Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - August 18, 1998


Following the de facto devaluation of the Russian ruble on 17 August, both the currency exchange and Russian stock markets continued to fall. Some banks ran out of dollars and halted exchange operations; where dollars were for sale, some traders received as much as 9.5 rubles for them. Russian bankers said that they believe the Central Bank has sufficient resources to stabilize the ruble at 7.0-7.5 to the dollar, a 15 percent drop from the rate before 17 August, Interfax reported. Russian stock markets also dropped on 17 August. The Prime General index fell 11.1 percent to 19.42 points, the Prime Top index dropped 7.8 percent to 31.56 points, and the RTS index declined by 4.85 percent. ITAR-TASS reported that the volume traded for RTS issues was at a record low for any one day--$10.44 million--an indication of continuing investor uncertainty. On 18 August, the ruble fell to 6.885 to $1 on the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange, Interfax reported. PG


A "top source" in the Russian presidential administration told Interfax on 18 August that two days earlier, Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko had assumed personal responsibility for the country's economic crisis and told President Boris Yeltsin that he was prepared to resign. Yeltsin rejected his offer and directed Kirienko to "continue working to rectify the situation," the unidentified source said. PG


Russians reacted angrily to the decline in the value of the ruble, Russian and Western agencies reported. Many Russians on 17 August paid as much as 9.5 rubles for a single U.S. dollar, and many others said they could not find dollars even at that rate. Russian merchants said that the real impact of the devaluation on prices would not hit until they ran out of current stocks in about a month and had to replenish. One Russian citizen told AP that "in Soviet times, we had the sense of confidence in the future. And now Yeltsin, and your Americans have stolen it from us." Meanwhile Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, and Federal Tax Service chief Boris Fedorov warned against any "unjustified" price increases. "No one should use the difficulties the country is experiencing in order to try to deceive citizens," Fedorov told ITAR-TASS. PG


The reaction of Russian politicians ranged from cautious support to outright denunciation. Former Prime Minister and leader of the Our Home is Russia party Viktor Chernomyrdin gave cautious backing to the shift in government policy, saying "there could be no other opinion," ITAR-TASS reported on 17 August. Aleksandr Zhukov, the chairman of the State Duma budget committee, said the move is part of a broader set of measures Russia must adopt. Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed, however, was more critical. He told Interfax that "the Russian government has [signaled] its insolvency and admitted that the country is bankrupt. All of us have been deceived once again." Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev said the decision to allow the ruble to fall is "an egregious mistake." And Communist Party chief Gennadii Zyuganov suggested that the new exchange rate would "first and foremost hit the poorer classes of the population, lead to a price rise and simultaneously to the bankruptcy of many commercial banks," ITAR-TASS reported. PG


German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose country has made the largest investment in Russia, expressed concern about the Russian government's latest moves but said he believes that Moscow can overcome the crisis if it takes some additional steps and does not violate any previous agreements. Mike McCurry, spokesman for U.S. President Bill Clinton, said on 17 August that Washington plans to continue to "work with" the Russian government. U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin released a statement calling on the Russian authorities to take action on additional reforms necessary to restore investor confidence. Meanwhile, Japanese First Deputy Finance Minister Koji Tanami told ITAR-TASS on 17 August that the G-7 countries are wary of giving any additional aid to Moscow because they believe that the outcome there ultimately depends on Russia itself . But international financier George Soros praised the Russian action as "necessary, timely, and courageous," Interfax reported. PG


Following meetings with IMF officials on 17 August, President Boris Yeltsin's special envoy to international financial organizations, Anatolii Chubais, told ITAR-TASS that the IMF is not especially pleased by what Moscow has done but that "there is an understanding of the necessity of this operation and the reasons why it was carried out." Chubais also said that the IMF is unlikely to come up with any additional aid, but IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus said in a statement that the IMF may nonetheless release a loan tranche in September as planned if the Russian government takes additional steps to put its economic house in order. PG


Standard & Poor's, the international rating agency, on 17 August cut Russia's credit rating for long-term foreign exchange loans from B- to CCC, ITAR-TASS reported. In its report, the rating agency noted that Moscow's recent policy shifts could lead to a unilateral restructuring of ruble- denominated state debt and default of private issuers in the near future. The next day, Standard & Poor's gave its lowest possible rating--"not meaningful"--to six Russian banks, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, Fitch IBCA lowered Russia's long-term foreign currency rating to B- from BB-, according to dpa. Fitch said it is especially concerned by Moscow's announcement of a 90-day moratorium on external debt payments. Also on 17 August, the international credit card issuer VIA announced that it will block the bank identification number of Russia's Imperial Bank because that bank has not deposited sufficient funds to cover the settlement of claims. PG


