Accessibility links

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 17, 2005

17 May 2005, Volume 7, Number 19
SPY AGENCIES OPEN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION SEASON FOR BELARUS. Last week the head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev, accused Western nongovernmental organizations of plotting a government overthrow in Belarus during the 2006 presidential election. The Belarusian KGB swiftly and eagerly echoed these charges, claiming additionally that it has already thwarted specific steps taken by ill-wishers of the Belarusian government in this direction. The allegations of the Russian and Belarusian Chekists seem to have inaugurated an international publicity and propaganda campaign focused on Belarus's 2006 vote.

Speaking in the Russian State Duma on 12 May, Patrushev said the U.S.-based International Republican Institute held a meeting in Bratislava in April with the directors of its offices in CIS countries to discuss "the possibility of the continuation of velvet revolutions in the post-Soviet territory." In this context, Patrushev added: "$5 million has been allocated in 2005 for the implementation of programs by this nongovernmental organization to finance opposition movements in Belarus. [The organization] is currently considering involving the leaders of the Ukrainian 'orange' [activists] for training opposition members in Belarus and creating a network of opposition youth organizations."

The following day U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher rejected Patrushev's charges that U.S. nongovernmental groups are part of a Western conspiracy to unseat Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as "completely false, most of them ridiculous." "The work that nongovernmental organizations do in terms of promoting democracy, educating people in democracy, helping the growth of civil society is open, is transparent," Boucher said. "Our election aid in Belarus and elsewhere is for civic participation in the election process, balanced media coverage, nonpartisan political party training, election monitoring, and election administration. These programs are nonpartisan, they are transparent, they are peaceful in nature and we'll conduct them in Belarus in order to support efforts to build civil society and democracy."

Steven B. Nix, the International Republican Institute's Regional Program Director for Eurasia, told RFE/RL on 13 May that his organization's program for Belarus averages about $500,000 a year. "We don't have $5 million, so I'm not sure what connection [Patrushev's allegation may have to] the IRI," Nix said. "We provide technical assistance and training to political parties and nongovernmental organizations in various countries.... We provide training how to build organizational structures; perhaps, communications; perhaps, public relations -- all the things political parties try to do from a functionality standpoint."

Whatever foreign NGOs may say about what they do in Belarus, they are surely unable to convince the Belarusian KGB that their activities are not tantamount to political subversion. It is simply because the mere ideas of "democracy" and "civil society" are highly subversive for the Lukashenka regime. "Apart from [what Patrushev said], the KGB possesses other data that confirm the intention of foreign organizations, funds, and private individuals to spend significant sums to export the revolution [to Belarus]," Belarusian KGB Deputy Chairman Viktor Vyahera said on Belarusian Television on 12 May. "These activities are under our control, and we have already thwarted concrete steps."

And Vyahera's chief, KGB Chairman Stsyapan Sukharenka, said the following day on Belarusian Television that international conferences and seminars for Belarusian pro-democracy activists serve for training "the so-called colored revolutionaries from the radical Belarusian opposition." "Moreover, we have information that on the territory of adjoining countries bases are being created to train militants who will subsequently be used in violent actions of disobedience toward law-enforcement agencies and for destabilizing the situation in society," Sukharenka emphasized. He claimed that the West has already provided $5 million "for a coup in Belarus" and is going to spend as much as $50 million to oust Lukashenka.

Belarusian Television, the main mouthpiece of the Lukashenka regime, noted on 13 May that "the strengthening of an anti-Belarusian campaign abroad and the holding of street protests by the Belarusian opposition" are being accompanied by more and more frequent shipments of narcotics, weapons, and money into Belarus. "This year alone more than 700 small arms pieces were confiscated in Belarus, including those manufactured in the West," a Belarusian Television commentator said over footage showing a stockpile of small arms and explosives.

