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Newsline - January 22, 1998


Speaking on Ekho Moskvy on 21 January, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov predicted that Russia will achieve 4-5 percent economic growth this year. He added that growth is "as inevitable as the sunrise" but that the pace of growth will depend on how well the government, State Duma, and president coordinate their actions, ITAR- TASS reported. The same day, minister without portfolio Yevgenii Yasin told journalists that Russia is likely to register 2 percent growth in 1998, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. In an interview published in "Kommersant-Daily" on 20 January, First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais said the main threat to Russian economic growth this year is another potential crisis on Asian financial markets. Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov recently cited domestic factors in explaining why he is not optimistic that Russia will achieve economic growth this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 1998). LB


The Duma on 21 January asked the Constitutional Court to clarify Article 92 of the constitution, Interfax reported. Part 2 of that article says the president's term ends early if he resigns, is impeached, or shows "persistent incapacity to carry out his duties for health reasons." New presidential elections must then be held within three months. Part 3 of Article 92 says the prime minister will execute the president's duties "in all cases when" the president is unable to fulfill those duties. The Duma wants to know whether this provision refers only to the cases mentioned in part 2 or whether it foresees other circumstances under which the prime minister can become acting president. The Duma also wants the Court to clarify whether the president may resume his term after the prime minister has served as acting head of state. LB


On 22 January, the Constitutional Court was to have considered the appeal by the Duma and Federation Council against Yeltsin's refusal to sign the trophy art law after both houses of the parliament overrode his veto. However, those hearings have been postponed indefinitely because the judge who was preparing the case for consideration has fallen ill, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 January. Article 107 of the constitution says the president is to sign a laws within seven days if both houses of the parliament override his veto. LB


The Duma on 21 January failed to override a presidential veto on amendments to the law on banks and banking activities, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. Those amendments would have given regional branches of the Audit Chamber access to information on bank accounts of entrepreneurs whose companies receive money from regional budgets. It is widely believed that many companies misuse funds they receive from federal or regional governments. LB


Also on 21 January, the Duma adopted an appeal asking Yeltsin "to defend the older generation" in light of the upcoming revision of pensions, ITAR-TASS reported. As of 1 February, individual pensions will be recalculated, and the average monthly wage for the fourth quarter of 1997 will be used as a base for the new calculations. Earlier this month, the government issued a directive approving the Labor Ministry's estimate of that average at 760,000 old rubles ($127). However, the Duma's appeal cites data from the State Statistics Committee, which indicate that the average monthly wage from January to November 1997 was 945,000 rubles, while the average wage for December exceeded 1.2 million rubles. Government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov commented that the wage estimate approved by the government was based on contributions to the Pension Fund. LB


Yeltsin has signed a decree ordering the government to provide equal conditions for "all-Russian television and radio broadcasting organizations," defined as media outlets that broadcast in more than half of the Russian regions, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 January. The decree names fully state-owned Russian Television, 51 percent state-owned Russian Public Television (ORT), the private network NTV, and the state-owned Radio Mayak as "all-Russian television and radio broadcasting organizations." It also orders the government to charge such organizations equal rates for transmission services. LB


Yeltsin's latest decree is a victory for the private network NTV, which will continue paying government rates for the use of state-owned transmission facilities, rather than the much higher commercial rates charged to other private broadcasters. The State Anti- Monopoly Committee recently ordered that NTV be forced to pay commercial rates, and NTV appealed that decision to the Moscow Arbitration Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 1997). NTV gained the right to pay government rates for transmissions under a January 1996 agreement with the Communications Ministry. In subsequent months, the network strongly supported Yeltsin's re-election bid. NTV is 70 percent owned by Vladimir Gusinskii's Media-Most company and 30 percent owned by Gazprom. In recent months, the network's news coverage has been favorable to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and highly critical of First Deputy Prime Ministers Chubais and Nemtsov. LB


Schools were closed in 78 Russian regions on 20 January as teachers staged a one-day strike to protest continuing wage arrears, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. Teachers were supposed to have received all back wages by the end of 1997, but many are still owed several months' salaries. In addition, funds for textbooks and child allowances have not been paid out in many Russian regions. The situation is reported to be particularly bad in Krasnoyarsk Krai and in Sakhalin, Chita, Kamchatka, Orenburg, Perm, Vladimir, Voronezh, and Ulyanovsk Oblasts. LB


