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Newsline - August 7, 1997


In line with a request from Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Procurator-General's Office, State Property Committee, and Russian Federal Property Fund (RFFI) have begun investigating how the recent auction of a 38 percent stake in Norilsk Nickel was conducted, RFFI Chairman Igor Lipkin announced on 6 August. However, a senior government official cited by Reuters said the investigation was unlikely to lead to the reversal of the auction. Lipkin told Russian news agencies that the Norilsk auction was conducted in full compliance with the law: the rules for participating were published a month in advance, and the shares were awarded to the company that submitted the higher of the two bids. Lipkin added that the federal budget will receive nearly $80 million from the sale, funds that he said will help pay wage arrears to state employees.


Although RFFI Chairman Lipkin noted that the winning bid for the Norilsk shares exceeded the minimum bid by nearly 80 percent, critics have charged that the minimum bid was set far too low. AFP reported on 6 August that independent analysts believe the Norilsk stake was acquired at a bargain price by Svift, a company linked to Oneksimbank. Analysts also have criticized the lack of transparency and apparent conflicts of interest surrounding the sale. Oneksimbank had managed the Norilsk shares since November 1995 in exchange for a $170 million loan to the government, and Reuters noted that the Norilsk auction was organized by MFK Moscow Partners, a company linked to Oneksimbank's financial empire. In addition, Oneksimbank President Vladimir Potanin held secret meetings with State Property Committee Chairman Alfred Kokh, Procurator General Yurii Skuratov, and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin the day of the auction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5-6 August 1997).


First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais is seeking to bar commercial banks from collecting customs duties on behalf of the government, Russian news agencies reported on 6 August, citing Chubais's spokesman Andrei Trapeznikov. By 18 September, the Finance Ministry, State Customs Committee, Federal Treasury and Central Bank are to submit draft guidelines on the new procedure to the government. All bank accounts for customs duties are to be moved to the Central Bank, Trapeznikov said. If the Central Bank is not prepared to handle those accounts, commercial banks will be forced to compete for the privilege of collecting customs duties. Under a May presidential decree, the role of so-called "authorized banks" is to be reduced by January 1998, after which such authorization to handle state funds may only be awarded to commercial banks through open, competitive bidding (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 May 1997).


In line with the May decree on reducing the role of authorized banks, the Central Bank has begun auditing Oneksimbank, which handles more budget funds than any other commercial bank, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 6 August. Critics have said that instead of transferring budget funds to their intended destination right away, some commercial banks have earned huge profits by investing state money in short-term accounts at other banks. For this reason, "Kommersant-Daily" argued on 7 August that Chubais's plan to prohibit banks from collecting customs duties will hurt Oneksimbank more than any other commercial bank. Some 5 trillion to 5.5 trillion rubles ($860 million to $950 million) in customs duties are said to be held in Oneksimbank accounts, enough for the bank to earn an estimated 3 billion rubles ($520,000) in profits for each day that it delays transferring the customs payments to the government.


The Central Bank's audit of Oneksimbank and the proposed changes in rules on collecting customs duties could force the recent sales of government stakes in the telecommunications giant Svyazinvest and in Norilsk Nickel to be reviewed, "Kommersant-Daily" argued on 6 and 7 August. The paper noted that Oneksimbank has not yet paid out all the money it pledged toward the winning bids for Svyazinvest and Norilsk. If it is deprived of the right to handle state funds and customs duties, Oneksimbank may simply be unable to earn enough in profits to meet investment commitments it assumed as conditions for the Svyazinvest and Norilsk auctions. Under a new privatization law that went into effect on 2 August, the government may appropriate privatized property if the new owners fail to meet investment commitments under which the property was awarded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July 1997).


Russian President Boris Yeltsin told journalists on 6 August that he would like the conciliatory commission charged with making the required changes to the controversial law on religious organizations to present its revised draft by 1 September, Russian media reported. Yeltsin vetoed the law last month despite appeals from Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II. Attending the ceremonial consecration of the Chapel of Saints Boris and Gleb in Moscow on 6 August together with Aleksii, Yeltsin noted that cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state has increased in recent years, and praised the patriarch for his peacemaking and charitable activities. Aleksii expressed confidence that the revised version of the law will be enacted shortly. He praised Yeltsin's role in "overcoming the heritage of Soviet rule" and noted that St. Boris is Yeltsin's patron saint, NTV reported.