"It is noteworthy that [law-enforcement bodies] have begun to detect caches with weapons in late April, when the opposition was calling for street protests," the Belarusian Television commentator went on. "On the eve of the so-called Chornobyl Way protest [on 26 April], in which foreign militants [editorial note: presumably, Russian and Ukrainian youth movement activists] took part, stores of small arms and explosives were seized near Minsk and in Brest. According to Interfax, the Interior Ministry is taking into account the possible preparation of terrorist acts and the organization of illegal shipments of arms into the country by opposition activists." In other words, the state propaganda machine has already begun portraying Belarusian oppositionists as dangerous maniacs who are getting ready to kill Belarusians or, as a minimum, to narcotize them during the 2006 presidential election.

Does such propaganda work in Belarus? United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, a potential challenger of President Lukashenka in the 2006 election, shrugs off such pre-election propagandistic excesses by the regime. "Only pensioners believe this [propaganda]," he told RFE/RL on 16 May. "After what they were shown [on Belarusian Television] over this past weekend, they went to the pharmacy to buy tranquilizers. These people have been intimidated for the past 11 years to such an extent that I'm really sorry for them." That said, one should not forget that pensioners in Belarus account for one-third of the active electorate, and they usually vote overwhelmingly for Lukashenka. (Jan Maksymiuk)

WASHINGTON SET TO WORK FOR CHANGE IN BELARUS. U.S. President George W. Bush pledged in Riga on 7 May that the United State will remain committed to the advance of democracy in Belarus. "The people of that country live under Europe's last dictatorship, and they deserve better," Bush said at a news conference following his talks with the presidents of the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. "The governments of Latvia and Lithuania have worked to build support for democracy in Belarus, and to deliver truthful information by radio and newspapers. Together we have set a firm and confident standard: Repression has no place on this continent."

Bush's words echoed those of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month, before and during her trips to Moscow and Vilnius. "Nobody benefits from the last dictatorship in Europe, which is the Lukashenka government in Belarus," Rice reportedly said before departing for Moscow on 19 April. "Belarus has been held back by the nature of that regime. It is not possible to integrate into anything."

While in Vilnius on 21 April for a NATO meeting of foreign ministers, Rice met with members of Belarusian civil society and discussed the situation of Belarus with the participation of EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis. "The point was made very clearly that the 2006 [presidential] elections really do present an excellent opportunity for the international community to focus on the need for free and fair elections in Belarus," Rice told a news conference following that meeting. "The Belarusian government should know that their behavior is being watched by the international community, that this is not a dark corner in which things can go on unobserved, uncommented upon, and as if Belarus were somehow not a part of the European continent."

Rice pledged in Vilnius that the U.S. government would help the Belarusian opposition in four areas: promoting independent media, supporting pro-democracy activism, encouraging an alliance of political parties and civil-society groups for seeking free government, and unifying the opposition around a single candidate to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2006. This was met with a rebuff from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said in Vilnius on 21 April that Moscow "would not of course be advocating what some people call regime changes anywhere. We think the democratic process, the process of reform cannot be imposed from outside." To which Rice responded: "We can provide support, as both we and the European Union are doing, to the development of civil-society groups and the training of independent media and independent political and civil society forces [in Belarus]. That is the role of outside forces."

It should also be remembered that Rice in January designated Belarus, along with Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Iran, and North Korea, as an "outpost of tyranny" in the present-day world. And in October 2004, shortly before a controversial constitutional referendum in Belarus, the U.S. Congress adopted the Belarus Democracy Act, a bill intended to promote democratic development, human rights, and the rule of law in Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus's sovereignty and independence. The bill authorizes "necessary assistance" for democracy-building activities such as support for nongovernmental organizations, independent media, including radio and television broadcasting into Belarus, and international exchanges. Last week the U.S. Congress passed a supplemental bill appropriating $5 million to support the development of democracy in Belarus in 2005, in addition to the $6.5 million approved for the 2005 fiscal year in November 2004.

