Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - June 24, 1997


On the penultimate day of its spring session, the State Duma voted by 112 to 220 to reject the government's plan to cut 108 trillion rubles ($19 billion) from 1997 budget spending, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 23 June. Deputies also rejected by 137 to 195 a bill proposing other spending reductions totaling 39 trillion rubles. The second bill was backed by Economic Policy Committee Chairman Yurii Maslyukov, a Communist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 June 1997). Although no law authorizing the budget cuts has been passed, First Deputy Finance Minister Vladimir Petrov on 23 June confirmed that current expenditures are in line with the government's plan. Various government officials have argued that a spending reduction of 108 trillion rubles, some 20% of all planned 1997 expenditures, is required because of severe revenue shortfalls.


Also on 23 June, the Duma approved by 300 votes to eight a controversial law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, Russian and Western news agencies reported. The law, strongly backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, includes government-proposed provisions that would make it more difficult for foreign and some minority religious groups--including Catholics and most Protestant denominations--to operate in Russia. Only religious groups that have been active in the country for at least 50 years and have branches in at least half of Russia's 89 regions could be granted the status of "all-Russian organizations" by the government. Religious groups that have been operating in Russia for less than 15 years would be denied the rights of legal entities, including property rights. Defrocked Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin blasted the law as "blatantly discriminatory" and "oriented toward reinstating Soviet religious policy," Interfax reported.


The Duma has approved a list of seven authorized sites that could be developed in accordance with the law on production-sharing, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 June. Deputies approved the list of five oil fields, one gold mine, and an iron ore deposit by 245 to 109 with three abstentions. The law on production-sharing allows foreign companies to invest in natural deposits in exchange for a portion of the resources extracted. However, the law cannot be applied until a list of authorized sites is approved (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 1997). The list now goes to the Federation Council for consideration.


The Duma on 23 June adopted a resolution requesting that President Boris Yeltsin recommend the CIS leaders extend the Russian peacekeepers' mandate in Abkhazia, ITAR-TASS reported. The resolution said a withdrawal of the peacekeepers might lead to the resumption of war in Georgia's breakaway region, which, it stressed, would "inevitably" involve the peoples of Russia's North Caucasus. According to the Duma, such a scenario would endanger Russia's territorial integrity. Georgia has repeatedly accused the peacekeepers of not implementing the CIS summit's decision to give them a mandate to provide for the return of some 200,000 Georgian refugees. Tbilisi recently threatened not to prolong the peacekeepers' mandate, which is due to expire on 31 July, unless they comply with the CIS summit's decision.


Also on 23 June, the Duma passed a non-binding resolution by 232 to eight calling on the authorities and Russian citizens to "prevent an act of political revenge against Vladimir Lenin and to preserve the historic architectural image of Red Square," Russian news agencies reported. Yeltsin recently called for a referendum on whether Lenin should be buried in St. Petersburg. The Duma passed a similar non-binding resolution in April and a law on protecting Red Square on 4 June, but the Federation Council rejected that law the following week. Meanwhile, Valentin Pokrovskii, the president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, told Interfax that burying Lenin would be "stupid," as such a move would ruin "a unique biological experiment in preserving human tissue."


First Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov told Interfax on 23 June that two more persons suspected of kidnapping Russian journalists have recently been arrested. According to Udugov, the arrests were made during the "third stage" of the Chechen police's operation "Shield of Law and Order," in which 27 people have so far been detained on suspicion of hostage-taking. Udugov said police have confiscated large amounts of weapons and broken up several armed gangs. Meanwhile, Chechen Interior Minister Kazbek Makhashev has said the authorities are conducting an around-the-clock search for the five Russian TV journalists who are still kept in captivity.


