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Newsline - March 17, 1998


President Boris Yeltsin's doctors have advised him to cancel all meetings for the rest of this week, the presidential press service announced on 17 March. A Kremlin statement published by Reuters said Yeltsin has proposed postponing a CIS Customs Union summit and a summit of CIS presidents until the last third of April. Those meetings were scheduled for 18 and 19-20 March, respectively. Yeltsin has been advised to spend part of his time in bed and continues to receive antibiotics to prevent complications from his respiratory infection, the statement said. CIS Executive Secretary Ivan Korotchenya told Russian news agencies on 16 March that Yeltsin is determined to meet with other CIS leaders this week, as scheduled. The same day, renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich said Yeltsin appeared to be in "excellent shape," though hoarse, during a private dinner on 15 March. LB


The presidential press service announced on 17 March that there are no plans to postpone a three-way summit of Yeltsin, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl scheduled for 25-26 March in Yekaterinburg, AFP reported. There has been no official comment on whether Yeltsin's informal visit to Japan, planned for 11-13 April, will go ahead. That visit is a follow-up to an informal meeting between Yeltsin and Japanese Premier Ryutaro Hashimoto last November, at which the two leaders agreed to try to conclude a bilateral peace treaty by 2000. Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii on 12 March announced that Yeltsin's visit to Indonesia, planned for April, has been put off by several months, although he did not link the postponement to Yeltsin's health. LB


At a press conference in Moscow on 16 March, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said "I cannot agree with assertions that Russia's relations with Azerbaijan have worsened," ITAR-TASS reported. Chernomyrdin said that relations are "normal" and argued that disputes over pipeline routes will not affect them. "Where the pipeline will pass and who will build it will be decided not by politics but by the economy," the Russian premier concluded. PG


Chernomyrdin expressed optimism about Russia's prospects for attracting foreign investment during a 16 March session of the Consultative Council for Foreign Investment, Russian news agencies reported. That council includes members of the Russian government and parliament, regional officials, and representatives of large Western banks and corporations. Chernomyrdin said foreigners invested $10 billion in Russia in 1997, of which $4 billion was direct investment. He again said the government aims to attract at least $20 billion in foreign investment annually by 2000, adding that he hopes foreign investors will appreciate the government's attempts to bolster the stability of the ruble. He also promised that the government will soon halve customs duties on goods imported to Russian in accordance with investment agreements. That reduction will not apply to alcohol or tobacco products and will be granted for no longer than five years. LB


Speaking to journalists on 16 March, Chernomyrdin characterized as unfounded the recent decision by Moody's to downgrade Russia's credit rating (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 March 1998). He said Moody's erred in its interpretation of current economic conditions, Interfax reported. However, he predicted that the downgrade "will not affect the investment climate in Russia or reduce the volume of investments in the economy." Minister without portfolio Yevgenii Yasin commented that the decision by Moody's reflected caution on the part of an agency that "made a mistake with Southeast Asia [last year] and [is] now afraid of making a mistake with Russia." LB


In his address to the Consultative Council on Foreign Investment, Chernomyrdin charged that "discrimination" against Russia in trade policies costs Russia at least $1.7 billion each year, Russian news agencies reported. Chernomyrdin said only China suffers from more discrimination. He confirmed that the government considers membership in the World Trade Organization to be of "vital importance" for the economy. However, he said WTO membership will make sense only if the "international trade regime" with respect to Russia improves, adding that "our obligation to open up our markets will be subject to such improvement." Meanwhile, Duma First Deputy Speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov on 13 March charged that the EU has overreacted to Russia's decision to impose quotas as of 19 March on carpet imports from EU countries, Interfax reported. The EU Council of Ministers has postponed indefinitely consideration of whether to recognize Russia as a market economy. LB


The Constitutional Court on 16 March denied a motion by presidential representative Sergei Shakhrai to close the case over whether Yeltsin violated the constitution by refusing to sign the trophy art law last year, ITAR-TASS reported. Article 107 of the constitution requires the president to sign laws within seven days if both houses of the parliament override his veto. But Shakhrai argued that the court had already granted the president the right to refuse to sign laws if the parliament used procedural violations in passing those laws (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 1998). Proxy voting was used in the State Duma, and Federation Council deputies were allowed to mail in ballots, rather than vote in person, when deputies overrode Yeltsin's veto of the trophy art law. Yeltsin has refused to sign some, but not all, laws passed using proxy voting or mailed ballots. LB


