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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 1, 2005

1 April 2005, Volume 7, Number 13
OPPOSITION LOOKS FOR PRESIDENTIAL RUNNER. Ten Belarusian opposition parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), roofed under the coordinating body called the Permanent Council of Democratic Forces (PDSDS), have recently moved toward selecting a democratic challenger to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the presidential elections expected next year. Four persons have submitted bids to the PDSDS to vie for what is called the "single opposition candidacy" in 2006. But there is no agreement among the entire opposition spectrum as to how to proceed with the selection or whether the opposition should have a single presidential hopeful at all.

By the 28 March deadline, the PDSDS registered four opposition aspirants to run in the 2006 presidential race: United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, Belarusian Party of Communist leader Syarhey Kalyakin, Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly leader Stanislau Shushkevich, and Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who has no party affiliation but his presidential bid is supported by the Belarusian Popular Front, another major component of the PDSDS. It was expected that at least one more opposition politician, former Belarusian Social Democratic Party leader Mikalay Statkevich, will also register himself in this company but Statkevich changed his mind at the very last moment, citing his disagreement with some rules in the selection procedure.

The PDSDS is planning to hold a congress of democratic forces, most likely in the fall, at which some 750 delegates are expected to appoint a single opposition contender for the presidential post by secret ballot. The delegates to the congress are to be picked under a multi-stage procedure from regional cells of democratic parties, NGOs, independent trade unions, as well as from former democratic candidates in parliamentary elections.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that on 30 March this multi-stage procedure was set off by representatives of political parties and NGOs in the city of Homel, southeastern Belarus, who elected city representatives to a regional convention that will subsequently choose delegates to the nationwide congress of democratic forces. Where the nationwide congress will take place is an enigma right now; some fear that the Lukashenka regime will do everything possible to prevent Belarusian democrats from gathering at any roofed location, as happened many times in the past, and they will be forced to hold their congress on the street or in a forest.

As regards Statkevich's objections, he said he decided not to file his application with the PDSDS because of procedural requirements relating to the ensuing campaign of seeking support for his presidential aspirations in the provinces. "Authorities instituted criminal proceedings against me, imposing travel restrictions," Belapan quoted Statkevich as saying. "I cannot travel outside Minsk to conduct my campaign as required by the rules of procedure." According to Statkevich, the PDSDS also restricted opportunities for non-affiliated candidates to participate in the selection. "This may be the reason why [opposition] figures like Valery Fralou, Uladzimir Parfyanovich, Alyaksandr Vaytovich, and Uladzimir Kolas stay out of the process," he noted.

Others are doubtful about whether the PDSDS has the right in general to organize the selection of a single democratic challenger to Lukashenka. "It is not comfortable for me to play the role of a mute in the show run by the force that chooses not a people's but a single candidate," former dissident lawmaker Fralou told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. Fralou's colleague, former legislator Syarhey Skrabets, is of a similar opinion. "The candidate [selected by the congress organized by the PDSDS] will not win," Skrabets opined. "The victory requires work in the provinces, but this has not been taking place. The opposition has not done anything extraordinary or striking in the past 11 years. Therefore, linking your political future to them is like wading into a bog or quagmire -- you may not find a way out of it afterwards."

Judging by the current moods in the Belarusian opposition, there may be quite a sizeable group of candidates claiming to be democrats and wanting to challenge Lukashenka in 2006. That is not an auspicious scenario for the democratic camp in Belarus. Belarusian opposition parties are too weak to organize a full-scale election campaign for one single candidate, let alone for half-a-dozen. If they dream about repeating Ukraine's Orange Revolution in Belarus, they should be aware that it only can happen when all of them have stood behind a single runner and done their best to persuade Belarusian voters that they can win.

Ukraine's Orange Revolution one more time confirmed a solid political truth in the post-Soviet territory -- you can win an election against an authoritarian regime only in the first election round. Well, Ukraine actually needed three election rounds to install Viktor Yushchenko as the new president, but it was the first round that decided everything -- people massively took to the street to protest the victory by a pro-government candidate and the regime's future became doomed.

