KUCHMA OPPOSES ABOLITION OF PRESIDENCY... Oleksandr Martynenko, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's spokesman, says Kuchma is opposed to left-wing parliamentary deputies' efforts to abolish the presidency, Ukrainian News reported on 13 January. Martynenko believes that the Communist Party's attempt to initiate the abolition of the presidency is "ideological" rather than a response to any of Kuchma's actions. After failing to pass a motion on abolishing the presidency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 1999), the Communist caucus blocked all parliamentary activities the next day, demanding that another vote be taken on the motion. In that ballot, the motion was supported by 224 votes, just two votes short of the majority required for the motion to pass. JM

...WANTS 'REASONABLE BOUNDS' FOR PARLIAMENTARY IMMUNITY. Martynenko also said Kuchma believes that the immunity of Ukrainian lawmakers "must be within reasonable bounds as is the way in civilized countries," ITAR-TASS reported on 13 January. According to Kuchma, the best way to achieve this is to amend the constitution. Martynenko refuted parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko's allegations that local administration bodies have been instructed to launch "mass actions" in support of the initiative to strip deputies of their immunity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 1999). JM

GAZPROM CONFIRMS UKRAINE SIPHONING-OFF RUSSIAN GAS. Gazprom on 13 January presented documents that it says confirm Ukraine has illegally siphoned off Russian gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 1999), Interfax reported. According to Gazprom's press office, Russian gas shipments to and via Ukraine in December 1998 totaled 18.9 billion cubic meters, of which 11.5 billion were in transit to other countries, and 7.4 billion remained in Ukraine. Gazprom authorized Ukraine to take only 2.5 million cubic meters of Russian gas in 1998, meaning that almost 5 million cubic meters were misappropriated, the press office said. The office also calculated that Ukraine owes Gazprom $1.6 billion for gas supplies. The day before, a Ukrainian official denied that Ukraine has siphoned-off Russian gas, and he also disputed the size of Ukraine's gas debt to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 1999). JM

The murder of a former Slovak government minister earlier this week is sending shock waves through the country's political leadership.

No arrests have been made, and no motive has been established in the shooting in Bratislava on 11 January of Jan Ducky. Recently dismissed as head of the Slovak gas distribution monopoly (SPP), Ducky served as economy minister until mid-1996 in the government of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. He was killed in the lobby of his apartment house in Bratislava shortly after noon. Police say an autopsy showed he was hit by four bullets, three to the head and one to his right hand.

Ducky was closely connected with Russian gas interests in Slovakia as well as with Czech gas and petrochemical interests. During an April 1997 visit to Bratislava by then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Ducky signed a controversial contract with Russia's Gazprom on forming a joint venture to import and distribute Russian gas "outside the framework of existing contracts." According to Czech media, Ducky was a member of a group of entrepreneurs who last year acquired a majority share in the now bankrupt Chemapol Group as well as substantial shares in several regional Czech gas distributors.

Ducky was a deputy industry minister of the Slovak Socialist Republic from 1985 until the collapse of communist power. He was then promoted to industry minister, a post he held for six months until the first free elections in June 1990. He returned to government after the fall 1993 parliamentary elections as economy minister in Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) cabinet. He remained faithful to Meciar the following year when several HZDS cabinet members revolted and formed a government with the opposition.

The HZDS holds the current government indirectly responsible for Ducky's death, particularly Economy Minister Ludovit Cernak. The HZDS says the murder was the outcome of political intolerance. It was Cernak who fired Ducky from his post as director of SPP in early November and ordered an extensive audit of the firm, Slovakia's most profitable enterprise. The Slovak press says SPP had pretax profits totaling $252 million in 1997 and an estimated $240 million pretax profit last year.

Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamzik rejects the HZDS's allegations and says the blame for Ducky's death lies with the financial machinations that occurred during Meciar's final term in office, which ended after his electoral defeat last September. Last week, Slovak authorities filed charges against Ducky involving gross financial mismanagement at SPP and illegal property transfers.

Slovak Interior Minister Ladislav Pittner says it is possible that someone decided Ducky had to be killed in order to prevent his becoming a witness regarding alleged financial improprieties under Meciar's government. Pittner suggests former employees of the Slovak intelligence service may have been involved. "For the past several months, I have been saying that we have indications that after the [September 1998] elections, a parallel secret service was established which is in some way linked to the underworld."

Pittner says the investigation into Ducky's death may help clarify whether a parallel secret service exists. Key leaders of the Slovak Information Service quit in October just before Meciar left office.

Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda says if Ducky's murder was an attempt to frighten the government or end audits, then it will prove a failure. He also vows a full investigation: "The Slovak government is committed to use all means to clarify matters and track down the perpetrators of this criminal offense."

Parliamentary speaker Jozef Migas says Ducky's death should result in the strengthening of the fight against organized crime. "It is a call for the struggle with organized crime to be a matter of principle," he commented. "Not even this act should be allowed to divert us if the motive proves to have been a settling of accounts or a cover-up linked with Mr. Ducky's activities, about which someone wanted to prevent any more from being said or divulged and simply took his life."

Ducky's death also may become a catalyst to restrict travel to Slovakia by Russians and Ukrainians. Slovak parliamentary deputy and former Czechoslovak Interior Minister Jan Langos has suggested an eastern connection in the killing. He has called for strengthening visa regulations for Russian and Ukrainian citizens as a way of protecting Slovak citizens against what he terms "further acts of terrorism."