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Newsline - February 26, 1998


President Boris Yeltsin left a 26 February government session without announcing the dismissal of several cabinet members, although he had been expected to do, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. Opening the meeting, Yeltsin said three government ministers might no longer have their jobs by the end of the session. However, he left during an interval, and aides said he returned to the Kremlin to record his regular weekly radio address. During an hour-long speech before Yeltsin's departure, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin criticized various aspects of the government's performance in 1997, especially efforts to boost foreign trade, cooperation with other CIS states, and tax collection. The premier's remarks fueled speculation that Foreign Trade Minister Mikhail Fradkov, Deputy Prime Minister Valerii Serov, who is in charge of CIS issues, and State Tax Service chief Aleksandr Pochinok would be fired by day's end. LB


Chernomyrdin announced at the 26 February cabinet session that some 50 billion rubles ($8.2 billion) in spending cuts are needed to make the draft 1998 budget realistic, Reuters reported. Minister without portfolio Yevgenii Yasin has also said the budget as currently drafted contains a "hole" of 50 billion rubles, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 25 February. A budget calling for 500 billion rubles in spending has been passed in three readings in the State Duma. After Yeltsin described that budget as unrealistic during a 17 February address to the parliament, the government proposed an amendment to allow it to withhold expenditures totaling 27.9 billion rubles in the event of revenue shortfalls. However, the Duma voted down that amendment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 23 February 1998). Deputies are likely to object even more strongly to the larger cuts proposed by Chernomyrdin. LB


Also, Chernomyrdin urged again that a new tax code must be adopted this year, ITAR-TASS reported. He said the code recently submitted by the government to the Duma would greatly simplify the tax system since it envisages a total of only 30 taxes, including a reduced profit tax, as well as a simpler tax procedure for small businesses. In addition, he said, agricultural producers would pay a single land tax to replace several taxes currently levied on farms. The Duma passed a government-proposed tax code in the first reading last June, but it was stalled as committees examined several thousand proposed amendments. This year, the Duma may consider several alternative tax codes in addition to the government's version (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 1998). LB


Addressing the 26 February cabinet session, which was also attended by some regional leaders, Chernomyrdin charged that federal funds often are not spent on the programs for which they are earmarked, ITAR-TASS reported. He called for an end to that practice. (Some regional officials have argued that because of chronic underfunding from the federal government, they are occasionally forced to spend money intended for wages or pensions on other vital needs, such as fuel supplies.) Chernomyrdin criticized some regions for lagging behind on Pension Fund payments. He singled out the leaders of the resource-rich Khanty-Mansi and Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs and reminded them that during the Soviet period, the whole country invested in developing those regions. He said the government will in future make the allocation of some federal funds conditional on regional contributions to the Pension Fund. LB


First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov says the "self- preservation instinct" of Russians means Yeltsin has good prospects for re- election in 2000, if the Constitutional Court decides he is eligible to serve another term. In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 February, Nemtsov argued that Russians do not want any "shocks" and that their desire to "live in a predictable country" is a strong factor in Yeltsin's favor. He added that neither competing financial groups nor potential candidates from within the "party of power" are likely to oppose Yeltsin if he decides to run again. Last year some Russian commentators viewed Nemtsov as a strong presidential contender. But Nemtsov has said he does not plan to run in 2000 and has praised a possible Yeltsin candidacy as a "stabilizing factor" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 1998). LB


Duma Security Committee Chairman Viktor Ilyukhin, a prominent member of the Communist Party, has called on the Prosecutor- General's Office to open criminal proceedings against Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 25 February. Ilyukhin charged that Chernomyrdin and Chubais illegally cut budget expenditures in the summer of 1997. The government reduced spending by some 65.8 trillion old rubles ($10.1 billion), he said, although the Duma never passed a law authorizing the cuts. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 26 February, Ilyukhin's accusations are based on an Audit Chamber report that concluded the government broke the law by cutting the 1997 budget without the Duma's approval. The newspaper also quoted unnamed Communist sources as saying that the Communists will no longer separate Chernomyrdin from their assessment of other government ministers. LB


