TAX AUTHORITIES THREATEN TO SHUT DOWN NTV...
The Tax Inspectorate of the Central federal district filed suit in a Moscow court on 9 December requesting the liquidation of a number of Media-MOST companies, including NTV and the Seven Days publishing house, Interfax reported on 15 December. According to Prime-TASS, a hearing on the case will not be held until January. Media-MOST's press service responded to the move by declaring that the "Russian authorities have got down to what they think is the final stage of destroying media outlets" of the company. It continued that any "doubts about the political nature of the harassment of our companies have been shattered." NTV's Public Council, which is headed by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, issued a statement on 16 December saying that the attempt by the authorities to use the tax organs "could deal a blow not only to freedom of speech and the press but to free enterprise in Russia. The main achievements of the reforms of the last 15 years are under threat." JAC
...AS VARIOUS POLITICAL FIGURES RALLY TO NTV'S DEFENSE...
Media Minister Mikhail Lesin said that while he believes the tax authorities' request to dissolve Media-MOST is "absolutely legitimate," he nevertheless promised to hold urgent consultations with the tax service's leadership to make sure that its decision "does not have a negative effect on the activities of NTV and other [Media-MOST-owned] media." Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Rightist Forces' faction, and Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the Yabloko faction, both condemned the tax authorities' actions. According to Ivanenko, Media-MOST was singled out of millions of debt ridden companies, many of which owe much more money in overdue taxes. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov took a different point of view, saying on 16 December that he does not believe the tax authorities' move was politically motivated. However, the Central Council of Luzhkov's Fatherland movement released a statement the same day urging Putin to adopt urgent measures to protect the media. JAC
...WHILE PUTIN BACKS PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE
When asked to comment on the case against Media-MOST head Vladimir Gusinskii, President Putin said in Cuba on 15 December: "I don't think Gusinskii is dangerous but I don't think it is necessary to doubt the action of the Prosecutor-General's Office." He added that there are businessmen who "want to become shadow politicians or influence decision making." Such phenomena will be "gradually removed strictly within the limits of the law," he continued. He did not mention the tax authorities' separate effort against Media-MOST. In an interview with Canadian television journalists on 14 December, Putin said that " if what I sometimes see on television screens and read in newspapers is not opposition, what is it? It must be just hooliganism. But I don't want to use such terms with regard to the people who disagree with what I do, so let us say that this is not hooliganism, but opposition. Though not always civilized opposition, in my view." JAC
PROSECUTORS AIM TO SEIZE GUSINSKII'S PROPERTY ABROAD
Valerii Nikolaev, an investigator at the Prosecutor-General's Office, told RIA-Novosti on 15 December that his office is preparing a request to seize Media-MOST head Gusinskii's property abroad. Pavel Barkovsksii, also of the prosecutor's office, told reporters the same day that Gusinskii may also face additional criminal charges, as investigations into Russian Video, Media-Most companies, and Gusinskii's relations with Moscow city authorities and Sberbank continue. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 15 December that Arkadii Volskii's Union of Russian Entrepreneurs and Industrialists has formed a working group on the Gusinskii case and will announce the official union position after meeting with Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov. JAC
RUSSIA, U.S. TO IMPROVE INFO EXCHANGE ON MISSILE LAUNCHES
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, meeting in Brussels on 16 December, put their signatures to a memorandum of understanding aimed at increasing the exchange of information about launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles. The accord establishes a pre- and post-launch notification system, expanding on earlier agreements reached in 1998 and 1999. According to Reuters, the two leaders pledged to include more countries in that system in a bid to create what Ivanov called a "global system of control." Albright, for her part, said that while Washington is satisfied with Russian cooperation on the Middle East and in Afghanistan, differences remain over Moscow's intention to resume arms sales to Iran and its relations with Chechnya and Georgia. JC
RUSSIA DELAYS DEAL ON NATO OFFICE IN MOSCOW