"Trud" charged on 21 January that according to State Statistics Committee data, "there was not a single region where debts to state employees were paid in full by the beginning of this year." The newspaper said debts to teachers totaled 1.382 billion new rubles ($230 million) as of 1 January. Workers in the health care sector were owed 574 million rubles, while debts to workers in science and culture totaled 530 million and 132 million, respectively. LB


reported on 21 January that LUKoil and Sidanko may soon announce plans to merge. Spokesmen for LUKoil and for Oneksimbank, which owns a controlling stake in Sidanko, neither confirmed nor denied the report. LUKoil is the largest Russian oil company and ranks 224th on the Financial Times 500 list of corporations in terms of market capitalization, the "Financial Times" reported on 22 January. However, if the merger of the Yukos and Sibneft oil companies is approved, the new corporation Yuksi will surpass LUKoil in terms of oil production. In November, British Petroleum agreed to purchase 10 percent of Sidanko in preparation for a joint bid in the upcoming auction for Rosneft. The same month, LUKoil signed a memorandum of understanding with Gazprom and Royal-Dutch Shell on drawing up a joint proposal on participating in the Rosneft tender (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 1997). LB


Duma Defense Committee Chairman Lev Rokhlin alleged during an interview with ORT on 21 January that the president, government, and Communist faction in the Duma have plotted to remove him from the Defense Committee. Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii and government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov on 21 January denied that any such plot exists, Russian news agencies reported. Aleksandr Shokhin, leader of the Our Home Is Russia faction in the Duma, recently announced that the heads of several Duma factions have agreed to replace Rokhlin when a January 1996 agreement on senior posts in the Duma is reviewed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 1998). Meanwhile, Duma Security Committee Chairman Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist, announced on 21 January that if Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov has agreed to allow Rokhlin to be replaced, "that does not mean that our whole faction agrees." LB


In a one-page statement issued after its 21 January session, the Board of the Armenian Pan-National Movement--the senior member of the ruling Hanrapetutyun coalition--affirmed its support for President Levon Ter-Petrossyan's efforts to preserve constitutional order and guarantee the security and independence of the state. The board called on the Armenian authorities and on political forces in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh to avoid jeopardizing the continuation of talks under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on resolving the Karabakh crisis. It also requested they refrain from "representing differences that can be resolved as a standoff between two factions of the Armenian people" and from inappropriate and insulting behavior during political debate. They called for "resolute measures" to prevent further terrorist attacks. LF


An Armenian government spokeswoman on 21 January told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau that the government will not issue an official statement in response to accusations made earlier that day by leading members of the Armenian Pan-National Movement. Board members had accused the government of Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan of "indifference" in the wake of the recent attacks on the head of the presidential security service, the head of the internal troops, and the head of Yerevan's Avan district. The spokeswoman said it is "questionable" whether there is a connection between the three attacks. LF


On the first leg of a tour of the Transcaucasus States, Russian Federation Council chairman Yegor Stroev met in Tbilisi on 21 January with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. Stroev and Shevardnadze affirmed their shared commitment to resolving problems in bilateral relations, particularly the refusal by Russian border guards to allow trucks carrying alcohol to cross the frontier from Georgia to Russia. Shevardnadze expressed his appreciation for Russia's role in seeking to mediate a settlement of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflicts. LF


Georgian First Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Ukleba told Interfax on 21 January that Tbilisi will coordinate its Chechen policy with Moscow. Acting Chechen Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov, speaking to the Georgian press on 18 January, said bilateral ties should be "invigorated" and that he would attempt to establish "official contacts" with the Georgian Foreign Ministry. In his New Year's address, Georgian President Shevardnadze affirmed that while Georgian relations with Chechnya must be normal and neighborly, they are nonetheless based on the principle of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. LF


Meeting in Tbilisi on 21 January, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili and Armenian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian discussed bilateral and regional cooperation. Their talks focused on the TRACECA project to create a transport corridor from Central Asia via the Caucasus to Europe and on possible joint projects within the framework of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, Oskanian informed "RFE/RL Newsline" on 22 January. They also evaluated the potential for coordinating the two countries' policies on integration into European structures and agreed to intensify engagement in southeast European regional initiatives. LF


Georgian and Chinese military experts are drafting a series of agreements on military and military-technical cooperation between the two countries, Caucasus Press reported on 20 January. That announcement follows a meeting between Georgian Defense Minister Vardiko Nadibaidze and Chinese Ambassador to Georgia Zhang Yongquan. Nadibaidze has also suggested to German Ambassador to Georgia Norbert Bass that Georgia host the maneuvers scheduled for later this year under NATO's Partnership for Peace program. LF


