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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: March 16, 2004


16 March 2004, Volume 6, Number 9
BELARUS
OPPOSITION EYES PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION -- FROM DIFFERENT CORNERS. This fall Belarus is to hold an election to the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house. Unlike the 2000 legislative ballot, which was boycotted by the overwhelming majority of opposition parties in Belarus, this year all opposition groups have unanimously pledged to take an active part in the event. However, there is no unanimity of views among them as regards the election tactic -- is it better to pool efforts into one opposition bloc with a joint list of candidates or to field opposition candidates on several separate lists? As the matters stand now, there are at least three separate opposition groups aspiring to take part in the election.

One opposition alliance, which took the name of the Popular Coalition Five Plus in November 2003, consists of five parties: the United Civic Party, the Belarusian Popular Front, the Belarusian Party of Labor, the Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly, and the Belarusian Party of Communists. Five Plus, in accordance with its name, is seeking to enlist cooperation from a wider set of pro-democracy individuals and nongovernmental organizations.

Also in November 2003, another opposition coalition emerged based on the Charter-97 human rights group and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (National Assembly) headed by Mikalay Statkevich. This bloc called itself the European Coalition Free Belarus, taking the idea of Belarus's integration into Europe as its main election slogan and programmatic goal.

Somewhat later, the opposition Youth Front gave rise to a Young Belarus election bloc led by Pavel Sevyarynets. Initially, Young Belarus claimed to side with Free Belarus in the election campaign, but last week Sevyarynets announced that his bloc unilaterally selected 36 people for running in the election. True, Sevyarynets pledged to cooperate with other opposition forces to avoid rivalry among opposition candidates in constituencies, but it is not clear yet whether he will be able to achieve this goal.

In theory, all opposition groups call for the consolidation of election efforts, but only a small step has been made in this direction so far. In Vilnius on 24 February, the three above-mentioned election blocs and the Respublika group in the Chamber of Representatives (nearly 10 deputies who appear to flirt with the opposition and oppose some of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's policies) signed an agreement on cooperation in proposing representatives to election commissions and monitoring the vote. They also obliged themselves to restrain from criticizing one another during the election campaign.

However, any further rapprochement between Lukashenka's opponents seems to be a very difficult task. Last week, Free Belarus proposed at a meeting with the leaders of other opposition groups in Minsk a blueprint for the unification of Belarus's democratic forces and concerted action during the election campaign. In particular, Free Belarus suggested setting up a so-called democratic congress of opposition parties and groups in Belarus -- under the name of Our Belarus -- in order to coordinate their election efforts. According to Free Belarus leader Andrey Sannikau, the congress's main priority should be Belarus's integration with the EU. Sannikau called the meeting "rather fruitful," but Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the opposition Five Plus coalition, appeared to disagree.

"The real unification should have started a year earlier," Belapan quoted Lyabedzka as saying. "It took us a long time to establish and promote the Five Plus brand. Now we are offered to abandon what we have done. This road leads to a dead end." (Jan Maksymiuk)

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT RECOMMENDS ABOLITION OF DEATH PENALTY. The Constitutional Court on 11 March recommended removing capital punishment from Belarus's Criminal Code or imposing a moratorium on executions. According to the court, such measures may be enacted by the head of state or the National Assembly. The court examined the constitutionality of the death penalty following a petition from the Chamber of Representatives. Executions in Belarus are carried out by shooting.

"Belarus cannot but take into account the international community's trends regarding the death penalty," Constitutional Court Chairman Ryhor Vasilevich told journalists, noting that 45 member states of the Council of Europe and 100 other countries have banned capital punishment. Vasilevich recalled that capital punishment has been abolished in Belarus three times since 1912 but has always been restored again. He noted that the highest homicide rate in Belarus was reported in periods that saw a steep increase in executions. This, he argued, is clear evidence that the death penalty is not an efficient deterrent for criminals.

Vasilevich also recalled the 1996 referendum, in which 80 percent of voters opposed the abolition of the death penalty. But he added that the Belarusian Criminal Code at the time did not stipulate such alternative punishments as 25 years' imprisonment or life imprisonment, which were introduced in 1997. Therefore, he concluded, there is no legal obstacles to abolish the death penalty, particularly since the possibility of such a step is explicitly stated in Article 24 of the constitution: "Capital punishment, until its abolition, may be applied in accordance with the law only as an exceptional punitive measure for particularly grave offenses and only following a court verdict."