The Russian Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade told Interfax on 18 August that Russian exports in the first half of 1998 fell 13 percent from $40.7 billion compared with the same period in 1997 to $35.4 billion. Meanwhile, imports rose over the same period by 12.8 percent to $26.3 billion, thus reducing the trade surplus to $9.1 billion. The ministry said that it expects imports to fall in the second half of 1998 because of the devaluation of the ruble. PG


Yeltsin will not attend the 21 August extraordinary session of the Duma, despite an invitation to do so, his spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii told Interfax on 17 August. Yeltsin's unwillingness to appear may anger deputies, who are holding hearings on the possibility of Yeltsin's impeachment, ITAR-TASS reported. Meanwhile, the Duma press service announced that the State Duma Council has decided to hold special plenary meetings on 21 August and 25 August to consider reports by Prime Minister Kirienko and government draft laws on economic issues. Duma speaker Seleznev said the resignation of the government or its ministers is on the agenda, and he indicated that no bicameral meeting of the parliament is now in the offing. But ITAR-TASS reported that the Federation Council may convene on 28 August. PG


Following meetings on 16 and 17 August, Yeltsin and Kirienko indicated that they discussed personnel changes in the government but said they reached no decisions, Interfax reported. Shortly thereafter, however, Yeltsin appointed Federal Tax Service chief Boris Fedorov as deputy prime minister with responsibility for macroeconomics and the management of the state debt. The deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Aleksandr Livshits submitted a letter of resignation noting that "possibly I bear a share of responsibility for what has happened on the financial market," Interfax reported. Yeltsin accepted that letter the next day. Similarly, Central Bank chief Sergei Dubinin sent Yeltsin a letter indicating he was prepared to leave if Yeltsin wanted him to, but Yeltsin rejected that offer, according to Interfax on 18 August. But Duma chairman Seleznev told that news agency the previous day that the parliament will support Soviet-era bank leader Viktor Gerashchenko as Dubinin's replacement. PG


On a day when most of the news seemed to be bad, Russian officials were quoted as signaling improvements in the future. The Russian Finance Ministry announced that the steps outlined by the government on 17 August will not affect the servicing of foreign debt, according to Interfax. (The Moscow city government also announced that it will pay all its obligations, ITAR-TASS reported.) Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov told the latest issue of "Newsweek" that Russian tax collections have significantly improved in recent months, something he called "good news." And the Russian privatization agency announced plans for selling off portions of Svyazinvest and Gazprom. Meanwhile, Russia's 12 largest banks agreed to cooperate with one another and the Central Bank to create a special clearinghouse. PG


In order to reduce prison overcrowding widely blamed for outbreaks of a variety of infectious diseases, Justice Minister Pavel Krashenninikov said on 14 August that he will ask the Duma to amnesty some 100,000 prisoners now held for what he called minor crimes, ITAR- TASS reported. In addition, Krashenninikov said that he wants to limit all future pre-trial detentions to less than a year. That move would require Duma approval. PG


President Aslan Maskhadov on 16 August dismissed Husein-Khodji Batukaev as chairman of the Chechen Supreme Shariat Court and Khavazh Serbiev as prosecutor-general, RFE/RL's Grozny correspondent reported. Serbiev was appointed to that post two years ago by then acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. Maskhadov personally requested the Chechen parliament's endorsement of Serbiev's dismissal on the grounds of incompetence, pointing out that the prosecutor failed to complete investigations into several recent incidents, including the 21 June shooting in Grozny of National Security Service Director Lecha Khultygov, the armed clashes in Gudermes on 14-15 July, and the assassination attempt against Maskhadov on 23 July. Maskhadov did not propose a replacement for Serbiev but said that his successor should be "firm, militant, and with experience in the law enforcement organs." LF


Maskhadov issued a decree on 17 August banning the production of oil condensate (oil mixed with diesel fuel), ITAR-TASS reported. Numerous inhabitants of Grozny currently make a livelihood from illegally extracting and refining oil, much of which has seeped into the soil and threatens to cause a major ecological catastrophe. The Chechen Fuel and Energy Ministry claims that millions of tons of crude oil have accumulated 10-15 meters underground and pose a threat to the ground water as well as the entire region. LF


