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Newsline - March 23, 1999


The ruble fell for the ninth consecutive day on 23 March, closing at 24.29 rubles to $1, ITAR-TASS reported. Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko said the previous day that the ruble's decline is "in large part psychological." Earlier, he had argued that an agreement with the IMF would reassure the market. On 20 March, First Deputy Prime Minister Yurii Maslyukov told Interfax that although the ruble had slumped to 24 to $1, the 1999 budget, which was based on an assumed rate of 21 rubles to $1, would not have to be revised. Maslyukov blamed the ruble's slide on the "alarming situation in society," with "ex-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin slinging mud at me, then former junior reformers abusing the government." JAC


Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov left for Washington on the morning of 23 March for a four-day official trip to the U.S. Upon arrival, Primakov is expected to hold talks with World Bank President James Wolfensohn and attend a dinner with U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Interfax reported. The next day, Gore and Primakov will chair a meeting of the U.S.-Russia Bi-national Commission, also known as the Gore-Primakov Commission, and Primakov will meet with President Bill Clinton and IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus. Among the items on the agenda of the commission are Russian steel exports to the U.S., joint space research, and bilateral trade issues. About 100 Russian steel workers appealed to officials in the Russian government and at the U.S. embassy in Moscow on 22 March to reconsider a recent agreement that sharply reduces Russian steel shipments. JAC


Russian newspapers concluded that Primakov will have to agree to a series of concessions during his trip in order to win IMF money. "Segodnya" on 20 March linked the work of the Gore-Primakov Commission with the IMF negotiations, noting that Russia, "whose budget is equivalent to that of New York City, intends to ask the U.S. to put in a word with the IMF." It continued, "It is not inconceivable that Primakov will have to swallow several bitter pills during the commission's work" before he asks the U.S. for its political support. Meanwhile, the IMF itself has moderated some of its demands, Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov told reporters on 19 March. According to Zadornov, the IMF will not demand that the Russia's primary budget surplus be as high as 3.5 percent of GDP. He also pledged that export duties on oil will not be increased unless oil prices rise to $12 a barrel. JAC


Prime Minister Primakov will cut short his scheduled trip to the U.S. should NATO attack Serbia, Interfax reported on 23 March, citing "government sources." Primakov stated the previous day that Russia is "categorically opposed to the use of force in Yugoslavia," adding that such a development would have "a great destabilizing effect, not just on the situation in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, but also in Europe as a whole." Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov joined the prime minister in condemning possible military action, telling reporters that "if we are interested in a long-term peaceful settlement of the [Kosova] problem, we would have to admit that it is impossible to achieve this by using such methods." He added that the "history of the Balkans and the entire world experience show that attempts to find a quick solution to a problem by using force will lead to opposite results." JAC


Investigators from the office of the Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov on 23 March sealed off several Kremlin offices as part of its investigation into whether the Swiss company Mabetex bribed officials in order to win a lucrative contract to renovate the Kremlin. Pavel Borodin, head of the facilities directorate, told NTV that a number of officials have been questioned and have denied any wrongdoing. "Novye Izvestiya" reported earlier that Borodin tried to force Skuratov out of office because he had uncovered Borodin's shady dealings with Mabetex (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 1999). Skuratov is scheduled to meet with Switzerland's Prosecutor-General Carla del Ponte on 23 March. JAC


Before leaving for the U.S., Prime Minister Primakov told an audience at the Anti-Defamation League that "his government takes a very strong position against any manifestation of nationalism, including anti-Semitism." He also said that Duma deputy and member of the Communist faction Albert Makashov must "be condemned unambiguously" for his anti-Semitic pronouncements, Reuters reported. On 19 March, by a vote of 133 to 104, the State Duma rejected a motion to condemn Makashov for his recent statements in Krasnodar Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17March 1999). Writing in "Sovetskaya Rossiya" on 23 March, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said the people's patriotic forces are ready for a Russian-Jewish dialogue. He also argued that the "Russian question" is the most acute ethnic question in Russia. And he called for a national policy program to "save the unique Russian civilization" and "revive the Russian people as the backbone of the Russian state." JAC


