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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 8, 2006

August 8, 2006, Volume 8, Number 27
ELECTION ACTIVISTS SENTENCED IN CLOSED-DOOR TRIAL. A verdict was handed down on August 4 in the closed-door trial of four Belarusian activists accused of running an unregistered organization.

The four, who have been in pretrial detention since February, each received prison sentences ranging from six months to two years. The four worked for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that was planning to monitor the March 19 presidential election.

The sentences handed down by Judge Leanid Yasinovich were more lenient than those recommended by the prosecution -- but harsh from the perspective of the defendants and their supporters.

The four -- Tsimafey Dranchuk, Mikalay Astreyka, Enira Branitskaya, and Alyaksandr Shalayka -- were charged with belonging to an unregistered organization "infringing upon the interests and rights of citizens."

That's a far cry from the accusations made by authorities when the four were originally arrested. Then, state officials suggested that the activists were plotting to overthrow the state and launch terrorist attacks in Minsk.

On August 2, prosecutors recommended the accused be given sentences of two to three years. In the end, Astreyka received a sentence of two years. Dranchuk was sentenced to one year, and Branitskaya and Shalayka each received six-month sentences. The time they have already served means that at least Branitskaya and Shalayka are due to be released soon.

Information about the trial has been scant, with the public denied access and little press coverage. Since their detention in February, relatives of the accused have complained that their visiting rights have been restricted.

Volha Antsypovich, the wife of defendant Tsimafey Dranchuk, gave birth to a baby son while her husband was in prison. "I think our children will grow up to become very good people," she said. "Our son, while growing up, will know and remember that when he was born, his father was not able to give me flowers or write me a note and give it to the maternity hospital.

"Even if this regime will not change by the time Platon [their son] becomes an adult, this regime has already made a staunch opponent [out of him] at the time of his birth," she added. The wives of both Astreyka and Shalayka are currently pregnant as well.

The defendants have argued that their NGO, Partnership, was only interested in election monitoring.

Opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who lost by a wide margin to Lukashenka in the March presidential election, has spoken out in support of the defendants.

"They [the authorities] have already begun to fight people who did nothing but had an intention to do something. What did these people want to do? They wanted to monitor the [presidential] election and they wanted to do an exit poll. This is done in all countries, even in those that are not very civilized," Milinkevich said on July 28.

"The authorities are afraid because they know that they lie and they know that the elections were falsified. They are afraid of the truth. Therefore, it is a struggle against the truth," he added.

Ambassadors of several European Union countries have also criticized the trial -- in particular, the fact that it is being held behind closed doors.

German Ambassador Martin Hecker, speaking outside the courtroom on July 31, compared the proceedings to the show trials that took place during the Nazi and Stalin eras. He also decried the fact that the work of independent election-monitoring groups is considered illegal in Belarus.

And the British ambassador to Belarus, Brian Bennett, said the trial is a worrying development. "We're here to show that we are keeping an eye on the process and to show our support for the democratic process in general," he added. "But also to show the authorities that we are concerned about developments here."

The activists were arrested in accordance with amendments to the country's Criminal Code. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed off on the amendments in December 2005.

The changes make it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail to "discredit" Belarus in the eyes of foreign organizations and governments. People convicted of circulating "false information" about the country also face similar prison terms under the new law.

The United States and European Union have both spoken out against the amendments. (RFE/RL Newsroom, with contributions from RFE/RL's Belarus Service)

WHO IS IN NEW CABINET? Ukraine's tortuous, four-month-long process of forming a new government ended on August 4 with the confirmation of Party of Regions leader Yanukovych as new prime minister.

The Ukrainian parliament also endorsed a new Cabinet of Ministers, in which the Party of Regions will control some major portfolios concerning the country's economy.

Yanukovych will have four deputies, as he had in the cabinet he oversaw during his previous stint as prime minister in 2002-04. Mykola Azarov will serve as both first deputy prime minister and finance minister, as he did during Yanukovych's first term. The three deputy prime ministers will also take on additional roles. Andriy Klyuyev will be in charge of the fuel and energy sector, Dmytro Tabachnyk will oversee humanitarian and social issues, and Volodymyr Rybak will head the Construction Ministry.

