2 March 2004, Volume
LUKASHENKA BACKS DOWN IN GAS ROW WITH MOSCOW...
Last month Moscow took an unprecedented step to discipline Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and remind him that it is high time for him to start behaving in the manner the Kremlin wants him to -- Gazprom on 18 February halted gas supply to Belarus completely, charging that Minsk exhausted contracted gas quotas and began to siphon off Russian gas flowing in transit to third countries. Gazprom has refused to supply gas to Belarus since the beginning of the year, demanding a higher price for deliveries and favorable terms in the potential purchase of a controlling stake in Belarus's gas-pipeline operator Beltranshaz. To these two demands Lukashenka has steadfastly objected, at least until recently.
An accord to set up a Belarusian-Russian joint venture to run Belarus's gas-pipeline network, which is now run by Beltranshaz, was signed in April 2002, in addition to an agreement on the supply of 10 million cubic meters of gas to Belarus at a preferential price of some $30 per 1,000 cubic meters (Russia's domestic price for gas supplied to Smolensk Oblast bordering on Belarus). The planned sale of a stake in Beltranshaz to Gazprom collapsed in mid-2003, after Lukashenka valued the company at $5 billion and offered only a 50 percent stake, while Gazprom said it would pay only $600 million for a controlling stake.
Since the beginning of January, Belarus received gas from the formally independent traders Itera and Transnafta under short-term, "emergency" contracts, paying some $47 per 1,000 cubic meters. When a subsequent contract expired on 18 February and Minsk showed no willingness to sign another one, Gazprom turned off its gas tap.
Lukashenka's first reaction to the gas cutoff was furious. Unlike several previous bitter rows with Moscow, this time the Belarusian president did not look for some "backstage" culprits but attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin directly. He accused the Russian leader of pursuing economic "terrorism," adding that such a hostile step had not been made against Belarus since the end of World War II. But later the same day, Lukashenka suddenly backed down and agreed to pay a higher price -- $50 per 1,000 cubic meters -- for Russian gas. In what seemed to be his last propagandistic salvo of anti-Putin spitefulness, Lukashenka publicly announced that he will take money from "Chornobyl victims" and "people who rotted in the trenches" to pay the higher gas bills.
An unidentified official from the Russian Foreign Ministry lambasted Lukashenka on the ministry's official website for his "provocative statements" on 19 February, noting that Belarus's defective socioeconomic development and international isolation were caused by none other than the Belarusian president himself. It was the first time that Moscow officially criticized Lukashenka's policies. Quite understandably, the Russian Foreign Ministry kept totally silent over the fact that it was primarily the Kremlin's unconditional political support and cheap gas supplies that allowed Lukashenka to pursue such policies for almost 10 years. But now it seems that Moscow has decided to close the period of cheap gas supplies to Belarus for good.
Lukashenka has threatened to renounce unspecified "agreements" with Russia in retaliation to Gazprom's demand of a higher price for gas, but it is rather unlikely that, as some analysts suggest, he may immediately decide on re-establishing a full-scale customs border with his eastern neighbor, thus putting a practical end to the much-publicized Russia-Belarus Union. Even though the idea of a union state with Belarus seems to have lost influential advocates in Russia, Lukashenka has no other reliable political foundation on which he could place his hopes for political survival, especially as many Belarusian observers assert that he is planning to remain in power beyond the end of his second term in 2006.
A day after consenting to pay the higher price for gas, Lukashenka backed down even further and called against "politicizing" the gas dispute with Moscow. He seems to realize quite perfectly that it is Putin who is now dealing the cards in the Russia-Belarus integration game. Therefore, Lukashenka will pay higher gas bills, even if grudgingly, and will most likely try to bargain away Beltranshaz for the highest possible price, including the Kremlin's consent to his staying for a third presidential term.
Judging by his incoherent reactions, Moscow's decision to cut off gas supplies to Belarus took Lukashenka completely by surprise. Indeed, it was an extreme measure to which Russia did not resort even during its row with Ukraine over gas siphoning in 2000-01, when the cost of the Russian gas allegedly stolen by the Ukrainians reached, according to some estimates, hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.