Addressing reporters after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 22 March, Foreign Minister Ivanov said that Russia is open to close cooperation with all relevant countries on non-proliferation issues. According to Israel state television, the nations agreed to set up a joint control body to monitor exports of sensitive technology to Iran and to be chaired by the countries' two foreign ministers. Netanyahu had said earlier that Russia's alleged technology transfers to Iran would be the top item on the agenda of his two-day trip to Moscow, which began on 21 March. Netanyahu also met the same day with Prime Minister Primakov, who said relations between the two countries are "normal and expanding." According to Ivanov, specific projects for cooperation will be discussed at a Russian- Israeli inter-governmental commission meeting slated for July or August. JAC


Eduard Limonov, novelist and leader of the nationalist extremist National Bolshevik Party (NBP), announced on 22 March that he is ready to form an alliance between his party and the neo-nazi Russian National Unity (RNU) party, ITAR- TASS reported. Limonov told members of his party at a meeting in St. Petersburg that the NBP is ready for joint actions with the RNU. The same day, Russian Television reported that at a rally organized by the RNU in Krasnodar, some local Cossacks were in attendance. According to the television station, the Cossacks have previously kept their distance from all parties and movements. JAC


Subscribers to "Samarskaya Gazeta" did not get their paper for a week and more than 60 magazines and 300 newspapers also published in Samara Oblast face closure this month because of a "shortage" of newsprint, Periodicals Publisher Guild head Aleksandr Oskin told ITAR-TASS on 22 March. Publishers in St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and other regions face a similar problem. According to Oskin, the problem is that although paper production increased last year, pulp and paper factories prefer to export two-thirds of their products, selling the remainder through middlemen who mark up the price by 30 percent or more. JAC


Leonid Gorbenko, following a meeting with former Federation Council Chairman Vladimir Shumeiko, has spoken out against the latter's proposal to turn Kaliningrad Oblast into a "Baltic Republic within the Russian Federation" (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 3 March 1999), BNS reported on 22 March. The Kaliningrad regional press service reported that Gorbenko's position "with regard to separatism and political extremism remains unchanged: the Kaliningrad region is an inalienable part of Russia and the all-embracing crisis can be overcome only through [accord]." Shumeiko intends to compete in Kaliningrad for a seat in the State Duma, according to BNS. JC


President Yeltsin has appointed Vyacheslav Soltaganov the new head of the Tax Police, replacing Sergei Almazo, who was dismissed last month. Soltaganov previously headed the directorate for information protection and internal security of the State Tax Service. In other personnel-related moves, President Yeltsin signed a decree dismissing his envoy to North Ossetia and Ingushetia Vladimir Kalamanov. "Kremlin sources" told Interfax that Kalamanov's work is regarded positively and he is a candidate for the post of head of the Federal Migration Service. JAC


A vodka museum has opened in the town of Uglich in Yaroslavl Oblast, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 March. Uglich was the home of one of the early members of the Smirnov vodka dynasty, Grigorii Smirnov, who launched his own tavern there in 1835. The museum features a display of more than 400 brands of vodka from 62 distilleries throughout Russia and an exhibit chronicling the early history of vodka from the 13th century, when peasants would distill rye wort in earthenware pots, to the 15th century and the development of small distilleries. JAC


After weeks of negotiations, Moscow and Kazan have reached agreement on prolonging for five years the 1994 powersharing treaty, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 19 March. President Mintimer Shaimiev told journalists on his return to Kazan from Moscow the previous day that various details, including tax rates in Tatarstan, may be amended by the mutual consent of Tatarstan and the federal authorities. LF


As Chechen investigators continued their search on 22 March for the perpetrators of the previous day's bomb attack on President Aslan Maskhadov, the latter told journalists in Grozny that there are forces both in Chechnya and in Moscow who have a vested interest in removing him. Maskhadov said he still hopes for a meeting with President Yeltsin, whom he described as the sole individual empowered to resolve problems in bilateral relations but noted that no date has been set for such a meeting. He added that he is prepared to meet also with Prime Minister Primakov, who will visit the Caucasus next month, and that he hopes talks will be renewed on a comprehensive treaty defining relations between Russia and Chechnya. Maskhadov endorsed Chechen Foreign Minister Isa Idigov's proposal, made earlier that day, that representatives of international organizations or a third country should participate in Russian-Chechen negotiations. LF