In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 6 August, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said activists from the Communist-led Popular-Patriotic Union of Russia are involved in forming regional branches of State Duma Defense Committee Chairman Lev Rokhlin's new movement to support the armed forces and defense industry. Meanwhile, the opposition newspaper "Sovetskaya Rossiya" on 7 August charged that local elites used underhanded methods to prevent Rokhlin from meeting with potential supporters during his recent visit to Tver Oblast. The paper charged that Tver newspapers carried little information about where Rokhlin would be speaking. In addition, the venue of Rokhlin's public meeting was changed at the last minute. The paper said that shortly before his visit, Rokhlin sent a message to Tver Governor Vladimir Platov expressing the desire to cooperate to defend the interests of defense enterprises in Tver, but the oblast authorities ignored Rokhlin's appeal.


State Duma Deputy Vladimir Semago, a member of the Communist Party (KPRF), has criticized the priorities of the KPRF leadership and has charged that the Duma's work is generally unproductive. In an article for the 6 August "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Semago said KPRF figures holding senior posts in the Duma had stalled on forming a commission to investigate corruption and subsequently hindered the commission's work. He also called for a "serious discussion" of the KPRF's future strategy in the Duma and in regional elections. He said he had tried to publish his article in the opposition newspapers "Pravda," "Pravda-5," and "Sovetskaya Rossiya," as well as in the KPRF organ "Pravda Rossii," but all had rejected it. Semago's public criticism of senior Communists has recently drawn fire from Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev and party leader Zyuganov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 6 August 1997).


Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov told ITAR-TASS on 6 August that the planned meeting between Yeltsin and Aslan Maskhadov may take place on 10 August. Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin and Deputy Secretary Boris Agapov will fly to Grozny today to prepare for the meeting, at which a document regulating relations between Moscow and Grozny is to be signed. Maskhadov has called for an interstate treaty, but "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 7 August quoted sources in the Russian Security Council as saying that the document in question will be called neither an interstate treaty nor an agreement on power-sharing. The sources said the document probably will be called "On Relations between the Organs of State Power of the Russian Federation and Chechnya."


Russian First Deputy Fuel and Energy Minister Sergei Kirienko told journalists in Moscow on 6 August that talks on the transit of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil via Chechnya to Novorossiisk "are deadlocked" because of Chechnya's "impossible" tariff demands, Russian agencies reported. Kirienko said his ministry had conducted feasibility studies on six routes for an alternative pipeline through Dagestan. He said that a bypass pipeline would take 1 1/2 -2 years to build, at an estimated cost of $250 million, but that the final decision on whether a bypass pipeline should be built would be taken by the Russian government. Under the 11 July agreement signed by Russian, Azerbaijani and Chechen oil company heads, Russia is to receive $15.67 in transit fees per metric ton of oil. Chechnya's share was set at $4-5, but Kirienko said the Chechens are now demanding $6.


On 6 August Major General Valeri Chkheidze denied Georgian television reports earlier in the day that several dozen Chechen militants had advanced into Georgia, according to ITAR-TASS. The Chechens allegedly intended to thwart a proposed meeting between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Chechen counterpart Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov's representative Akhmed Zakayev left for Tbilisi on 6 August to coordinate a date for that meeting, Interfax reported. In a written address to the Georgian parliament and people, Maskhadov on 6 August repeated his support for Shevardnadze's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz conflict.


Russian border guards, late on 5 August, repelled an attempt by two armed groups of drug couriers to cross the Tajik-Afghan border, ITAR-TASS reported. During one of the attempted crossings, a Russian border guard and two of the drug runners were killed in the exchange of fire. Meanwhile, border guard deputy director Aleksei Kozhevnikov inspected border posts and voiced alarm at a buildup of armed groups near the border in Afghanistan. Kozhevnikov said the group is part of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). A UTO representative in Dushanbe, Dawlat Usmon, said the opposition would discourage anyone from breaking the recently signed peace accord. Kozhevnikov also said that the process of repatriation of refugees continues and that 500 people cross into Tajikistan from Afghanistan at the Nizhnii Pyanj checkpoint every day.