Thus, judging by Washington's strong rhetoric and some practical steps, the U.S. government is set to get firmly involved in seeking political change in Belarus. Does it mean that the White House is not afraid of provoking the Kremlin's ire because of what could be seen as encroaching upon Russia's "backyard," as Belarus under President Lukashenka is now and then described by some Western commentators? Arguably it does, at least for two apparent reasons.

First, it is not unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not commented personally on what Bush and Rice think about the current Belarusian regime, enjoys the situation in which the United States as well as the EU are increasing pressure on Lukashenka. In theory, such pressure could make Lukashenka more pliant and responsive to the Kremlin's idea of integration with Belarus, in which economic integration precedes Russian political advances to Minsk. However, Lukashenka has so far failed to respond adequately. On the contrary, he has managed to obtain a promise from Putin that Russian gas prices for Belarus in 2006 will remain at this year's level, without committing himself to the introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus, a step sought by Moscow and seen as considerable leverage for control over Belarus's economy in the future.

Second, Washington's increasing assertiveness in dealing with Lukashenka's Belarus can be attributed to a recent shift in the balance of power on Russia's borders, following the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Georgia and Ukraine have become, to quote Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, "agents of democracy" and stepped into the game over the future of Belarus, which has so far been seen primarily as a tug-of-war between Russia and the West. While in Washington in April, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko pledged "to support the advance of freedom in countries such as Belarus and Cuba." And Saakashvili has recently called for organizing a new Yalta conference in order to agree, among other issues, on toughening travel restrictions on Belarusian officials and increasing financial and material support to the Belarusian opposition to induce political change in Belarus.

That said, one should not expect that the Kremlin would enthusiastically embrace the idea of another "colored revolution" in its "near abroad" on the one hand, or that the United States, the EU, and the newly emerged "agents of democracy" could easily make such a revolution happen in Belarus on the other. The Belarusian regime seems to manage a sufficient amount of political repression and economic stability to secure yet another "elegant victory" for Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election. But staying in power is certainly bound to be increasingly problematic and discomforting for him. Lukashenka failed to attend the V-Day parade on Red Square in Moscow on 9 May not because he did not want to but because he was well aware that among the more than 50 heads of states and governments there, only a few would have shaken hands with or spoken to him. The future seems to be even emptier and gloomier for him. (Jan Maksymiuk)

POWER-SHARING DEAL IN CRIMEA BOLSTERS TATAR MINORITY. Lawmakers in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula have approved a power-sharing agreement that ends months of political deadlock and strengthens the role of the territory's ethnic Tatar minority. In the wake of the deal, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called on the peninsula's three major ethnic communities -- Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars -- to draft a joint memorandum on reconciliation.

Leaders of the Crimean Tatar community, who have for years fought for greater political representation and economic rights on the peninsula, are welcoming the 12 May power-sharing agreement as a step forward.

Under the deal, the Crimean Tatars will receive two ministry portfolios as well as the post of deputy prime minister in the local government. The agreement, which was worked out between Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev and Crimean Prime Minister Anatoliy Matviyenko, ends four months of administrative deadlock on the peninsula.

Matviyenko was appointed prime minister of the peninsula by President Yushchenko in the wake of the Orange Revolution. But Matviyenko found himself unable to form a new government until the 12 May deal was struck, as Tatar legislators boycotted sessions of the regional parliament.

Now, it seems the peninsula's ethnic Russian and Ukrainian majority and their Crimean Tatar counterparts could be opening a brighter chapter in their often strained relations.

Crimean Tatars, who now make up roughly 20 percent of the peninsula's population, were deported by former Soviet leader Josef Stalin to Central Asia in 1944 on the pretext that they had collaborated with Nazi occupiers.

They began to return in large numbers to their homeland after the collapse of the Soviet Union but have faced many difficulties.

Nicola Dell'Arciprete, who monitors events in Ukraine on behalf of the Hague-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, told RFE/RL the Crimean Tatars have two main grievances.

