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Newsline - August 25, 1998


Acting Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the heads of parliamentary factions, including Communist Party chief Gennadii Zyuganov, agreed on 24 August to form a coalition government. According to Interfax, State Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev said that a "trilateral" commission composed of members of the government and both houses of the parliament will draw up two documents, a plan for overcoming the economic crisis and a "political treaty" between the executive and the legislature. Based on when these documents are drawn up, the Duma Council will decide when it can hold its plenary session to consider Chernomyrdin's candidacy for prime minister. The Duma Council will meet on 28 August. Seleznev told NTV that each Duma faction will meet individually with Chernomyrdin to propose candidates for government positions. JAC


In an interview with Ekho Moskvy, Communist Party leader Zyuganov explained that although Russia has already experienced a coalition government under former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, who had two ministers from Yabloko, the new government will be fundamentally different. According to Zyuganov, Chernomyrdin has proposed that the "majority of the Duma back a specific program" and that they "will be responsible for the composition of the government." He added that "the majority of the Duma will remember every time it adopts a law that it backed this government and is responsible for its policies. If the government fails, they [the Duma deputies] will also fail." At the same time, Zyuganov reiterated calls for a nationwide strike on 7 October to demand that President Boris Yeltsin resign and a government of "popular trust" be created. JAC


"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 22 August reported that leader of the Russia is Our Home (NDR) faction, Aleksandr Shokhin, offered to arrange that Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii be offered the post of Duma speaker in exchange for his support of Chernomyrdin's candidacy. According to the newspaper, NDR realizes that it must attract Yabloko into a new parliamentary majority made up of the NDR, the Communist Party, Russia's Regions, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Yabloko's popularity has grown since the last elections, and the movement could attract the supporters of two presidential hopefuls, Krasnoyarsk governor Aleksandr Lebed and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov. Sergei Ivanenko, a Yabloko deputy, dismissed Shokhin's offer with laughter and the counterproposal that Chernomyrdin be speaker and Yavlinskii prime minister. JAC


Most regional leaders, whether for or against Chernomyrdin, believe that he will be confirmed by the Duma--though not necessarily without a fight. Saratov governor Dmitrii Ayatskov, is pessimistic about Chernomyrdin's return to government: "Viktor Stepanovich [Chernomyrdin] spent six years trying to improve the economy--all in vain," according to Interfax. Kemerovo governor Aman Tuleev is similarly gloomy. He said, "Russia is not Italy where the people have been seasoned by frequent government shake-ups. The situation in Russia is so complicated that a social explosion is inevitable." Krasnoyarsk governor Lebed said that the crisis in Russia requires a "political heavyweight," such as Chernomyrdin, and that Yeltsin's support is "understandable since there is no attractive alternative." Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev and Arkhangelsk governor Anatolii Yefremov both expressed confidence that the former prime minister will be able to ease the country's political crisis. JAC


Tambov governor Aleksandr Ryabov says that the regional leaders need to accept some of the blame for the current economic crisis. He told ITAR- TASS that "often documents that are adopted by the Federation Council were not even read by the representatives." During a press conference after his dismissal, former Prime Minister Kirienko revealed that he had apparently experienced his own share of frustration with Russia's regional leadership. He had prepared a draft law, which he had intended to submit to the Duma, that would have given him the power to remove regional governors and grant other governors the power to sack mayors in order to ensure "a strict top-down line of power in the country." JAC


Chernomyrdin said on 24 August that sorting out the nation's banking system and ensuring the stability of the ruble will be chief priorities of his administration. In the meantime, Russian banks continued their efforts at consolidation. According to Interfax on 24 August, Inkombank and the National Reserve Bank formed an integrated banking group, pending shareholder approval, which would have combined assets of more than $45 billion rubles ($6.30 billion) and equity capital of more than $6.5 billion rubles. JAC


