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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: October 12, 2004

12 October 2004, Volume 6, Number 37
'LEAVING NO STONE UNTURNED' IN 17 OCTOBER POLLS. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a government conference on 6 October that the authorities should win not only the presidential referendum on 17 October but also should fill all 110 seats in the Chamber of Representatives in the first round of the legislative elections that will be held the same day. "We should show who is the master of the house," Lukashenka said. "We should leave no stone unturned [in crushing] the domestic and external opposition.... One should be able to stay in power and defend it. This is Grandpa Lenin's saying, not mine. We have enough power and techniques to win these elections and referendum overwhelmingly."

Winning the referendum for Lukashenka means obtaining the right to run for the presidency in 2006 and thus, as his opponents assert, paving the way for his indefinite rule in Belarus. Filling all the seats in the Chamber of Representatives in the first round actually means packing the lower house with submissive and toothless deputies by way of administrative support and/or vote "adjustments." The opposition, which was pushed out of "systemic politics" in Belarus by Lukashenka in 1996, seems to have no chance to win even a single seat in the Chamber of Representatives. An opposition rally in Minsk on 10 October, which was organized to call on the electorate to refrain from early voting, gathered only an estimated 300 people, that is, almost exclusively opposition leaders, opposition parliamentary candidates, and some activists of their election staffs. Ordinary voters remained totally uninterested.

Belarusian opposition activists read Lukashenka's call on the government to win the 17 October elections and presidential referendum by a landslide as a veiled order to falsify the polls. Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka said the government is rumored to be planning to make 60 percent of the voters cast their ballots before polling day. The early voting, which began on 12 October, is widely deemed to be the best opportunity for the authorities to fix the ballot. "Our people account for less than 1 percent of election-commission members," United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka added. "These can hardly be called election commissions, they are rather 'falsification' commissions." According to Lyabedzka, election commissions have been ordered to ensure an 80 percent turnout and a 75 percent vote in favor of the referendum proposal to lift the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency.

Apart from instructing the government to work toward completing the parliamentary election in the first round, Lukashenka also decided on the balance of sexes in the future Belarusian legislature. In his annual address to the National Assembly in April, Lukashenka determined and validated the quota for women in the deputy corps. "Women should constitute no less than 30-40 percent [of the deputy corps]," he said. "Woman always emit kindness. So the remaining guys will work well.... I will request that the local authorities support all these processes and that the men who find themselves in the same constituency with women give up.... I'll be glad if women constitute 40 percent of our future parliament."

Some "guys" who did not work "well" in the outgoing Chamber of Representatives were simply denied registration as candidates for the 17 October election. In particular, such elimination was applied to deputies Uladzimir Parfyanovich and Syarhey Skrabets, who jointly with deputy Valery Fralou went on a 19-day hunger strike in June, demanding liberalizing changes to the country's Election Code. Uladzimir Hancharyk, a challenger to Lukashenka in the 2001 presidential election, was also rejected.

In general, registration was a tortuous process for many more candidates. Out of the 692 people seeking registration, district election commissions registered 359. The most common official reasons for denying registration were incorrectly filled-out income and property declarations by candidates or irregularities in the signature lists of citizens supporting candidates. The Central Election Commission subsequently sustained 40 out of the 164 complaints from people who were rejected by district election commissions. But in some cases the commission was adamant, supporting registration denials according to a graphologist's conclusion that there were falsified signatures on candidates' support lists. Some rejected candidates later submitted written statements from their voters swearing that their signatures on support lists are authentic, but to no avail. Graphology seems to be a promising vocation in Belarus under Lukashenka.

Conducting the election campaign has proven to be tricky for opposition candidates as well. For example, police on 1 October searched without a warrant the campaign office of two opposition parliamentary candidates in Minsk, Valyantsina Palevikova and Alyaksandr Dabravolski, and confiscated all 15,000 election campaign leaflets printed legally by United Civic Party deputy head Dabravolski with money provided by the Central Election Commission. Palevikova was luckier, because the police seized only a portion of her leaflets. RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported many cases of detention by police of opposition candidates and their supporters campaigning in the streets, just with the sole purpose of intimidation.

Under Belarus's election legislation, all candidates are entitled to air five-minute, free-of-charge campaign programs on state-run television and radio channels. The opposition hoped that it would be able to use this opportunity to call on voters to say "no" to Lukashenka in the referendum. However, state censors either blocked such prerecorded election broadcasts from being aired at all or cut passages referring to the referendum from them. Some opposition candidates who criticized the government in their campaign broadcasts were subsequently removed from the ballot on charges of defaming state officials.

In short, there is no chance for the Belarusian opposition to score any significant success in the 17 October polls or efficiently monitor the vote counting. The Belarusian authorities do not allow election monitors to be present in the rooms where the ballots are counted after the closure of polling stations. There is also an official veil of secrecy over the lists of eligible voters in the country as a whole and in every single constituency in particular.