"The two main issues are first of all: land; what the Crimean Tatars consider the land stolen by the Stalinist regime. And the second issue is cultural diversity and linguistic protection of the Crimean Tatars' language," Dell'Arciprete said.

Much of the land the Tatars once lived on and cultivated is now settled by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. The land is fertile and some of it lies on the much-coveted coastline, which is lined with resorts. As a result, many Tatar returnees whose families once prospered have been forced to squat in makeshift settlements, without proper sanitation, roads, and often electricity.

Resolving this issue in an equitable way without causing large-scale social upheaval and inflaming ethnic tensions is one of the long-term challenges facing the government.

Culturally, the Crimean Tatars also want their language to be accorded the official status it enjoyed before World War II. Dell'Arciprete said the 12 May power-sharing agreement goes at least one step in the right direction.

"The new power-sharing agreement also gives to the Crimean Tatars a [television] channel and some media space in their language," Dell'Arciprete said. "This is a very important point for a community in which 86 percent of the young generation are going to school in Russian-speaking areas and learning, first of all, Russian."

As Hanne Severinsen, a member of the Council of Europe's Monitoring Committee on Ukraine, told RFE/RL, the Crimean Tatars have faced alternating periods of welcome and hostility since they began returning home.

"In the beginning, I think, there was a lot of good will," Severinsen said. "And in fact, [the Tatars] gained some land. But also because of economic problems, [their situation] has been stagnating."

Now, the hope is that with their participation in the government, the Crimean Tatars will be able to make more progress in regaining the status they once enjoyed in their homeland. (Jeremy Bransten)

CRIMEAN TATAR LEADER STILL SEEKING JUSTICE AFTER DEPORTATIONS. The name of Mustafa Dzhemilev is synonymous with the Crimean Tatars' decades-long struggle to obtain reparations for their suffering due to the deportations ordered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944. Dzhemilev, now 61, has spent 15 years in jail for his active participation in the Soviet dissident movement. He served seven prison terms between 1966 and 1986, not only for defending the cause of his people, but also for refusing to serve in the Soviet Army, protesting the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and defending freedom of speech. Dzhemilev was an infant when, on 18 May 1944, Stalin's NKVD secret police deported Crimea's entire Tatar population to Central Asia. He returned home only in 1989 after Soviet authorities permitted the repatriation of the Crimean Tatars. Two years later, Dzhemilev was elected chairman of the Qirimtatar Milliy Meclisi, or Crimean Tatar National Parliament, a post he still holds today. Crimean Tatars throughout the former Soviet Union prepare to commemorate the 61st anniversary of their deportation to Central Asia, just days after the Crimean legislature approved a power-sharing agreement giving Crimean Tatars three ministerial portfolios in the regional government. In an interview with RFE/RL ahead of that decision, Dzhemilev described the current situation of the Crimean Tatars.

RFE/RL: Sixty-one years after Josef Stalin's massive deportations, where does the rehabilitation process of Crimean Tatars stand?

Dzhemilev: Many Crimean Tatars -- over one-half, according to our estimates -- have returned home. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Crimean Tatars still live outside Crimea, mainly in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. They can't return home mainly for economic reasons. This is why [it was agreed in 1992 that they would get] a certain amount of money from the government of Ukraine and the governments of those countries where they live. Depending on its financial situation, Ukraine each year earmarks a portion of its national budget to the Crimean Tatar issue. Yet, this cannot be said of the other countries where Crimean Tatars live. But our grievances are mainly directed at the Russian Federation. Not only does Russia not provide financial assistance [to the Crimean Tatars], but it also views the whole repatriation issue with hostility because it fears Crimea's demographic balance might be altered to the detriment of its Russian-speaking population -- even though Russians currently account for approximately 60 percent of the peninsula's population. [As for Ukraine], we're still waiting for a law that would restore to the Crimean Tatars all their rights. There is still no official document that says the Crimean Tatars have regained all their rights. The Verkhovna Rada last summer voted a bill called the "Law on the Rehabilitation Of Peoples Deported On Ethnic Grounds" that deals only with the Crimean Tatars' social rights. However, former President [Leonid] Kuchma vetoed this bill. We're now working with the new president, [Viktor Yushchenko], so that he lifts [Kuchma's] veto and signs the bill into law. On top of that, there are a number of other legal issues that have still to be solved. Should Ukraine continue to consider the Crimean Tatars an ethnic minority group, there would never be an end to our problems. We believe that Crimean Tatars should be considered as an indigenous people of Ukraine. Unlike other ethnic minority groups, the Crimean Tatars have no historical motherland outside Ukraine. Unfortunately, this question remains in abeyance.

