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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: December 29, 2004

29 December 2004, Volume 6, Number 48
THEY KNEW TOO MUCH: LEADING INDEPENDENT THINK TANK FACES ATTACKS. When polls close in Belarus, the time for settling scores begins. This has happened during President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's stay in power after every large political campaign (referendum or presidential election) was over. Repression usually targeted bureaucrats who failed to show complete loyalty or organizations that were conspicuously active in opposing the president. Now the time seems to have come for everyone that can think, not only act, differently.

Such an attack was recently launched against the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI). Founded in 1992 as the first nonstate think tank in Belarus, NISEPI has established itself since then as one of the most authoritative outlets of independent thinking in the country. In the past, many of its sociological findings and statements were upsetting for the opposition, therefore they were readily quoted by the state-owned media, especially when NISEPI opinion polls showed that Lukashenka continued to enjoy high levels of public approval while support for the opposition was minimal.

Times have changed, though. On 13 December, KGB officers searched the apartment of NISEPI Deputy Director Alyaksandr Sasnou. The official reason was criminal charges against the apartment's previous tenant, who is suspected of economic crimes. This was, however, a hardly credible pretext given that that tenant moved out several years earlier.

For the past several months, NISEPI has been subjected to official pressure. The institute received eight letters with warnings from the Justice Ministry in September and October. Some of the warnings referred to pure technicalities while others were plainly absurd. For example, NISEPI was charged that its findings were published by unregistered publications, as if it was NISEPI's responsibility to ensure those registrations or prevent its publicly released data from dissemination.

Several days before the referendum on 17 October, NISEPI head Aleh Manayeu was summoned by the justice minister, who presented a ministry motion to the Supreme Court on the liquidation of NISEPI "for various violations." The real reasons for the attack, NISEPI's management insists, was the institute's role in arranging (in cooperation with Gallup/Baltic Surveys Service) an exit poll during the referendum that disputed the official results. A new postreferendum opinion poll released by NISEPI in December might have been the last drop that overfilled the ministry's cup of tolerance.

Looking at NISEPI's November poll data, there doesn't seem to be any immediate reason for an official crackdown, as they are actually heart-breaking for the opposition. Contrary to polls conducted in 2002-03, none of which showed that more than 35 percent of Belarusians would support Lukashenka for a third and subsequent terms in office, the November data showed that 49 percent of Belarusians actually said "yes" to Lukashenka's continuity in power in the referendum. (This figure, incidentally, confirmed the finding of an exit poll by Gallup-Baltic Surveys that Lukashenka's desire to run for president more than twice was supported by 48.7 percent of all eligible voters in the 17 October referendum.)

Not only NISEPI's but all other independent surveys (including those conducted by several Russian polling agencies) recorded that the increase in Lukashenka's popularity from the level of around 30 percent he enjoyed for the last year occurred in the two months following the announcement of the referendum. In November, 10 percent of those polled declared that they would "unequivocally" support Lukashenka if he chooses to be president for life, and 18 percent declared that they would rather support this (at the same time, around 60 percent objected to this proposition).

The poll also recorded a loss of confidence in all institutions of civil society and the opposition, including parties, media, and NGOs. In contrast, support for government institutions increased. The poll found that 48 percent of respondents believed that the 17 October referendum and parliamentary elections were fair (this corresponds to the percentage of Lukashenka's supporters in the referendum as found by Gallup/Baltic Surveys), while only 35 percent disagreed (the remaining respondents declined to answer). The conclusions of international organizations, including the OSCE, that the 17 October polls were unfair were supported by 28 percent of respondents and opposed by 33 percent.

What can be concluded from the poll data is that Lukashenka soundly defeated the opposition on 17 October once again. On one hand, he received an impressive number of votes, with the possibility of real victory within the poll's margin of error of 3 percent. On the other, the opposition's effort to build a stronger feeling of resentment toward the government's performance in the country in general and the 17 October election in particular was unsuccessful.

Why, then, attack NISEPI now if the regime was conspicuously unconcerned about claims of vote rigging in the past?

This December is not the first time that NISEPI has come up with findings implying that the government might have rigged a vote. In 1996, NISEPI estimates were eight percentage points lower than the officially registered 70 percent backing for the new constitution that effectively eliminated the division of powers in the country. (NISEPI also found that in 1996 voters approved some postulates that the authorities claimed were rejected -- such as the direct elections of mayors and governors as well as public disclosure of all budgetary sources.)