The Duma on 23 June approved the government's 1997 program for foreign borrowing and lending, Russian news agencies reported. Russia will borrow $2.5 billion this year in loans tied to specific projects and $7.3 billion in other loans, including $2.8 billion from the IMF and $1.1 billion from the World Bank. Russia will also sell $3.4 billion worth of bonds on international financial markets. As for lending plans, Russia will extend $400 million in credits to foreign countries, with the largest loans going to Slovakia ($49 million), China ($34.5 million), and Bulgaria ($21 million).


Deputy Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced on 23 June that Russia has paid the first of eight semi-annual installments of $50 million to holders of tsarist-era bonds issued in France, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June 1997). Now that Russia has agreed to repay the old debt, the French Treasury has allowed French investors to purchase Russian state bonds. Kasyanov said investors in France purchased about 10% of the ten-year, $2 billion eurobond Russia floated earlier this month. He added that foreign demand for the eurobond--the third issued by Russia--was $4 billion, which, he said, was a sign that foreign investors' trust in Russia is growing. Russia issued a $1 billion, five-year eurobond in November 1996 and a DM 2 billion ($1.2 billion), seven-year eurobond in March of this year.


Speaking at a press conference marking his 100th day in the government, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov dismissed rumors about Yeltsin's poor health, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. Nemtsov, who met with Yeltsin on 23 June, said the president had "risen like a phoenix" following his lengthy bout with heart problems and was now "as energetic and active as I saw him in 1991." Yeltsin did not turn up for a 21 June concert attended by the other leaders of industrialized nations at the recent summit in Denver. At the time, presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said Yeltsin was suffering from fatigue. RFE/RL correspondents in Denver reported on 23 June that of the eight leaders at the summit, Yeltsin was the only one who did not give a press conference during or after the proceedings.


Nemtsov also announced on 23 June that beginning on 1 July, electricity rates for enterprises that pay their bills on time will be reduced by 30%, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. Yeltsin recently issued a decree cutting gas charges to some industrial consumers by 40%. Charges for rail freight are also to be lowered by up to 50% (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 June 1997). Nemtsov said the reduced charges for energy and transportation, along with lower interest rates, will help lay the groundwork for economic growth in Russia. He added that the government is very close to solving the pension payments problem and will meet its pledge to pay all pension arrears by 1 July.


The government has asked Yeltsin to fire Justice Minister Valentin Kovalev following the publication of an article in "Sovershenno sekretno" alleging that Kovalev has ties to organized crime, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 June. Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii said Yeltsin will make a final decision on Kovalev's fate in a week. Kovalev has already asked Yeltsin to suspend him from the cabinet temporarily until he can clear his name (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June 1997). Kovalev was appointed justice minister in January 1995. Meanwhile, Procurator-General Yurii Skuratov told journalists on 23 June that no legal action is currently planned against Kovalev. However, Skuratov called for an investigation into Kovalev's ties to banker Arkadii Angelevich and into the origin of a videotape at the center of the allegations against the justice minister.


Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov says his ministry plans to double exports of nuclear materials and technology by the year 2000, Russian news agencies reported on 23 June. Mikhailov said Russia last year earned more than $2 billion from nuclear exports, a 20% increase over 1995. Much of that money came from selling uranium to the U.S. for use in nuclear power plants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 1997). Mikhailov said Russia is looking for new buyers of its low-grade uranium and is especially interested in Japan, which has 51 nuclear power plants. He predicted that Moscow will soon conclude deals to build a nuclear power station in India and complete construction of the Juragua plant in Cuba. Russia also plans to finish construction of a 1,000 megawatt reactor in Busher, Iran, despite U.S. opposition.


Officials at the nuclear research center in Sarov, Nizhnii Novgorod (formerly Arzamas-16), have still not opened the bunker where a senior researcher recently received a lethal dose of radiation, Russian news agencies reported on 23 June. According to Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov, the bunker has been sealed since the fatal experiment by Aleksandr Zakharov, which involved an incomplete nuclear reaction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 23 June 1997). Mikhailov told journalists the building was still "cooling off." He said Zakharov's notes have not yet been found but that the researcher admitted before his death that the accident was caused by a "mistake in his calculations." Mikhailov said Zakharov had not received written permission to carry out the experiment.


