U.S. DELEGATION DEPARTS MOSCOW WITH TENSIONS UNABATED?
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the U.S. Congress on 24 February that relations between the U.S. and Russia have been tense at times recently, adding that rushing forward with a ballistic missile defense system would further strain their relationship. The same day, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov called Albright "Madame War," accusing her of "bringing shame on the entire female sex" with her "rattling of rockets and bombs," Reuters reported. The next day, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement that Moscow "categorically will not accept attempts to talk to Russia in the language of sanctions and pressure" with regard to proposed U.S. sanctions against Russian entities for their alleged cooperation in the field of missile technology with Iran. A delegation lead by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Strobe Talbott concluded a two-day official visit on 24 February. JAC
RAMBOUILLET CALLED RUSSIAN VICTORY
President Boris Yeltsin restated on 24 February the Foreign Ministry's formulation on Rambouillet talks, declaring that "significant progress was achieved and a way was found to reach a political settlement of the problem, with the probable expansion of Kosovo autonomy and the simultaneous preservation of Yugoslavia's territorial integrity." Communist Party head Zyuganov expressed a similar sentiment, saying that "for now, everyone who does not want a war in the Balkans and does not want a possible split of Europe into two opposing camps" has won. "Kommersant-Daily" argued the same day that the decision of the Rambouillet participants only to approve the political document was a victory for Russia, which had "insisted that politics and the dispatch of troops not be mixed." JAC
YELTSIN MEETS WITH CHINESE PRIME MINISTER...
Boris Yeltsin on 25 February met with visiting Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, who is currently on a four-day visit to Russia, Russian media reported. The head of the presidential foreign policy department, Sergei Prikhodko, said the two leaders reviewed progress on the two countries' implementation of the "strategic cooperation policy for the 21st century." Yeltsin and Zhu also touched on bilateral trade, with the Russian president saying there is great potential for improvement. Yeltsin also criticized Russian ministries and departments that, in his words, have not taken sufficient measures to facilitate trade with China. And he proposed that a meeting of key Russian and Chinese cabinet ministers take place when the Russian president visits China later this year. BP
IS REPORTEDLY 'FULLY RECOVERED.'
Presidential spokesman Dmitrii Yakushkin announced on 23 February that Yeltsin has fully recovered from his recent bout with a stomach ulcer. In television coverage of his meeting with Zhu, Yeltsin walked without support to shake hands with his guest. JAC
REGIONAL PARTIES PROLIFERATING?
Duma Deputy and leader of the Russian Regions Duma faction Oleg Morozov announced on 22 February that there are two regional movements in Russia, one led by Samara Governor Konstantin Titov and the other including the governors of the Leningrad and Sverdlovsk Oblasts as well as the President of the Tatarstan Republic, who "apparently leads it," "Vremya MN" reported on 23 February. The next day, Saratov Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov, who remains a member of Our Home Is Russia (NDR), despite frequent public criticisms of both the party and its leadership, told Interfax that Titov's movement, Golos Rossii, should become a structure within the NDR. In Ayatskov's opinion, NDR will again be a party of power as soon as NDR leader Viktor Chernomyrdin "finds a common language with Prime Minister [Yevgenii] Primakov." According to Ayatskov, NDR has a "serious structure" in the regions, which he doubts either Golos Rossii or Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's Otechestvo movement will manage to create before parliamentary elections. JAC
FSB SHEDDING STAFF?
Some 40 lieutenant- and major- generals in the Federal Security Service (FSB) holding such posts as chiefs and deputy chiefs of directorates will be dismissed in March, "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 24 February, without specifying its sources. According to the newspaper, the "secret" list of those who are about to be let go includes the names of the chiefs of the legal contracts directorate, the military counterintelligence directorate, the Voronezh directorate, the Murmansk directorate, and the Krasnodar Directorate. Also included was chief of the FSB Primorskii Krai Directorate General Viktor Kondratov, who was recently dismissed as presidential envoy to the krai. At the time, deputy head of the presidential administration Oleg Sysuev said that Kondratov is being relieved of that post in order to concentrate on his duties as local FSB chief (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 1999). JAC
GOLD OUTPUT SLIPPING
Russia produced 10 percent less gold in 1998--or 103.7 tons--compared with the previous year, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported on 24 February. But according to Reuters, citing the State Statistics Committee, gold output in 1997 was 106 tons, which would make this year's drop only 2 percent. Interfax reported that gold output plummeted by two-thirds in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), by half in Chita Oblast, by one-third in Amur Oblast, and by more than half in Chukotka Autonomous Oblast. Gold producers, who gathered in Khabarovsk for an annual meeting, blamed the drop on the lack of government financing and sinking world gold prices. They called on the Federation Council to pass amendments to the Law on Precious Metals and Gemstones and the Law on the Central Bank of Russia to allow the bank to buy gold directly from prospectors. JAC
REPORTS OF RUSSIAN-IRAQI WEAPONS DEALS CALLED PROVOCATION
Top officials at Vneshtekhnika, one of the Russian companies accused by a letter writer to "Insight" magazine of selling surface-to-air missiles, missiles parts, and aviation navigation equipment to Iraq, deny that they have had any commercial links with Iraq, Interfax reported on 24 February. First Deputy Prime Minister Yurii Maslyukov called this and other reports about Russian sales to Iraq "absolute rubbish." He added that "we must find out who is supplying the Americans with such information." Presidential spokesman Yakushkin said that U.S. assertions that Russia and Iraq concluded deals for arms supplies are a "complete provocation." JAC
RUSSIA TO SUPPLY LATEST MIG-29s TO SYRIA?
