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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 26, 2006

September 26, 2006, Volume 8, Number 33
ITALIAN TOWN RALLIES AROUND FAMILY OVER ORPHAN. For thousands of visitors each summer, the picturesque Italian town of Cogoleto, on the coast near Genoa, is a slice of paradise. There's a long sandy beach, a sea perfect for swimming, and a festive atmosphere that first made the area popular with stars such as Sophia Loren in the 1950s.

But now, Cogoleto is making headlines for different reasons: as the center of a struggle over the fate of a Belarusian orphan that has sparked a row between Rome and Minsk, with possible major consequences for tens of thousands of Belarusian children who come to Italy each summer to recover from the lingering effects of the nuclear accident at Chornobyl.

Italians are never ones to hide their feelings, and this week in Cogoleto, there has been an outpouring of emotion in support of the 10-year-old Belarusian orphan and her local foster parents.

About two weeks ago, the couple, Maria Grazia Bornacin and Alessandro Giusti, hid the girl to prevent her return home after Italian doctors said she had been repeatedly abused at her orphanage northwest of Minsk.

"On [September 19], there was a candle-lit vigil," Cogoleto Deputy Mayor Anita Venturi said. "More than 1,000 people marched through the center of town, in complete silence and with signs on which were posted the United Nations rights of children."

The couple says they acted only to save the girl's life. But they are now under investigation for "removal of a minor" -- a crime, however, that falls short of full kidnapping in Italy and does not include arrest.

Alyaksey Skrypko, the Belarusian ambassador to Italy, told reporters on September 20 in Genoa that Minsk would be forced to take "both bilateral and international measures" against Italy should the girl, who has been given the pseudonym "Maria," not be returned.

Italian and Belarusian media reports say those measures could include holding up around 600 pending Italian applications to adopt Belarusian kids, and also at least partly halting a program that sends nearly 30,000 children to Italy each year on "therapeutic stays" for victims of the lingering effects of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.

Those threats are grave, says Venturi, who nonetheless has thrown her weight behind keeping 10-year-old Maria in Italy. "The consequences are clearly very serious," she says. "Among other things, it's pitting children against other children, and that's very grave."

The Chornobyl program is what first brought Maria to Cogoleto in 2003. Her foster parents says they first noticed bruising and signs of abuse on Maria in 2004 and alerted doctors.

But this year, after the girl tried to drown herself in the sea, apparently out of dread at returning home, her foster parents took dramatic measures.

They put her in hiding after the Juvenile Court of Genoa ruled that she must be repatriated, following assurances from Minsk that Maria would be given proper care.

Luigi Massoletti, who runs a local hotel, agrees it was a dramatic move. He also says Belarus appears to be in the right, with regard to international law. Yet, Massoletti says he and most of Cogoleto support the foster parents out of concern for Maria's physical well-being.

"We understand the position of the [foster] parents, who know that with everything that's happened, they won't see the girl again if she returns home," he says. "The whole town is with the family."

He adds that many people in town believe Belarusian authorities have acted too rashly by immediately threatening to block the Chornobyl program and adoptions.

"They should let it play out a bit longer first and then think about that later, but not put it on this level already," he says. "Because they are putting all the other families against this young couple who are defending the girl. That's why a lot of Italians are saying now, �Think about it before taking any further steps.' That is, both the foster parents and Belarus, because it's the kids who will be punished by not being able to come here anymore."

Maria's young foster parents reportedly put in a request to adopt her three years ago. But they have been quoted in the Italian press as saying that they would not mind if another Italian family adopted her, provided she receives adequate medical and psychological care in Italy.

Danilo Grillo, Cogoleto's parish priest, tells RFE/RL that Maria's physical well-being is the main concern of all the townspeople. "We strongly hope that this little girl can receive care in Italy, and that she can have what every girl or woman who has been molested needs: that is, the warmth of loved-ones, the love of a family," Grillo says.

But Grillo, like many others in Cogoleto, is concerned that the case will negatively impact the other Belarusian children who come to Italy. He urges the Belarusian authorities not to use the children in retaliation.

"I'm hoping for a good resolution both for Maria and the other 30,000 kids," Grillo says. "Our parish hosts other [Belarusian] children. Our parish is making arrangements to host five or six or 10 kids during the summer. That is, we are completely willing to cooperate. Our interest is not sentimental; it is concern for the life of this girl."

Italian media reports say Belarusian Ambassador Skrypko is due to meet in Rome today with Foreign Ministry officials in a bid to find a solution.

Reports say many in the Italian government would like to resolve the issue in a way that would send the girl back to Belarus to receive the proper care.

But some Italian jurists and politicians have come out in favor of keeping Maria in Italy, noting that the country, as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is obligated to take its own steps to protect the girl's well-being. (Jeffrey Donovan)

(Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

TRANSCARPATHIAN RUSYNS WANT OFFICIAL RECOGNITION. Earlier this month, the Transcarpathian Oblast Council appealed to Ukraine's president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker to grant Rusyns in the region an official status of ethnic minority (nationality).

