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Newsline - January 20, 1998


President Boris Yeltsin on 19 January announced that the government has submitted proposals to him on 12 key tasks in social and economic policy for 1998, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. He said the document is "unusual" in that it assigns responsibility for implementing each task to one government minister and one member of the presidential administration. The document has not been released, but government officials have previously said improving tax collection, reducing the tax burden, maintaining strict control over state spending, and tackling the non-payments problem will be top priorities this year. Earlier the same day, Yeltsin told Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and First Deputy Prime Ministers Anatolii Chubais and Boris Nemtsov that the government failed to meet its obligations for 1997, especially in terms of paying wage arrears to state employees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 1998). LB


Also on 19 January, Yeltsin rebuked Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov for his controversial 6 January statement advocating preemptive strikes against Chechen guerrilla bases. "Such statements should not have been made without prior consultation with me," Interfax quoted him as saying. But Yeltsin made clear that he "is very close" to Kulikov's hard- line position on Chechnya. Commenting on Kulikov's statement, Russian government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov had said it represented the minister's "personal opinion." Also on 19 January, Yevgenii Savostyanov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, predicted that an agreement between Moscow and Grozny on the precise nature of bilateral relations will require "many, many years" of negotiations. He added that "good-neighborly relations" cannot be achieved by "an oil pipeline or transfers" of funds from the federal budget. LF


First Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov told "Izvestiya" of 20 January that he believes Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin understand it would be a "waste of time" to "reshuffle everything and start over with a new government." He noted that 1998 is "the last [year] in which it is possible to work normally" before the campaigns for the next parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for 1999 and 2000. Nemtsov again said Yeltsin promised him two years in the government when he appointed him first deputy prime minister last March. As for the future of First Deputy Prime Minister Chubais, Nemtsov said his opinion whether Chubais will resign "changes strongly from day to day." The government responsibilities of Chubais and Nemtsov were recently downgraded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 19 January 1998). LB


Executives of the oil companies Yukos and Sibneft on 19 January announced plans to merge. The new company, Yuksi, will overtake LUKoil as the largest Russian oil company and will be the third-largest private oil producer in the world, according to the 19 January "Financial Times." Yuksi will also include the Eastern Oil Company, in which Yukos has a controlling stake, and the East-Siberian Oil and Gas Company, which is affiliated with Sibneft. Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the founder of the Menatep bank and currently the top executive at Yukos, will be the new company's president. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 January that 60 percent of the shares in Yuksi will belong to the current shareholders of Yukos and 40 percent to Sibneft shareholders. Khodorkovskii confirmed that Yuksi will bid for a stake in the oil company Rosneft. LB


Speaking at the signing ceremony for the creation of Yuksi, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin welcomed the merger of Yukos and Sibneft. He added that "Russian companies should compete [abroad], but within Russia they should agree between themselves," Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 January. Chernomyrdin also said he will meet with the leaders of oil companies soon to discuss tax issues, ITAR-TASS reported. Commenting on the government's attitude toward the creation of Yuksi, Boris Berezovskii, a major investor in Sibneft, said that "at last Russia has rejected the idea of demonopolization, which does not correspond to the spirit of the times." LB


Preliminary data compiled by the Economics Ministry indicate that 1997 marked the first year in the post-Soviet period that Russia experienced economic growth, ITAR-TASS reported on 19 January. The data show that GDP rose 0.4 percent in 1997 and industrial production 1.9 percent. Preliminary data compiled by the State Statistics Committee show similar gains of 0.4 percent in GDP and 1.8 percent in industrial production. The government initially predicted GDP growth of 2 percent for 1997. Yeltsin has demanded that the government provide for 2-4 percent economic growth this year. LB


Despite upbeat statements by government officials, international rating agencies are pessimistic about Russia's economic prospects. On 15 January, Moody's downgraded Russia's credit-rating outlook from "stable" to "negative," meaning that it will be more expensive for the Russian government and Russian corporations to borrow money abroad. Standard and Poor's, the other major international credit rating agency, revised its rating outlook for Russia from stable to negative in December. LB