First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov on 16 March denied that his opponents possess videotapes or other materials containing compromising information against him, Russian news agencies reported. Russian Public Television (ORT) commentator Sergei Dorenko, who is considered close to Boris Berezovskii, alleged during a 14 March ORT program that Nemtsov and Oneksimbank head Vladimir Potanin attended a striptease show. No video or photographic evidence was shown, but two women strippers claimed on the air that they had performed for the first deputy prime minister. Nemtsov alleged on 16 March that those women were hired to harm him politically. "Nezavisimaya gazeta," which is financed by Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group, on 13 March reported that the editor of the magazine "Lyudi" claims to possess a videotape showing Nemtsov in the company of strippers. "Lyudi" recently reported that Oneksimbank pays for entertainment, including strippers, for high-ranking officials. LB


Grigorii Yavlinskii says his Yabloko movement is seeking to unite those who supported Yeltsin and democratic reforms in 1991 but subsequently felt "deceived" and lost interest in politics, Russian news agencies reported. Addressing the sixth Yabloko congress on 14 March, Yavlinskii said Yabloko will compete in the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 1999 and 2000, respectively, "as a serious political party with a well-considered economic program and a serious political ideology." He said Yabloko supports "human rights and freedoms," along with "European values." Yavlinskii also repeated his belief that Russia has "a corporate oligarchic semi-criminal system still based on former Soviet monopolies," in which the government represents narrow corporate interests. Yabloko is the only Duma faction that consistently votes against government policies and supports efforts to call no-confidence votes. Opinion polls generally show support for Yavlinskii and Yabloko at 7-10 percent. LB


Duma Defense Committee Chairman Lev Rokhlin and Duma Security Committee Chairman Viktor Ilyukhin have formed a committee to begin impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin, Interfax reported on 13 March. Aleksandr Morozov, the head of the new committee, said Rokhlin and Ilyukhin plan to ask the Supreme Court whether Yeltsin has committed impeachable offenses. They will also lodge an appeal with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, claiming that Russian leaders have committed genocide against the population by implementing economic policies demanded by the IMF, Morozov said. Ilyukhin recently sponsored a Duma resolution demanding that criminal charges be filed against Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 1998). Rokhlin has said that during a nationwide protest set for 9 April, his Movement to Support the Army will call for Yeltsin's ouster. LB


A Communist Party delegation led by party leader Gennadii Zyuganov concluded a four-day visit to Vietnam on 17 March, ITAR-TASS reported. Zyuganov, who was invited to Hanoi by the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party, said one of Russia's foreign policy priorities must be the restoration of ties with "old friends" such as Vietnam. Zyuganov also met with Communist Party officials in Ho Chi Minh City and visited the Russian-Vietnamese oil and gas company Vietsovpetro in Vung Tau. The Russian delegation flew to Laos on 17 March. BP


Environmentalists on 16 March criticized plans by Russia and the U.S. to use plutonium at nuclear power facilities, Interfax reported. Aleksei Yablokov, a former Russian nuclear researcher and environmental adviser to Yeltsin, said attempts to use plutonium left over from atomic weapon development programs "will increase the volume of highly radioactive wastes" and "the threat of terrorism." Russia and the U.S. plan to mix plutonium with uranium to make oxide fuel rods for reactors, and both say it is a safe and effective means to use and dispose of the valuable but potentially dangerous plutonium taken from dismantled nuclear weapons. BP


Andrei Vavilov, who served as first deputy finance minister for five years before leaving the Finance Ministry last spring, has become an adviser to Gazprom head Rem Vyakhirev, Russian news agencies reported on 16 March. Vavilov was long involved in selecting commercial banks authorized to handle government funds. He left the Finance Ministry soon after Anatolii Chubais became finance minister and served briefly as head of the MFK bank, which is part of the Oneksimbank empire. But after his name became tied up in a scandal last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, and 18 July 1997), Vavilov quietly left MFK and became the head of the little-known Institute of Financial Research, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 17 March. He is competing in a by-election next month for a State Duma seat from the Altai Republic. His main competitor in that race is Agrarian Party leader Mikhail Lapshin. LB


