CONSTITUTIONAL COURT CHAIR SUGGESTS EARLIER ELECTION DATE POSSIBLE...
After meeting on 3 January with acting President Vladimir Putin, Constitutional Court Chairman Marat Baglai said it is unclear to him "whether early presidential elections should take place after three months or at any time within a three-month period." He added that the matter must be decided by the Federation Council rather than the court. Baglai also agreed with the opinion of his predecessor, Vladimir Tumanov, that Putin must remain prime minister until the presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 January 2000). The head of the Federation Council's Committee for Constitutional Matters, Sergei Sobyanin, said on 4 January he is sure the presidential elections will be called for 26 March in line with the Central Election Commission recommendation since the law on presidential elections has not yet been published, according to the website polit.ru. JAC
...WHILE TEXT OF NEW ELECTION LAW APPEARS TO REQUIRE 26 MARCH...
Under article 92 of the Russian Constitution, presidential elections should be held no later than three months after the termination of the previous president's duties. However, according to a draft version of the Law on Presidential Elections dated October 1999 and available on the Internet, if the president fails to fulfill his term, the election day "shall be the last Sunday before the last day of three months elapsing from the day on which the President of the Russian Federation prematurely ceased to exercise his/her powers." Yeltsin signed the law on 31 December 1999. (See ) JAC
...AND CALLS FOR THE GATHERING OF 500,000 SIGNATURES
The draft version of the law also states that candidates must gather only 500,000 signatures instead of 1 million, as would have been required if elections were held on 4 June as originally planned. However, Igor Shabdurasulov, first deputy chief of staff, said the new presidential election law requires candidates to collect the signatures of 1 million registered voters, according to "The Los Angeles Times" on 3 January. JAC
FEDERAL FORCES, CHECHENS CLAIM TO INFLICT HEAVY LOSSES
Russian military spokesmen on 3 January said federal troops near the village of Alkhan-Kala, southwest of Grozny, had thwarted a renewed attempt by Chechen forces to break through the Russian encirclement of the capital, ITAR-TASS reported. Also on 3 January, Chechen spokesman Movladi Udugov told Reuters that Russian forces had been driven out of the villages of Alkhan-Kala, Alkhan Yurt, and Kulari, suffering heavy casualties. Fierce fighting was also reported within Grozny and in Serzhen-Yurt, Shalazhi, and Duba Yurt, south of Grozny near the entrance to the Argun gorge. LF
PUTIN, KOSHMAN DISCUSS CHECHNYA
First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman, who is the Russian government representative in Chechnya, briefed acting President Putin on 3 January on the situation in the districts of Chechnya that are under the control of federal forces, Russian agencies reported. Putin instructed Koshman to arrange supplies of medicines and school textbooks to the districts in question and to have damaged power lines in the Urus Martan and Shali raions repaired. LF
YELTSIN'S DAUGHTER MUST FIND ALTERNATE EMPLOYMENT
Acting President Putin on 3 January signed decrees dismissing presidential advisor Tatyana Dyachenko, deputy head of the presidential administration and presidential spokesman Dmitrii Yakushkin, deputy head of the presidential administration Vladimir Makarov, deputy head of the presidential administration and head of the president's Protocol Directorate Vladimir Shevchenko, and deputy head of the presidential administration and head of the President's Office Valerii Semenchenko from their posts. Dyachenko is also former President Boris Yeltsin's daughter. Putin later reappointed Yakushkin as his assistant and Shevchenko and Semenchenko as presidential advisors, according to Interfax. JAC
YELTSIN TO REMAIN ACTIVE IN RETIREMENT
Former presidential spokesman Dmitrii Yakushkin told Ekho Moskvy on 3 January that former President Yeltsin "will continue to hold meetings, [and] our politicians will come to see him at [his country residence] of Gorky." Yakushkin added that Yeltsin has been in excellent spirits since he announced his resignation. An unidentified top presidential administration official told Interfax that new structures will be created to help Yeltsin fill his new role, such as a chancellery, a press service, personal protection, and "other essential services." According to the source, Yakushkin, who was appointed an assistant to Putin on 3 January, will actually serve as Yeltsin's press spokesman. JAC
SOME TATARS APPREHENSIVE AT PUTIN APPOINTMENT