What the opposition is proposing to voters in order to prevent the potential rigging of the vote in the presidential referendum is to ruin the referendum ballot by tearing it in two, put one part in the ballot box and take the other -- with the signatures of a relevant polling-station commission -- outside the polling station and subsequently pass it to opposition candidates for a "parallel vote count." Not a bad idea in theory, but it was voiced only this past week, so there is slim chance that it may be communicated to all voters who do not want Lukashenka to rule the country beyond 2006. (Jan Maksymiuk)

THE KREMLIN GOES FOR YANUKOVYCH. Last week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych conducted his presidential election campaign in Moscow. On 8 October Yanukovych attended a forum of Russia's Ukrainian diaspora in Moscow, and the following day he and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a well-publicized celebration of Putin's 52nd birthday. Both meetings were intended to unambiguously suggest to both Russian and Ukrainian television viewers that the Kremlin's sympathy in the 31 October presidential ballot in Ukraine is with Yanukovych and no one else.

The Ukrainian diaspora congress in Moscow on 8 October was attended by more than 1,200 delegates from Ukrainian organizations in the Russian Federation. According to a 2002 census, there are nearly 3 million Ukrainians in Russia. It is not clear how many of them have Ukrainian citizenship and may vote in the Ukrainian elections on 31 October. But some signals suggest that it is a considerable number, and votes from Russia's Ukrainians may even be decisive for the anticipated tight race between Yanukovych and his main rival, Viktor Yushchenko. Ukrainian media reported in mid-September that more than 560,000 Ukrainian citizens living in Russia signed Yanukovych's presidential-candidate support lists.

Yanukovych told cheering delegates at the congress what they wanted to hear from him; namely, that he will seek to give Russian the official-language status in Ukraine and introduce dual citizenship. Yanukovych also promised that Ukraine under his leadership will not join NATO, even if Kyiv will continue to develop cooperation with the alliance.

The congress adopted a resolution urging Ukrainian citizens both in Russia and Ukraine to support Yanukovych as the only presidential candidate who is able "to unite our country and society" as well as one who "guarantees the maintenance of Ukraine's economic growth" [and] "good-neighborly relations with Russia." The congress -- which was attended by top Russian officials, including Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, Duma Deputy Chairman Sergei Baburin, presidential-administration chief Dmitrii Medvedev, and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov -- was widely publicized by Russian and Ukrainian media.

The following day, before meeting with Putin, Yanukovych and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Fradkov worked on an economic component of the Kremlin's election support for the Ukrainian prime minister. In August, Moscow already made a significant concession to Kyiv by agreeing to cancel the value-added tax (VAT) on oil and gas exports to Ukraine. As of 1 January, VAT on Russian oil and gas exports will be collected according to the country-of-destination principle, which will contribute some $800 million annually to Ukraine's budget.

Fradkov reportedly promised Yanukovych that both countries will soon sign a schedule for removing any restrictions on mutual free trade. Fradkov specified that "soon" means "after the Ukrainian presidential elections," thus hinting that such an accord hinges on their results. In particular, Russia is reportedly ready to lift quotas on Ukrainian exports of sugar as of 2007 and alcohol as of 2012.

In addition, Fradkov and Yanukovych reportedly agreed to introduce "simplified regulations" for crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border by their citizens as of 1 January. It is not clear what such a simplification may mean in practice, especially as in the wake of the hostage tragedy in Beslan, Moscow signaled that those regulations will be tightened and, as of 2005, all CIS citizens will be allowed into the Russian Federation only with foreign-travel passports.

However, the main display of the Kremlin's benevolence toward Yanukovych was reserved for the evening of 9 October, when he and Kuchma met with Putin in the Russian president's residence in Novo-Ogarevo near Moscow. "We will respect any choice by the Ukrainian people but, of course, we are not indifferent to it," "Vremya novostei" quoted Putin as saying. And Putin elaborated on which choice by the Ukrainian people would be closer to his heart. "The people of Ukraine should decide whether positive tendencies are consolidated in economic development," Putin said. "All that was laid down by President Kuchma [served as] the foundation for the development of Russian-Ukrainian relations. It is especially dear to us. The future of Russian-Ukrainian relations will depend on how the Ukrainian leadership builds its course [toward Russia]."

"Kommersant-Daily" reported that during the meeting with the Russian president, Yanukovych, in violation of protocol and for apparent media purposes, sat next to Putin rather than opposite him. "The sum does not change if its items change their places," Kuchma commented on the situation. "I hope so," Putin responded. "Mr. Putin wanted to say that Ukraine will not lose anything...if Mr. Yanukovych becomes its president," the daily explained this exchange in an article titled "Tuning a Successor." (Jan Maksymiuk)

MAJOR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES ALL BUT IGNORE MEDIA ISSUES IN THEIR MANIFESTOS. Ukraine, along with Belarus, belongs among the harshest abusers of the freedom of expression not only in Europe, but also globally. Even if the situation of the media in Ukraine is incomparably better than that in Belarus, Ukraine invariably occupies a top place on all lists of suppressors and enemies of the media compiled by various media watchdogs.