The Russian Foreign Ministry on 19 January said recent warnings that Bulgaria may reduce Russia's gas transit across its territory are tantamount to "political pressure," which, the ministry added, could complicate Russia's relations with other countries and harm the economic security of southeastern Europe, Russian news agencies reported. Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov recently said transits of gas to Turkey, Serbia, Greece, and Macedonia through Bulgaria may be reduced if the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom curtails deliveries for Bulgarian consumption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 19 January 1998). But the Russian Foreign Ministry said such a move would violate intergovernmental agreements signed by Bulgaria in 1994 and 1997. Gazprom head Rem Vyakhirev has said his company will explore alternative ways of delivering gas to third countries if Bulgaria follows through on the threat, "Kommersant- Daily" reported on 20 January. LB


The presidential administration is to be downsized by 200 employees, or about 10 percent, deputy head of the administration Yevgenii Savostyanov told Interfax on 19 January. "Kommersant- Daily" reported on 17 January that Presidential Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev is the initiator of the changes. Viktoriya Mitina, who was appointed deputy head of the presidential administration last November, has also called for eliminating departments in the administration that duplicate one another's work. LB


Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev on 19 January criticized draft proposals on forming a coalition government, saying they lack a "concept," Russian news agencies reported. State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev has said he will submit the proposals to Yeltsin at a meeting in late January. He told Interfax that Stroev has not seen the final draft of the document. Both presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii and Yeltsin's representative in the Constitutional Court, Sergei Shakhrai, said recently that the president will reject plans on forming a coalition government. Earlier, Stroev said the president should be aware of parliament's opinions when forming the cabinet, but he has shied away from advocating a coalition government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 1997). LB


Also on 19 January, Stroev again criticized the practice of bilateral agreements being concluded by the federal government and regional authorities, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 January. Addressing a conference on Russian federalism hosted by the Federation Council, Stroev said such power-sharing agreements contribute to the arbitrary nature of relations between Moscow and regional governments and leave relatively weak regions almost completely dependent on the Kremlin. Stroev added that the strongest regions, such as the Republic of Tatarstan, have virtually "confederative" relations with Moscow. More than 30 regions have signed power-sharing agreements. Stroev also criticized attempts to blame regional leaders for failing to pay all wage arrears to state employees. He asked rhetorically, "if the government has not paid for state orders, and the regional government is consequently unable to collect all taxes, is the governor to blame?" LB


Addressing the same conference on federalism, Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov announced that nearly 2,000 regional laws have been revoked for contradicting the Russian Constitution, Interfax reported on 19 January. But Skuratov called for better compliance with federal legal norms, noting that Russia currently lacks sufficient "levers" for ensuring that Constitutional Court rulings on regional laws are implemented. Justice Minister Sergei Stepashin told the conference that about one-third of the 16,000 regional laws examined by the Justice Ministry since summer 1995 have been found to violate federal legislation, ITAR-TASS reported. By way of example, he said some two-thirds of Russian regions have passed laws on alcohol production and distribution that violate federal law. LB


The Constitutional Court on 15 January struck down passages in the Komi Republic's constitution and law on executive authorities that allow the republican administration to appoint local governments, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 16 January. The ruling means that elections must be held in all municipalities to choose local authorities. In the past, Yurii Spiridonov, the head of the Komi Republic, has appointed some local leaders. In addition, the court rejected a passage in the Komi Constitution that says local executive authorities must answer to local legislative authorities. Article 131 of the Russian Constitution says that the people alone may determine the structure of local government. LB