NISEPI conclusions were much sharper after the 2001 presidential election, when the institute suggested that up to 25 percent of the vote could have been stolen at those elections (the officially attested support figure for Lukashenka in 2001 was 75 percent). At that point, the findings were followed by an official reaction, as there was the government's move toward licensing public opinion polls that has never been fully implemented.

This time, however, the situation seems to be significantly different, inasmuch as the poll data not only allege election irregularities but also suggest that Lukashenka actually might have lost if the vote count was conducted in a proper manner (even regardless of unequal campaign opportunities and media bias). The survey's findings can be the basis for exerting a more intensive and justified political pressure on Lukashenka in the future. Thus, several media outlets in the West, sharply critical of Lukashenka, have already insisted that independent poll data should become the starting point for working out a new Western approach to Belarus, which must be based on the fact that Lukashenka has no right to govern beyond 2006 when his current term in office expires.

The employment of opinion polls as instruments of political pressure is logical in conditions where elections lose significance as a mechanism for recruiting political elites or giving the opposition the right of voice; this was exactly the role the elections played in Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" as well as during similar events in Serbia and Georgia.

Moreover, opinion surveys in Belarus remain the only source of reflection on the actual state of relations between the government and the public. Lukashenka's government is keen on insisting that the popular approval of the regime is not just high but also growing all the time. Remarkably, every vote in Belarus returns a higher official percentage of support for the regime (70 percent in 1996, 75 percent in 2001, and 80 percent in 2004). With this in mind, the assumption would be that independent opinion surveys, if allowed in the future, will show even higher disparity between official claims and reality.

Another important detail is that the perception that Lukashenka is invincible and irreplaceable is an important foundation of his rule. Arguably, this perception can discourage many from participation or even interest in political life because of the apparent hopelessness of such pursuits. Even now, the fact that less than half of the population agrees that the voting was fair means that the official propaganda failed to make the other half think otherwise. Without an atmosphere of public fear, this would have already been enough to spur a legitimacy crisis.

Even though independent surveys constantly show that a change in Belarus is highly unlikely, they surely establish two facts. First, such a change is not altogether impossible in the future given the state of the public mind. After all, if Lukashenka really got less than half of the vote in the referendum, the difference between Belarus and Ukraine, where the "Orange Revolution" has just triumphed, is largely in the degree of repressiveness of the two regimes and the spread of fear in both countries rather than in the Belarusians' genuine desire to live in autocracy.

If all Lukashenka managed to achieve -- through oppressing the opposition, closing dozens of NGOs, destroying alternative information sources, and increasing wages in the referendum period -- was the level of support to his regime characteristic of the late1990s, it means that the costs of maintaining his regime has been driven up in recent years and it may not be feasible to keep up with them in the future. Second, Lukashenka's ability to keep people in submission can only be achieved in a completely closed system in which there are no sources of alternative information and self-reflection, for only in a closed environment can the public believe that he is universally supported while voting him down simultaneously.

All this being said, it is only logical that the Belarusian authorities chose pollsters as a new target for repression. After all, ignorance is bliss. (Vital Silitski)

YUSHCHENKO WINS VOTE, BUT YANUKOVYCH TO CONTEST RESULTS. Ukrainian opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko had an unassailable lead over his rival candidate with nearly all the ballots counted from the 26 December presidential election, but Viktor Yanukovych has said he will protest the results with the country's highest court.

With some 98 percent of the ballots counted by the evening of 27 December, figures from the Central Election Commission showed Yushchenko with more than 52 percent of the vote, compared to less than 44 percent for Yanukovych. Turnout was over 77 percent, the commission announced.

But Prime Minister Yanukovych refused to concede defeat tonight, saying in televised remarks that he will challenge the results in the Supreme Court. Yanukovych said he will never acknowledge an opposition victory, claiming that the constitution and human rights were violated during the election.

Yushchenko, meanwhile, declared victory in a rally in the capital Kyiv in the morning of 27 December.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has already congratulated the opposition leader on his victory, according to a press release from Kwasniewski's office quoted by Reuters.

Sources within Yanukovych's campaign had suggested earlier on 27 December -- as Yanukovych remained silent over the result -- that they would indeed challenge the results of the latest vote. A Yanukovych ally, Nestor Shufrych, charged falsification.

International Praise

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) took a different view, saying today that the vote shows the country has taken "a great step forward toward free and fair elections."

The head of the OSCE observer mission, Bruce George, said this was the general view among the monitoring organizations. "I am much happier to be in a position to announce that it is the collective judgment of these organizations represented here that the Ukrainian elections have moved substantially closer to meeting OSCE and other European and international standards," George said. However, George added that the election was not perfect and that the mission's final report will detail what observers saw as its shortcomings.