Speaking at separate press conferences in Yerevan on 22 March, the foreign ministers of Armenia and the unrecognized Nagorno- Karabakh Republic, Vartan Oskanian and Naira Melkumian, predicted that during his visit to the Transcaucasus in April, OSCE chairman-in-office Knut Vollebaek will try to persuade Azerbaijan to accept the most recent OSCE plan to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Azerbaijan has rejected that plan, which calls for Azerbaijan and Karabakh to form a "common state." Melkumian said the plan "has not been and will not be changed" to accommodate Azerbaijan. Melkumian added that a "very serious shift" has occurred over the past year in the international community's attitude toward the conflict in favor of a settlement of the conflict avoiding what she described as "two extremes" of outright independence or conventional autonomy for Karabakh. LF


Noting that Azerbaijan and Turkey have already begun discussions on whether Azerbaijan should host a Turkish military base on its territory, Oskanian warned that the opening of such a base would disrupt the military balance of forces in the region and force Armenia to take unspecified appropriate moves in response, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Oskanian dismissed repeated Azerbaijani claims that Armenia's military cooperation with Russia and the deployment at Russia's military base in Armenia of Russian arms pose a threat to Azerbaijan. He said the base in question is intended solely to protect the external borders of Armenia and the CIS and that Armenia will have no access to the weaponry in question if the war with Azerbaijan resumes. LF


In a 20 March letter addressed to Russian President Yeltsin, Heidar Aliyev expressed concern at the recent deployment at Russia's military base in Armenia of MiG-29 fighter aircraft and S-300 air defense systems, Interfax and Turan reported. Aliyev wrote that those arms shipments and the deepening military cooperation between Moscow and Yerevan "contradict the letter and spirit of the agreement on friendship and cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan" and upset the military balance in the region. He further deplored the failure to clarify responsibility for previous shipments of Russian arms worth $1 billion to Armenia. In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 23 March, Aliev's military adviser General Tofik Agaguseinov similarly argued that the buildup of arms at Russia's military base in Armenia violates Russia's allocation under the Conventional Forces in Europe flank agreement. LF


In his weekly radio broadcast on 22 March, Eduard Shevardnadze announced that he has signed a decree on intensifying anti- terrorism measures in Georgia. Referring to the previous day's failed attempt to assassinate Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Shevardnadze also proposed a coordinated campaign against terrorism throughout the Caucasus, Reuters reported. It is unclear whether the first target in Georgia of the new measures will be the ethnic Georgian White Legion guerrillas who over the past year have killed several dozen ethnic Abkhaz police and civilians in Abkhazia's Gali Raion. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 March suggested that Tbilisi is seriously concerned at the possible export of Wahhabism from Chechnya to contiguous regions of Georgia populated by Kists, who are ethnically close to the Vainakhs. LF


On a one-day stopover in Tbilisi on 22 March following a two-day visit to Russia, Benjamin Netanyahu met with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to discuss bilateral relations, including expanding trade and economic ties as well as the situation in the Caucasus and the Middle East. They also signed an agreement on expanding cooperation, including in the military sphere, according to Caucasus Press. Netanyahu told reporters that Georgia offers excellent potential for Israeli investors, particularly in the energy and transport sectors, AP reported. LF


A Georgian court sentenced 21-year-old Zurab Bregladze to life imprisonment for the murder last July of Maria Magdalena Wieworska, a Polish woman employed at the UN mission in Tbilisi, Western agencies reported on 22 March. LF


Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov met with Iran's visiting Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani in Ashgabat on 22 March, Russian agencies reported. The talks focused on ways of expanding regional cooperation. On behalf of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, Mohajerani invited Niyazov to attend the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Tehran in June. LF


