28 March 2006, Volume
MINSK MARCH ENDS IN VIOLENCE, ARRESTS.
In the Belarusian capital Minsk on March 25, police assaulted opposition supporters as they were marching toward the city's main detention center to demand the release of people held over the past few days. Opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin was detained. The incidents occurred soon after a larger opposition rally ended peacefully in a central city square.
The clashes took place near Minsk's musical comedy theater as dozens of opposition supporters were heading toward the Akrestsina detention center.
Riot police blocked the road leading to Akrestsina, and beat their shields with truncheons while they advanced on the crowd.
An RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent reports he heard several explosions of undetermined origin as police was charging. He says he saw people lying on the ground.
Television footage broadcast on Georgia's Imedi TV shows men carrying a form lying on a stretcher.
A man told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that police were using indiscriminate violence. "They�re kicking women," one witness said. "This is outrageous. They�re real fascists!"
In remarks carried by the official Belta news agency, Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau said demonstrators attacked police forces first, "throwing bottles and other objects." He also denied responsibility for the explosions, saying they wounded one civilian and eight security officers.
Opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was leading the march, was detained.
Navumau accused Kazulin of calling upon demonstrators to seize state buildings and overthrow Belarus's government.
In comments made to RFE/RL's Belarus Service, the wife of another opposition leader, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, denied reports that her husband, too, was detained.
Milinkevich's spokesman Pavel Mazhejka was briefly detained.
Earlier, both Milinkevich and Kazulin were addressing a crowd of several thousand on Yanka Kupala Square to demand that the outcome of the March 19 presidential polls be annulled.
Election officials say incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka won a landslide win with nearly 83 percent of the votes. Milinkevich came second with 6 percent and Kazulin came last with 2.2 percent. The opposition, however, says the vote was rigged.
Milinkevich told supporters on March 25 that a new vote should be held "without Lukashenka."
He vowed that the Belarusian president-elect -- who is due to be inaugurated for his new five-year term on March 31 -- would be gone by the end of the term. He also announced the creation of what he described as a "national movement for the liberation of Belarus."
"They have been hiding in their offices and they think they won the elections," Milinkevich said. "But this is a Pyrrhic victory. This is the beginning of the end of those who lie, who cannot talk to people, who use force against people and beat them. Shame on them!"
Addressing foreign reporters earlier on March 25 near the Akrestsina detention center, Milinkevich had called upon authorities to refrain from violence, vowing in turn to hold a peaceful demonstration:
"I hope [authorities] won't [use force]," Milinkevich said. "I believe there are also reasonable people on their side. When [a government] constantly resorts to forcible methods, it first of all testifies to its weakness -- after all they need to prove they are worth something as men -- and, second, it shows that its end is nearing. A country cannot be ruled by these methods, there has to be dialogue, partnership. But they've forgotten what that is. For them [the upcoming rally] is like a final test, a final warning. But we'll be peaceful, this I promise, there won't be any taking of the Bastille."
The March 25 rally was initially due to take place on October (Kastrychnitskaya) Square, where protest rallies had taken place for most of the week that followed election day.
But security forces had cleared the square on March 24, arresting scores of protesters. Earlier on March 25, they had blocked all access to October Square, forcing demonstrators to move onto Yanka Kupala Square, in a nearby park.
Belarus's Belapan independent news agency on March 25 quoted rights campaigners as saying no less than 328 people were arrested during the March 24 sweep. This figure could not be officially confirmed.
Also on March 25, Belapan reported the head of Milinkevich's election campaign staff in the city of Brest was also arrested on March 24. Dzmitry Shymanski was first arrested 10 days ago on charges of participating in an unsanctioned opposition rally and had just been released from police custody when he was arraigned again, this time for "hooliganism." (Jean-Christophe Peuch)
HAS ORANGE REVOLUTION RECEIVED NEW LEASE ON LIFE?
The March 26 parliamentary elections in Ukraine were won by Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions with from 27-31 percent of the vote, according to three different exit polls. But these polls also indicate that the major players in the Orange Revolution -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- could form a parliamentary majority if they are able to reunite their "Orange" coalition of 2004. Both President Viktor Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko have signaled that they are open to joining forces again. Will they be able to agree on the crucial post of prime minister?