Azarov and Klyuyev are among Yanukovych's oldest and staunchest allies. Azarov is generally seen as a technocrat. As head of the State Tax Administration in 1996-2002, he was repeatedly accused by the opposition of applying fiscal and tax pressure on businesses linked to political opponents of former President Leonid Kuchma.

Klyuyev is a wealthy businessman with interests in the machine-building sector who led Yanukovych's campaign team in the 2004 presidential election. He was rumored to be the main player behind the falsification of election results in favor of Yanukovych, although those rumors have never been confirmed by investigators.

The Party of Regions' quota of ministerial posts also includes Minister for Liaison with the Verkhovna Rada Ivan Tkalenko, Labor Minister Mykhaylo Papiyev, Environment Minister Vasyl Dzharty, Coal Industry Minister Serhiy Tulub, Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko, Economy Minister Volodymyr Makukha, and Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers Anatoliy Tolstoukhov.

Virtually all of the Party of Regions' ministers have considerable experience in serving in senior government posts. This favorably distinguishes Yanukovych's cabinet in comparison to that led by Yuliya Tymoshenko in 2005. Her cabinet to a large extent consisted of Orange Revolution personalities with little or no experience in government.

It can be expected that the new Ukrainian cabinet should easily be able to agree on a basic set of economic reforms, which will be needed to continue the current positive trends in the economy. After all, it was under Yanukovych's premiership in 2004 that Ukraine posted impressive economic growth of 12 percent.

However, a disturbing feature of Yanukovych's cabinet is that -- as in virtually all former Ukrainian cabinets -- there is no clear separation between politics and business. Many cabinet members have vested interests in different business spheres. This could become a seed of future conflicts in the uneasy "coalition of national unity," which includes not only ministers from the largely oligarchic Our Ukraine, but also from the Marxist-Leninist Socialist Party.

In accordance with the constitution amended in 2004, President Viktor Yushchenko nominated the foreign minister and the defense minister, Borys Tarasyuk and Anatoliy Hrytsenko, respectively. Both politicians are strongly supportive of Ukraine's integration with Euro-Atlantic structures and were delegated by Yushchenko to assure the public both at home and abroad that Ukraine's pro-Western course will not undergo any significant changes under Yanukovych's premiership.

Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, a former Socialist Party member who is now independent, is also seen as a Yushchenko man in the government. Lutsenko, an iconic leader of the Orange Revolution, is widely seen as an uncompromising custodian of the "Augean Stables," to which Ukraine's notoriously corrupt police force is sometimes compared.

In accepting his post, Lutsenko asserted that he sees the possibility of implementing the president's policies in Yanukovych's cabinet. However, most Ukrainians have apparently not yet forgotten that he completely failed to implement a major tenet of the Orange Revolution -- "bandits will go to jail" -- in the preceding cabinets of Yuliya Tymoshenko and Yuriy Yekhanurov. No major investigation by the Interior Ministry into corruption or election falsification has resulted in jail terms. It is hard to imagine that Lutsenko will be more successful now that some of the "bandits" have returned to the government.

Our Ukraine, which has yet to sign a formal coalition accord with the three other parties in the cabinet, is represented by Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, Family and Sports Minister Yuriy Pavlenko, Emergency Situations Minister Viktor Baloha, Culture Minister Ihor Likhovyy, and Health Minister Yuriy Polyachenko.

Taking into account that the Verkhovna Rada is headed by Oleksandr Moroz of the Socialist Party and all deputy-prime-minister positions are filled by people from the Party of Regions, it is clear that the pro-presidential Our Ukraine has no major post in the government. This is the price Our Ukraine had to pay for its clumsy coalition negotiations following the March 26 parliamentary elections and its protracted hesitancy over whom it likes more -- Tymoshenko or Yanukovych.