Government sources say the Prosecutor-General's Office is investigating some of Chubais's activities, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 25 February. In addition to examining last November's "book scandal," in which Chubais and several associates each accepted a $90,000 honorarium from a publisher linked to Oneksimbank, the Prosecutor-General's office is said to be checking documents related to the activities of the State Property Committee since 1991. Also under scrutiny are offers of apartments to those who moved to Moscow after accepting official posts, a land purchase by Chubais, and a bank loan he drew in order to build a dacha. And there is reportedly an inquiry into whether Chubais gave the IMF information on the economic situation in Russia, and if so, on what terms. LB


"Moskovskii komsomolets" on 25 February accused Economics Minister Yakov Urinson of using his government post to promote the interests of Strategiya Bank, which is headed by his brother. Among other things, the newspaper alleged that Urinson helped the bank obtain a license to carry out certain hard-currency transactions. Speaking to journalists on 25 February, minister without portfolio Yevgenii Yasin characterized the article as part of a concerted effort by some financial groups to "undermine" government ministers in charge of economic matters, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. He acknowledged that he cannot characterize those ministers as "angels" but claimed that "those who have paid for the [media] attacks" against them have committed "far greater sins." LB


Also on 25 February, "Moskovskii komsomolets" charged that Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov is related to a formerly active member of an organized crime group who was murdered in 1996. The Interior Ministry issued a statement denying the accusations and denouncing the article as a "thoroughly planned action to discredit" Kulikov and his ministry, ITAR- TASS reported. (The trial of the men accused of the 1996 killing is scheduled to begin soon.) "Kommersant-Daily" argued on 26 February that the "Moskovskii komsomolets" report contains factual errors and unconfirmed information. LB


Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valerii Serov on 24 February refuted claims by "Moskovskii Komsomolets" that he has reduced Uzbekistan's debt to Russia by $1.5 million, ITAR-TASS reported. Serov said the agreement to reduce the Uzbek debt was made "in line with all procedures" and that the relevant sum was deducted from Russia's debt to Uzbekistan. "If we demand repayment from other states, we should pay our own debts," he commented. The Russian Interior Ministry, meanwhile, is investigating the allegations against Serov. BP


Kamal Kharrazi met with his Russian counterpart, Yevgenii Primakov, in Moscow on 25 February to discuss bilateral relations, economic cooperation, and regional issues, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and the Caspian Sea, Russian agencies reported. Primakov later told journalists that bilateral relations are developing "fruitfully" and without the interference of third countries. Kharrazi said both countries oppose on ecological grounds any project to lay pipelines across the bed of the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have discussed such a pipeline to export Kazakh oil via Baku. Interfax cited unnamed Russian diplomatic sources as saying Moscow may go back on its commitment not to sell more arms to Iran if the U.S. resorts to force against Iraq. Tehran wants to purchase the latest generation of Russian combat helicopters and high-speed warships, according to dpa. LF


Yeltsin has appointed career diplomat Sergei Kislyak as Russia's ambassador to Belgium and representative at NATO headquarters, Russian news agencies reported on 25 February. Kislyak replaces Vitalii Churkin, who is to be transferred to an unspecified new post. Last year, there was some speculation in the Russian media that Yeltsin would appoint former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev as Russia's representative or military envoy to NATO. Meanwhile, AFP reported that at a 25 February meeting with diplomats from the NATO council, Russian diplomats proposed setting up joint Russia-NATO anti- terrorism teams. LB


Russian Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu has said his country will continue to help Cuba build the Juragua nuclear power plant, Interfax reported on 24 February. Shoigu said that whereas earlier projects with Cuba were financed entirely by the government in Moscow, future deals with that country will be financed by Russia's private sector. Cuba and Russia will continue to exchange sugar for oil, but Shoigu said new arrangements are being made for joint ventures to take over that trade. BP


The transfer of responsibility for the penitentiary system from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry is unlikely to take place by the appointed time, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 February. Under an October 1997 presidential decree, the transfer should be completed by 1 June. But according to the daily, the Interior Ministry is "in no rush" to complete that process as it will lose up to 35 percent of its state funding. In the meantime, the Justice Ministry says funds intended for improving conditions in Russia's overcrowded jails are being spent by the Interior Ministry for projects such as the construction of new barracks for its troops. The Duma must approve some 20 legislative acts before the transfer can take place. BP