Legislator Andrey Nareyka, who was one of the authors of the petition, told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that his colleagues in the Chamber of Representatives are currently unlikely to support the total abolition of capital punishment, adding that a moratorium on executions is a more realistic option. Mikhail Pastukhou, a former judge of the Constitutional Court, suggested that the actual stance of the Chamber of Representatives on the issue of capital punishment is of no importance. If President Alyaksandr Lukashenka decides to take a legislative initiative, Pastukhou noted, the legislature will promptly approve either option.

RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contacted Aleh Alkayeu, a former warden of Minsk's death-row prison, who left Belarus in 2001 for Germany, from where he confirmed the allegations that top Belarusian government officials organized a death squad that was responsible for murdering three prominent opposition figures and a journalist (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 28 August 2001). While in Minsk, Alkayeu headed a group carrying out the death sentences. During his five-year service term, the death penalty was invoked 130 times and always with the same pistol, which was fired into the back of prisoners' heads. He was present at all 130 executions.

"In accordance with the Criminal Code, a prisoner sentenced to death is led to a special room where he is told that the president has refused his request for clemency or, if he had not filed such a request, that he chose not to ask for clemency, and within the next 30-60 seconds he ceases to exist," Alkayeu told RFE/RL. "We do it so as to spare him additional suffering. He expects that he still has some time, that he will be led to somewhere. In actual fact, in an adjacent room an unexpected shot is made in his head, and after that a doctor pronounces him dead and he is buried."

Alkayeu said the bodies of executed prisoners in Belarus are not given back to their families or relatives but are secretly buried by the group carrying out the execution. "This means extra troubles for us, absolutely," Alkayeu said. "We need to bury him in secret, to prevent anybody from seeing us or guessing what we do. It is a difficult task, it is more reminiscent of a detective story. It looks like a Mafia killing rather than the carrying out of a state order."

Belarus remains the only country in Europe where executions are still carried out. Official reports on the number of executions in the country are sparse and hard to obtain. RFE/RL's Belarusian Service found out that capital punishment was invoked in Belarus with regard to 47 persons in 1998 and seven persons in 2001. (Jan Maksymiuk)

UKRAINE
2003 SURVEY REVEALS PUBLIC ATTITUDES AND EXPECTATIONS. The Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) (http://www.ifes.org) has recently presented a very interesting and thought-provoking report "Attitudes and Expectations: Public Opinion in Ukraine 2003" authored by Rakesh Sharma and Nathan Van Dusen. In particular, the report includes findings from a survey carried out by IFES in Ukraine among 1,265 respondents from 10-19 September 2003 on a wide range of issues related to Ukraine's progress toward a more democratic state. It was already the 12th survey of this kind in Ukraine by IFES, which established its on-site presence in Kyiv in 1994. The 2003 survey and report were made possible through a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The report, which provides a plethora of tables with survey findings, examines public attitudes and expectations in the following areas: confidence in government and judicial institutions, corruption, political and economic reform, interest in politics, attitudes toward political parties and nongovernmental organizations, contact with local officials, and perception of media. It also provides a summary of regional and social variations of political attitudes in Ukraine.

The survey found that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians are either very dissatisfied (47 percent) or somewhat dissatisfied (38 percent) with the overall situation in the country. The current economic situation in Ukraine is assessed as bad or somewhat bad by 86 percent of respondents, while only 9 percent rate it as good.

IFES says its surveys since 2000 have shown a consistent preference for a market-driven economy over a centrally planned one. In 2003, 31 percent said they prefer a market economy, 21 percent a centrally planned economy, and 30 percent chose a neutral point in between. However, there are still large objections to privatization of key industries and sectors in Ukraine. The privatization of the electricity sector is opposed by 65 percent of Ukrainians, the coal industry by 59 percent, and collective farms by 45 percent.

Corruption is perceived as a major problem. A considerable majority of Ukrainians believe that that corruption is very serious or somewhat serious problem in hospitals (85 percent), the police (83 percent), universities (79 percent), courts (74 percent), customs authorities (67 percent), and tax authorities (66 percent).