Tatarstan's media anticipate that as soon as acting President Putin has succeeded in bringing Chechnya under Moscow's control, he will take measures to limit the freedoms of the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 4 January. But the majority of people polled in Kazan declined to predict what policies Putin will adopt. LF
RUSSIAN EMBASSY IN LEBANON TARGETED BY PRO-CHECHEN FORCES
A group of Palestinians on 3 January launched rocket-propelled grenades at the Russian Embassy in Beirut to protest against Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya, AP reported. The agency reported that police found a statement indicating the attack on the embassy was caused by anger with Russian military actions in the North Caucasus on the body of one suspect killed in the attack. Police are looking for at least two more suspects. No Russian casualties were reported; one local police officer was killed. JAC
RUSSIA GIVES IMF MORE THAN IT RECEIVES
Russia received less money from the IMF last year than in any previous year since Russia joined the fund, Interfax reported on 1 January. At the same time, Russia received more missions in 1999 than in previous years -- seven arrived between March and October. According to the agency, the IMF disbursed $640 million to Russia while Russia paid $4.4 billion in debt servicing to the IMF in 1999. On 31 December, IMF First Deputy Managing Director Stanley Fischer said the departure of former President Yeltsin "will not change the basic way we interact with Russia." JAC
JAPAN WANTS TO MEET PUTIN SOONER RATHER THAN LATER
Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi called for talks "at the earliest possible time" with acting President Putin to resolve a long- lasting territorial dispute between the two countries, AFP reported. Japan's Foreign Ministry said Obuchi on 31 December sent letters to Putin and former President Yeltsin requesting that an accord signed by Yeltsin and then Japanese Prime Minister Ryuataro Hashimoto in 1997 continue to be respected. Yeltsin had been scheduled to visit Japan in early 2000. JAC
RUSSIA MAKES DENT IN DEBT REPAYMENT
Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko on 3 January said Russia repaid about $10 billion on its foreign debts last year, Interfax reported. According to "Vedomosti" on 30 December, Russia's non-Soviet era debt diminished last year for the first time since Russia gained its sovereignty. Fitch IBCA agency found that in early 1999, Russia's new debts totaled $51.9 billion and by the end of the year they amounted to $46.9 billion. However, debt inherited from the Soviet Union increased dramatically, climbing from $4.3 billion to $99.5 billion by the end of the year. Analysts note that if negotiations with the London and Paris clubs of creditors are successful, Russia's total debt could fall to around $120 billion. JAC
FELLOW PRESIDENTS COMMENT ON YELTSIN'S RESIGNATION...
Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has suggested that former Russian President Yeltsin stepped down "because he was unable to work any more," according to Turan on 3 January. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze on 31 December praised Yeltsin's move as courageous, adding that he "made a unique contribution to democratic reforms in Russia," according to Caucasus Press. A spokesman for Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev told RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau on 31 December that Yeltsin's move was "the right one," and will strengthen democratic institutions in Russia. Tajikistan's Imomali Rakhmonov said Yeltsin made "a resolute and wise move, opening the way to the young," according to ITAR-TASS on 4 January. Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov termed Yeltsin's resignation the only correct decision in the circumstances, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 January. LF
...AND PUTIN'S ELEVATION TO PRESIDENCY
Acting President Putin held telephone conversations on 3 January with Aliev, Rakhmonov, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, according to ITAR-TASS. Neither Aliyev nor Shevardnadze publicly commented on Putin's elevation to the post of acting president, but both expressed the hope that bilateral relations with Russia will now improve. Akaev and Rakhmonov both sent messages of congratulation to Putin. Rakhmonov also expressed confidence that cooperation between Tajikistan and Russia will continue, according to ITAR-TASS. Karimov on 3 January said he believes the expectation of many people both in Russia and abroad that Putin will restore Russia to its former superpower status are entirely justified. LF
AZERBAIJAN'S OPPOSITION DEMANDS NEW MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS
Nine Azerbaijani opposition parties, including Musavat and the Azerbaijan National Independence Party but not the Azerbaijan Popular Front, have issued a joint statement calling for new municipal elections, Turan reported on 3 January. The statement notes that the 12 December 1999 elections should have taken place two years earlier according to the constitution. It added that opposition proposals were ignored during the process of drafting the electoral legislation. The statement further called for criminal proceedings to be brought against officials and members of electoral commissions who either committed procedural violations or turned a blind eye to them during the election campaign. LF
KAZAKHSTAN ALLOCATES SPECIAL PREMIUMS TO NEW YEAR BABIES
The first 2,000 infants born in Kazakhstan in 2000 will receive allowances of 100,000 tenge ($700) apiece from the country's Demographic Fund, RFE/RL's Almaty bureau reported on 4 January. The allowances are part of a program to boost the birthrate and reverse the decline in the country's population, which has fallen from 17 million to 14.9 million since 1991. But the effectiveness of such incentives may be undercut by the government's decision to reform the medical system by shifting the onus of funding medical facilities from the central government to the regional administrations as of 1 January. LF
ANOTHER KYRGYZ OPPOSITION PARTY FACES ELECTION RESTRICTIONS
A Bishkek district court on 3 January rejected an appeal by the opposition Ar-Namys (Conscience) Party against a ruling by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) that the party does not qualify to nominate candidates for the party-list seats in the 20 February election to the lower chamber of Kyrgyzstan's new parliament, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The Justice Ministry had advised the CEC not to register the party, arguing that the electoral code requires parties to be registered at least one year in advance of an election date in order to participate. Ar-Namys was registered in August. But a spokesman for Ar-Namys argued that the electoral code was based on the 1991 Law on Public Associations, and that the Law on Political Parties adopted in 1999 does not impose any comparable restrictions on election participation. LF
TAJIK OPPOSITION PARTIES HOLD PRE-ELECTION CONGRESSES
Addressing a congress of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) on 31 December, party chairman Said Abdullo Nuri affirmed the party's commitment to building a fair and democratic society and observing the constraints of Tajikistan's Constitution in its efforts to create an Islamic state, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 3 January. In an allusion to the November 1999 presidential elections, Nuri noted that his party had acquired experience in election campaigning despite "artificial obstacles created by some bureaucrats." He said the IRP is the sole realistic opponent to the ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan. Delegates to the congress approved a list of 22 candidates who will contend the 63 seats in the new lower house of parliament to be elected on 27 February. In other news, the Communist Party of Tajikistan named 22 candidates for the poll at a 27 December congress, according to Asia Plus-Blitz. In all, six parties will compete. LF
BELARUS TRIMS THREE ZEROS FROM CURRENCY
The Belarusian National Bank on 4 January put into circulation new, revalued Belarusian ruble bills in accordance with a decree by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 1999). Belarusians will be able to exchange old 1,000 ruble bills for new 1 ruble notes until the end of 2002. The move is intended to build confidence in the national currency and to simplify transactions. However, independent experts argue that the currency change is inadvisable in Belarus's unstable economy, which has an annual inflation rate of more than 200 percent. JM
KYIV OPTIMISTIC OVER RESUMPTION OF IMF LOAN PROGRAM
Yuriy Yekhanurov, Ukraine's new deputy premier, on 4 January said the government will ask the IMF to send a mission to Kyiv on 10 January in order to negotiate the resumption of the fund's $2.6 billion loan program, Interfax reported. According to Yekhanurov, the government should implement "69 preliminary measures" until the end of January to obtain further IMF credit tranches (see also "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 4 January 2000). He said he is confident that the IMF will resume the loan program. "Everybody in the world and, first and foremost, our people should realize that [we are] a government of new formation, with new approaches, and we want such changes in Ukraine that could enable us to count on an efficient economy in the future," he noted. JM
UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT OPENS TELEPHONE LINE ON REFORMS