Meanwhile, reports show that prison conditions are well below international standards, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 February. Pre-trial detention centers and prisons are so overcrowded that the minimum space per person currently amounts to 1.6 square meters, compared with the intenational standard of 2.5 square meters. Amnesty International said last year that overcrowding is so bad in Russia that in itself it amounts to torture. Some prisoners have been moved to penal structures built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Reuters on 24 February cited official figures showing one in 10 prisoners suffering from tuberculosis. BP


Mintimer Shaimiev told Interfax on 25 February that Tatarstan's new draft law on citizenship is based on an article of the republic's constitution that allows dual citizenship. Shaimiev said an earlier draft that would have enabled citizens of Tatarstan to renounce Russian citizenship was "too radical" and could have led to "undesirable repercussions." But Russian presidential representative for the Federation Council Anatolii Sliva told Interfax that it is "inadmissible" for federation subjects to introduce their own citizenship, given that the Russian Federation is in itself a subject of international law. LF


Tatarstan Prime Minister Farit Mukhametshin on 24 February signed a protocol with visiting Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Mikhailov on intensifying cooperation within the defense industry, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. Tatarstan is to produce electronic identification systems for Russian aircraft. LF


The gunmen who abducted four UNOMIG observers in western Georgia on 19 February released their remaining hostages unharmed on 25 February. That move followed talks in Tbilisi between members of the current Georgian leadership, including President Eduard Shevardnadze, and Nemo Burchuladze, who was deputy parliamentary speaker under former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The Georgian authorities, which have demanded Burchuladze's extradition from Moscow on corruption charges, granted him immunity for the duration of the talks. Most of the estimated 20 hostage-takers surrendered to Georgian security forces several hours after their leader, Gocha Esebua, escaped with at least two accomplices. Esebua is believed to have crossed the internal border into Abkhazia. LF


Meeting in Sukhumi on 23-24 February, Georgian Minister of State Niko Lekishvili and Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh reached agreement on restoring the high-voltage power line between Georgia's Inguri Hydro-electric power station and the Russian Federation and on building a gas pipeline to transport Russian gas to Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. The World Bank is to provide $50 million for repairs to the Inguri station; and the power it generates will be shared between Georgia and Abkhazia at a ratio of 40:60. The agreements must still be endorsed by Russia, Bagapsh told journalists on 24 February. Talks on restoring rail links were inconclusive and will be resumed only after the repatriation to Abkhazia of Georgian displaced persons. Lekishvili also met with Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba. LF


In an interview with Turan on 24 February, Lieutenant-General Safar Abiev conceded that serious problems exist within the Azerbaijani armed forces, including the theft of state property by officers. But he denied charges that army personnel are "starving." Abiev noted that the military is capable of guarding the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline if President Aliyev requests it to do so. Abiev added that Azerbaijan has anti-missile systems capable of neutralizing the "out-of-date, low-precision" Scud missiles that he claimed Russia has supplied to Armenia. He said that Russia has also supplied the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh with Krug and Osa air-defense systems, but he expressed doubts that they constitute part of the unified CIS air-defense system. LF


A spokesman for the Iranian Embassy in Almaty has denied that three Iranian nationals taken into custody by Kazakhstan's security service the previous day were spying on that country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 1998), Russia's NTV and AFP reported. "We absolutely deny that there are any Iranian secret agents in Kazakhstan," the spokesman said. The Iranian Embassy also informed the Kazakh Foreign Ministry that the three Iranian nationals have no links to the Iranian secret services. But the Kazakh National Security Committee said they "represent a threat to the country's security." Kazakh authorities claim one of the Iranians is a special agent from the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security and the other two are bodyguards. BP


Ali Akbar Turajonzoda, the deputy leader of the United Tajik Opposition, told RFE/RL correspondents that his planned return to Tajikistan on 25 February was held up owing to conditions at Dushanbe airport. Turajonzoda and an 18-member delegation from the UTO, including its leader Said Abdullo Nuri, were told at Tehran airport that the Iranian 727 Boeing they were about to board was too large to land at Dushanbe airport. This was disputed by Nuri. Later, Turajonzoda was told that the runway at Dushanbe airport had sustained damage in recent earthquakes. RFE/RL correspondents in the Tajik capital say large planes, including Russian military cargo aircraft, have been landing at the airport. Nuri has appealed to UN special envoy to Tajikistan Gerd Merrem, who likewise rejected the reasons for the flight's delay. BP