Also on 15 January, the Constitutional Court ruled that authorities may not require Russian citizens to produce residency permits in order to be issued passports valid for foreign travel, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 16 January. The judges struck down a passage in the law on procedures for leaving and entering the Russian Federation, saying it violated the constitutional right to freedom of movement. Aleksandr Avalov, who has lived in Moscow for several years but is officially registered as a resident of Tbilisi, lodged the court appeal. The court ruling means that homeless people, forced migrants, and others who lack a permit ("propiska") for their city of residence may receive passports valid for foreign travel. The Constitutional Court has previously ruled on several occasions that the "propiska" system is itself unconstitutional. LB


Lieutenant- General Valerii Kraev, the head of the Sverdlovsk Oblast police department, told Interfax on 19 January that authorities believe a man detained on charges of illegal weapons possession may have been involved in the 14 January bomb explosion in Yekaterinburg. The bomb went off as a car carrying Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel passed by. Kraev said investigators suspect that organized crime groups are behind the attack. RFE/RL's correspondent in Yekaterinburg reported on 15 January that local observers believe the relatively small bomb was not intended to kill Rossel. Nikolai Ovchinnikov, head of the Yekaterinburg police, told journalists on 14 January that he does not believe the blast was linked to the recent arrests in Yekaterinburg of some 50 criminals from throughout Russia and the CIS. Ovchinnikov cited the "unprofessional" and "poorly prepared" nature of the bombing. LB


Aleksandr Dzasokhov affirmed on 19 January that he will seek to resolve the republic's serious economic problems and work with Moscow to expedite a solution to the Ossetian- Ingush and Ossetian-Georgian conflicts, ITAR-TASS reported. The presidents of neighboring Ingushetia and Georgia, Ruslan Aushev and Eduard Shevardnadze, both greeted Dzasokhov's election victory. Aushev noted that Dzasokhov, unlike outgoing president Akhsarbek Galazov "bears no responsibility" for the clashes in November 1992 in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodnyi Raion, in which hundreds of ethnic Ingush were killed. In Moscow, Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov predicted that Dzasokhov's election "will have a positive effect" on regional policy in the North Caucasus. LF


On 19 January, Arkadii Ghukasyan again rejected the most recent peace proposals by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, RFE/RL's Stepanakert correspondent responded. Ghukasyan said those proposals would only serve to "freeze" the Karabakh conflict and restore the status quo that existed prior to February 1988. He added that "simple common sense" prevented the Karabakh population from agreeing to "unilateral concessions." Ghukasyan also criticized those responsible for spreading rumors about the possible resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan, saying they "are playing a dangerous game." Ghukasyan said that Kocharyan, his predecessor as president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, is "a man who has done a great deal for the consolidation of the Armenian people." LF


Major- General Romik Ghazarian, the head of the presidential security service, escaped unhurt on the night of 18 January when gunmen opened fire on his jeep. Kazarian was returning from Armavir to Yerevan. An investigation has been opened into the incident. LF


The number of striking workers from the Janatas Phosphorus plant has grown to 3,000 since their protest began in mid-December, RFE/RL correspondents in Kazakhstan reported on 20 January. The workers are demanding the payment of back wages for 1996 and 1997 totaling some $5 million. Some 50 workers set out for Akmola to meet with the president, but militia barred them from entering the capital. The strike has the support of the Federation of Kazakh Trade Unions. According to ITAR-TASS on 19 January, the prosecutor-general has opened a case against the federation for using "financial support from abroad" and exploiting the protests to destabilize the country. BP


The upper house of the parliament on 19 January reviewed the country's energy situation, RFE/RL correspondents in Bishkek reported. First Deputy Prime Minister Kamelbek Nanayev said there are still shortages in gas supplies from Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reached agreement on the level of supplies earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 1998). The same day, Bakirdin Sartkaziev, the president of Kyrgyzenergoholding, told a press conference that low levels in the Tokhtogul reservoir are contributing to the "critical" energy situation. The reservoir usually contains 11 million cubic meters of water at this time of year but currently has only 9.5 million cubic meters. Sartkaziev also said Kazakhstan has not fulfilled its part of an agreement on coal deliveries to Kyrgyzstan. So far, nothing has been received, Sartkaziev noted. BP