The Primorskii Krai Duma decided on 24 June not to call early gubernatorial elections in the krai, Interfax reported. Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko recently sent a message to Yeltsin requesting a personal meeting with the president, RFE/RL's correspondent in Vladivostok reported on 20 June. He argued that Yeltsin is receiving "distorted information" from his associates about the situation in Primore. Nazdratenko is a long-standing rival of First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais. In its latest edition, "Itogi" commented that the political crisis in Primore now frightens federal authorities more than krai officials. If Yeltsin sacks Nazdratenko, the governor could file a court appeal against the presidential decree and potentially "create an undesirable precedent." Also, if Moscow forces early elections and Nazdratenko is re-elected, it will become almost impossible for Moscow to undermine his legitimacy.


Communist-backed candidate Yelena Panina won the 22 June by-election for a State Duma seat in Voronezh Oblast with 68% of the vote, Interfax reported the next day. Although Panina is a Muscovite, she gained more than five times as many votes as her nearest rival, local enterprise director Mikhail Tsymbalyuk, who won only 13%. Turnout was about 44%. Panina replaces Aleksandr Merkulov, who gave up his Duma seat to become deputy governor of Voronezh. Communist candidates won by-elections for State Duma seats in Stavropol Krai in April and in Rostov Oblast in June.


The Kemerovo Oblast Legislative Assembly has scheduled a gubernatorial election in the oblast for 19 October, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 20 June. Governor Mikhail Kislyuk recently signed a regional electoral law, making it possible to set a date for the vote, which was originally scheduled for last fall. Kislyuk is the last oblast governor appointed by Yeltsin who has not faced popular election. CIS Affairs Minister Aman Tuleev, former chairman of the Kemerovo legislature, and State Duma deputy Viktor Medikov of the Russian Regions faction are considered the leading contenders to replace Kislyuk. Citing Tuleev's press secretary, Radio Rossii reported on 23 June that Tuleev intends to run for the post.


Commenting on the recent Georgian-Abkhaz talks in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June 1997), Eduard Shevardnadze said the two sides reached agreement on unspecified "very important points," Interfax and Western agencies reported on 23 June. Shevardnadze, who was speaking during his weekly radio address, praised Russia for mediating the talks and noted that progress on the most difficult issues was made only through goodwill on the part of both Georgia and Abkhazia. But he stressed there is still much work to be done and called for a larger role for the UN in settling the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.


Shevardnadze also said that if allegations against Georgian Security Minister Shota Kviraia prove to be true, he will take "appropriate" measures, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 June. A number of politicians and journalists have accused Kviraia of tapping the telephones of leading newspaper editors. Shevardnadze also criticized Kviraia for failing to free his ministry of its Soviet-era legacy.


The value of the Tajik ruble has dropped by 50% since the end of April, Reuters reported on 23 June. The cause is an increase in the amount of Tajik rubles printed this year. According to the Tajik State Statistics Agency, some 5.4 billion rubles were printed in the first four months of 1997, three times the amount for the same period last year. On 23 June, the exchange rate for the Tajik ruble had fallen to 600 to US $1. In April, the rate was 400 Tajik rubles to $1.


A spokesman for Pavlo Lazarenko told journalists on 23 June that Lazarenko will undergo surgery in the next few days. The spokesman said Lazarenko needs an operation for thrombophlebitis, which signifies the formation of a blood clot in a blood vessel accompanied by inflammation. President Leonid Kuchma temporarily relieved Lazarenko of his duties for health reasons on 19 June. Deputy Prime Minister Vasyl Durdinets was appointed acting premier. Meanwhile, the chief doctor of Kyiv's Feofania clinic told Interfax-Ukraine on 23 June that Lazarenko will undergo surgery for chronic phlebitis and varicose veins before the end of the week. The physician said the decision is not final.


A spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe told RFE/RL in Vienna on 23 June that Belarus has given preliminary permission for the OSCE to open an office in Minsk to help that country make progress toward democracy. The agreement was reached at a meeting on 20 June between Belarusian Foreign Minister Ivan Antanovich and an OSCE envoy. The spokesman said more discussions will be required to work out the practical details. No date had been fixed for opening the office, which was the main recommendation of an OSCE mission that visited Belarus in April and later issued a sharply critical report. That report concluded the Belarusian authorities are constructing a system of totalitarian government. It said "there is no effective political structure in Belarus to oppose the descent into totalitarianism."


Latvian Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs, speaking at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters on 23 June, said his country "fully supports" Washington's decision to include only Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the first wave of NATO expansion. At the same time, he urged the alliance's eastward expansion to continue until all the Baltic States are included and called on NATO members to send a "very clear message" about the alliance's expansion intentions at the Madrid summit next month. He also repeated that Riga is "ready to bear the full costs, responsibilities, and risk of membership in the alliance." Birkavs was in Prague to attend the NATO security forum.


Gennady Konoplyov, until recently the manager of the Tauras bank, was found shot dead in his office on 23 June, ITAR-TASS reported. It is unclear whether Konoplyov committed suicide or was murdered. The 52-year-old banker was considered an influential economic reformer and one of the wealthiest people in Lithuania. But recently, the Lithuanian Central Bank suspended the operations of the Tauras bank and dismissed Konoplyov from his post, according to the news agency.


A spokesman for Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told journalists on 23 June that U.S. President Bill Clinton may visit Poland after NATO's Madrid summit in July, at which the alliance is to invite some East European countries to join. A source close to the Polish president told Reuters the visit would likely start on 10 July and last one or two days. During his stay, Clinton would address the Polish nation and hold a joint news conference with Kwasniewski. The same source said Clinton would then fly to Romania.


A group of farmers belonging to the Solidarity trade union plans to block roads at a German-Polish border crossing on 24 June to protest food imports, PAP reported . The blockade will take place at Jedrzychowice, southwestern Poland, and will last indefinitely. The news agency quoted the Lower Silesia regional Solidarity leader Marian Zagorny as saying the government has rebuffed farmer demands for protection from imported foodstuffs.


George Joulwan, NATO'S Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, on 23 June praised the Czech Republic's plans to restructure its armed forces but said the country must do more to modernize them. Joulwan was speaking at a meeting in Prague with Czech Defense Minister Miloslav Vyborny. Joulwan is in the Czech Republic taking part in a NATO forum focusing on security issues and plans to expand the alliance. President Vaclav Havel is to decorate Joulwan with the country's highest award, the Order of the White Lion, in a ceremony on 24 June. Meanwhile, Michael Zantovsky, chairman of the coalition Civic Democratic Alliance, told Radio Frekvence on 23 June that public support for Czech entry into NATO was low owing to the government's previous lack of interest in the issue of NATO expansion. "If the government is not interested in it, why should the citizens be?" Zantovsky asked.


Following their meeting on 23 June with President Michal Kovac, leaders of eight opposition and two coalition parties announced they are ready to meet for round-table talks with Premier Vladimir Meciar. They also noted that the aim of such a dialogue would be to reach agreement on implementing the recommendations made by the Slovak-EU parliamentary commission on 19 June. That commission demanded progress toward consolidating Slovak democracy be made by November. The participation in the 23 June meeting of the coalition Slovak National Party and the Slovak Farmers' Association, a satellite of Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), was unexpected. The HZDS and another coalition party, the Slovak Workers' Party, were not present. Meciar told Slovak Radio that "we don't consider the president an authority capable of conducting a constructive dialogue."