Ukrainian pollsters announced the results of three separate nationwide exit polls immediately after voting for the March 26 parliamentary elections came to a close.
All three polls had the elections being won by the Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- President Viktor Yushchenko's main rival in the 2004 presidential elections.
The exit polls predict that Yanukovych's party will win from 27-31 percent of the vote when official results are announced on March 28, which could translate into as many as 183 mandates in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc will finish second with 22-24 percent of the vote, while the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine will follow with about 15 percent, according to the polls.
These predicted results suggest that the three forces that made up the core of the 2004 Orange Revolution -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- could together account for more than 226 parliamentary seats -- enough to allow them to form a new cabinet. Such a cabinet could depend on the support of between 229 and 257 deputies in parliament.
President Yushchenko has signaled that he is primarily inclined to seek another coalition with Yuliya Tymoshenko, whom he fired as prime minister in September 2005. "Tomorrow we will start consultations with the political forces that formed the previous administration and the same forces that won the Orange Revolution," he said after casting his ballot in Kyiv on March 26. "We will begin talks tomorrow morning, and this may give us an opportunity to develop a political strategy in the negotiations process -- and the early message is that we are looking to lay the foundation for the negotiations process."
After the polls closed, Tymoshenko went a step further, asserting that her bloc has essentially agreed on a renewed coalition accord with Our Ukraine and the Socialist Party and is ready to sign it as soon as March 27. "I can say that at this moment, our party, the Socialist Party, and the Our Ukraine party have fully agreed on the text of a coalition agreement," she said.
Tymoshenko said that under the agreement the political force finishing first among the three potential coalition partners would have the right to propose a candidate to form the next government. This, in effect, means that Tymoshenko will make a bid to regain the premiership she lost in September 2005.
A renewed Orange alliance would have to overcome the internal strife that proved to be its downfall when it led the government from January-August 2005.
The biggest obstacle would be finding a way for Tymoshenko and Our Ukraine officials to work together after she accused some prominent members of the pro-presidential party of corrupt practices last year. If Tymoshenko becomes prime minister, such Orange Revolution combatants as Petro Poroshenko, Oleksandr Tretyakov, and David Zhvaniya -- all of whom were singled out by Tymoshenko -- would likely be reluctant to cooperate fully with her either as cabinet members or as Our Ukraine representatives in a joint parliamentary coalition.
A second hurdle would be finding common ground with the Socialist Party, whose participation is seen as essential if an Orange coalition is to be restored. The Socialist Party is ideologically and programmatically incompatible with Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. This became evident in 2005, when Socialist lawmakers repeatedly voted against World Trade Organization-oriented legislation proposed by the government in which their party had several ministers.
In addition, the Socialist Party's staunch opposition to Ukraine joining NATO and the privatization of land have undermined Yushchenko's efforts to implement the reforms he promised during and after the Orange Revolution.
If the Orange coalition cannot be pieced back together, the possibility of Our Ukraine joining forces with the election-winning Party of Regions is still open. In theory, such a coalition could form a government enjoying solid parliamentary support.
Immediately after the March 26 vote, Yanukovych indicated that such a development might be possible. "The Party of Regions has gained a decisive victory, and we are ready to assume a huge responsibility on behalf of the Ukrainian people -- for political, economic, and social stability in the country," he said. "We are ready to take responsibility to form a government, and we call on everybody who holds Ukraine's fate dear to join us."
But if the official results confirm the exit polls' predictions, it would appear that a Tymoshenko-Yushchenko reunion would make a happier political marriage than one between the former rivals in the bitterly disputed presidential race in 2004.
This is because Tymoshenko campaigned on a ticket of returning to Orange Revolution ideals, and the support she received in this election would indicate that those who stood behind Yushchenko and Tymoshenko during that political movement want to see the two revolutionary heroes working together once again. (Jan Maksymiuk)
PRESIDENT DISCUSSES TRANSDNIESTER, EAST-WEST TIES.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL in Chisinau on March 24, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin discussed the situation regarding the separatist region of Transdniester and the introduction of customs controls on its border with Ukraine, as well as Moldova's relations with Russia and the West.