Grozny officials told ITAR-TASS on 16 March that Chechen government forces staged an unsuccessful raid against the suspected kidnappers of two British assistance workers who disappeared in summer 1997. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov promised during his recent visit to the UK to crack down on hostage-takers and to do his best to secure the release of the aid workers. PG


Acting Chechen Prime Minister Shamil Basaev told Interfax on 16 March that field commander Salman Raduev is considering an offer to become deputy defense minister. Basaev said Raduev's militia would be integrated into the Defense Ministry forces if he agreed. Raduev recently claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt against Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, but later retracted that claime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 23 1998). Basaev told Interfax that Raduev's claim to have been involved in the attack on Shevardnadze was likely a joke in poor taste. For his part, Raduev said he would be willing to serve as a deputy defense minister if the Chechen government agreed to subordinate all major armed units to the Defense Ministry. "There cannot be several armies in one state," Raduev argued. He has refused to take over the vacant position of defense minister because he is at odds with the current Chechen government. LB/PG


The Prosecutor-General's Office has filed criminal charges against acting Ingush Interior Minister Daud Karigov, ITAR-TASS reported on 13 March. Karigov, who was arrested in Moscow on 4 March, is charged with exceeding his authority by not allowing some staff of the Ingush Prosecutor's Office into their office building. According to the Prosecutor- General's Office, Karigov's actions "paralyzed" the work of prosecutors in Ingushetia. Karigov's arrest has been sharply criticized by Ingush President Ruslan Aushev. On 9 March, demonstrators in Nazran also protested against the detention of Karigov, RFE/RL's North Caucasus correspondent reported. Some of the protesters compared his arrest with Stalin-era repressions against the Ingush people, which, demonstrators said, began with arrests of Ingush officials in Moscow. LB


In the face of a Dagestani government crackdown, some 300 families who adhere to the fundamentalist Wahhabi movement of Islam have moved to Chechnya, Interfax reported on 16 March. The Russian news agency quoted Mukhu Aliyev, the chairman of Dagestan's parliament, as saying that the ban on Wahhabi activities is designed to prevent further terrorist activity and to protect the republic's Sunni Muslim majority. PG


With less than 20 percent of the votes counted, none of the 12 candidates appears to have won the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff on 30 March, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian gained some 40 percent of the vote., Soviet-era Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchyan 27 percent, and current Communist Party leader Sergei Badalian 16 percent. The remaining 17 percent of the vote is divided among the other nine candidates. PG


Meanwhile, six of the 12 candidates, including Demirchyan and Badalian, issued a statement condemning the way officials subordinate to Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian conducted the elections, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Even before the first results were announced, the six said the ballot "cannot be considered free and fair regardless of the results." They claimed that Kocharian supporters had cast fake ballots in numerous districts. PG


Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in his weekly radio address on 16 March criticized Russia for failing to extradite former Georgian Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, who fled to Moscow after Georgian authorities accused him of having organized an attempt on Shevardnadze's life in 1995. Tbilisi authorities have indicated they suspect people linked to Giorgadze of also being involved in an attack on the Georgian leader's motorcade last month. Shevardnadze noted that "Russian officials have done everything to let the perpetrators of the two attacks...find refuge there." In comments clearly directed at the Kremlin, Shevardnadze said "the most astounding and offending fact is that the top Russian leadership, to this day, has failed to express its opinion on the suspects." He added that "I don't think the Russian leadership would benefit from certain forces attempting to create for Russia the image of a nation sponsoring terrorists." PG


The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry told ITAR-TASS on 16 March that Azerbaijani and Armenian forces exchanged fire in two locations the previous day. In the first incident, Armenian forces fired machine guns and grenades into Azerbaijan from Armenia's Idzhevan district. In the second, Azerbaijani forces fired into Armenian territory from Nakhichevan. There has been no comment on either attack from Armenia. PG


The prime ministers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan met in Bishkek on 17 March, RFE/RL correspondents reported. Russia and Tajikistan sent observers to the meeting, at which six documents were signed. Agreement was reached to form a consortium on hydro-energy resources,. but an accord on migrant workers was not signed. Kazakhstan reaffirmed its intention to barter coal for water supplies from Kyrgyz reservoirs, and Uzbekistan again promised deliveries of natural gas for Kyrgyz water deliveries. The presidents of the three countries are to meet in Tashkent on 26 March. BP