Giving evidence at the trial of 15 members of the now banned paramilitary organization Mkhedrioni, former Deputy Interior Minister Temuri Khachishvili denied any involvement either in the failed attempt to kill Georgian head of state Eduard Shevardnadze in August 1995 or in several political assassinations, Caucasus Press reported on 21 January. But Khachishvili said the Ministry of National Security had been aware of plans to kill Shevardnadze. He claimed that former National Security Minister Shota Kviraia and Prosecutor-General Djamlet Babilashvili had asked him to kill Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze. He also said that the 1993 assassination of Shevardnadze's close associate Soliko Khabeishvili was contracted by a Georgian businessman living abroad. LF


Gerd Merrem, UN special envoy to Tajikistan, is in Dushanbe attempting to persuade the Tajik government and United Tajik Opposition (UTO) to resume their efforts toward cooperation, RFE/RL correspondents there reported. On 21 January, Merrem met with UTO leader and head of the National Reconciliation Commission Said Abdullo Nuri, who had suspended the UTO's participation in the commission on 15 January claiming the government was not fulfilling its obligations under the June 1997 peace agreement. Merrem secured a promise from Nuri to meet with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov. Merrem is scheduled to meet with Rakhmonov on 23 January. BP


"Rossiiskaya gazeta" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 22 January that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is currently in Moscow for the CIS Customs Union summit, will seek the dismissal of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium director-general, Vladimir Stanev, in private meetings with his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" writes that the Kazakh leadership believes the consortium is "not operating efficiently and needs restructuring." "Rossiiskaya gazeta" suggests that U.S. oil companies involved in the project "managed to persuade Kazakhstan to take their side and demand Stanev's replacement by a U.S. representative." It adds that U.S. companies have "effectively ceased to fund work" within the consortium until Stanev is replaced. BP


RFE/RL correspondents in Bishkek reported that on 22 January, some 1,000 people picketed the government building. Most were pensioners protesting the parliament's rejection several days earlier of amendments whereby all pensioners would receive 500 som (about $30) a month. Currently, only those who retired after 1994 receive that amount; those who retired before 1994 receive 200 som a month. Government statistics show there are currently 547,000 pensioners in Kyrgyzstan, of whom 412,000 retired before 1994. BP


Leonid Kuchma on 21 January issued a decree reducing the country's 1998 budget deficit, ITAR-TASS reported. Government spending is to be cut and increased revenues sought from privatization and taxes in an effort to reduce the deficit to 2.5 percent of GDP, down from the original budget's projected 3.3 percent. National Bank head Viktor Yushchenko had recommended that the deficit be held to 2 percent, but he said he supports the decree because it brings the deficit in line "with possible credits." Meanwhile, a Ukrainian delegation that included Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tyhypko and Finance Minister Ihor Mytyukov arrived in Washington on 22 January to hold talks with World Bank and IMF officials. PB


Also on 21 January, the National Bank announced that the hryvna will be traded within a corridor of 1.8 to 2.25 to the dollar, Reuters reported. The government announced last week that it would not be able to maintain the previous band (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 1998). Many observers think the beleaguered currency is on the verge of a devaluation. PB


Andris Skele has told a parliamentary investigation committee that he was unaware of the so- called Latvenergo affair until after the notorious 3 million lats (some $6 million) transfer took place, BNS reported on 20 January. That transfer was part of a larger sum that the state energy company paid last year to an off-shore Liechtenstein company that had obtained collection rights for debts Latvenergo owed Bank Baltija. (Following the bank's bankruptcy, the government had appointed a liquidator who sold the debt collection rights to the Liechtenstein company.) The former premier blamed a press secretary for having failed to inform him about media reports that discussed the deal even before the transfer had been completed. Andrejs Pantelejevs, head of the parliamentary investigation committee, told reporters that "it was indeed a government of ignoramuses with a respective prime minister." JC


Bronislaw Geremek, who is also the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, will travel to Minsk next month to discuss the opening of the controversial OSCE mission there, Reuters reported on 22 January. Geremek will meet with officials and opposition leaders in the Belarusian capital. The opening of the mission has been stonewalled by the Belarusian government for many months. PB