Our Ukraine supported Yanukovych for prime minister on August 4 only half-heartedly: just 30 of the party's 80 lawmakers voted in Yanukovych's favor. It appears that the cohabitation of Our Ukraine with the Party of Regions in the ruling coalition -- irrespective of whether it will be formalized or not -- will not be easy. There seems to be a pervading mood of frustration and political failure among a majority of Our Ukraine leaders and rank-and-file activists.

The Socialist Party is represented in the new cabinet by Education Minister Stanislav Nikolayenko and Transport Minister Mykola Rudkovskyy. While Nikolayenko is seen as a good specialist in education and his reappointment was to be expected, Rudkovskyy's main contribution to Ukraine's transportation system seems to lie in his fondness for driving expensive cars and wearing smart suits.

The political affiliation of Agroindustrial Complex Minister Yuriy Melnyk and Industrial Policy Minister Anatoliy Holovko is not clear. Theoretically, they should belong to the quota of the Communist Party, which brings 21 votes to the coalition. But Melnyk is known for his anticommunist views and pronouncements. Some Ukrainian media suggest that the Communists exchanged their cabinet portfolios for an undisclosed sum, which was paid by some unidentified sponsors.

On the whole, Yanukovych's cabinet seems to be more carefully assorted in terms of professionalism than those of Yekhanurov and Tymoshenko. But it is too early to predict whether the new government will become an immediate success or can contribute something substantial to bridging the east-west divide in the country, as some commentators expect.

In actual fact, neither the 2004 Orange Revolution nor the 2006 parliamentary elections have brought any significant changing of the guard in Ukrainian politics. Instead, it is the country's voters who seem to have undergone an important transformation. They are now more politically active and more inclined to judge their political leaders by deeds rather than pledges. And if the trend of Ukrainian voters keeping a watchful eye on their government continues, their chances of seeing a change in their political elite might improve. (Jan Maksymiuk)

PRESIDENT COMPROMISES FOR NATIONAL UNITY. In the early hours of August 3, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko at last put an end to the country's four-month political stalemate with a painful political concession.

In a live televised address, Yushchenko named Viktor Yanukovych, the head of the pro-Russia Party of Regions and Yushchenko's main rival in the 2004 Orange Revolution, as the country's new prime minister.

Yushchenko kept the nation in suspense until the last moment. August 2 was the constitutional deadline for Yushchenko to endorse or reject the nomination of Yanukovych as the new prime minister. A rejection would likely have meant the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada and a call for new elections.

Yushchenko, following a meeting with political leaders on the day of the deadline, appeared to hint that the impasse had left him no other options. "The leading five Ukrainian political forces did not reach an understanding on the key Ukrainian constitutional priorities, the key priorities for national development," he said. "This is the most worrying. The road map, the [declaration of national unity], which was envisaged as an answer to this challenge, unfortunately, was not signed."

Yushchenko was referring to a document his administration had drafted that laid out some 24 priorities for the new government. The most important pledges in the document concern preserving Ukraine as "a unitary state," keeping Ukrainian as the official state language, maintaining Ukraine's course for European integration, and developing "mutually beneficial" cooperation with NATO with the country's possible NATO membership after a nationwide referendum.

This left Ukraine anticipating the president would use his scheduled television address to announce his rejection of Yanukovych and the dissolution of parliament.

Yanukovych and Oleksandr Moroz, the Socialist Party leader and parliamentary speaker, came to the president for last-ditch anticrisis talks, which continued deep into the night. Early on August 3, two hours past the expiration of his deadline, Yushchenko announced that he had decided to endorse Yanukovych for prime minister.

"Following from what I have said, I have made the decision to put forward Viktor Yanukovych for the post of Ukraine's prime minister," Yushchenko said. "By this I want to once again stress that I understand the whole complexity in the east and the west of Ukraine, regarding this nomination for the post of prime minister. I call on the country to understand that today we have a unique chance to realize all that we talked about, and to bring the country together for a political understanding."

Yushchenko went on to say that he, Yanukovych, and Moroz -- together with caretaker Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov and Roman Bezsmertnyy from Yushchenko's Our Ukraine -- initialed the declaration of national unity. The Communist Party, which proposed Yanukovych as a candidate for prime minister jointly with the Party of Regions and the Socialist Party in July, signed the declaration a day later at a solemn roundtable ceremony, but made several important caveats. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko said he objects to six points in the declaration.

