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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 12, 2003


12 August 2003, Volume 5, Number 29
BELARUS
LUKASHENKA SEEKS TO BREAK INFORMATION 'BLOCKADE' IN RUSSIA. On 1 August, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a four-hour news conference for some 70 Russian regional-media journalists from 30 Russian regions. According to Belarusian observers, the Russian journalists were carefully selected from either the so-called "red-belt" regions (run by leftists) or the regions in which Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democrats and/or the nationalist, neo-Nazi Russian National Unity have a lot to say. In other words, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia, Lukashenka made an attempt to influence the forces that are opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and sympathetic to the Belarusian leader.

Lukashenka complained at the news conference that Russia's federal television channels either keep silent on what is going on in Belarus or are biased in their coverage of Belarus. "We have a lot of friends, some of them among journalists, who openly say that they have been assigned [such a] task.... ORT and RTR choose to hush up developments in Belarus," Lukashenka said. According to the Belarusian president the West, too, "is directly blocking Belarus and working through individual Russian politicians and media outlets" to hamper the process of integration in the post-Soviet area.

Lukashenka divulged that Russia's current leadership opposes "particularly important provisions" of the Belarusian-Russian Union Treaty signed in 1999 and would like "to diminish its status." He elaborated by saying that the Kremlin fears that Belarusians will appear in its own political arena. "At one of our last meetings, where we discussed the constitution of the future union, I asked Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], whether members of the Russian political elite are prepared to see someone besides Lukashenka appear in our common political and economic arenas," Lukashenka said. "I named [Belarusian presidential administration chief Ural] Latypau and some other smart people in Belarus [and asked] Putin: Are your people prepared for that? He said 'no.' What kind of union can we talk about?"

Lukashenka painted a relatively rosy picture of Belarus's economic situation for Russian journalists. He said the average monthly wage in Belarus is somewhere between $150-$200 (the government's official statistic places this figure at $107) and claimed that, taking into account Belarus's welfare and other social benefits, Belarusians live no worse than Lithuanians, whose average monthly pay is between $280-$300. Lukashenka also compared the purchasing power of U.S. dollars in Belarus and Russia. "You can buy 10 times more in Zhodzina [a city near Minsk] than in Moscow for $150," he asserted.

Lukashenka also confirmed his earlier pronouncements that he is considering extending his stay in power beyond 2006 when his second and, according to the constitution, final presidential term ends. "I have warned the opposition: If you bring the situation to an absurdity in the country and create a threat of instability and uncontrollability, this will be the primary reason for me to promptly start looking for ways of prolonging my presidential powers," he said.

According to Lukashenka, the Belarusian opposition are "dangerous people" who "are [already] sharpening sabers" and deciding who among the current authorities "should be axed, who should be hanged, and who should be caged." "Can I take it easy and be indifferent to the fates of the people that are with me [in power]?" he asked.

Lukashenka once against stressed that he will run for a third presidential term only after he is allowed to do so by voters in a referendum. Lukashenka claimed that Putin assured him that he will accept any decision of the Belarusian people in such a referendum.

Two immediate conclusions can be made from Lukashenka's meeting with Russian regional media on 1 August.

First, Lukashenka's personal relations with Putin seem to be in no better shape than a year ago, after Putin's proposal that Belarus be incorporated into the Russian Federation as its 90th federal subject. As happened many times in the Yeltsin era, Lukashenka once again turned to Russian communists and nationalists for support in his wrestling with the Kremlin. It is hard to say whether the Belarusian president still believes that his integration policy will give him any political leverage in Russia, but his meeting with Russian journalists appears to indicate that he has not yet lost hope for influencing Russian domestic affairs.

Second, the likelihood of a referendum on the prolongation of Lukashenka's term in power seems to be growing from month to month. It is also likely, in light of Lukashenka's pronouncements on 1 August, that provoking "instability" in the country with some participation by the opposition may be an option considered by the authorities as a pretext for such a referendum. (Jan Maksymiuk)

UKRAINE
SUSPECT IN GONGADZE MURDER DIES IN POLICE CUSTODY. An independent Ukrainian journalist group, the Institute for Mass Information (IMI), reported on 5 August that a person regarded as a key suspect in a long-running murder case had himself died in police custody.

Ihor Honcharov, an alleged gang leader, had been in custody since his arrest in May on charges of extortion and murder.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun earlier this year said he believed that Honcharov was linked to the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

Gongadze, an outspoken critic of President Leonid Kuchma and government corruption, disappeared in September 2000. His headless corpse was later discovered, triggering one of Ukraine's biggest post-Soviet scandals.

Nearly four years later, no one has been charged in the murder. A former bodyguard of Kuchma -- who secretly recorded the president -- released excerpts which implicated Kuchma in Gongadze's disappearance. But Kuchma has steadfastly denied any link to the journalist's disappearance or death.

