UKRAINE ISSUES WARRANT FOR LAZARENKO'S ARREST. Following the Supreme Council's decision to strip former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko of his parliamentary immunity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 1999), Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko has issued a warrant for Lazarenko's arrest, AP reported on 20 February. Lazarenko is suspected of stealing $2 million in state funds and stashing some $4 million in a Swiss bank. Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko said that Lazarenko is currently in the U.S., to where he wants to emigrate. Reuters reported the next day that Ukraine has asked the U.S. to extradite Lazarenko after he was reportedly detained at New York's Kennedy airport. JM

ALBRIGHT RECOMMENDS $195 MILLION AID TO UKRAINE. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the U.S. Congress on 18 February that Ukraine has made "significant progress" in carrying out its economic reforms to warrant the release of $195 million in aid this year. Congress had intended that sum to be issued earlier but had made its release conditional on Albright's positive assessment of Ukraine's reform process and its efforts to deal with complaints by U.S. investors. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma welcomed the U.S. decision, saying that Washington "understands the role of Ukraine in the region" and that the U.S.-Ukrainian "strategic partnership was not declared for the sake of empty words alone," AP reported. JM

UKRAINE'S ENERGY SECTOR OFFICIALS FIRED. Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko on 19 February sacked Nur Nihmatullin, head of the Enerhoatom nuclear energy company, for "serious drawbacks in work," Reuters reported. The dismissal followed a protest the previous day by nuclear plant workers over wage arrears (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 1999). One week earlier, President Leonid Kuchma sacked Energy Minister Oleksiy Sheberstov after farmers had criticized the minister for massive blackouts in rural regions this winter. In other news, 31 protesting coal miners in Luhansk Oblast received a pledge that their back wages will paid. The promise comes after nine protesters had threatened to commit suicide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 1999). JM

LUKASHENKA DENOUNCES EU FOR 'NIGGLING' COMPENSATION DEMANDS. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 19 February criticized EU countries for making "niggling" demands for financial compensation over the eviction of EU ambassadors from their residences at the Drazdy housing compound, AP reported. "How dare such great powers bring financial claims of a meager hundred of thousand dollars against a country that suffered from the Chornobyl catastrophe?" the agency quoted Lukashenka as saying. Under the EU-Belarusian agreement reached late last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 1998), the evicted EU ambassadors returned to Belarus in January to move to new residences, while Belarus has pledged to pay compensation. JM

UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN ROMANIA. Borys Tarasyuk ended a three-day visit to Romania on 20 February by visiting areas inhabited by the Ukrainian minority in Maramures County, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. One day earlier, Tarasyuk and his Romanian counterpart, Andrei Plesu, told journalists in Bucharest that they achieved a "significant breakthrough" over outstanding problems related to the 1997 bilateral treaty and that they are determined to reach a "compromise" without appealing to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. While refusing to elaborate, Tarasyuk said that "nobody challenges" the status of Serpent Island as "part of Ukrainian territory." (The treaty also delayed for two years delimiting the continental shelf and some border areas.) The two ministers agreed to submit proposals on meeting Romania's demand to set up a "multicultural university" in Cernivici (Cernauti). MS

Nuclear power plants in Lithuania and Bulgaria pose a dilemma for EU officials who want to shut down Eastern Europe's most dangerous reactors. Over-dependence on nuclear energy in those countries has made it impossible to close their aging Soviet-designed reactors and fuel the kind of economic growth needed to make market reforms successful.

EU officials thought that in 1993 they had won promises from Bulgaria and Lithuania on early closures. In that year, grants totaling more than $50 million were awarded to improve nuclear safety. But EU External Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek has become frustrated by Sofia's refusal to honor the promise and by threats from Vilnius to back out of its agreement. He us now telling prospective EU members they will not be invited into the union until they reach Western standards on nuclear safety.

Some Eastern leaders are questioning which course is more feasible financially --improving their old Sovietdesigned reactors or scrapping them altogether and building new types of power plants. At the same time, Brussels has made it clear that it cannot fund all the necessary improvements across Eastern Europe. But Eastern leaders say they must have aid to improve safety and reduce their dependence on nuclear energy.

Van den Broek says Lithuania must set a definite timetable for closing its Ignalina plant if it wants to be invited to fast-track talks on EU membership. But early this month, when Lithuanian Economics Minister Vincas Babilius submitted the government's draft energy policy to parliament, he warned that Lithuania cannot specify shutdown dates without aid commitments.

According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Lithuania is more dependent on nuclear power than any other country in the world. Two 1,500 megawatt RBMK reactors at Ignalina produce more than 80 percent of the country's electricity supply. The reactors are the same design as the unit that caused the Chornobyl disaster in 1986. When both are working, Lithuania can produce almost twice as much energy as its domestic demand. That allows Lithuania to export electricity--something increasingly important as the Baltic States unify their power grids.

Shutting down one unit at Ignalina would not only reduce exports but also mean costly electricity imports. A study by the Swedish firm Grufman Reje found that early closure could cost Lithuania almost $4 billion.

In 1993, Lithuania accepted about $30 million from the EBRD-administered Nuclear Safety Account in exchange for a promise not to replace Ignalina's fuel channels. Brussels has taken that promise to mean a shutdown early in the next century. But Lithuanian officials now say rechanneling may be the only affordable option. A study last October determined that Ignalina's oldest reactor can operate safely for only another three years without rechanneling.

Babilius says EU funding would allow the oldest unit to be decommissioned as early as next year and the second reactor as soon as 2005. But without aid, the government says Ignalina will continue operating for at least 15 more years.

Meanwhile in Bulgaria, Prime Minister Ivan Kostov says it will cost more to decommission the four oldest reactors at the Kozloduy plant than it will to raise safety standards to Western levels. As pressure from Brussels for a shutdown increases, Kostov is asking the parliament to reach consensus on a new national energy policy.

National Electricity Company managers say they will run Kozloduy's four VVER-440 megawatt reactors through the end of their design lives--from 2004 to 2012. The EU wants the oldest reactor shut down by 2002 and others soon after.

Kozloduy produces more than 40 percent of the country's electricity. About 4 percent of electricity production is exported, mostly to Turkey. While decommissioning could put an end to those exports, the trade issues are not as vital to Sofia as they are for Lithuania.

In 1991, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) labeled Kozloduy's oldest reactor as the most dangerous in Europe. Since then, vast improvements have been made in equipment, staff qualifications, and organization. According to Ivan Shilyashki, chairman of Bulgaria's National Energy Committee, a team of IAEA inspectors who visited Kozloduy this month praised the progress and said the plant is far safer than eight years ago.

In 1993, about $22 million in equipment was delivered to Kozloduy through the EBRD's Nuclear Safety Account. In exchange, Sofia promised to shut the four VVER-440 reactors by 1998. But Kostov backed away from that pledge last year. National Electricity Company managers supported the move, saying shutdowns were impossible because expected replacement power never became available.

Threats to block EU accession show how backtracking by Sofia, Vilnius, and others has forced the European Commission to rethink its approach. At the request of Van den Broek, a panel of senior EU officials late last year drafted a new strategy for improving nuclear safety in the East.

One telling conclusion deals with Russia. The panel said a more "cooperative approach" is needed because senior officials in Moscow are rejecting what they see as "paternalistic assistance" from the EU. The panel also said it is pointless to demand reactor shutdowns as a precondition for aid because many countries stand to lose far more from energy cuts than the funds offered by the West.

Significantly, the panel recommended continued pressure for early closures at Kozloduy and Ignalina.