RFE/RL: Mr. President, Ukraine's decision to introduce new customs regulations for Transdniestrian merchandise has sparked negative reactions in Transdniester itself and in Russia. Transdniester threatens to suspend the negotiations, while Russian Ambassador to Chisinau Nikolai Ryabov made strong statements about Moldova. I would like to ask you to analyze the current stage of the negotiations process and tell us whether they are compromised. What is happening with the Russian troops and arms from Transdniester?
Vladimir Voronin: First of all I want to say that the restrictions, or rather the order we are trying to introduce at the border, are in line with international requirements. Then, I must say that Russian and Transdniestrian statements that the measures were introduced unexpectedly are incorrect. We first began introducing this in 2003, but then in 2004 it was interrupted by a crisis regarding Moldovan schools in Transdniester. Everybody was warned in advance that we and Ukraine will introduce a very strict control at the Ukrainian-Moldovan border along the segment controlled by Transdniester. It is clear that these measures are causing a lot of discomfort in Transdniester, and they are seeking, and getting, support from Russia.
The evolution of these measures is more than 10 years old, beginning with the period when the former Moldovan leadership allowed the separatist region to introduce its own customs stamps. Then over the past several years we have been involved in discussions about the use of these stamps, they also established their own customs office and so on.
Now we and Ukraine control the exports from Transdniester and not the imports. That is why this myth about a humanitarian catastrophe that the separatists and Russia are talking about is not true, because we say, look, you can import whatever you need and how much you need, we won't stop you, although after some time we should revisit this as well. Each state should control both exports and imports at its borders.
Now they want to expand these issues onto the negotiations process. I don't think they will succeed. But the negotiations process already has been marred by problems. There have been three rounds of negotiations without any result, because both Transdniestrian and Russian officials are always coming up with more and more issues and demands.
RFE/RL: Is this customs issue really irritating the separatists and their supporters in Russia, or is it only an excuse for preserving the status quo? Are Moscow's interests in the region so big that it would risk a diplomatic dispute with the West for the sake of an entity that Russia itself does not officially recognize?
Voronin: They do not recognize it officially, but they are seeking certain ways to make that recognition possible. It has become clear what is Russia's interest toward this Moldovan territory: they [Russia] are scheming to connect the Transdniester conflict, the problems with our country's [territorial] integrity with the situation in Kosovo -- if a special status is decided for Kosovo, they want to use it as an example and a basis for a new status of Transdniester and for declaring its independence.
The new measures at the border have caused very serious concern in Russia and they gave up all diplomatic guises and it has become clear that they have a very strong interest in the region. That's why at the next round of negotiations, we must insist that negotiations deal only with the key issue: the status of Transdniester. Otherwise, we will get bogged for many years to come, as it happened until now, discussing unimportant things for the main issue: the [territorial] integrity of the Republic of Moldova.
RFE/RL: The new Belgian presidency of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE has criticized earlier this year Moldova's insistence on remaining a single, unitary state and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht declared that he would avoid "theoretical" debates about Russia's unfulfilled commitments regarding the withdrawal of its troops and arms from Transdniester. How does Moldova regard the position of the new OSCE presidency?
Voronin: We were surprised by the statements, but we understood that when they formulated this opinion they had based it on the situation in Belgium, which is a confederation. We congratulate them and are envious of them, but the situation with Transdniester is totally different and cannot be likened to Belgium or Kosovo or any other example. The emergence of this separatist region has its specific causes and we must take into account our real situation here and not some models somewhere else.
Regarding the troops and arms: it is clear that, since January 1, 2002, the Russian Federation illegitimately and against all international norms has been occupying our country's territory. Until January 1, 2002, the OSCE Istanbul summit's decision [regarding the withdrawal of Russian arms and troops from Transdniester] was still valid, since the deadline [for withdrawal] had been extended at a 2001 OSCE summit [from December 31, 2001, to December 31, 2002]. But until today, neither the troops nor the weapons have been evacuated, and this is a very serious violation of international agreements.