Alyaksandr Lukashenka said he does not believe NATO pledges that it will not deploy nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe when it expands, Interfax reported on 24 February. Lukashenka, addressing the Novosibirsk branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, added that he "categorically opposed" the withdrawal of "Russian strategic nuclear missiles from Europe, including Belarus." The president said that Western states are setting up "intelligence centers" in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in order to spy on Belarus and Russia. Turning to domestic issues, Lukashenka said there will be neither "mass privatization" in Belarus nor a redistribution of property to bankers such as was the case in Russia, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. PB


The Ukrainian Central Electoral Committee approved a resolution on 25 February that authorizes two newspapers to publish the funds of political parties taking part in the 29 March elections, the "Eastern Economist" reported. According to the resolution, "Holos Ukrainy" and "Uriadoviy Kuryer" will list the total campaign funds of all parties and electoral blocs by 27 February. PB


Lawmakers have again adopted without amendments the clemency law, which President Lennart Meri has twice vetoed, ETA reported on 25 February. Meri argues that the law violates the president's constitutional rights since it provides for a "clemency committee" to advise the head of state. The basic law, however, contains no such provision (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 1998). The parliamentary Constitutional and Legal Commissions rejected Meri's argument, saying the legislation only specifies the procedure to be adopted. Meri can now appeal to the Supreme Court. JC


Latvian Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs told journalists in Riga on 25 February that he sees no possibility of extending Russia's lease on the Skrunda early- warning missile radar, which expires on 31 August, BNS and Interfax reported. Birkavs also stressed that Riga has received no request from Russia to extend that lease. Recently, Vladimir Yakovlev, commander of the Russian strategic missile forces, urged the Russian Foreign Ministry to seek an extension. The Skrunda radar is located 180 kilometers southwest of Riga. JC


Lithuanian Foreign Ministry sources told Interfax on 25 February that Lithuania's foreign debt exceeded $1.4 billion as of the beginning of this year. The sources said that from 1991 to early 1998, Lithuania received foreign credits totaling $2.05 billion, of which the state received $1.4 billion and businesses $650 million guaranteed by the government. By the beginning of this year, credits totaling $650.4 million had been repaid. The remaining $1.4 billion debt is equivalent to 15.3 percent of GDP. JC


Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek said Warsaw will tighten security on its eastern border but wants to continue visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens, Reuters reported on 25 February. Speaking after a meeting in London with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Geremek said that Kyiv is willing to take back illegal immigrants who are refused passage into Poland. Both Russia and Belarus have refused to take that step, which Poland requires before allowing a visa-free regime with a neighboring country. Geremek also said Poland will lose up to $3 billion in "gray zone" trade because of increased restrictions on Belarusians and Russians traveling to Poland. But, he said, it is a "worthy sacrifice" for integration into the EU. PB


Michal Lobkowicz on 25 February officially gave up his mandate as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, saying he wanted to devote more time to the Defense Ministry, CTK reported. Lobkowicz was elected in 1996 on the list of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which he left recently to join the breakaway Freedom Union. In other news, CTK reported on 25 February that Czech arms exports grew by more than 55 percent last year, reaching a total of $182 million. The same day, Nova Television reported that the Kamo company has exported military equipment worth $459,000 to North Korea, although it does not have a license for those exports, which consisted of materials decommissioned by the Defense Ministry in 1992-1993. MS


Karel Kuhnl, industry and trade minister and deputy chairman of the troubled Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), on 25 February announced he is resigning from that party, CTK reported. In other news, Martin Bursik, chairman of the Prague City Council Environment Committee, has been appointed environment minister, replacing Jiri Skalicky, who resigned last week. MS


At his last press conference as Slovak president, Michal Kovac on 25 February warned the government against electoral fraud in the September general elections, saying he will "lead the people on to the streets" if the ballot is "manipulated." He said that while it is not possible "for the moment" to make "any significant progress" toward EU and NATO membership, it is "possible to help remove doubts about our democratic organizing the election so there is no shadow of suspicion," Reuters reported. MS


