrin intelligence services.


In a speech in The Hague marking the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, U.S. President Bill Clinton on 28 May praised improved relations between Romania and Hungary. He noted that "in Bucharest, democracy has overcome distress, as Romanians and ethnic Hungarians for the very first time are joined in a democratic coalition government." President Emil Constantinescu attended the ceremony.


Constantinescu and Arpad Goencz, in a joint letter to President Clinton, say their countries are "both interested in joining a united Europe built on democratic values." They thanked Clinton for his support and said that the "favorable evolutions in Romania in the last months" and the implementation of provisions of the treaty Hungary and Romania concluded last year have created "a historic chance for an active partnership" between the two countries. That partnership, they noted, serves the interests of both the Magyar minority in Romania and the Romanian minority in Hungary, Rompres reported on 28 May.


Victor Babiuc says his country is optimistic that it will soon join NATO because of its strategic position and because Russia has not expressed opposition to the possibility of Romania's joining the alliance in the first wave of expansion. In an interview with AFP on 28 May, Babiuc said Romania was "happy" that Moscow "did not raise any special objections against Romania, as it did for the Baltic countries." He also said that the "countries of the northern zone of NATO" are beginning to understand that Romania was the "link which was missing in the southern flank, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, all the way to Turkey." Babiuc added that Romania was a stabilizing factor between the Balkans and the Middle East, which should be viewed as high-risk zones because of "Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, [and] drug trafficking."


Lt.-Gen. Valerii Yevnevich, the commander of the Russian troops in Moldova's breakaway region, said on 28 May that the reorganization of the "operational group" has ended. He noted that the number of troops in the former 14th Army has been cut from 5,000 to 1,900, ITAR-TASS and BASA-press reported. Yevnevich harshly criticized the Transdniester leadership for preventing obsolete Russian ammunition from being scrapped. Yevnevich and Moldovan Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat recently agreed that some of the ammunition should be destroyed at the Ribnita plant in Moldova, which the Transdniestrian leadership opposes. Yevnevich stressed the armament and the hardware are "Russian federal property" and only the Russian government can make a decision about it. In 1995, the region's Supreme Soviet declared itself the owner of the Russian army's property.


Industry Minister Alexander Bozhkov says the new Bulgarian government will privatize the entire military-industrial complex of the country. In an interview with state radio on 28 May, Bozhkov said the government was aiming to transfer 40% of state enterprises into private hands by the end of 1997. He also noted that his ministry is already preparing privatization plans for the state telecommunications company, the national airline, and the railroads.

Will Armenia Be First to Join Russian-Belarusian Union?

by Liz Fuller and Harry Tamrazian

Ever since Russia and Belarus signed the Treaty on Forming a Community in April 1996, some Russian politicians have been looking for another would-be member. The obvious potential candidate was Armenia, which has traditionally looked to Russia as its ally and protector against Turkey. That idea, however, was not taken up by the Armenian leadership, which hoped to strengthen relations with both Iran and Turkey as a counterweight to its "special relationship" with Moscow. In 1996, the only Armenian political party to advocate Armenia's joining the Russian-Belarusian alignment were the Communists.

Since early April 1997, when Moscow and Minsk agreed to upgrade their alliance to the status of union, a number of high- profile Russian politicians, including Gen. Alexander Lebed and former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, have visited Yerevan to promote the idea of Armenia's integration with Russia.

On 12 May, some 600 Armenian intellectuals and representatives of small left-wing parties met in Yerevan. All speakers at the meeting criticized the CIS as unworkable and incapable of achieving economic and political cooperation. They argued that joining the Russian-Belarusian union is the only alternative for Armenia, which they described as surrounded by the "newly created hostile alliance between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Turkey." Telman Gdlian, an ethnic Armenian and member of the Russia's Regions faction of the Russian State Duma, told the meeting that he had been delegated by unspecified Russian political forces interested in seeing Armenia accede to the Russian-Belarusian union. The meeting culminated in the creation of the Armenian National Initiative for Union with Russia, whose adherents are already collecting signatures in favor of a referendum on the issue.

Four days later, on 16 May, the Russian State Duma passed a unanimous vote of support for the Armenian National Initiative. Then on 21 May, just two days before Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka were scheduled to sign the charter on Russian-Belarusian union, members of five factions across the entire political spectrum within the Duma (including Russia's Regions, Our Home is Russia, and Narodovlastie) announced at a press conference that they plan to form a movement in support of Armenia's joining the Russian-Belarusian union. Gdlian predicted, somewhat unrealistically, that 90% of Armenians would vote in favor of joining the Russia-Belarus Union if a referendum were held at that time. Several articles in the Russian press have likewise exaggerated the degree of popular support enjoyed by the political parties aligned in the Armenian National Initiative movement.

By contrast, all major Armenian political parties have condemned the movement. Opposition leader Vazgen Manukian described the setting up of the movement as "national treason," and several independent newspapers published editorials urging President Levon Ter-Petrossyan to take "strong action" against it. The Armenian leadership has not officially commented on the Duma's expressed support for the movement, but the Armenian official news agency Armenpress issued an unsigned commentary harshly criticizing it as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. The Armenian Foreign Ministry has pointed out that Armenia and Russia are already drafting a new treaty on friendship and cooperation that will supersede the one signed in December 1991 and enhance the level of their strategic cooperation. On 23 May, Armenian presidential spokesman Levon Zurabian told Interfax that the union demonstrated the shared desire of Russia and Belarus for closer ties and that "the strengthening of bilateral ties between CIS countries can only be welcomed."

Also on 23 May, Yeltsin declared that the union is open for others to join but did not specifically mention Armenia. Ryzhkov had told journalists on 21 May that the Russian president reacted "rather positively" to the news of the Duma vote, held five days earlier, endorsing the Armenian National Initiative. Belarusian President Lukashenka, Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev, and Federation Council chairman Yegor Stroev have all openly invited Armenia to join the union.

It is unclear how this growing Russian pressure on Armenia to join the new union will impact on the domestic political situation. If Ter-Petrossyan chose to oppose a move that many Armenians perceive as threatening their country's independence, the opposition would support him and his popularity rating would soar. But a major concession by Yerevan to Moscow could mitigate the outrage engendered by the disclosures two months ago that Russia had supplied Armenia with state-of-the-art armaments worth $1 billion. Or Armenia's belated accession to the union may be the price now being demanded, or even previously agreed on, for the weaponry in question. Harry Tamrazian is deputy director of RFE/L's Armenian Service