Accessibility links

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: June 27, 2006

June 27, 2006, Volume 8, Number 24
FORMER PRISONER RECOUNTS LIFE BEHIND BARS. Valery Levaneuski spent two years in a Belarusian prison for "publicly causing offense to the president."

Levaneuski, a political activist, spent two years in prison on charges of defaming President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a 2004 May Day leaflet. The leaflet charged that the president had misused public funds to pay for a skiing holiday in Austria.

He was sentenced and jailed in September 2004. In Hrodna prison, in western Belarus, Levaneuski staged a series of hunger strikes and spent long periods of time in solitary confinement.

"The Hrodna jail is the place where even the walls and ceilings are depressing," he said. "It was built a long time ago and, as they say, many prisoners have died there, in those cells."

He was released on May 15 and says conditions from the beginning of his sentence were tough.

"There is a special [train] carriage to transport prisoners," Levaneuski said. "It has bars on the windows. This compartment houses some 18 prisoners. They are like herrings in a box. It has three tiers of beds. Practically, it is impossible to breathe. People are not allowed to go to the toilet. It is very difficult when you are being transported, when you travel for several hours or for several days."

Levaneuski says the most challenging time he faced was when he was put in solitary confinement for staging a hunger strike.

"I was put in a solitary-confinement cell where the sewage system was not functioning," he said. "Excrement and urine was flooding the floor. Nobody was cleaning it, as there was no water there."

Difficult living conditions are a fact of life, Levaneuski says, and make the prisoners totally powerless.

"Everything starts with a daily routine," Levaneuski said. "It is impossible to wash yourself. It is impossible to wash clothes. It is impossible to go [out from the cell] and walk. You are allowed to have only a one-hour walk in a small yard. It is impossible to do any physical exercise. There is no library. There is no information [from outside]. Correspondence is practically forbidden as the censorship is such that it is a problem to communicate with relatives as many letters do not reach them."

Belarusian human rights activists paint a similar picture. They say there are some 41,000 prisoners in the country. Worldwide, that's high. According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London, only the United States and Russia have a higher number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens.

Capital punishment has not been abolished in Belarus, and at least three prisoners were executed last year.

Tatsyana Protska, the head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, says living conditions in prisons are a potential health disaster for inmates.

"We are concerned about the state of health care," Protska said. "There are very many sick people there -- people sick with tuberculosis, HIV. People, who are in jail, are not always getting sufficient medical help."

However, Protska says the real problem lies in the courts, not jails. She says Belarusian courts give prison sentences even for minor offenses. For example, joyriding is punished with five to seven years.

Protska also says that most imprisoned opponents of the regime are in jail for criminal offences, rather than on political charges.

Uladzimir Labkovich, a Minsk-based lawyer and human rights activist, says that the Belarusian penal system is only concerned with punishing prisoners, rather than rehabilitating them.

No one from the Belarusian Interior Ministry was available for comment about the situation in the country's prisons. (Valentinas Mite)

HOW WILL RENEWED 'ORANGE' GOVERNMENT BE RUN? The three allies of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- decided on June 22 to recreate their ruling coalition, which existed for eight months in 2005. The renewed Orange coalition, however, comes into being under new rules of the political game determined by a constitutional reform that took effect at the beginning of 2006. Under this reform, Ukraine's parliament and prime minister acquired more political clout at the expense of the president.

How has the ruling class in Ukraine prepared to deal with this new situation?

Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous political bloc, was fond of asserting during the parliamentary election campaign earlier this year that voting for the Verkhovna Rada on March 26 would decide who would actually govern Ukraine over the next five years. In this way she was highlighting the new, enhanced powers of the parliament and the cabinet of ministers vis-a-vis the presidency, which are a result of the constitutional changes made during the peak of the Orange Revolution in December 2004.

Would Tymoshenko repeat that assertion now, after her party has rejoined the ruling coalition and she personally is poised to become prime minister once again?

Perhaps yes, but arguably with less confidence -- this because her coalition partners from Our Ukraine have put forth a great deal of effort during the nearly three months of coalition talks in order to install an elaborate system of checks and balances to prevent her from gaining too much power.

A coalition deal signed on June 22 provides for the distribution of election spoils between the Orange allies on a broadly proportional basis. This means that the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (129 seats) should get 53 percent of government posts, Our Ukraine (81 seats) 33 percent, and the Socialist Party (33 seats) 14 percent.

