CHERNOMYRDIN CRITICIZES ENERGY POLICY
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on 24 February criticized the Fuel and Energy Ministry for failing to reverse "negative trends" in the energy sector in 1997, ITAR-TASS reported. Addressing a meeting of ministry employees, Chernomyrdin noted production fell by 3.2 percent in the energy sector, which, he said, accounts for 50 percent of Russian export revenues and 40 percent of budget revenues. He noted that rising output in the oil industry did not match the growth of oil reserves in 1997, and he criticized state management of the electricity sector. Chernomyrdin said the government will introduce an energy conservation program and stricter controls over state-funded energy consumers in order to tackle the non-payments problem in the sector. Fuel and Energy Minister Sergei Kirienko and Boris Brevnov, the chief executive of the electricity giant Unified Energy System, are both considered close to First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. LB
NEMTSOV SAYS GOVERNMENT MAY BLOCK SOME MERGERS
Nemtsov announced at the 24 February meeting of Fuel and Energy Ministry employees that the government will not support mergers that would give new companies more than a 30 percent share of the domestic oil or gas market, Russian news agencies reported. Nemtsov did not name any specific firms. The State Anti-Monopoly Committee has yet to approve the recent merger of the Yukos and Sibneft oil companies to form the Yuksi firm. Chernomyrdin attended the Yuksi signing ceremony and praised the merger, but Nemtsov is charged with overseeing the work of the State Anti- Monopoly Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 January 1998). Last month, a redistribution of duties in the government gave Chernomyrdin the authority to supervise energy policy, but Nemtsov has vowed to stay involved in forming government policies in that area. LB
MINISTRY REPORTS ON MISAPPROPRIATION OF WAGE FUNDS
Government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov announced on 24 February that the Finance Ministry has handed over to Chernomyrdin its report on how funds earmarked for wage payments were allocated in late 1997, Interfax reported. Shabdurasulov said the report shows how some federal funds went astray in the regions. He added that Chernomyrdin will make the report's conclusions public at a 26 February cabinet session, to be attended by President Boris Yeltsin. Government ministers have repeatedly blamed regional officials for the fact that not all wage arrears to state employees were settled by the end of 1997. The Prosecutor-General's Office announced on 24 February that 69 officials have been convicted of embezzling a total of 2.96 billion old rubles ($490,000) in federal funds since 1996, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 February. Meanwhile, "Trud-7" reported on 24 February that 6-8 million state employees are still owed back wages. LB
GOVERNMENT SLASHES BENEFITS TO AREAS AFFECTED BY CHORNOBYL
The government has significantly reduced or eliminated benefits paid to some 900,000 people living in areas affected by radiation from the 1986 Chornobyl disaster, "Trud-7" reported on 24 February. A directive issued last December changed the status of 3,271 towns and villages in 14 Russian regions. Workers and pensioners living in those areas now receive less money in compensation from the government and will no longer be allowed to begin to receive pensions five years earlier than the ordinary retirement age. Child benefits have also been reduced. The newspaper argued that the government's policy of "saving money on anyone possible" runs counter to Yeltsin's declaration of 1998 as the "year of human rights" in Russia. LB
BANKS DISAPPOINTED BY NEW RULES ON GOLD, SILVER EXPORTS
Commercial banks are not pleased with a new government directive outlining the rules for gold and silver exports, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 21 February. The directive deals with the implementation of a July 1997 presidential decree on procedures for selling and exporting gold (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 1997). It was originally expected to have been issued last summer, soon after a government directive allowed banks to sell gold to and buy gold from private citizens. Banks wishing to export gold may receive licenses for a maximum of one year, and the licensing procedure, which involves the Central Bank and the Foreign Trade Ministry, is expected to take at least two to three months. "Kommersant-Daily" argued that although the July 1997 decree prohibited the government from establishing quotas on gold exports, the licensing system will have the effect of limiting such exports by banks. LB
CHERNOMYRDIN TO GAIN MORE MEDIA EXPOSURE