Ukraine's political opposition and independent journalists -- as well as many Western governments and groups -- had accused state investigators of deliberately blocking the probe because it might implicate senior government officials, possibly including the president. But last year investigators identified 13 members of a criminal gang they said was led by Honcharov and which might have knowledge of the murder.

All 13 were apparently former policemen and intelligence officers known as "werewolves" -- the term for former police officials who have turned to crime.

Prosecutor-General Piskun said he believed it was likely the so-called "Honcharov band" killed Gongadze. Honcharov was scheduled to give evidence about the case later this month.

But now Honcharov is dead. A Ukrainian police official who did not want to be named confirmed that Honcharov died on 1 August, apparently while being transferred by ambulance from jail to a hospital. He said the cause of death was being investigated. IMI, which works closely with the France-based journalists' defense group Reporters Without Borders, says Honcharov was cremated on 3 August, eliminating any chance of an independent autopsy.

According to IMI, Honcharov had passed a 17-page handwritten letter to the group to be opened in the event of his death. IMI member Alla Lazareva says the organization has frequently reported on the Gongadze case and that is why she thinks Honcharov passed the letter to them.

IMI says in the letter Honcharov claimed to have information about Gongadze's killers, including audio recordings and a confession that he said he had hidden but was willing to reveal to investigators in the presence of independent witnesses. Honcharov also predicted he would be murdered by an official -- whose name he gives -- and that the death would be presented as suicide or illness.

Lazareva says the IMI's first priority is to establish whether the letter is genuine. "We're not certain yet because we are unable to carry out detailed tests to confirm its authenticity," she says.

To explain why IMI has already published some excerpts from the letter on its website, Lazareva says, "Our position was this -- we obtained this information, we thought that it was of importance to the public and therefore we publicized what we had -- although we blacked out some names, because since there is a presumption of innocence until he is proved to be a criminal, one shouldn't refer to him as such."

She says the IMI "does not have the technical capability to check the authenticity of Honcharov's handwriting. But experts can do this. That's why there are criminologists and specialists at the Prosecutor-General's Office who are obliged by law to carry out this work and to compare Honcharov's handwriting samples taken while he was giving evidence and being kept in jail. They can say whether he wrote this or not."

Lazareva says that on 6 August IMI handed a copy of the letter to Deputy Chief Prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was due to question Honcharov later this month.

"As far as we know, we are not the only ones that have a copy of this letter. A few other people have copies," Lazareva says.

She says the Prosecutor-General's Office has promised to keep IMI informed of developments.

"Perhaps now that the Prosecutor-General's Office is involved the cause of death will be investigated. At least I hope so," she says. "Because either this person [Honcharov] really did make all these statements, in which case it's a truly horrible story, or it's a fake and therefore we need to know who did it and why."

But the American author of a book about the Gongadze killing, Jaroslav Koshiw, doubts that investigators will solve the murder. He says that in the past investigators have named and blamed criminals for Gongadze's death but have subsequently had to admit they were wrong.

"So really, periodically what we're getting from the authorities is a pretend investigation suggesting to the population that they're...[abreast of developments], that they are looking for the killers and so on -- when really they are not bothering with an investigation," Koshiw says.

Koshiw's book, "Beheaded: The Killing of a Journalist," is a comprehensive analysis of documents, evidence, and investigations into the Gongadze case by Ukrainian authorities as well as journalists. Koshiw says he has no doubt that President Kuchma and other high officials are connected to Gongadze's death.

"There is more than ample evidence for a trial of the president and his associates who took part in the kidnapping and then the death of Gongadze," he says.

Koshiw says he believes the accusations against Honcharov were fabricated and the authorities have no desire to find the truth. He says that if Honcharov was really cremated, that displays either poor judgment or an attempt to prevent the true cause of death from being discovered.

"It shows to me the tremendous irresponsibility by the authorities, in this case the police, to so quickly cremate somebody who died in mysterious circumstances and who they were suggesting might have been a possible witness," Koshiw says. "They create a bizarre atmosphere that helps rumors."

Koshiw believes the truth about the Gongadze murder will only emerge if Ukraine gets a government that really wants to build a state based on law and order.

(RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky wrote this report).

OUN, UPA COME CLOSER TO OFFICIAL RECOGNITION -- WHY NOW? The bland statement issued on 11 July by the presidents of Poland and Ukraine, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Leonid Kuchma, respectively, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in Volyn in 1943 did not go as far as Poland had insisted (see http://www.kuchma.gov.ua/activity/173790009).

One of the main issues that Poland pressured Ukraine on was to include in the joint statement a denunciation of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), and to seek to bring members of these organizations, who were allegedly involved in the massacres of Poles, to justice.

The statement fails to mention OUN or UPA. Instead, it condemns atrocities committed against both Ukrainians and Poles, thereby placing the 1943 conflict within the framework of a Polish-Ukrainian civil war (as both sides were Polish citizens). Poland had pressured Ukraine to define the 1943 events as "genocide" against Poles, using widely contradictory death tolls of between 30,000-100,000 (see RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 4 March and 8 July 2003).