Russia on 15 December declined to sign a deal with NATO whereby the Atlantic alliance would open an information office in the Russian capital. Interfax cited a Russian Foreign Ministry statement released on 16 December as saying that the two sides "exchanged letters" about the office, and Foreign Minister Ivanov told journalists that a "concrete date" for opening the bureau would be determined at further talks. According to Reuters, quoting unidentified U.S. officials, Moscow's decision to opt out of inking the deal at last week's meeting of the Russia-NATO Joint Permanent Council at the level of foreign minister can be attributed to the alliance's slamming Russia over its campaign in Chechnya. "It was hard for Foreign Minister Ivanov to agree to raise the NATO flag in Moscow on the same day that NATO was issuing a communique that was critical of Russia over Chechnya," one of those officials said. JC
POPE TO WRITE BOOK ABOUT MOSCOW PRISON ORDEAL
Edmond Pope has said he will write a book about the eight months he spent in the Lefortovo Prison before being convicted of espionage and then pardoned by President Putin. "It's a long and complicated story that goes back 10 years and needs careful explaining," Pope told journalists in Germany, where he underwent medical examinations before returning to the U.S. late on 17 December. The U.S. businessman and former naval officer stressed that he had not been physically abused in prison, adding that it became clear to him after a while that he was there for "political reasons." Meanwhile, President Putin, speaking in Cuba on 15 December, made clear that he pardoned Pope as a "goodwill gesture" that will help, rather than obstruct, the development of U.S.-Russian relations. At the same time, he said that the court had established Pope's guilt and "we have no doubt about the fairness of the verdict," AP reported. JC
MOSCOW, HAVANA SIGN ACCORD ON MILITARY COOPERATION
Following the signing of several agreements on economic, trade, and other issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2000), Moscow and Havana reached an accord on technical-military cooperation, ITAR-TASS reported on 17 December. That document was signed by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, who accompanied Russian President Putin on his visit to Cuba, and Minister of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces Raul Castro. Putin wrapped up his trip to the Caribbean island by spending two days at the beach resort of Varadero. He arrived in Canada late on 17 December for a two-day state visit. JC
NEW TOPOL-M UNIT TO BE DEPLOYED BY YEAR'S END
Strategic Rocket Forces commander General Vladimir Yakovlev has announced that on 25-26 December, another regiment will be equipped with Topol-M missiles, Interfax reported on 15 December. This will bring the number of regiments with such missiles to three. Currently, a total of 20 Topol-M missiles, which can be fired from a mobile launcher and are therefore hard to detect, have been deployed equally (10 each) between the two existing regiments. JC
GROZNY MAYOR'S OFFICE ATTACKED
A group of Chechen fighters opened fire during the morning of 17 December on the office of Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov, AP and Russian agencies reported. Security guards outside the building returned fire, and four people were killed and several bystanders wounded in the resulting 50-minute exchange. Gantemirov, who was not in the building at the time of the attack, told RTR that four of the wounded guards are his relatives. He added that "it is no longer a secret" that the city "is swarming with rebels." LF
RUSSIAN AIRFORCE COMMANDER REJECTS RUMORS OF AIRLIFT TO CHECHEN FIGHTERS
Russian Air Force Commander General Anatolii Kornukov told journalists in Moscow on 15 December that "it is inconceivable" that containers of arms could have been airlifted across Georgian territory to Chechnya, Interfax reported. He said that at no time since the current war began in September 1999 has any aircraft violated Russia's air space. Interfax on 14 December had quoted an unidentified Russian military officer at the Khankala base near Grozny as saying that he considers such an airlift feasible. He added, however, that there is no evidence that one has taken place (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2000). LF
SOME INGUSH SEEK REUNIFICATION WITH CHECHNYA?
Some residents of Ingushetia have begun circulating a petition demanding the reunification of the present Republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia into a single entity, Caucasus Press reported. The Chechen-Ingush ASSR was split into two separate entities in July 1992. It is unclear whether the people who launched that initiative intend the new territorial entity to be independent or a subject of the Russian Federation. Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev said his administration does not support the initiative. LF
GOVERNMENT GIVES PROVISIONAL APPROVAL OF EES RESTRUCTURING PLAN...