Viktor Lysytskyy, secretary of the Cabinet of Ministers, announced that the government will launch a telephone line called "The Problems of Economic Reforms" beginning on 4 January. Lysytskyy said anyone interested in Ukraine's economic reforms can use the line to obtain information by dialing 254-05-65 or by logging on to the line's Internet site at . Lysytskyy said Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko wants to use the line to obtain "prompt information from the regions" and to identify impediments to reforms in the regions, Interfax reported. JM
ESTONIAN ACTING MILITARY HEAD REPLACED
Estonian President Lennart Meri on 3 January named Colonel Mart Tiru as the new acting head of the Defense Forces, replacing Colonel Urmas Roosimagi, "Postimees" reported. The unexpected move temporarily promotes Tiru, the former head of the General Staff's foreign relations department, until June, when Lt. General Johannes Kert returns after a one-year study leave. Roosimagi, who became the acting commander of the Defense Forces in June, returns to his former post as the air defense inspector of the General Staff. Meri said the reshuffle in the military command was required by Estonia's need to focus on NATO integration following the "Membership Action Plan." Military experts suggested the change would likely cause a crisis in the chain-of-command. They also said Roosimagi had been regarded highly by military attaches accredited to Estonia. MH
LATVIAN PROSECUTOR GENERAL RESIGNS UNDER 'POLITICAL PRESSURE'
Latvian Prosecutor General Janis Skrastins submitted his resignation on 3 January, BNS and LETA reported. He will continue to fulfill his duties for another 90 days. Analysts believe that Skrastins was being subjugated to political pressure. The resignation comes after Supreme Court Chairman Andris Gulans rejected a parliamentary request to probe an investigation headed by Skrastins into a pedophilia scandal. Skrastins's deputy, Olgerts Sabansks, also submitted his resignation on 3 January. Skrastins attempted to resign in August 1998, after complaining about political pressure. MH
LITHUANIAN NATIONAL RADIO, TELEVISION ON VERGE OF BANKRUPTCY
The governing council of Lithuanian Radio and Television (LRT) called an emergency meeting on 3 January to deal with an imminent fiscal crisis, ELTA reported. The public broadcasters reportedly only have two days of funding left because LRT's bank accounts have been frozen owing to unpaid debts. The council decided that between 15 January and 15 February the daily television broadcasting schedule will be shortened by two hours, radio broadcasts from Radio 2 (cultural programming) and Radio 3 (classical music) will be suspended, and original television programming production will be reduced. The cuts are expected to lead to more than 100 temporary lay offs. LRT's debts amount to about 13 million litas ($3.25 million). MH
POLISH GOVERNOR THREATENS TO USE FORCE AGAINST BUS DRIVERS' STRIKE
Bus drivers in Gorzow Wielkopolski, in the western Polish province of Lubusz, on 3 January launched a sit-in strike at the city bus company headquarters, PAP reported. The protesters are demanding that the authorities reinstate the former bus company director whose contract expired last week. Lubusz Province Governor Jan Majchrowski said the strike is illegal and has thrown life in the province into chaos. He threatened to call on the police to end the strike. JM
CZECH OPPOSITION PARTY PREPARES 'SURPRISE'
The opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) spokesman Lukas Herold on 3 January told CTK that the ODS is likely to "come up with something...that may surprise some people" at a planned meeting with the ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) on 7 January. Earlier, ODS chairman Vaclav Klaus said his party will no longer pursue the option of a "super-grand coalition" since the smaller opposition parties have rejected the idea. Klaus also said the ODS is "starting to think" of what he called "a supplement, or an addendum" to its so-called "opposition agreement" with the CSSD. But he expressed surprise that the government approved on 3 January a third draft version of the 2000 budget without consulting the ODS. "I cannot imagine that this government could function after [the budget] is rejected [by parliament] for the third time." MS
CZECH PRESIDENT GOES ON CURE
President Vaclav Havel on 3 January started a two- to three-week cure at the Karlova Studanka spa in the Jeseniky Mountains, CTK reported. He said the purpose of his stay in a clinic at the spa is to strengthen his health. He added that during this period he would like to "stay away from politics as much as possible." MS
CZECH COURT SENTENCES NEO-NAZI
