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Newsline - April 29, 1998


Following a meeting with Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, President Boris Yeltsin on 28 April signed decrees appointing nine senior cabinet ministers. There will be no first deputy prime ministers in the new government, but there will be three deputy prime ministers, including Boris Nemtsov (until now acting first deputy prime minister) and Viktor Khristenko (until now deputy finance minister). Nemtsov will carry out Kirienko's duties when the prime minister is away, and he expects to have broader powers in his new government job than he had last year, Russian news agencies reported. The relatively obscure Khristenko held various posts in Chelyabinsk Oblast before joining the Finance Ministry last July. The third deputy prime minister is expected to be named on 30 April. The cabinet Yeltsin sacked last month had eight deputy prime ministers as well as two first deputy prime ministers. LB


As expected, Yeltsin did not replace any of the top cabinet ministers in his decrees of 28 April. Yevgenii Primakov remains foreign minister, a post he has held since January 1996. Igor Sergeev, who became defense minister last May, has kept his job, as has Mikhail Zadornov, the finance minister since last November. Yeltsin also appointed Sergei Stepashin as interior minister. He named Stepashin as acting head of that ministry in late March. By keeping his job as minister for emergency situations, Sergei Shoigu remains one of Russia's longest-serving government officials. He has held cabinet-level posts for nearly seven years. Aleksandr Tikhonov, appointed education minister in early March, keeps his job, while Nikolai Aksenenko remains the head of the Railroad Ministry, a post to which he was appointed last April. LB


Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Valerii Nesterushkin on 28 April said "there is no cooperation between Russia and India in creating missile systems for India," Reuters reported. Nesterushkin was responding to allegations in "The New York Times" the previous day that Russia is helping India develop a submarine-launched missile with a range of 320 kilometers. Yevgenii Ananev, the head of Russia's arms export company Rosvooruzhenie, was quoted by Interfax as saying only that "such work is not being done." In New Delhi, former Indian Prime Minister Kumar Gujral said the report is "totally false," according to Reuters. Gujral added that "whatever our progress [in developing missiles], we have complete capacity to look after ourselves." BP


Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii has denied reports that Yeltsin has been advised by his doctors not to drink because of liver problems, Reuters reported on 28 April. Earlier the same day, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone quoted French President Jacques Chirac as saying that Yeltsin's doctors told him to abstain from alcohol after he developed liver problems from "drinking too much vodka." But Yastrzhembskii told Reuters that Yeltsin "during the time I've worked for the president he has not experienced problems with his liver." He said doctors have allowed Yeltsin to drink wine occasionally, adding by way of example that Yeltsin drank a glass at a 28 April breakfast with presidents of CIS Customs Union countries. LB


Pavel Grachev has been appointed chief military adviser to the arms export giant Rosvooruzhenie on President Yeltsin's recommendation, company director Yevgenii Ananev told journalists on 28 April. Ananev said that Grachev's contacts with CIS and former Warsaw Pact defense ministers have "already produced results" for Rosvooruzhenie, which currently has orders totaling $8.5 billion. Ananev conceded, however, that the company's financial situation is "serious," partly because of its losses totaling $80 million after Mosnatsbank, its authorized bank, went bankrupt last year. LF


Ananev also told journalists on 28 April that his company will deliver the S-300 air defense missiles ordered by Greek Cyprus in mid-August, rather than in September or October, the "Turkish Daily News" reported on 29 April. Ananev said those systems have not yet been manufactured but that the contract to deliver them will be fulfilled on time. The U.S. and Turkey have protested the planned deployment. LF


A Moscow municipal court on 27 April rejected former First Deputy Prime Minister Anatolii Chubais's slander lawsuit against Aleksandr Minkin and the Ekho Moskvy radio station, ITAR-TASS reported the next day. Chubais sued Minkin for 250 million old rubles ($42,000) and demanded a retraction from Ekho Moskvy. During an appearance on Ekho Moskvy last November, Minkin revealed that Chubais and other officials each received $90,000 from a publishing firm linked to Oneksimbank, ostensibly for writing a book on privatization. Minkin charged that the fees were "hidden bribes" and a "scheme for money laundering." During court hearings, Minkin claimed that the alleged contract for the book on privatization was a sham, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 28 April. Chubais's lawyer said he will appeal the ruling. In late May, a Moscow court is scheduled to consider a similar lawsuit Chubais has filed against Russian Public Television commentator Sergei Dorenko. LB