At a cabinet meeting on 15 December, government ministers approved the broad outlines of a plan to restructure Unified Energy Systems (EES) but will meet in the second quarter of 2001 to discuss the details of the restructuring, Minister for Economic Development and Trade German Gref told reporters that day, according to ITAR-TASS. However, "The Moscow Times" reported the next day that final approval of the plan has been put off only until February. JAC
...AS CHUBAIS CONTINUES TO FACE CRITICISM
Presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov harshly criticized the plan at the cabinet meeting, slamming the company's current management by noting that the company's "capitalization dropped from $10 billion to $4 billion from March of this year," "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 16 December. After the meeting, Illarionov said that the plan resembles "what we had in this country in the form of loans-for-shares auctions." He continued that implementation of the approved plan will be nothing but "a handover of enormous portions of state property to God knows whom at giveaway prices." In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" on 15 December, Boris Fedorov, who is a member of EES's board of directors, said that the latest restructuring plan is a significant improvement over the first proposals. However, he explained that shareholders are still worried and "distrust [EES head Anatolii] Chubais," whom he called the "the worst manager in Russia." JAC
PRIME MINISTER ADMITS LACK OF ROADS ACTING AS BRAKE ON ECONOMIC GROWTH
At a 16 December conference on Roads in the 21st Century, Mikhail Kasyanov noted that Russia has only half the number of roads necessary for the country's economy to develop successfully, ITAR-TASS reported. He explained that 80 percent of existing roads are of the lowest quality, and one-third of them are open for automobiles with a freight capacity of no more than 6 tons at maximum speeds of 40 kilometers an hour. He estimated that improving road conditions could cut trucking costs by 30 percent. According to Kasyanov, over the last five years, automobile traffic in Russia has increased by 5 percent. He also noted that some regions, such as the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Tyumen Oblast, and the Far East, are virtually isolated from the national highway network. "The Moscow Times" reported on 16 December that the government has submitted legislation that would make automobile insurance mandatory for drivers. JAC
FATHERLAND TO BECOME A PARTY
Addressing a meeting of members of the Fatherland movement on 16 December, movement leader and Moscow Mayor Luzhkov said that the movement should either transform into a political party or create a party on the basis of Fatherland without disbanding its core organization, ITAR-TASS reported. Luzhkov added that Fatherland will hold a congress before the State Duma discusses the bill on political parties next spring. Luzhkov also spoke in favor of President Putin's policies, noting that the president's actions "have lived up to our expectations." He praised Putin's administrative reforms and fight against oligarchs but said that Fatherland is "worried by mistakes in the government's economic policies and the threats to mass media that arise now and then." JAC
FORMER ARMENIAN MINISTER SENTENCED ON EMBEZZLEMENT CHARGES
A Yerevan district court on 15 December sentenced former Education Minister and failed presidential candidate Ashot Bleyan to seven years' imprisonment on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. An accountant and a cashier at the school of which Bleyan was director before his arrest in May 1999 received six-and two-year sentences, respectively. Bleyan's supporters and some Armenian human rights groups believe the verdict was politically motivated. The dailies "Aravot" and "Haykakan Zhamanak" on 16 December published a statement by several political parties close to Armenia's former leadership condemning the sentence handed down to Bleyan, which they claim "shows that [Armenian President Robert] Kocharian will resort to anything to establish unlimited personal rule." LF
SENIOR ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PARTY AVOIDS SPLIT...
The center-right National Democratic Union (AZhM) resumed its stormy congress on 16 December, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The congress had adjourned on 3 December to search for ways to overcome the differences between the party's two opposing camps. One faction argues that the party should make clear its strong opposition to the current Armenian leadership while the second, which controls the party's ruling board, advocates cooperation with the leadership to resolve the problems facing the country. Chairman Vazgen Manukian succeeded in drafting a compromise document, which was approved by a majority of delegates. That resolution reaffirms the party's opposition status and lays the blame for "the political, socio-economic, and moral crisis [as well as] corruption and favoritism" on the government. Manukian, nonetheless, argued that the AZhM "must not close the door" to cooperation with the leadership if the latter demonstrates a sincere commitment to reform. LF
...AS COALITION ON VERGE OF DISINTEGRATION
The Kayunutiun ("Stability") faction, which is the second-largest in the parliament, appeared close to collapse on 15 December, with most of its 20 deputies calling for the group's dissolution, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Differences emerged within Kayunutiun, which is aligned with the majority Miasnutiun bloc, after two of its members were offered portfolios in the cabinet of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, the former Miasnutiun leader, in May. One of them, Transport and Communications Minister Eduard Madatian, is now widely expected to be sacked over corruption allegations. LF
ARMENIAN ACADEMICS PROTESTS WAGE ARREARS
