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RFE/RL NEWSLINE Vol 2, No. 40, Part I, 27 February 1998
___________________________________________________________ RFE/RL NEWSLINE Vol 2, No. 40, Part I, 27 February 1998 A daily report of developments in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia prepared by the staff of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This is Part I, a compilation of news concerning Russia, Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Part II covers Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe and is distributed simultaneously as a second document. Back issues of RFE/RL NewsLine and the OMRI Daily Digest are online at RFE/RL's Web site: http://www.rferl.org/newsline xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx POLITICIZATION AND SELF-CENSORSHIP IN THE RUSSIAN MEDIA A new financial dependence on industrial or banking groups has led to a noticeable erosion of media autonomy in Russia. This paper is available on the RFE/RL Web site: http://www.rferl.org/nca/special/rumediapaper/index.html xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Headlines, Part I * RUSSIAN, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTS MEET IN MOSCOW * SELEZNEV IN DAMASCUS * GEORGIA ASSESSES UNOMIG ABDUCTION xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx REGIONAL AFFAIRS RUSSIAN, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTS MEET IN MOSCOW. Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma, meeting at the Kremlin on 27 February, signed an agreement on economic cooperation through the year 2007, RFE/RL correspondents in Moscow reported. That accord is aimed at doubling trade turnover between the two countries, which totaled $14 billion in 1997. The two leaders also agreed to cooperate in the construction of military transport planes, to ensure quick ratification of agreements on the Black Sea Fleet, and to further develop equal partnership and cooperation among CIS members. A Russian-Ukrainian commission on military-technical cooperation is to be formed, and the two countries will seek to promote Russian and Ukrainian weapons on world markets. Kuchma received support from Yeltsin to meet in Odessa with the president of Moldova and an unspecified representative of the Transdniester to discuss the breakaway region. Kuchma also stressed that Ukraine will not join NATO. BP BLACK SEA STATES TO DISCUSS CONFIDENCE-BUILDING MEASURES. Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine have drafted guidelines for talks on confidence-building measures related to the activities of their naval forces in the Black Sea, the "Turkish Daily News" reported on 27 February, citing a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement. The measures are intended to strengthen economic, political, and military cooperation between the states bordering the Black Sea. LF RUSSIA SELEZNEV IN DAMASCUS. State Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev met with Syrian leaders, including Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zoabi and President Hafez- al-Assad, in the Syrian capital on 25-26 February. Seleznev told reporters later that his talks were "very productive" and that Moscow to intends to restore its relations with Syria to their level before the collapse of the USSR. He added that Moscow is preparing to make "a strategic comeback" in the Middle East but as a "guarantor of peace and for the sake of our economic interests" rather than to impose its will on any of the states in the region. Seleznev also argued that U.S. forces should withdraw from the Persian Gulf as their presence there cannot be justified following the UN-Iraq agreement allowing inspectors access to weapons sites. LF KHARRAZI MEETS WITH CHERNOMYRDIN, RYBKIN. At the close of his three-day official visit to Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin to discuss expanding bilateral trade and economic cooperation, in particular Russia's role in constructing the Bushehr nuclear reactor, Russian agencies reported. Kharrazi also discussed Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the situation in the Caucasus with Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin. In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" published on 27 February, Kharrazi denied Russian press reports that Tehran is interested in purchasing Russian attack helicopters and high-speed warships (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 1998). Interfax reported that Russia and Iran failed to agree on dividing the Caspian. Russia advocates dividing the sea bed into national sectors, while Iran wants both the sea bed and the waters of the Caspian to be exploited jointly by all five littoral states. LF FOREIGN MINISTRY DENIES RUSSIA DEVELOPING BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS. Foreign Ministry spokesman Valerii Nesterushkin has denied reports in the Russian and foreign press that Moscow is not complying with agreements prohibiting the development of weapons for biological warfare. Nesterushkin said Russia "strictly observes its obligations under the Convention on Banning Biological Weapons." He also pointed out that Yeltsin signed that convention after the demise of the USSR and later issued a decree banning biological warfare programs. He added that newspapers that publish articles claiming Russia is developing biological warfare "are apparently not concerned about their reputation," and that "any honest reporter could easily verify the facts." Former Soviet researcher Kanatzhan Alibekov, who now lives in the U.S., claims that Russia continues to develop biological weapons but conceals that activity through its defense research programs. BP CONFUSING SIGNALS OVER CABINET RESHUFFLE. Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii told ITAR-TASS on 27 February that Yeltsin is still considering possible cabinet dismissals. Yastrzhembskii did not specify when the president's decision will be announced. On 26 February, Yeltsin said three cabinet members may lose their jobs, but he left a government session without naming the victims. The same day, Yastrzhembskii told Reuters that cabinet changes are likely to be announced on 27 February. Meanwhile, ITAR-TASS quoted unnamed sources as saying the dismissals will be announced sometime before 5 March. LB CHERNOMYRDIN FAVORS VETO IF DUMA WON'T AMEND BUDGET. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told journalists on 26 February that if the State Duma does not approve amendments to make the 1998 budget realistic, he will recommend that Yeltsin veto the document, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. The same day, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said his party will support the budget when it is again put to a fourth reading in the Duma, ITAR-TASS reported. He did not specify whether his party has revised its opposition to a government-proposed amendment that is likely to lead to spending cuts of 27.8 billion rubles ($4.6 billion). The Duma overwhelmingly rejected that amendment on 20 February. LB OFFICIALS UPBEAT ON TAX COLLECTION... While Chernomyrdin criticized the government's poor tax collection during a 26 February cabinet session, other officials claimed significant progress has been made in that area. State Tax Service chief Aleksandr Pochinok announced that monthly tax receipts have improved since 1997 and that the tax collection target of 12.3 billion rubles ($2 billion) for February has already been met, Russian news agencies reported. He added that if the gas monopoly Gazprom settles its debts to the budget, the February target will be overfulfilled. But Pochinok acknowledged that executing the 1998 budget will require monthly tax revenues of 15-18 billion rubles. Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov said in his report to the cabinet that taxes collected in cash rose by 30-35 percent in the first two months in 1998. Under a November 1997 presidential decree, the government is no longer allowed to offset taxes against debts owed to enterprises. LB ...BUT PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER SKEPTICAL. Aleksandr Livshits, Yeltsin's economic adviser and deputy head of the presidential administration, told NTV on 26 February that he doubts the government's tax collection target for February has been met. According to his figures, he said, at most 10 billion rubles ($1.6 billion) in taxes have been collected this month. LB COMMISSION DEMANDS TAX PAYMENTS FROM 'NATURAL MONOPOLIES.' The Temporary Emergency Commission on Tax and Budgetary Discipline held its first meeting of the year on 24 February and demanded that "natural monopolies" clear their debts to the federal budget, Interfax reported. Pochinok announced after the meeting that by the end of February, the Railroad Ministry must pay its debt of 600 million rubles ($99 million) and the electricity giant Unified Energy System (EES) 1.4 billion rubles in back taxes. The gas monopoly Gazprom is keeping up with its current tax payments but is estimated to owe some 2 billion new rubles in debts carried over from the end of 1997, Pochinok said. LB CENTRAL BANK CUTS REFINANCING RATE AGAIN. The Central Bank's board of directors on 27 February decided to reduce the annual refinancing rate from 39 percent to 36 percent, effective 2 March. The bank's move comes as representatives of three major international credit rating agencies are in Moscow to determine whether to downgrade Russia's sovereign debt rating (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 1998). The Central Bank raised the refinancing rate from 28 percent to 42 percent on 2 February but lowered it to 39 percent on 17 February, saying the situation on Russian capital markets has stabilized. The bank says it hopes that by the end of 1998 the refinancing rate will be between 16-18 percent. Real interest rates remain extremely high. Government projections call for an annual inflation rate of 5-7 percent this year. LB YELTSIN PROMISES TO SUPPORT MIDDLE CLASS. Yeltsin on 27 February promised to