Indications early in the Kyrgyz harvest show the country will increase its grain production this year to 1.4 million tons, according to RFE/RL correspondents in Bishkek. Wheat and barley crops account for the increase. The Russian newspaper "Pravda-5" on 6 August claimed the reason for the increase is due to a switch in the use of land. According to the paper, 14 percent more land was given over to wheat and barley at the expense of Kyrgyzstan's cotton and tobacco crop, but the actual figure for land under cultivation is continuing to shrink.


Azerbaijan's State Oil Company SOCAR produced 5.2 million metric tons of oil and 3.5 billion cubic meters of gas during the first seven months of this year, Interfax reported. Of the total, 4.3 million metric tons of oil and 3.4 billion cubic meters of gas were produced offshore. Gas output declined by 3.3 per cent compared with the corresponding period for 1996. The CIPCO consortium representing Pennzoil, Russia's Lukoil, the Russian-Italian joint venture LUKAgip and SOCAR began drilling its first exploratory well in Azerbaijan's Caspian Karabakh field in early August, ITAR-TASS and Turan reported on 6 August. The Karabakh deposit has estimated reserves of 80 million metric tons.


Belarusian authorities on 6 August filed charges of illegally entering Belarus against the driver of a Russian television crew, RFE/RL's correspondent in Minsk reported. Yaroslav Ovchinnikov is part of an ORT news team that was detained late last month on charges they illegally crossed the Belarusian border from neighboring Lithuania. An ORT reporter and his cameraman have already been formally charged. Ovchinnikov was released from detention on 6 August after signing a pledge not to leave the country. Belarusian KGB spokesman Col. Gennady Sinyukov told journalists that Ovchinnikov was charged with complicity in violating the country's border and still faces up to five years in prison if convicted.


Ukrainian Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko and Ukrainian National Bank Chairman Viktor Yushchenko on 6 August signed a cooperation memorandum with the IMF, Interfax reported. The memorandum was sent to the IMF the same day. The IMF board of directors will discuss a $525 million standby loan to Ukraine on 25 August. The loan will be provided over a period from July 1997 through July 1998, with the first IMF inspection scheduled for November. Ukrainian officials hope the standby loan program may be transformed into an Extended Fund Facility program later this year. The IMF has made such a change conditional on accelerating reforms in Ukraine. The approval of the Extended Fund Facility program would give Ukraine a chance to resume talks on World Bank loans.


Mykola Lesnikovsky, chief of the Kyiv international airport's consular department, told journalists on 6 August that dozens of foreign visitors have been sent back to their home countries from the airport in recent days after Ukraine tightened its rules for issuing visas. He said that visas previously were available to arriving passengers at the airport. But as of 1 August, the only people allowed to obtain visas at the airport have been citizens of countries where Ukraine has no embassy. He said visitors from countries where Ukraine does have an embassy have been turned back at the airport. Several of the people turned away were from the U.S. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry adopted the new policy in 1993, but it was only put into force on 1 August


The Estonian security police five years ago secretly bought files on some 500 KGB agents, "Postimees" reported on 6 August. The Estonian authorities managed to buy KGB agent files or their copies in the summer of 1992. They refuse to say who the source was. "What exactly (was obtained) and how the Estonian authorities obtained those documents I cannot comment," director of the Defense Police Juri Pihl told the newspaper. He said the files did not name any senior Estonian state officials as agents. "I can only confirm this one thing: the defense police has no KGB materials that would place anybody's oath of conscience under doubt," Pihl said. Estonia requires its MPs and senior state officials to take a so-called oath of conscience in which they swear that they did not collaborate with the KGB or other intelligence agencies of countries that occupied Estonia.


Latvian Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs told Reuters on 6 August that Latvia's incoming government would work to ensure that Latvia meets EU criteria so it is asked to start membership talks by an EU summit in December. The summit will decide on new members. He also said the country will accelerate economic reforms. The European Commission in July said Latvia was not ready to start early talks on EU entry. Of the Baltic states, only Estonia was chosen by the Commission to begin early talks. Birkavs also said the new government would complete privatization by the middle of next year and stick to tough monetary policies. The previous government collapsed after outgoing Prime Minister Andris Shkele quarrelled with his coalition partners. A parliamentary vote to confirm the new government is to be held on 7 August.