The trade union organizations of 42 institutes and seven divisions of the Armenian Academy of Sciences organized a protest action in Yerevan on 15 December to demand payment of salaries arrears totaling 320 million drams ($580,000), Noyan Tapan reported. That sum was not included in a one-off payment of 8 billion drams allocated by the Ministry of Finance and Economy to pay wage arrears within the science sector. LF
ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI DEFENSE MINISTERS MEET
Meeting on 15 December on the border between Armenia and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, Serzh Sarkisian and Safar Abiev agreed to take unspecified "additional measures to rule out sporadic breaches of the cease-fire regime" that has been in force for the past six-and-a-half years, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. They will maintain constant contact with the aim of precluding sporadic exchanges of fire, and will work out a mechanism for the unconditional exchange of prisoners of war within two to three days of their capture, according to Turan. The two ministers had first met in 1992 during fighting on the northern section of the Karabakh frontline. LF
AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONIST KILLED AS EARTHQUAKE-DAMAGED BUILDING COLLAPSES
A four-story building in central Baku that was damaged during the 25 November earthquake collapsed on 15 December, killing Liberal Democratic Party leader Zakir Mamedov, Turan and Reuters reported. Mamedov had entered the building, which had been evacuated as unsafe, to retrieve property from his party's office. LF
GEORGIA'S SECOND CITY RESTORES STALIN STATUE
A monument to Joseph Stalin that had been removed from public display in 1956 was unveiled on 14 December in a square in Kutaisi, AP and Caucasus Press reported. Local Communists had financed a new plinth for the statue. Several hundred Stalin supporters, his grandson Yevgenii Djughashvili United Communist Party of Georgia chairman Panteleimon Giorgadze attended the unveiling ceremony. LF
KAZAKHSTAN'S PRESIDENT FOCUSES ON ETHNIC RELATIONS
In a 15 December address to the Assembly of Peoples, which represents all ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev advocated enacting legislation that would increase the assembly's role in society, Interfax reported. He also proposed that the assembly create its own website and hold an annual telethon. In a move clearly intended to underscore the importance of increased attention to inter-ethnic relations, Nazarbaev also announced the appointment of Imangali Tasmagambetov as deputy prime minister with responsibility for that field. Tasmagambetov previously served as minister of education and culture and most recently as governor of Atyrau Oblast, in western Kazakhstan. LF
KAZAKHSTAN INCREASES GOLD PRODUCTION
A senior official of the newly created Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources told Interfax on 15 December that gold production in Kazakhstan grew 56 percent this year, compared with 1999, to 15 metric tons. Last year's figure of 9.6 metric tons represented an 8 percent increase over 1998. Also on 15 December, Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Viktor Shkolnik said uranium production in 2000 rose by 30 percent in 2000, Interfax reported. Kazakhstan produced 1,588 tons of uranium in 1999. LF
KAZAKH PARLIAMENT COMMITTEE DISCUSSES PROPOSED LAND LAW
Members of the Committee on Regional Development and Self-Government of the Kazakh Parliament's Upper Chamber (Senate) held a heated discussion on 15 December of the draft law on land approved by the parliament's lower chamber earlier this month. Some senators argued that the draft bill fails to take into account that 70 percent of Kazakhstan's territory is desert or steppes. Those areas are populated by ethnic Kazakhs. President Nazarbaev has reportedly called for the swift passage of the draft bill, while most opposition political parties reject it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 November and 1 December 2000). LF
WORKERS MOVEMENT ACTIVIST ON HUNGER-STRIKE IN KAZAKHSTAN
Sakhip Zhanabaeva, one of the leaders of the Workers Movement of Kazakhstan, declared a hunger-strike on 14 December after being sentenced to five days detention for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration on 30 November, RFE/RL's Almaty bureau reported, quoting Pokolenie Movement chairwoman Irina Savostina. Zhanabaeva had been detained and severely beaten by police on 12 December. LF
KYRGYZSTAN MOVES TO ABOLISH MORATORIUM ON LAND SALES
The Legislative Assembly, the lower chamber of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, has approved in the first reading a bill lifting the moratorium imposed two years ago on the sale and purchase of land, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 15 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 November and 14 December 2000). Interfax quoted the head of the presidential administration department for agricultural issues, Bekbolot Talgarbekov, as telling deputies that land reform will not be feasible unless the moratorium is abolished. He said the new legislation will enable farmers to mortgage, buy, and sell land, but he added that the right to do so will be restricted to those who have lived in rural areas for two years. Foreigners cannot purchase land but can lease it for up to 50 years. LF
TAJIK REGIONAL LEADER COMPLAINS OF SPREAD OF RADICAL ISLAM FROM UZBEKISTAN
Qosim Qosimov, who is governor of Tajikistan's Sughd Oblast, told Asia Plus-Blitz on 14 December that activists of the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir Islamic Party who settled in the Ferghana, Andijan, and Tashkent region of neighboring Uzbekistan in 1992-1994 are systematically seeking to recruit young men in northern Tajikistan. He complained that the lack of controls on the border between the two countries makes it easy for Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists to infiltrate Tajikistan. The Tajik media regularly report the arrest of people suspected of membership in Hizb-ut-Tahrir. LF