The Russian press on 24 August carried various stories about President Boris Yeltsin's imminent withdrawal from the country's top leadership post. Interfax quoted "a high ranking expert in the Kremlin" who claimed that Yeltsin had declared his intention not to run for president again in 2000. That "expert" cited Yeltsin's televised statement that he offered Chernomyrdin the post of prime minister "to ensure the succession of power in 2000." Duma chairman Seleznev said that he understood Yeltsin's "ambiguous statement" to mean the "prime minister will be acting head of state in the event of Yeltsin leaving office before the end of his term." Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii told reporters the same day that Yeltsin "was in his normal shape" and has "no complaints." JAC


Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov offered his resignation on 24 August, claiming that he has no plans other than to take a vacation. He said that he will not run for mayor in the upcoming elections in Nizhnii Novgorod. In an interview with "Komsomolskaya Pravda" on 25 August, he predicted that if the "oligarchic empires" are not forced to pay taxes, then the reins of government will pass to the left, which "knows little except how to print money." Inflation will spiral and a "revolutionary situation will arise," he added. JAC


"Vremya MN" reported on 21 August that leaders of six rural districts in the Trans-Volga region have for the first time bypassed their regional administrators and asked President Yeltsin for assistance in alleviating the aftermath of a severe drought (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 1998). The drought destroyed the bulk of the region's grain harvest. The leaders warn starvation and social unrest will result if the region does not receive some sort of financial assistance. The rural district heads voiced their distrust for the governor of Volgograd, a member of the Communist Party. They claim that their region received funds from the federal budget until he came to power. JAC


"Izvestiya" reported on 25 August that an unknown organization distributed leaflets urging the population of Rybinsk, a large industrial city in the Yaroslavl region, to take up arms. The newspaper quotes Asfira Pushkarnaya, an adviser to the governor of Yaroslavl Oblast, who said that although no one took the call literally, the situation in the region remains tense. Employees of state-run enterprises are owed back wages totaling 52 million rubles ($7.2 million). JAC


"Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 August that more than 70 airfields would be closed as part of the Air Force's larger effort to streamline its operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 August 1998). According to the Defense Ministry, some 80 airfields with runways longer than 1800 meters will remain open. The airfields' closure may free scarce budget funds for the maintenance and reconstruction of the remaining airfields, the bulk of which were constructed during the 1950s through 1970s and have exceeded their expected service life. JAC


President Aslan Maskhadov on 24 August named Ibragim Khultygov to head the National Security Service, Russian agencies reported. Khultygov is the brother of former National Security Service chief Lecha Khultygov, who was shot dead in a standoff with field commander Salman Raduev in Grozny two months ago. Maskhadov also signed a decree releasing former acting Prime Minister Shamil Basaev as deputy commander-in-chief of the Chechen armed forces. Basaev accepted that post in July for the duration of the state of emergency imposed by Maskhadov on 23 June. Also on 24 August, the Chechen parliament assessed as "unsatisfactory" the work of Basaev's cabinet from December 1997 to July 1998, when Basaev stepped down as acting premier. The parliament recommended that Maskhadov dismiss the entire government. LF


The UN observers' mission in Tajikistan released a statement on 24 August announcing it will temporarily withdraw some of its personnel from Tajikistan and has suspended "non-essential" visits to the country by UN employees, ITAR-TASS reported. A political adviser to the UN observers told ITAR-TASS the decision affects those who were monitoring the peace process in areas outside Dushanbe until 20 July, when four employees of the UN were killed in a remote area in central Tajikistan. Although the Tajik government and United Tajik Opposition say they know who the guilty parties are, there have been no announcements to date that anyone has been brought to Dushanbe to face charges. ITAR-TASS on 25 August, quotes "a representative of the Tajik government" as saying it is the lack of success in extraditing the alleged perpetrators of the crime from UTO-held territory that has prompted the UN move. BP


Nurlan Balgimbayev said while visiting the western town of Uralsk that the country will not cut oil production in 1998, Interfax reported on 24 August. Balgimbayev said he is aware that oil prices are the lowest in 30 years, but he added that Kazakhstan will still produce 27 million tons this year, of which nearly 15 million will be exported. Balgimbayev noted that the country could produce up to 220 million tons a year but added that only "once the price is up will we increase oil production." The premier said that a number of pipeline projects are currently under review, and he noted that "if the political situation in Afghanistan stabilizes," a pipeline via that country to the Arabian Sea is a possibility. Balgimbayev stressed the importance of the oil industry, saying it "provides over 30 percent of budget revenues." BP