Algirdas Brazauskas on 6 August ordered police to investigate the desecration of a Jewish monument in the capital of Vilnius. It was the second such act of vandalism in a month. BNS reported that in the most recent case, authorities discovered on 6 August that a monument marking the site of Vilnius' oldest Jewish cemetery had been covered with graffiti and painted with swastikas. In a statement, Brazauskas called the desecration a "shameful act undermining the prestige of our state." He called for better care of the Jewish cultural heritage in Lithuania. In July, a memorial stone marking the site of the Vilnius ghetto was removed by vandals.


The World Bank has given Poland a list of steps the country needs to take if it wants to become a full-fledged member of the European Union. In a report published in Polish media on 6 August, the bank advises a 6 percent reduction in public expenditures, which currently stand at 48 percent of the GDP and improved conditions for investment. The report says that to lower public expenditure, Poland must reform its pension system, privatize and restructure state-owned enterprises and banks, and "introduce regulatory reforms to increase private sector and foreign participation in infrastructure development." In addition, the World Bank suggests cutting income tax, which would be compensated by the scrapping of preferential Value Added Tax rates and improved tax administration. The report also advises Poland to eliminate "bureaucratic micro-management still dominant in some areas of imports" and to introduce "comprehensive judicial reforms.


The co-ruling Polish Peasant Party (PSL) wants the government's Agriculture Market Agency to pay in advance for cereals bought from farmers. But Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz refused to discuss the demands at the cabinet meeting on 5 August, leading to a coalition crisis (RFE/RL Newsline 5 August). Co-ruling Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland (SdRP) leader Jozef Oleksy said on 6 August that buying cereals is not a matter of contention., but the PSL's position on the matter may be an attempt to win peasants' votes. The leader of the opposition centrist Freedom Union Leszek Balcerowicz called the PSL's proposal to remove Cimoszewicz "a tasteless pre-electoral maneuver." Labor Union leader Ryszard Bugaj called changing the prime minister two months before the elections irresponsible.


More than 70 members of an old Polish aristocratic family gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw on 7 August claiming ownership to the land on which the embassy stands. Members of the Czetwertynski family say the land was confiscated by the communist regime after World War Two and then leased--illegally, they maintain-- to the United States. The palace of the late Princess Roza Czetwertynska stood on the site until 1960, when the United States tore it down to build the embassy. After War World Two, the Polish communist government leased the property to the United States for 80 years. The U.S. embassy issued a statement today saying their lease was valid, and that the dispute is between the family and the Polish government.


The daily "Pravo" wrote on 7 August that Internal Affairs Ministry spokesman Jan Subrt has confirmed that the data contained in a portable computer stolen last week from an agent of The Bureau for Foreign Contacts and Information (UZSI), one of the three top Czech intelligence agencies, were rated "secret." (see RFE/RL Newsline, 5 August 1997). The spokesman said, however, the security of the Czech Republic was not compromised by the theft. "Lidove noviny" on 7 August quoted Subrt as saying that the sudden emergence of the affair in the media could be "an intentional provocation" aimed at compromising the Czech Republic after it was recently invited to join NATO. Some government officials have agreed with this hypothesis. Meanwhile, some opposition politicians have demanded Ruml's resignation over his failure to inform the parliament and the government about the incident.


The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe has called on Slovak Parliament Chairman Ivan Gasparovic to take the lead in restoring the mandate of former deputy Frantisek Gaulieder, RFE/RL's Washington correspondent reported on 6 August. Gaulieder was stripped of his seat in December 1996 after he left Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. The Slovak Constitutional Court has ruled that Gaulieder's removal was unconstitutional. In a letter to Gasparovic, the U.S. commission said the Slovak parliament's response to the court ruling will either provide more evidence that Slovakia is not committed to the rule of law, or, that it has taken a step away from isolation and toward rejoining the community of democratic nations. Meanwhile, German Ambassador to Slovakia Ludger Buerstedde stressed during a meeting on 6 August with Slovak Parliament Foreign Committee Chairman Dusan Slobodnik that the parliament should restore Gaulieder's mandate, RFE/RL's Bratislava bureau reported.