Uzbek Interior Ministry official Badriddin Shoriskhiev on 19 March warned that anyone who fails to exchange his old Soviet passport for a new Uzbek one by 1 January 2000 will be deprived of Uzbek citizenship, AP-Blitz reported from Dushanbe on 23 March. Shoriskhiev said some 12 million people have handed in their old passports since the new ones were introduced in 1995, but 1.8 million have not yet done so. LF


The Central Electoral Commission on 22 March announced that candidates in the opposition presidential elections will be registered in Minsk on 31 March, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. Commission head Viktar Hanchar said that on the basis of the signatures that have already been collected in support of Mikhail Chyhir and Zyanon Paznyak, he predicts that they will have the necessary total to register as candidates. He added that he has invited foreign diplomats, heads of the OSCE and UN missions in Minsk, as well as "acting" President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to attend the registration ceremony. Meanwhile, the election teams of both Chyhir and Paznyak have reported they will be ready to submit the required 100,000 signatures on time, despite frequent arrests of campaigners and the confiscation of lists containing signatures. JM


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has signed the law on presidential elections. Kuchma had vetoed the legislation last month, but the parliament recently overrode his veto (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 1999). According to the new law, the presidential campaign will officially begin on 4 May. The nomination of candidates will start 10 days after that date and will last 30 days. Candidates can be proposed by political parties or by at least 500 voters. To be placed on the ballot, the nominees must be at least 35 years old , must have resided in Ukraine for the past 10 years, and must collect the signatures of at least 1 million of Ukraine's 35 million eligible voters. The vote will take place on 31 October. JM


The Ukrainian government has ordered that 12 industrial giants be prepared immediately for sale to private owners, AP reported on 22 March, citing the Ukrainian News agency. In particular, the government is offering a 53 percent stake in the Illich metallurgical plant, a 52 percent stake in the Odesa oil refinery, and a 29 percent stake in the Turboatom company, which manufactures nuclear power plant equipment. The offer is seen as the government's move to entice back foreign investors and raise revenues to pay off mounting debt obligations. JM


The State Statistics Committee has said that 12,600 Ukrainian farms, or 92 percent of their total number, reported losses last year totaling to 4.3 billion hryvni ($1.1 billion). According to the committee, an average farm spent 29 percent more on production costs than it received from the sale of its produce. Last year's agricultural output decreased by 8.3 percent, compared with 1997. JM


Lawmakers on 22 March voted strictly along party lines to endorse Mart Laar of the Fatherland Union as prime minister. The vote was 53 to 48, reflecting the fact that the right-wing alliance of the Fatherland Union, the Moderates, and the Reform Party has 53 seats in the 101-strong parliament. The prime minister- designate said that the new government's most urgent task is to submit to the parliament a negative supplementary budget, although he added that there is a "slim chance" that such a measure will prove unnecessary. Some analysts have argued that this year's budget, which is balanced at 18.47 billion kroons ($1.28 billion), is too optimistic with regard to revenues. Under Estonian law, the budget must be balanced. JC


In an interview with Latvian Radio on 22 March, Guntis Ulmanis argued that Director of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution Lainis Kamaldins may be able to stay in office even though his recent remarks violate "professional standards," "Diena" reported. "It is very important whether Kamaldins can cover his unprepared remarks with well thought-out apologies or argumentation. If he can do that, then, probably, everything will stay the way it is," Ulmanis commented. Kamaldins said last week that Latvian Jews may have been involved in the 1998 bombing of the Riga synagogue, although he later issued a statement stressing that his office has no information to back up such a claim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 1999). He is due to appear before the Council for National Security on 24 March. JC


The Lithuanian Economy Ministry has revised its 1999 GDP growth forecast from 5.5 percent to 3.7-4.1 percent, BNS reported on 21 March. That estimate is largely in line with IMF and World Bank forecasts of 3.5 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The Economy Ministry also put this year's inflation rate at 4 percent, instead of 5.5 percent, as earlier predicted. JC


By-elections in the Naujoji Vilnia, Nevezis, and Vilniaus Traku electoral districts on 21 March have been declared invalid owing to low voter turnout, ELTA reported the following day. JC