RFE/RL: Is access to land the main problem facing those Crimean Tatars who have returned home?

Dzhemilev: We're suffering great injustice in this regard. When [after the collapse of the Soviet Union] Ukraine adopted its land code, the peculiarities of the Crimean peninsula were not taken into account. In this legislation there is a paragraph which says that only those who used to cultivate those lands can own them. In other words, that means that only former collective farm workers can claim ownership rights over those lands. But this cannot be applied to Crimea insofar as Crimean Tatars used to work in collective farms in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere. Although 75 percent of Crimean Tatars live in rural areas, they have approximately half as much land as the Russian-speaking population. This problem is particularly acute in [Crimea's] south as a result of the attempts made by the Soviet regime to bar the Tatars from returning to these valuable areas. Before the 1944 deportations, the Crimean Tatars accounted for 70 percent of the population in these regions. Now, they account for less than 1 percent. The lands are being distributed, or sold at cut-rate prices, to oligarchs who live either in Kyiv or in Russia. This generates tensions and permanent conflicts.

RFE/RL: How does Russia interfere in the affairs of the Crimean Tatars?

Dzhemilev: It is mostly a pressure exerted through propaganda efforts which aim to portray the Crimean Tatars as a threat for Ukraine, as a potential second Chechnya. The Russians are trying to set people against [the Crimean Tatars] by suggesting there are extremist organizations among us. In addition, there are some political forces in Crimea -- such as the well-known "Russian Bloc" -- that are very nationalistic and are always trying to block any decision that is taken in favor of the Crimean Tatars. These forces are, of course, supported by Russia.

RFE/RL: Most of those Crimean Tatars who have returned home live in poor conditions. Statistics show that more than 60 percent of them are unemployed. Would you say this is the result of discrimination on the part of regional authorities?

Dzhemilev: Although [Crimean Tatars] account for around 13-14 percent of the peninsula's population, they represent no more than 4 percent of those employed in self-government bodies. In some institutions -- such as the Security Ministry, the Customs Committee, or the Finance Ministry -- this percentage is equal to zero. Of course this is discrimination. The consequence is that the unemployment rate among Tatars is much higher than the average for Crimea, or even Ukraine. Concerning this 60 percent figure, this does not mean that people do not work. Some people have set up their own small businesses, buying and selling things. Of course this is not enough to allow for a stable source of income and, as a consequence, the Tatars' living standards are slightly below the average for Crimea.

RFE/RL: Did you receive firm assurances from Yushchenko that he will lift Kuchma's ban on the draft rehabilitation bill passed by parliament last year?

Dzhemilev: We talked about this with him. He received us on 28 February, and our talks focused on this particular issue. He had asked the Justice Ministry to check whether he could, as Ukraine's new president, lift the veto imposed by his predecessor and sign this bill into law. Our legislation is not clear on this point. Some legal provisions say he has the right to do so. But others say he doesn't. We will therefore probably come to the conclusion that he should lift the veto and that the Rada should re-examine the bill. We would like this to happen before 18 May, which will mark the anniversary of the deportation. However, the first session of the Rada will take place only on the 17th. So I don't know whether we will have enough time.

RFE/RL: Would you say that the former Ukrainian government has done everything it can so that the Crimean Tatars can return home?