The next military exercises in Central Asia under the NATO Partnership for Peace program will be held in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Interfax reported on 19 January. According to Uzbek Deputy Defense Minister Kakhramon Abdullayev, one part of the exercises will be held Kyrgyzstan's Osh region, while Uzbekistan has not decided yet whether the other part will be conducted in the Fergana or Tashkent region. Abdullayev said troops from Kazakhstan and other countries in the NATO program will also take part. Last year, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, along with other countries, held the "Centrazbat" exercises on Kazakh and Uzbek territory. It is has not yet been revealed when this year's exercises will take place. BP


Parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz said in Kyiv on 19 January that his leftist bloc will base its election campaign on alleviating wage arrears and other social problems, Reuters reported. Parliamentary elections are to be held on 29 March. Moroz's socialist party is grouped with the Communist and agrarian parties in the assembly, which have routinely resisted reform legislation. "The fate of collective farming is at stake," he said, pledging to fight government plans to allow the lease and sale of land. Moroz's bloc controls 170 of the 450 seats in the parliament. PB


Valeriy Pustovoitenko said in Kyiv on 19 January that the government has outlined programs to stabilize the economy in 1998, dpa reported. Pustovoitenko said that although GDP sank 1.8 percent in 1997, it will increase by about 0.5 percent this year. He also said that unpaid salary debts were reduced by one- third and now total some $470 million. This contradicts end-of-year figures released by the central bank showing that some $2.6 billion is still owed to workers. PB


During the ongoing trial of Russian Public Television (ORT) journalist Pavel Sheremet and his cameraman Dmitriy Zavadskiy, defense lawyers told the court on 19 January that they want Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to be charged with interfering in the verdict of a trial, Interfax reported. The statement claims that Lukashenka said before the trial that "in time we will be able to call Sheremet simply a criminal." The attorneys say that comment violates Article 172 of the criminal code, which covers "interference into a verdict on the criminal case by abuse of office." The same day, Sheremet gave testimony in court proclaiming his innocence and asking for the case to be closed. PB


According to the Estonian daily "Postimees," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Avdeev has sent an official note to the Russian State Duma arguing that the Soviet Union did not forcefully annex the Baltic States, BNS and ETA reported on 19 January. Avdeev's 8 January note was reportedly in response to Duma deputy speaker Sergei Baburin's question as to whether Russian Ambassador to Estonia Aleksi Glukhov had admitted the 1940 Soviet occupation of the Baltics in an interview with an Estonian magazine. Avdeev denied that Glukhov had made such an admission, stressing that the ministry's official viewpoint is that Soviet troops were stationed in the Baltics in keeping with international accords and with the agreement of the three countries' leaderships. The "Postimees" report also claims that Moscow argues that "threatening with force" was banned only after the UN statutes were adopted. JC


At the start of his tour of the Nordic countries, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said in Oslo on 19 January that the partnership charter between the U.S. and the Baltic States shows Washington is "dead serious" about keeping the door to NATO open for those three countries, BNS and Reuters reported. Noting that "Russia doesn't like it, thinks it's a mistake," Talbott urged Moscow to promote ties in northern Europe by reviving the concept of the Hanseatic League (which from the 13th to 15th century was a major economic force uniting some 100 mostly German towns). He argued that Russia should view the Baltics in "Hanseatic terms," that is, "not as an invasion route inward but as a gateway outward." JC


Algirdas Brazauskas told Interfax on 19 January that he does not rule out the possibility that Lithuania and Russia will conclude a document similar to the partnership charter between the U.S. and Baltic States. Speaking at Vilnius airport on his return from Washington, Brazauskas commented that "there is no limit to perfecting relations." He recalled President Boris Yeltsin's proposals last fall on strengthening neighborly relations with the Baltic States and building mutual confidence, which, Brazauskas said, were a "positive step." JC