Speaking in Beirut on 24 February, Russian military attache Boris Soldatov said Russia is prepared to sell the latest MiG-29 aircraft to Syria or any other Arab country allied with Russia, Reuters reported. During an official visit to Moscow last week, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara met with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev to discuss expanding military cooperation, including arms purchases. Al-Shara said those purchases, which were discussed during Sergeev's visit to Damascus in November 1998 and are estimated at $2 billion, are intended for purely defensive purposes. LF
SHUMEIKO PROPOSES KALININGRAD BECOME 'BALTIC REPUBLIC'
Former Federation Council Chairman Vladimir Shumeiko has proposed raising Kaliningrad Oblast's status to that of "Baltic republic within the Russian Federation," Interfax reported. Addressing journalists in the exclave on 24 February, Shumeiko argued that in the near future, Kaliningrad may be confronted with "serious problems" related to neighboring countries' joining the EU and NATO. Conferring such a status on the oblast, he continued, would increase the "political role" of its leadership both in Russia and in Europe. Shumeiko currently heads the movement Reforms--New Course. JC
CHECHNYA DEMANDS PROOF OF UZBEK ACCUSATIONS
Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov issued a statement in Grozny on 24 February calling on the Uzbek leadership to provide documentary evidence to substantiate allegations that the terrorists responsible for the 16 February car bombings in Tashkent were trained in Chechnya, Interfax reported. Uzbek President Islam Karimov made those allegations at a press conference in Tashkent on 23 February. LF
'BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD' CAPTIVATING RUSSIAN INTELLIGENTSIA
At least some members of Russia's intelligentsia have expressed a fascination for the cartoon show on MTV about two inarticulate teenage boys called "Beavis and Butthead," the "Moscow Times" reported on 25 February. A columnist for "Kompaniya" compared the two cartoon characters to Rousseau's noble savages, while a member of a Moscow literary salon compared the show favorably to the works of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovskii. "Izvestiya" reported earlier that the show has started affecting the behavior of Russian teenagers, causing many of them to "giggle" like Beavis and "moo" like Butthead whenever they are gathered in groups of more than two. Part of the show's popularity can likely be attributed to Russian MTV's skillful translation of U.S. slang. For example, "cool" becomes "kruto" or the nearly archaic "klyovo." "Buttmunch" and "dillweed" are not translated literally, but the words "baklan," which means "cormorant," and "pelmen," which means "dumpling," are used instead. JAC
ARMENIA EMBARKS ON PREPARATIONS FOR ELECTIONS
Central Electoral Commission chairman Khachatur Bezirjian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 24 February that he doubts President Robert Kocharian will comply with that body's request to postpone by one or two weeks the parliamentary elections scheduled for 30 May. The commission, which will be reconstituted prior to the poll, had argued that as the new election law takes effect only on 28 February, there is barely enough time to complete the necessary preparations. Those preparations include checking voter registers, which under the law should be submitted to the commission 95 days before the poll, and dividing the country into 75 electoral precincts, according to Noyan Tapan. Also on 24 February, representatives of six political parties, both pro-government and opposition, met to discuss possible amendments to the law and measures to ensure the elections are free and fair. LF
U.S. HINTS AT FLEXIBILITY ON PIPELINES VIA IRAN...