Dzhemilev: It would be wrong to say that it did nothing. Each year a portion of Ukraine's national budget was allotted to this end -- even if that was not enough to cover even one-tenth of the needs. President Kuchma used to come regularly to Crimea to meet the Meclis leaders. He would then give orders so that the problems we had discussed would be addressed. But most of the time his orders would be ignored, if not deliberately sabotaged. I would say that only 10 percent of his orders had any effect. On the one hand, [Kuchma] was obviously trying to make things happen. But, on the other hand, we cannot say he was unaware of the selling of lands that was taking place in the south. He must have known that these lands were distributed among people who were close to him and that the Crimean Tatars were denied access to them. In addition, there have been a number of injustices committed against Crimean Tatars. Whenever clashes broke out between representatives of the Russian-speaking population and Crimean Tatars, only the latter were blamed. When, to draw the public's attention to the illegal purchase of lands by the son-in-law of the former speaker of the Crimean Parliament and Communist Party leader [Leonid] Hrach, six young Tatars took these lands by force before clashing with the Russian Cossacks who had been sent against us, they were sentenced to up to nine years in jail -- although there was not a single casualty. By comparison, a few months earlier an entire Tatar family -- including three small children -- had been assassinated and their murderer was sentenced to eight years in jail. In another case, one Tatar had been beaten to death in a police precinct and his torturer had been sentenced to eight years in jail. This gives you an idea of how authorities treat us. A significant part of Crimea's law enforcement agencies work hand in hand with local criminal rings. But we hope this will change under [Yushchenko].

RFE/RL: Have there already been any changes since Yushchenko's election last December?

Dzhemilev: The president has promise to consult the Crimean Tatars regarding all personnel issues. Here in Crimea, only 15.5 percent of the population voted for Yushchenko. We estimate that the Crimean Tatars accounted for 10 or 11 percent of the Yushchenko votes. Were it not for the Tatar factor, Yushchenko would have probably performed as poorly here as he did in Donetsk and garnered only 3 or 4 percent. [Yushchenko] knows that the national-democratic forces are his main support here. Yet, he has already appointed a few officials without talking into account the interests of the Crimean Tatars. This is probably due to the fact that some people in his entourage are defending their own commercial interests and are trying to have their own people appointed to the right jobs. In this regard, one can say that the interests of the Crimean Tatars are, once again, being ignored. (Jean-Christophe Peuch)

"In the European part of the post-Soviet area, the immediate candidate for such developments [government overthrow by popular revolt] is Belarus. This could be very dangerous. Russia, which suffered a defeat in Ukraine where the [presidential] election was lost by the candidate backed by [the Kremlin], will make conclusions for the future. It will seek to avert such [a scenario] in Belarus. Incidentally, the West has decided that such a model works well. Since it has worked in Georgia and Ukraine, Belarus is next in line. They in the West say it clearly now: Belarus should get rid of what is being designated as the last dictatorship in Europe. I fear very much that a Russia-West confrontation in this region could lead to a head-on collision. I mean, Lukashenka is not Kuchma, he will be suppressing any manifestations of protest, especially those by youth. The West may interfere. The West will render a variety of assistance, and Lukashenka will appeal to Russia for the same. And it will be very difficult for us to say 'no' to him. Because Belarus, following [our] failure in Ukraine, has become doubly dear to us -- from the viewpoint of communications, defense, and access to the Kaliningrad exclave. Belarus has practically become Russia's last ally in the post-Soviet area, irrespective of what we think of Lukashenka. The majority of Russia's population, ruling elite, and parliament treat Lukashenka in accordance with the formula of the late [U.S.] President [Lyndon B.] Johnson: He is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.... The [Russian] Army will not be used openly [in a possible revolt in Belarus]. But there are special-task forces, interior troops. We can interfere if Lukashenka begins shouting for help and if it becomes clear that his fall would make Belarus follow Ukraine's path toward NATO membership without Russia." -- International security expert Aleksei Arbatov from the Russian Academy of Sciences, in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 May.