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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 18, 2004

18 May 2004, Volume 6, Number 18
WILL EU'S NEW POLICY TOWARD MINSK HELP OR HINDER CHANGE? The European Commission's European Neighborhood Policy envisions closer links with those neighbors willing to share the European Union's values and respect its vital interests.

As such, the commission leaves open no place for cooperation with Belarus as long as the present government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka remains in power.

The strategy -- due to be formally approved at the EU's summit in June -- says the EU will proceed quickly to develop relations with Ukraine, Moldova, and a number of Mediterranean countries, but it leaves Belarus in the cold.

Some analysts say the move could encourage the Belarusian people to push for changes, while others strongly disagree.

Michael Emerson is a senior research fellow at Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. His primary areas of expertise are the EU's relations with Russia and Ukraine. Emerson said the EU's efforts to convince Lukashenka to change his policies by diplomatic means have failed, and that little can be done while the present Belarusian leadership is in power:

"A policy of diplomatic suggestions from the European Union are, indeed, not likely to have decisive effect because the European Union does not wish to intervene heavily in Belarusian affairs," he said.

Emerson believes the new European Commission document is a signal to the Belarusian people that there has to be a switch to "normal European values if the relationship with the EU is to be deepened."

Emerson noted that the EU expects the Belarusian people to move forward with such changes, not Lukashenka himself. "That's the statement of position, and it's up for the Belarusians to decide. I mean, I think nobody expects Lukashenka ever to change his policy. Maybe he'll [behave like Libyan leader Muammar] Gadhafi [and change his ways]. Who knows? Never say never. But it's not expected Lukashenka will change. But he will not last forever, will he?" Emerson said.

Emerson said the European Commission is not seeking to punish the Belarusian people but is hoping to inspire change similar to recent events in Georgia and Adjara, where corrupt or authoritarian governments were recently removed in popular uprisings. "The EU is not in the position of subversion," Emerson said, "but maybe the message from the Caucasus will reach Belarus, as well."

Belarusian and Russian analysts do not agree and say the European Commission's new policy is unlikely to yield the desired results. They say the Belarusian people -- not the government in Minsk -- will end up paying the price.

Alyaksandr Sasnou, deputy director of the Minsk-based Institute for Socioeconomic Studies, said the new strategy is a bad sign and could lead to grave results. "You should not isolate Belarus. You should not create a feudal enclave out of it in Europe, irrespective of the existence of a [dictatorial] regime. On the contrary, [the EU] should try all possible ways to take [Belarus] out from this medieval backwater. One way or another, [the EU position] should be to encourage pressure on the government from the inside. People are not blind, and they will see what is going on. But if you are cutting all relations with the state, the situation of people in the country will become even worse. It is bad enough now, but it will become worse," Sasnou said.

Sasnou said it appears as if the European Commission considers Belarus to be in Russia's sphere of interest and does not care much about its future. However, he notes that polls indicate that while many Belarusians favor closer economic relations with Moscow, they also want to retain their independence.

Kiril Koktysh, a Russian and Belarusian expert at Moscow's Institute of International Affairs, said the EU has never had a coherent policy toward Belarus and that its latest move fits that pattern. "No, [the new strategy] will not be help. It fits the old pattern of European policy toward Belarus, which means only one thing -- Lukashenka is allowed to do whatever he wants but should do it according to the norms of decent European behavior," Koktysh said.

He said the EU has never presented any specific demands to Belarus except to formally urge Minsk to observe European norms. Koktysh believes this policy is hypocritical and ineffective, especially the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which he said has done little to improve things in the country.

He said the European Commission's toothless policies may be influenced by the fact that a pipeline supplying Europe with Russian gas travels through Belarusian territory.

