Accessibility links

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 19, 2004

19 November 2004, Volume 6, Number 42
BELARUS AVOIDS UN RESOLUTION ON ITS HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD. Belarus has taken advantage of a little-used maneuver to elude a UN General Assembly vote on a resolution expressing concern about its human rights record.

The UN General Assembly's human rights committee on 18 November followed a recommendation by Russia to approve a procedural move known as a "no-action motion." Russia had complained that single-country resolutions are unnecessary and politicize the work of the committee.

The measure to drop the resolution was approved by a vote of 75 to 65, with Belarus getting support from many developing states opposed to so-called "naming and shaming" actions.

There will now be no General Assembly action on Belarus's rights record. Such resolutions are nonbinding but carry enormous symbolic importance.

The envoy of current EU president, the Netherlands, Koen van der Wolk, told RFE/RL that the vote set a bad precedent for confronting human rights problems.

"This is killing for the debate, and that's exactly what we feel is very important," van der Wolk said. "The debate should go on, the dialogue should go on, and this is exactly what we are not having with these kinds of motions."

The United States and the European Union had co-sponsored the resolution, which raised concern about the disappearance of political opponents, electoral irregularities, and the beating and detention of demonstrators and journalists after the recent elections.

In the text, the assembly would have urged Minsk to rectify problems with the electoral process, cease politically motivated prosecution and harassment, and suspend from their duties officials implicated in cases of enforced disappearance.

The resolution would have carried forward some of the concerns raised in a resolution adopted earlier this year by the UN Human Rights Commission against Belarus.

Belarus had rejected the charges and objected to what it termed the manipulation of human rights issues for political purposes. Russia's representative on the rights committee, Andrei Nikiforov, said Belarus is already engaged in a positive dialogue on rights issues.

"This measure as we see it is not appropriate given the demonstration by Belarus of its readiness to engage constructively with the international community on human rights matters," Nikiforov said.

But a U.S. representative, Frank Urbancic, said it was the human rights committee's responsibility to take steps to advance human rights. He said the Russian proposal undermined the committee's work.

"This motion is a blatant attempt to silence the General Assembly's consideration of violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Belarus. As such, this motion would effectively prevent this body from fulfilling its mandate," Urbancic said.

Earlier this month, Belarus had introduced a draft resolution seeking to scrutinize human rights practices in the United States (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 10 November 2004). It withdrew that resolution last week. Nikiforov said the United States should have responded to that move with a similar gesture. (Robert McMahon)

TIME TO REMEMBER. Ukraine is once again living through an exceptional period, much similar to that on the eve of its independence 13 years ago. Then, a new state was born out of political and social turmoil in the crumbling Soviet Union. Now we are witnessing the troubled, but definite, birth of a vibrant civil society in this state. All this is happening because of a presidential election in which Ukrainians for the first time since their independence seem to have a genuine political alternative to the ruling regime. This fact alone makes their situation very exceptional in Eastern Europe. In the short term, there is no possibility for such an alternative in Belarus or Moldova. And no apparent need for it in Russia.

On 21 November, Ukrainians will go to the presidential polls to choose between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who vows to ensure the political continuity to the regime of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko, who has promised to make a new start for the country. Yushchenko and Yanukovych competed in a neck-to-neck race in the first round on 31 October, obtaining 39.87 percent and 39.32 percent of the vote, respectively. It is widely expected that the runoff will be very close, too. It is also expected that turnout, which was 75 percent three weeks ago, will be distinctly higher on 21 November.

Both candidates seem to be sure of their victory, but it may happen that the fate of Ukraine's next presidency will depend on a handful of votes and, consequently, on a political verdict of the Central Election Commission (CEC). The commission was able to count nearly 98 percent of the 31 October vote within hours after the close of polling stations and subsequently spent 10 days tallying the remaining 2 percent, thus generating vehement charges of ballot manipulations. It may also happen that one of the contenders will not agree to a declared victory of his rival and will try to give vent to his frustration by inciting a "strong-arm scenario" to claim the power.

However, one thing is perfectly clear. Irrespective of who will emerge as a winner of the 21 November runoff, the country will not be the same as before the 2004 election. The "people's election campaign" conducted by Yushchenko has raised such a huge wave of spontaneous civic activism in his support that it is hardly conceivable that this activism will fizzle out even if he loses the vote on 21 November. The 2004 presidential campaign has formed a civil society in Ukraine, the core of which consists of a vast community of Yushchenko backers who seem to have eventually woken up from the Soviet-era political and social lethargy for good. It would be close to impossible to ensure a semblance of Kuchma-like continuity in Ukraine's political and social life for Yanukovych or Yushchenko even if they chose to do so.