But Ukraine's case for Russia is somewhat different than Belarus's. Even if warily, Kyiv has allowed Russian businesses to penetrate the Ukrainian market and participate in some major Ukrainian privatizations. Lukashenka, on the other hand, is keeping the most attractive privatization assets in Belarus strictly under his control and does not allow the Russians to snatch away even a bit of them. Thus, Moscow's harsh measure to force him into submission is understandable, at least at an emotional level. And this measure seems to have worked, even if it is not clear yet whether Lukashenka will finally agree to sell Beltranshaz and at what price.
The current gas conflict between Minsk and Moscow is also a difficult dilemma for the Belarusian opposition. Objectively, Lukashenka is defending the country's economic interests, even if these interests are very closely linked to his political career. On the other hand, there is a general belief among Belarusian opposition leaders that it is impossible to depose Lukashenka without Moscow's blessing and/or nudge. Therefore, the Belarusian opposition seems to be in two minds over what to do now -- to protest Moscow's economic blackmail and thus indirectly take Lukashenka's side or, quite the opposite, to join Moscow in pressing the Belarusian president to adopt a more relaxed privatization policy and thus face Lukashenka's accusations of acting against national interests.
So far, the baffled Belarusian opposition has not issued any statement on the gas dispute and its implications. Ironically, it was the government that huddled several hundred workers in front of the Russian Embassy in Minsk for an ad hoc anti-Moscow demonstration on 19 February, after Gazprom halted the gas flow. Lukashenka, the main engine of the Russian-Belarusian integration until recently, is now assuming some tasks of its staunch opponents as well. (Jan Maksymiuk)...AND STEPS UP IDEOLOGICAL INDOCTRINATION.
President Lukashenka on 20 February signed a decree "On enhancing the cadres for ideological work in the Republic of Belarus." The decree obliges the managers and heads of all enterprises and organizations in Belarus to appoint a deputy head for ideology.
The document also specifies how many people should be employed by local executive authorities' departments for ideology and establishes procedures for such appointments. Thus, six oblast executive committees and the Minsk City Executive Committee should have 15 ideologists each, while raion executive committees are to employ from three to six persons, depending on the number of population in raions. The appointment of the deputy heads for ideology in the central-government institutions, nationwide media outlets, higher educational institutions (including private ones), and oblast executive committees should be approved by the presidential administration. The Academy of Management under the Belarusian president will take care of training professional ideologists for the country. According to an estimate by "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," the number of ideologists in Belarus will amount to no fewer than 10,000 people.
Deputy presidential administration chief Aleh Pralyaskouski told journalists last week that, according to a poll conducted by a presidential polling center, 80 percent of Belarusians think that the Belarusian state needs ideology. Pralyaskouski stressed that ideology is especially coveted by younger generations -- the poll found that more than 70 percent of Belarusians under the age of 30 think that state ideology is necessary. According to Pralyaskouski, the poll also established that the main functions of state ideologists should be explaining the country's domestic and foreign policies, informing the population, and forming public opinion. Pralyaskouski added that the presidential administration is continuing work on formulating the foundations of state ideology of the republic of Belarus. (Jan Maksymiuk)
GENERAL ACCUSES SECURITY SERVICE OF SPYING ON POLITICIANS ABROAD.
General Valeriy Kravchenko told Deutsche Welle in Berlin on 18 February that he possesses "evidence of criminal activities" by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's regime. Kravchenko alleged that Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) chief Ihor Smeshko and Main Intelligence Directorate chief Oleh Synyanskyy have been ordering their subordinates abroad to spy on Ukrainian opposition lawmakers and cabinet members "starting from ministers and above." Kravchenko claimed that he, as an intelligence officer and adviser to the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin, has also received such an order. He declared that he is ready to hand over the evidence to the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office and the Verkhovna Rada's Human Rights Committee.
The same day, the SBU called Kravchenko's statement "absurd." The SBU acknowledged that Kravchenko, born in 1945, is its officer, adding that earlier this month he was ordered to return to Kyiv but refused to obey the order. The SBU suggested that Kravchenko is pursuing "mercantile interests" in publicizing his revelations.
Kravchenko's revelations came two days ahead of President Kuchma's visit to Berlin and his meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Kuchma denied Kravchenko's allegations at a news conference in Berlin, saying his country does not need to spy on opposition figures abroad because anything they say can be read in the press. Kuchma publicly allowed Kravchenko to publish the documents that allegedly confirm the officer's allegations, saying that they were all lies anyway.