The Economic Court in Rzeszow, southeastern Poland, has declared the Mielec Aircraft Plant bankrupt. The court said the Mielec plant has stopped paying its debts to some 300 creditors and is not in a position to accept further loans to continue production. Another company, the Polish Aviation Plant, will take over production at Mielec and offer employment to 1,200 of the 2,700 workers of the bankrupt enterprise. The enterprise, which formerly employed 20,000 people and produced up to 700 airplanes a year (including Soviet MiG-17 fighters), ran into problems after the collapse of communism and the loss of its Russian market. JM


The Polish National Council for Broadcasting has granted a license to Radio Racja, which intends to broadcast in Belarusian from Bialystok, northeastern Poland. Council chairman Boleslaw Sulik told the 22 March "Gazeta wyborcza" that Communications Ministry will deal with the "technical coordination." He added that the station will broadcast programs of a "cultural-informative nature" rather than a propagandist one. Radio Racja is funded by the Belarusian Union, an organization of the Belarusian minority in Poland, and an unnamed partner. The station's 100-watt transmitter will enable its programs to be received in Minsk on short wave. Wiktor Stachwiuk, a candidate for the post of Radio Racja director, told "Gazeta wyborcza" that the station will cooperate with the Belarusian opposition. It is planned to initially broadcast for two hours a day. JM


The government on 22 March analyzed a report submitted by a special commission set up to evaluate the options of completing or not completing the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant. No decision was reached, but the cabinet asked Environment Minister Milos Kuzvart, Trade and Industry Minister Miroslav Gregr, Finance Minister Ivo Svoboda, Social Affairs Minister Vladimir Spidla, and Deputy Premier Pavel Mertlik to draft a report on the economic impact of the two options, CTK reported. Foreign Minister Jan Kavan presented a report concluding that if the completion option is pursued, it will have "no considerable influence" on the country's international position, despite possible protests from abroad. MS


Jan Slota, leader of the Slovak National Party (SNS), is running for president in the elections scheduled for 15 May, honorary SNS chairman Vitazoslav Moric announced on 22 March. Slota told Radio Twist that if U.S. President Bill Clinton has a right to remain in office after lying under oath, his own right to become Slovak president is at least 200 million times greater. He added that in the "political emaciation" in which "Hungarians have a decisive say in our government," it is the duty of the SNS to do everything "for a nationally oriented Christian" to become head of state, CTK reported. MS


A military court on 22 March acquitted several former intelligence officers accused of violating state secrets in connection with the so-called "Birch Tree Operation." The operation was launched in 1995 to gather information on corruption and organized crime in the Hungarian-Romanian- Ukrainian border region. Several Hungarian politicians were mentioned in agents' reports. Laszlo Foldi, the former deputy head of the secret services, was dismissed in 1996 for "spying on politicians." The court acquitted him of that charge, saying "it would have been wrong for an intelligence officer to turn a blind eye if a politician's name turned up." MSZ


U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic "broke off" talks on 23 March in Belgrade aimed at averting NATO air strikes against Serbian targets, the BBC reported. Holbrooke returned to the U.S. embassy. It is unclear if he will again meet with the Serbian leader. Referring to his first round of negotiations with Milosevic the previous day, Holbrooke told reporters: "I would be misleading you if I suggested that the talks resulted in any substantial and significant change of situation." In Paris, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said: "I am forced to say that this morning I don't see any opening which could interrupt the course of events" toward air strikes. In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman said President Boris Yeltsin received a letter from U.S. President Bill Clinton about the crisis in Kosova, but the spokesman did not give details or say when Yeltsin received the missive. PM


Officials of the Atlantic alliance are "waiting for the word" from Holbrooke as to whether he has achieved a breakthrough in his Belgrade talks, the BBC reported from Brussels on 23 March. If Holbrooke leaves the Serbian capital without success, NATO Secretary- General Javier Solana will discuss with the leaders of alliance member countries when to launch air strikes. The BBC also quoted British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook as saying "this is for real." The previous day, NATO ambassadors agreed to give Solana the authority to target army bases and concentrations of armored vehicles--as well as air defense units--in and around Kosova during the first wave of air strikes. PM