Addressing a 25 February special parliamentary session on the Nagymaros-Gabcikovo hydropower project, Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs said that the cabinet will sign only a "non-binding framework agreement" with Slovakia, adding that a final agreement will have to be approved by the parliament. Zoltan Pokorny, chairman of the faction of Young Democrats (the opposition party that initiated the debate) repeated his earlier criticism that building a second dam on the Danube has not been ordered by the International Court of Justice. Young Democrat Janos Ader urged the junior coalition party, the Free Democrats, to use its veto right to put an end to the "Socialist madness" in dealing with the issue. MSZ


The Supreme Court on 25 February fined the Defense Ministry's Procurement Office 15 million forints ($72,000) for violating the principle of equal opportunity and fair competition over a contract for anti- missile systems, Hungarian media reported. The $100 million contract was awarded last year to France's Matra company. Unsuccessful bidders had received a letter from the Defense Ministry two months before the results were made public, saying that negotiations will continue only with Matra. MSZ


The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the leading Kosovar political organization, nominated shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova for re- election at the LDK's convention in Pristina on 25 February. Rugova defended his non-violent tactics and his reliance on foreign support. His critics charged that he has not been sufficiently tough. BETA reported that Rugova emerged from the convention with his position strengthened. Parliamentary and presidential elections are slated for 22 March. Meanwhile in Tirana, state television reported that the Yugoslav authorities refused permission to Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano and a delegation from his Socialist Party to travel to Pristina for the convention. PM


Representatives of the six Contact Group countries issued a statement in Moscow on 25 February criticizing a recent speech by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman allegedly questioning the territorial integrity of Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 1998). The diplomats also expressed concern about the situation in Kosovo, which, they said, requires a dialogue between Serbia and the Kosovars. The statement condemned both repression by the Serbian police and violence by the Kosovo Liberation Army. But it praised the new Bosnian Serb leadership of President Biljana Plavsic and Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, saying the Republika Srpska is on its way to "becoming a model of pluralist democracy and democratic standards." PM


A spokesman for Carlos Westendorp, the international community's chief representative in Bosnia, said in Sarajevo on 25 February that Westendorp has given Tudjman one week to sack the ultranationalist mayor of the Herzegovinian town of Stolac or face the loss of his own political credibility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 1998). The spokesman said this is Tudjman's "last chance" to prove that he supports the Dayton agreement. PM


The Croatian president's governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) sharply rejected "improper statements by foreign diplomats and opposition leaders" in relation to Tudjman's speech. The statement issued on 25 February in Zagreb added that Tudjman had simply stated historical facts about Bosnia "that cannot be denied." The HDZ also charged that Tudjman's critics are ignorant of Croatian affairs. PM


Representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in Zagreb on 25 February that the Croatian authorities must take action to stem the departure of at least 20-30 Serbs daily from eastern Slavonia. An OSCE spokesman said that the "situation for the great majority of people in the region is very bad and often desperate" following a series of incidents in which Croatian nationalists or returning refugees sought to intimidate Serbs. Croatian media suggested that the Serbs are leaving in response to rumors that Norway has recently liberalized its asylum rules. UN refugee officials said that Norwegian officials have decided for now not to grant asylum to any of the 800 Slavonian Serbs who have applied for it. PM


Defense Minister Tit Turnsek handed in his resignation to Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek on 25 February. The move follows a scandal that arose when Croatian authorities last month confiscated a Slovenian van filled with $1 million worth of sophisticated spying equipment near Varazdin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 1998). The Croats released the Slovenian intelligence agents but kept their code books and the van, which is now deployed on the Serbian border, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on 26 February. The two agents were suspended following media reports that one of them sold the van to Croatian authorities. PM


Information Secretary Bozidar Jaredic said in Podgorica on 25 February that the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug serves only the interests of President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia and not those of Yugoslavia or Montenegro. Jaredic said Montenegro will soon set up its own state news agency, possibly in conjunction with the existing independent Montena-faks news service, "Nasa Borba" reported. PM