Speaking in Moscow on 25 February, U.S. presidential adviser on Caspian issues Richard Morningstar said that "should relations with Iran improve, the U.S. side is prepared to study the possibility of building pipelines across Iranian territory for the transportation of Caspian energy resources," ITAR-TASS reported. But Morningstar added that he thinks an improvement in bilateral relations with Iran is unlikely in the short term. Until now, the U.S. had ruled out the possibility of routing export pipelines for Caspian oil and gas via Iran, backing alternative routes via Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey. Speaking in Ankara on 23 February, Morningstar had said that Turkey should provide the financial incentives needed to persuade oil companies to commit themselves to the Baku- Ceyhan pipeline. LF
...AS NEW DELAYS ANTICIPATED IN BUILDING BAKU- CEYHAN PIPELINE
In Tbilisi, David Woodward, president of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company engaged in extracting Caspian oil, told journalists on 24 February that the beginning of construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline may be delayed until the end of 1999 because of the large amount of investment that project will require, Caucasus Press reported. He noted that after a firm decision is made to proceed with that project, the estimated minimum cost of which is $2 billion, investors must be found to finance its construction. Certainty is required, he added, that the volume of oil to be exported is large enough to render the project viable. LF
OSCE REPRESENTATIVE REVIEWS AZERBAIJANI MEDIA
Freimut Duve, who is the OSCE's special representative for freedom of the media, has discussed the media situation in Azerbaijan with President Heidar Aliev, Turan reported on 24 February. Duve subsequently told media representatives that those discussions focused on reforming the legislative framework for the media, the media's role, and the need to improve Azerbaijan's state television. Duve said Aliyev concurred with this last point. Duve also said that he had urged Aliyev to shelve all ongoing court proceedings against independent media and to pardon journalist Fuad Gakhramanli, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison last November for an unpublished article (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June and 30 November 1998). LF
"RFE/RL Newsline" on 24 February incorrectly reported that Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev had written to the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group to urge them to renew their efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict. That letter was addressed to the presidents of France, Russia, and the U.S.
GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN ABKHAZIA
Irakli Menagharishvili held talks in Sukhumi on 24 February with senior Abkhaz officials, including President Vladislav Arzdinba and Konstantin Ozgan, head of the commission to coordinate the return of ethnic Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, ITAR-TASS reported. Menagharishvili was less dismissive than some other leading Georgian politicians about Arzdinba's proposal to begin the repatriation process on 1 March. But Menagharishvili, too, insisted that the process must be jointly coordinated by Georgia and Abkhazia. Menagharishvili admitted that disagreements between Tbilisi and Sukhumi remain over how to ensure the repatriates' security. He repeated Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's 22 February condemnation of guerrilla activities in Gali, which have cost the lives of several dozen people since last May. Menagharishvili also termed the long- discussed meeting between Ardzinba and Shevardnadze "not only possible but necessary" once agreement is reached on the documents that the two leaders are to sign. LF
GEORGIAN, RUSSIAN INTERIOR MINISTERS SIGN COOPERATION AGREEMENT
Meeting in Moscow on 24 February, Kakha Targamadze and Sergei Stepashin discussed cooperation in arresting and extraditing wanted criminals and combating drug-trafficking and trading in stolen cars, ITAR- TASS reported. Stepashin also undertook to expedite the handing over to Georgia of Valerii Gabelia, whom Russian police arrested on suspicion of involvement in last February's attempt to assassinate President Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 1999). Gabelia has begun a hunger- strike to protest his arrest, which he considers illegal, according to Caucasus Press on 13 February. LF
GEORGIAN COMMUNIST LEADER DOUBTS HIS SON IS IN SYRIA
Panteleimon Giorgadze, head of the United Communist Party of Georgia, expressed doubts on 24 February that his son Igor has been granted asylum in Syria, as claimed by the "Sunday Telegraph" on 21 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 1999). Giorgadze senior told ITAR-TASS that he is in telephone contact with his son but does not know the latter's whereabouts. LF
KAZAKHSTAN LAUNCHES CENSUS
Kazakhstan began taking its national census on 25 February, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. Nursultan Nazarbayev's press service quotes the president as saying the previous day that in order to institute socioeconomic and democratic change, "we must rely on our own resources, know how numerous we are, what our educational potential is, the [level] of our living standard, and numerous other things." Nazarbayev added, however, that all personal data will be confidential. This is the first census to be conducted in Kazakhstan since 1989. It will continue until 4 March. BP
KAZAKHSTAN'S NATIONAL BANK SAYS NO MONEY EMISSIONS THIS YEAR
Kadyrjon Damitov, the chairman of Kazakhstan's National Bank, said on 24 February that there are no plans to print more money this year, Interfax reported. Damitov noted that Kazakhstan's balances of trade and payments have worsened, but he said trends in banking and financing are generally positive. He added that there is every possibility that any devaluation of the national currency, the tenge, will be "insignificant." BP
UYGHURS IN KAZAKHSTAN COMPLAIN ABOUT DEPORTATIONS
Kaharman Hozhamberdi, the president of the Almaty-based Association of Uyghurs, said at a press conference on 24 February that Kazakhstan has undermined its international reputation by sending three ethnic Uyghurs back to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 1999), Interfax reported. The three men had been seeking asylum in Kazakhstan "on ethnic and political grounds." Nothing is known of their fate since they were returned to China. BP
UZBEKISTAN OFFERS REWARD FOR TERRORISTS
The Uzbek Interior Ministry on 24 February announced a $250,000 reward for information leading to the detention of five people believed responsible for the 16 February bombings in Tashkent. Photographs of the men were shown on national television and have been posted at public places throughout the country. The Interior Ministry guarantees that anyone providing information will remain anonymous and that the reward will be paid regardless of the nationality or citizenship of the recipient. BP
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT COMMENTS ON CUSTOMS UNION...