Three villages in Dagestan's Buinak Raion that have repeatedly been identified as a hotbed of Wahhabism declared the district an independent Islamic territory on 17 August, Interfax reported. They are refusing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the republican authorities. The villages' inhabitants have clashed several time with local police since June 1997. Meeting in Nazran on 17 August, the muftis of Dagestan, North Ossetia, Chechnya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Ingushetia decided to form a Coordinating Council of the Muslims of North Caucasus, Caucasus Press reported. The aim of the council is to promote the revival of Islam, combat "harmful trends," including Wahhabism, and contribute to the stabilization of the North Caucasus. LF


The Azerbaijan Central Electoral Commission has formally registered six candidates for the 11 October presidential election, Turan reported on 17 August. The six are incumbent President Heidar Aliev, Azerbaijan National Independence Party chairman Etibar Mamedov, Independent Azerbaijan Party chairman Nizami Suleymanov, Azerbaijan Social Welfare Party chairman Khanguseyn Kazymly, Communist Party leader Firudin Hasanov, and Association of Victims of Political Repression chairman Ashraf Mekhtiev. Three applicants were rejected on the grounds of irregularities in the collection of signatures supporting their candidacy: Umid [Hope] Party chairman Abulfaz Akhmedov, Alliance for Azerbaijan chairman Abutalib Samedov, and businessman Ilgar Kerimov. LF


Davit Tevzadze's visit to Moscow, scheduled to begin on 16 August, has been postponed indefinitely due to the protracted disagreement over the division between Russia and Georgia of former Soviet military facilities in Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. During a visit to Kyiv last week, Tevzadze and his Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksandr Kuzmuk, discussed the creation of a peacekeeping battalion composed of units from the GUAM states (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova). Kuzmuk said that proposals for the structure and organization of that battalion have already been drafted and submitted to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. LF


Some 200 ethnic Georgian fugitives from Abkhazia staged a demonstration in Tbilisi on 15 August, Caucasus Press reported. The demonstrators, who make a living by trading in medications, were protesting the confiscation by city inspectors of their merchandise. Many of the drugs and antibiotics in which the demonstrators trade reportedly have either date-expired, thereby posing a health hazard, or were part of humanitarian aid consignments and therefore may not be resold. The demonstrators demanded that either their wares be returned and they be allowed to continue trading or the Georgian authorities take measures to enable them to return to Abkhazia. LF


As of 1 September, all persons arriving in Georgia by air at Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Batumi airports will be required to complete immigration forms detailing the purpose and duration of their stay in the country, Caucasus Press reported on 18 August. The procedure will be extended in 1999 to visitors arriving by sea. LF


In a recent address to the Armenian nation, Bishop Pargev Martirossian condemns the missionary activities in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh of Jehovah's Witnesses, whom he terms "a totalitarian sect" that poses "a most horrible threat to our people, our state, [and] our faith," Noyan Tapan reported on 17 August. He said Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal to take up arms to defend their country "undermines the foundations of our state." The bishop also expressed concern that those countries that refuse official registration to the Jehovah's Witnesses may be considered to have violated international commitments to freedom of conscience and may consequently be refused membership in the Council of Europe. Armenia currently has special guest status in that organization. LF


Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke by telephone with the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan on 17 August, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. The four agreed that given the successful offensives by troops of Afghanistan's Taliban movement, a meeting of their countries' foreign and defense ministers is necessary. Nazarbayev's press service released a statement saying the four were "unanimous" that the meeting should be held to discuss "strengthening security in the Central Asian region." The ministers are expected to meet in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in the near future. BP


The bodyguard of UN special envoy to Tajikistan, Jan Kubis, was found dead in his Dushanbe apartment on 17 August, ITAR-TASS reported. U.S. citizen Jori de Marco apparently committed suicide. Investigators from the Tajik Interior Ministry found no evidence of a struggle. It is believed that De Marco shot himself in the head with his own gun. BP


On Ukraine's Interbank Currency Exchange, the hryvnya fell to 2.18 to $1 on 17 August, down from 2.14 on 14 August, following Russia's announcement of the widened ruble exchange corridor, AP reported. National Bank Chairman Viktor Yushchenko told reporters that Russia's move may cause a devaluation of the hryvnya and toughen monetary policies in Ukraine, according to ITAR-TASS on 18 August. President Leonid Kuchma ordered the government and the National Bank to prevent the hryvnya from falling further, but no specific measures have been announced so far. JM


