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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 3, 2004

3 August 2004, Volume 6, Number 27
WILL BELARUSIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS COINCIDE WITH A CONTROVERSIAL PRESIDENTIAL REFERENDUM? Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a four-hour news conference on 20 July and answered many questions about the political and socioeconomic situation in the country from both journalists who were present in the conference room and workers at selected Belarusian plants and collective farms via live television links. The conference coincided with the 10th anniversary of Lukashenka's inauguration as Belarusian president. Lukashenka glowed with paternalistic self-confidence and beamed a "father-of-the-nation" image to his compatriots. Addressing a group of workers at Minsk-based television maker Haryzont, he straightforwardly called them "children." The main message Lukashenka seemed to convey at the conference was that Belarus under his rule is enjoying political stability and an economic upturn.

One of the most important questions of the news conference was about what Lukashenka will do in 2006, after the termination of his second presidential term: Will he appoint a "successor" or seek a third term for himself? Lukashenka firmly denied that he might field a "successor" in 2006. "Today I am not even considering this problem," he said. "I think I ought not to do it this way: to select a successor and push him through to power by any means possible. Under today's system of power in Belarus, [doing so] is not a problem."

Lukashenka declared that if he chooses to seek a third presidential term, he will precede it with a referendum on lifting the constitutional provision restricting a president to two five-year terms. "I will not push for any new terms by force," he said. "If the people allow me to run for president in the 2006 election, I will take part only the same way I did in the previous elections -- on equal conditions with the other candidates. This requires a referendum in which people should say: 'Yes, Lukashenka, we allow you to take part in the next presidential election.'" He added, "Speaking frankly, if I pose this question, what grounds are there to bar me, a man who has devoted all his life to the people, from participation in the election?"

According to Lukashenka, formulating a question and making a decision on the referendum should not take long. "As soon as I make a decision on the referendum, I will immediately announce it," he added. He said he is unsure whether he would manage to win the 2006 presidential ballot. But he expressed his conviction that if the election were to take place now, he would "manage to win effortlessly, in an absolutely democratic manner as was the case in the previous election."

On 21 July, Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik shed more light on the referendum issue. Lazavik said there is still time to prepare a national plebiscite on a third term for Lukashenka in order to hold it simultaneously with the parliamentary elections on 17 October. Such an option is possible, Lazavik explained, if the referendum is proposed by Lukashenka himself rather than by voters or the legislature. According to Lazavik, the Central Election Commission would need 45 days to complete the necessary procedures for staging such a plebiscite. Lazavik stressed that holding the referendum would involve little cost, as the territorial commissions set up for the March 2004 local elections are still functioning, and polling stations could be used for both the legislative and referendum votes.

In other words, it is likely that Belarusians will this month be offered a vote on Lukashenka's right to seek a third presidential term in 2006. The political and socioeconomic situations for such a move are auspicious for the Belarusian leader. According to official reports, the government's economic performance in the first half of this year was outstanding -- the country's GDP rose by an annual rate of more than 10 percent. The average monthly wage has risen, reaching an equivalent of $165 in June. Moreover, the government is raising pensions this month by an average of 17.4 percent. Thus Lukashenka has the right to expect an upsurge of enthusiasm for his policies among the electorate in the next few months.

On the other hand, the Belarusian opposition is too weak to prevent Lukashenka from winning such a constitutional referendum. An opposition rally on 21 July to mark Lukashenka's decade in power gathered an estimated 2,000-3,000 people, far below the 30,000-40,000 expected by some opposition leaders. "I have arrived for a minimum of 10 years, and journalists need to be prepared for this," Lukashenka said during a news conference in December 1994. What seemed an unbelievable boast 10 years ago now appears to be a dismal reality. (Jan Maksymiuk)

EU SHRUGS OFF KUCHMA'S STRATEGIC MANEUVERINGS. The European Union has reacted coolly to reports that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has removed EU and NATO membership as strategic aims in his country's defense doctrine.