Chernomyrdin will soon begin weekly appearances on a live call-in television show on fully state-owned Russian Television (RTR), ITAR- TASS reported on 24 February. RTR has been considered close to First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais. Meanwhile, in an interview with the 22 February-1 March edition of "Moskovskie novosti," former Security Council Deputy Secretary Boris Berezovskii said that of the leading presidential contenders, Chernomyrdin is most likely to keep the government's "fundamental policies on track" and prevent "score-settling." Berezovskii finances many media outlets and wields considerable influence at 51 percent state-owned Russian Public Television (ORT). Chernomyrdin can count on support from Gazprom's media assets, which include the Moscow-based newspapers "Trud" and "Rabochaya tribuna" and some 100 local newspapers, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 24 February. Gazprom also owns shares in ORT and the private network NTV. LB
BATURIN TO FLY TO 'MIR'
Yuri Baturin, former Defense Council secretary and presidential security adviser, is to be a member of one of the last crews to work on Russia's "Mir" space station, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 February. Baturin is scheduled fly to the station on 2 August, along with Gennadii Padalka and Sergei Avdeev. Two more crews will follow in 1999, before the station is closed down at the end of that year. Baturin, who was dismissed as security adviser earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 13 February 1998), said he is glad the space agency's decision came now as he could "fully devote himself to preparing for the flight." BP
FEW VETERANS LEFT IN PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION
Yet another Kremlin veteran is on the way out. Mikhail Krasnov, who joined the presidential administration in 1993 and has been Yeltsin's legal adviser since 1995, announced on 18 February that he will soon resign. Although Krasnov portrayed his departure as his own decision, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 19 February that he was forced out because the president was dissatisfied with his work on the first draft of Yeltsin's message to the parliament. Several other longtime presidential advisers were fired recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 1998). "Izvestiya" commented on 20 February that economic adviser Aleksandr Livshits is now the "last of the Mohicans" in the Kremlin. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported the same day that the only officials in the administration who have direct access to Yeltsin are his Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev, his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, and his spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii. LB
YELTSIN STILL WANTS TO SCRAP PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION...
Aleksandr Kotenkov, the president's representative in the State Duma, told the official newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 21 February that Yeltsin still wants to eliminate the proportional representation system currently used to elect half the Duma. Kotenkov said electing all 450 Duma deputies in single-member districts would be "more democratic." He noted that in the 1995 Duma elections, the four groups that were eligible to receive seats distributed proportionally gained a combined total of only 50 percent of the vote. (He did not mention that less than 5 percent of the 225 deputies elected in single-member districts in 1995 gained more than 50 percent of the vote in their districts.) At the same time, Kotenkov said some "very interesting compromises" on the electoral law have been proposed. This suggests Yeltsin's position may be flexible. LB
...BUT NDR CONSIDERS THAT CHANGE 'PREMATURE'
The pro- government Our Home Is Russia (NDR) faction believes that it would be "premature" to eliminate proportional representation in the Duma elections, Duma First Deputy Speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov told ITAR-TASS on 17 February. He said switching to a system in which all 450 Duma deputies are elected in single-member districts will be possible once Russia has developed strong political parties. But if such a change is enacted now, Ryzhkov said, "the young multi-party system will perish" and the Duma will come to reflect mainly regional rather than nationwide interests. LB
ANOTHER COMPROMISE PROPOSED ON ELECTORAL LAW
Duma Deputy Vladimir Lysenko has joined the ranks of those offering compromise proposals on the electoral law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 1998). Lysenko, whose bloc won less than 2 percent of the vote in the 1995 parliamentary elections, spoke out on 16 February against electing the Duma exclusively in single-member districts, ITAR-TASS reported. Instead, Lysenko favors a "floating barrier" for electoral blocs. Under his proposal, the current 5 percent barrier would be lowered if necessary to ensure that the groups eligible to receive Duma seats distributed proportionally have won a combined total of at least 90 percent of the vote. LB
TOP OFFICIAL FACES CORRUPTION CHARGES IN TVER
Tver Oblast Deputy Governor Viktor Vokov was arrested on 20 February on bribery charges, "Kommersant-Daily" reported four days later. Oblast prosecutors have provided few details about the case, but Volkov, who was in charge of supervising the agrarian and food production sectors in the oblast, is believed to be accused of taking $250,000 in bribes. Sources in the oblast administration say Volkov's arrest is politically motivated and connected to a long-running conflict between Governor Vladimir Platov and Tver Prosecutor Vladimir Parchevskii, whom Platov has tried to replace, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 February. Former Tver Deputy Governor Ibragim Gulaev was arrested in January. LB
RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY DEFENDS DUMA DEPUTIES' KARABAKH TRIP
Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadii Tarasov on 24 February rejected Azerbaijan's objections to the participation by some 30 Russian State Duma deputies in the 20 February celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the campaign for Nagorno-Karabakh's unification with Armenia, Interfax and Turan reported. One of those deputies was former Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry had argued that the visit "damages Russia's image" and "runs counter to Azerbaijani-Russian relations." But Tarasov rejected that argument on the grounds that the deputies' visit had been private, not official. Tarasov added that Russia's position on resolving the Karabakh conflict "remains unchanged." LF
WHEREABOUTS OF FRENCH HOSTAGE STILL UNCLEAR
Senior Chechen and North Ossetian government representatives have both denied that UNHCR official Vincent Cochetel is being held hostage on their territory, Russian agencies reported. Cochetel, a French citizen, was abducted in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz, late last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 1998). Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Kazbek Makhashev told ITAR-TASS on 24 February that he believes Cochetel is still in North Ossetia. But North Ossetian Prime Minister Taimuraz Mamsurov told French diplomats the same day that Cochetel is "safe and sound" in Chechnya. Mamsurov added that North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov has set up a special task force to locate and free Cochetel. So far, no ransom has been demanded for Cochetel's release. LF
ZVIADISTS RELEASE ANOTHER UN HOSTAGE
Supporters of former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia who abducted four UN observers in western Georgia on 19 February have released a second hostage, Swedish Major Maarten Moelgaard. The abductors said Moelgaard's release, which took place late on 24 February, was a "gesture of good will." Earlier that day in Moscow, meeting a demand by the kidnappers, Georgian Ambassador to Russia Vazha Lortkipanidze held talks with Nemo Burchuladze, who was deputy parliamentary speaker under Gamsakhurdia in 1990- 1991. Burchuladze stressed he has no links with the hostage-takers but agreed to their demand that he travel to Tbilisi on 25 February to continue talks on the remaining hostages' release under the aegis of the UN. Burchuladze said the abductors now demand a "halt to repression" in Georgia and international condemnation of Gamsakhurdia's violent ouster by two Georgian warlords in January 1992, Caucasus Press reported. LF
RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY CONDEMNS GEORGIAN ALLEGATIONS
Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadii Tarasov on 24 February said that recent statements by various Georgian officials claiming unnamed Russian circles were behind the failed 9 February attempt to assassinate Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze are "unacceptable" and "not conducive" to improving bilateral understanding. The previous day, Tarasov summoned Georgian ambassador Lortkipanidze to inform him that "excessively emotional statements by the Georgian side" are unhelpful. Addressing a congress of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia on 22 February, Shevardnadze implied there had been Russian participation in the attempt on his life, but he ruled out the involvement of President Yeltsin. Two days later, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Defense Minister Igor Sergeev's planned visit to Georgia on 27-28 February has been postponed, ITAR-TASS reported. LF
JAPAN TO PARTICIPATE IN ANOTHER CASPIAN OIL CONSORTIUM
On the first day of his official visit to Japan, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev met with representatives of the Mitsui Corporation, AFP and Turan reported on 24 February. An agreement was reached whereby Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR will cede to Mitsui a 15 percent share in the consortium that was set up last fall to exploit the Kyurdashi Caspian oil field. Under the original agreement, SOCAR and Italy's Agip originally each had a 50 percent stake in the consortium; later, SOCAR ceded 25 percent to Agip. Kyurdashi has estimated oil reserves totaling 350 million barrels. Japan's Itochu has shares in two other Azerbaijani Caspian oil consortia. LF
IRANIAN 'SPIES' DETAINED IN KAZAKHSTAN
Kazakh security services have detained three Iranian nationals and one Kazakh citizen, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported on 25 February. The Kazakh citizen was allegedly passing "secret information" to the Iranians when they were apprehended by the security agents. Kazakhstan's security service "had identified the Iranian spies long ago," according to Interfax. ITAR-TASS, meanwhile, reported that the Kazakh citizen had been passing information on political, economic, and social issues as well as "data on some people in power." BP