RFE/RL: Mr. President, some time ago you called for the deployment of Western peacekeepers in Transdniester. Has there been any progress toward this?
Voronin: We are discussing it, and furthermore, Russia and Ukraine have expressed their opinion about it in a joint statement by President Vladimir Putin and President Viktor Yushchenko that says that the peacekeepers in the region should be replaced by monitoring missions under the aegis of some European states or the OSCE.
RFE/RL: Coming back to Ukraine's decision to introduce new customs rules, was it determined in your opinion by the EU and its existing monitoring mission along the Ukrainian border with Transdniester, or was it more influenced by Kyiv's desire to become a member of the World Trade Organization?
Voronin: I think all these factors were important in Ukraine's decision. Ukraine has been suffering economically maybe more [than Moldova] because of the illicit traffic with all sorts of merchandise, including weapons, which takes place along the 464 kilometers of border that are not under Moldova's control, and which, until recently, hadn't been seriously monitored by Ukraine either. It is obvious that without the support of our friends from the European Union and other countries, this cooperation at the border would not have been possible.
RFE/RL: You have recently said that smuggling from Transdniester amounts to some $2 billion annually. Some critics say that, despite such statements, there has been no evidence produced. Does such evidence exist, and if so, why isn't it made public?
Voronin: About smuggling from Transdniester to Moldova, we have daily evidence: dozens of trucks loaded with all sorts of merchandise, and [we have proof of] situations of money [transfers to] foreign banks, and there are many other things that we are discovering and investigating on a daily basis. Recently, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko gave a very important interview in which she said this region is a black hole, and Ukraine is losing a lot because of it, and not only economically.
RFE/RL: Is the Ukrainian measure a permanent one? Do you think a possibly different outcome of the parliamentary elections on March 26 could make Kyiv cancel this measure?
Voronin: I don't think this will happen, because, indeed, these are parliamentary elections, but President Yushchenko has been elected too, and will be in office for at least three more years. This is one aspect. The other one is that such decisions are made by President Yushchenko through special measures. Then, whatever the new parliament will look like, it will understand the necessity of securing its borders. Every country needs secure frontiers, because otherwise it cannot develop successfully.
RFE/RL: Moldova and Ukraine were both involved last winter in a dispute with Gazprom regarding gas prices. Some say energy is used by Moscow as a political lever. Your temporary agreement with Gazprom expires at the end of this month. Will Moldova look for energy somewhere else, too?
Voronin: The problem is indeed very serious. Moldova does not have technical possibilities to use alternative energy sources. This is how we were integrated in the former USSR, the gas pipelines were supplying energy only from Russia. I believe that over the next several years, we will solve this problem of alternative energy sources. But for the time being, we are forced to work with Gazprom, and are trying to buy gas at a price that is more convenient for Moldova.
I would like it very much for the gas price to be dictated by the market and not by political interests, or by the current scandal around Transdniester. For instance, we have a joint venture with Gazprom, called Moldova Gaz. We are offering them a profitable business opportunity: we are proposing that gas transit to Ukraine be done in cooperation with us, because the pipelines are crossing our territory, and we have a tax system much more favorable than Russia. In Moldova, profit is taxed at 15 percent, while in Russia it is 32 percent. That's why Gazprom, through its Moldova Gaz joint venture, could make more money. We want to do business with them, but we do not want to be forced into paying more money.
RFE/RL: Is it possible that you will sign a new agreement with Gazprom at the end of March?
Voronin: We want to, because otherwise we will be left without gas. We were the only country in Europe that between January 1-16 was completely disconnected from gas supplies. Only thanks to Ukraine, and to President Yushchenko personally, we survived during a period of very cold weather.
RFE/RL: Mr. President, the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights says these rights are "generally" respected in Moldova. But the document says there are problems with judiciary and police corruption, and harassment by the authorities, while the political opposition is being intimidated. What measures do you envisage to improve the situation?