Kuchma also suggested that Kravchenko's defection might have been linked to a decree on "de-KGB-ization" of the SBU, which was signed by the Ukrainian president on 18 February, that is, on the day Kravchenko went public. In particular, the decree -- officially advertised as a move to enhance democratic civil control over the activity of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, honor Ukraine's international commitments to integrate into the EU, and eliminate the negative legacy of the Soviet KGB -- stipulated the abolishment abolishing the Soviet-era practice of assigning special-service agents to top-level government bodies. Kuchma hinted that 58-year-old Kravchenko, a veteran of the Soviet-era KGB, was simply afraid of being dismissed under the decree and therefore chose to remain in the West.
But Kravchenko tells a different story, claiming that the main motive behind his defection was "cynical and gross violations" of the law by Smeshko and Synyanskyy, who allegedly ordered him to spy on Ukrainian politicians in Germany in contravention of a law on the SBU, which strictly specifies the areas of SBU activities. According to Kravchenko, while in Berlin, he ignored those instructions from Kyiv, which he deemed illegal.
On 24 February, Kravchenko's allegations were rejected by Volodymyr Radchenko, former SBU chief and current head of the National Security and Defense Council. Radchenko said Kravchenko's revelations are "unbefitting an officer of the SBU." He added that the political implications of Kravchenko's revelations were created artificially by his desire to remain in Germany for another year to save money to finish renovating his apartment in Kyiv.
Last week, opposition lawmaker Mykola Tomenko, who is head of the parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Expression and Information, met with Kravchenko in Berlin and received from him a confidential dossier that purportedly corroborates Kravchenko's allegations that the SBU has been illegally spying on opposition activists and cabinet members abroad. During a news conference on 27 February Tomenko shed some light on the nature of Kravchenko's documents.
One of the instructions sent from Kyiv to Kravchenko in Berlin concerned spying on visiting Ukrainian officials in general. "In connection with the need for information coverage of foreign visits by officials of Ukrainian bodies of state power (of the rank of minister and above), we ask you to sent reports covering the following information," Tomenko read from a purported official message decoded by Kravchenko. In particular, the SBU demanded information on unofficial meetings of visiting Ukrainian delegations.
Another document allegedly pertained to the SBU's request to collect information about the authors and the subject of a report by the German television channel ZDF regarding the illegal export from Ukraine of children or possibly body parts of children. Kravchenko was purportedly ordered to "prevent" the program from being shown.
One more document allegedly instructed Kravchenko and intelligence officers in other countries to spy on "all Ukrainian delegations without exception." "We draw your attention to the need to conduct constant work aimed at obtaining information on the arrival in your country of residence of all Ukrainian delegations without exception, and also individual persons whose actions abroad may have a negative influence on the implementation of Ukraine's domestic and foreign policy strategy," Tomenko quoted from the document. "Work is to be stepped up among the Ukrainian diaspora with the aim of obtaining required preemptive information in the interests of ensuring our country's security and in the context of preparing political reform and the presidential elections."
Tomenko passed Kravchenko's documents to the Prosecutor-General Office and the leadership of the Verkhovna Rada. According to Tomenko, if prosecutors launch a criminal probe into the SBU's illegal activities, Kravchenko will return to Ukraine to testify. If this does not happen, Kravchenko may choose to seek political asylum in the West. (Jan Maksymiuk)WHO WILL COUNT PRESIDENTIAL BALLOTS?
The Verkhovna Rada on 17 and 19 February approved 12 new members of the Central Election Commission (TsVK), thus bringing it to its full strength of 15 people. The TsVK reportedly comprises 11 members delegated by pro-government forces, two by the Communist Party, and one each by the Socialist Party and Our Ukraine.
"I'm very disturbed by the fact that we are now witnessing [an unabashed attempt] to fill the TsVK with representatives of different political forces," political analyst Andriy Yermolayev told the "Kandydat" website (http://www.kandydat.com.ua). "By virtue of this, it is being involuntarily admitted that each member of the newly formed TsVK has some extra task [in the commission], that is, he or she wants to advance the interests of his or her party [there]."
Anatoliy Hrytsenko, head of the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank, sees another risk in such a composition of the TsVK: "The presence of people [delegated by the Socialist Party and Our Ukraine] in the TsVK may be seen as a small victory [of the opposition], but on the other hand, it is only a shield [for the authorities], since two persons will in no significant way influence the activities of the TsVK. And at the same time the opposition now cannot appeal to some international organizations with complaints that its opinion is not taken into account. Formally, it is. But the current authorities control a majority of votes in the TsVK and the commission as a whole."