Socialist deputy Imre Simon said on 6 August he will give up his parliamentary seat on account of his collaboration with the secret service during communism, Hungarian media reported. Simon, who is also a local government leader and member of the European Parliament, was told by a panel of judges in June that they had found data on his collaboration with the communist secret service. Simon said he had been recruited in 1966 after his military service, before starting to pursue higher education studies. Socialist party deputy chairman Gyoergy Janosi said the announcement surprised him. The Socialist party's parliamentary faction and the party's leadership will discuss the matter.


The chairman of the parliament's Human Rights, Minorities and Religious Affairs Committee, Gabor Kis Gellert, opposes the idea of collective compensation for Hungarian Gypsies who suffered under the Holocaust, Hungarian media reported on 7 August. According to the Socialist deputy, such a solution, demanded recently by the National Gypsy Minority Council (See "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 1997), would be unprecedented in Hungarian history. He said he would prefer a case-by-case compensation, like that given to other Holocaust survivors


The IMF will provide emergency assistance for Albania, but long-term aid will depend on whether the Albanian government meets certain conditions, news agencies reported from Washington on 6 August. The IMF insists that the authorities restore security, consolidate their control over all parts of the country, close down the pyramid schemes, establish satisfactory tax records, and cut the budget deficit. An IMF spokesman said that plans to help Albania have been worked out and that an IMF delegation will go to Tirana in the coming weeks. In the Albanian capital, Finance Minister Arben Malaj expressed appreciation for the proposed package. He added that "after Bosnia and Georgia, we are the third country in IMF history to benefit from such a program, and it is vital to convince foreign investors to invest in Albania."


President Rexhep Mejdani sacked Ilir Zhilla as head of the state-run ATA news agency on 5 August and replaced him with independent journalist Frrok Cupi. The next day, however, Cupi refused the political appointment. Justice Minister Thimio Kondi told department chiefs in his ministry to resign voluntarily or be fired, "Albania" reported on 6 August. On 4 August, Defense Minister Sabit Brokaj had similarly warned unnamed top-ranking officers appointed by the previous government to resign lest they be fired and put on trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 August 1997). But on 5 August, army Chief-of-Staff General Adem Copani held talks in Tirana with visiting Greek officials and concluded an agreement on Greek aid to the Albanian military. Copani was appointed by former President Sali Berisha.


The National Council of the Democratic Party met in Tirana on 5 August to fire some leaders as scapegoats for the party's disastrous defeat in the June vote. Victims include former party Chairman Tritan Shehu and former Prime Minister Aleksander Meksi, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported. Meksi blasted the decisions of the secret meeting and compared the National Council's methods to those of the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha's Party of Labor. Meksi was a founding member of the Democrats in 1991. Most of the other founders also have since parted ways from Berisha.


Police officials in the southern town of Saranda, opposite the Greek island of Corfu, told ATA on 6 April that they have secured two important roads leading out of the town.. Police said they were able to break the power of armed gangs along the Saranda-Muzina road toward the seashore and the Saranda-Borsh toward Vlora despite the fact that the police lack basic equipment and vehicles. Buses left Saranda for Tirana and elsewhere for the first time in four months. And in Vlora, police reported a limited but growing number of phone calls from citizens wanting to turn in illegally held weapons. The police reported that callers say they do not need guns if the police can restore order. Weapons collections depots are now operating around the clock.


Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. envoy who hammered out the Dayton peace agreement in 1995, began the second day of his latest Balkan trip by meeting on 7 August in Tuzla with U.S. Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. General Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme military commander. There were no official reports of what the men discussed, but Holbrooke wants to arrest indicted war criminals such as Radovan Karadzic. The NATO troops, for their part, would be an essential part of any operation to catch Karadzic and send him to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. After his meeting in Tuzla, Holbrooke went on to Sarajevo to meet with the members of the three-man joint presidency. A U.S. spokesman said that "bad flying weather" forced Holbrooke to postpone a meeting with Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic in Banja Luka.


Holbrooke met in Split on 6 August with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and his Bosnian counterpart Alija Izetbegovic. The U.S. diplomat secured pledges from the two presidents to allow all refugees from the Jajce area to go home by 12 August and to bring to justice by 17 August those responsible for recent incidents against Muslim refugees (see "RFE/RL Bosnia Report," 6 August 1997). More border crossings are to be opened, while proper frontier checks will be set up on the often uncontrolled border between Croatia and Herzegovinian Croat territory. Meeting alone, the presidents also agreed to launch talks on Bosnia's use of the Croatian port of Ploce and on Croatia's transit rights through Bosnia's tiny stretch of the Adriatic coast. The future agreement also will cover property rights and dual citizenship, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Split. The two sides have been trying to solve these questions for years.