The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which in the past repeatedly declared it would never strike a coalition deal with Yanukovych's Party of Regions, refused to sign the declaration and will go into opposition.

Does the endorsement of Yanukovych for prime minister by Yushchenko mean that the 2004 Orange Revolution has suffered a total disintegration? Is Ukraine about to reverse its political course? Both concerns appear to be exaggerated.

Speaking to a crowd of supporters in Kyiv on August 2, Yanukovych was forced to admit that the Orange Revolution has radically changed the country and that there can be no return to the past. "We have already come to understand that 2004, all things considered, has opened all of our eyes as to who we are, who stands by us, and what our country is," he said. "I think that this has brought us benefits and, of course, purification."

It is true that Yanukovych objects to Ukraine's bid for membership in NATO, which is a goal fervently pursued by Yushchenko. However, Yanukovych's objection reflects the feeling of a majority of Ukrainians about the North Atlantic alliance, rather than his own deep-seated political convictions.

In 2003, during Yanukovych's previous premiership under then-President Leonid Kuchma, Kyiv sought expanded cooperation with NATO, and declared NATO membership as a strategic goal. So there may be room for compromise between Yanukovych and Yushchenko on this tricky issue.

Yanukovych has also repeatedly declared that he is in favor of Ukraine joining both the World Trade Organization and the European Union, two other goals pursued by Yushchenko. Therefore, his premiership under Yushchenko may eventually prove to be no less "pro-Western" than those of his two predecessors, Yuliya Tymoshenko and Yuriy Yekhanurov.

However, a big setback for Ukraine's new government is the general disillusionment with political elites in the country, which was provoked by the infamous breakup of the Orange Revolution allies in 2005, the virtual lack of reforms in the country, and what is widely seen as Yushchenko's lack of political will and inability to live up to his election promises.

Many average Ukrainians are disillusioned -- and angry. "Everybody, absolutely all of the Ukrainian people, are sick and tired of this [situation]," one Kyiv resident told RFE/RL on August 1. "Our government and Yushchenko have allowed such chaos that now they can't do anything properly, they can't divide [their] power. They are not fighting to improve the life of the people; they are fighting for posts in which they will be able to rob [the people]. This is what they are fighting for."

If the new government manages to adopt a prompt reform plan and put it into practice, Yushchenko may get a chance "to bring the country together," as he declared while nominating Yanukovych. If not, Ukraine will most likely become even more bitterly divided and exasperated. (Jan Maksymiuk)

FORMER PRESIDENT OBSERVES 'UKRAINE WITHOUT KUCHMA'. RFE/RL's Russian Service on August 4 spoke with former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma about recent political developments in his country. Ukraine's new prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, first served as prime minister under Kuchma and was considered Kuchma's anointed successor before the Orange Revolution brought Viktor Yushchenko to power.

RFE/RL: Do you think that with the signing of the declaration of national unity and the formation of a new government that the epoch of political instability in Ukraine is over? Or is this a temporary respite and a new crisis of power is inevitable? What do you think is the main threat to stability?

Leonid Kuchma: For me that is a difficult -- and to an extent, dangerous -- question, since I was president of Ukraine for more than 10 years. In my current position as ex-president, I have to be careful about political assessments and forecasts. I think that some forecasts can become reality simply because they were made public. I don't think I'll name the main threat to political stability in Ukraine for the simple reason that the new government is still being formed. But we can talk about the main threat to Ukraine's economy -- and that is another increase in the price of natural gas. It would hit Ukraine like a typhoon. Russia -- through its ambassador, [Viktor] Chernomyrdin-- has announced that the price of gas is going to be determined by market forces alone and will not depend in any way on a parliamentary coalition in Ukraine or its composition. Misfortunes, you know, do not come alone and economic problems can bring on political troubles.

RFE/RL: Do you think that another increase in the price of Russian gas will lead to the collapse of Ukraine's economy? Is it possible to avoid that scenario? Will the new government be able to change anything regarding the gas situation?