The Ukrainian Trade Union of Education Workers has threatened to refuse launching the new school year on 1 September unless teachers are paid their back wages, Ukrainian Television reported on 17 August. At its plenary session in Kyiv the same day, the trade union announced it will stage a rally on Kyiv's main street if the government does not meet the teachers' demands within the next two days. A cabinet member told the television station that the state budget has no funds for teachers, and the government does not intend to print such money. JM


The Ministry of Economy has approved an austerity program for energy and fuel consumption in the country until year's end, "Zvyazda" reported on 17 August. A government official told the newspaper that the plan was necessitated by Gazprom's demand that Minsk reduce the consumption of gas by 30 percent following its inability to pay in full its energy debt to Russia. "We are interested in regulating payments with Russia in order to receive less [gas] from there and pay less in hard currency," the official commented. The plan provides for reducing the temperature of central heating systems by 20 percent as well as cutting off hot water and electricity supplies to industrial and individual consumers. JM


The Ministry of Justice has registered the All-Belarusian Association of Cossacks, Belapan reported on 17 August. Mikalay Famichou, deputy hetman of the association, said there are 3,000 Cossacks in Belarus. The association does not pursue political goals but, according to Famichou, "advocates the unity of Slavic peoples" and is ready to cooperate with organizations supporting the restoration of the USSR. JM


Janis Skrastins, who resigned last week as prosecutor-general citing "political pressure" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 August 1998), says he will not name those politicians who sought to exert pressure on him in his official capacity, BNS reported on 17 August. He said he believes it would be more "honest" if the lawmakers themselves spoke out on the "lobbying pressure" exerted on him. Skrastins described as "contradictory" the law on the Prosecutor-General's Office, which defines that office as an independent component of the judiciary but stipulates that the parliament approves the appointment and, if necessary, the dismissal of the prosecutor-general. He said the legal provisions are an "excellent weapon for politicians to manipulate the prosecutor." JC


A commission has been formed to oversee the construction of the Butinge oil terminal on the Lithuanian coast, BNS reported on 17 August. Deputy Environment Ministers Arturas Daubaras and Pranciskus Juskevicius head the commission, which is tasked with supplying up-to-date information about the construction to the environment minister and the general public. Recently, President Valdas Adamkus wrote to his counterpart in neighboring Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis, that the Butinge oil terminal will be the safest installation in the Baltic Sea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 1998). Environmentalists in Latvia, in particular, and elsewhere have expressed fears that the terminal will pose a threat to the environment. JC


A poll conducted by the private Demoskop agency among 968 Poles shows that public support for the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) increased to 30 percent in the first half of this month, up from 28 percent in July, Reuters reported on 17 August. Support for the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) dropped by two percentage points to 23 percent, while backing for its ally, the Freedom Union (UW), remained unchanged at 16 percent. The AWS has "paid the price for its inefficiency" in implementing its plan for administrative reform, Demoskop commented. The AWS/UW coalition, which was forced to reach a compromise with the SLD, eventually agreed to setting up16 provinces rather than 12, as originally proposed by the government. The declining support for the coalition was also highlighted by Poland's Center for Studying Public Opinion last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 1998). JM


Kazimierz Switon, a radical Catholic activist, made an appeal on private TVN television on 16 August to erect more large crosses outside the former Auschwitz death camp, Reuters reported. Switon said he wants 152 crosses to surround a seven-meter papal cross by 26 September, when the Polish Episcopate is due to discuss the Polish-Jewish controversy over the Christian symbols at Auschwitz. Switon staged a 42-day hunger strike at the site earlier this summer after the Polish government announced that the papal cross may soon be removed. A survey published by the Demoskop polling agency on 17 August said that 73 percent of Poles want to keep the papal cross at the camp site. But 48 percent are against the campaign by Roman Catholic radicals to set up new crosses. JM