In the Drenica region on 23 March, Serbian forces continued their offensive for the fourth consecutive day, Reuters reported. Prishtina is "swarming with police" and the atmosphere in Kosova's capital is "hair-raising," a BBC reporter said there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 1999). She noted that police are "aggressively" manning checkpoints surrounding the city, which makes it difficult for most people to get in or out of Prishtina. Many residents are nonetheless considering whether to try to flee and join the ranks of the 25,000 people who became refugees or displaced persons in recent days. The conflict in Kosova is "escalating by the hour," she continued, and the Yugoslav army is "preparing for all-out war." One person died in a series of explosions in ethnic Albanian-owned restaurants in Prishtina on 22 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. PM


Several Kosovars from Skenderaj told AP on 22 March that masked Serbs "executed" at least 20 ethnic Albanians in that town over the weekend (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 1999). Other witnesses said that Serbian police arrested and beat an unspecified additional number of Kosovar civilians. One girl told "The Washington Post" that Serbian soldiers beat her mother and brother and threatened to "massacre you [and] burn you all." The stories could not be independently confirmed. In Prishtina, Colonel Bozidar Filic, who is a spokesman for the paramilitary police, said that "Albanian terrorists and separatists are trying [with made-up stories] about mass killings to provoke an international reaction and increase the pressure on Yugoslavia." PM


Serbian forces systematically looted and torched ethnic Albanian villages in the Skenderaj area on 22 March, the "International Herald Tribune" reported. Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) commander Suleyman Selimi said the Serbs "are using more modern weapons" than they did in the crackdown of 1998. He noted that "the kind of tanks [the Serbs are now using] are more sophisticated and they are using new mortars as well as ground-to-ground missiles." From the Vushtrri region, the "Los Angeles Times" quoted a witness as saying that the Serbian forces rob homes and destroy home appliances and other goods that they cannot carry off. The daily added that the Serbs apply "scorched earth tactics" to ethnic Albanian settlements but that "Serbian farmers' homes haven't been touched." PM


NATO troops inspected air defense systems on Bosnian Serb military bases in Banja Luka "in conjunction with the crisis in Kosova," RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 22 March. OSCE representative Robert Barry discussed the situation in Kosova with Zivko Radisic, who is the Serbian representative on the Bosnian joint presidency. In Sarajevo, the U.S. embassy warned U.S. citizens in the Republika Srpska to be prepared to leave Bosnian Serb territory "on very short notice." PM


Officials at the Foreign Ministry handed a note to the Yugoslav charge d'affaires in Tirana on 22 March to protest recent border violations by Yugoslav troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 1999). The next day, the ministry said in a statement that border violations are continuing and that "these actions have grave consequences for stability on the border and beyond." The statement added that "the government calls on all Albanians irrespective of their political ideas to be ready to face this situation with determination and [firmness] in the interest of the fatherland and the nation." FS


U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley told Reuters that NATO is considering an Albanian request to hold a special North Atlantic Council meeting focusing on Albanian security (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 1999). Foley said that "we understand that Albania is concerned about the problem of spillover of violence into their territory and coping with the possible influx of refugees." Albania currently is home to 18,500 refugees from Kosova. FS


Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko and the UCK's Hashim Thaci, who headed the Kosovar delegation to the Rambouillet talks, agreed in Tirana on 22 March to promote cooperation and to better coordinate policy between politicians in Albania and Kosova. Thaci and other UCK representatives, who arrived in Tirana from Paris on 20 March, will try to cross illegally into Kosova from Albania in the next few days, unnamed government sources told dpa (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 1999). Yugoslav authorities have issued warrants for their arrest. FS


A Tirana court on 22 March ordered that Vlora gang leader Zani Caushi be released from jail. The court sentenced Caushi for illegal arms possession but ruled he has served that sentence in pre- trial detention since his arrest in 1997. The court handed down the same sentence to four members of Zani's gang. Seven other members of the group received prison terms of between three and 15 years for crimes ranging from armed robbery to kidnapping. Some prosecution witnesses failed to appear in court during the trial, which began last fall, while others contradicted their previous testimony, ATSH reported. Observers suggested that Zani's friends in Vlora intimidated some of the witnesses. The opposition press, however, has repeatedly accused the ruling Socialist Party of having links to Caushi and seeking to ensure his release. FS