Bolot Januzakov, an official in the presidential administration, said at a press briefing on 24 August that beginning next year, Kyrgyzstan will start forming its own border service to replace Russian border guards, ITAR-TASS reported. Finance Minister Talaibek Koichumanov said on 21 August that 63 million som (about $3.3 million) has been allotted from the state budget for this purpose, RFE/RL correspondents reported. The move comes after a 21 August visit by Russian Border Guard director Colonel- General Nikolai Bordyuzha and is in keeping with an earlier bilateral agreement. But before Bordyuzha's arrival in Kyrgyzstan, ITAR-TASS on 21 August quoted him as saying "there will be no serious reduction or withdrawal of Russian border guards from Kyrgyzstan in the near future." Since 1992, Russian border guards have been helping provide security along the China-Kyrgyz border, at the national airport outside Bishkek, and along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. BP


Dennis Corboy, EU ambassador to the three Transcaucasus states, told journalists in Yerevan on 24 August that the EU welcomes the Armenian leadership's decision to send a government delegation to Baku to participate in the 7-8 September conference on the TRACECA transport corridor, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. But Corboy admitted that unresolved conflicts in the Transcaucasus could prove an obstacle to implementation of the TRACECA project, which is sponsored by the EU. He called for talks aimed at resolving the Karabakh conflict to be resumed within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group. LF


Two people were killed on 24 August and 60 injured when part of the regional administration building in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi was destroyed by a bomb, Caucasus Press reported. Most of those injured were fugitives from neighboring Abkhazia's Gali Raion. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze condemned the blast as "an act masterminded and executed by enemies of Georgia." He added that it "will not change the Georgian people's determination to build an independent and democratic state," ITAR-TASS reported. LF


Georgian border troops are refusing to allow Armenian citizens to enter Georgia, Noyan Tapan reported on 24 August, quoting an Armenian Agriculture Ministry official. Two days earlier, Georgia had banned the import of cattle, poultry, and dairy products from Armenia because of an outbreak of hoof- and-mouth disease there. LF


Some 5,000 troops and 130 pieces of large-scale military equipment took part in a parade on Kyiv's main street to celebrate the seventh anniversary of Ukraine's independence on 24 August. The parade was attended by President Leonid Kuchma, Supreme Council Speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko, Premier Valeriy Pustovoytenko, and other top officials. "The seven years that have passed since [independence] are a whole epoch during which we have created all the elements of statehood," AP quoted Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk as saying to the troops. Meanwhile, left-wing activists staged a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk to protest Ukraine's proclamation of independence in 1991, ITAR- TASS reported. The protesters dubbed that move a "historic mistake" and appealed for a union with Russia and Belarus. JM


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma told Interfax on 24 August that he hopes the Russian State Duma will confirm Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russia's prime minister. Kuchma added that the latest developments in Russia stressed the importance of a "strong and stable government." An official from the Ukrainian presidential administration told ITAR- TASS the same day that Kuchma believes Chernomyrdin "will manage to put the nation's financial issues in order." JM


Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said Belarus would not send its troops to defend CIS borders in Central Asia in the event of a Taliban attack, Belarusian Television reported on 23 August. "Whatever the Taliban may do there, we have nothing to do there," he said. Lukashenka stressed that it is necessary to "introduce order" in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to counteract "common hysteria." "This hysteria has brought U.S. strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan," he commented. Lukashenka stressed that Belarus will defend CIS interests "in the western direction, from Kiev to Riga." JM


The Belarusian president has promised that he will not allow supplies of hot water, heating, and electricity to the population to be reduced, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 August. Lukashenka's pledge follows the publication of an austerity energy program worked out by the Belarusian Ministry of Economy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 1998). Lukashenka called the program "stupidity and nonsense" prepared by "some deputy minister." "None of the measures listed [in the program] can be implemented without the president's approval," he commented. JM