Prime Minister Milos Zeman on 17 August said after meeting with the chairman of the Slovak opposition Social Democratic Party of Slovakia leader Jaroslav Volf that he wants "above-normal" relations with Bratislava, CTK reported. Zeman said that if cooperation is to be renewed, the car accident in which federal parliamentary chairman Alexander Dubcek died in 1992 must be investigated and the work of the Czech-Slovak Committee, set up after the January 1993 partition, resumed. He denied seeking to influence the outcome of the September elections in Slovakia by holding talks with Volf before he meets with Vladimir Meciar. But he added that it is "natural that every Social Democrat wishes success to other Social Democrats in another country." Volf said that what former Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and Meciar "managed to do wrong at the local level, they also managed to do wrong in the field of Czech-Slovak relations." MS


Egon Lansky on 17 April told CTK that the Czech Republic and the EU should agree to a "transition period" after the Czech Republic's accession to the organization during which the "sensitive issues" connected with its membership would be gradually solved. Lansky mentioned demands in Germany and Austria that nationals of the new member states not be allowed to settle in other EU countries for a period of 12-15 years. In this context, he noted that there is also "another side of the coin," namely preventing citizens of the "economically strong EU countries" from purchasing property in the new member states. MS


A public opinion poll conducted by the independent MVK institute between 7-13 August confirms that Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar is unlikely to be able to form a government following the elections next month, despite the fact that his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is ahead in party preferences, Reuters reported on 17 August. The HZDS is backed by 25.7 percent, compared with 22.6 percent backing for the Slovak Democratic Coalition, the main opposition party. The parties currently in Meciar's coalition poll a total of 35.3 percent, compared with 56.9 percent for the combined forces of the opposition. Meciar's coalition partners, the Slovak National Party and the Workers' Party, are backed by 7.1 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. Parties must pass a 5 percent threshold to gain parliamentary representation. MS


Janos Martonyi on 17 August said in Budapest it is the "fundamental obligation" of the Hungarian government to support the setting up of a state university for ethnic Hungarians in Romania. Speaking at a meeting of the Hungarian branch of the Association of European Journalists, Martonyi noted that in his opinion, the division of the Cluj University into a Romanian and a Hungarian university is not "the only solution that is acceptable." Also on 17 August, Education Minister Zoltan Pokorny said in Debrecen that the government considers the establishment of the Hungarian university to be a "test of the Hungarian-Romanian basic treaty," Hungarian media reported. MS


Janos Latorcai, the governing coalition candidate for Budapest mayor in the 18 October elections, said on 17 August that he is "surprised" by the announcement of the extremist Hungarian Justice and Life Party that it will back him in the race. He denied that any preliminary talks with that party have taken place and added that he has "no influence" over who will support him. But he added that in order to oust incumbent Mayor Gabor Demszky, he needs all the support he can get. Gabor Horn of the Free Democratic Party, of which Demszky is a member, said the party takes his re- election for granted and sees no reason to enter into talks with the Socialists. Meanwhile, Socialist Party candidate Bela Katona promised to pay utility bills for December for pensioners who live alone, give free medicine to those over 70, and grant cheap housing to police force members, Hungarian media reported. MS


Serbian forces captured three villages near Pec from the Kosova Liberation Army on 17 August. The Serbs "leveled" one of the settlements and destroyed the houses in at least one of the other two, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. In Prishtina, the Kosova Information Center, which is close to the shadow-state government, reported that some 9,000 refugees are living without shelter in the Malisheva area. The news agency added that some 50,000 displaced persons are concentrated in Gjakova and another 10,000 in the surrounding area. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts the total number of persons who have fled their homes in Kosova at 231,000, AP reported. PM


Secretary of Defense William Cohen said in Valdosta, in the U. S. state of Georgia, on 17 August that Washington would intervene in Kosova only with the agreement of its NATO allies. He added, however, that there is no consensus on intervention within the alliance. "So far we have not been successful in getting other NATO countries to sign up and say, 'Wait a minute, we're not going to allow these atrocities to happen,'" Cohen said. "But we have to give NATO time and wait for NATO to act. We are not going to act unilaterally," Reuters quoted him as saying. He added that "we have to wait and see whether NATO will in fact act as an organization, and institution, without having to go to the [UN] Security Council where either Russia or China or someone else can veto" any proposed intervention. PM


Akis Tsohatzopoulos said in Athens that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is responsible for "unleashing the catastrophe in Bosnia" and for the "massacre of civilians" in Kosova, the Belgrade daily "Danas" wrote on 18 August. The defense minister added that "Milosevic has to realize that he cannot carry out ethnic cleansing and destroy entire villages in western [Kosova] and that everything has its limits." Tsohatzopoulos noted that "it must be clear to both sides that independence for the province is not possible. The only solution is wide autonomy within Serbia." The statement is the sharpest public attack on Milosevic by a Greek government official to date and reflects a recent shift in Athens' policy on Kosova away from Greece's traditional pro-Serbian stance. PM