Josef Tosovsky's cabinet on 21 January agreed on its policy statement that will be tied to the 27 January vote of confidence. Interior Minister Cyril Svoboda told journalists that the agreement is a "major breakthrough" and that only "minor adjustments" are still needed. Svoboda and chairman of the Christian Democratic Party Josef Lux said they believe the statement may receive the parliamentary backing of the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), which the government crucially needs. Lux said the program includes the continued privatization of the large banks co-owned by the state, pension reform, and the continued deregulation of energy prices and rents. The CSSD opposes price deregulation and the privatization of banks, both of which were launched by Vaclav Klaus's cabinet. MS


The Supreme Court on 21 January overturned a September 1997 decision of a lower court halting the prosecution of former communist leaders Milos Jakes and Jozef Lenart for treason in connection with the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. The lower court ruled that the two had not acted unlawfully and that their alleged offense had crossed the statute of limitation. The Supreme Court said the investigation of the two was not thoroughly carried out and that only when this is done can the Prosecutor-General's Office consider whether to bring charges again. Justice Minister Vlasta Parkanova has appealed the decision, while the lawyer defending Jakes and Lenrat told the Supreme Court that the treason accusations against his clients amounted to a political trial, CTK reported. MS


Hungarian and Slovak delegations, meeting in Bratislava on 19 January, reached a "theoretical agreement" whereby Hungary would not insist on shutting down an existing dam at Cunovo, on the Slovak bank of the River Danube. In September 1997, the International Court of Justice in The Hague had ruled that this dam was illegally built when the Slovaks diverted the river to Slovak territory. Janos Nemcsok, head of the Hungarian delegation, told Hungarian media that, in exchange, Slovakia would agree to providing enough water for Hungary in the old river bed and to turning a Hungarian reservoir at Dunakiliti into a resort lake. That agreement would satisfy the region's water needs. According to "Magyar Hirlap," the agreement is the most important result of the three-month negotiations between the two countries. MSZ


A NATO spokesman said in Brussels on 22 January that peacekeepers arrested Goran Jelisic earlier that morning "without incident" in Bijeljina. In Sarajevo, a spokesman for the UN said that the Hague-based war crimes tribunal welcomes the arrest. He added that the court "is confident that the SFOR mandate will permit similar interventions in the future." Jelisic is wanted by the tribunal in connection with the death of 14 Muslim prisoners at the Luka prison camp, near Brcko, in 1992. Jelisic dubbed himself "the Serbian Adolf" in conjunction with his performance as commander at Luka. PM


NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana told "Le Figaro" of 22 January that it is not the peacekeepers' task to seek out Bosnian war criminals and arrest them. Solana added, however, that "we arrest [war criminals] when we find them, and we will continue to do so. We must do things so as to avoid big risks. We must proceed intelligently. We are going to create the conditions that will make life difficult for these individuals." PM


A spokesman for Dragan Kalinic, speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament and a member of Radovan Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), said in Pale on 21 January that deputies from the SDS and its allies will hold a legislative session in Bijeljina on 24 January. Prime Minister Milorad Dodik and his moderate parliamentary backers have already announced that the parliament will meet in Banja Luka on 24 January. Kalinic maintains that he legally adjourned the last (17 January) session of the parliament before Dodik was elected and that the session the SDS has called for 24 January is simply a continuation of that gathering. Dodik and his supporters argue that the 17 January election was legal and that the Banja Luka parliament is the only legitimate one. PM


Carlos Westendorp, the international community's chief representative in Bosnia, displayed the designs he chose for Bosnia's new joint bank notes in Sarajevo on 21 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 1998). The seven notes bear portraits of Bosnian writers and will be printed in France. The designs issued in the Republika Srpska will vary slightly from those distributed in the mainly Croatian and Muslim federation, but both sets of designs will be valid throughout Bosnia. The interim currency, known as the convertible mark, will be pegged to the German mark and be valid for 18 months, by which time a permanent currency is scheduled to go into use. PM


Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov said in Ljubljana on 21 January that a conflict could break out in Kosovo and that NATO and the EU must pay close attention to that region, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the Slovenian capital. Gligorov warned that "hundreds of thousands" of Kosovars would flee to Macedonia in the event of such a conflict and that the international community would have to maintain "a corridor" for them to use, presumably leading to Albania. In Vienna, the International Helsinki Federation issued a statement warning of war in Kosovo and calling for an international conference to discuss the Kosovo question. And in Tirana, former Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic urged full equality for Kosovo's Albanians and urged Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova, and Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano meet to discuss Kosovo as soon as possible. PM