A Minsk district court on 21 August sentenced Bishop Pyotr Hushcha, the leader of the Belarusian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, to three years in prison on charges of "malicious hooliganism," Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Hushcha was arrested for allegedly exposing himself in front of two girls, aged eight and 10. Hushcha maintains that he is innocent and that the case is fabricated to discourage others from challenging the religious domination of the Russian Orthodox Church. The 4,000-strong Church led by Hushcha is independent of the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. JM


The Central Electoral Committee has announced that sufficient votes have been collected for a referendum on amendments to the country's citizenship law, BNS reported on 24 August. The committee said that according to preliminary results, 223,999 citizens signed the petition to hold a popular vote on the legislative changes. The official results of the referendum are expected to be released later this week. Earlier the same day, President Guntis Ulmanis said in an interview with state radio that some European politicians have an "exaggerated stance" of telling Latvia what it should do. He said this stance was prompted by Russia's position and may have had the opposite effect of arousing opposition in Latvia to the citizenship law (see also "End Note" below). JC


The Lithuanian Environment Ministry has rejected Latvian claims that there are shortcomings in the construction and design of the Butinge oil terminal, which is being built near the Latvian border, BNS reported. In a statement issued on 24 August, the ministry said that the Danish company Carl Bro Evision International has drawn up for Lithuania a plan for dealing with oil spills. Based on that plan, Butinge is to formulate its own procedures for tackling such spills, which are to be finalized before the terminal begins operations. The terminal will also acquire all necessary oil-spill cleaning equipment in advance, the ministry stressed. On 21 August, Latvian State Minister for the Environment Indulis Emsis had told reporters that Lithuania has drawn up no "accident strategy" and has purchased no equipment to deal with the consequences of an oil spill. JC


Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek agreed with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, in Warsaw on 24 August that the two countries will coordinate their policies on Russia's current crisis, NATO, and the EU, Polish and Hungarian media reported. Warsaw and Budapest are to exchange information on Russia and hold consultations on that country's financial crisis. Hungary is to set up a special telephone hot line with Poland because, according to Orban, Poland has "broader knowledge" of Russia and its affairs. Orban voiced the hope that the Polish, Hungarian, and Czech legislatures will adopt in December a final decision on joining NATO. Buzek and Orban also agreed that their countries will try not to be rivals in their bid for EU membership. JM


Buzek has reacted with "cautious optimism" to the appointment of Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russian acting prime minister, Reuters reported on 24 August. "I understand the decision mainly aims at stabilizing the economy, as Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's name carries international weight and he has always been regarded as an advocate of reform," the agency quoted him as saying. Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek told Polish Radio on 24 August that Boris Yeltsin's appointment of Chernomyrdin shows that the Russian president is still in control of the situation in Russia. The Polish zloty strengthened by 3.36 percent on 24 August, compared with last week's level. Polish analysts ascribed that development to Chernomyrdin's reappointment, PAP reported. JM


Petr Zeman has been appointed director of the Czech Intelligence Service, replacing Oldrich Cerny, who resigned two weeks ago, CTK reported on 24 August, quoting Interior Minister Vaclav Grulich. Petr Zeman was previously head of the counter-intelligence school in Zastavka u Brna. Zeman's appointment is the second recent personnel change in the leadership of the Czech Intelligence Service. Last week, Tomas Kadlec replaced Pavel Kolar as head of the service's National Security Office. MS


Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar on 24 August said Defense Minister Jan Sitek must either accept the appointment of Marian Miklus as chief of staff or step down, dpa reported. Miklus was appointed chief of staff to replace Jozef Tuchyna against the advice of Sitek, who was on holiday when the appointment was announced. Sitek's Slovak National Party, which is a member of the ruling coalition, rejected Meciar's threat and pledged its support for the defense minister. Although he resigned to run in the September elections, Tuchyna said after Miklus's appointment that he is "forced to stay in office, because the new chief of staff was appointed against the law," AP reported on 20 August. The law requires that the appointment be made at the recommendation of the Ministry of Defense. As a result, Slovakia now has two chiefs of staff. MS


