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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 21, 2005

21 November 2005, Volume 7, Number 39
AUTHORITIES 'CLEANSE' MEDIA AHEAD OF 2006. Last week Belposhta, Belarus's state postal service decided to exclude three private periodicals from its subscription catalogue for the first half of 2006. Belposhta is a monopoly, which disseminates the country's press through subscription. The move seems to be a repressive measure intended to marginalize the remainder of opposition-minded press in Belarus ahead of the 2006 presidential election.

The targeted periodicals are the daily "Narodnaya volya" and the weeklies "Salidarnasts" and "Zhoda." "Narodnaya volya" has a print run of 27,000 copies, "Salidarnasts" 5,400, and "Zhoda" 3,000. Belposhta explained the move against the newspapers in three similar notifications saying that, "Each economic entity has the right to be guided by economic expediency in its commercial activities."

Apart from this explanation sent to "Narodnaya volya," Belposhta also charged that the daily failed to notify it about a change of the printer.

The newspapers' editors were bemused by the decision, to say the least. "It is unclear how this concerned the distributor, as the schedule of publication did not change and the volume remained the same," "Narodnaya volya" Editor in Chief Svyatlana Kalinkina commented. "Narodnaya volya" has filed a suit against Belposhta over the subscription stoppage. "Salidarnasts" Editor in Chief Alyaksandr Starykevich said that non-state media in Belarus are now entering "an era of the Internet and samizdat."

Both Kalinkina and Starykevich concur that it will be extremely difficult for them to organize an independent distribution network for their periodicals. "Narodnaya volya," "Salidarnasts," and "Zhoda" have long struggled to remain afloat in an unwelcoming media environment. Both domestic and foreign human rights activists have accused the Belarusian authorities of trying to liquidate or gag the independent media.

"Narodnaya volya," as the largest of the three periodicals, was a special target for the authorities in the past two years. The daily was initially plagued with libel suits -- since March 2004, "Narodnaya volya" has received fines of some $90,000 in four separate libel cases.

In a country where the official monthly wage is around $200, such exorbitant damages were apparently intended to ruin the newspaper economically. However, each time the daily was able to collect the money for damages among its sponsors and readers and remain afloat.

In April, Zhanna Litvina, chairwoman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, predicted that the Belarusian authorities were seeking "a total cleansing of the information sector" in the country. Yelena Raubetskaya, chairwoman for the Fund for the Development of Regional Press, was even bleaker in her prognosis. She said that libel suits against independent media would be followed by the removal of major nonstate publications from state-run print shops and state-controlled press-distribution networks. "I am absolutely sure that by 2006, the nongovernmental press that writes about politics will no longer exist," Raubetskaya added.

Raubetskaya's prediction has unfortunately proved true. In September, Belsayuzdruk, Belarus's state monopoly that runs a nationwide network of kiosks and newsstands, terminated a contract for the distribution of "Narodnaya volya" after a court froze the newspaper's bank account and seized newsprint demanding payment of libel damages.

The same day, the Minsk-based printing plant Chyrvonaya zorka annulled its contract for printing the daily. "Narodnaya volya" -- like nearly a dozen other Belarusian independent periodicals, including "Salidarnasts" and "Zhoda" -- was forced to find a printer in Smolensk, a Russian provincial capital near the Belarusian border.

Apart from restricting distribution and applying economic pressure, the authorities employ other, more indirect, tactics against the independent press. In May President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree limiting the use of the words "national" and "Belarusian" in the names of organizations. Private media outlets were not allowed to use both of these words in their names.

The presidential decree in particular compelled many newspaper to reregister in August and September: "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" ("Belarusian Business Newspaper") as "BDG; Delovaya gazeta," "Natsionalnaya ekonomicheskaya gazeta" ("National Economic Newspaper") as "Ekonomicheskaya gazeta," "Belorusskii rynok" ("Belarusian Market") as "Belorussy i rynok" ("Belarusians and the Market"); and "Belorusskaya gazeta" as "Belgazeta."

Many Belarusian commentators said that the reregistation was primarily intended to confuse and disorient the readers of independent periodicals and make it difficult for them to find their preferred publications on newsstands or in subscription catalogues.

This year, the Belarusian authorities also set a precedent by de facto nationalizing a private periodical. The situation occurred in May, during a Polish-Belarusian diplomatic row over the new leadership of the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB), which was supported by Warsaw but not recognized by Minsk.

Warsaw was forced to suspend the sponsoring of the SPB weekly "Glos znad Niemna" ("Voice From Over The Niemen River") after a state printing plant in Belarus refused to publish materials prepared by its editorial staff and published several fake issues of the weekly with articles reflecting only official Minsk's stance on the SPB standoff. "It is a de facto nationalization of an independent publication," Andrzej Poczobut, a ethnic Polish journalist in Belarus, told RFE/RL. "If you ask my opinion about who's behind this, I'm sure it is the [Belarusian] KGB."

Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the Belarusian opposition's choice to challenge Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election, believes that the official distribution restrictions against "Narodnaya volya," "Salidarnasts," and "Zhoda" testify to the Belarusian regime's growing uncertainty about how Belarusians will behave during the ballot. "The authorities' move looks surprising at first glance, as there are almost no independent newspapers left in the Belarusian news industry," Milinkevich said. "This means that the authorities are seriously afraid of the forthcoming presidential election and are seeking to deprive our people of the opportunity to hear an alternative point of view."

But this move also leaves him and his election staff with a thorny dilemma about how, if at all, the opposition will manage to present an alternative point of view to the electorate in the presidential campaign. (Jan Maksymiuk)

GOVERNMENT FACES UPHILL BATTLE IN ACHIEVING NATO ASPIRATIONS. Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko visited the Czech Republic and Slovakia this week to discuss ways of strengthening Ukraine's military cooperation with these two NATO countries. Both Prague and Bratislava assured Hrytsenko that they support Ukraine's NATO bid. But the Ukrainian defense minister was reluctant to speculate on when Ukraine might join the alliance. He appears to be aware that Ukraine's NATO accession depends not only on support from NATO members, but also on the ability of the Ukrainian government to cope with its domestic agenda.

Czech Defense Minister Karel Kuehnl said during a joint news conference with Hrytsenko in Prague on 15 November that the Czech Republic wants NATO next year to prepare a "realistic" plan for Ukraine's NATO accession.

The Czech defense minister said his country can help Ukraine resolve some of the problems it is encountering on its path toward NATO integration.

"There are three spheres where the Czech Republic can share its experience in the transformation of its armed forces," Kuehnl said. "This is primarily the so-called personnel management; that is, a wide sphere ranging from education to social issues. Furthermore, it is financial-resource management. Finally, we have a common problem of disposing of unnecessary ammunition."

But Ukraine faces a number of hurdles to its NATO accession that Czech expertise might not help overcome.

For example, carrying out the military downsizing required to join NATO by 2008 threatens to strain Ukraine's budget. This is because such massive cuts could mean that the state will have to pay to retrain and find jobs for discharged servicemen.

Ukraine is currently undergoing reforms that will reduce its 280,000-strong military to some 140,000 troops by 2012. It is also restructuring its combat capabilities to comply with NATO standards.

As part of this reform effort, Ukraine last year cut 70,000 military personnel. The military is to be reduced by a further 40,000 servicemen this year, and by 18,000 annually in the coming years.

Some Ukrainian politicians and economists are also worried that Ukrainian NATO accession could ruin or significantly damage the country's military-industrial complex. They argue that the country's defense industries will become obsolete after the military switches to weapons and military technologies used by NATO troops.

Such an outcome could result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in Ukraine and, possibly, a disruption of cooperation ties with Russia's military industries.

But the main obstacle to Ukraine's NATO membership seems to be presented by ordinary Ukrainians. Most still retain the Soviet-era perception that the alliance is a hostile organization, or are unconvinced about the advantages of NATO membership.

According to a poll conducted among 11,000 respondents in May, more than half of all Ukrainians oppose the country's NATO entry, while fewer than one in four support the move.

Hrytsenko said in an interview with RFE/RL that a government trusted by the people can change this perception of NATO among Ukrainians.

"First, it is a problem of informing people about what NATO is and what it is not. The government has not yet done this. It can seriously tackle this issue only after the conclusion of the [2006 parliamentary] election campaign, which is not a favorable background for this," Hrytsenko said. "Second, it is a problem of public trust in the government. If the government resolves successfully economic, social, and all other problems, then citizens trust this government and support its foreign-policy course."

Ukraine has more than a decade of experience in dealing with NATO.

In 1994, it became the first CIS country to join the Partnership for Peace. The partnership was a program of security and defense cooperation that NATO offered to nonmembers after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

In 1997, NATO offered Ukraine a "Distinctive Partnership" status that underlined the country's important role in maintaining European stability. A NATO-Ukraine Commission was established to coordinate further development of bilateral relations.

In May 2002, then-President Leonid Kuchma announced Ukraine's goal of achieving NATO membership.

In November 2002, NATO foreign ministers adopted a NATO-Ukraine Action Plan. The plan aims to expand bilateral relations and to support Ukraine's reform efforts toward integration with Euro-Atlantic security structures.

NATO-Ukraine contacts have increased following Viktor Yushchenko's victory in the 2004 presidential election.

President Yushchenko earlier this year visited NATO headquarters in Brussels. There he confirmed that he considers a course toward NATO a strategic political goal, and he urged the alliance to take relations with his country to a "qualitatively new level."

Shortly afterward, NATO and Ukraine launched an "Intensified Dialogue" phase in their relations, which is expected to lead to the opening of direct talks on Ukrainian NATO membership.

However, NATO officials persistently emphasize that the speed of Ukraine's integration will be closely related to the country's pace of implementing political, economic, and military reforms.