Ukraine's significant input in the arsenal of means intended to muzzle the media and journalists is aptly reflected in the introduction of the Ukrainian coinage "temnyk" -- meaning "themes of the week" -- into international usage without translation. Temnyks are unsigned instructions sent on a daily basis from the Ukrainian presidential administration to major television and radio channels, both state-run and private, to tell journalists what news to cover and in what manner. Given that all Ukrainian media outlets must have their licenses renewed every five years, Ukrainian news editors usually follow prescriptions included in temnyks.

It is interesting and instructive in this context to look at how the problem of media freedom is perceived in manifestos of four major candidates in the ongoing presidential campaign in Ukraine: Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Our Ukraine bloc leader Viktor Yushchenko, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, and Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko. One might expect that Ukraine's media sphere should be a major concern of presidential candidates, primarily those opposed to the government, since they do not have such media opportunities for promoting their candidacies as Prime Minister Yanukovych. The reality, however, is surprising and puzzling at the same time.

The first surprise is that, as regards mere wordage, it is Yanukovych who seems to be concerned about the media more than the other three candidates. Yanukovych declares: "State policy in the information sphere will ensure the implementation of constitutional rights to freedom of expression and information, the defense of national interests, and the development of independent media." The next paragraph in his manifesto can also be referred to generally defined freedom of expression: "The participation of broad circles of society in the formation and implementation of state policy and the legislative process, political pluralism, open dialogue, constructive cooperation, common responsibility -- this is how we will overcome the alienation of the state mechanism from the life needs of man." And that is all about media matters in the prime minister's presidential platform.

Yanukovych's manifesto, as regards both substance and style, is typical of all other presidential manifestos in Ukraine. In its substance, it tells what should be done but is dead silent on how it can be done and by what means. In its sloppy and blurred style, it is highly reminiscent of the Soviet-era journalistic lingo, which seemed to have been developed to conceal the truth rather than to reveal it.

Turning now to Yanukovych's main rival, Yushchenko declares in his presidential program "Ten Steps Toward the People": "In a renewed Ukraine, the freedom of expression, the vigorous activity of public organizations and political opposition will become a norm -- as a guarantee of state policy in the interests of the people." How Yushchenko intends to renew Ukraine and ensure the freedom of expression, as well as with what political and economic mechanisms, remains a mystery. True, Yushchenko's campaign team have promised to present a detailed plan for resolving major social and economic problems in Ukraine after his victory. One needs to wait patiently.

The biggest surprise awaits us in Moroz's presidential manifesto. Moroz is known as a fiery advocate of the freedom of expression on the Ukrainian political scene. It was Moroz who first publicized the so-called Melnychenko tapes, which suggested that President Kuchma and other top officials may have been involved in the kidnapping and slaying of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Therefore, it is extremely puzzling to find that the only reference to media in his presidential platform is a pledge to fight "for overcoming the moral-spiritual crisis in society -- one of the reasons of Ukraine's decline, [and] for the prohibition of the dissemination of violence and cruelty in the mass media." Unbelievable but true.

Now Petro Symonenko. His style seems to be the most colorful of all the manifestos cited above. "The state is undergoing self-destruction, its functions are being taken over by criminal oligarchs, regional and family clans," the chief Ukrainian communist asserts. "They have also captured the majority of media outlets, which are essentially used for demoralizing society, particularly young people. Information policy is being formed by political killers." However, Symonenko does not explain how, if at all, information policy in Ukraine can be formed by more constructive operators.

One of the easiest explanations of why Ukrainian major presidential candidates are so vague and unspecific about the freedom of expression in their manifestos is that they are equally vague and unspecific about almost all other issues they touch upon there. In Ukraine, as in other post-Soviet countries, presidential election campaign are primarily battles of personalities, not of political programs. Therefore, nobody apart from political analysts -- who constitute a negligible part of the electorates -- pays attention to what candidates say in their manifestos, which are usually loose compilations of political slogans and cliches.

It is also not unlikely that presidential candidates in the post-Soviet area, both from pro-government and opposition camps, believe that it is the presidency and the government alone that have the right to define the extent of media freedom, therefore they remain as vague and noncommittal on this issue as possible in order not to go back on their election promises when they win the election. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"To those hoping that I'll leave the [presidential] race I'll say straightforwardly: You won't see it happen." -- Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in an interview with the 9-15 issue of "Zerkalo nedeli."

"It is not very serious for a journalist of the most respected analytical publication in Ukraine ['Zerkalo nedeli'] to ask me such questions as whether I may support Yanukovych [in the anticipated runoff with Yushchenko]. Could you answer me whether I may back the widening of the ozone hole over the Earth? -- Ukrainian presidential candidate Oleksandr Moroz in an interview with the 9-15 issue of "Zerkalo nedeli."