Thus, if the Belarusian democrats fail to mobilize people to take to the street immediately after the election day in 2006, Lukashenka may immediately start celebrating another of his "elegant victories." And such a mobilization is only possible if there is a clear and single election alternative to the autocrat from the democratic camp. Even if for some reason Lukashenka will be forced to hold a runoff, it will be of no use for the opposition if there are no people backing the opposition's case with street rallies. (Jan Maksymiuk)

REFORMS, EVEN IF NOT FAST ENOUGH. Three months have passed since Ukraine's Orange Revolution. Viktor Yushchenko and other opposition figures who led last winter's street protests now occupy government offices. Analysts say the government is trying to implement the reforms it promised -- and is succeeding in some cases. But many Ukrainians are hoping to see more reforms -- and sooner.

Ihor Losev teaches history and philosophy at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy. He says the Orange Revolution has brought some immediate benefits to his country -- like a new tolerance for freedom of expression, particularly in the media.

"Ukraine never knew such press freedom before. We've never had such freedom to criticize the authorities -- not only in semi-underground opposition newspapers, but also in very respectable ones. And sometimes this criticism really pushes the boundaries," Losev said.

The new government has moved quickly on reforms since Yushchenko's inauguration on 23 January. Officials have taken steps to cut back industry tax breaks and investigate past privatization deals. Parliament last week approved a revised 2005 budget supporters hope will lay a course for aggressive economic reform.

There have also been changes in the way the government appears to view its electorate. Stuart Hensel of the Economist Intelligence Unit says authorities now treat society with respect.

"There seems to be a general change in the tone of the leadership in Ukraine, which is a very positive thing," Hensel said.

Still, observers say it is still too early to talk about major reform. Hensel says the new government's work is still largely rhetorical -- and focused more on small changes rather than sweeping actions.

"It's still very early to look for any concrete changes. They [the new administration] in fact spent most of the past two months focusing on issues like personnel changes, and haven't actually come up with any really concrete pieces of legislation that they can move through parliament," Hensel said.

Such delays are not surprising to some. One of the first tasks of Ukraine's new government is to streamline the state apparatus by creating a firm separation between business and politics. But it's a delicate maneuver. Many on Yushchenko's team are themselves successful entrepreneurs.

The administration has also begun the difficult task of reforming the police, secret service, and border and customs officials.

The most visible change to date may be in foreign policy. Ukraine has moved quickly to ingratiate itself with Western bodies like the European Union. Still, such gestures will have little impact until Kyiv is able to fully implement its internal reforms.

Losev of Mohyla Academy says the enthusiasm and excitement that infused the Orange Revolution have faded as the government gets down to the practicalities of holding good on its promises. He says many Ukrainians are impatient, and want to see reforms instituted as fast as possible.

"I think that a lot of things have changed, but people's expectations are too high. We have a specific mentality. A person thinks that if he comes to a rally today, by tomorrow everything in the country should have changed -- and changed exactly the way he wants it to," Losev says.

Still, most Ukrainians still appear to have trust in their new government.

A February poll shows 63 percent of people support Yushchenko -- a rise of 27 percentage points over last October, before the height of the Orange Revolution.

By contrast, support for his former rival, Viktor Yanukovych, has dropped by 8 percentage points, to 29 percent. (Valentinas Mite)

"The past policy of issuing grants only to Belarusian non-governmental organizations should be replaced by flexible programs designed to identify and support those individuals who are literally risking their necks to combat tyranny at home. Funding for Belarusian democracy must come out of the fog of official 'dialogues' and 'cultural exchanges' and flood across the Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian borders to Minsk. This means renting dozens of apartments in Kyiv, Warsaw, and Vilnius, buying thousands of laptop computers and cell phones, and openly supporting Belarusian opposition groups." -- Peter Byrne, a staff writer of the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper on 31 March.