Member of parliament Tursunbai Bakir-uulu said at a 16 March news conference that a presidential commission to protect human rights has been created, AFP reported. Bakir-uulu will be the chairman of the 13-member commission. He added that the creation of the commission was necessary as President Askar Akayev was "inundated with complaints about officials." BP


Belarus announced on 16 March that during Prime Minister Serhei Ling's recent visit to Moscow. a working group with Russia was set up to help stabilize the Belarusian ruble, ITAR-TASS reported. The Belarusian ruble is trading at about 59,000 to $1, down some 25 percent on the previous week. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has criticized the National Bank for its handling of the currency crisis, saying he will personally monitor the situation. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais said on 15 March that Moscow may provide financial aid to prevent the collapse of the Belarusian ruble. He added that Belarus's disastrous economy was the result of poor policies and a lack of reform. PB


Several foreign delegations were in Minsk on 15 March for a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the first congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party (the predecessor of the Soviet Communist Party) in a small house in downtown Minsk in 1898, ITAR-TASS reported. A few hundred people carrying red carnations and flags congregated at the house. Among others, delegations from Russia, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, and Greece were present. Oleg Shenin, chairman of the Union of Communist Parties--the Soviet Communist Party, called Belarus "an isle for the revival of Communism." PB


Borys Anikeychyk, a witness in a government corruption case, died in an Odesa hospital on 16 March as a result of gunshot wounds sustained the previous day, the "Eastern Economist" reported. Anikeychyk, who was shot by unknown assailants, had recently testified in a court case that Odessa Mayor Eduard Hurvits had accepted a bribe. Odessa Oblast Administration Chairman Ruslan Bodelan, who is running for mayor against Hurvits, called on Hurvits to step down from his post. The two have been locked in a brutal power struggle for some time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 1998). PB


Oleg Sysuev was in the Estonian capital on 15-16 March to help prepare for the first meeting of the Russian-Estonian intergovernment commission, which is due to take place in June, Baltic and Russian agencies reported. Sysuev and Estonian Prime Minister Mart Siimann, who will co-chair the commission, signed a protocol outlining the tasks and timetable of that body. Sysuev told BNS that the commission must find answers to the problems of trade, the border, and the Russian-speaking population in Estonia. He said he expected some accords to be signed when the commission meets in June. At the same time, he noted that if problems with integrating Russian-speakers are not solved, progress in Russian-Estonian relations would be hindered, ETA reported. Siimann told journalists that Sysuev's visit will pave the way for bilateral summit talks but noted that "extensive preparations" would be necessary. JC


Some 500 veterans of the Latvian SS Legion marched through Riga on 16 March to lay a wreath at the Freedom Monument as part of events commemorating the 55th anniversary of the unit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 1998). At the same time, some 300 elderly Russian-speakers gathered to protest the rally, brandishing placards and shouting slogans that dubbed the veterans "fascists" and "murders." Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis criticized the Russian-speaking protesters, saying everyone in Latvia has the right to free speech but not to freely insult others or behave in an extreme way. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow is indignant at the veterans' demonstration. It complained that the Latvian government gave special attention and privileges to those who served as SS soldiers while "not recognizing as war veterans Latvians who fought against fascism" with Soviet forces. JC


Some 400 people protested the plan to remove a cross near the Auschwitz concentration camp, agencies reported on 15 March. The protesters, many of them war veterans or concentration camp survivors, object to a plan to remove an eight-meter cross from a site where Pope John Paul in 1979 held a mass. Some Jewish groups want the cross removed because they say Catholic symbols near Auschwitz are offensive. The government is hoping for a compromise on the issue, perhaps by moving the cross farther from the camp or by replacing it with a smaller one. PB


The Conservative Consensus Party, which was established by Ivan Masek, the former chairman of the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) in the Chamber of Deputies, was registered by the Interior Ministry on 16 March, CTK reported. Most of the new formation's members formerly belonged to the ODA. MS