A Hungarian prosecutor said on 23 June that secret documents wanted by Germany for the trial of an accomplice of "Carlos the Jackal" are being withheld for security reasons, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. He said that handing over the documents would violate "foreign-political and national-security interests of Hungary." A Berlin court wants the files for the upcoming trial of Johannes Weinrich. They contain some 8,500 pages about Carlos and members of his gang who lived in Budapest between 1979 and 1985. A hostage-taking at the OPEC meeting in Vienna in 1975 was among the most publicized actions undertaken by the group. The German magazine "Der Spiegel" claims that the Hungarian government is trying to conceal the former communist leadership's connections with international terrorist groups.


Visiting Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his Hungarian counterpart, Gyula Horn, agreed on 23 June to participate jointly in rebuilding Bosnia, to increase financial and banking ties, and to cooperate in communications and railraod development projects, Hungarian media reported. "Hungary is a natural gateway for Malaysia to Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States," Mahathir told a Budapest press conference.


Democratic Party leader Titan Shehu, the Socialists' Fatos Nano, and the Social Democrats' Skender Gjinushi agreed in Rome on 23 June to respect the results of the 29 June elections and not to use violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June 1997). They also pledged to grant the opposition a greater role in political life, including control over important parliamentary commissions and the anti-corruption agency. The opposition will also nominate the deputy speaker of the parliament. The three parties further agreed to cooperate after the elections in the formation of a new government, "Zeri i Popullit" reported. Sabri Godo of the Republican Party and the National Front's Hysen Selfo refused to sign the document in Rome and demanded that the ceremony take place in Albania, according to "Gazeta Shqiptare."


The Central Election Commission held a heated debate in Tirana on 23 June over the closing time of polling stations, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported. The majority of the commission members asked President Sali Berisha to decree that the stations close at 7:00 p.m. A Democratic Party representative, however, said that such a move would be illegal. The Democrats want a later closing time, which the opposition fears would enable fraud to take place under the cover of darkness. Observers from the Albanian media at the commission meetings told an RFE/RL correspondent that the Democratic Party representatives are deliberately blocking the commission's work by delaying decisions. "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on 24 June that "the extreme stubbornness of [the two Democrats] did not allow for a normal debate."


A multi-party round-table meeting in Tirana on 22 June failed to reach agreement on another key issue, namely the assigning of legislative seats on the basis of proportional representation. The same day, five policemen were injured, two seriously, when unidentified assailants opened fire at their car on the outskirts of Tirana. The shots were fired after curfew by several people who were using a military-type car, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on 24 June.


The governing body of the Democratic Socialists Party (DPS) met in Podgorica on 23 June and endorsed the candidacy of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for the federal Yugoslav presidency. The vote was 56 to 31, with 10 abstentions, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the Montenegrin capital. By a much larger majority, however, the DPS voted down Milosevic's proposal for the direct election of the federal president. Under the current system, the parliament will elect the replacement for President Zoran Lilic, whose term ends on 25 June. Many Montenegrin politicians fear that direct elections would greatly reduce their republic's influence in federal affairs by weakening the role of the parliament. Montenegro plays a much larger role in the federal legislature than can be justified by the size of its population.


A State Department spokesman said in Washington on 23 June that Serbia's proposed law on local government would strengthen the power of the governing Socialist Party at the expense of the opposition. The spokesman said that the measure would undermine the opposition's control over more than a dozen cities that the opposition won only after a protracted political struggle with Milosevic last winter, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the U.S. capital. Other provisions of the legislation work against the interests of ethnic minorities by guaranteeing a power role for Serbs and Montenegrins in areas where other ethnic groups form the majority. Meanwhile in Ulcinj, a conference of Kosovar Albanians and opposition Serbs opened to discuss the future of Kosovo.