A Moscow municipal court has awarded Mikhail Chernyi 2,000 rubles ($326) in damages from Yevgenii Kiselev, the anchor of NTV's weekly program "Itogi," and another 1,000 rubles from the network itself, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 28 April. "Itogi" broadcast a series of eight investigative reports about the Russian aluminum industry in late 1996 and early 1997 (see "OMRI Daily Digest," 13 and 20 January 1997). Chernyi objected to the following statement made on the air by Kiselev: "Our own investigation showed that the Chernyi brothers [Lev and Mikhail] and firms headed by them sought to achieve dominance in the Russian aluminum market through criminal methods, with the support of former First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets and former Sports Minister Shamil Tarpishchev." NTV plans to appeal the court ruling, which also obliges it to broadcast a retraction of Kiselev's remarks on "Itogi." LB


"Kommersant-Daily" noted on 28 April that numerous Russian media have reported allegations that Lev and Mikhail Chernyi used illegal means to gain influence in the aluminum industry. But when Mikhail Chernyi has filed suit over such reports, he has not yet lost. In the case against NTV and Kiselev, Chernyi's lawyer cited a December 1997 report from an Interior Ministry official who said the criminal case against Chernyi was closed after investigators found no evidence of a crime. Chernyi has also successfully sued the magazine "Profil" and the weekly "Sobesednik." Both of those publications settled out of court and printed retractions. Chernyi has a lawsuit pending against Aleksandr Minkin and the weekly "Novaya gazeta" based on a July 1996 article (see "OMRI Daily Digest," 9 July 1996). LB


The board of directors of the electricity giant Unified Energy System (EES) on 28 April approved a list of 24 candidates for seats on the company's board of directors, Russian news agencies reported. EES shareholders will elect the board at a meeting tentatively scheduled for June. A collegium of state representatives in EES drew up the list, which includes former First Deputy Prime Minister Chubais and acting Minister without portfolio Yevgenii Yasin. Chubais was named to the 15- member board of directors during an extraordinary shareholders' meeting earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 April 1998). The list of candidates does not include Boris Brevnov, an ally of Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov who resigned as EES chief executive on 3 April. Officials have not said when Brevnov's replacement will be appointed. Chubais is a leading candidate for that job. LB


Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov has estimated that the month-long political instability following the dismissal of the government in late March increased Russia's debt servicing costs by 4.5 billion rubles ($734 million), RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 28 April. He explained that the uncertainty drove up yields on government securities. With the next $700 million tranche of an IMF loan unlikely to be available before June or July, the cash-strapped government is pursuing other methods of foreign borrowing. Russia is in the process of selling its fifth Eurobond, denominated in Italian lira, and Deputy Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told Interfax on 28 April that another Eurobond may be floated in June. In addition, the Finance Ministry recently signed a memorandum with the Export-Import Bank of Japan on borrowing Japanese yen worth some $1.5 billion. LB


The gas monopoly Gazprom plans to acquire a stake of 25 percent plus one share in Inkombank, one of the largest Russian commercial banks, by the end of this year, ITAR-TASS reported on 28 April, citing the bank's first vice president, Igor Komarov. Gazprom currently holds 4 percent of Inkombank shares; owning more than 25 percent would give the company the power to veto certain types of decisions at the bank. The gas monopoly has recently increased its stake in Promstroibank to 25 percent plus one share, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 April. Gazprom head Rem Vyakhirev announced earlier this month that his company is likely to borrow $1.5 billion to $2 billion on international financial markets in May in order to help finance investment projects. In addition, Gazprom has acquired management control over some industrial firms in exchange for canceling debts owed by delinquent consumers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 1998). LB