Hundreds of inmates at a Tirana prison started a revolt and took three guards hostage on 25 February, "Koha Jone" reported. The prisoners surrendered as police were about to storm the jail. Earlier that day, Tirana police were put on high alert after receiving telephone threats of possible attacks on police stations by armed civilians. Meanwhile in Shkoder, an unnamed prosecutor investigating the recent unrest told "Koha Jone" that "some of those arrested [after police retook control over the city on 23 February] were on a list of people who had received arms from the Democratic Party" during the unrest early last year. He added that others under arrest include well-known wanted criminals. FS


The parliament on 25 February passed legislation allowing police to "shoot to kill" armed attackers. That legislation is part of a code of police conduct that has been in preparation for three months and provides a legal basis for "shoot to kill" orders given to police in December. The law was rushed through the parliament in response to the unrest in Shkoder on 22-23 February. The code also stipulates that policemen must act impartially and remain politically neutral. Also on 25 February, police in Tirana detained about 80 supporters of the Democratic Party for several hours "for disturbing public order." The detainees had attended a rally that attracted some 2,500 people and at which former President Sali Berisha called for "mass protests" throughout the country and for new elections. FS


Lawmakers on 25 February voted by 93 to six to lift the immunity of Democratic Party deputy Azem Hajdari, "Rilindja Demokratike" reported. Hajdari was involved in armed clashes with police at a roadblock in northern Albania earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 1998). Also on 25 February, 30 investors in the VEFA pyramid company launched a hunger strike in the Tirana VEFA building. They are demanding that state- appointed auditors be withdrawn and that the government allow VEFA owner Vehbi Alimucaj to continue his operations in order to repay his debts, "Koha Jone" reported. FS


Privatization Minister Valentin Ionescu on 25 February said he has "irrevocably" resigned because the decision-making process in the economic sector has been paralyzed by the ongoing government crisis. Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea later revealed that Ionescu decided to quit because of conflicts with State Property Fund chief Sorin Dimitriu. Following a meeting between Ionescu, Dimitriu, and the National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) leadership, PNTCD chairman Ion Diaconescu said Ionescu had agreed not to resign pending "an examination of his views." But Ionescu told an RFE/RL correspondent after the meeting that he has "no intention whatsoever" to withdraw his resignation. MS


Democratic Party leader Petre Roman told journalists after his 25 February meeting with chief IMF negotiator Poul Thompsen that the Democrats are not prepared to support an austerity budget for 1998 unless it is submitted to the parliament by "another government," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Earlier that day, leaders of the Democrats and the Social Democratic Party of Romania, which are partners within the Social Democratic Union (USD), agreed that the budget must be presented to the parliament by "another team" and said they will strive to enlarge the USD to include the opposition Alliance for Romania. But the PNTCD leadership later decided to "fully back" Ciorbea as prime minister. Diaconescu said he has the Democrats' promise to back the budget but added he will also contact "other parties" to try to enlist their support. MS


More than 100,000 members of two teachers unions staged a two-hour "warning strike" on 25 February to demand that their wages be doubled, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. They said a general strike will be launched on 15 March if the demands are not met by then. Paramedics have been on general strike for the past 15 days. Meanwhile, a report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released on 25 February says GDP in Romania dropped 6.5 percentage points in 1997. It also said that unemployment, which currently stands at 7 percent, is expected to rise. MS


Transdniester Deputy Interior Minister Leonid Manakov told journalists on 25 February that Moldovan citizens, as well as citizens of other CIS member states, will be exempt from a recently imposed $10 "entry tax." The tax will remain in force for citizens of other countries. It is unclear whether the requirement that foreign nationals register with the police within three hours of crossing the border will continue to apply to Moldovan citizens who do not reside in the breakaway region or to CIS nationals, BASA-press reported on 25 February. MS


Foreign Ministry spokesman Radko Vlaikov on 25 February said Bulgaria is "seriously worried about the worsening of the situation in Kosovo" and about the danger that the conflict there "could spread to other parts of southeast Europe," Reuters reported. Vlaikov said Bulgaria will appeal to Greece, Turkey, and Romania to make a joint declaration on the conflict. A draft declaration proposed by Sofia calls for "dialogue" between Serbia and ethnic Albanians and urges all sides to avoid violence. It also says that a solution "must be sought within the framework of respecting existing borders." Vlaikov denied that Greece has rebuked Sofia's initiative, saying that Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos offered "his support in principle." Athens the previous day said any international initiative on the Kosovo conflict should involve the EU. MS


by Liz Fuller

When Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossyan resigned on 3 February, he claimed that his departure from office constituted a victory for the so-called "party of war." Western reaction to his resignation largely seems to have given credence to that claim. Apocalyptic headlines--such as "Armenia Flirts With Madness"--testify to widespread apprehension that hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh will inevitably break out again in the near future. Yet Armenia's interim leadership remains whole-heartedly committed to resuming negotiations on finding a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group. That commitment, however, does not preclude the possibility of another war erupting in the near future.