A court of justice in Jesenik, northern Moravia, on 3 January sentenced Jiri Tuma to 10 months in prison for propagating a movement that suppresses citizens' rights and freedoms and for displaying Nazi symbols in public, CTK reported. In July 1999, Tuma appeared in court to face trial on earlier charges of racist propaganda wearing a T-shirt with the inscription "Combat 18" and an armband displaying an eagle with a swastika and the inscription "Blut und Ehre" (Blood and Honor). An expert told the court that "Combat 18" is a label used by a British terrorist organization and that the digits represent the first and eighth letters in the alphabet, which are the initials of Adolf Hitler. Tuma said the swastika is a "symbol of the sun," and asked "What sort of democracy is this, where I cannot freely say I don't like Gypsies?" MS
MORE SLOVAK ROMA SEEK ASYLUM IN FINLAND
Seventy-three more Roma left Kosice before the New Year and arrived in Helsinki, seeking asylum in Finland, a Foreign Ministry spokesman told CTK on 3 January. The new wave of Slovak Roma heading to Finland began in December 1999, and 160 Roma have applied for asylum since then (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 1999). The spokesman said he has "no signals" that Finland is planning to re-impose visa requirements on Slovak citizens. MS
HUNGARIAN RULING PARTY WINS SUIT AGAINST OPPOSITION WEEKLY
The governing FIDESZ on 3 January won a lawsuit against the opposition "Elet es Irodalom" weekly, Hungarian media reported. FIDESZ sued the weekly over a 20 August editorial claiming that the party owns several companies that took part in privatization deals and that some of these firms were managed by members of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's family. The Budapest metropolitan court ruled that the editorial used inaccurate terminology and ordered the weekly to publish a correction within eight days. Editor in chief Zoltan Kovacs said the paper will respect the court's ruling but added that his publication will continue to carry out investigative journalism. An unidentified assailant recently hurled a grenade at the office building of "Elet es Irodalom," (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 1999). MS
MOST NATURALIZED HUNGARIANS COME FROM ROMANIA
More than half of the people who received naturalized citizenship in Hungary in 1999 are ethnic Hungarians from Romania, Romanian radio reported on 3 January, citing MTI. Last year, Hungary naturalized 6,066 people and rejected 617 applications for Hungarian citizenship. During the last decade, most requests for naturalization came from ethnic Hungarians born in Transylvania and Vojvodina. The largest number of such requests came in 1991 and 1993. MS
CROATIAN OPPOSITION SWEEPS TO VICTORY
Preliminary unofficial results of the 3 January parliamentary elections show that the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) and Social Liberals (HSLS) will likely take 71 seats in the approximately 150- seat lower house (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 January 2000). Their allies in a coalition of four smaller parties appear to have won 24 seats. The governing Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) will have 40 seats. Reports suggest that the HDZ is leading in only one of the 10 electoral districts. Under the system of proportional representation, four seats will go to tiny right-wing parties. The turnout was about 78 percent. The SDP's Ivica Racan, who is expected to be the new prime minister, said: "We shall do our best to justify the voters' confidence," AP reported. HDZ leaders Mate Granic and Ivic Pasalic conceded defeat and promised to provide a robust opposition (see "End Note" below). PM
BIG TURNOUT AMONG CROATS ABROAD
Tens of thousands of Croatian citizens cast their ballots abroad without any serious incidents or problems, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported on 3 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 January 2000). Turnouts were large across Bosnia-Herzegovina, except in Banja Luka. "Vecernji list" reported that 120,000 persons in Bosnia took part in the vote. In federal Yugoslavia, large numbers of people cast their ballots in Belgrade and Kotor in particular. The polling place in Ljubljana ran out of ballot papers because an unexpectedly large number of Croats vacationing in Slovenia turned up to vote. PM
BOSNIAN BORDER POLICE WAITING FOR DUTY
Some 30 Bosnian border police completed their training course in Austria on 3 January, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. They include 10 Muslims, 10 Serbs, and 10 Croats. They cannot take up their duties patrolling the frontier until the joint parliament approves their mandate. Bosnian Serb politicians in particular are reluctant to allow persons who are not from their own ethnic group to take up border duty in the Republika Srpska. Most Bosnian Serbs interpret the Dayton peace agreement primarily as an affirmation of the sovereignty of the Republika Srpska rather than as the re- establishment of a unified Bosnia. PM
GENERAL JACKSON REJECTS CRITICISM OF BRITISH FORCES