TAJIK FIELD COMMANDER SEIZES HUMANITARIAN AID
The Tajik Interior Ministry on 24 February confirmed that, three days earlier, a group loyal to field commander Mullo Abdullo hijacked two trucks carrying humanitarian aid from Dushanbe to Komsomolabad, Interfax reported. The group took control over a check point in an area some 90 kilometers east of Dushanbe, stopped the trucks, beat the police escort, took the policemen hostage and drove off in the trucks. They later released seven of the 10 policemen. They also returned one of the trucks after unloading its cargo. A unit of 40 troops from the Interior Ministry was sent to the area on 22 February. BP
KYRGYZ, KAZAKH MUFTIS CALL FOR BAN ON "NEW ISLAMIC SECTS"
Absatar Agy and Raatbek Agi have called on the presidents of the five Central Asian states to issue a ban on the activities of "new Islamic sects," including Wahhabism, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The two religious leaders convened an international conference in the Kyrgyz capital on 21 February entitled "Integration of the Central Asian Muslim Community." Participants debated restoring cooperation between Muslim religious communities in the CIS strengthening "inter-ethnic stability," and combatting "religious extremism." Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, Prime Minister Apas Jumagulov, parliamentary speaker Andygany Erkebaev, and Pakistani ambassador Nazar Abbas attended the conference, together with religious leaders from the five Central Asian states, Russia, and Azerbaijan, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta." LF
KYRGYZSTAN'S BID FOR WTO MEMBERSHIP STALLED
Kyrgyzstan's membership in the CIS Customs Union is the main obstacle to that country joining the World Trade Organization, an unnamed Kyrgyz government official told RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau on 23 February. President Akaev met with WTO officials at the Davos Economic Forum in January to discuss his country's bid for membership of that organization. He failed, however, to receive assurances that Kyrgyzstan would be invited to join. LF
BELARUSIAN YOUTHS SENTENCED
In a much-publicized case, a Minsk court on 24 February found two youths guilty of vandalism. Alexei Shydlowsky, 19, was sentenced to 18 months in jail, while 16-year-old Vadzim Labkovich received a suspended sentence and was released from custody. Both men, members of the youth wing of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, have been held in jail since their arrest in August. They were convicted of writing graffiti on walls and throwing paint at Soviet-era statues in their hometown of Stouptsy. An official from Human Rights Watch called the event a "grotesque show trial" and said it had the "hallmarks of Soviet repression." The defendants were handcuffed and kept in a cage during the trial. The EU called last week for the youths to be released, and Amnesty International had described the two as "prisoners of conscience." At a press conference after the sentencing, Labkovich vowed to actively campaign for the release of Shydlowsky. PB
ESTONIA'S MERI WARNS OF THREAT "FROM INSIDE"
Speaking on the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Estonia, President Lennart Meri warned that threats to the country come not from outside Estonia, in particular Russia, but from inside, ETA reported on 24 February. Meri said there is an identity crisis in Estonia because the people are "not proud of their politicians, their parliament, [or] their political parties, and they distrust the legal system and the police." He argued that a way out of this crisis would be for politicians to consider the interests of the state, rather than their own personal interests. He repeated his call for like-minded parties to merge, saying "the instability of Estonian parties jeopardizes the stability of Estonia's political life [and] economic development and may influence the constitutional order." JC
PROTESTS CONTINUE AGAINST PHONE HIKES IN LITHUANIA
Some 2,000 people surrounded the parliament building in Vilnius on 24 February to protest an increase in telephone rates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 1998), an RFE/RL correspondent in the Lithuanian capital reported. The protest coincided with a debate in the parliament about possibly rescinding the increase. The leaders of the rally, which was organized by the local unions, have called for another protest to coincide with the inauguration on 26 February of Valdas Adamkus as president. JC
POLISH TRUCKS BLOCK BORDER WITH BELARUS
Some 500 angry Polish truck drivers blocked the Kukuryki checkpoint on the Polish- Belarusian border on 24 February to protest day-long delays at the crossing, PAP reported. Drivers have had to wait up to five days to cross the border, and a 40-kilometer line of vehicles heading to Belarus has formed at the Kukuryki crossing. When Poland tightened border controls earlier this year, small traders began pooling resources and putting their wares in trucks rather than trying to cross by car, greatly increasing truck traffic. Drivers have threatened to block the crossing for cars as well if the waiting time in not reduced. PB
IN-FIGHTING CONTINUES WITHIN CZECH OPPOSITION PARTY...