Askar Akayev on 24 February said that "the CIS Customs Union remains on paper only" but that the 26 February summit in Moscow "could be a landmark event for the union," ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. Akayev said that trade between his country and the other members of the union--Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus--accounts for only 30 percent of its total foreign trade, down from 45 percent three years ago. He added that that although all the members agreed to use the same regulations in charging customs fees and value-added tax, Russia taxes Kyrgyz goods at the point of their departure (origin?) while the other members charge tax at the point of destination. And he singled out Kazakhstan's recent decision to impose a 200 percent tariff on some imports from Kyrgyzstan. BP
...AND PRIORITIES IN FOREIGN RELATIONS
Akayev also said that expanding ties with Russia and other CIS states is his country's foreign policy priority. He argued that the Central Asian Union could act as "a united economic intermediary between East and West" but said that it must first provide "positive impulses for neighborly cooperation, stability, and democracy." Akayev listed Europe, the U.S., Canada and Asian Pacific countries--particularly China, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia--as countries with which Kyrgyzstan needs to develop better ties. And he commented that his country must improve its image as a "reliable and stable partner." BP
LAZARENKO ASKS U.S. FOR POLITICAL ASYLUM
Ukrainian former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko has appealed to the U.S. authorities to grant him political asylum, Lazarenko's party Hromada said in a statement on 24 February. Reuters reported the same day that there was no immediate comment from Washington. Ukraine requested Lazarenko's extradition from the U.S. after he was detained in New York on 19 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 1999). JM
UKRAINE, POLAND TO BOOST ECONOMIC TIES
Polish Premier Jerzy Buzek and his Ukrainian counterpart, Valeriy Pustovoytenko, said in Kyiv on 24 February that they intend to boost economic cooperation by launching new projects in agriculture and the machine-building, power-engineering, and chemical industries. Buzek also proposed that a group of experts analyze the feasibility of building an oil pipeline from Odesa to Gdansk, AP reported. Meeting with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, Buzek tried to allay Ukrainian fears that Poland's expected admission into the EU would lead to the introduction of a strict visa regime for Ukrainians. JM
KUCHMA'S POPULARITY GROWING
According to a poll conducted by Socis Gallup and the Democratic Initiative Fund, President Leonid Kuchma's popularity rating rose from 13 percent in January to 21 percent in February, Interfax reported on 24 February. Support for Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko grew from 15 percent to 17 percent, while that for Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko fell from 13 percent to 10 percent. The popularity rating of Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz remained unchanged at 10 percent. Some 70 percent of Ukrainians said they intend to vote in this year's presidential elections. JM
BELARUSIAN POLICE DETAIN OPPOSITION CENTRAL ELECTORAL COMMISSION
Some 25 special police officers have detained 14 members of the opposition Central Electoral Commission, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 25 February. The commission, which is organizing the presidential elections scheduled by the Supreme Soviet for 16 May, was meeting in a privately-owned cafe in Minsk to approve the composition of some 180 territorial electoral commissions. Among the detainees is commission head Viktar Hanchar. JM
LUKASHENKA WANTS NUCLEAR WEAPONS BACK...