On 19 February, the 15 TsVK members unanimously elected lawmaker Serhiy Kivalov as TsVK head. According to some Ukrainian media, Kivalov, 49, is a very colorful person. Last week, Kivalov gave up his parliamentary mandate to be able to serve on the commission. However, before that he was a lawmaker and simultaneously chaired the High Council of Justice (a body distributing jobs among Ukrainian judges) and presided over the Odesa National Law Academy. He managed to persuade his colleagues in the Verkhovna Rada that he did not violate the law on the status of deputies by holding several positions because, he argued, he worked in the High Council of Justice and the Odesa National Law Academy on a nonsalaried basis.
Kivalov was first noted in the Verkhovna Rada in early 2003, when he proposed a bill on tax amnesty for the Ukrainian president. Kivalov postulated that the president of Ukraine be given "the right to tax amnesty that will result in freeing the taxpayer from financial, administrative, and criminal responsibility for evading the payment of taxes and failing to declare incomes and hard-currency funds [as well as] movable and immovable property located both in Ukraine and outside its borders." The Ukrainian parliament has declined to read this bill.
Kivalov was also behind drafting an expert opinion by the Odesa National Law Academy last year claiming that President Kuchma is formally serving his first presidential term and may run for the presidency in 2004. One of Kivalov's scientific papers is devoted to Kuchma's intellect and reportedly bears the title "The Thinking of Specialists in Public Law is Enriched by Contacts with Leonid Kuchma." (Jan Maksymiuk)
"I think it's an act of terrorism at the highest level to take natural gas away from a country that is not totally foreign, from people half of whom have Russian blood in their veins, when it's minus 20 degrees outside." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a government meeting on 19 February, commenting on Russia's decision to stop the gas flow across Belarus the previous day; quoted by Belarusian Television.
"Today it is a really historic moment -- with a bitter gassy flavor." -- Lukashenka, ibid.
"It's a pity, but God sees that it is not we who are to blame. I think, [Prime Minister] Syarhey Syarheyevich [Sidorski] -- let them reproach us for not standing strong here, for giving up and so on -- that we need to conclude an agreement on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's terms. If Putin wants us to pay this money [$50 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas], let us collect it, taking it away from medicine payments, Chornobyl victims, and people who rotted in the trenches -- you see, they are rich people, aren't they? Are we really not able to collect $200 million? We will collect it and we will get rid of the problem -- then they will stop manipulating us and blackmailing us." -- Lukashenka, ibid.
"We will probably survive this gas problem, but if anyone over there, behind the [Kremlin] walls in Moscow, thinks that the Belarusian people will bow its head and let it be cut off, that will not happen." -- Lukashenka, ibid.
"The provocative statements made by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 19 February indicate that he is attempting to aggravate relations with Russia, while disregarding the interests of the Belarusian people. A natural question arises: Why does Alyaksandr Lukashenka need all this? An answer should most likely be sought in the foreign-policy sphere. The president of Belarus is responsible for those systemic mistakes in his country's domestic and foreign policies that have been hindering the socioeconomic development of the state and have already led to Belarus's isolation in the international arena. By provoking a crisis over the supply of Russian gas, Alyaksandr Lukashenka is trying to divert criticism from himself and shift responsibility for his own mistakes to Russia." -- An unidentified official of the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement posted on the ministry's official website on 19 February.
"The Belarusians have reached such a level of denationalization that today they are much more interested in the price for gas than in the future of their country and, it appears, in their survival as a nation. In this case, the Russians' healthy mercantilism helps the Belarusians become a distinct nation.... The Belarusians are in the Middle Ages as regards the level of their nation building.... The concentration of all power in Belarus in the hands of one man means -- apart from all undemocratic, 'side' consequences -- that this man will defend the country as his own property. Strange though it may seem, it is the personal instincts of this man that may save Belarus, in which no nationwide instincts work. There is no such stimulus in Ukraine. Power in Ukraine has been distributed among a few oligarchs who are actually leasing the state. The Ukrainian authorities do not feel any historical responsibility, as it should be in a civilized state. On the other hand, they do not have any proprietary instinct regarding the whole state, as it can be seen in Belarus. The slogan of the Belarusian 'Middle Ages' is 'There is only one lord here," while that of the Ukrainian 'transition period' is 'Steal and let others steal.'" -- The "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 20 February.