The trial of Croatian Gen. Tihomir Blaskic started on 23 June at the Hague-based international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Security for witnesses is tight, following a recent series of leaks to the press of names of witnesses and other confidential information. Blaskic, who also served in the Bosnian Croat army, stands indicted on 20 counts involving atrocities against Muslims in the Lasva valley during the 1993 Croatian-Muslim conflict. Blaskic is the most senior suspected war criminal to stand trial so far. Charges against him stem from the orders he formulated and gave, whereas the other men in custody at The Hague carried out the orders of their superiors. Other top-ranking indicted figures--including Dario Kordic, a Croatian civilian who is also wanted in connection with the crimes in the Lasva valley--have not yet been taken into custody.


NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said in Sarajevo on 23 June that Bosnian Serb representatives raised last-minute objections to a measure that would reopen civilian airports in Tuzla, Mostar, and Banja Luka. The Serbs demanded that local Serbian authorities be in full charge of the Banja Luka operation, whereas the agreement put all three airports under a joint authority. Momcilo Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of the joint presidency, said in Pale that he also refused to agree on a proposal for a joint body to cooperate with the Hague-based tribunal, since the Serbs insist that each ethnic group have its own representative at the court. The Serbs have consistently tried to hamstring attempts at forming joint institutions.


Emil Constantinescu told a NATO security forum in Prague on 23 June that the Romanian people will regard the U.S. as "cynical" and "incapable of analyzing global interests" if his country is not admitted to NATO at the Madrid summit in July, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. Constantinescu said "national pride" is the driving force behind Romania's bid to join the organization, adding "we are asking for a firm and clear recognition of our progress." He also noted that Romania started the campaign for NATO admission out of fear it would be left in a "gray zone." Since then, however, the country has become "not only a security consumer but a security provider as well," he stressed. Constantinescu also noted that the alliance would benefit from Romania's "strong" relations with Serbia and Bulgaria as well as with the Baltic States.


Addressing the UN General Assembly's "Earth Summit" on 23 June, Victor Ciorbea said 50 years of communism "had left nothing unpolluted in Romanian society." He said his government views cleaning up the environment as one of its top priorities. Ciorbea also discussed his country's application for NATO membership with several leaders also attending the Earth Summit, including Slovenian Premier Janez Drnovsek, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Italian Premier Romano Prodi, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Radio Bucharest reported.


Former U.S. presidential candidate Bob Dole, concluding a two-day visit to Romania on 23 June, said his "personal view" is that Romania should "immediately" be accepted into NATO, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Dole said President Bill Clinton and his administration are aware of his opinions. During his visit, Dole met with President Emil Constantinescu and the chairmen of the two houses of the parliament, Petre Roman and Ion Diaconescu. He left Bucharest for Bosnia, where he was sent on an official mission by Clinton.


Moldovan Minister of Defense Valeriu Pasat and visiting U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John P. White signed an agreement in Chisinau on 23 June on preventing the proliferation of mass destruction weapons, Infotag and BASA-press reported. The agreement prohibits the transportation and stationing of such weapons on Moldovan territory. The two leaders also signed an accord on military cooperation. In addition, White met with Prime Minister Ion Ciubuc and with deputy parliamentary chairman Dumitru Diacov. Among the issues discussed were the memorandum on joint activities signed by the U.S. and Moldovan Defense Ministries in December 1995, and Moldova's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program.


The Socialist Unity Party-Edinstvo, the Socialist Party, and the Moldovan Union of Communists have set up a left wing alliance calling itself the Popular Patriotic Forces, BASA-press reported on 23 June. The bloc was established in Balti on 21 June, according to the agency The new alliance hailed the Russia-Belarus union and demanded that Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow be maintained intact. It also harshly criticized the policies of Ion Ciubuc's government and called for a way out of the "labyrinth of destructive reforms." Valeriu Senic, Petr Shornikov, and Florin Hristev were elected co-chairmen of the alliance.


Two miners are missing and nine injured following a coal mine blast at Bobovdol, southwestern Bulgaria, AFP reported on 23 June. Four of the injured are in serious condition. The explosion was caused by a buildup of methane gas. In other news, a naval exercise named "Cooperative Partner '97" began on 22 June along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. The exercise is being held within the Partnership for Peace program and will last two weeks. Participants include Greece, France, Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, and Ukraine.