The daily "Rzeczpospolita" reported on 19 January that the Atlantic alliance is concerned about the state of Poland's defense forces. Citing a report from NATO headquarters in Mons, Belgium, the newspaper said the Polish army is equipped to defend only against a land-based attack and would add little to NATO's strength in its early years of membership. The report added that the air force is poorly trained and lacks modern equipment, while the Polish navy could not be deployed much beyond the Baltic Sea. It also criticized the planned increases in defense spending as too low. The NATO document is reported to be even more critical of the Czech and Hungarian militaries. PB


Premier Josef Tosovsky on 19 January threatened to resign, saying after a meeting of parliamentary party leaders that he is "fairly disappointed" by the attitude of "some parties." Alluding to the Civic Democratic Party of former Premier Vaclav Klaus, Tosovsky said at a press conference that anyone following events in the country knows whom he has in mind, CTK reported. Klaus, meanwhile, said that holding new elections through the mechanism envisaged by the government--namely, through the rejection by the legislature of the law on the sale of state-owned land--was "problematic." Milos Zeman, the chairman of the Social Democrats, said he will encourage his party to support Tosovsky's cabinet, but that decision will be taken at a meeting of the party's Executive Committee on 24 January. MS


A public opinion poll conducted by the STEM Institute on the eve of the 20 January presidential elections shows support for the incumbent, Vaclav Havel, at 70 percent, up four percentage points over November 1997, CTK reported. The president of the Czech Republic is elected not by popular vote but by the parliament. In other news, NATO Supreme Allied Deputy Commander in Europe Jeremy Mackenzie said after a meeting with Defense Minister Michal Lobkowicz that he considers the Czech army's preparation for NATO entry to be "in order." Lobkowicz said that it would be a "very good and a very important signal" if the parliament ratifies the Czech Republic's adherence to NATO before early elections. He is the second minister in the Tosovsky cabinet to take that line, after Foreign Minister Jaroslav Sedivy. MS


British Prime Minister Tony Blair told his visiting Hungarian counterpart, Gyula Horn, on 19 January that the EU will begin accession talks with the six candidate countries on 30 March, Hungarian media reported. Horn proposed that the "principle of differentiation" be applied to the six countries invited to begin negotiations. At a joint session of the British parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, Horn stressed the importance of NATO accession. The chairmen of both committees said there are no obstacles to the ratification of the accession protocols. MSZ


Milorad Dodik, the new prime minister of the Republika Srpska, told his first cabinet meeting in Banja Luka on 19 January that he intends to make that city the capital of the Bosnian Serb entity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 1998). Dodik added that Pale, the current capital and the power base of ultra-nationalists loyal to Radovan Karadzic, will remain the headquarters for Bosnian Serb officials participating in joint Bosnian institutions. The new government set a 48-hour deadline for outgoing Prime Minister Gojko Klickovic to formally transfer his powers and a similar 72-hour deadline for Klickovic's ministers. It also blocked the former government's access to state accounts "in order to prevent misuse of funds." Dodik added that he will review all decisions made by the outgoing government since 3 July 1997, when Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic dissolved the Pale-based parliament. PM


The Steering Committee of Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), meeting in Pale on the night of 19-20 January, appealed to all SDS supporters to avoid violence in expressing their opposition to Dodik's election by the parliament on 17 January. The committee slammed Dodik's "phantom election," calling it "undemocratic, illegal, unconstitutional, and unpatriotic." In an apparent allusion to Dodik's having been elected by Muslims and Croats as well as by moderate Serbs, the committee said the ballot would lead to the reintegration of the Republika Srpska into a unitary Bosnian state and betray all that the Serbs had fought for during the war. It called on local government councils to "take a stand on the new political situation." PM


