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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: March 17, 2005

17 March 2005, Volume 7, Number 11
ORANGE, ROSE REVOLUTIONS BRING NEW PRESSURE ON POLITICAL OPPOSITION. Ukraine's Orange Revolution continues to have ripple effects in neighboring regions: In Belarus, opposition politician and former ambassador to Latvia, Estonia, and Finland Mikhail Marynich received on 30 December a much heavier sentence -- five years in prison -- for allegedly stealing office equipment because of events in Ukraine, according to Marynich's sons, Igor and Pavel. At a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington bureau on 2 March, Pavel Marynich said: "We have no doubts that the results of the Orange Revolution influenced the sentence that our father received.... Our father has been isolated because he constituted a threat to the [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka regime." Igor Marynich explained, "Lukashenka has indicated to society and to officials who are contemplating switching over to the opposition, 'here you see that Marynich hasn't broken any laws, and I have done this to him.'"

According to Pavel Marynich, Belarus's special services had been watching their father very closely to find any compromising material since the presidential elections of 2001. They came up with a variety of possible crimes such as stealing classified documents and possessing an unregistered handgun. In the end, however, the only charge that managed to stick was stealing five computers that the U.S. Embassy in Minsk had leased to his NGO, the Dzelavaya Initsyyatyva (Business Initiative) association. The U.S. State Department and the foreign ministries of several EU countries have sent diplomatic notes protesting Marynich's treatment. On 18 February, the Minsk Oblast Court upheld Marynich's guilty verdict but reduced his prison sentence from five to 3 1/2 years, citing his past services to the state and failing health as the reason.

Asked whether there is a single leader around which Belarus's political opposition could coalesce, Igor Marynich concluded that if such a leader were easily identifiable that would "just give him a ticket to jail." According to Pavel, the businessmen who have been financing the opposition in Belarus are being persecuted and eliminated. And Belarus's business class, as such, has been destroyed in the process. One entrepreneur who took part in the opposition, Anatol Krasouski, was eliminated physically (see "RFE/RL Newsline 13 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 1 October 2004), while another, Alyaksandr Smantser, received a six-year prison sentence. Igor commented that the business elite in Ukraine provided key support to President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, but now "Belarus lacks this kind of elite."

Igor and Pavel Marynich concluded that Lukashenka is worried not only about opposition politicians, but also about possible traitors within Belarus's KGB and the Interior Ministry. "We think the [personnel] changes in the KGB and the Interior Ministry were just another way for Lukashenka to shuffle his cadres. It was very interesting that those changes occurred one week after an article appeared in 'The New York Times' about the role of the KGB in the Orange Revolution. The newspaper reported that there were clever officers in the KGB who supported the Orange Revolution." Igor continued, "Lukashenka is very scared and panicky about the hand of Moscow. We hear from witnesses that when Lukashenka visits the KGB building, he brings all of his security guards [with him]. Experts say that most of the personnel of the [Belarusian] KGB have been trained in the Soviet Union so this [organization] is still a unified and undividable monster. If a Russian Federal Security Service general decides [to do it], then they would kidnap Lukashenka and bring him to Moscow."

Pavel predicted that Lukashenka will hold presidential elections this fall because "he is learning fast and doesn't want to repeat the example of Georgia and Ukraine. He doesn't want elections to initiate that kind of revolution." (Julie A. Corwin)

GOVERNMENT SENDS MIXED SIGNALS OVER MEDIA. President Viktor Yushchenko told a Council of Europe conference on media policies held in Kyiv last week that his government wants to make the media sector in Ukraine "open, transparent, and competitive."

He did not explain specifically how the government intends to achieve this goal. However, he made an intriguing and cryptic comparison between the media sector under the current government and that under his predecessor, President Leonid Kuchma. The comment itself may serve as a clue to these intentions once the government makes some specific steps toward the media.

According to Yushchenko, in the Kuchma era Ukraine's "information day" was started by a "group" led by former presidential-administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, which "gave instructions what should be said and how." Yushchenko apparently referred to the infamous practice of "temnyky" -- unsigned prompts sent on a daily basis by the presidential administration to media outlets, primarily state-run and private television and radio stations, to tell journalists what events to cover and what points of view on reported events to publicize.