Radu Vasile on 22 March met with the World Bank's director for Romania, Andrew Vorking, to discuss the progress of negotiations between Romanian officials and a bank delegation that began last week in Bucharest. If the bank agrees to renew lending by granting Romania a $300 million loan, the IMF is likely to approve a $500 million loan. Vorking and Vasile agreed that the main priorities must be the restructuring of the bank system, the privatization of viable enterprises, and the closure of loss-making companies. The same day, Vasile met with the leaders of the main trade union confederations, which are threatening industrial action. A government team will continue negotiations with those union leaders on 23 March. Finally, the leaders of the parties represented in the ruling coalition decided on 22 March to submit to the legislature a law on speeding up privatization and to request a vote of confidence, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. MS


President Emil Constantinescu on 23 March met with his predecessor, Ion Iliescu, and other leaders of the main opposition Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) to discuss ways to overcome the country's economic and social crisis, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Iliescu said after the meeting that his party will support a government program that takes into consideration PDSR's views, but he noted that if the situation continues to deteriorate, the only solution will be early elections. A meeting chaired by Constantinescu and attended by representatives of all parties and organizations taking part in ongoing talks is scheduled for 31 March. Also on 22 March, the PDSR criticized Constantinescu's support of possible NATO intervention in Kosova, saying it amounts to "a declaration of war" on Yugoslavia. The opposition Party of Romanian National Unity said Constantinescu is "involving Romania in regional conflicts without the authorization of the parliament" and thus "threatening the country's territorial integrity. "MS


President Petru Lucinschi on 22 March issued a decree calling for a non-binding referendum on introducing a presidential system, Infotag and Reuters reported. Under the proposed constitutional change, the president would be responsible for the appointment of the premier (which is now a prerogative of the parliament) and for the government's actions. The decree explains that "inefficient management of public affairs" and the "evasion of responsibility" on the part of the government, the parliament, and the judiciary are "damaging political stability," the general public's interests, and Moldova's "international image." The decision on whether to amend the constitution rests with the parliament, which must pass the amendment by a two-thirds majority. The referendum is to be held on 23 May, simultaneously with local elections. MS


Suleyman Demirel on 22 March told journalists after talks with his Bulgarian counterpart, Petar Stoyanov, that "NATO without Bulgaria and Romania is unthinkable," pledging to lobby at the April Washington summit for both countries' admission to the organization. Demirel praised Bulgaria's treatment of its ethnic Turkish minority. With regard to the Kosova crisis, he said that "when diplomacy fails, there is an obligation to use force." Demirel also met with Premier Ivan Kostov to discuss economic cooperation in transportation infrastructure, power engineering projects, and customs. Foreign Ministers Nadezhda Mihailova and Ismail Cem signed an accord banning the use of anti-personnel mines. MS


The European Commission on 22 March said Bulgaria must speed up economic reforms and abide by the promise to close down the Kozloduy nuclear plant if it wants to start talks on joining the EU by 2001, Reuters quoted Francois Lammoureux, who is in charge of the commission's relations with applicant states, as saying. Lammoureux is on a two-day visit to Sofia to review the country's progress in meeting membership criteria. He has rejected the Bulgarian government's plans to seek a revision of the 1993 agreement with the EU on closing the Kozloduy plant. MS


The government on 22 March approved a blueprint providing for a reduction of the army to 45,000 troops within five years, BTA and Reuters reported. The previous day, a figure of 50,000 was named (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 1999), while an earlier plan envisaged cutting the army to 75,000 by 2010. Defense Minister Georgi Ananiev told journalists that the plan is in line with "the government's efforts to match admission criteria for NATO and the EU, provide stability in the region, and protect national security." MS


by Patrick Moore

Top Western officials continue to make public statements to warn Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that NATO's "patience is at an end" and that "time is running out" for him to sign the Rambouillet accords. At the time of going to press, it remains unclear whether there will be air strikes or whether the current huffing-and-puffing will come to nothing, as has often been the case in recent months.