Some 40 employees of the Tsentralnaya coal mine in Partizansk (Primorskii Krai) on 29 April ended a hunger strike they began seven days earlier, RFE/RL's correspondent in Vladivostok reported. Several of the miners were hospitalized during the protest. City officials announced on 29 April that Partizansk has received 5 million rubles ($816,000) from the krai budget and 5.5 million rubles from the federal budget in order to pay nine months in back wages for the strikers. Krai officials say the federal government is sending another 35 million rubles but say that sum will not cover all wage arrears for Partizansk miners, let alone other unpaid coal industry workers in Primore. Another 32 miners in Partizansk have already begun another hunger strike. LB


During negotiations several days after the Partizansk strike began, some miners took the director of the Tsentralnaya mine "hostage," saying they would not let him go until their salaries were paid. Strikers used a similar tactic during talks with the first deputy governor of Primorskii Krai. Their actions prompted Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko to suggest that the miners take Russia's Democratic Choice leader Yegor Gaidar and former Deputy Prime Minister Chubais hostage instead, RFE/RL's correspondent reported on 28 April. Nazdratenko quipped that the miners could demand ransom from the IMF. Nazdratenko is a longtime critic of Chubais and Nemtsov. His leading political opponent, Vladivostok Mayor Viktor Cherepkov, is a senior member of the Russia's Democratic Choice party. LB


Information Minister Sirus Tabrizli told RFE/RL on 28 April that Heidar Aliyev has ordered the Ministries of Communications and Information to resume the retransmission of RFE/RL Azerbaijani-language broadcasts on medium wave as soon as possible. Tabrizli said Aliyev had been unaware of the decision to cease retransmission, which was protested last week by the U.S. State Department. LF


Following a 90-minute meeting in Moscow on the evening of 28 April, Robert Kocharian and Aliyev issued a statement affirming their shared commitment to achieving a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict through negotiations under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, Russian agencies reported. They also expressed their readiness to continue to observe the cease-fire agreement signed in May 1994. Kocharian termed the exchange of views "fruitful," while Aliyev said they intend to continue meeting "as need be," according to ITAR-TASS. LF


Earlier that day, Kocharian had his first meeting with Russian President Yeltsin, who congratulated him on his election as president last month. Yeltsin expressed the hope that bilateral relations "will become stronger," adding that the August 1997 bilateral treaty on friendship and cooperation could be amended "if there are questions of principle." Also on 28 April, the tripartite Armenian-Azerbaijani-Russian commission, created in July 1997 to investigate Russian arms deliveries to Armenia, met under the chairmanship of Russian acting Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Rybkin. No details of the proceedings were disclosed. Azerbaijan Defense Minister Safar Abiev told ANS press on 27 April that Azerbaijan will insist that those arms be returned and will raise the issue of alleged secret negotiations between the Russian and Armenian Defense Ministries on deliveries of S-300 missiles to Armenia. LF


Lawmakers on 28 April voted by an overwhelming majority to endorse the candidacy of David Tevzadze, whom Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had proposed as defense minister the previous day. Addressing the parliament, Tevzadze, a philosophy and philology graduate who was born in Sukhumi, argued that Georgia needs "a small but mobile and capable army." He also said that the presence of Russian military bases in Georgia is "a political question" that he would avoid, Caucasus Press reported. The same day, the parliament confirmed 42-year-old physicist Teimuraz Georgadze as fuel and energy minister, despite his lack of experience in that sector. A former businessman, Georgadze has served for the past six months as governor of Mtskheta and Tianeti, according to Interfax. LF


The CIS presidents on 28 April endorsed Georgian-Russian proposals for resolving the Abkhaz conflict, an RFE/RL correspondent in Moscow reported. The plan, approved by Georgia, makes the lifting of current economic sanctions on Abkhazia contingent on the successful repatriation to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion of ethnic Georgians forced to flee during the 1992-1993 war. It also provides for the establishment in Gali of a Georgian-Abkhaz administration with Russian, UN, and OSCE representation. Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba has said that provision is unacceptable. The summit also extended until 31 July the mandate of the CIS peacekeeping force currently deployed along the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Two Abkhaz were killed in Gali Raion on 28 April, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. LF