General Sir Mike Jackson, who commanded NATO forces during their entry into Kosova in June, denied charges in a reported British government study that British forces in Kosova suffered from poor command and control structures and were badly equipped. Jackson told the BBC on 4 January that the report, excerpts of which the BBC broadcast the previous day, described a situation that was "difficult to recognize from my experience." He stressed that British forces would have been able to launch a successful ground assault on Serbian forces had they been ordered to do so. The report suggested that British troops had to borrow equipment from other NATO forces because their own was unreliable, and that their communications were so insecure that Serbian monitors "could hear every word." AP reported from London that the study was designed to be as critical as possible as part of a standard review process following any British military operation. PM
REINHARDT PRAISES BELGIAN KFOR
General Max Reinhardt, who succeeded Jackson as KFOR commander, on 3 January visited the 1,000-strong Belgian contingent that patrols Kosova's northern frontier with Serbia. He told the Belgians they "have one of the most challenging and busy boundary control operations. I am very pleased with the professionalism and proficiency in which they carry out their duties," AP reported. Critics have charged that Serbian paramilitaries and other forces continue to pass between Serbia and Kosova, which Serbian forces were supposed to have left in June under an agreement with NATO. PM
ALBANIAN EMIGRATION BALANCE
The Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Trade said in a report issued in Tirana on 3 January that more than 15 percent of Albania's 3.2 million people have left the impoverished country during the past 10 years, dpa reported. About 400,000 Albanian emigrants are currently in Greece, while 150,000 others are in Italy. About 50,000 have gone to Germany, the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, France, England, Turkey, or Belgium. Much of the emigration has been legal, but large numbers of illegal migrants have gone to Italy and Greece. The often difficult living and working conditions of the Albanians in Greece have been an occasional source of tension between the two countries. Many Greeks blame Albanians for crime-related problems. PM
ROMANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS ANTI-SEMITISM 'ISOLATED AND MARGINALIZED'
Speaking at the Yad-Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, President Emil Constantinescu said he wishes Romania were in the position to claim that it defended "all its Jews" during the Holocaust. Unfortunately, he said, this is not so. Only some of them were protected, while others had to suffer "persecutions and humiliations" and others yet were "deported and...fell victim to pogroms" under the "Ion Antonescu dictatorship." Constantinescu said he wanted to once more express his "profound regret" for those times, as he did back in 1997. But he denied that anti-Semitism plays any role in his country today. He said Romania's authorities and civil society "categorically reject" it and that "anti-Semitic voices" are a "very isolated" phenomenon, present "particularly in the media." The authorities, he said, "are investigating" those responsible for publishing such articles. MS
RUSSIA SAYS YELTSIN'S DEPARTURE WILL NOT INFLUENCE TRANSDNIESTER CONFLICT RESOLUTION
The Russian Foreign Ministry says the resignation of President Yeltsin will have no influence on the position of Moscow toward the Transdniester conflict, Flux reported on 3 January. The ministry sent a statement to the separatist authorities in the Transdniester explaining that Russia will continue to be a mediator in the conflict and a "guarantor" of the implementation of the understandings that have been reached so far. The ministry reiterated Moscow's position that the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Transdniester must be "co-ordinated" with the acceptance of a common understanding on the special status of the Transdniester. MS
Croatian Opposition Confronts Challenge Of Governing
By Patrick Moore
The two Croatian opposition coalitions appear headed for a landslide win over the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), which has held power for nearly 10 years. Once in office, the coalitions will have their work cut out for them.
The 3 January parliamentary elections were remarkable for at least two reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline" above). First, they mark the end of the HDZ's long grip on power through most of Croatia. During the past decade, opposition parties won control of Istria and several cities, but the HDZ's control of the central government was complete. For the first time since gaining independence in 1991, Croats will now experience a peaceful transition of authority to the opposition (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 November 1999).