Koktysh believes changes in Belarus can be brought about only through cooperation between Russia, the European Union, and Belarus. He also said Lukashenka cannot be removed by isolation. "With political passivity in the country, Lukashenka feels free to act as he wishes, and only an economic collapse can remove him from power, but that seems unlikely now," Koktysh said. "However, a collapse would be a disaster for both Russia and the EU because both the West and Russia would have to cope with big numbers of refugees." (Valentinas Mite)

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION WEBSITE SUED FOR LIBEL. The Internet publication "Ukrayinska pravda" ( has been sued for libel. The plaintiffs are Valeriy Vorotnik, the editor of the Cherkasy-based newspaper "Antena," and Mariya Sambur, a former lawyer of the Institute of Mass Information (IMI). The "Ukrayinska pravda" website has dubbed Vorotnik and Sambur "agents of [presidential-administration chief Viktor] Medvedchuk in the media sphere."

"Ukrayinska pravda" is an outspoken and trenchant critic of the Ukrainian president and government. The website has become a major opposition media outlet following the abduction and murder of its first editor in chief, Heorhiy Gongadze, in 2000. Thus far, the authorities have not tried to hinder the activities of the website. The lawsuit by Vorotnik and Sambur is the first-ever legal action against "Ukrayinska pravda."

Vorotnik and Sambur demand a refutation of the website's claims -- voiced by "Ukrayinska pravda" in materials published in March 2004 and November 2003 -- that they had a role in political scandals surrounding the closure of Radio Kontynent and the publication of the so-called Honcharov letter.

In particular, according to "Ukrayinska pravda," Vorotnik and Sambur advised Radio Kontynent chief Serhiy Sholokh against retransmitting RFE/RL programs and proposed cooperation with Medvedchuk's Social Democratic Party-united. Sholokh did not heed those warnings. In early March, the authorities seized Radio Kontynent's transmitter and premises, while Sholokh fled abroad, citing threats. Sholokh reportedly told "Ukrayinska pravda" about the role of Vorotnik and Sambur in the closure of his station in a telephone interview.

"Ukrayinska pravda" also claimed that in 2003, on the IMI website, Sambur published an expurgated letter by Ihor Honcharov, a former policemen and reputed crime boss, who was implicated by official investigators in the slaying of Gongadze. Honcharov died in police custody in August 2003. Before his death Honcharov reportedly managed to give the IMI a 17-page handwritten letter in which he claimed to possess information about Gongadze's killers, including audio recordings and a confession that he said he wanted to reveal to investigators in the presence of independent witnesses. According to "Ukrayinska pravda," in the published letter Sambur removed the passage in which Honcharov accused President Leonid Kuchma of involvement in the Gongadze murder.

"Ukrayinska pravda" reported that each plaintiff is demanding 10,000 hryvnyas ($1,880) in damages. The website argues, however, that the lawsuit is politically motivated and its real goal is to close the opposition website or to seriously impair its activities. To support its argument, the website quoted the following passage from the complaint by Vorotnik and Sambur: "For the purpose of securing [our] claim in the course of pretrial preparations, [we request that the authorities] impound the property and money owned by the defendant and kept by the defendant or other persons."

"Ukrayinska pravda" is also concerned by the fact that the lawsuit was filed with the Pecherskyy District Court in Kyiv, which, according to the website, has "the hopeless reputation of being an institution controlled by Medvedchuk."

Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko expressed surprise at the demand by the plaintiffs regarding the confiscation of the defendant's property and money. "These kinds of acts of repression in the run-up to the [October presidential] election and the stepping-up of pressure on the authoritative Internet publication linked to the killed journalist Heorhiy Gongadze will do nothing to improve the image of the Ukrainian authorities," UNIAN quoted Yushchenko as saying. "Even without this, in Ukraine and far beyond they have the reputation of oppressors of the freedom of speech."

Yuliya Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party said the lawsuit against "Ukrayinska pravda" is "the start of a punitive campaign against the freedom of speech and free and independent journalism."