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION MOVES TO SELECT SINGLE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
The Coordination Council of Democratic Forces has named three politicians among whom the Belarusian opposition is to select a single candidate to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in next year's presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 15 December. These politicians are former Hrodna Oblast governor Syamyon Domash, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, and Trade Union Federation leader Uladzimir Hancharyk. The council believes that through negotiations with other opposition groups it is possible to appoint one presidential candidate for whom the united opposition could campaign in the ballot. According to a poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies in November, 41.5 percent of respondents do not want Lukashenka to rule the country for a second term, while 36.1 percent have said they will vote for him. JM
DEMONSTRATORS IN KYIV DEMAND PRESIDENT'S OUSTER
Some 500 people held a rally on Independence Square in Kyiv on 15 December, demanding an independent investigation into the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and the resignation of President Leonid Kuchma, Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko, and Security Service chief Leonid Derkach, Interfax reported. A group of demonstrators later pitched a tent on the square to continue the protest, which was launched by several political parties, including the Socialists and nationalists, under the slogan "Ukraine Without Kuchma." The organizers are appealing to Kyiv residents to take part in a protest march on 19 December. The recently publicized audio and video tapes in Ukraine blame Kuchma and his power ministers for the disappearance of Gongadze and for other illegal actions with regard to independent media and opposition politicians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2000). JM
BALTIC PRESIDENTS MEET IN RIGA
Valdas Adamkus (Lithuania), Vaira Vike-Freiberga (Latvia), and Lennart Meri (Estonia) issued a joint statement in Riga on 15 December welcoming the decisions of the recent EU summit in Nice and expressing the hope that all three countries will participate in the 2004 European Parliament elections, ELTA reported. They hailed the commitment of U.S. President-elect George W. Bush to continue NATO enlargement and declared that their countries will strive to be admitted to the alliance at its next summit meeting in 2002. At the National Air Traffic Control Center in Riga, the commanders of the Baltic armed forces signed 13 documents providing for cooperation in national and international defense projects next year. SG
SHADOW ECONOMY ACCOUNTED FOR 42 PERCENT OF LATVIAN GDP IN 1999
Research conducted by the Finance Ministry shows that in 1999 the shadow economy accounted for 42 percent of Latvia's GDP, BNS reported on 15 December. It estimated that in the years from 1995 to 1998, the share had been 45, 43, 39, and 36 percent, respectively, and will probably fall by some 1-2 percent in 2000. The Finance Ministry believes that in 1999 about 75 percent of personal income tax and 70 percent of state social insurance was collected, which was up 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively, on the 1998 level. It also found that large quantities of goods on which excise taxes are levied, such as fuel, liquors, and tobacco, are smuggled into Latvia from nearly all the country's leading foreign trade partners. SG
LITHUANIA URGED TO SET DAY FOR CLOSING NUCLEAR POWER PLANT
Concluding a three-day visit, Anders Henriksson, the head of the Lithuanian department at the European Commission's General Directorate for Expansion, told a press conference in Vilnius on 15 December that Lithuania must set a date for closing the second reactor at the Ignalina power plant if it wants to join the EU by 2004, BNS reported. Last year Lithuania decided to shut down the plant's first reactor by 2005 and to make a decision on continuing discussions about the fate of the second reactor in 2004, when the country's national policy on energy production will be reviewed. SG
POLISH PREMIER URGES JUSTICE OVER 1970 MASSACRE
Jerzy Buzek took part in this weekend's ceremonies commemorating the victims of the massacre of protesting workers in Gdansk and Szczecin in December 1970, which was ordered by the then communist authorities. "We must settle scores over what happened in our fatherland... Our courts are independent...but I appeal for the crimes against people to be [tried] quickly," PAP quoted Buzek as saying. None of the communist officials responsible for ordering the December 1970 massacre has been convicted. JM
POLAND'S FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER HEADS LIBERAL PARTY
A congress of the Freedom Union (UW) on 16 December elected former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek as the party's new chairman after former UW leader Leszek Balcerowicz resigned to apply for the job of National Bank governor. Geremek received 338 votes while his rival, Senate deputy speaker Donald Tusk, was supported by 261 delegates. The congress asked the UW new leadership to seek cooperation with Andrzej Olechowski, who received more than 17 percent of the vote in the presidential elections in October. "I am convinced that Olechowski's electorate is the natural electorate of the UW. I look forward to good cooperation with him," PAP quoted Geremek as saying. The UW quit the ruling coalition with the Solidarity Electoral Action in June. In the 1997 parliamentary election, the party won 13 percent of the vote. JM
POLISH NURSES BLOCK TRAINS, BORDER IN PROTEST OVER WAGES