Vladimir Dlouhy, former deputy chairman of the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), on 24 February told journalists that the PPF, Philip Morris, and Vitkovice companies were only "mediators" for the party's real sponsors, which in 1995-1996 made donations to the ODA through a fictitious firm set up in the Virgin Islands. He said he did not know who the real donors were but added they were foreigners. Dlouhy said the entire ODA leadership at that time knew about his talks with the mediators, CTK reported. Dlouhy added he will leave the ODA. Meanwhile, three members of the party's former leadership, including Jiri Skalicky, said they knew only about the Virgin Island-based firm but not that the three companies had been only mediators. The identity of those companies was disclosed by Skalicky. MS
...WHILE PARTY FACES EXTINCTION
Pavel Bratinka, the founder of the ODA, announced on 24 February that he, too, is leaving the party. He is the fifth ODA deputy to take that step. A public opinion poll conducted by Sofres-Factum shows that support for the ODA has dropped below the 5 percent required to gain entry to the parliament, CTK reported on 24 February. The poll shows the ODA with only 4.9 percent support. The Social Democratic Party continues to lead (28.8 percent), followed by Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (10.8 percent), the Freedom Union (10.3 percent), and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (9.3 percent). MS
CZECH 'NOSTALGIA' FOR COMMUNIST REGIME GROWS
The same Sofres-Factum poll shows that the number of Czechs who say they would prefer to live under the former communist regime is growing. Last year, 18.1 percent showed such a preference, while that figure has now risen to 28.7 percent. Most of the "communist nostalgics" are pensioners and manual workers. Meanwhile on 24 February, the Czech government decided to increase controlled rents for apartments in Prague by up to 41 percent and to between 15-25 percent elsewhere in the country, CTK reported. Electricity and gas prices will also increase by about 30 percent as of 1 July. Needy families will receive some compensation for that hike. MS
SLOVAK PRESIDENT, PREMIER MEET AFTER THREE YEARS
Michal Kovac and Vladimir Meciar on 24 February met in what was their first meeting in three years, RFE/RL's Bratislava bureau reported. After the meeting, Meciar angrily walked away from journalists without making any statement. Presidential spokesman Vladimir Stefko said that "nobody raised his voice" during the meeting which he described as "peaceful and matter-of- fact." He said the two leaders discussed the recent resignation of the labor and economics ministers and the new appointments to the two portfolios (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 1998). Stefko said Kovac had accepted the resignations of the ministers and will swear in their replacements on 27 February. MS
MONTENEGRO CALLS FOR KOSOVO AUTONOMY
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic told state television on 24 February that Kosovo must receive a "certain degree of autonomy." He added that the province also needs its own economic development program to give people the opportunity to build a better life, BETA quoted him as saying. Djukanovic also called for a Serbian-Albanian dialogue because "without a dialogue in Kosovo, Yugoslavia cannot return to membership in the international community." The Montenegrin president noted that Kosovo has long been under an especially repressive police regime but added that the state cannot politically or economically afford to maintain such a control structure in the long run. He called on the Belgrade authorities to prepare a comprehensive program dealing first and foremost with Kosovo and aimed at returning Yugoslavia to the international community. Those remarks may constitute Djukanovic's most direct challenge yet to the policies of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. PM
WESTENDORP APPEALS TO TUDJMAN