Asked to choose five from a list of 10 statements or terms representing the meaning of democracy, respondents primarily pointed to human rights (66 percent), "everyone has work" (60 percent), "retirees are looked after by the state (55 percent), and "no official corruption" (48 percent). IFES registered a marked increase in the percentage of Ukrainians who say that Ukraine is not a democracy: 47 percent in 2001, 53 percent in 2002, and 64 percent in 2003.

One of the IFES findings is very revealing in the context of the ongoing constitutional reform in Ukraine: 62 percent of Ukrainians are unaware of the existence of a bill, or bills, mandating constitutional amendments that would change the balance of power between the presidency and parliament, while a minority of 38 percent are aware of the issue.

The president is the least trusted among those institutions about which respondents were asked: 70 percent said they have little or no confidence in President Leonid Kuchma.

Only 23 percent of respondents say they support a specific political party, down from 31 percent in the 2002 survey. Of them, 30 percent support the Communist Party, 22 percent the Our Ukraine bloc, 10 percent the Social Democratic Party, 3 percent the Greens of Ukraine, 3 percent the Socialist Party, 2 percent the Popular Rukh, and 2 percent the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. The survey found that 16 percent of Ukrainians belong to trade unions.

Only 20 percent of Ukrainians are aware of the activities of NGOs in their communities, but this represents a significant increase compared with 12 percent in 2002.

For the first time in its surveys in Ukraine, IFES registered that more Ukrainians than not say that they have a great deal or fair amount of information on both political and economic developments (58 percent on politics; 48 percent on economy). Television, particularly private stations, is the major source of news and information for most Ukrainians. Respondents listed the following media outlets as their primary information sources: Inter (33 percent), 1+1 Channel (23 percent), Ukrainian newspapers (5 percent), UT-1 (5 percent), UT-2 (3 percent), UR-1 (5 percent), ORT (3 percent), New Channel (2 percent), and local television stations (2 percent). The media are mostly rated positively by Ukrainians: 7 percent of respondents have a great deal of confidence in the media, 54 percent have a fair amount, 20 percent do not have too much confidence, and 6 percent have no confidence at all. Ukrainians also perceive journalism as a risky profession: 68 percent think it is dangerous for journalists to report objectively the news, while 20 percent feel that journalists are safe in doing that. (Jan Maksymiuk)

LAZARENKO MONEY-LAUNDERING TRIAL OPENS IN U.S. The trial in the United States of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko began on 15 March -- five years after he was arrested on charges of using American banks to launder at least $114 million he is accused of stealing from Ukraine. Federal prosecutors in San Francisco say Lazarenko brought millions of U.S. dollars to the United States intending to launder it.

Lazarenko says there is no need for him to launder money that he earned legally in Ukraine. If that is the case, the prosecutors argue, why did he enter the United States in 1999 using a forged passport purporting to have been issued by Panama?

Further, the prosecutors point to Lazarenko's conviction, in absentia, by a Swiss court four years ago on similar charges, for which he received an 18-month suspended sentence.

According to some estimates, Lazarenko stole perhaps as much as $1 billion in Ukraine a decade ago when industries once owned by the old Soviet state were being privatized. Kuchma appointed him prime minister in 1996, but fired him a year later when Lazarenko decided to challenge Kuchma for the presidency.

Lazarenko sought asylum in the United States in 1999, saying that he had been subject to three assassination attempts in Europe. But Kuchma's government accused Lazarenko of embezzling money from Ukraine. In the meantime, U.S. law enforcement officials said they had evidence of Lazarenko's money-laundering.

Lazarenko was subsequently arrested and jailed in a U.S. federal prison. He was released a year ago after posting $86 million in bail. He is now under 24-hour surveillance to ensure that he does not try to flee before his case is resolved.

Lazarenko has insisted that he acquired his millions legally -- and with Kuchma's knowledge and approval. Any details that may emerge during Lazarenko's testimony may prove an embarrassment for Kuchma.

Kuchma is not running for re-election in Ukraine's presidential elections in October. But whomever he supports to run in his stead could find the testimony damaging to his chances of victory, according to Anders Aslund.

Aslund was a financial adviser to the Ukrainian government from 1994-97. He now specializes in international economics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy research center in Washington.

Aslund says he has little sympathy for Kuchma's potential embarrassment. At the time Kuchma appointed Lazarenko as his prime minister, Aslund says, Lazarenko was widely perceived in Ukraine as the most corrupt man in the country.