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in Moscow on 25 February that his country made a big mistake when it gave up Soviet nuclear missiles, and he hinted that he would like a new nuclear arsenal, Reuters reported, citing Interfax. Lukashenka told the Russian news agency that nuclear weapons in Belarus might help guarantee the security of the Russia-Belarus Union. JM
...STRESSES TIES WITH ARAB WORLD
Lukashenka on 24 February met with the ambassadors of 14 Arab countries accredited in Russia to discuss prospects for political and economic cooperation between his and their countries, Interfax and Reuters reported. "The development of relations with the Arab world is one of the priorities of Belarusian foreign policy," Lukashenka said. The Belarusian president encouraged Arab countries to open diplomatic missions and make investments in Belarus. So far, no Arab nation has opened an embassy in Minsk. JM
BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES TO REVISE TEXTBOOK ON HISTORY
Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Zamyatalin has ordered that "seditious material" be eliminated from a textbook on Belarusian history, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 24 February. The order followed an "expert assessment" that the textbook views Belarusian history from the "positions of the nationally radical Belarusian opposition." In particular, the assessment denounced the textbook for mentioning repressions against Belarusian national culture by Stalin's totalitarian regime in the 1930s. Zamyatalin termed the textbook a "falsification," pointing to the "lack of a single official view of the country's history in line with demands of the president of the Republic of Belarus." JM
BABURIN SAYS MARCH TO BE CRUCIAL MONTH IN LATVIAN-RUSSIAN RELATIONS
Speaking to journalists during his visit to Ventspils on 24 February, Russian State Duma Deputy Chairman Sergei Baburin said that "March will be a crucial month for further relations between Latvia and Russia, and only after [then] can common implementation of any major economic projects be discussed," LETA reported. He noted that Russia will be closely watching events in Latvia on 16 March, which has been designated Latvian Soldiers' Day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 1999). He also said that recent events in Latvia, including the citizenship amendments, the results of last November's referendum, and "the government itself," give hope that the two countries' stances will draw closer. A protocol of intent on LUKoil's participation in the Western Pipeline System project (Ventspils being the western terminal of such a pipeline) is scheduled to be discussed in Moscow at the end of next month. JC
BELARUS REPORTED READY TO PAY ENERGY DEBT TO LITHUANIA...
Lithuanian Economy Minister Vincas Babilius told ELTA on 24 February that officials from Lietuvos Energija have returned from Belarus with assurances that Minsk is ready to clear its debt to Lithuania for electricity supplies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 18 February 1999). Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Linh has approved an arrangement whereby a uniform interbank U.S. dollar rate has been set to determine the price of barter goods supplied to Lithuania in return for electricity supplies as well as the price of those supplies. "Lithuania is satisfied with current Belarusian decisions," Babilius said. Next week, the Lithuanian government is to decide whether to continue supplying Belarus with electricity. JC
...WHILE VAGNORIUS SLAMS THOSE SEEKING TO 'DESTABILIZE' DOMESTIC POLITICS
In a statement to the cabinet on 24 February, Lithuanian Premier Gediminas Vagnorius accused various state bodies of seeking to destabilize the political situation in Lithuania over the Lietuvos Energija affair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 1999), ELTA reported. Vagnorius said that the rush to initiate legal action against Lietuvos Energija "by accusing not Belarus, which is in debt, or the former management of Lietuvos Energija but the economy minister or cabinetdestabilizes the domestic situation against the backdrop of a lasting Russian crisis." He added that he regards the policy of discrediting the government, "pursued with the help of the State Control [Department] and the President's Office," as disrupting the everyday functioning of the government and endangering the protection of citizens' interests. JC
POLAND URGES GERMANY TO PAY SLAVE LABORERS 'ACCEPTABLE COMPENSATION'
The Polish government has appealed to Bonn to pay "acceptable compensation" to Poles forced to perform slave labor in Nazi Germany, "Gazeta wyborcza" reported on 25 February. If the request is met, Poland pledges to withdraw all individual lawsuits for compensation against German firms and refrain from filing new ones. Chief of Prime Minister's Office Wieslaw Walendziak and seven Polish associations of Nazi victims and slave laborers agreed to the terms of the appeal. Walendziak declined to specify what an "acceptable" sum would be, while Polish- German Reconciliation Foundation head Jacek Turczynski mentioned 10,000 German marks ($5,630) "as a minimum." According to the foundation's estimates, Poles are owed 45 billion German marks for their slave labor. Turczynski added that 531,000 Poles are currently eligible for German compensation for slave labor. JM
ODS REJECTS TAKING PART IN MEETING WITH HAVEL