The "Ukrayinska pravda" trial is to start on 27 May. (Jan Maksymiuk)

WILL KUCHMA RUN AGAIN? Despite recent statements by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma suggesting that he has no intention of running for a third term as president in the 31 October election, signs are emerging that this might not be the case.

On 14 May, Interfax-Ukraine reported that Kuchma ordered Vasyl Baziv, deputy head of his administration, to hold weekly press briefings about the president's activities. Such meetings had been halted in late 2000. "Lately the political situation in the state has become tense," Baziv told the media, according to Interfax. "We're on the eve of the election campaign, and, during the election campaign, informing the public must be more intense than under 'peaceful' conditions."

Others believe the resumption of weekly briefings is meant to grant the president more pre-election exposure than he already receives.

Baziv's reference to a "tense" situation in the country presumably pertains to events surrounding a local election in the city of Mukacheve in March. In Mukacheve, thugs threatened voters, destroyed property, and allegedly falsified voting records. Eyewitness reports by election observers subsequently claimed that the goons had been hired by the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) to ensure the victory of its mayoral candidate. The SDPU-o party has been a firm backer of Kuchma, and some believe the disturbances in Mukacheve were sanctioned by the presidential administration.

When Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasylyev was asked by parliament to investigate the incident, he concluded that nothing improper had occurred -- implying at the same time that it might have been the opposition that tried to falsify voting records in Mukacheve.

A second indication that Kuchma might run for a new term is the more recent scandal involving the criminal past of presidential hopeful Viktor Yanukovych, the current prime minister. As a young man, Yanukovych was twice sentenced to short prison terms for assault. These facts were already a matter of public record when Yanukovych was nominated as prime minister, but they resurfaced in conjunction with the announcement that he was the presumed "presidential candidate of the parliamentary majority."

Some opposition leaders have questioned the wisdom of promoting a former convict as president.

What is more intriguing is that some media in Ukraine have given this charge such wide coverage. Some observers point out that -- had it wanted to prevent this type of damaging debate about its "candidate" -- the presidential administration could have easily prevented the media from doing so. Yet it did the opposite, effectively giving the charges wider publicity.

A third indication of Kuchma's aspirations for a new term is that many leading members of the presidential majority in parliament have distanced themselves from Yanukovych's selection as their candidate, also suggesting that they were not overjoyed by the choice. The matter will be decided at a majority caucus in June, an event that promises a few surprises.

A likely scenario, according to some opposition leaders, would see a parliamentary majority publicly imploring Kuchma to run again in order to "protect" the country's international prestige from a Yanukovych presidency.

Kuchma secured the legal right to campaign for a third term when the Constitutional Court ruled that he was in fact serving only his first term, since he was first elected to the presidency prior to the adoption in 1996 of the country's current constitution. (Roman Kupchinsky)

"All of us are making a positive image of Ukraine. I want my country to open up before you with friendship and hospitality. I would like you to forget about Chornobyl." -- Ukrainian singer Ruslana after winning, with her band, the 2004 Eurovision Song Competition in Istanbul on 15 May; quoted by Reuters.

"The Ukrainian parliament is a rather curious creation. Virtually all of Ukraine's businessmen are members of the parliament, which serves as their meeting place. It is frequently stated that about two-thirds of the Ukrainian parliamentarians are dollar millionaires, and the Ukrainian parliament might actually appear more reminiscent of the New York Stock Exchange than the U.S. Congress. One reason for all these businessmen sitting in parliament is that parliamentarians enjoy legal immunity, but their often large corporate interests mean that they are easily subject to repression from various state inspections of their enterprises. Another reason for their presence in parliament is that government interference in business remains excessive." -- Anders Aslund from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, during the hearing "Ukraine's Future and U.S. Interests" by the Committee on International Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives on 12 May.

"In my view, no political event in Europe this year is more important than Ukraine's presidential elections next October. They amount to two clear-cut choices between democracy and dictatorship as well as between a Western and Eastern geopolitical orientation." -- Anders Aslund, ibid.