The Hungarian forint on 24 August fell to record lows against US dollar and the German mark, as nervousness about Russia's government shakeup caused losses on Hungary's stock exchanges. The exchange rate was 225 forint to $1 and 125 forint to DM 1-- a drop of some 0.7 percent since 19 August. The Budapest Stock Exchange's index dropped some 6.6 percent and closed at 6,714 points, compared with 7,999 at the beginning of 1998. For the first time since the introduction of the "crawling peg" devaluation of the forint, the National Bank said it may intervene on the foreign exchange market to stabilize the currency. Analysts say that the forint's decline is too sharp and does not reflect Hungary's economic stability. MSZ


The UN Security Council issued a statement in New York on 24 August calling on both sides to establish an immediate cease-fire in the province. The text condemned "all violence and acts of terrorism from whatever quarter" and warned of a "humanitarian disaster" if the conflict continues into the winter. It added that the violence "has dangerous implications for the stability of the region." In Bonn, a spokesman for Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that "if the situation worsens further, military intervention could become necessary." The spokesman added that Germany will propose to its EU partners an additional package of economic sanctions against federal Yugoslavia. The proposal also calls for the "observation of Kosovar Albanians in Germany to prevent them from purchasing weapons." Elsewhere, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi told visiting Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Zoran Lilic that he supports Serbia's position on Kosova, the Belgrade daily "Danas" wrote. PM


Serbian forces continued to shell ethnic Albanian villages near the road connecting Prishtina with Prizren on 24 August. Several ethnic Albanian villages near Prishtina airport also came under fire. From London, the "Financial Times" quoted unidentified diplomats as saying that the Serbian strategy is to take control of highways and nearby villages and confine the guerrillas to an ever smaller area of central Kosova. "Once the villages are empty, police and paramilitary forces move in, looting and burning homes, despite assurances given by [Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic...that civilians are welcome to return." PM


The Prishtina daily "Koha Ditore" reported that Serbian paramilitary police killed three aid workers belonging to the Mother Teresa charitable foundation near Malisheva on 24 August after allowing the three to pass a checkpoint. The report said that the Serbs fired on a tractor that the aid workers were using to take basic food supplies and soap distributed by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to displaced persons nearby. Spokesmen for the Mother Teresa organization told AP that they are trying to contact their personnel in the field to verify the report. PM


The district court in Prizren sentenced nine ethnic Albanian students on 24 August to jail terms totaling 32 and one-half years. Their crimes included "engaging in hostile acts and terrorism" this past spring (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 1998). The students said that they had only organized a public first- aid course. PM


Amnesty International issued three reports in London on 24 August charging that "each day, extreme misery and pain produced by human cruelty is now an everyday experience for more and more helpless people." The organization argued that women, refugees, and the mentally handicapped are particularly vulnerable to violence and to "ill treatment by police and unfair trials." PM


The Belgrade-based Association of Independent Electronic Media in Yugoslavia (ANEM) issued a statement on 24 August to protest what it called "violent acts against journalists that occurred over the past week" in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 August 1998). The incidents involved beatings, intimidation, or "disappearances" of Serbian or ethnic Albanian journalists. The text concluded: "ANEM calls on all participants in armed refrain from violence against journalists and from using them in mutual showdowns and for blackmail. ANEM calls on the international organizations to find Radio Prishtina's missing journalist and his driver.... ANEM urges all pay special attention to the security of journalists.... ANEM once again calls on all journalists and media to [be professional and]...adhere to journalistic ethics." PM


Adem Demaci, the chief political spokesman for the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), said that the fighters will no longer wage conventional warfare against the Serbian forces but will use guerrilla tactics, the Belgrade daily "Danas" wrote on 25 August. Demaci argued that the Serbian forces will be much more vulnerable if they do not know from which direction to expect an attack and that "30,000 armed guerrillas" will be very effective using hit-and-run tactics. PM