Aslund says Kuchma's only excuse for making the appointment would be that he had no choice, given Lazarenko's great influence at that time. And yet, Aslund says, Kuchma did have the power to dismiss Lazarenko in 1997:

"There's no excuse for Kuchma. Here he appoints the man who's considered the most corrupt man of the land [as] prime minister, and [this perception was present] before Lazarenko became prime minister," Aslund said.

Aslund is less certain about the outcome of the trial. The judge in the case has ruled that prosecutors must first prove that Lazarenko got his millions illegally in Ukraine. Only then can they try to prove the money-laundering charge.

Aslund says it may be difficult to prove that Lazarenko broke Ukrainian law at a time when the country was just beginning to establish a new legislation following the breakup of the Soviet Union:

"Legislation in Ukraine at the time was rudimentary and contradictory. On the one hand, you can argue that nothing could be done [legally] because all laws were contradictory. On the other hand, you could argue that anything was legal because the legislation was highly incomplete," Aslund said.

There is also the widely held suspicion that Kuchma's chief political opponent and a potential Lazarenko accomplice, Yuliya Tymoshenko, is corrupt as well. Prosecutors say that a decade ago, when Tymoshenko was president of Ukraine's Unified Energy Systems, she helped get money to Lazarenko and his partners in exchange for preferential treatment for a gas company.

Tymoshenko was the deputy to Viktor Yushchenko when he was briefly Kuchma's prime minister. Yushchenko is running for president in the October election, and Tymoshenko is seen as his likely choice for prime minister if he wins. Their chances of victory also could be hurt by damaging testimony from the Lazarenko trial.

But which political bloc is hurt by the testimony depends a great deal on how the news is handled in Ukraine. The country's media is largely controlled by the government, so it is uncertain how much of the testimony will be heard by the Ukrainian public.

RFE/RL's correspondent Andrew F. Tully wrote this report.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK
"The game of [Russian-Belarusian] unification has ended. Lukashenka used this game for extorting huge economic handouts from Russia. Today, it is clear for everybody that the train has already left, and there will be no actual unification." -- Andrey Piontkovskii, director of Russia's Center for Strategic Analysis, commenting on the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin might assume the post of president of the Russia-Belarus Union in 2008, after the end of his second term in the Kremlin; quoted by the "gazeta.ru" website on 15 March.

"[Yuliya] Tymoshenko is hardly ready to attempt a violent takeover of power, even in a duo with [Viktor] Yushchenko -- they will not stage a real revolution. If Ukraine is destined to undergo a revolution, it will only be a socialist one." -- Ukrainian Communist Party lawmaker Oleksandr Bondarchuk, commenting on Tymoshenko's call for a "serious civic revolution" at a rally in Kyiv on 9 March; quoted by the "Partaktiv" website (http://www.partaktiv.info/) on 10 March.

"Economic growth should be felt by all citizens of Ukraine. Firstly, last year prices increased by 8.2 percent, while pensions by 12 percent. I quote government data. Let's compare these two figures. The pensions practically did not grow. What is more, I claim that they actually decreased. The 8.2 percent [increase in prices] is an average increase, which includes prices of clothing and housing. Pensioners do not buy clothes, they buy foodstuffs. But the prices of foodstuffs increased to a larger extent than those of other consumer products. How can pensions shrink in a growing economy?

"Secondly, how can the budget shrink in a growing economy? The government proposed a 2004 budget that is smaller than last year's one. Last year the government obtained consolidated-budget revenues amounting to 75 billion hryvnyas [$14 billion], this year it expects to obtain 78 billion. In 2004, according to the government, prices are to increase by 6.7 percent. [Adjusting the 2003 budget for this increase in prices] we will receive 80 billion -- a sum equal [in terms of its purchasing power in 2004] to 75 billion in 2003. They have planned 4.8 percent economic growth [for 2004]. In January 2004 the economy grew by 9 percent. Tell me, how can budget revenues fall in a growing economy? Thus, I claim that the government is hiding more than 7 billion hryvnyas from its citizens." -- Viktor Pynzenyk, a prominent politician in the Our Ukraine bloc, in an interview published in the 10-16 March issue of "Stolichnye novosti."

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