Hans van den Broek, who is the EU's chief representative for international relations, said in Salzburg that the international community should exert pressure on the Serbian authorities to allow independent forensics experts to investigate recent German and Austrian press reports of mass graves of Kosovar civilians near Rahovec (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 August 1998). Van den Broek discussed Kosova with Austrian Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel, who told his visitor that "incredible things" had happened in Rahovec, the Vienna daily "Die Presse" wrote on 17 August. The Serbian authorities have denied that mass graves exist and declared Erich Rathfelder, who broke the story, persona non grata. Rathfelder and the two newspapers in which he published his account, "Die Presse" and Berlin's "taz," stand by the story. PM


German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel warned the Yugoslav authorities in a letter that "Yugoslav correspondents in Bonn may face problems" if Belgrade does not readmit German television journalist Friedhelm Brebeck, who was expelled from Yugoslavia on 16 August, the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" reported on 18 August. Brebeck described as "completely absurd" the Yugoslav charges that his story about the fall of the village of Junik on the day he was expelled was deliberately inaccurate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 1998). PM


Opposition Democratic Party legislator Azem Hajdari on 17 August criticized the participation of 40 Russian troops in exercises that started earlier that day and involve both NATO member states as well as participants in the alliance's Partnership for Peace program. He argued that as a result of the conditions that Russia attached to ensure its participation in "Cooperative Assembly 1998," the exercise will not send a sufficiently strong or clear message to Belgrade to stop military operations in Kosova. Russia agreed to participate in the 1,700 troop exercise only after NATO promised to keep the maneuvers "politically sterile," as a Russian commentator put it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 1998). In Moscow, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the maneuvers will demonstrate how to stop weapons smuggling and the infiltration of terrorists from Albania to Kosova. FS


At a ceremony in Tirana marking the start of the exercises, Prime Minister Fatos Nano said the maneuvers send "the right messages to the people who are being massacred and the people that are massacring them to accept modern realities and try to work with us to identify peaceful solutions." Defense Minister Luan Hajdaraga said that NATO maneuvers on Albanian soil "are important to discourage" any move by the Serbian government to drive ethnic Albanians from Kosova. U.S. Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, who is the NATO commander of Allied Forces-South, said that "Belgrade and any belligerents in the region will get the same message--that NATO is ready. NATO has a wide range of contingencies and options ranging from peace support to combat operations." Lopez stressed that "this exercise is not directed at any particular party or element in Kosova or Belgrade, it is directed at regional stability." FS


Some six Bosnian Croats went on trial at the Hague-based war crimes tribunal on 17 August. The men are accused of killing more than100 Muslims, including babies, and torching Muslim homes in the village of Ahmici, near Vitez, on 16 April 1993. Their actions were allegedly part of an operation code-named "48 Hours of Ashes," which was aimed at driving Muslims out of the region. The six men are the largest single group of defendants to go on trial together before the court. PM


Prime Minister Radu Vasile, in an interview with the daily "Adevarul" on 17 August, confirmed that he has written to U.S. President Bill Clinton asking him to donate 50-60 decommissioned Cobra helicopters for the purpose of training the Romanian air force. The letter was published by the daily on 15 August. The Ministry of Defense welcomed the premier's initiative but said the decommissioned helicopters cannot be an alternative to the envisaged deal with Bell Helicopters Textron for the purchase of 96 helicopters to be produced in Romania. The ministry also confirmed that a "potential project" exists for the acquisition of Cobra helicopters reconditioned in Israel. MS


In the same interview with "Adevarul," Vasile said he intends to "reorganize" the government by the end of August but denied this was a "reshuffle." At the same time, he said that those who may find themselves without portfolios as a result of the reduction in the number of government members may choose to "view this reorganization as a reshuffle." MS