Some 400 nurses on 16 December blocked rail tracks in Konin, central Poland, on the main Moscow-Berlin route in an effort to force the government to discuss wage hikes. Nurses also blocked border crossings at Kostrzyn and Slubice on the Polish-German border and at Terespol on the Polish-Belarusian border. Meanwhile, on 18 December, some 400 nurses continued their sit-in at the Health Ministry for the seventh consecutive day, while thousands of nurses protested at hospitals throughout the country. JM
CZECH REACTOR SHUTS DOWN AFTER PUMP FAILURE
A reactor at the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant shut down automatically on 16 December after a failure in one of the condensation pumps, CTK reported. A spokesman for the plant described the incident as "minor," and State Nuclear Agency chairwoman Dana Drabova told Czech Radio that such incidents are "expected during testing periods." The failure occurred hours after the plant received permission to increase its capacity from 12 to 30 percent of its nominal power. Demonstrators at two Czech-Austrian border crossing points, who oppose the recent compromise on Temelin reached by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, said the failure confirms their fears, and they accused Prague of failing to abide by the agreement to promptly inform Austria of any incident. The Czech side denied that accusation. MS
NEXT NATO SUMMIT TO BE HELD IN PRAGUE
The foreign ministers of NATO countries, meeting in Brussels on 15 December, announced that the next summit of NATO member countries will be held in Prague, CTK reported. No date was set for the meeting, which is likely to be held in 2002. President Vaclav Havel welcomed the decision. In May, he had called on NATO countries to organize the summit in Prague as proof that "the alliance takes its new members seriously and as a symbolic gesture to countries now applying for membership." MS
CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER UNDERGOES HEART SURGERY
Jan Kavan on 15 December underwent quadruple bypass surgery. A spokeswoman for the cabinet said the four-hour operation took place "without complications." Kavan will resume his duties in about one month, CTK and AP reported. MS
SLOVAK DEFENSE MINISTER RESIGNS
Pavol Kanis, who has recently come under suspicion of corruption in connection with a luxurious villa he is building and whose funding he is unable to explain, announced he is resigning effective 2 January 2001, CTK and AP reported on 16 December. He will remain a parliamentary deputy representing the Democratic Left Party (SDL), whose chairman, Jozef Migas, said a successor to Kanis will be designated by the SDL within two weeks. Radio Twist said Kanis had been given a 2 million crowns ($41,000) loan by the chairman of the Slovak national gas distribution company, which is owned by the state. He was also criticized for appointing former Communists to high positions at the ministry. MS
PROMINENT SLOVAK POLITICIAN INJURED IN CAR CRASH
Justice Minister Jan Carnogursky suffered "medium-to-serious concussions" of the brain as well as head and neck injuries in a car crash on 15 December, CTK reported. Several cars were involved in the crash, in which two people died and seven others were injured. Carnogursky underwent surgery on 17 December, and doctors said it is hoped he "will be home for Christmas." His driver has been charged with negligence in the death of two people. MS
ORBAN SAYS HUNGARIANS BEYOND BORDERS ARE PRIORITY
In an interview with Duna TV on 17 December, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Hungarians living in neighboring countries are "not a burden on, but a part of, the Hungarian nation." He said that "at times" these Hungarians have proved to be "more loyal" than many Hungarians living in Hungary. Orban said the Hungarian economy is doing so well that Budapest can afford to subsidize ethnic Hungarians from abroad to study in Hungary. He added that the laws his government intends to pass must be "carefully weighed" so as to take into consideration the different situations in neighboring countries. Granting citizenship to Hungarians in Romania, for example, would make it impossible for the minority's leaders to run for the Romanian parliament, he said. MS
CONSERVATIVE PARTIES END BUDAPEST MEETING
Conservative and center-right parties from former communist countries ended a two-day conference in Budapest on 16 December with an agreement to join forces in the struggle against communism, "which eliminated the values of democracy and civil society," Hungarian media reported. Those parties said their common vision of Europe is one based on "work, family, and nation." Laszlo Kover, chairman of the ruling FIDESZ party, told the gathering that it is "false" to juxtapose the preservation of tradition and liberalism. He said "cosmopolitanism barely differs from what communist ideology called internationalism." MS
NATO REINFORCES TROOPS IN TENSE KOSOVA BORDER AREA
A NATO spokesman said in Prishtina on 18 December that 150 British KFOR troops have been sent to the border area between Kosova and southwestern Serbia. The previous day, people believed to be ethnic Albanian guerrillas fired on a joint U.S.-Russian patrol, which was seeking to prevent guerrillas and supplies from crossing from Kosova into Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2000). On 17 December, some 200 Serbs in Leposaviq set fire to a police station, threw stones at cars, and briefly held seven Belgian soldiers captive. Two Serbs died and one was wounded in the violence, AP reported. The protests were in response to the arrest of a Serbian motorist. PM
YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT BLAMES 'ENEMIES OF PEACE' FOR VIOLENCE
Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica slammed "those who do not want a peaceful solution to Kosovo's problems" for the latest violence in the province and along its border with Serbia, AP reported on 17 December. He added that "it's no coincidence that this is happening just before Serbia's elections" slated for 23 December. Kostunica called on Serbs, Albanians, and representatives of the international community not to "fall into the trap of those who do not want peace." Supporters of former President Slobodan Milosevic and Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj have charged that the present government is not capable of defending Serbian interests in the region. PM
YUGOSLAV GOVERNMENT SEEKS WESTERN HELP AGAINST KOSOVA INDEPENDENCE
Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic wants officials from the five permanent member countries of the UN Security Council, as well as from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Macedonia, to hold a series of conferences to determine the future political status of Kosova, of which they would then be the guarantors, the "Washington Post" reported on 18 December 2000 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 December 2000). He argues that independence for the province would "destabilize" the region. Svilanovic told the daily that he realizes that holding such a conference "would amount to stacking the deck against Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority." He nonetheless added that he hopes that unnamed "moderate" Albanians will agree to a deal with Belgrade. Moderate leaders Ibrahim Rugova and Veton Surroi have, however, said repeatedly that Kosovars see no future with Serbia and are interested only in independence. PM
BELGRADE AUTHORITIES SHOW FLAG IN SERBIAN BORDER REGION
Members of the Yugoslav and Serbian governments held a "symbolic" joint session on 16 December in Bujanovac in the troubled border region with Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. General Vladimir Lazarevic told government members that guerrillas of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB) are present in the demilitarized zone along the border with Kosova but have not attacked army units nearby. The participants in the meeting agreed to set up an unspecified "coordinating body" in Bujanovac to demonstrate that the government is closely monitoring tensions in the region. Participants approved a document entitled "Declaration on the Defense of the National and State Interest of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." It said that KFOR and the UN civilian mission in Kosova are "directly responsible" for the "planned and continuing" threat by UCPMB to regional security. The declaration called on the UN Security Council to quickly take unspecified "measures for the withdrawal of Albanian terrorists" from the zone. PM
YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT HAILS BUSH VICTORY
Kostunica said in Bujanovac on 16 December that the increase in violence in the border region is due to the "change in the international position" of Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported. In Belgrade, he added that he expects that the U.S. will reduce its presence in the Balkans following the election of George W. Bush as president. Kostunica said that he believes that NATO would not have bombed his country in 1999 if the Republicans had been in the White House (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2000). PM
MONTENEGRO REAFFIRMS CURRENCY EXCHANGE RIGHTS
The Montenegrin authorities have decided that the National Bank of Yugoslavia does not have the right to open its own currency exchange offices in the mountainous republic, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported from Podgorica on 16 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2000). Only Montenegrin banks and exchange offices that operate in accordance with Montenegrin laws may exchange currency. The authorities also denied claims by Yugoslav National Bank Governor Mladjan Dinkic that the Montenegrin National Bank has no right to issue its own currency. The German mark is the sole legal tender in Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 November 2000). PM
MONTENEGRIN LEADER TOPS POLLS
President Milo Djukanovic is his republic's most trusted politician, according to a poll published in "Pobjeda" on 18 December. He received the confidence of 32.9 percent of the respondents, followed by Predrag Bulatovic of the Socialist People's Party with 9.8 percent. Only 2.9 percent named Momir Bulatovic, who is Milosevic's leading supporter in Montenegro, as the politician they most trust. Some 21.2 percent of the respondents did not answer the question, and 7.9 percent said that they trust no politician. The same poll showed that 43.4 percent of the respondents favor an independent Montenegro, while 23.3 percent want the Yugoslav federation to continue in its present form. Some 16 percent want a loose confederation with Serbia, while 9.3 percent want Yugoslavia to become a unitary, rather than federal, state. PM
BOSNIAN SERB STATE GETS NEW PRESIDENT
Mirko Sarovic was sworn in as president of the Republika Srpska in Banja Luka on 16 December. He said he hopes to put together a government soon. He called cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal "a challenge and a hard question," Reuters reported. Dragan Kalinic, who also belongs to the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) founded by Radovan Karadzic, was elected speaker of the parliament. The session opened for the first time with the playing of the joint Bosnian anthem. A Serbian Orthodox religious ceremony for deputies took place in a church, "Vesti" reported. It is not clear what policy the international community will have toward Sarovic and other top office-holders who belong to the SDS. PM
HUNGARIAN, GREEK FIRMS LEAD IN MACEDONIAN TELECOM RACE
The Macedonian government said on 17 December that Hungary's Matav and Greece's OTE are the top bidders for a 51 percent stake in Macedonia's mobile telephone network, AP reported from Skopje. PM
OUTGOING ROMANIAN PREMIER PRESENTS 2001 BUDGET...