Civic Democratic Party (ODS) deputy chairwoman Libuse Benesova said on 24 February that the ODS's decision not to attend a planned meeting between chairmen of political parties and President Vaclav Havel is "definitive," CTK reported. Benesova said the head of state must not "devalue his authority" by interfering in political affairs that "do not require urgent solutions." She said such meetings must be called only when they are likely to produce answers to "concrete problems," adding that the most frequently mentioned item on the meeting's agenda--the country's relations with Euro- Atlantic organizations--is not a matter of dispute among the parties invited. In an earlier letter to Havel, ODS chairman Vaclav Klaus said the meeting's agenda does not justify the holding of such a session. Havel also intends to discuss with party chairmen reducing unemployment and reforming the pension system. MS
SLOVAK PARLIAMENT LIFTS FORMER INTERIOR MINISTER'S IMMUNITY
Lawmakers on 24 February voted by 83 to 52 to lift the parliamentary immunity of former Interior Minister Gustav Krajci, who is charged by the Prosecutor- General's Office with having disrupted the May 1997 referendum on joining NATO and direct presidential elections. Shortly before the referendum, Krajci ordered the question on presidential elections removed from the ballot, RFE/RL's Bratislava bureau reported. MS
SLOVAKIA NOT TO CANCEL AGREEMENTS WITH RUSSIA
Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan on 23 February said the government will "neither cancel nor change existing agreements with Russia." He said the government's pro-NATO and EU integration cannot be doubted but that "good relations with Russia," particularly economic ones, are advantageous for Bratislava, CTK reported. He added that the main problem in Slovak-Russian relations are not the agreements but the "lack of transparency" under which they were negotiated by Vladimir Meciar's cabinet and the fact that they did not reflect the declared pro-Western option of Meciar's government. At the same time, he added that Russia so far has not sought to "misuse" the agreements. Kukan stressed that the agreements with Russia will not prevent Bratislava from being invited to join NATO. MS
HUNGARIAN ANTI-CRIME LEGISLATION RULED UNCONSTITUTIONAL
The Constitutional Court on 23 February ruled that several laws in a package of amended legislation on fighting organized crime are unconstitutional. The court said that the parliament cannot amend laws by a simple majority if they have been passed by a two-thirds majority. At the government's request, President Arpad Goncz in January asked the court to rule on the issue because the governing coalition and the opposition had failed to agree on which of those laws can be amended by a simple and which by a two- thirds majority. On 24 February, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the court's ruling was "painful" because the country will "lose time" in reinforcing public safety. MSZ
KOSOVAR DELEGATION FORMS PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT...
The Kosovar Albanian delegation to the Rambouillet talks has formed a provisional government headed by a member of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), according to Kosovapress, the UCK's news agency. The provisional government includes representatives of the Democratic League of Kosova of shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova and the United Democratic Movement of nationalist academic Rexhep Qosja. Reuters quoted Kosovapress as saying that the new government has a mandate until elections are held in Kosova. The UCK agency did not say what will happen to the German- based, exile shadow-state government of Bujar Bukoshi. FS
...PROMPTING PROTEST BY DEMACI
The UCK's political representative, Adem Demaci, called the creation of the provisional government "groundless and without legitimacy." Demaci, who refused to attend the Rambouillet talks, issued a statement in Prishtina on 24 February saying that neither he nor the UCK's General Staff were consulted. He added that the move is "completely contrary" to the goals of establishing "valid institutions" in Kosova, including a parliament and civilian government. Demaci claimed that the formation of the government is an effort to "manipulate" the Kosovar public into accepting an agreement "which is not for the well-being of Albanian people and which is contrary to its determination for freedom and independence," Reuters reported. FS
SERBS DELAY RETURN OF KOSOVAR DELEGATION
Yugoslav authorities declined to give permission for the Kosovar Albanian delegation's plane to land in Prishtina on 24 February, a delegation member told Reuters. The French government has arranged a military flight for the following day. FS
NATO OFFICIAL WARNS OF POSSIBLE SERBIAN OFFENSIVE...
An unnamed official told Reuters on 24 February that NATO is "greatly concerned by a very substantial buildup of Serbian forces including heavy armor, artillery, infantry, special forces, the planting of mines, and demolition preparations." He said the army's moves "could be preparations for a final military push to eradicate opposition in [Kosova] either in conjunction with a failure of the [peace] talks or as a prelude to a resumption of the talks." He said the numbers involved are "more than double" those of Yugoslav troops and special police in October 1998. Another NATO source said the increase constitutes a violation of the agreement reached by the Contact Group and Yugoslavia last October. "What's maybe of more immediate concern than the numbers inside [Kosova] is the qualitative change," he argued, noting that the army is "handing over heavy 30 mm cannon and command and control equipment" to the special police. FS
...WHILE ALBRIGHT SHOWS COMMITMENT TO USE FORCE