Yugoslav Prime Minister Radoje Kontic sent a message to Dodik on 19 January wishing the new premier and his government "every success" in promoting the "well-being of the Republika Srpska and all its citizens." In Washington, a State Department spokesman praised Dodik as a "moderate and principled" politician. The spokesman added that Dodik's election marks a "major step forward in the Dayton peace process." He noted that Dodik intends to fight corruption and raise the Bosnian Serbs' standard of living. In London, the EU presidency, currently held by Britain, issued a statement welcoming Dodik's election and expressing confidence that he intends to support the Dayton agreements. PM


Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic on 19 January proposed Filip Vujanovic (43) to head the interim government until parliamentary elections take place in the spring (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 1998). The Belgrade-born lawyer has lived in Montenegro since 1981 and served first as justice minister and later as interior minister under then Prime Minister Djukanovic. Vujanovic is widely regarded as a staunch supporter of Djukanovic. The parliament must confirm the nomination. Also in Podgorica, the Interior Ministry announced on 19 January that it has arrested seven more individuals in recent days in connection with the violence leading up to Djukanovic's inauguration on 15 January, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the Montenegrin capital. PM


Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic promised former U.S. Senator Bob Dole in Belgrade on 19 January that the Belgrade authorities will make available files regarding some 400 people missing from Vukovar following the Serbian conquest of that Croatian town in 1991. Later on 19 January in Zagreb, Dole said that Croatian "President [Franjo] Tudjman offered complete support" to Dole's investigations to clarify the fate of persons missing since the war began. Dole added that "every [former Yugoslav] leader we talked to has promised his cooperation." PM


Slavko Dokmanovic went on trial in The Hague on 19 January for his alleged role in atrocities against Croatian civilians and wounded soldiers in Vukovar in 1991. Dokmanovic, who was installed as mayor of Vukovar following the Serbian conquest, is charged with overseeing the removal of some 200 people from the Vukovar hospital to nearby places where they were badly beaten and then killed. In related news, Croatian investigators on 19 January began digging up newly discovered mass graves where they expect to find the remains of at least 100 persons killed when the Yugoslav army entered border villages in 1991 and launched "ethnic cleansing operations." PM


Albanian officials signed a several oil exploration agreements in Tirana on 19 January with the U.S. firm Occidental and with a consortium led by the Austrian company OMV. Albania has long produced oil, but none of the foreign companies exploring for new fields in the past seven years has made a major find. The new agreements represent a major boost to the sluggish industry, Albanian officials said. PM


Government spokesman Eugen Serbanescu has announced that the executive will tie the 21 January vote of confidence in the parliament to a bill on the privatization of state-owned commercial enterprises (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 19 December 1997), RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Serbanescu also said that 10 other bills already submitted to the legislature and constituting a comprehensive privatization program will be debated at the extraordinary three-day session beginning on 21 January. The package includes draft laws on the statutes of the National Bank, the privatization of state-owned banks, the transformation of state-run monopolies into commercial companies, and local-government financing. He also announced that value-added tax is to be raised to 22 percent from the current 18 percent but only by 11 percent on staple foods. MS


Democratic Party chairman Petre Roman on 19 January said that President Emil Constantinescu's decision to convene the parliament in an emergency session is unconstitutional. He argued that the president can convene emergency sessions only in order to address a message to the parliament. That argument is disputed by government secretary Remus Opris. Bogdan Niculescu Duvaz, the Democratic Party minister in charge of relations with the parliament, said the cabinet members representing his party oppose discussion of the privatization law in the parliament on 21 January because the law has already been in effect since 24 December, when it was issued as a government regulation. But that claim is untenable since regulations must also be approved by the parliament. MS


The Supreme Court of Justice on 19 January returned the case of Victor Stanculescu to the Prosecutor-General's Office for re-examination, Romanian media reported. Stanculescu has been charged with embezzlement in connection with the import of high-tech telephones for the military in 1990 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 November 1997). He argues that the prosecutor-general's investigation into his case was illegal since it was conducted without the approval of the parliament or the president, as required by the constitution in the absence of a law on ministerial responsibilities. MS