Kuchma: Of course, there won't be a collapse. But there could be some major problems, particularly for the chemical sector where somewhere around 70 percent of costs are for natural gas. The metals sector will survive, but it is going to be very hard for the chemicals industry. And I have no idea how the population is going to cope with increases for communal services. This is just the first twist of the screw and we will see what kind of tension develops in society. Although everyone must understand that $230 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas is the price that Ukraine is paying for its new foreign policy.

Considering the views of Yanukovych, I would hope that relations with Russia will calm down some. But I would repeat that the price of gas will not depend on who is prime minister. We have only lost time. You understand perfectly well that $230 for 1,000 cubic meters is the political price of changing Ukraine's political course.

RFE/RL: What do you think are the main mistakes that Viktor Yushchenko has made since he became president? And what are his main accomplishments?

Kuchma: I think that the first mistake -- and I'm not alone in thinking this -- that the new authorities made was not doing anything to reconcile the east and west of the country. The differences between the two Ukraines became unacceptably worse after the 2004 election. And the new authorities should have immediately done everything possible to minimize these conflicts. But they did practically the opposite.

The second mistake was that they spoiled relations with Russia by being too aggressive in its pro-Western policies -- most of all, regarding NATO. I was criticized a lot for my multi-vector policies, but I'm proud of my foreign policy and consider it an important achievement. A multi-vector policy helped me maintain domestic tranquility at home. It helped me preserve Ukraine's sovereignty. I think that for any country in the modern world the correct policy is a multi-vector policy. And the majority of countries have adopted such policies.

The third mistake, I'd say, was the purging of personnel. Many observers called this political maneuvering and I agree with that. They drove away tens of thousands of experienced and intelligent managers. I'm sure you understand that in a market situation, such people are worth their weight in gold. This is especially true in the east and the south of the country, where some two-thirds of the country's gross domestic product is produced.

I think the main achievement is the noticeable vitalization of political and social life. There is more freedom of speech, I think, although it is true there is no accountability. That's what "freedom of speech" costs under our head of police [Interior Minister Yuriy] Lutsenko.

"Everyone must understand that $230 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas is the price that Ukraine is paying for its new foreign policy."

RFE/RL: You said that Yushchenko's main mistake was not being able to overcome the ideological split between the east and the west. What should have been done to overcome it? Can we overcome it at all?

Kuchma: You know, in recent years this problem wasn't evident at all. The country was stable and the economy was really developing. In general, I thought and still think that the economy must be the unifying force in the country. People were beginning to live better and to look with confidence toward the future. And the historical differences between the east and the west were gradually being smoothed over. And the problems that did exist didn't need to be exposed. For instance, the problem of the Russian language. That is, there was an evolutionary process that would have worked itself out, except that politicians would seriously stir it up every time an election came around.

And another thing is that it was necessary to achieve some sort of consensus of political forces about a development strategy for the country. Our Polish neighbors -- we love to cite the experiences of Poland -- have no divisions regarding the country's course in relation to the European Union, entry into NATO -- this is supported by all political forces and by society. But we have divisions and they can't be hidden. Life itself will put everything in its place.

RFE/RL: Do you agree with Viktor Yushchenko that his compromise with Viktor Yanukovych is capable of bringing the two banks of the Dnieper closer together? That is, that it can to some extent bridge the gap between west and east?

Kuchma: At least we can say that this decision is not going to make the banks of the Dnieper any farther apart. That alone is enough to make one rejoice. For that alone, it is necessary to praise the people who sat at the table and reached an agreement, although to the very last moment agreement was in doubt. But will the two shores become closer after the formation of a broad parliamentary coalition? Let's live a bit and see. I hope so and there are signs that this will be the case. Since the end of 2004, the divisions have not become worse, but they haven't gotten any better either and a high level of tension has been maintained. It is completely possible that those tensions will begin to be reduced.

And it is very important that this problem is not being hushed up. The problem of achieving national unity is now on the political agenda. And Yushchenko, in my opinion, did absolutely the right thing when he said that with his decision to submit Yanukovych as prime minister, he hopes to bring east and west closer together. In this, he was absolutely correct. And I think that with this statement, he sent a signal to both sides of the Dnieper that he understands the essence of the main problems facing Ukraine today.