The Democratic Opposition Coordination Council met in Kokand last week, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The council appeared to have disbanded last month, when its chairman, Shukrullo Mirsaidov, announced his retirement from politics and the council's dissolution. Representatives from opposition parties such as Erk, Birlik and the Free Peasant's Party took part in the meeting; most were from the regions of the Fergana Valley, Andizhan, Namangan, and Fergana. The council called for stronger unity among opposition forces but also for cooperation with the government and adherence to the country's constitution. It also stressed that it will not condone radical or extremist activities. Though invited to the meeting, the People's Democratic Party, Adolat, and the Homeland Progressive Party did not send representatives. BP


Tajik special forces freed three hostages on the evening of 28 April, according to ITAR-TASS. The three were taken hostage in the Tursun Zade area last week by a group of outlaws. Meanwhile, the fate of three Interior Ministry officers taken hostage on 23 April remains a mystery. Authorities believe the officers are being held in the Kofarnikhon region. United Tajik Opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri has dispatched representatives to the area to negotiate the release of these hostages. BP


The search for victims of rains and accompanying landslides that hit Tajikistan last week continues, Interfax reported on 29 April. The bodies of more than 100 people, most from central Tajikistan, have been found; they were victims of the largest landslide in years to hit the village of Navdi in the Garm region. There are still 50-60 people missing, many of whom are believed buried in their houses. Poor weather and inaccessibility to villages are hampering rescue efforts. BP


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has signed an edict on combatting corruption, Ukrainian Radio reported on 28 April. The document envisions such measures as stripping parliamentary deputies of their immunity and limiting the immunity of judges. It also mandates drawing up a procedure for financing political parties and public organizations. JM


Supreme Council deputy Mikhaylo Brodskiy, in an open appeal published in "Kievskiye Vedomosti" on 28 April, called on parliamentary deputies to set up an anti-presidential faction in the legislature. Brodskiy believes the current authorities have discredited themselves through embezzlement and totalitarian tendencies. He warned against the authorities' intent to confront the people with left-wing forces. Brodskiy is a businessman with a major share in the "Kievskiye Vedomosti" daily. He was recently imprisoned on charges of illegal property deals and released after winning a parliamentary seat. JM


Latvia's Way has said it "categorically objects" to proposed changes by the Fatherland and Freedom faction to the government protocol on amendments to the citizenship law, BNS reported on 28 April. Latvia's Way chairman Andrejs Pantelejevs told the news agency that the Fatherland and Freedom faction's proposals, which provide for promoting the integration of society in line with recommendations by international experts, are "too vague and unconcrete." Pantelejevs argued that the protocol should provide for concrete amendments abolishing the so-called naturalization windows and granting citizenship to children born to non-citizens after independence. JC


Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov said in Moscow on 28 April that Russia will not back down from its demands that Riga do away with "discriminatory measures against the Russian-speaking population," ITAR- TASS reported. Noting the Latvians "have finally aroused the bear," he added that Moscow is merely demanding that Latvia abide by the recommendations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. JC


Lawmakers have passed a package of bills reforming the social insurance system, "Rzeczpospolita" reported on 29 April. Under the new legislation, the compulsory social insurance contribution of the employee is to equal 45 percent of his wage. The Social Security Agency is to provide 36 percent of that total and the newly established pensions funds 9 percent. Employees will also be allowed to make additional contributions to private insurance companies in order to boost their pensions. JM


Deputy Labor Minister Janusz Galeziak said nearly 6 million people or 13 percent of the population were given welfare assistance in Poland in 1997, "Gazeta Wyborcza" reported on 29 April. Galeziak believes the welfare system is too big a burden for the state public sector and should be reformed, with local administration taking over more financial responsibility for welfare services. JM