European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana called on Ukraine's political leaders to work together to unite the country after the divisive election.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell broke the official silence in Washington on 27 December over the vote and called the Ukrainian election "a historic moment for democracy." He said it appeared the Ukrainian people had had the opportunity to choose their own government and added the election appeared to have been "full and free."

The repeat vote appeared to have taken place with no major electoral violations. The vote was monitored by some 12,000 international observers, with foreign scrutiny heightened following flawed late-November voting that was eventually declared invalid by the Ukrainian Supreme Court.

Early Signs Of Opposition Win

Yushchenko predicted at a 26 December opposition rally following the balloting that the opposition would emerge with a win. "Dear friends, I would just like to say, for 14 years we were independent, but we weren't free," Yushchenko told the crowd. "For 14 years there was tyranny in all of Ukraine, the tyranny of [outgoing President Leonid] Kuchma, [his predecessor Leonid] Kravchuk, and [Prime Minister Viktor] Yanukovych. Today we can say that is all in the past; before us lies an independent and free Ukraine."

"Today we are turning the page of disrespect for people, of lies, censorship, and violence," Yushchenko said. "The people who were dragging Ukraine into a hole are at this moment becoming [a part of] the past. A new epoch is beginning of a new great democracy. Many tens of millions of Ukrainians have dreamed of this."

Ukraine's Central Election Commission indicated early on 27 December that Yushchenko had secured enough votes to ensure him victory

Overnight Jubilation

In the early hours of 27 December, after three separate exit polls showed he had a big lead, Yushchenko went to Independence Square in the heart of the capital to address his supporters.

They welcomed him with the same chants of "Yushchenko" that have echoed around the capital and the country for the past month in a nonstop protest against the government. It was in that same square that hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters gathered on the evening of 21 November to protest the massive fraud perpetrated by the government in that day's first presidential runoff.

The protests began 17 days of demonstrations that have since become known as the "Orange Revolution" -- for the orange color the Yushchenko campaign adopted.

Yushchenko, flanked by his wife and senior political allies, bowed today to supporters and said: "My first thanks are to you. The people proved their power. They rebelled against probably the most cynical regime in Eastern Europe."

Yushchenko's Plans

Yushchenko has said his ambition is for Ukraine to join NATO, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization. He has said that he will cooperate with Moscow as an equal but added that the era during which Ukraine was treated as a subordinate was over.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had openly backed Yanukovych, arriving in Ukraine on the eve of two earlier rounds of elections, in October and November, to boost Yanukovych's chances. Putin was quick to congratulate Yanukovych for his official victory on 21 November, a win marred by sufficient fraud to prompt the Supreme Court to order the new vote.

Yanukovych supported Putin's plan to recreate a Moscow-led bloc, comprising Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. That scheme now looks doomed.

Yanukovych courted Ukraine's large ethnic-Russian minority -- around 9 million of the country's 48 million population -- with promises that Russian would become a state language.

Russia's interference had caused resentment among opposition supporters. Many of Yushchenko's close colleagues suspect Russia of involvement in the nearly fatal poisoning of the opposition leader in September that has left his face badly disfigured. The EU and the United States rebuked Putin for meddling in the election.

East-West Divide

But the results from yesterday's vote suggest once more that Ukraine is deeply divided, with the western and central regions backing Yushchenko while the east mostly supported Yanukovych.

Yanukovych's senior political allies in some of the eastern regions threatened in November to seek autonomy, something they have since moved away from. A member of parliament from the Social Democrat Party-united, which supported Yanukovych, Ihor Shurma, suggested some kind of devolution might happen -- but not for a while. "Perhaps a federal model will be beneficial for Ukraine, but not today. Ukraine is not ready for that today," Shurma said. "Economically it's not strong enough. At present it faces many risks. Therefore, it is not appropriate to raise this question at this time."

In an early hint that he might accept the results of the 26 December vote, Yanukovych promised to form a robust opposition in parliament to any Yushchenko-appointed government.

The leader of his campaign team, Taras Chornovil, even predicted Yanukovych supporters in parliament would attract some of Yushchenko's current political allies, including the Socialists and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, to fight the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2006 as a coalition. "If Yushchenko indeed does become president, then I think that in the near future politicians like Yuliya Tymoshenko and others will join us," Chornovil said. (Askold Krushelnycky)

WILL UKRAINE NOW TURN TOWARD THE WEST? Throughout the election campaign and the demonstrations he led through the streets of Kyiv, Yushchenko promised his people big changes if they elected him president.