Eugene Korda, a Czech journalist who is a Slovak correspondent for Nova Television, told CTK on 16 March he suspects that whoever vandalized his car in Bratislava the previous night was "acting on orders from top-ranking officials." Korda says he has evidence that he has been followed for a long time, adding that three months ago his other car was vandalized and that he has been receiving threatening telephone calls for a long time. In a report read to the parliament in 1995, Ivan Lexa, the head of the Slovak secret services, mentioned a certain "Eugen K," among "anti- Slovak elements" and as an "extended hand" of the founder of Nova Television, Slovak political scientist Fedor Gal. MS


Lawmakers on 16 March voted against a bill guaranteeing 13 seats in the parliament for minority representatives this year, Hungarian media reported. The bill, which provided for minority elections in October, would have required a two-thirds majority to pass but was supported by only 215 votes in the 386-seat parliament. Most votes in favor came from the Socialist Party, while the majority of deputies from the junior coalition Free Democrats, the Young Democrats, and the Democratic Forum abstained, saying that they preferred the elections for minority seats to be separately held in May. Ethnic minorities can run in the May elections on regular party lists but their guaranteed seats will be ensured only in the 2002 parliamentary elections, provided that the new legislature passes the required constitutional amendments. MSZ


A bomb exploded on 16 March outside the home of Jozsef Torgyan, the chairman of the opposition Independent Smallholders' Party, Hungarian media reported. There were no injuries. Torgyan, who was at home when the blast occurred, said he was the target of a politically motivated attempt, as was his party's headquarters, when a bomb exploded there last week. MSZ


Speaking in Ljubljana on 16 March, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said Belgrade's offer of conditional talks with the Kosovars was "cynical" and deliberately designed to fail. A State Department spokesman said in Washington that "there is no sign that [Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic] is reversing course" on his tough Kosovo policy. The spokesman added that the Contact Group foreign ministers, who are to meet in Bonn on 25 March, will consider freezing Yugoslav assets abroad if Milosevic does not withdraw special police forces, stop armed attacks on civilians, admit independent observers to Kosovo, and negotiate seriously with the Kosovars (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 1998). PM


The State Department spokesman added in Washington on 16 March that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told her Russian counterpart, Yevgenii Primakov, in a telephone conversation that Milosevic should not be allowed to "think that there are differences between the [Contact Group] countries on the basic point, [which is that] the blame for this crisis and this violence rests squarely on the shoulders of the leadership in Belgrade; and that if [the Yugoslav leaders] don't change course, the result will be even further alienation from the international community, less integration into the international economy, less integration into the European economy." The spokesman added that Albright got the impression Primakov will give Milosevic "the kind of reinforcing message that we hoped for" when the two men meet in Belgrade on 18 March. PM


Talbot and Prime Minister Fatos Nano, meeting at Tirana airport on 16 March, called for Serbian-Kosovar talks without preconditions. Talbot said the U.S. considers it possible that the Serbs and Kosovars will reach an agreement on autonomy for the province, "Koha Jone" reported. Nano did not offer any ideas of his own on Kosovo but stressed it will be important for the Contact Group countries to agree to implement "effective sanctions that stop the advance of violence and war in the Balkans." He added that Albania will seek to coordinate its Kosovo policy with Macedonia and Montenegro. Nano stated that "the solution of the Kosovo question is closely linked with the democratization of the region and in particular of Serbia." FS


German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel criticized the Kosovar leadership for refusing to participate in the conditional talks that Belgrade has offered (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 1998). He told Bonn's "General Anzeiger" of 16 March that "it is most important now to start a dialogue, even if not all the demands of the Kosovo Albanians will be fulfilled. They should not stage any militant actions, nor should they make demands for independence. There is no support for this in the international community." Kinkel added that Milosevic's paramilitary police "must be stopped from unjustifiable bloody assaults." Also in Bonn, a Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed reports from Germany's Kosovar community that one of the men killed in the recent Serbian assault on the Drenica region had been deported to Yugoslavia from Germany shortly before. Federal and most state authorities support continued deportations despite the recent violence. PM


Fehmi Agani, one of the chief Kosovar political leaders, told RFE/RL from Pristina on 16 March that the Serbian authorities are engaged in a daily propaganda exercise by offering talks with conditions that they know the Kosovars cannot accept. Agani added that the daily routine has come to resemble a "carnival." He also said that the Italian Roman Catholic foundation that brokered the 1996 Kosovar-Serbian education agreement is keeping channels open to both Serbs and Kosovars in the hope of launching serious talks. PM