Carlos Westendorp, the international community's chief representative in Bosnia, said in Zagreb on 24 February that President Franjo Tudjman and Foreign Minister Mate Granic have agreed to help secure the removal of Pero Raguz, the mayor of the Herzegovinian town of Stolac. Representatives of the international community hold Raguz partly responsible for a series of recent physical attacks on Muslim refugees attempting to return to Stolac (see "RFE/RL Bosnia Report," 24 February 1998). According to Granic, however, Tudjman also told Westendorp that the main problem in Bosnia is the "legacy of history" and not the behavior of individuals. The Croatian president also urged Westendorp to address his complaints "primarily" to the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina themselves and not to Zagreb. PM
THIRD BOSNIAN SERB TO HAGUE
Simo Zaric, one of six Bosnian Serbs from Bosanski Samac who is wanted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, turned himself in to the court's representatives on 24 February and was sent immediately to The Netherlands. Two other of the six men gave themselves up 10 days earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 1998). Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has been active behind the scenes in recent weeks to persuade indicted Bosnian Serbs to surrender to the court voluntarily. PM
MORE AID MONEY FOR BOSNIAN SERBS
Westendorp and Dodik signed an agreement in Banja Luka on 24 February on the allocation of $8.5 million in EU aid money to the Republika Srpska. The money will be used to pay the salaries of teachers, police, and customs officials as well as pensions. PM
FAMILIAR FACES HEAD BOSNIAN SERB POLICE
Republika Srpska Interior Minister Milovan Stankovic named well-known policemen from both reformist and hard-liner camps to senior positions on 24 February. The appointees include Ljubisa Savic-- better known as "Mauser" and as the wartime paramilitary leader in Bijeljina--and Slavko Paleksic, who served as police chief in the last government loyal to Radovan Karadzic. Stankovic was an officer during the recent war and was praised by Croats and Muslims for his humane treatment of prisoners. At the end of the war, he founded an independent newspaper that was sharply critical of the Karadzic faction. PM
SARAJEVO CHANGES PROPERTY LAW
The mainly Muslim and Croatian federal government on 24 February approved and sent to the parliament a draft law that gives refugees six months to reclaim their homes, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Sarajevo. The measure repeals a war-time law that confiscated the flats of people who fled their homes after April 1991. The international community has been urging the Muslim authorities to repeal that act to allow Serbs and Croats to return to Sarajevo. PM
REFUGEE AGREEMENT FOR MOSTAR
Muslim Mostar Mayor Safet Orucevic, his Croat deputy Ivan Prskalo, and Kresimir Zubak, the Croatian member of the joint presidency, agreed in Sarajevo on 24 February on a program to enable Mostar refugees to go home "immediately," Orucevic told Reuters. He provided no details. West Mostar is currently mainly Croatian, and east Mostar is almost entirely Muslim. In Mostar itself, federal police closed off the main street dividing the two halves of the town in the wake of a series of violent incidents. Martin Garrod, Westendorp's deputy in Mostar, called on Croatian and Muslim leaders to put an end to the violence. Orucevic urged SFOR to start regular patrols along the main street. PM
CROATIAN SERBS THREATEN TO QUIT JOINT BODIES
Milorad Pupovac, Vojislav Stanimirovic and Milos Vojnovic, who are leaders of Croatia's Serbian minority, said in statement in Zagreb on 24 February that they will leave joint bodies aimed at promoting the reintegration of eastern Slavonia into Croatia unless Serbs stop fleeing the region and unless incidents that the Serbs regard as provocative cease. PM
BELGRADE, PODGORICA DENY ROLE IN ALBANIAN UNREST
The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry issued a statement in Belgrade on 24 February denying claims by Albanian Interior Minister Neritan Ceka two days earlier that Yugoslav secret service agents played a role in the recent unrest in Shkoder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 February 1998). The Belgrade statement noted that "Yugoslavia strongly rejects these false and spiteful allegations aimed at diverting attention from the real causes of Albania's internal problems." Montenegrin Interior Minister Vukasin Maras told the Belgrade daily "Blic" of 25 February that Ceta's allegations are "baseless." In Tirana, Albanian National Police Chief Sokol Bare said he has no evidence of any Montenegrin involvement in the unrest, "Shekulli" reported. PM/FS
POLICE SACKINGS AFTER SHKODER UNREST...