But this arithmetic does not apply to some major state posts that the constitution defines as a presidential quota. In particular, the president has the right to appoint the foreign minister, the defense minister, the prosecutor-general, the head of the Security Service, the head of the National Bank, and all regional governors. It should be expected that these appointments will be made by President Viktor Yushchenko mostly from the ranks of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine.

Moreover, presidential prerogatives include appointing half the members of the National Radio and Television Council, the National Bank Council, and the Constitutional Court. The president also has veto powers on legislation, which can be overturned by no fewer than 300 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. Thus, even after the 2004 shift from the presidential to parliamentary form of governance in Ukraine, President Yushchenko appears to have more political clout than most of his counterparts in Central Europe.

According to unconfirmed media reports, the June 22 coalition deal allocates the post of prime minister and nine ministerial portfolios to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. Our Ukraine is to take the posts of parliamentary speaker and deputy prime minister as well as five ministerial portfolios. The Socialist Party will have to satisfy itself with the post of first deputy premier and three ministerial portfolios.

The posts of heads of parliamentary committees are distributed among the coalition partners under a similar proportional scheme, but an adopted system of checks and balances assures that Our Ukraine and the Socialist Party control those committees that deal with the spheres of cabinet activities being under the control of ministers from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc.

The Orange coalition deal also includes a chapter called "The Regulations of the Coalition's Activities," which sets internal rules and procedures for arriving at coordinated decisions.

According to these rules, every coalition partner has the power of veto over proposed legislation, and consensus is needed for submitting a draft bill or resolution to the Verkhovna Rada.

The main programmatic issues -- mapping out principal foreign and domestic policies and drafting the cabinet's program of action -- are to be tackled by the General Assembly of the Coalition, which consists of all 243 lawmakers from the three Orange parties. The General Assembly of the Coalition adopts resolutions by voting -- a decision is deemed passed if it is supported by more than 50 percent of lawmakers in each coalition party.

On a daily basis, the work of the coalition is coordinated by the nine-member Coalition Council, which is made up of three lawmakers from each coalition party.

There are also rules obliging the coalition to consult on issues of special importance with the three top state officials: the president, the prime minister, and the parliamentary speaker.

In particular, the coalition, through its council, has to hold mandatory consultations with the president regarding the determination of foreign and domestic policies and a program of socioeconomic development. The same applies to submitting the candidacy of a prime minister for parliamentary approval.

The prime minister is restricted in his/her actions by a requirement to hold mandatory consultations with the Coalition Council regarding the nomination of cabinet and other officials whom the constitution assigns to his/her sphere of authority. A similar requirement applies to cabinet dismissals.

In other words, for the first time in Ukraine's 15 years of independence the Ukrainian political elite have agreed on a set of rules that can make running the government in the country a fairly transparent and civilized business. This circumstance, coupled with the constitutional reform that distributes political clout among the power branches more evenly, may be seen as an indisputable gain of the Orange Revolution.

However, the upsetting part of all this is that people intending to run a new government in Ukraine are essentially the same people who split in September 2005 among mutual accusations of corruption practices and/or encroaching upon each other's prerogatives.

Our Ukraine's proposal that Petro Poroshenko, Tymoshenko's fiercest enemy in the 2005 feud within the then-Orange coalition, take the post of parliamentary speaker seems to be an ill-advised "parliamentary check" on Tymoshenko as the head of the cabinet. There is a great likelihood that the former rivalry between these two might start anew, plunging the new coalition once again into recriminations and quarreling.

Incidentally, representatives of the opposition Party of Regions predict that precisely because of the incompatibility of such individuals as Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, the new Orange coalition is doomed to the same collapse as its Orange predecessor. Bracing itself for such an eventuality, the Party of Regions is keeping its options open and has avoided saying "no" to a future coalition with Our Ukraine.

Our Ukraine unambiguously suggested that its own coalition with the Party of Regions is a possibility when it invited its main enemy in the Orange Revolution to participate in coalition talks earlier this month. Therefore, what looked like an attempt to blackmail Tymoshenko into becoming more pliant in the coalition talks two weeks ago may well prove to be a practical move. (Jan Maksymiuk)