Belgrade's official Tanjug news agency reported on 17 March that unidentified persons slightly injured a policeman in a hand-grenade attack near Pec the previous day. There was no independent confirmation of the incident. The Serbian authorities used a similar shadowy incident involving Kosovars and police as a pretext to launch the well-prepared assault that began on 28 February and left more than 80 dead. PM


Representatives of the opposition Parliamentary Party of Kosovo and the Forum of Albanian Intellectuals of Kosovo called for postponing the shadow-state's parliamentary and presidential elections, slated for 22 March. Speaking in Pristina on 16 March, the opposition leaders said it would be "amoral" to hold a vote under current circumstances. PM


French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said in The Hague on 16 March that French officers who served in Bosnia will be allowed to testify in person before the war crimes tribunal. He stressed, however, that French officers "must not be treated like suspects" when they appear before the court. To date, Paris has allowed officers to testify only in writing. Vedrine announced the policy change after meeting with Louise Arbour, the court's chief prosecutor. She has long been critical of France's refusal to let its officers testify in person. PM


Representatives of Forum 21, an independent union of radio and television journalists, sent a proposal on 16 March to the parliament calling for the transformation of state-run radio and television (HRT) into a public broadcasting corporation. Among the reforms recommended by the journalists was the reduction of the number of broadcasting channels and changing the composition and prerogatives of the Radio and Television Council, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from Zagreb. Forum 21's proposals would give a large degree of control over HRT to the editors and journalists, "Slobodna Dalmacija" reported. HRT is widely regarded as loyal to the governing Croatian Democratic Community. PM


Police on 16 March evicted Rustem Gjata, who the previous day was dismissed as head of the Constitutional Court, from his office. Gjata said the eviction was "typically communist" and "supported by the Serbs and Greeks." He said he will try to return to his office at a later date, "Republika" reported. FS


The National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) will contest in court the right of the newly founded Romanian National Party (PNR) to its name, RFE/RL's Bucharest Bureau reported on 16 March. Chairman Ion Diaconescu and deputy chairman Ion Ratiu told journalists in Bucharest on 16 April that the new formation has usurped the name of the party set up in Transylvania in the 19th century to represent the interests of the Romanian majority under the Austrian-Hungarian empire and that the PNR's name is "part of the PNTCD legacy". The National Peasant Party was set up in 1926 through the merger of the PNR and the Peasant Party. Ratiu said it is an "insult" that "former Communists" headed by Virgil Magureanu, the former director of the Romanian Intelligence Service, are using the PNR's name. MS


The Austrian ambassador to Romania on 16 March joined Roma protesting in front of the embassy's building in Bucharest against racial stereotypes and discrimination. The protesters staged what they called a " Dance of the Black Swans" in protest against widespread allegations in the media that Roma killed and roasted swans in the park of the Schonbrunn Castle in Vienna in 1991. There are no swans in the Schonbrunn park, and the Austrian journalist who had authored the report later retracted it. The Roma are marking the European Week for Struggle against Racism. MS


In his weekly address to the nation on 16 March, President Petru Lucinschi warned Moldovans not to back "radical political formations" in the 22 March elections, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Lucinschi did not specify whom he considered "radical," but on previous occasions, he has singled out the Democratic Convention of Moldova (CDM). Lucinschi said the "radicals" will "sow hatred and strife" and will "again call people to the barricades" (an allusion to the 1992 military clashes with the separatists, when Mircea Snegur, now a CDM co-chairman, was Moldovan president). By backing "moderate forces," Lucinschi said, the voters will allow the country to continue along the "good road" started in 1997. MS


Aleksandr Karaman, vice president of the separatist Transdniester region, is heading a movement to join the Russia-Belarus union. Local labor and veteran soldier associations, such as the United Council of Labor, the Union of Transdniester Defenders, the Association of Afghan Veterans, and the Transdniester Cossacks, belong to that movement. Karaman told BASA- press on 16 March that a drive for collecting signatures in support of joining the union has started. He expressed confidence that most of the population will back joining the union since it will be "politically and economically" beneficial to the Transdniester. MS


The Interior Ministry on 16 March announced that the last four companies producing pirate compact discs have been closed down under the new copyright laws, AFP reported, The announcement comes after repeated threats from the U.S. that it will start trade sanctions against Bulgaria if the makers of counterfeit CDs were not closed by end of March. In other news, Pope John Paul II on 15 March beatified Evgeni Bosilkov, a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church who was sentenced to death and executed by the communist regime in 1952. Bosilkov saved Jews during World War Two and was committed to promoting dialogue with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, AFP reported.