Spokesmen for NATO peacekeepers said in Sarajevo on 6 August that seven more Muslim-owned homes were burned near Jajce the previous night. Meanwhile in Banja Luka, Plavsic announced on 7 August that elections to the Republika Srpska parliament will take place on 10-12 October. Her political rivals do not recognize her recent dissolution of the existing parliament, however. And in Munich, the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" reported that Karadzic told that paper that he is ready to stand trial for war crimes provided the trial is held in the Republika Srpska. Western officials said, however, that Karadzic must go to The Hague. According to an agreement Karadzic reached with international mediators last year, he is not supposed to take any part in public life, which includes giving interviews. His latest remarks appear to be a response to Holbrooke's demands for Karadzic's arrest.


Montenegrin Trade Minister Branko Vujovic said in Podgorica on 7 August that Serbia has put the mountainous republic under an "economic blockade." Vujovic added that this is Serbia's way of "punishing" the Montenegrin leadership for its increasing independence vis-a-vis Belgrade. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and other top officials have in recent months slammed Belgrade's policies as harmful to Montenegro's interests. The small republic is dependent on shipping and tourism, and has accordingly suffered because of federal Yugoslavia's international isolation. On 6 August, supporters of pro-Belgrade President Momir Bulatovic held a break-away party congress of the governing Democratic Socialist Party in Kolasin. The meeting underscored the growing split in the party, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from that town. The main party organization backs Djukanovic and has removed Bulatovic from the party presidency. In Belgrade, the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement criticized the government's attempts to "pressure" Montenegro.


The chief IMF negotiator for Romania, Poul Thomsen, is praising the restructured Romanian budget but adds that more effort is necessary to liquidate loss-making industries and state farms, Reuters reported. While announcing an agreement to extend the country's external debt ceiling by $500 million to $3.7 billion, Thomsen sidestepped questions on whether he would recommend to the IMF board to release the second $86 million installment of the standby credit agreed to last April. On the same day, Thomsen met Premier Victor Ciorbea, who then headed another meeting of the government on the budget and postponed a scheduled press conference for one day. Finance Minister Mircea Ciumara met with representatives of the World Bank. In an interview with RFE/RL, Minister of Reforms Ulm Spineanu said he had submitted a "blank resignation" to Ciorbea. He said he intends to activate the resignation if his program for reforms is not implemented.


An anonymous telephone call caused the cancellation of a scheduled visit by Romania's former king to a market in the Transylvanian town of Oradea, Mediafax reported on 6 August. The anonymous caller threatened to blow up the city hall and a local church unless the former king's visit to the town was cancelled. The mayoralty decided to go on with the visit plans, but cancelled the visit to the market. King Michael is on a private visit to western Romania. The trip began on 3 August in Timisoara.


The head of the OSCE mission to Moldova, Donald Johnson, says the security zone dividing the two conflicting sides should be shrunk, transforming its northern and southern sectors into demilitarized zones. In an article published in "Mirotvorets," Johnson says checkpoints in the zone should be reduced to enhance mutual confidence. He said the presence of pro-Chisinau "border guards" and pro-Tiraspol "Cossacks" in the demilitarized zone violated the 1992 agreement on setting up the zone and they should leave, BASA-press reported. In other news, the deputy commander of the Russian "Operative Group" in the Transdniester, Col. Aleksandr Baranov, denied a report on the delay of the evacuation of Russian equipment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 August 1997). He said no decision on the evacuation has yet been taken, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported.


A representative of the government on 6 August told the Chisinau Court of Appeals that the government was now ready to extend official recognition to the Bessarabian Metropolitan Church (BMB), which is subordinated to the Bucharest Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate. The government had refused recognition of the church for five years, recognizing only the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate. The court was about to rule on litigation between the government and the BMB and the government had appealed against a decision of the Chisinau Tribunal recognizing the BMB. The government representative said official recognition would be extended on 13 August, BASA-press reported.