Pavlo Lazarenko's "Temporary" Removal

by Roman Kupchinsky

On 19 June, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma issued a decree naming First Deputy Prime Minister Vasyl Durdynets acting premier owing to Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko's illness. The same day, Lazarenko was taken to Kyiv's Feofania clinic, where he was placed under strict observation. The first diagnosis was that Lazarenko was suffering from extreme exhaustion.

The previous day, the Council for National Security and Defense, chaired by Volodymyr Horbulin, recommended to President Kuchma that Lazarenko be removed from his post. Horbulin commented publicly later that day that "the prime minister has to take responsibility for the promises he did not keep."

Appeals to remove Lazarenko had begun to intensify earlier this month. A congress of the National Democratic Party of Ukraine (NDPU)--whose leadership consists of many high-ranking members of Kuchma's administration as well as a number of influential businessmen--issued an appeal to the president to dismiss the Cabinet of Ministers and, above all, the prime minister. On 17 June, NDPU member and parliamentary deputy Oleksander Karpov said that members of the NDPU who had called for Lazarenko's removal were receiving threatening phone calls. The same day, Karpov repeated charges that the prime minister had illegally privatized his government-owned dacha in Pushcha Vodytsia--one of many corruption charges leveled against Lazarenko this year.

Kuchma appointed Lazarenko premier in May 1996 to replace Evhen Marchuk, a former chief of the Ukrainian Intelligence Service. Before his appointment, Lazarenko had been the presidential representative in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and the head of both the oblast legislature and the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast state administration. During the communist era, he was the head of a collective farm and held various positions at the raion and oblast levels. His association with Kuchma dates back to when Kuchma was director of the Yuhmaz missile factory, in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.

Shortly after becoming prime minister, Lazarenko was faced with growing discontent from coal miners in the Donetsk region who had not been paid wages for several months. On 16 July 1996, while traveling by car to Donetsk to mediate the crisis, he was the target of an assassination attempt. A bomb placed by the side of the road exploded as Lazarenko's car passed by, leaving a 10-foot crater. Lazarenko, however, escaped injury. Kuchma subsequently removed Volodymyr Shcherban as presidential representative in Donetsk. At the time, there were numerous rumors that powerful business clans in Donetsk, with whom Shcherban allegedly had links, were behind the attempt on Lazarenko's life.

This year, charges of widespread corruption in the Ukrainian government began to proliferate. The U.S. telecommunications company Motorola announced in March that it was pulling out of the Ukrainian market because of "officials constantly changing the rules of the game." The press began to link Lazarenko to the Motorola pullout, pointing out he owns a significant portion of Kyiv Star, a newly formed telecommunications company that was awarded a tender by the government to install a mobile phone network in the country. Motorola had believed it had the rights to that project. Lazarenko responded to those and similar accusations in a letter to "The New York Times," but the charges only increased.

With crucial parliamentary elections scheduled for 1998, Kuchma decided in May to bring in a new, "clean" deputy prime minister. Serhiy Tyhipko, the 34-year-old director of Dnipropetrovsk's Privatbank, is seen by many in Kyiv as a future replacement for Lazarenko. By early June 1997, charges that the president and the prime minister were cooperating in illegal deals had begun to surface. Lazarenko had clearly become a liability to Kuchma. He was removed on his return from an official visit to Canada to discuss greater economic cooperation between Ottawa and Kyiv.

The "temporary" removal of Lazarenko is regarded by many in Kyiv as permanent. Kuchma has to show the West that he is cleaning up the government, and the proof of the pudding was getting rid of Lazarenko. Without him, Kuchma stands a far better chance of convincing Western financial institutions that he is sincere about both the anti-corruption drive and the reform program, which Lazarenko supported only half-heartedly. The author is director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.