Rusyns, who live in a more or less compact territory in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland, are officially recognized as a minority by Bratislava and Warsaw, while Kyiv considers them to be a Ukrainian subgroup. Their struggle for official recognition in Ukraine has continued for more than 15 years now.

Similar appeals to grant official recognition to Rusyns in Ukraine were already issued by the Transcarpathian Oblast Council in 1992 and 2002. But official Kyiv ignored them.

Will the situation repeat itself this time too? Activists of the People's Council of Transcarpathian Rusyns (NRRZ), an umbrella organization claiming to represent the interests of all Rusyns in the oblast, believe that it will not.

There are at least two reasons for their optimism. First, after President Viktor Yushchenko came to power and political life in Ukraine became more democratic, Rusyns in Transcarpathia managed to organize several cultural events with official support and to present their cause on local television, where they were allowed to speak in their mother tongue. This year, Rusyns also opened 26 Sunday schools instructing in the Rusyn language and culture.

Second, the Rusyn movement now seems to have an advocate with meaningful political leverage in Kyiv: Viktor Baloha, a former Transcarpathian governor and a former emergency situations minister. Baloha, a councilor of the Transcarpathian Oblast Council, who backed the recent appeal for the official recognition of Rusyns, was recently appointed by President Yushchenko as head of the presidential staff.

NRRZ deputy head Fedir Shandor told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that nationality status for Ukraine's Rusyns would considerably boost their efforts toward developing their linguistic and cultural heritage, which they see as distinct from Ukrainian. "According to the census in December 2001, 10,069 people [in Transcarpathian Oblast] declared themselves to be Rusyn. Thus, even despite the fact that such a nationality is not in the [official] register, there are people considering themselves to be of Rusyn nationality," Shandor says.

According to Shandor, the most urgent tasks for Transcarpathian Rusyns include launching a regular television program in the Rusyn vernacular, establishing a chair of Rusyn studies at a university in Uzhhorod, the capital of Transcarpathian Oblast, and working out a standardized version of the written Rusyn language.

Some estimates say there may be as many as 1.5 million people of Rusyn origin, first of all in Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, the United States, and Canada. But their Rusyn identity is generally weak, primarily because Rusyns have never had their own state or political independence.

The history of Rusyns, Eastern Slavic inhabitants of the Carpathian Mountains, is quite convoluted and subject to many scholarly controversies.

Throughout the 19th century and until World War I, when overwhelmingly rural and agricultural Rusyns produced their own intelligentsia and articulated the idea of their ethnic distinctiveness, their fatherland, Transcarpathia (Carpathian Rus), belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

After World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungary, most of Transcarpathia found itself within the borders of Czechoslovakia, where Rusyns enjoyed a sort of self-rule with their own governor, schools, a national anthem, and a national theater.

After World War II, most of Transcarpathia was annexed by the Soviet Union, which did away with the idea of Rusyn distinctiveness and declared all Rusyns to be Ukrainians. The communist regimes in post-World War II Czechoslovakia and Poland adopted the Soviet line and also decreed that Rusyns within their borders were Ukrainians.

Rusyns reemerged after the collapse of the communist system in Poland and Slovakia and the breakup of the Soviet Union. A census in Slovakia in 2001 registered 24,000 Rusyns, up from 17,000 Rusyns registered in a census 10 years earlier. A census in Poland in 2002 found that there were 6,000 Lemkos (local name for Rusyns) in the country.

The officially established numerical strength of Rusyns is not particularly impressive but the general trend seems to be propitious for them -- having started from nil, Rusyns continue to gain in number.

Shandor believes that the official unwillingness to grant recognition to Rusyns tarnishes Ukraine's international image. "It is very important for Ukraine to register this nationality, in order to avoid various manipulations at the level of the European Union," Shandor says. "There is a league of unrepresented peoples [the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization], which creates a negative image for Ukraine in connection with the fact that the Rusyn nationality is not recognized."

According to a final document of the meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Copenhagen in 1990, "to belong to a national minority is a matter of a person's individual choice." Moreover, the document says that "persons belonging to national minorities can exercise and enjoy their rights individually as well as in community with other members of their group."

But many Ukrainians, including intellectuals and academics, would argue whether European standards could be applied to Rusyns in Ukraine. One of them is Mykola Zhulynskyy, director of the Institute of Literature in Ukraine's National Sciences Academy. "I think that in this case the European experience is of no use. This is simply a big problem that arose in connection with the fact that Ukraine had not been united, that she had been torn apart by different empires. [The Rusyns constitute] the indivisible Ukrainian body," Zhulynskyy says.

However, historical arguments can also be used to question Zhulynskyy's reasoning, if not to discard it altogether. As little as a century ago, many Russians used to argue in almost the same way, asserting that Ukrainians ("Little Russians") and Belarusians ("White Russians") constituted "the indivisible Russian body."

Now that Ukrainians have an independent state, do they really need to behave toward their own "younger brothers" -- Transcarpathian Rusyns -- like their erstwhile oppressor, tsarist Russia, behaved toward them? (Jan Maksymiuk)

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Nadiya Petriv contributed to this report.)