President Petru Lucinschi on 17 January told a gathering of the pro-presidential "For a Prosperous and Democratic Moldova" movement in Chisinau that Moldova is likely to make no progress if a majority of forces "that conceive social development in terms of revolutions and political revenge" are returned to the parliament in the March elections, BASA-press reported. Lucinschi said the main task of the new parliament must be to "correct the imbalance of the constitutional system," referring to his demand that the parliamentary system be changed to a presidential one. MS


by Paul Goble

Two developments many world leaders had long thought impossible--eventual Baltic membership in NATO and the transformation of that defense alliance into a collective security organization--increasingly appear not only likely but even inevitable.

That movement from the unthinkable to the virtually inevitable has taken place as a result of the convergence of two very different patterns of political development: the West's tradition of and insistence on step-by-step change, and the East's experience with and expectations of sudden, dramatic shifts.

Both of those patterns and their increasingly certain impact on NATO and Europe were very much in evidence on 16 January when U.S. President Bill Clinton, Estonian President Lennart Meri, Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis, and Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas signed the U.S.-Baltic charter at a White House ceremony in Washington.

In his speech, President Clinton stressed the U.S. commitment to ensuring that every country in Europe has the right to choose its own security arrangements, regardless of its geographic location, and to guaranteeing that the Baltic States would eventually be able to enter NATO.

In his response, President Meri spoke for all three Baltic States when he repeated their desire to join the Western alliance as soon as possible and when he suggested that inclusion in NATO of those countries would be the next big test for the alliance.

Because both Clinton and the charter itself largely repeated promises the U.S. and NATO have made in the past and because the Baltic States appeared once again to be unsuccessful supplicants, many observers in the U.S., Europe, and the Russian Federation have tended to dismiss the charter as either an element in American domestic politics or a "consolation prize" for the Balts.

Such conclusions could not be more wrong, albeit for very different reasons than many of those celebrating the signing of the charter have offered so far.

What was striking about both the signing ceremony and the charter itself was the extent to which both were broadly accepted as nothing out of the ordinary.

As President Clinton noted at the start of his speech, the signing ceremony attracted an unusually large number of ambassadors, including Yulii Vorontsov, the ambassador of the Russian Federation, to mark what the U.S. leader called an historic and positive development for all concerned.

And as the commentators who dismissed the charter themselves acknowledged, the document and the speeches given on 16 January seemed unimportant because virtually everything in them had been said before and was now more or less common ground.

But that last observation is precisely the key: it is now common ground that eventually the Baltic states will get into NATO some day. And it is also common ground that the organization of which they are to become members will not be the NATO of the Cold War but a new regional security group that will cooperate with rather than contend against Russia.

Neither of those ideas was common ground until recently. But because of the pattern of developments in Eastern Europe since 1989, the very acceptance of such ideas may lead to the inclusion of the Baltic States in NATO. Moreover, the transformation of that alliance may take place much faster than anyone had expected up to now.

Even those in NATO who accept that the Baltic States will eventually join and that the alliance itself will change in the process have generally been reluctant to include the three countries on a short list for candidates for invitations in 1999. But it is a measure of just how fast things may now be moving that an unnamed senior U.S. State Department official explicitly rejected a media recent report in the Baltic states that NATO will not invite the three at that time.

Along with the increasing willingness of the international community to accept as inevitable what had been seen as impossible, that rejection seems likely to encourage the three Baltic governments to push even harder toward their goal over the next 18 months in the hope that they will receive invitations in the next round of alliance expansion.

A year ago, such an initiative would have seemed the most improbable of developments, just as five years ago few thought that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic would be taken into the Western alliance and just as 10 years ago even fewer thought that the Soviet Union would disappear from the map.

Now, in the aftermath of the signing of the U.S.-Baltic charter, those who thought Baltic membership in NATO was utopian may discover that it is going to take place far sooner than they had thought possible.