The Volyn anniversary touched a raw nerve in Ukrainian society for four reasons.

First, criticism of Poles and Poland is a far less controversial issue in Ukraine than criticism of Russians and Russia. Russophile centrists and national democrats both insisted that Polish crimes against Ukrainians had to be condemned alongside any criticism of Ukrainian crimes. Ukrainians and especially Poles believe that they have only ever suffered at the hands of others, never themselves committing crimes against other peoples.

Ukrainians have been accustomed to being accused of serving in the German police in World War II. Poles meanwhile, have continued to harbor the myth that they alone within Europe did not collaborate with the Nazis. The 24 June 1+1 television channel's (controlled by the Social Democratic Party-united [SDPU-o]) weekly discussion program "Podviynyy Dokaz," which was devoted to the Volyn event, showed how the ranks of the German police in Volyn were filled by Poles after Ukrainian policemen fled to the UPA in 1942-1943.

The well known historian Yuriy Shapoval pointed out in the discussion that the ultimate root of the Volyn conflict lies in the fact that both Ukrainians and Poles looked upon Volyn as their territory. This meant that compromise was impossible, Shapoval believes.

Second, Poland overplayed its hand and was forced to ultimately backtrack. Prior to 11 July, Poland laid out a long list of demands to Ukraine, most of which Kyiv never agreed to. The manner in which Poland pressured Ukraine led to a counterreaction at the perception that Poland was attempting to revive its role as an "elder brother" toward its eastern neighbor by capitalizing on Kuchma's international isolation and domestic unpopularity.

Third, Volyn-1943 is only an issue for ideologically committed political parties on the left and right in Ukraine, with the former condemning the OUN and UPA (as in the Soviet era) and the latter calling for their rehabilitation and honoring them as "national heroes." Historical issues and national symbols are not an issue for ideologically amorphous centrists who will vote in parliament in any manner ordered to by President Kuchma (recent examples include parliamentary support for a CIS free-trade zone and condemnation of the 1933 artificial famine as "genocide").

The indifference of centrists to historical issues can be seen in the educational system. Long-time Minister of Education Vasyl Kremen is a high-profile member of the SDPU-o. Kremen has promoted the domination of the Mykhaylo Hrushevskyy school of Ukrainian history throughout the educational system. Hrushevskyy was denounced in Soviet propaganda starting in the 1930s and continues to be by the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU).

Ukraine's school textbooks adopt an inclusive approach to the most controversial period of Ukrainian history, World War II. In school textbooks Ukraine's war effort has been expanded to include the UPA which, it is now accepted, fought both the Nazis and Soviets. The UPA, whom Poland wished Ukraine to condemn for the 1943 Volyn events, has long been rehabilitated in Ukraine's educational system and in patriotic inculcation in the armed forces.

Fourth, the Ukrainian state could not agree to join Poland in condemning the OUN and UPA when it itself had still not made up its mind about these two organizations. Another complicating factor was that the OUN and UPA were not organizations that represented the Ukrainian state (unlike the Home Army [AK] which represented the Polish government in exile).

The Volyn-1943 commemoration, completing unfinished business before the end of the Kuchma era, and the need to obtain western Ukrainian votes in the 2004 presidential elections are three factors that have spurred the momentum in the Ukrainian state's recognition of the OUN and UPA. The National Institute for Strategic Studies (NISS) presidential think tank recently obtained a directive from Kuchma to prepare a presidential decree "On steps to establish the rights of fighters for the freedom and independence of the Ukrainian state." NISS Director Anatoliy Halchynskyy said that the decree would finally establish "political and historical justice towards those individuals -- members of the OUN and UPA fighters, who struggled for the freedom and independence of the Ukrainian state in the 20th century."

In early 2003, the Ministry of Justice and the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences signed an agreement to research the "scientific analysis of documents and preparation of proposals to outline an official position on the activities of the OUN and the UPA." A collection of documents is to be prepared by a special governmental committee led by Institute of History Director Stanislav Kulchytskyy, which has been given a budget of 250,000 hryvni ($47,000).

These steps, coupled with the need to dent Viktor Yushchenko's unquestioned popularity in western Ukraine before next year's elections, make it likely that the OUN and UPA will be officially recognized (and thereby de facto "rehabilitated") by presidential decree and by parliament, which is controlled by a slim propresidential majority. Opposition is only likely to come from the Communists and, in relation to OUN, from the Socialists. As in the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the 1933 famine, Kuchma is once again able to divide the left and right opposition.

(This report was written by Dr. Taras Kuzio, a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.)

QUOTES OF THE WEEK
"Belarus is a better place for Russians than Russia." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting with Russian regional journalists on 1 August; quoted by Belapan.

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