A Russian and two Czechs who smuggled highly enriched uranium from Belarus to the Czech Republic in December 1994 have been sentenced by the Supreme Court in Prague. A former Czech army officer and a Czech nuclear expert were each sentenced to nine years in prison, while their Russian accomplice received an eight- year prison term. The court also sentenced a former Czech police officer to 30 months in jail for his role in the affair. Specialists said the uranium was probably stolen from a submarine and could have been used to construct a nuclear weapon, although greater quantities would have been needed for that purpose, AFP reported. MS


Speaking at an international conference in Vienna on 28 April, Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar said the EU "lacks objectivity" in its attitude to Slovakia and is discriminating against Bratislava and favoring what he called "another sub-group" that had been set up from among candidate EU members. Austrian Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schussel earlier told the conference that he would have "expected a little more openness" from Slovakia when addressing its own "deficiencies." He said Bratislava "pays insufficient respect" to constitutional provisions and "all too often disregards the rights of the opposition." In his reply, Meciar said that "the situation was not perfect" in any country, AFP reported. MS


Party leaders of the Federation of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party, Independent Smallholders' Party, Hungarian Democratic Forum, Hungarian Democratic People's Party, and Christian Democratic People's Party on 28 April were unable to reach an agreement on backing the best placed candidate in the second round of the upcoming general elections. In separate news, Socialist Party chairman and Prime Minister Gyula Horn turned down a proposal to take part in a 6 May public debate with Young Democrat leader Viktor Orban. The premier's chief of staff said Horn has a "scheduling conflict" on that day. MSZ


Several tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians took part in a protest march for peace and independence in the Kosovar capital on 28 April, RFE/RL reported. Some demonstrators carried U.S. and Albanian flags or pulled a float displaying the U.S., Albanian, and Serbian flags around a conference table. The organizers of this latest demonstration wanted to underscore the Kosovars' demand for independence through foreign mediation on the eve of the Contact Group meeting in Rome. A BBC commentator said that the presence of the U.S. flags in the march reflects the fact that "the Americans are the only ones the Albanians trust." Kosovars have been holding daily peaceful protest marches for nearly three weeks. PM


Belgrade's military used a lull in fighting on 28 April to send "fresh tanks, ammunition and military supplies" to Kosova, "The Daily Telegraph" reported. The paramilitary police also reinforced their "scores of checkpoints" in the Decan area near the Albanian border. "At Serbian checkpoints, police warned journalists that they could become targets if tough economic sanctions are imposed on Yugoslavia," the London daily added. PM


Some twenty unidentified soldiers exchanged fire with Albanian forces near Qafe Prushi in the Has Mountains on 28 April, according to Albanian border guards quoted by "Koha Jone." The attackers withdrew after a two-hour exchange in which nobody was injured. The previous day in Tropoja, police arrested two federal Yugoslav soldiers. Interior Minister Perikli Teta said the men are "Serbian agents," but the soldiers claim they are "Yugoslav soldiers in pursuit of a terrorist group" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 1998). Meanwhile, the police chief in the border town of Kruma urged citizens to stay clear of the frontier with Yugoslavia. The government recently placed the army and police on maximum alert. FS


The shadowy Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) said in a statement in Prishtina on 28 April that Kosova is "in a state of war." The UCK called "on liberation forces to join us in a common front against the enemy." The statement added that Albania is the "fatherland" of all ethnic Albanians and is "obliged to assist its occupied part." The UCK warned the Kosovar civilian leadership to stop "spreading defeatism and anarchy" and to take a tougher stand against Belgrade. Albania is too weak militarily and politically to engage in a war in Kosova. Tirana and the Kosovar civilian leadership are both under heavy U.S. political pressure to continue their moderate policies in regional affairs. PM


A spokesman for the Albanian Foreign Ministry said in Tirana on 28 April that Russian charges that Albania is playing host to Kosovar "terrorist training camps" are "baseless" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 1998). The spokesman added that there have never been any such camps on Albanian soil and that Tirana questions why Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov chose to make the charge on the eve of the Contact Group meeting. Speaking in Moscow, Primakov also demanded that the Albanian authorities "seal" their borders to prevent alleged arms smuggling to Yugoslavia or Macedonia. He added that Kosovar secession would be against "Serbian interests, historical justice, and stability" and could lead to a war "worse than the one in Bosnia." Primakov said that imposing new economic sanctions on Belgrade would be counterproductive to the establishment of a political dialogue in Kosova. PM