Voronin: There are indeed cases of corruption in the judiciary, and we decided to establish a national institute to prepare judges and prosecutors, with assistance from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. There are many other initiatives to improve the situation in this field, but it all depends on how much time we have at our disposal and how people adapt to change. We are already replacing judges with problems in their activities. The anticorruption center has been working for four years already, and we have had good results recently, results that were noted abroad as well: Moldova has climbed down 21 steps in the [Transparency International's] Corruption Index in only one year, which is very good. Civil society has become more involved in the control of state institutions, and I believe that in the long run we will get much better results in fighting corruption.
Political parties' development depends solely on their own actions. If they continue to justify their failures at the polls, especially during elections, by saying that there is state interference in their activities, that's something else. We are not obliged to favor political organizations and help them win the elections. For that, they should do more for their country and its citizens, instead of looking for excuses. Parliament is now working on a local administration law which would give more power to local authorities. Separately, we, the Communists, after winning the elections last year in March, voted to transfer the control of the Central Election Commission to the opposition to avoid being accused of trying to manipulate the polls. However, there are always problems, and the government is not always responsible. I think civil society should also be more involved in solving these problems.
RFE/RL: The report speaks of instances of intimidation against the opposition. How do you comment on that?
Voronin: I only acknowledge the parliamentary opposition, other types of opposition I do not recognize. We have, however, some other cases. For example, some persons who have problems with the law, instead of solving their problems honestly, they acquire political parties from other politicians, and then, once they have important positions in such parties, they say publicly that they are being intimidated, and their political activities are restricted. But their aim is to acquire political immunity.
One such case is Nicolae Andronic, who is now a member of the Republican Party, and who at every street corner says that they are being intimidated, but he actually has problems with the law. He has problems also with his involvement in last year's electoral campaign, when half of those 26 Russian experts who came to Moldova and were expelled by us because of their direct involvement in the campaign, were directly involved in supporting Andronic's party.
RFE/RL: The case of former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat has triggered criticism toward Moldova from both Russia and the United States. How do you comment on these?
Voronin: These accusations of political account settling are nothing new in Moldova. Whenever the law nabs a thief who regularly, systematically, and brutally sticks his hands into the state's pockets, we are accused of account settling. Now they say again that this is not a serious legal investigation, but account settling. We all know that corruption is not among workers, or office clerks, among people who cannot influence the general trend. Corruption exists among people with high positions, which they use to influence things in the direction they want. When we have begun the fight against corruption, we immediately were accused of account settling. Regarding the Pasat case, I would refrain from comment, because the appeals court is considering his case.
RFE/RL: Mr. President, some critics say Moldova is opening toward the West only in its foreign policy, but real Western-style democratic reform has yet to be initiated domestically. What do you have to say about this criticism?
Voronin: We have reformed many fields, but I think that reform is not perpetual, it must be completed at some point, so that normal activity can begin. Many await reforms only because they think nothing must be done today: They think, why should we do something concrete today, when tomorrow we start the reform? In the economic field, I have said many times, let's finish the reforms and start working seriously.
We are working very seriously to fulfill our commitments that we took when we became members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Our parliament only has to complete a bill or two in order to fulfill all these commitments. In February 2005, we signed an Action Plan with the European Union, and we have already been subjected to monitoring. In a couple of months, we will again be monitored. We are doing everything to fulfill all our commitments to European institutions in a timely fashion. All bills passed by parliament have also been reviewed by European institutions. All our reforms and legislation is based on modern, European legislation.
RFE/RL: It is likely that from January 1, 2007, Moldova will be a neighbor of the European Union once Romania has joined the bloc. How is Moldova looking toward this moment?
Voronin: It will involve many more responsibilities. Until now, we could freely travel to Romania without any visas or restrictions. But it is clear that Romania will have to introduce visas to conform to EU legislation, and now we are making efforts to find a solution with Romanian authorities to offset the impact of these restrictions upon our citizens.
But we will also benefit from Romania's EU membership, which we sincerely wish for our Romanian friends. But what we don't want is to officially accept the status of a member of the EU Neighborhood Policy. We are neighbors with the EU because of geography, but by officially accepting such a status, we consider that we would get hinder our own chances of becoming an EU member. Until then, we must keep building Europe here, at home.