Yugoslav Prime Minister Radoje Kontic brokered an electoral agreement in Podgorica on 21 January whereby supporters of former President Momir Bulatovic agreed to accept a May deadline for early parliamentary elections and to abstain from staging mass street protests. Backers of President Milo Djukanovic had previously called for the May deadline, but the Bulatovic group wanted an earlier date. The legislature will agree on a series of electoral laws before the vote. Both sides agreed not to do anything that might increase tensions in the politically polarized republic ahead of the elections. PM


businesswoman Ivana Trump has acquired a 33 percent stake in the Split- based daily "Slobodna Dalmacija," which has the second-largest circulation of any Croatian daily, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Split on 21 January. Meanwhile in Zagreb, Croatian Airlines took delivery of the first of six new Airbus planes it has bought to upgrade its fleet. PM


Gezim Podgorica resigned on 21 January as unrest continued unabated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 1998). A group of rebel policemen who had held Podgorica hostage since 19 January released him after he agreed to quit as prefect. Meanwhile, members of the local center-right governing coalition have issued a declaration demanding that national police chief Sokol Bare release a group of local policemen who were arrested after clashing with special forces sent from Tirana, "Koha Jone" reported. Bare turned down the request, saying it was up to the courts to decide whether the men can be freed. FS


Enton Alibiblekaj, the head of the State Television's news department, since early December, has resigned, "Koha Jone" reported on 20 January. The 24 year-old journalist told the daily that both government and opposition political parties try to influence the work of journalists and interfere in editorial policy. Alibiblekaj, who previously worked for several independent dailies and Tirana's private Radio 1, had pledged to change the stiff, formal style of news presentation and raise professional standards at state television. FS


In a joint session on 21 January, the bicameral parliament voted by 225 to 170 to approve the request of Victor Ciorbea's cabinet to tie passage of the privatization law to a vote of confidence. If a no-confidence motion is not moved before 27 January, the law will be regarded as having been passed. Alexandru Sassu, the leader of the Democratic Party faction in the Chamber of Deputies, said that although his party voted in favor of the law, this should "by no means be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the Ciorbea cabinet." He also harshly criticized the cabinet's "inefficiency and lack of credibility." Democratic ministers withdrew from the government bench during the debate, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. MS


Defense Minister and Democratic Party deputy chairman Victor Babiuc on 22 january said the Democrats may withdraw from the coalition as early as next week. Radu Berceanu, deputy chairman of the Democratic Party, said his party may support a no-confidence motion against the government if it is not linked to the reform package. Following the 21 January vote in the parliament, the Bureau of the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD), repeated its "full trust in and solidarity with" the premier. It said the Democrats' latest statements were "exceptionally grave" and "endangered the existence of the present coalition." The PNTCD said it is nonetheless to continue the search for a "rational solution to the crisis". Former President Ion Iliescu, the leader of the Party of Social Democracy in Romania, said his party may submit a no-confidence motion in the government on 2 February. MS


The Moldovan-Romanian intergovernmental commission met in Chisinau on 19-20 January to discuss implementation of the 1997 program and prospects for bilateral cooperation this year, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Moldovan First Deputy Premier Ion Gutu said collaboration in 1997 was "intensive and fruitful." A spokesman for the Romanian Foreign Ministry said cooperation will be discussed at a summit of the two state chiefs in February, Mediafax reported. On 21 January, representatives of the two sides attended the opening in Chisinau of a Moldovan-Romanian trade center. MS


A poll conducted by the Opinia institute in Chisinau shows minimal differences in party support, with no single party likely to win a majority in the March parliamentary elections. The leftist Agrarian Democratic Party of Moldova leads with 12.2 percent support, followed by the centrist Party of Democratic Forces (10.5 percent), the rightist Democratic Convention of Moldova (10.5 percent), and the Party of Moldovan Communists (8.2 percent). All other formations are received less than 4 percent. The poll was conducted in mid-December, Infotag reported. MS


Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Radko Vlaikov said Bulgaria and Macedonia are currently negotiating their "language problem" at the level of deputy foreign ministers, an RFE/RL correspondent in Sofia reported on 21 January. Although Bulgaria was the first country to recognize the independent Macedonian state, it refuses to recognize the existence of a Macedonian "nation," claiming Macedonians are related to Bulgarians and the Macedonian language is a Bulgarian dialect. The dispute has lasted for nearly a century and has historical, linguistic, and territorial dimensions. Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, who is on a three day visit to Germany, said the dispute could be settled "within two weeks." Kostov has met with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel to discuss mainly bilateral relations and Bulgaria's bid for integration into Euro- Atlantic structures. MS


The National Bank on 21 January published a list of some 3,000 individuals and companies that, together, owe some $1.2 billion in bad loans. The loans are believed to have caused the bankruptcy of several banks in 1997, BTA reported. While some were used to prevent insolvent state companies from closing down, others are thought to have ended in the pockets of former communist officials. MS


by Jolyon Naegele

On 20 January, the first-ever joint working session of the Czech bicameral parliament re-elected Vaclav Havel for a second and final five-year term. But the nearly 11 hour-long electoral procedure, which culminated in Havel's victory by a margin of just one vote in the second ballot, was blemished on several counts.