Transportation Minister Wilhelm Kraus on 16 March told BTA that the government is suing railway engineers and will dismiss some of them because the state has sustained losses of some $25,000 owing to a series of one-hour strikes over the last three days. The strikers are demanding wage increases of up to 400 percent, whereas the government is offering only 20 percent. MS


by Yaqub Turan

Political opponents of the Uzbek government have recently suffered a series of setbacks that are seriously undermining their operations.

Perhaps the most serious was the appointment on 4 March of Usmon Khudaykulov as presidential national security adviser. Khudaykulov, previously first deputy at the Prosecutor-General's Office, has the reputation of a "hard-liner." His appointment suggests the government may become much tougher in its dealings with the opposition.

Also on 4 March, Muhammed Salih, who had been in self-imposed exile in Turkey since 1992, was asked by Turkish police to leave the country. Salih ran for the presidency against current Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 1991. One year later, the opposition party Erk, which he chaired, was banned in Uzbekistan, prompting Salih to leave the country.

Members of Erk are now concerned that Uzbek security forces may attempt to spirit Salih away from Romania, to where he fled, since relations with that country are not as important for Uzbekistan as those with Turkey. Such fears may well be justified, as the Uzbek security has a record of cross-border clandestine operations. In January, for example,. Uzbek security agents crossed to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, arrested Zakirjan Normatov in Osh, and brought him back to Tashkent without so much as notifying the Kyrgyz government.

Observers suggest Salih's deportation may be aimed at smoothing relations between Uzbekistan and Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz is due in Tashkent later this month.

In another development, Uzbek police issued a summons for questioning to two imams, Abid Nazarov and Yoldash Ergashev. known as Obidkhan Qori and Tolqun Qori, respectively. Uzbek Deputy Interior Minister Kutbuddin Burhanov said the two were being charged with promoting Wahhabism and teaching it to the country's youth. Wahhabis are being investigated in connection with violent events in the eastern Uzbek city of Namangan last December. Wahhabis, an Islamic sect, are blamed for having instigated those events.

Nazarov is known to be an Islamic "purist" and is originally from Namangan. He was already at odds with the Uzbek authorities as recently as last summer, when an attempt was made to evict him from his house. Previously, Nazarov had been relieved of his post as imam at the Tokhtabai Mosque. Both Nazarov and Ergashev are currently in hiding.

But the most ominous recent development for the political (rather than religious) opposition figures was Shukrullo Mirsaidov's 6 March announcement that he is retiring from politics. Mirsaidov was one of the leaders of the Democratic Opposition Coordination Council and a former Uzbek vice president. He set up the council in 1992 after his office as vice president was abolished. His aim was to coordinate the efforts of opposition groups, or what was left of them after most opposition party and movement leaders had fled the country. Still, the council's very existence has been used by President Islam Karimov as proof that democratic opposition can exist in his country.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Mirsaidov said that he has decided to leave politics and that the council, largely ineffective for the past year, now officially ceases to exist. He blamed opposition groups for that decision, saying they are so busy quarreling among themselves that "it is impossible" to coordinate their activities. He went on to say that the leaders of those groups were "out of touch with reality and indifferent toward the majority of Uzbeks faced with enormous hardship and economic problems." And in an apparent about face, Mirsaidov added that the "Uzbek government has laid down the foundations for establishing a democratic and legal state and for implementing reform programs aimed at setting up a free, market-oriented economy."

Mirsaidov's comments virtually amount to an epitaph for Uzbekistan's political opposition. Many have long regarded it as ineffective, with its leaders scattered throughout Europe and the U.S. But opposition groups now have little chance of preparing to contest presidential elections in the year 2000.

Moreover, the opposition's apparent decline may only open the door wider to religious opponents of the government. The religious revival in the country is strongly in evidence and, combined with the growing public discontent over low living standard, may acquire an anti- government momentum. The author is the director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.