Mugur Isarescu told journalists on 15 December that the government is finalizing the 2001 budget, which provides for 5 percent growth in GDP, an inflation rate of 25 percent, and a deficit of 3.9 percent of GDP. In 2000, those figures were 2 percent, 42 percent, and 3.5 percent, respectively, according to figures presented by Isarescu. Adrian Nastase, Isarescu's likely successor, responded that he does not trust these figures, and he accused the outgoing cabinet of having added at least 1 percent to the deficit by making pre-election concessions on wage demands. MS
...WHILE LIKELY SUCCESSOR ACCUSES CABINET OF 'FRAUD'
Nastase told journalists on 17 December that he "has evidence" that the government is about to "commit fraud" by burning files that show corruption in the State Property Fund's privatization deals. He added that any deals found to have been illegal will be canceled, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Government spokeswoman Gabriela Vranceanu-Firea denied the allegation, and outgoing State Property Fund chief Radu Sarbu said Nastase is indulging in "politicking." On 18 December, President-elect Ion Iliescu told the Executive Bureau of his Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) that he will resign as party chairman on being sworn in as president. Nastase will lead the party until its National Conference early next year, he added. On 15 December, PDSR deputy Valer Dorneanu was elected chairman of the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate is to elect a new chairman on 18 December. MS
BARBALAT TO RUN IN NEXT ROUND OF MOLDOVAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
The Democratic Party on 15 December again submitted the candidacy of Constitutional Court chairman Pavel Barbalat, who will run in the next round of the Moldovan presidential elections, planned for later this month, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The move follows the failure of the Democratic Party and parliamentary chairman Dumitru Diacov to persuade Party of Moldovan Communists Chairman Vladimir Voronin to withdraw his candidacy. Diacov is reported to have offered to step down as parliamentary chairman in Voronin's favor or secure him a "high government position" if he agrees not to run. Diacov said Voronin's refusal will "unavoidably lead to early elections." The Party of Democratic Forces has already announced it will boycott the next round. It is unclear whether the Democratic Convention of Moldova will participate in the ballot. MS
OUTLOOK FOR EU EXPANSION IMPROVES
By Ahto Lobjakas
For the past five years, EU membership for the 10 Central and East European candidate states has always--in the words of Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski--seemed "five years out of reach."
In 1995, the date offered by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was 2000. In 1998, when Poland, together with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia, opened accession talks, the date was surmised to be 2003. But at the close of this year there are indications the "five-year barrier" may finally be broken.
In November, the European Commission issued a report that surprised many by saying advanced candidates could finish accession talks as soon as 2002. Assuming the first accession treaties are signed and ratification by all member states takes 18 months, new members could join by early 2004.
That timetable was indirectly affirmed by December's EU summit in Nice. Union leaders said in a declaration that they hope the first new members can join in time to participate in the next elections to the European Parliament, scheduled for June 2004. However, the summit left the timing of any future accessions vague.
The optimism was confirmed by the incoming Swedish EU presidency (Sweden takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency from France on 1 January). Sweden's ambassador to the EU, Gunnar Lund, told RFE/RL that by the end of his country's presidency in June, it may be possible to answer questions about which countries will be the first to enter and when. "I would not be surprised if at the end of our presidency we will be able already to discern the final stretch, so to say, for at least a few or a handful of candidate countries," he commented. "And hopefully we could establish this as a fact and even perhaps talk in terms of timetables and road maps."
Lund was presumably speaking about the countries that until now have been seen as the leading candidates: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus. But even that may not be a foregone conclusion, since this year saw remarkable progress by countries previously relegated to the second wave: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Malta. These countries opened accession talks only at the start of the year but have made rapid progress since then.
Of the former Communist bloc states, Slovakia and Latvia have especially excelled in negotiations. Slovakia has closed 10 out of a total of 31 chapters, which make up the body of EU legislation candidates must adopt before joining the union. Latvia has closed eight chapters and Malta 12. By comparison, the relative laggards of the first group--Poland and the Czech Republic--have closed talks on 13 chapters.
The EU has consistently said that every candidate country will be judged solely on its merits and that all "second wave" countries have a chance to catch up with frontrunners. Indeed, this formal distinction between "first" and "second" waves was buried last month by the EU's Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen because, as he noted, at least two "second-wave" countries have already caught up with the "first-wave" ones. The two "are already so close to the countries that have been negotiating [for] more than two years that we simply must give up the concept of groups [that is, waves]. We have already dissolved that concept in our enlargement strategy paper and in our regular [progress] reports," Verheugen explained.
The Nice summit also took a decisive step in projecting how the new members would fit into existing decision-making structures. Following days of difficult debate on how members in the future would decide on the most difficult issues, summit participants agreed on a formula to re-weight votes in the important Council of Ministers. All of the candidate states were included in the re-weighting and received relatively favorable treatment in the assignment of votes.
Under the formula, Poland will have equal weight with Spain with 27 votes, leaving it just two votes shy of Germany, the EU's most populous country. Romania will have more votes than The Netherlands and other smaller current members--on the basis of the size of its population--and Lithuania will have the same number as Denmark and Ireland.
Summit participants also agreed to raise the number of EU commissioners to 27 from the current 20, suggesting that one day each member will have its own commissioner.
Candidates are still well advised to keep an eye on developments. Negotiations on truly difficult issues such as agriculture and the free movement of labor have not yet commenced. And before agreement with the candidates can be reached, the EU member countries must agree on changes in the union's own common agricultural policy. The author is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.