It is equally unclear whether any NATO member states are prepared to send in ground troops if Serbian forces continue what appears to be a massive ethnic-cleansing operation in Kosova itself. The Serbian forces seem, in fact, to be taunting the West, as a Serbian soldier near Skenderaj suggested when he recently commented to reporters: "See what we're doing? When are the Americans coming?"

Questions also remain as to what might happen were Serbian authority in Kosova actually to collapse and the Kosovars to take charge of their own fate. The Kosovar leadership has generally shown a remarkable degree of unity in public, but there is no guarantee that such discipline will continue once the immediate threat of a common enemy is removed. There are well-known rivalries both within the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) and within the civilian leadership, as well as between the guerrillas and the politicians.

One can well imagine, moreover, peacetime scenarios in which at least some of these rivalries might come to the surface in perhaps violent form. Such developments, which are rooted in traditional Balkan political cultures, could prevent a modern European political life from emerging. The polarization and even violence present in Albanian and Montenegrin politics suggest that the transition from post- communist to European norms is not proving easy in that part of the Balkans.

But the Kosovars have friends who will try to help them maintain unity of purpose. By signing the Rambouillet accords recently in Paris, the Kosovars ensured that they will have the political support of the U.S. and other key Western powers as long as they adhere to the agreement. There is always a danger of a colonial-type "dependency syndrome" developing in Kosova--as has happened to some extent in Bosnia--if a postwar foreign civilian and military presence becomes preeminent in the affairs of the province. At the moment, however, that is the least of the Kosovars' worries. The Kosovar leaders are now bracing themselves for the new Serbian offensive and congratulating themselves on having cemented their new political bond to the Western powers.

Members of the Kosovar delegation at Rambouillet recently told "RFE/RL Newsline," moreover, that the Albanian government provided constant and vital psychological support for the Kosovar negotiators during the peace talks. There is every reason to expect that Tirana will continue to be a reliable friend to the Kosovars.

This is primarily because Albania is anxious for peace, stability, and democracy to come to Kosova, so that those same phenomena might better develop within Albania itself. Tirana's overall concerns, in fact, reflect those that can be found throughout much of the Balkans. One frequently hears from Bulgarians, Romanians, Albanians, and Macedonians that Western countries have become so concerned with Bosnia and Kosova that they often neglect the rest of the post-communist Balkans and appear to lack a sound strategy to help the region shake the complex legacy of communism.

People in the countries bordering the crisis regions of the former Yugoslavia often express bitterness that the international community has not sufficiently compensated them for the economic sacrifices they made while wartime sanctions were in force on Serbia and Montenegro. Romania's and Bulgaria's prospects for joining NATO and the EU, moreover, appear dim at best, while there is little serious talk anywhere that Macedonia or Albania might join either organization at any time in the foreseeable future. More than one observer has openly asked whether the countries of the post-communist Balkans might not in fact be condemned to a state of indefinite limbo between their communist past and a future firmly rooted in Europe, to which they aspire.

It is of course true that many of the problems facing the countries of the region are largely of their own making. The Balkan countries themselves often raise artificial barriers--such as stringent visa requirements--that prevent a free exchange of people and ideas within the region. The educated elites in each of the countries of the region have almost always looked toward major international capitals for their foreign cultural, political, and economic links rather than to their neighbors. And crime remains endemic across much of the peninsula.

With regard to the various countries bordering the former Yugoslavia, the Romanian political elite seems to be ever given to in-fighting, and the threat of extremism remains permanently on the horizon. Bulgarian politicians generally enjoy criticizing those in power but do not always become model public servants when they themselves take office. Perhaps the new coalition government in Macedonia will succeed in breaking the hold of corruption and cronyism on political life and the economy. If it does not, Macedonia may find itself locked into the traditional Balkan political pattern in which the "ins" and the "outs" take turn in office and help themselves to the rights and privileges of power.