In repeated votes, the lawmakers failed to muster enough support to allow the little-known Communist astrophysicist Stanislav Fischer to present his election program, largely because they would have felt obliged to offer the same opportunity to the other candidate: Miroslav Sladek, chairman of the ultra-right-wing Republican party.

Sladek spent the day in pre-trial detention in Pankrac prison for ignoring summonses over his alleged incitement to ethnic hatred during a visit by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Moreover, the lawmakers decided not to let Sladek cast a ballot from his prison cell. There was some irony in that decision, since Havel spent a total of five years in prison in the 1970s and 1980s for his dissident activities.

Havel himself had said he would have preferred to have more serious opposition. But no one from the mainstream parties came forward to challenge him. The mass circulation daily "Mlada Fronta Dnes" wrote on 19 January that Havel is so popular that only the country's founding president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, could beat him in an election.

Havel's sole campaign speech, if it can be called that, was an address to a non-working session of both houses of parliament early last month, in which he denounced the failed "one-sided" reforms of Vaclav Klaus's cabinet, which, he argued, stressed macroeconomics at the expense of the human dimension. Before that speech, deputies and senators from the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL), the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), the Social Democrats (CSSD), and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) had nominated him. But after the speech, several ODS lawmakers retracted their pledges of support.

After a tediously slow debate punctuated by most deputies leaving the ornate Spanish Hall of Prague Castle whenever a Republican or Communist took the floor, the deputies opted to vote by secret ballot rather than by a show of hands. Havel failed to gain an overall majority in either house in the first round of balloting, with 91 deputies in the 200-seat lower house and 39 senators in the 81-member upper house voting for him. In contrast, Havel had won in the first ballot five years ago with the support of 109 of the 200 deputies. At the time, the Senate did not yet exist.

Havel's poor showing in the first round came as a surprise to many. KDU-CSL chairman Josef Lux termed it an "expression of Czech political effort at humiliating someone before he is elected." Similarly, ODA chairman Jiri Skalicky branded the vote a "distasteful attempt" by certain deputies to give Havel a "slap in the face."

In the second round of voting, Havel was the only candidate. He scraped through by a vote of 99 to 98 in the lower house and 47 out of 81 senators. After lower house speaker Milos Zeman announced the results, Republican Party deputy leader Jan Vik denounced the vote, arguing that had Sladek been allowed to cast a ballot Havel would have lost. Vik said the Republicans do not recognize the election and that Havel should be ashamed. Vik's words were greeted with a loud whistle of disapproval from Havel's wife, Dagmar, who was watching events from the rear of the hall.

Had Havel lost the second round, a third round would have been held, which in all likelihood he would have won handily for two reasons.

First, the two houses of parliament would have voted as a single body. Thus, an overall majority of all those present would have sufficed. Second, many ODS supporters who cast ballots against Havel in the first two rounds would have voted for him in the third ballot to prevent further destabilization. They also needed to ensure the country would have a president who would dissolve parliament and call early elections in June.

Sociologist Miroslav Purkrabek told "Mlada Fronta Dnes" on 21 January that it was to be expected that the presidential election would be a counterattack by the ODS. Commenting on the parliament's failure to elect Havel in the first round, another major daily, "Lidove noviny" accused those deputies who voted against Havel of showing a "great deal of political cowardice."

One of the Czech Republic's foremost political commentators, Jiri Hanak, writing in the left-of-center daily "Pravo," noted that it is a paradox that "the parliament, which is trusted by 10-20 percent of the public, dealt with the candidacy of a man who is trusted by more than 70 percent of all citizens."

Speaking to reporters after the vote, Klaus said the president's narrow victory reflects Havel's real political position in the country and betrays just how split Czech society is.

Similarly, parliamentary speaker and opposition CSSD chairman Milos Zeman, many of whose deputies refrained from voting for Havel, noted the president's "narrow victory may be more satisfactory than a big victory because it reflects the balance of forces." The author is an RFE/RL senior correspondent.