An organization calling itself the Movement for the Unity of the Moldovan Orthodox Church was set up in Chisinau on 17 August, Infotag and BASA-press reported. The initiative group includes three Communist deputies and two former legislators, one from the Democratic Agrarian Party and the other from the Socialist party. The group opposes the registration of the Bucharest- subordinated Bessarabian Metropolitan Church and says the step would "legitimize the split in the Moldovan Orthodox Church". It also says that if the authorities agree to register the Bessarabian Church, more splits will follow and independent Gagauz and Transdniester metropolitan Churches will be set up. MS


by Jan Maksymiuk

Poland was the first of Europe's communist countries to embark on the path to a democratic, market economy. Belarus may be the last one to do so, if at all. The two countries have a 600 kilometer joint border, which will become NATO's eastern frontier next year and is also likely to be the EU's eastern frontier in several years. In terms of economic and political realities, Poland and Belarus are likely to drift even farther apart than they are now. Many Poles and Belarusians, however, do not believe that this estrangement need necessarily take place. And there are many more who would not welcome such a development.

There are three important reasons why Poland should not distance itself from Belarus. Two of those reasons were voiced by Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek when he explained why Poland did not join the EU visa ban on Belarusian senior officials following the diplomatic housing scandal in Minsk.

First, Geremek said that in its relations with official Minsk, Poland should bear in mind the fate of the some 420,000 Poles living in Belarus. Since the republic declared its sovereignty on 27 July 1990, Belarus's Poles have been able to pursue a variety of cultural and educational activities oriented toward developing their ethnic and cultural awareness. Warsaw is clearly afraid that Belarus's authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, will retaliate by reneging on some concessions granted to the Belarusian Poles in the post-USSR period.

Second, Geremek, who is also currently the OSCE rotating chairman, stressed Poland's responsibility to maintain the OSCE mission in Minsk and the "dialogue with Belarusian society." Belarus is located at the crossroads of Europe's major railroad, highway, and pipeline networks. The Belarusian market may have little importance for Europe, but Belarus is significant as a transport corridor to Russia.

Third, the Belarusian market remains important for Poland, even if Warsaw is reluctant to admit this. There was an outbreak of protests among Polish small traders in late 1997 after Poland introduced tougher visa restrictions for Belarusians and Russians. As a result of those regulations, cross-border trade with Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast-- including petty smuggling of alcohol and cigarettes-- declined considerably, threatening to leave hundreds of thousands of people throughout Poland without a source of income. To alleviate domestic tension, the Polish Foreign Ministry had to reduce the cost of visas and simplify visa issue procedures.

Those three considerations may have inspired Polish and EU politicians to reconsider Poland's relations with Belarus. Poland has gradually assumed the role of infusing Western ideas of democracy into Belarusian society. Several non-governmental organizations in Poland have focused on Belarus with a view to opening its "closed" communities to Europe. The Civic Education Center Poland- Belarus in Bialystok, inaugurated in January 1998, seems most likely to succeed in that bid.

The Program Council of the center includes prominent public figures from Poland, such as anti-communist veterans Jacek Kuron, Zbigniew Bujak, and Karol Modzelewski. The center's Board consists of two Poles and two Polish Belarusians--all young local politicians and intellectuals from the generation that developed its political profile in the 1980s, when Solidarity was struggling to depose Poland's communist regime. The organization is based in Bialystok, the center of a northeastern province inhabited by a 150,000-strong Belarusian minority. It is financed primarily by the Stefan Batory Foundation (the Polish branch of the Soros Foundation) and Great Britain's Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

The president of the center's board, Artur Smolko, says that the underlying idea of the organization is to "remember how the West helped Polish democrats and anti-communists in the 1980s. Now it is our turn to help Belarus and to repay our old debts to democracy." Eugeniusz Wappa, a leader of the Belarusian community in Poland, runs the center's field operations. Wappa has an extensive knowledge of the Belarusian language, culture, and mentality as well as personal contacts with virtually all leading oppositionists in Belarus. "Lukashenka will not last forever. We must show young Belarusians how things work in Poland in order to prepare them to take over when the Lukashenka regime collapses," he says.

The center has already launched or intends to launch seven projects linked to local government, the press, the environment, human rights, national minorities, and culture. Its partners across the border include the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, Charter-97, the Belarusian Congress of Labor Unions, and the independent newspapers "Naviny," "Nasha Niva," and "Pahonya."

Predictably, the center's founding conference, which was called "Democracy Is Our Common Concern" and brought together a representative sample of Belarusian oppositionists and Polish politicians on 31 January-2 February, elicited a sharp reaction from Minsk. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry denounced the center as "subversive" and aimed at destabilizing the situation in Belarus. "It unmistakably proved that we had made a good start," according to Smolko and Wappa.