Meeting with an RFE/RL delegation in Yerevan just four days after Ter-Petrossyan's resignation, Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharyan explained his objections to the "phased" draft peace plan proposed last year by the three Minsk Group co-chairmen and accepted by Ter-Petrossyan as a basis for further peace talks. Kocharyan pointed out that the international community had regarded Ter-Petrossyan's policy of what Kocharyan called "concessions and exaggerated compromise" as the most promising approach to resolving the conflict.

In fact, Kocharyan reasoned, Ter-Petrossyan's overt pragmatism alienated the Karabakh Armenian leadership, which, under the preliminary agreements reached by the Minsk Group, does not have the right to participate in negotiations on its future status and which felt abandoned by its sole ally. (In all fairness, it should be noted that Armenia has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to persuade the Minsk Group to upgrade Karabakh's status to a full party to the peace talks.) Moreover, Ter-Petrossyan's conciliatory stance encouraged Azerbaijan in its obdurate rejection of any direct talks with Stepanakert. It also buttressed Baku's assumption that it would be easier to extract substantive concessions in bilateral talks with Yerevan and that the international community would, in turn, exert pressure on the Armenian leadership to persuade Stepanakert to agree to the "phased" approach.

Kocharyan said he hopes for the resumption of negotiations within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group. But he added that it would also be "correct" for the Minsk Group co-chairmen to express their support for parallel talks between the central Azerbaijani government and the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Acting Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, for his part, told "Hayastani Hanrapetutyun" on 11 February that he hoped the Minsk Group co-chairmen would find a way at their 17 February meeting in Paris to amend the existing draft peace proposal so that it would be acceptable to both Yerevan and Stepanakert, although he conceded that it would not be easy for them to do so. (The official statement issued after the Paris meeting merely called for the resumption of negotiations and noted that the co-chairmen will visit Armenia and Azerbaijan after the 16 March Armenian presidential elections.)

But even if the Minsk Group succeeds in drafting a revised peace plan that addresses the security concerns of the Karabakh Armenian leadership, the resumption of negotiations is largely contingent on domestic political developments. To date, 13 candidates have announced their intention of contending the Armenian presidential elections, although it is unlikely that each will succeed in collecting the 25,000 signatures necessary for registration. Moreover, some of those who do register may ultimately withdraw their candidacy in order to endorse a rival candidate. But given that Karabakh currently dominates Armenian domestic politics in general and the presidential election campaign in particular, there is a danger that candidates may vie with one another in adopting an increasingly militant stance on the Karabakh issue and may commit themselves to policies from which it would be difficult, if not well-nigh impossible, to retreat.

Moreover, even if Armenia's next president initially proves to be both moderate and flexible in his approach to the negotiating process, he may be subject to pressure from more hard-line element such as Karabakh Defense Minister Samvel Babayan. In a series of interviews last fall, Babayan hinted that he considered the resumption of hostilities virtually inevitable in the light of Baku's refusal to compromise.

And Azerbaijan, too, is gearing up for presidential elections scheduled for October. Azerbaijan's political opposition has consistently taken a tougher position than the country's leadership on the Karabakh issue; and last month, a group of pro-government parties broke ranks, registering its displeasure with official policy and castigating the Minsk Group for its alleged passivity in not taking "concrete steps to liberate occupied Azerbaijani territories." As in Armenia, presidential candidates in Azerbaijan could conceivably yield to the temptation to exploit the Karabakh issue in order to win votes and, having sown the wind, reap the whirlwind. As Alcuin, abbot of Tours, wrote to his patron, the future Emperor Charlemagne, some 12 centuries ago: "The tumultuousness of the crowd is always close to madness."