Second, as some pre-election polls anticipated, the winners' margin of victory was a large one. Voters clearly wanted a change and failed to be swayed by the HDZ's appeals for a sympathy vote in honor of the late President Franjo Tudjman, who died in December. Preliminary returns suggest that the two coalitions will have approximately 95 out of about 150 seats in the lower house. The largest coalition, which consists of the Social Democrats (SDP) and the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), seems likely to take 71 seats. The SDP's Ivica Racan is set to head the new government, while the HSLS's Drazen Budisa will be his coalition's candidate in the 24 January presidential vote to replace Tudjman. The smaller coalition of four centrist parties will likely win 24 legislative seats. The HDZ's share has fallen from 75 in the 1995 elections to a more modest 40 this time.
The margin of victory could prove a poisoned chalice for the coalitions, however, because the voters will expect a government with such a strong mandate to deliver on its pre-election promises. These involve social and economic progress, democratization, and putting an end to international isolation.
The key issue for most voters was the need to improve the standard of living in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent and a monthly per capita income of about $400. Tudjman's election slogan earlier in the decade was "from victory to prosperity," but it has proven empty for most Croats, including many veterans of the war for independence. Once the war ended in 1995 and people's attention turned increasingly to economic concerns, the SDP began a steady rise from the margins of political life to become the largest opposition party. Its platform centers on bread-and-butter issues and shuns nationalist rhetoric; the SDP is the only major party that does not include the word "Croatian" in its name.
The second area in which voters will have great expectations of the new government will be in democratization. As was the case in post-Meciar Slovakia, the new Croatian government has pledged to investigate the many dubious privatizations carried out by its predecessor. A major source of resentment against the HDZ was the popular perception that party insiders grew ever richer at a time when most Croats had difficulty making ends meet. The coalitions have pledged to clean out these Augean stables.
The new government has also promised to end political manipulation of the media--particularly of state- run television--and of the intelligence services. Tudjman's imperial presidency, moreover, will be reduced in scale, and many of his powers transferred to parliament in a move that even the HDZ has pledged to support.
The victorious coalitions will also likely examine the constitutional provisions that give full citizenship to ethnic Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who are also citizens of that republic. The central issue is the provision granting the Herzegovinians--who include many hard-line nationalists-- the right to vote in Croatian elections. By curbing or eliminating that right, the new government would deny the HDZ a large block of electors. The government would also gain favor with the international community, which regards the HDZ as bent on realizing Tudjman's dream of a greater Croatia at Bosnia's expense. It was no accident that one of the first reactions to the coalitions' victory came from prominent Bosnian Muslim politician Mirza Hajic, who said: "That is good news for Bosnia and Herzegovina."
This leads to the third area in which the new government will seek to make good on its promises, namely the need to end Croatia's international isolation on account of the HDZ's policies on democratization and on Bosnia. Nowhere was the isolation more painfully evident than at Tudjman's funeral, at which only Turkey was represented by its head of state; most Western countries sent only their ambassadors. When Slovenia and Croatia became independent in 1991, they were at the same place on the road to Euro-Atlantic integration. Now Slovenia is at the forefront of most post- communist countries in this respect, but Croatia has slid behind even Albania and Macedonia. Those two Balkan countries are in NATO's Partnership for Peace Program, which Croatia has not been invited to join.
But to the extent that the coalitions institute democratic reforms at home and cut ties to the Herzegovinian nationalists, they are likely to find a quick and warm response from Washington and the EU. Encouraging words have already come from those quarters. And the large diaspora can serve as a bridge between Croatia and its Western allies.
Additional pitfalls nonetheless remain. The coalitions will need to remain united and not fall prey to squabbling among themselves, as has happened in post-Meciar Slovakia. This will be all the more important if the HDZ's moderate and popular Mate Granic defeats Budisa for the presidency, and if the fractious HDZ itself remains united. The new government will also need to define a position on allowing ethnic Serbian refugees to return that will please both the international community and the voters. Precious little of this will be easy.