About 3,000 Democratic Party supporters protested in central Tirana's Skanderbeg Square on 24 August against the imprisonment of six former high- ranking government officials the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 24 August 1998). Former President Sali Berisha delivered a speech in which he called Prime Minister Fatos Nano a "criminal" and "drug addict." Berisha added that "we are here today to tell [Nano] that we defend our rights with our lives, with our blood. You are our enemy, the enemy of freedom, the enemy of the Albanians, Albania, and the Albanian nation." An editorial in a special edition of "Rilindja Demokratike" the same day called on Democratic supporters to "fill public squares with protests until this government of criminals, smugglers, and national traitors is gone." Most Albanian newspapers do not usually publish on Mondays. FS


A Tirana military court ruled on 24 August that the six former officials, who are charged with committing crimes against humanity during the unrest in 1997, must remain in custody pending trial. So far, no date has been set for that trial. A defense lawyer told VOA's Albanian-language service that the charges are trumped-up. He stressed that no individual was hurt by any actions of the six. The lawyer charged that the military court overstepped its authority by ruling on all the defendants, some of whom are civilians. FS


Central Bank Governor Shkelqim Cani told Reuters on 24 August in Tirana that the economy is showing modest signs of recovery after unrest, following the collapse of pyramid investment schemes in early 1997. Cani said that he expects a GDP growth of 10 percent this year and a decline in inflation from 40 percent at the end of 1997 to 10 percent by the end of 1998. Both targets are in line with recommendations by the IMF, which recently allocated $48 million to Albania. Cani said that Kosova crisis could have a negative impact on foreign investment and also force the government to increase spending. FS


Daniel Daianu on 24 August submitted to the government his proposal to cut the current budget by some 8 trillion lei (almost $ 1 billion), RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Daianu also said his ministry is working on a project to sell the debts of state companies in exchange for shares at prices below the outstanding debt. Daianu also said he supported a proposal recently made by Sorin Dimitriu, head of the State Privatization Fund, to sell loss-making companies "for 1 dollar" to those willing to take over the companies' debts. MS


Some 30,000 miners on 24 August staged a 24-hour warning strike to protest lay-offs and what they claim is the government's failure to implement a program for the restructuring of areas in which miners have accepted voluntary redundancy. MS


Petru Lucinschi on 24 August told journalists that he hopes the changes in the Russian government will help overcome "the acute financial crisis" in that country. Lucinschi said that Russia is Moldova's "strategic partner," with 60 percent of exports being directed to that country. Consequently, he added, Moldova "is very much interested in having the situation there stabilized," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Deputy Foreign Minister Dumitru Croitoru told RFE/RL that the change of government in Moscow will not "in any way influence" Russian-Moldovan relations and is "an internal Russian problem in which Moldova cannot interfere." MS


Some 200 people on 23 August participated in a rally in Chisinau marking the 59th anniversary of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which led to Bessarabia's annexation by Stalinist Russia in 1940. The participants demanded the "elimination of the historic injustice," the annulment of "all consequences of the pact," and the restoration of the "Romanian unitary state within its historic borders," Infotag reported. The protesters also shouted anti-Russian slogans in front of the Russian embassy and demanded the release of Ilie Ilascu, who has been jailed for six years in Transdniester. MS


Ivan Kostov on 24 August said Russia will overcome its current financial crisis "because the international community supports Moscow's efforts" and because Russia itself has "considerable resources," ITAR- TASS reported. Kostov said that President Boris Yeltsin's "decisive governance" is also a factor that will help overcome the crisis, but he added that the financial situation in Russia could have a "negative impact" on bilateral trade and economic cooperation. In other news, Reuters reported on 24 August that in a bid to attract foreign tourists, Bulgaria has lifted value-added tax on tourist services offered by local tour operators to foreigners. MS


by Jan Cleave

Two months after the passage of amendments to the country's citizenship law, the Latvian Central Electoral Committee has announced that an initiative by the nationalist-inclined Fatherland and Freedom party to hold a referendum on those amendments has been successful. By 24 August, the committee had counted some 224,000 signatures, well over the 131,000--or 10 percent of the electorate--required to force a referendum. The final result of the campaign will be announced once signatures from abroad are included in the tally. Meanwhile, the fate of the citizenship law amendments continues to hang in the balance--a state of affairs that will not help improve Latvia's tense relations with neighboring Russia.