Ivan Markovic, the deputy chairman of the United Yugoslav Left led by Mira Markovic, who is the wife of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, has accused Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and parliament speaker Svetozar Marovic of being party to what he called a foreign-led conspiracy against Yugoslavia. Ivan Markovic charged that the "anti-Yugoslav oligarchy" in Podgorica is working closely with "Albanian secessionists and terrorists" to "destabilize and split up the Republic of Serbia," "Politika" wrote on April 29. His statements are the latest in a verbal row between some of Milosevic's supporters and opponents over his invitation to Momir Bulatovic, who is Milosevic's loyalist and Djukanovic's enemy, to attend national day festivities in Belgrade on 27 April. Milosevic invited neither Djukanovic nor Marovic to the celebration, nor did he request that Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic or Prime Minister Milorad Dodik attend. PM


Some 7,000 ethnic Albanians staged a protest in the Macedonian capital on 28 April to demand the release from prison of Rufi Osmani, the mayor of Gostivar. He is serving a sentence for failing to obey a court order to take down an Albanian flag during the riots on 9 July and also for inciting national, racial, and religious hatred (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 April 1998). PM


Representatives of the international community said in a statement following a conference on refugee return in Banja Luka on 28 April that "conditions for safe and guaranteed return [of refugees] must be fully established in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia this year. All relevant government authorities can no longer avoid their responsibility towards this end." Carlos Westendorp, who is the international community's chief representative in Bosnia, singled out the Croatian authorities for special criticism and warned that Zagreb could face sanctions unless it does more to speed up the return of refugees, "Oslobodjenje" wrote. He added that refugees must be allowed to return to the Republika Srpska immediately, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM


A Tirana court on 28 April ordered the jailing of VEFA owner Vehbi Alimucaj and seven of his close collaborators, "Albania" reported. Police then arrested Alimucaj and four of the others. The Tirana Prosecutors' Office charged Alimucaj with "large scale fraud and theft." The prosecutors claim that he withdrew a total of $140 million from VEFA bank accounts over several years and gave the money to his collaborators. Investigators have not been able to find those funds, which VEFA's investors claim is theirs. Alimucaj faces up to five years in prison if found guilty. FS


Meeting in Tirana on 28 April, several members of the Socialist Party leadership strongly criticized Fatos Nano over the formation of his new cabinet, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported. They complained that Nano's procedures in appointing the government were not transparent and that Nano did not consult the party leadership. Some leaders also complained that no northern Albanians are included in the new government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 April 1998). FS


Prime Minister Radu Vasile on 28 April said after a new meeting with Poul Thompsen, IMF chief negotiator for Romania, that negotiations with the fund will resume after the parliament approves this year's budget. Vasile said a new stand-by loan for 1998 is envisaged but that the possibility of receiving a three-year stand by loan has not been ruled out. The current $430 million stand-by loan runs out next month. The fund has approved only two tranches, withholding the rest due to the stalling of the economic reform process, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. MS


Defense Minister Victor Babiuc says he has no intention to resign over the "cigarette-smuggling affair." He pointed out that on the day of the smuggling, he had not yet been sworn in and that he therefore sees no reason why he should accept responsibility for what happened. Babiuc also said he is "eagerly awaiting" to learn what a number of officers on the staff of the Bucharest military airport have threatened to make public. In a fax sent to several newspapers on 28 April, the officers threatened to reveal details about ongoing smuggling, which, they claim, has involved several high ranking officials. They say they would do so if the commander of the military airport, Ioan Suciu, is not freed from detention "within 48 hours." The signatories say Suciu has been "implementing orders, as he did many times in the past." MS