National deputy police chief Ilir Cano said in Tirana on 24 February that more than 150 policemen in Shkoder will be fired as a result of the unrest in the northern city, "Koha Jone" reported. He said that about one-third of the city's policemen did not return to work on 23 February, after special forces retook control of the city from an armed gang. He added that the policemen's behavior constituted desertion. Meanwhile, a special team appointed by Prosecutor-General Arben Rakipi has opened investigations into the unrest, "Republika" reported on 25 February. The daily quotes unnamed sources within the prosecutor's office as saying the investigations focus on the role of organized crime in the disturbances but will also examine the possibility that political rivalries played a part. FS
...WHILE CRIMINALS TRY TO FLEE WITH LOOT
The Albanian and Italian coast guard have stopped a speedboat with 10 escaped criminals trying to flee Shkoder, "Shekulli" reported on 25 February. The daily quotes Albanian police as saying the criminals were heavily armed and were in possession of some $350,000 believed stolen from a bank in Shkoder during the night of 22-23 February. A total of 22 people have been arrested in connection with the riots. A spokesman for the Prefecture of Shkoder said that the material damage from the unrest amounts to $1 million, "Koha Jone" reported on 25 February. FS
ROMANIAN PREMIER OFFERS ALTERNATIVES
Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea on 24 February said that either the ruling coalition accepts his repeated offer to resign or the Democratic Party stops its continued attacks on him. Ciorbea was speaking before a meeting of the coalition's Political Council, at which party leaders discussed the ongoing negotiations with the IMF over the 1998 budget. While the Democrats pledged to back the budget in the parliament, they are still insisting that a new premier be appointed, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. On 25 February, Ciorbea met with IMF chief negotiator Poul Thompsen, saying later the positions of the two sides are drawing closer. He noted that the budget will provide for a deficit of 3.6 percent of GDP. The fund still considers the government's projection of privatization revenues to be overly optimistic. MS
ROMANIAN OPPOSITION PARTY CRITICIZES PRESIDENT
Adrian Nastase, the deputy chairman of the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR), said on 24 February that President Emil Constantinescu has met with PDSR members of the parliament's economic commissions on the 1998 budget without informing the PDSR leadership of his intention to do so. Nastase said this is a "flagrant infringement of the principle of division of powers" between the executive and the legislative and an "attempt to side-step the process of the rule of the law." MS
ROMANIAN SUPREME COURT RULES AGAINST GOVERNMENT
The Supreme Court on 24 February ruled that amending the education law and the law on public administration by government regulation is unconstitutional, Romanian radio reported. The ruling followed an appeal by the Party of Romanian National Unity, which pointed out that both laws are so-called "organic laws" and therefore cannot be changed by government regulation. That category of legislation requires the approval of an absolute majority of all deputies and senators in order to be passed or changed. The court ruling may trigger a new government crisis, since the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania has made its participation in the coalition conditional on amending the education and public administration laws. MS
ITALIAN PREMIER IN BULGARIA
Romano Prodi on 24 February met with President Petar Stoyanov, Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, and other Bulgarian officials. According to an RFE/RL correspondent in Sofia, Rome is interested in participating in the construction of a trans-Balkan highway linking the Black Sea port of Burgas with Albania's Adriatic port of Durres. It would also like to take part in building an oil pipeline between Burgas and the Albanian port of Vlora. MS
BULGARIAN PATRIARCH REFUSES TO STEP DOWN
Patriarch Maxim on 24 February told President Petar Stoyanov that he will not step down "for the good of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church" and that the president must stop interfering in the internal affairs of the Church, RFE/RL's Sofia bureau reported. Stoyanov has called on both Maxim, who was appointed patriarch by the communist regime, and his rival, Patriarch Pymen, who set up another synod in 1991, to resign in order to bring about an end to the split in the Church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 1998). MS
ETHNIC ALBANIAN LEADER COMPLAINS OF DISCRIMINATION IN MACEDONIA
by Anthony Georgieff
Arber Xhaferi, the leader of the Albanian Democratic Party (PDSA), which has its stronghold in the Macedonian region of Tetovo, says that ethnic Albanians are bracing for trouble in the former Yugoslav republic.