By the way, the idea of a broad parliamentary coalition, the idea of a historical compromise, was my idea, although other politicians also endorsed it. I presented this idea to the press when I was at a conference called Europe-Ukraine in Crimea. At that time I said that the president, as the guarantor of the constitution, must take upon himself the political responsibility of settling this crisis. As a man and as a politician, Viktor Yushchenko can support his party or bloc. But as the head of state, he must make a decision not in favor of one party or another, but in favor of the people and the state. That is why at that time I proposed that Yushchenko initiate a broad formula for a parliamentary coalition, a formula of national compromise. In that way, it would be possible to unite the blue-and-white [Yanukovych's Party of Regions] and the orange [Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc] in parliament and create a coalition of national compromise.

I said and I will always repeat that it is impermissible to destroy a potential union. Today everything must be done to strengthen it, to strengthen it primarily through the statements and positions of the president. I see the head of state as someone who is capable of initiating a broad pact of national reconciliation, one that would not only include parliamentary factions but also parties that are not in parliament, nongovernmental organizations, and the citizens of Ukraine. And so I am honestly and sincerely glad that this has happened. As a result it has become obvious who is for a united Ukraine and who is simply for power.

RFE/RL: But this coalition has a limited format. The activists of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and the Pora party have labeled the compromise a betrayal of the Orange Revolution.

Kuchma: There are definitely problems and it is impossible to ignore them. But it is impermissible not to find a compromise between these two political forces and it is impermissible to live in a constant state of mistrust. The east is the east, which gave most of its votes to the Party of Regions and to Yanukovych personally. And there is the west. So what now? We have to try to unite, to work, to move on. You understand that there has been a struggle for power. I don't see what else we can do today and I think that most politicians agree with me. I know what kinds of ideas were bandied about at the roundtable. And I thank God that we've gotten this far.

RFE/RL: In 2004, you said, "You'll find out what Ukraine is like without Kuchma." What turn of events were you talking about then?

Kuchma: That is a difficult question. Probably I expressed myself a little more modestly. I think that I said to a journalist that I would like to find out what Ukraine will be like without Kuchma. I think that is what I actually said. And God has given me that chance. As far as scenarios go, well, it probably couldn't have been otherwise. I know the history of Ukraine and I know the character of its people -- both the strong and the weak sides. Ukrainians in general know themselves very well. We praise ourselves less than we curse ourselves. And what do we curse ourselves for most? For the fact that there are three bosses for every two Ukrainians. You know the old saying -- in a struggle for power, people are ready to destroy one another and everything around them.

Three hundred and fifty years ago we went through a terrible period in which a struggle for power among domestic elites turned Ukraine into an absolute ruin. In fact, this period is called the Ruin, with a capital R. People who know Ukraine's history don't need to be geniuses to know that the greatest misfortune, the worst crisis, that we have seen was a cruel and destructive struggle for power, an inability to compromise. Only me, my wife, and God know what it cost me to hold all our "bosses" in check and to keep them from pulling each other's hair out.

RFE/RL: At the beginning of our conversation, you said that you don't want to make predictions or that you would be cautious in your predictions. All the same, I want to ask you to predict how Ukraine's political landscape will look in two or three years.

Kuchma: I don't think there will be any substantial changes. No new personalities will appear in politics. There will be new parties, and the unification processes among parties will continue to develop. There will be new public organizations. But we will live more or less like we live now. Today, no one can say with confidence that he is optimistic about tomorrow. I feel that way myself.

RFE/RL: Why is it that you -- unlike Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk -- have completely left politics and have not run for the Verkhovna Rada? Do you intend to reconsider that decision?

Kuchma: I have always been absolutely honest with Ukrainians, with the people. I have said many times that I am leaving politics. Ten years as president is more than enough. I think that simply participating in the public life of the country is more than enough for me. I do not need politics. I have been there enough, have worked enough. I do not intend to return to politics.