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 24 February that the military moves show Belgrade has not abandoned the idea of an offensive. She stressed that "they are very much under a warning now that they are not to use those forces offensively. We are going to work very hard to make it very clear to them that that would be a grave mistake." Albright added that "they have not yet given up their ideas about their spring action. Our goal in the next two weeks is to make sure that they change their way of looking at this," Reuters reported. Meanwhile, French President Jacques Chirac told a cabinet meeting in Paris the same day that "we must signal by all available means that we will not accept a resumption of fighting." FS
PREMIER WANTS TO AVOID NATO ACTION IN MONTENEGRO
Filip Vujanovic said in Podgorica on 24 February that his government will increase its diplomatic activities to ensure NATO does not attack Montenegro. He argued "there are no reasons why [Montenegro] should become a target of [NATO] air strikes," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. FS
BRITISH, FRENCH TROOPS SET UP BEACHHEAD IN NORTHERN GREECE
British and French soldiers landed in Thessaloniki on 24 February to set up the main logistical supply point for the possible deployment of 30,000 NATO peacekeepers in Kosova. FS
MILO SAYS KOSOVARS AGREED TO DRAFT AFTER U.S. GUARANTEES
Albanian Foreign Minister Paskal Milo told "Gazeta Shqiptare" on 24 February that the Kosovar delegation agreed to the compromise accord in Rambouillet after receiving U.S. guarantees of a NATO presence in Kosova in the near future. Milo said that in an emergency meeting shortly before the talks ended, "the U.S. Secretary of State and the U.S. delegation gave assurances about a NATO presence in [Kosova] for the transitional period, during which democratic institutions would be established." FS
RAMBOUILLET ORGANIZERS REASSURE THE HAGUE TRIBUNAL
The peace conference organizers have reassured the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia that it will be able to fully investigate crimes against humanity, according to the draft peace agreement for Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. Earlier, tribunal president Gabrielle Kirk McDonald had raised concerns that the conference participants had dropped a specific reference allowing the tribunal access to suspected war crimes sites (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 1999). FS
CHINA TO VETO MACEDONIAN UN MANDATE EXTENSION
China's UN ambassador Qin Huasun told Reuters on 24 February that China plans to use its Security Council veto the following day to prevent a UN peacekeeping force being deployed in Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline 24 February). He said that in the past, Beijing had reservations about the "repeated extension" of the force's mandate but took a "flexible and cooperative" approach. "Now, as known to all, the situation is changed," he said, alluding to Macedonia's decision last month to open diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Reuters reported. FS
YUGOSLAVIA, BOSNIA AGREE TO REOPEN RAILWAY
Representatives of the federal Yugoslav and Bosnian railways signed an agreement in Belgrade on 24 February providing for the reopening of a railway crossing near Zvornik, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. The agreement will take effect in two weeks. FS
ALBANIAN JUDGES STRIKE AFTER SHOOTING OF COLLEAGUE
Albanian judges and lawyers suspended all trials on 24 February, three days after unknown assailants shot and badly wounded Judge Kleanthi Koci, the president of the Bar Association and a former Supreme Court chief. Their strike is in protest against increasing violence against the judiciary, "Albanian Daily News" reported. In other news, police the same day dismissed an officer who was involved in a network that smuggled illegal immigrants into Albania via Rinas airport. FS
ETHNIC HUNGARIAN POLITICIANS UNDER INVESTIGATION IN ROMANIA
The Prosecutor-General's Office has launched an investigation into members of the "radical wing" of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) who participated in a September 1998 meeting in Cernat (Covasna County) of the Szeklers' Forum for the Renewal of the UDMR. Participants at the forum adopted a resolution demanding Hungarian citizenship for Romania's ethnic Hungarians, territorial autonomy for the so-called Szeklers' lands, the setting up of a Hungarian-language university in Cluj, and the full restitution of Hungarian Churches' confiscated property. Three UDMR parliamentary deputies were questioned in Brasov on 24 February, Mediafax reported. UDMR chairman Bela Marko has protested the investigation. MS
FORMER ROMANIAN LIBERAL LEADER TO JOIN EXTRAPARLIAMENTARY PARTY?
Viorel Catarama, former deputy chairman of the National Liberal Party (PNL), said he is considering joining the extra-parliamentary Romanian Humanist Party. Catarama resigned from the PNL on 18 February to protest the party's "non-liberal policies," following a long conflict between Catarama and the party's leadership. In January, the PNL decided to "suspend" him from membership after he went to the Jiu Valley to seek to diffuse the conflict between the miners and the government but failed to consult either the cabinet or the PNL beforehand. In early February, the party decided to dismiss Catarama as chairman of the Senate's Economic Committee. PNL deputy Mircea Cazacu earlier this week announced he, too, is leaving the PNL in protest against its "non-liberal" policies. MS
ROMANIAN OPPOSITION DEPUTY TO LOSE PARLIAMENTARY IMMUNITY?
The Chamber of Deputies' Judicial Committee on 24 February recommended lifting the parliamentary immunity of Party of Social Democracy in Romania deputy Gabriel Bivolaru. The Prosecutor-General's Office has charged Bivolaru with fraud and forgery of official documents. The chamber is to debate on 25 February whether to endorse that recommendation. MS
NEW MOLDOVAN GOVERNMENT IN PLACE THIS WEEK?