Bulgaria's main opposition Socialist Party plans to appeal to the Constitutional Court against the new law on the opening of communist era secret police files, Reuters reported on 6 August. A spokeswoman for the Socialists said the law contravenes the constitution, violates citizens' rights and harms national security.


Nadim Gendzhev and Fikri Sali, the heads of the two rival Moslem Councils (the High Moslem Council and the High Spiritual Council), on 6 August signed a declaration agreeing to hold a joint conference and unify the councils, Reuters reported. In March 1995, more than 1,000 Moslems at a special national conference voted to restore Sali as Chief Mufti, a position he held from 1992 to November 1994, when Gendzhev (first appointed Chief Mufti in 1988, under the Todor Zhivkov regime) replaced him. The vote followed allegations that Gendzhev had worked for the communist secret services. The Socialist government, however, refused registration on grounds that a registered Moslem council already existed. Sali has repeatedly urged the country's new rulers to reverse that decision.


By Paul Goble

Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decree reclosing a city in his country to all outsiders reflects both how little has changed in his country since Soviet times -- and also how much.

On the one hand, Yeltsin's action simply extends the Soviet practice of using this administrative device to hide things Moscow does not want anyone to find out about. But more disturbingly, it calls attention to both the large number of Russian cities that remain "closed" from Soviet times and Yeltsin's willingness to close some opened more recently.

On the other hand, the Russian president's actions have sparked a lively public discussion in the Russian press about both Yeltsin's motives in this particular case and the implications of using this administrative device in a country that seeks to be a democratic one.

At the end of July, Yeltsin issued a decree declaring that Shikhana, an urban center some 130 kilometers north of Samara, was once again a "closed city." This decree means that no one -- Russian or foreigner -- can enter it without special permission from the Russian defense or interior ministries.

A closed city in Soviet times known as Volzhk 18, Shikhana is home to some 15,000 civilians, an unknown number of military personnel, and one of the Russian military's largest chemical weapons manufacturing and testing facilities.

The Soviet authorities routinely closed such military industry centers both to enhance the army's control of their populations and to block efforts by foreign intelligence services to gain access to their secrets.

But at the end of the Soviet era and in the beginning of post-Soviet Russian history, Moscow ended such restrictions in many cases. Sometimes this was done because of a sense that the end of the Cold War made such restrictions obsolete.

Sometimes, these restrictions were lifted in response to local civilian pressures for greater democratization. And sometimes, Moscow took this step in order to give Russian military industries located in these areas the ability to market their goods abroad.

Not surprisingly, many Russian reformers are deeply concerned about both Yeltsin's motives in this particular case and his willingness to use Soviet-style methods to deal with some fundamental political, economic, and ecological problems.

One Moscow paper has suggested that Yeltsin's motives were anything but encouraging. It quoted the conclusion of an ecological group based in Samara that "the closing of Shikhana is nothing less than the sabotage of the process of destroying chemical weapons according to the agreements Russia has signed and which it is prepared to sign."

As a result, the leader of the group Vladimir Petrenko told "Obshchaya gazeta," Yeltsin "has given back total secrecy to the manufacture and testing of chemical weapons."

Another environmental group from the region told the Moscow press that the closing of the city might in fact be the result of reform rather than a means of blocking it. The"Ecology and Legal Defense" group said that the Russian army has set up a private commercial firm in Shikhana to produce and sell highly-toxic arsenic.

The group said that one of the founders of this company is Stanislav Petrov, the head of Russia's chemical weapons troops. And the group's spokesman implied that Petrov had used his influence to get Yeltsin to take a step that will make it difficult for anyone to monitor what he is doing or to prevent his company from continuing to poison the environment there.

What is most striking about all this, of course, is not the existence of closed cities in a country long used to their existence or the willingness of officials and entrepreneurs there to use this method to advance their own interests, however selfish or duplicitous.

Instead, what is striking is that Yeltsin's actions have sparked discussions in Moscow but they have not prompted widespread protests from the West, both from human rights activists concerned about progress toward the rule of law there and from governments concerned that Russia live up to its promises to destroy chemical weapons.

At a time when the United States has allowed the Russian air force to overfly American territory -- as it did this week under the provisions of the "open skies" agreement -- Yeltsin's decision to reclose a city is a particularly disturbing reminder that some unfortunate features of the past remain very much with us.