In May, President Yushchenko told Ukrainians that he will seek a referendum on the country's NATO and EU membership. Thus, considering the lack of support for NATO accession among the population, the Ukrainian government is facing an uphill task in persuading them that NATO membership is truly beneficial. (Jan Maksymiuk -- Marianna Dratch from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

LEFTISTS COMMEMORATE BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION WITH ANTIGOVERNMENT RALLIES. An estimated crowd of 10,000 people took part in an antigovernment picket in front of the government's headquarters in Kyiv on 7 November. The picket, as well as a somewhat smaller rally on Independence Square shortly before it, was organized by the Communist Party of Ukraine to commemorate the 88th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

In 2000, the tradition of celebrating Revolution Day on 7 November ended when it ceased to be a state holiday in Ukraine, but Ukrainian communists and other leftists continue to mark the date with street demonstrations every year. Such rallies are usually attended by older people and pensioners; that is, by those Ukrainians who harbor nostalgia for the Soviet era and routinely vote for forces that pledge to reestablish the former Soviet superpower in one form or another, be it a hypothetical union of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus or the proclaimed Single Economic Space that involves these three predominantly Slavic countries plus Kazakhstan.

This year, the attendance at October Revolution rallies in Ukraine was hardly better than in previous years. Apart from the 10,000-strong demonstration in Kyiv, there was only one more major rally in Mykolayiv in southern Ukraine, which attracted some 5,000 people. The attendance at 7 November demonstrations in other Ukrainian cities was reportedly quite low: Kirovohrad -- 1,000 people, Odesa -- 1,000, Simferopol -- 1,000, Dnipropetrovsk -- 600, Sumy -- 500, and Sevastopol -- 400.

This is a rather puzzling fact, for at least two reasons. First, Ukraine is on the eve of a major campaign for the March 2006 parliamentary elections. The Communist Party of Ukraine, which earlier this year formed the so-called Left-Wing Front as an election coalition for 2006, could seemingly use its rallies on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution as a test as well as propagandistic confirmation of its political readiness to enter the parliamentary campaign as a meaningful force. Judging by what actually took place this 7 November, the Communists continue to remain a minor political player in Ukraine.

Second, this 7 November Ukrainian left-wingers had a unique chance to hurl all of their repertoire of political and socioeconomic criticism at a single and clear-cut target -- President Viktor Yushchenko and his government. To them, Yushchenko embodies all the evils that have plagued Ukraine since its independence in 1991. To name just a few points of this repertoire -- Yushchenko is a pro-Western politician and wants Ukraine to be integrated with the West in the World Trade Organization, NATO, and the EU; Yushchenko is a nationalist and anti-Russian politician; Yushchenko is an oligarch and wants to sell Ukrainian national assets to either Western economic moguls or Ukrainian oligarchs of his own ilk. In short, President Yushchenko is a much better target for leftist criticism on 7 November than his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, was in the past decade.

As should be expected, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko listed all these points regarding Yushchenko in his speech on Independence Square in Kyiv, and they were voiced in different variations by local communist leaders in other Ukrainian cities. But the general impression of Ukrainian media and commentators was that this year's October Revolution commemorations were sluggish and uninspiring for adherents of the communist ideology in Ukraine, despite the fact that the country is now governed by combatants and followers of the "nationalistic" and "anti-Russian" Orange Revolution. This may be a signal that Ukraine's communists and leftists, in general, need a new political agenda or new leaders -- or both.

There also is no unity or solidarity among Ukrainian leftist forces regarding the celebrations of Revolution Day. The Socialist Party of Oleksandr Moroz was conspicuously absent from Kyiv streets on 7 November. The party has several ministers in the government, so it probably decided to stay away from what promised to be an antigovernment public event. And Communist Party followers prevented the Progressive Socialist Party of Natalya Vitrenko -- a no less fierce opponent of President Yushchenko than Symonenko -- from laying flowers at the only remaining monument to Vladimir Lenin in Kyiv. The Communists consider the Progressive Socialists to be sidekicks of the Donetsk oligarchic clan, whose political arm is the Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

What was actually new during the 7 November rally and picket in Kyiv was the appearance of a relatively new group called the Eurasian Youth Union of Ukraine, which was represented by two dozen young Ukrainians. The organization is an apparent branch of the International Eurasian Movement, which is sponsored by some forces in Russia as a "Eurasian" response to what they see as the onslaught of Western "Atlanticism" on Russia and its post-Soviet neighbors, including Ukraine. Members of the Eurasian Youth Union of Ukraine busied themselves in Kyiv on 7 November by throwing rotten oranges at government building, and police reportedly arrested nearly all of them in the process. It is difficult to say whether in the future this group will be able to pose a more serious treat to the Yushchenko government than 7 November. However, its emergence seems to be emblematic, and those trying to rebuild a "Eurasian" empire have not yet run short of initiatives, supporters, or money. (Jan Maksymiuk)