Ukraine has long pursued the idea of membership in the bloc, but with no luck. President Leonid Kuchma recently declined to sign an "action plan" to map out Kyiv's participation in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy, saying it offers nothing new to his country.

Kuchma's apparent decision to give up EU and NATO membership as strategic objectives is seen as another reaction to cold-shouldering by Brussels.

Commenting on relations with both Ukraine and Russia, chief European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said on 27 July that the EU seeks closer ties, but is not offering membership.

"Insofar as our relationship with Ukraine and Russia is concerned, we have good and close relations with both countries, and we hope they will be even closer in the future. Membership of the European Union has never been in the offing for either of those countries, nor has it formally been discussed as a prospect," Kemppinen said.

Kuchma's decree replacing EU and NATO membership in Ukraine's defense doctrine with the more vague aim of "Euro-Atlantic integration" was posted on the Ukrainian government's website on 26 July. The decree substitutes a new goal of "deepening" Kyiv's relations with the blocs for its earlier goal of "joining" them.

Oleh Shamshur is Ukraine's deputy foreign minister. "This amendment [to Ukraine's defense doctrine] was made because neither NATO nor the EU at this moment are ready to give a clear signal about the timeframe [for Ukraine's entry into NATO]," Shamshur said.

But Shamshur said Kyiv has not radically changed course. "We do not see any reasons for claims that Ukraine has changed its European and Euro-Atlantic course, since the ultimate goal of European integration has not changed, is not changing, and I don't think it will change. The key word about European integration is still there [in the defense doctrine]," Shamshur said.

Kuchma's decree coincides with a visit to Kyiv by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin used a speech on 26 July to warn foreign "agents" not to work against the integration of Russia and Ukraine.

Observers in Brussels note Kuchma has long tried to play off Russia against the EU. Last year, the EU sharply criticized Ukraine's moves toward setting up a free-trade zone with Russia and Kazakhstan, among others. EU officials then said it could compromise Ukraine's future ties with the bloc.

Officials in Brussels now indicate this should be read as the EU limiting its offer to Ukraine to joining the bloc's neighborhood policy.

Emma Udwin, an external relations spokeswoman at the European Commission, said the offer could add a "great deal" to existing relations. She also made clear Ukraine is not seen as a case deserving special treatment.

"We are currently pursuing links with Ukraine through our neighborhood policy -- through the European Neighborhood Policy -- which is a policy that closes no doors but which concentrates on the current situation, which is that Ukraine is one of our neighbors -- post-enlargement -- and which offers a great deal to any one of our neighbors that wishes to take up the offer and work with us," Udwin said.

Udwin stressed that "there are plenty of things that can be offered outside of [EU] membership."

Speaking privately, one EU diplomat noted the bloc sees significant shortfalls in the use Ukraine has made of its current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the bloc. Kyiv's desire for closer ties -- perhaps an association agreement, which is generally seen as a precursor to membership -- is therefore seen as unwarranted.

The European Neighborhood Policy offers EU neighbors a chance to integrate their markets so that they can eventually fully benefit from the bloc's four core freedoms -- the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. Only political decision-making would remain a closed-off area for the neighbors.

Officials in Brussels attribute the EU's relative coolness towards Kyiv largely to the questionable democratic and human rights record of the Kuchma administration. One source noted that the EU is "more interested in what countries do than what they say." (Ahto Lobjakas)

"There will be no 'President Lukashenka's lists' in these [17 October parliamentary] elections, there will be no pressure! But I will ask local power bodies how they are fulfilling my instruction to have 30 percent of the current parliament's deputies in the new parliament, in order to ensure the succession and stability of the legislative branch. Shouldn't I be concerned about this? I should. I have instructed that women constitute 30-40 percent of the new parliament. Is this a bad, uncivilized [approach]?" -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a news conference on 20 July, answering the question why the presidential administration holds special conferences devoted to the upcoming legislative elections; quoted by Lukashenka's official website (