The common picture of the Ukrainian presidential race, presented both for domestic and foreign audiences, is that Yanukovych stands for Ukraine's pro-Eurasian (pro-Russian) "political vector," while Yushchenko represents the country's pro-European (pro-Western) option. This may be fairly true as regards the election tactics used by both contenders to mobilize their electorates. Many voters in eastern Ukraine will vote for Yanukovych because he promises close cooperation with Russia as well as some concessions to the country's ethnic Russians in particular or Russian speakers in general. At the same time, they will vote against Yushchenko, because he is a "pro-Western Ukrainian nationalist" and his wife "is a CIA spy." As for Yushchenko, he is drawing his support primarily from the traditionally nationalist western part of the country, where voters "hate all things Russian" and "want Ukraine to be in NATO." By the same token, they will vote against Yanukovych because "he wants Ukraine to return into Russian bondage."

In the Kuchma era, Ukraine's delicate East-West political and cultural equilibrium has never been critically upset, and the country remained afloat in waters fairly remote from both Russian and Western shores. There is no grounds to suspect that this time the situation will be any different. It is nonsensical to fear that Yanukovych as president might like to become a governor of Ukraine administered from Moscow. The same can be said about the danger of Ukraine sliding into the "clutches" of the West under Yushchenko. First, no one is actually pushing Ukraine in that direction. Second, it is Russia, not the West, which is feeding Ukraine with oil and gas, and will continue to do so for many years to come. In other words, there is no peril of tectonic shifts in Europe's political equilibrium after 21 November.

This year's Ukrainian election, like several other ballots in the past, seems to be offering a clear-cut choice between Russia and the West. But, as in the past, Ukraine's future will turn out to be a compromise between the Russian and Western paths of development for the sake of an independent Ukraine. The true test will be the extent to which ordinary Ukrainians will influence the decisions made by the ruling elites in the postelection period. It will be hard for the future president, be it Yanukovych or Yushchenko, to ignore the will of the voters who have finally become citizens. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"Today we have a conflict between transparent politics and politicking. This is not a conflict between two Viktors but a conflict between two world views, two moral systems. And our choice is very simple: either we will live by the rules of criminals, or we will live as free and prosperous people." -- Viktor Yushchenko in the televised debate with his presidential rival in the 21 November runoff, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, on the state-owned UT-1 channel on 15 November.

"The current authorities are, as is known, corrupt and controlled by oligarchs. This is an opinion of 90 percent of citizens who were polled by independent sociologists. And this is my opinion, too." -- Yushchenko, ibid.

"The authorities tell us that Europe does not want us. And I am asking you, my friends: Would you like to be a partner of corrupt authorities? Would you like to have a partner in the country, where nearly 55 percent of the economy is in the shadows, where there is no normal, transparent, or competitive economy?" -- Yushchenko, ibid.

"Go to the polls [on 21 November]! Vote and defend your vote from the band that is called the Ukrainian authorities!" -- Yushchenko, ibid.

"You [Yushchenko and Co.] are bankrupt government officials, bankrupt authorities, not opposition. Because of your policies, Ukraine has slid into poverty." -- Yanukovych, ibid.

"You [voters] have probably seen that my opponent's campaign was built on complete lies and intimidation. Ukraine has heard many lies and has seen many liars during the years of its independence, but it has never seen an attempt to seize power by lying." -- Yanukovych, ibid.

"I, as a believer, have often addressed God, praying that God forgive you [Yushchenko] your sin [of lying]." -- Yanukovych, ibid.

"I want to tell, Mr. Yushchenko: For you any authority, if it does not belong personally to you, is criminal." -- Yanukovych, ibid.

"New authorities have already come, Viktor Andriyovych [Yushchenko]! You have simply not noticed that. And they have already started working. You need to understand that they are here to stay and that there is no way to dislodge them." -- Yanukovych, ibid.

"These days a Ukrainian optimist should study English. A Ukrainian pessimist should study prison slang. And a Ukrainian realist should study the Kalashnikov automatic rifle." -- A Ukrainian election-campaign joke; quoted by dpa on 18 November.