DUMA RATIFIES RUSSIAN-UKRAINIAN FRIENDSHIP TREATY. By a vote of 244 to 30, the lower house of the Russian parliament on 25 December ratified the Russian-Ukrainian treaty on friendship, cooperation, and partnership that had been signed in Kyiv in May 1997. Officials in both capitals greeted the move, with Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov saying that the ratification of this treaty and the accord with Belarus "will become a step toward the unification of the three Slavic nations." PG

OCALAN NOT TO RETURN TO RUSSIA. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin has categorically denied Russian media reports that Kurdish Workers' Party leader Abdullah Ocalan has returned from Rome to Russia to seek asylum there. Rakhmanin told ITAR-TASS on 24 December that Ocalan will not enter Russia. Federal Security Service Public Relations Department chief Aleksandr Zdanovich refused to comment on the media reports, which Kurdish representatives in Moscow have also denied. ITAR-TASS on 23 December had quoted members of Ocalan's entourage as saying that the PKK leader would like to settle in Ukraine, Estonia or the Czech Republic. LF

TURKMENISTAN WILL RESUME GAS SUPPLIES TO UKRAINE. Russia's Gazprom agreed on 27 December to a deal allowing Turkmenistan to resume shipments of gas to Ukraine, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. That decision cleared the only remaining obstacle to delivery of Turkmen gas to Ukraine which had been cut off in early 1997. On 23 December, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma visited Turkmenistan to negotiate terms for the resumption of gas shipments. Kuchma signed an interstate agreement with his Turkmen counterpart, Saparmurat Niyazov, under which Turkmenistan will provide Ukraine with 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 1999. Interfax reported that the price of 1,000 cubic meters of gas at the Turkmen-Uzbek border will be $36. The same amount of gas will cost $68-72 at the Russian-Ukraine border. Ukraine will pay Turkmenistan 40 percent of the cost of the gas in hard currency and the remaining 60 percent in goods and services. BP

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT DELAYS ADOPTING 1999 BUDGET... The Ukrainian Supreme Council on 25 December postponed the debate on the government's 1999 draft budget until next week after deputies failed to agree on the projected deficit of 1 percent of GDP. The draft budget provides for revenues of 23.4 billion hryvni ($6.8 billion) and expenditures of 24.6 billion hryvni, with annual inflation forecast at 19 percent. Finance Minister Ihor Mityukov, who presented the budget to lawmakers, argued that with Ukraine's economy expected to decline by 1 percent in 1999 it is unrealistic to count on revenues and expenditures as high as the parliament wanted. Meanwhile, President Leonid Kuchma on 26 December said he will leave lawmakers without their salaries unless they pass the 1999 draft budget. "This is for sure. This cannot go on like this," ITAR-TASS quoted him as saying. JM

... RAISES MINIMUM WAGE ONCE AGAIN ... The parliament also increased Ukraine's minimum wage the same day from 55 hryvni ($16) to 73.7 hryvni and set the official poverty level at 90.7 hryvni. The decision was taken two days after the legislature failed to override Kuchma's veto on a bill passed in November, which nearly tripled the minimum wage to 148 hryvni. JM

... AND APPROVES CRIMEAN CONSTITUTION. By a vote of 230 to 67 the parliament on 23 December approved a new constitution for Crimea, Ukraine's only autonomous republic. The constitution allows Crimea to have its own government and legislature and permits the republic to independently sign foreign trade deals. It also stipulates that all taxes and duties collected on Crimean territory are to be directed to the republic's budget. Over the past six years, Crimean lawmakers have submitted four constitutional drafts, but all were either rejected or approved only partially due to what Kyiv's parliamentarians considered separatist provisions. The latest constitution draft was approved after deputies had inserted a separate provision that bans Crimea from approving legislation not in accord with Ukrainian law. JM

ORBAN DISCUSSES HUNGARIANS BEYOND BORDERS. In an interview with Duna TV on 23 December, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Hungary "can not be satisfied with the situation of Hungarians beyond the border as long as there is no independent university [with Hungarian tuition] in places where there is a large Hungarian minority," because of the danger of "slow assimilation." He said his government has allocated considerable funding for education for Hungarians abroad but the results thus far are "partial," and a breakthrough will only be achieved when Romania agrees to an independent university for the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Orban said he expects the situation of Hungarians in Croatia to improve with the envisaged "strategic cooperation" between the two countries, but the situation in Ukraine is "more difficult" since the country is large and has "a cumbersome and complicated administrative system." MS