According to official estimates, between 400,000 and 500,000 ethnic Albanians live in Macedonia. But Xhaferi says they number at least 800 000, although virtually all decided not to participate in the only census to have taken place in the country since independence. In the western regions of Tetovo and Gostivar, ethnic Albanians make up the majority.
Xhaferi, an independent deputy in Macedonia's parliament who founded the PDSA eight months ago, .recently told RFE/RL that his party is demanding the formal recognition of the right to use the Albanian language in schools and in dealings with official bodies. Xhaferi said that ethnic Albanians will not settle for a minority status because they constitute up to 80 percent of the local population in areas such as Tetovo and Gostivar. Instead, he says, they would like to be considered a constituent nation in Macedonia or a "people of the state" coequal to Macedonians.
The Macedonian Constitution of 1991 describes the state as "Macedonian" and gives "minority status" to some ethnic groups. The Albanian language is not banned in Macedonia and is even taught in some primary schools. But the authorities request all official documents to be in Macedonian. Moreover, the public hoisting of the Albanian flag is banned, except at sports and cultural events.
"Skopje uses the so-called international factor in order not to give us what we want," Xhaferi said. He was alluding to the widespread belief among ethnic Macedonians, including moderate President Kiro Gligorov, that the Albanians' real goal is union with Albania.
"There is a lot of confusion. The majority [of Macedonian citizens] want to be Slavs and call themselves Macedonian but that is not acceptable to either Greece, Bulgaria, or Serbia, with which the former Yugoslav republic has no final border. This makes for a potentially lethal cocktail," according to Xhaferi.
Xhaferi said his party will accept Macedonia's borders if the Skopje government recognizes what he calls the "political realities," namely, that one-third of the country's total population is ethnic Albanian. "Macedonia is a multi- ethnic state, like Bosnia, but the Slavic politicians will not admit this," he noted.
"We must have an agreement with the ethnic Macedonian community to define our rights and obligations," Xhaferi said.. "We must re-write the constitution, and we must ensure that all citizens are loyal to the state."
Xhaferi complained that the current constitution defines Macedonia as a Slavic state. "They ask us to be loyal to a state that does not protect us," he commented. "But this is a vicious circle, as they want dialogue within a system that is governed by a law that we object to."
Xhaferi cited various international documents and agreements concluded during and/or after the Yugoslav wars that secure the protection of ethnic communities living outside their "mother states." But he argued that the government in Skopje refuses to implement those accords.
. The Macedonian authorities have refused to register Xhaferi's PDSA on the grounds that its basic principles are unconstitutional. "We want the law changed but how can we change it peacefully if we are not allowed to form a political party?" Xhaferi asked. Currently, seven parliamentary deputies belong to the party but because the PDSA is not registered, they present themselves as independents. Xhaferi says that 11 local mayors also belong to the party and the organization has a considerable following among ethnic Albanians.
Xhaferi confirmed he has close connections with Kosovo, with Albania proper, and with the Albanian diaspora.
"Everyone [ in the international community] says it's better to have bad peace than a good war. They tell us we must be calm and patient. But we are losing ground step by step because this is a repressive system that uses the police and the military against us. We live under occupation," Xhaferi said, referring to the bloody riots in Gostivar last summer. During that unrest, ethnic Albanians clashed with police while protesting a new law on the display of minorities' flags and other national symbols.
The author is an RFE/RL correspondent who specializes in Balkan affairs.