Parliamentary chairman and For a Democratic and Prosperous Moldova Bloc leader Dumitru Diacov told journalists on 24 February following another round of negotiations between representatives of the parliamentary majority and Premier- designate Ion Sturdza that the new cabinet lineup might be submitted to the legislature for approval on 25 February. But RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reports that Party of Revival and Conciliation (PRCM) chairman Mircea Snegur has said his formation's support for the cabinet is conditional on a PRCM member being appointed as first deputy premier. Such a position did not exist in previous governments. MS
BALTIC STATES STILL VULNERABLE TO RUSSIA'S TROUBLES
By Michael Wyzan
The Baltic states are more susceptible to spillover effects from the Russian economic crisis than are the Central European countries, because the former (especially Lithuania) trade more extensively with Russia and their banks (particularly Latvia's) have been more active in lending to that country. However, the Balts are much less vulnerable than the CIS countries to that crisis, largely because their trade dependence on Russia is considerably lower.
In terms of international trade, Estonia has long been the least vulnerable of the Baltic States to ill winds blowing from the East. Russia accounted for a modest--by Baltic standards-- 13.4 percent of exports and 10.8 percent of imports from January-November 1998, down from 18.8 percent and 14.4 percent, respectively, in all of 1997. Nonetheless, certain sectors, such as dairy farming, and certain regions, such as the heavily industrial, predominantly ethnic Russian northeast, have been hard hit.
Latvia experienced a strong decline in trade with Russia last year: from January-November 1998, exports to that country were 52 percent lower than during the same period in 1997, while total exports rose by 8.5 percent. As a result, its dependence on such trade is now similar to Estonia's. During the first 11 months of 1998, 12.4 percent of Latvian exports went to Russia and 11.5 of its imports originated there, compared with 21 percent and 15.6 percent, respectively, in all of 1997. The fishing and fisheries sectors have been particularly hard hit by the decline in Russian trade.
Lithuania remains the most dependent on trade with Russia, with the latter accounting for 18.6 percent of exports and 21.1 percent of imports from January-October 1998, down from 24.5 percent and 25.2 percent, respectively, in all of 1997. Lithuania's strikingly strong dependence on Russian imports reflects the fact that its Mazeikiai oil refinery is fueled entirely by oil from that country.
The big declines last year in exports to Russia have reduced the three countries' growth prospects. Estonian GDP growth fell from 9.3 percent in the first quarter of 1998 (compared with the same quarter in 1997) to 1.8 percent in the third. Estonia's 1999 budget envisages GDP growth of 4 percent, rather than the 6 percent originally forecast, while the other two Baltic States also expect growth declines of two percentage points this year. However, the forecast decline in Estonia's growth has a silver lining, since that country's economy was in danger of overheating.
Latvia's GDP growth took a similar nosedive in 1998, from 7.6 percent in the first quarter to 1.9 percent in the third, while Lithuania's GDP decline was more modest, from 4.7 percent to 3.2 percent over the same period. Industrial production has been hard hit in all three countries, especially in Latvia, where it was down during the fourth quarter by 11.4 percent relative to the same period in 1997.
Russian contagion also means that the probability of the Baltic States' having their own financial crises has increased. Lithuania seems the most vulnerable in this regard, its current account imbalance reaching 13 percent of GDP in January- September 1998. The equivalent figures for Latvia and Estonia were 9.0 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively. Both those percentages are rather high, although the Estonian figure fell from 13 percent in 1997.
On the other hand, there are some factors suggesting that a crisis in Lithuania is less likely than its current account deficit suggest. Those factors include its large foreign reserves, some $1.4 billion at the end of 1998 (but down from $1.7 billion in July), and its excellent performance with regard to foreign investment in 1998. On 5 July, a 60 percent stake in state-owned Lietuvos Telekomas was sold to Sweden's Telia and Finland's Sonera for $510 million.
Estonian and Latvian banks have lost considerable sums on Russian government and corporate securities. Latvia is the more vulnerable in this respect, with investments in the neighborhood of $300 million in the Russian economy.
Overall, Latvian banks experienced a poor 1998, losing $23 million (2 percent of total assets), while Estonian banks lost $40 million (1.2 percent). Still, neither country experienced a banking crisis, such as Latvia did in 1995, when its GDP declined by 1.6 percent. Ratings agencies remain confident that no similar catastrophe is in the offing in that country now.
Baltic stock markets performed poorly in 1998, the indexes falling by 66 percent in Tallinn, 75 percent in Riga, and 40 percent in Vilnius. These small markets are sensitive to investor attitudes toward emerging markets in general. Thus, their declines began in the aftermath of the East Asian crisis, well before August 1998.
However, the effects of such volatility on the countries' real economies remain insignificant. Unlike in Western countries, few individuals own stock, and there are no large institutional investors, such as pension funds, that have invested heavily in the stock market. The author is a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.