Speaking in the morning of 27 December in the Ukrainian capital, Yushchenko said the decisive moment had at last arrived in the form of "a new epoch of a new, great democracy" to replace a period of "disrespect for people, of lies, censorship, and violence."

Yushchenko is being listened to closely not only in Kyiv, but also in Moscow, Brussels, Washington, and other capitals. The leader of the "Orange Revolution" has said the changes he intends to bring to Ukraine are as much about internal reforms as they are about foreign policy.

Although he campaigned on a vow to undo the legacy of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, Yushchenko's foreign-policy platform is ironically a throwback to Kuchma's early program -- at least as it was presented to the world. When he first came into office, Kuchma talked about closer EU integration. He signed a special partnership agreement with NATO and even raised the possibility of membership in the alliance.

An Evolving Foreign Policy

After Kuchma's popularity at home and abroad sank as he became mired in corruption scandals, he turned to Russia as his new ally, saying Ukraine needed a "multivector" foreign policy that balanced Eastern and Western interests.

In reality, analyst Taras Kuzio of George Washington University in the United States suggested, Kuchma had no real foreign policy -- just a lot of promises and temporary alliances designed to keep him and his clan in power. Kuzio, interviewed by RFE/RL before the vote, said he expected Yushchenko to end this "pretend foreign policy" and follow through on the goals Kuchma originally set out.

"What we'll have is no longer a mismatch between domestic and foreign policies," Kuzio said. "We'll no longer just have empty rhetoric. We'll have more concrete substance to those foreign-policy objectives, which have already been raised on the agenda, which are EU and NATO membership. It's not Yushchenko who's going to be raising the issue of NATO and EU membership. They have been Ukrainian objectives for a while but not serious objectives."

Alexander Rahr, an expert on the region at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin whom RFE/RL also interviewed before the election, said he would expect fundamental changes in Ukraine's foreign policy under Yushchenko. "I think that what Yushchenko is going to take back are announcements, statements, made by President Kuchma concerning Ukraine's future foreign policy," Rahr said. "When Kuchma said he couldn't foresee Ukraine in NATO and the European Union within the next couple of years, he made a clear point about reorienting his foreign policy towards Russia. I think this will change under President Yushchenko. Yushchenko will say that the intention of Ukraine's foreign policy is directed towards integration with Western military, economic, and political structures and not so much in the future with Russia. I think this will bring fundamental change, and we can expect it."

Although Ukraine's geopolitical reorientation, if it occurs, would affect relations with Russia, experts have said they believe economic ties are not likely to suffer. While prime minister, Yushchenko showed he was open to Russian business investment in Ukraine. But as for the rest of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), that is another matter.

Kuchma pursued a free-trade zone linking Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan. But Kuzio said that if its economic value cannot be justified -- especially if Western investment starts to pour into Ukraine -- then it will become a casualty of the Yushchenko administration.

"There will be, I believe, a short period of coldness in relations with Russia. That's because of Vladimir Putin's overt intervention in the Ukrainian elections and also because of the strong suspicions that Russia is behind the attempted poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko," Kuzio said. "But the best way to understand the transformation would be: continued pragmatic economic cooperation with Russia, no longer any interest in the CIS joint-economic space together with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan."

EU Membership?

The big question is how the European Union, which played a leading role in mediating and end to the electoral crisis, might react to Ukraine's westward swing. Former European Commission President Romano Prodi once famously declared that Ukraine had as much chance of joining the EU as New Zealand.

Is Europe ready for Ukraine and its 47 million people? Rahr said he does not believe EU membership is a realistic prospect for Kyiv. "For many Europeans, Ukraine is still too big, too difficult, too far away, with a too complicated economic system, too much corruption," Rahr said. "So I think there are a lot of arguments which will be made inside the European Union against giving Ukraine a full-fledged prospect for membership in the European Union."

But Rahr said he does see prospects for a special partnership with the EU. He said he believes countries like Poland and Germany are interested in such a relationship and will push for the EU to adopt a dynamic and pro-active policy toward Ukraine. "I expect countries like Poland, probably even Germany but also the Baltic states and the new leadership in Romania, to try to force the other group members in the European Union to change the direction towards Ukraine," Rahr said

As the United States' relations with Russia go through a rough patch, experts believe Washington will show renewed interest in upgrading its ties with Ukraine as well. (Jeremy Bransten)