support Russia's emerging middle class, which he described as the most "reliable foundation of stability" in the country. In a nationwide radio address, the president said creating a large group of people who are "well provided for and confident" is "the main goal of reforms." He praised Irina Khakamada, who heads the State Committee for the Support and Development of Small Businesses, and called on her committee to focus on "protecting businessmen from the arbitrary actions of bureaucrats" and on simplifying and reducing taxes. However, Yeltsin noted that given the current budget crunch, the state will not be able to provide huge financial aid for small businesses. Yeltsin cited figures showing that some 1 million small businesses employ about 10 percent of the Russian work force and contribute an estimated 12 percent of the country's GDP. LB PROGRAM ON SMALL BUSINESSES RECEIVES PRELIMINARY APPROVAL. A government commission on 24 February gave preliminary approval to a federal program for supporting small businesses in 1998-1999. Khakamada announced the next day that the program, which was drafted by the State Committee on the Support and Development of Small Businesses, will be considered at a cabinet session in late March, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. The program seeks to increase small businesses' contribution to the GDP to15 percent and double the number of Russians employed by small businesses from some 7.5 million to 15 million. Khakamada claimed that reducing the tax burden on small businesses will cause tax revenues to improve and the shadow economy to decline. "Izvestiya" on 26 February quoted Khakamada as saying the draft 1998 budget calls for 100 million rubles in spending on her committee's program. LB SECOND SUSPECT CHARGED IN JOURNALIST'S MURDER. The Prosecutor-General's Office on 26 February charged Major Vladimir Morozov with helping organize the October 1994 murder of journalist Dmitrii Kholodov, Interfax reported. Morozov served in the Airborne Troops under Colonel Pavel Popovskikh, who has also been charged in the case. Meanwhile, prosecutors say they have made significant progress in the investigation of the March 1995 murder of popular journalist Vladislav Listev, the head of the Russian Public Television network. Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov is to report to Yeltsin about that case on 2 March. Petr Triboi, who is heading the investigation, told "Izvestiya" on 27 February that Listev's murder was "not political." Speculation in the Russian media has focused on possible economic motives for the crime. Shortly before his death, Listev ordered a moratorium on advertising on the network. LB AGRARIAN PARTY HOLDS CONGRESS. The Agrarian Party of Russia (APR) held its sixth congress near Moscow on 26 February, ITAR-TASS reported. APR chairman Mikhail Lapshin told delegates that the party, which inherited part of the Communist Party's network when it was formed in 1993, has 300,000 members. Lapshin lost his seat in the parliament after the APR failed to gain five percent of the vote in December 1995, but he is competing in an upcoming by-election for a State Duma seat from the Altai Republic. Lapshin told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 24 February that his strongest rival is former First Deputy Finance Minister Andrei Vavilov. He left the government last April and is now a top executive in the Renaissance Capital investment firm, part of the Oneksimbank empire. Vavilov is said to be on good terms with Semen Zubakin, who vacated the Duma seat after being elected head of Altai last December. LB GAZPROM ACQUIRES SHARES IN REGIONAL COMPANIES. The gas monopoly Gazprom, which is owed large debts by many of its consumers, is collecting payment for some debts in property rather than cash, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 26 February. Gazprom's chief executive Rem Vyakhirev recently visited Tatarstan and Bashkortostan to negotiate methods for settling those republics' debts to the company. Leaders in Bashkortostan agreed to transfer to Gazprom the right to manage controlling stakes in three large companies. In Kazan, a preliminary agreement was reached to pay Tatarstan's debts to the gas monopoly partly in airplanes and partly in shares of several large companies. Last month, First Deputy Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a member of the Gazprom board of directors, announced that in 1997 the company was able to collect only 38 percent of payments for gas deliveries, "Rabochaya tribuna" reported on 9 January. LB TRANSCAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA GEORGIA ASSESSES UNOMIG ABDUCTION. A Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman on 26 February said that Gocha Esebua, leader of the group of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia supporters that abducted four UN observers in western Georgia last week, is one of the prime suspects in the failed 9 February attempt to kill President Eduard Shevardnadze. In response