As regards the present day, Yushchenko said the country's media sector is essentially "divided between three families." "We see and understand this problem, and we are ready to find ways to resolve it," he noted. "Time will pass and you'll see that Ukraine's information space will become open and transparent." He did not elaborate.

A similar message about the media sector in Ukraine was sent by Yushchenko somewhat earlier, during a congress in Kyiv on 5 March to set up the Our Ukraine People's Union, a pro-government political party. "[In Ukraine], 288 broadcasting licenses belong to one man, and we know the first and last letters of his name," Yushchenko said. He did not solve this rebus but Ukrainian commentators figured out that he meant Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk.

"The entire meter [wavelength] band was given to another clan!" Yushchenko said, proposing another riddle, to which Ukrainian journalists gave the answer "Medvedchuk." "In the east, 188 media licenses were given to one company!" Yushchenko continued, and journalists identified this company as Rynat Akhmetov, Eduard Prutnyk, and Hennadiy Vasylyev -- the so-called "Donetsk clan" of Ukrainian oligarchs. "I do not want my kids to be taught by the media formed in this way," Yushchenko added, and this time everybody was at a loss what to think or conjecture.

"We had the National Council [for Television and Radio, NRPTR], which distributed licenses, we had the Prosecutor-General's Office. This means we had more than only one structure to watch that the information sphere was competitive and diverse," Yushchenko concluded his references to the media at the congress. Is he not suggesting that he wants a wide-scale redistribution of media licenses by the NRPTR and/or prosecutors? Media licenses in Ukraine are usually granted by the NRPTR for five-year periods. Of course, if prosecutors find out that some of them were granted unlawfully, they may expire somewhat sooner. What exactly is Yushchenko up to?

That the Yushchenko government is not happy with the current Ukrainian media has been confirmed by a different source. By the end of February, Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Deputy Prime Ministers Roman Bezsmertnyy and Mykola Tomenko, Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz signed an open letter to compatriots, politicians, and journalists, asking them to stop waging "information wars" and "discrediting" the current authorities. The letter was reportedly originated by Moroz, Yushchenko's ally in the ruling coalition.

"The Ukrainian reality is now characterized by not only anticipated transformations but also information wars," the letter reads. "Some politicians, perhaps considering themselves to be the main authors of [Yushchenko's] victory in the presidential race, are again trying to introduce intrigues, '[media] raids,' and media killers in political life."

Some Ukrainian commentators have deemed the letter unnecessary and silly, but some have drawn more upsetting conclusions, arguing that Yushchenko's government, like that of Kuchma, does not like media criticism and wants to get rid of it, for now by way of public persuasion and appeal. If this is actually so, then Yushchenko appears to have very quickly forgotten his solemn declaration during the Orange Revolution that he and the media are "on the same side in the battle for freedom."

Deputy Prime Minister Tomenko on 13 March seemed to make an attempt at diluting the unfavorable reaction of Ukrainian journalists to the letter when he called for "professional criticism" of the government in the media.

"When you present commentaries by experts, we want professional criticism," Tomenko said. "Because [you now present] people from the Ukraine's Regions, Communist Party, Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary groups, who voted for a [bad] 2005 budget, but now they tell stories how they have fought for [higher] social standards and how we [allegedly] are not fighting [for those standards]. This is not fair," he said.

"I watch commentaries on national channels by a politician who enjoys just 0.7 percent public trust and who teaches [us] how to live," Tomenko complained in what seemed to be a reference to Medvedchuk. "So I have a question: Perhaps you should also show a different point of view, shouldn't you?"

Taken at face value, Tomenko's admonition is hardly anything more than an appeal for objective journalism. But combined with the above-mentioned, more or less irate official pronouncements regarding the media sector in Ukraine, it can also serve as an indication that the government and the media may now be not exactly on the same side, and perhaps not even in the same battle. (Jan Maksymiuk)