A non-binding referendum on joining the Russia-Belarus union is being conducted in the separatist republic from 25 April to 15 May, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau and BASA-press reported. The referendum was called by the Movement for Joining the Russia-Belarus Union, which was set up last month. The leader of the movement is Igor Smirnov's deputy, Aleksandr Karaman, but observers note that the plebiscite is taking place while Smirnov himself is undergoing medical treatment in Moscow. MS


by George Schopflin

The most striking aspect of the 10 May elections in Hungary is that the Hungarian Socialist Party (HSP), the communist successor party and the dominant member of the ruling coalition, looks well set to retain its strong position. The HSP gained an absolute majority in 1994 and has governed in a somewhat uneasy coalition with the liberal Free Democrats since then. Its strong position is in contrast to the losses suffered by other ex-communist parties in Poland and Lithuania.

Opinion polls have shown the HSP doing well, but not well enough to gain an absolute majority. Some earlier polls estimated its strength at about 40 percent, but more recent surveys suggest support for the party is dwindling somewhat. The level of backing for the HSP has been declining since the party launched its election campaign in February, and the main opposition party--the Young Democrats--Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ), has been pulling ahead. The Free Democrats seem likely to pass the 5 percent hurdle that Hungary's election law prescribes, and so does the populist Smallholders' Party.

One the key difficulties in trying to assess the relationship between popular support and likely representation is the complexity of the Hungarian electoral system, generally regarded as the most intricate in Europe. In short, there are individual constituencies, regional lists, and a national list.

In individual constituencies, two rounds of voting take place and successful candidates must either receive an absolute majority in the first round or a relative majority in the second. Generally, few candidates manage to gain the 50 percent plus one that is required in the first round, meaning that the second round is decisive.

For the regional lists, Hungary is divided into 20 electoral districts and parliamentary mandates are distributed according to the proportion that each party list receives in each electoral district. The votes cast for party lists that failed to gain any mandates in that electoral district are then counted to make up the national list.

The underlying principle is that elections should produce consensual government with a solid majority, while excluding small parties from the parliament. On this basis, the system has worked well: it has ensured stable government and kept out marginal groups.

The system, however, does not in itself explain the success of the HSP. To understand why it has done so well electorally, the nature of the opposition and the particular dilemma of the Right under post-communism must be examined. The problem of the Right is defining what being right-wing should mean--what precisely a post-communist conservative is actually trying to conserve?

The past in Hungary, as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, is a communist one. Those best fitted to conserve the communist past are the former Communists, hence post-communist conservatism is driven toward anti- communism. But in Hungary, Kadarism gave much of the population its access to economic gains. The communist past is not that unpopular. The transition towards the market has been as troublesome in Hungary as in other post-communist states and a measure of nostalgia for the Kadarist "soft dictatorship" lingers on, leaving the HSP as the beneficiary.

This has placed the Right in an awkward position, because the only slot in the political spectrum that it can fill is the nationalist one. In Hungary, nationalism automatically means fostering links with the ethnic Hungarians of the neighboring states and creates both domestic and international friction. Hungarian opinion has largely written off the ethnic Hungarians as a political issue in domestic affairs and prefers to see Hungarian integration into all-European structures rather than disputes with Hungary's neighbors. Again, the HSP has been the beneficiary.

The dominant party of the right in 1990 was the Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), which lost the 1994 elections, at least partly because it misjudged the voters' attitude to the national question. During the last four years, the HDF has self-destructed, as have the Christian Democrats.

That has left the populist Smallholders and FIDESZ. The Smallholders, led by the able, demagogic Jozsef Torgyan, will certainly return to the parliament, though not as well represented as has once appeared. Probably, they will gain some 10-15 percent of the vote.

FIDESZ, which has been improving its showing in recent weeks, has sought to re-position itself as a modern party that cares for the interests of the nation. It has aimed to mop up the supporters of the HDF, to gain backing from those dissatisfied with the last four years of HSP government, and to capture some of the center ground that the former Communists occupied so successfully in 1994. The fate of FIDESZ will be a key indicator in resolving the dilemma of the meaning of conservatism in Hungary. The author is the director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.