to one of the abductors' demands, Shevardnadze has proposed the creation of a commission of historians, lawyers, and scholars to evaluate recent political developments in Georgia. Shevardnadze has also proposed drafting new principles to serve as the basis for national reconciliation, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 27 February. Liviu Bota, the UN secretary-general's special envoy to Georgia, has expressed concern that the unarmed UN observer force in western Georgia could be the target of further attacks or hostage-takings, Reuters reported. LF ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER MEETS WITH PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES. Vazgen Sarkisyan met with seven of the 12 Armenian presidential candidates at the Central Electoral Commission on 26 February, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Sarkisyan subsequently said that an agreement was reached on the participation of military personnel in the 16 March presidential election. No details of that agreement were released. International observers who monitored the 1995 and 1996 polls expressed suspicions that, on those occasions, servicemen may have voted several times at different polling stations. In an interview with Noyan Tapan earlier this month, Sarkisyan said that elections should be "absolutely fair." But on 25 February, Liberal Democratic Party chairman and presidential candidate Vigen Khachatryan told "Aravot" that Sarkisyan has been summoning various local governors and members of electoral commissions to his office "to instruct them how to act" during the poll. LF ARMENIA, GEORGIA TO BROADEN COOPERATION WITH CHINA. Meeting on 25 February with Aram Vardanian, chairman of the Union of Businessmen and Industrialists of Armenia, Chinese Ambassador to Yerevan Yan Kejun discussed expanding cooperation and possible joint ventures in the electrical engineering, food-processing, and textile sectors, Noyan Tapan reported. The same day, Georgian Minister of Transport Merab Adeishvili met with Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Wu Bangguo in Beijing to discuss broadening cooperation in the transportation sector. Such cooperation would presumably take place within the framework of the TRACECA project to develop rail, road, ferry links from China via Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe. LF UZBEK DELEGATION VISITS BAKU. Visiting Uzbek First Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Djurabekov and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Abbas Abbasov, also discussed the benefits of the TRACECA during their talks in Baku on 25 February. That meeting took place within the framework of the first session of the Azerbaijani-Uzbek intergovernmental cooperation commission, ITAR-TASS and Turan reported. Djurabekov said that Uzbekistan last year saved $40 per ton by transporting goods from Tashkent via Turkmenbashi, Baku, Poti, and Ilichevsk. He added that Uzbekistan plans to double the amount of goods shipped by this route this year from the 1997 volume of 200,000 tons. The two sides signed three inter-governmental economic agreements on streamlining currency and export operations and combatting financial and economic crime. LF BISHKEK WORRIED ABOUT CITIZENS ARRESTED IN UZBEKISTAN. The Kyrgyz parliamentary Committees on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security, and Human Rights convened a joint session on 26 February to discuss what to do about two of its citizens currently held by Uzbek law enforcement authorities, RFE/RL correspondents in Bishkek reported. The Kyrgyz government has requested details about the reasons for the arrests but so far has received no reply from the Uzbek authorities. Rustam Usmanov was arrested in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on 13 February, while Zakirjan Normatov was taken into custody by Uzbek police in the Kyrgyz city of Osh in late January. Uzbek police sources told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Usmanov is wanted on charges made four years ago, when he was an Uzbek citizen. Normatov is wanted in connection with the December disturbances in Namangan. BP TAJIK PRESIDENT SAYS GOVERNMENT WILL REMAIN SECULAR. Imomali Rakhmonov has responded to an article by Ali Akbar Turajonzoda, the deputy leader of the United Tajik Opposition, arguing that the term "secular government" should be struck from the Tajik Constitution and a referendum held on the issue. The article appeared in the Iranian newspaper "Jumhuri-e-Eslami" on 14 February. Rakhmonov said at a meeting with political activists in Khujand on 25 February there will be no revision of the relevant article of the constitution, RFE/RL correspondents reported. Mehmadsharif Himmatzade of the Islamic Renaissance Party said his party will respect the law and leave it to the people to decide which form of government they prefer. BP xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Copyright (c) 1998 RFE/RL, Inc. 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