Latvia's treatment of its approximately 650,000- strong ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minority has long been a source of discord between Moscow and Riga. Basing its law on the principle that it was occupied and did not have to give citizenship to those who were moved there by the occupying authorities, Latvia renewed the citizenship of those who had it in 1940 and also that of their descendants. Many of those who fell into these two categories were ethnically Russian.

The Russian government has rejected Latvia's interpretation of its political history and argued that Latvia's citizenship law is intended to withhold citizenship from the many people, primarily but not exclusively ethnically Russian, who moved to Latvia between 1940 and 1991. And Moscow has consistently argued that this "deprivation" constitutes ethnic discrimination.

Latvia's citizenship law was passed in 1994, following extensive debates and disagreement among the coalition parties. The legislation came under fire not only from Russia but also from international organizations such as the OSCE, which urged Riga to adopt amendments in line with its recommendations. But with a ruling coalition that includes groups willing at times to play the nationalist card, it quickly became apparent that the government parties were unable to agree among themselves on how to amend the law.

Ironically, the passage of the amendments was expedited by an event earlier this year that outraged Moscow and revealed just how fragile Latvian-Russian relations are. On 3 March, some 1,000, mostly Russian- speaking pensioners blocked the main road in downtown Riga to protest living standards. When several protesters refused to move off that road, police used rubber batons to disperse them. Footage of those events shown by Russian Public Television sparked an outcry in Moscow, with politicians of all stripes calling for retaliatory measures.

Just six weeks later, the Cooperation Council of the ruling coalition parties reached an agreement whereby the law would be amended to remove the "naturalization windows" (which gave priority to younger people), simplify language tests for people over 65, and grant citizenship to all children born after 21 August 1991 when they reach 16 and can prove their ability to speak Latvian. But while the last provision was supported by the Fatherland and Freedom party, which is the largest party in the parliament, it did not meet the OSCE recommendation that children born in Latvia be automatically granted citizenship, regardless of language proficiency. An amended version of the law that complied with the OSCE recommendation was finally pushed through the parliament in the third and final reading in mid-June.

Since then, the signing into law of the amendments has been on hold, thanks to the initiative of the Fatherland and Freedom party, supported by the constitutionally required one-third of parliamentary deputies, to collect signatures for a referendum. Prime Minister Guntars Krasts of the Fatherland and Freedom Party, who signed the referendum petition just days before the signature-collecting campaign ended, argues that the amendments were passed without a broad public debate and that the best way to judge public opinion is through a popular vote. President Guntis Ulmanis and Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs, in particular, have been vocal opponents of such a ballot, arguing that it will further damage relations with Russia and also jeopardize Latvia's chances of joining the EU.

But the referendum will not only impact on Latvia's relations with its eastern neighbor and on its image abroad. It is also set to make citizenship and minority-majority relations a campaign issue in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for 3 October. That, observers note, will have the effect of both keeping alive and turning the full public spotlight onto an issue that has deeply divided Latvian society. Moreover, with only the two-thirds majority population able to cast its vote, the referendum itself is likely to stir up animosity within the disenfranchised one-third minority.

The Fatherland and Freedom Party, meanwhile, has made it clear that it wants the referendum to take place at the same time as the elections. Such a scenario would likely encourage more people to take part in the ballot. The party is also concerned that if the vote were to take place on a separate day, there may not be the necessary turnout of 50 percent of the electorate.

Indeed, the timing of the referendum may well prove crucial to the validity of the ballot. If the vote does not take place until after the elections-- and the chairman of the Central Electoral Committee has already come out in favor of that option--voters may be required to cast their ballot twice within a short period. Experience shows that in such cases, election-weariness among voters frequently determines the outcome of the second ballot.