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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: October 21, 2003

21 October 2003, Volume 5, Number 39
EU DIVIDED OVER DEALING WITH BELARUS. The European Union is far from unanimous on the issue of how to deal with Belarus. Several EU countries, including new members Lithuania and Poland, wish to see a more proactive EU policy. Others believe that official contacts with Minsk must be reduced to an absolute minimum.

After the upcoming expansion, the EU will share more than 1,000 kilometers of border with Belarus. Ever since President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's ascendancy to power, Brussels has been trying to effect a change of course for the country. Through its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the EU is attempting to put pressure on the regime, while, at the same time, making sure that the country is not totally ostracized. Carl Hartzell, senior adviser at the policy unit of the CFSP Secretariat in Brussels, says:

"A problem that we have, which is growing harder and harder to alleviate, is: how can we make it abundantly clear to the [Belarusian] leadership that we're willing to take steps toward normalization, but, at the same time, clearly lay down the conditions for such a normalization?"

Another EU official, Antonio de Castro Carpeno at the Directorate General for External Relations, says that the controversy is over how much contact the EU should have with the Lukashenka regime, as well as on what level such contacts should be made. According to Carpeno, various countries have different interpretations of the EU's policy document adopted in 1997. The document states that the EU should only be involved in "projects that directly support the democratization process." What exactly that means is up for debate.

"That's a question of, on the one hand, proximity, and on the other, interpretation. It's a reflection of the discussion we have within the EU, and also of the influence of the future member states," Carpeno says.

Within the CFSP, a group of countries are of the opinion that more comprehensive cooperation and exchange programs need to be cultivated with Belarus. The flag bearers of this approach are Germany and Sweden. Both countries hold the 1997 policy document to mean that grassroots contacts are not sufficient and that bilateral ties need to be maintained with Belarus's top leadership as well, e.g., with high-ranking officials and members of parliament.

"There's always prolonged debate over what's right. Sweden's really trying to lead the way, but we're encountering quite a bit of inertia," says Karin Anderman, desk officer for Belarus at the Swedish Foreign Ministry, when asked about her country's efforts to bring the impasse over Belarus to the EU agenda. She contends that bilateral contacts cannot be limited to the lower echelons of Belarus's governmental apparatus.

"Our view is that there's a great risk of alienating the country. Not having contacts on the highest [ministerial] level shouldn't exclude having contacts with the population at large. We don't see anything wrong in having ties with upper-level officials and the likes of them; it's an exchange that must take place," Anderman says.

Germany, traditionally, has had a strong interest in maintaining cordial relations with proximal former Soviet republics, for both economic and security reasons. It views the 1997 policy declaration as a framework, within which it wants to accomplish as much as possible. Jan Kantorczyk, desk officer for Belarus at the German Foreign Ministry, says, "By abiding by the EU decisions of 1997 on Belarus, Germany strives toward a more effective use of the possibilities provided by them."

This, according to Kantorczyk, entails encouraging relations with the nomenklatura. "To make a political change [in] the medium or long-term possible...we should encourage contacts with the nomenklatura. Maybe not with the government, but with the structures under the ministerial level and also with the nomenklatura in the regions," Kantorczyk says.

Another cluster of countries within the EU favors the notion that contact with the upper echelons of Lukashenka's political sphere only gives him increased prestige and leverage on the home front. Daniel Vinkeles-Malchers, desk officer for Belarus at the Dutch Foreign Ministry, for example, has a very clear perception about what, exactly, the EU's stance against Belarus encompasses.

"Some say that we should be more kind to Mr. Lukashenka," Vinkeles-Malchers says. "Some say that we must try [to] engage the country more by establishing contacts with, for instance, civil servants from just under the top, maybe academic circles, members of parliament, this kind of people. This is all very nice. The EU policy is as it is, and the Netherlands will conform to that policy."

The Netherlands, more or less explicitly, dismisses the idea of contact with members of parliament and student organizations as a political leveraging tool. Evidently, the country interprets the current EU policy as not allowing for such kinds of contacts, even though the CFSP Secretariat points out that ties with, for instance, civil servants are allowed.

British representatives concur with the Dutch and say that they would not support EU propositions on more high-level contacts. Instead, they want to work toward assisting the opposition and democratization movements, in order to foster change from below.

The Netherlands are more pessimistic. Vinkeles-Malchers argues that, because of Lukashenka's despotism, it is exceedingly difficult to affect the regime through the support of democratization movements.

"The United States are of the opinion that the stricter the policy toward the Belarusian president the better, because this might hopefully force him to change his course in the end. Whereas if you start being lenient, he might present this to his own population by saying, 'Look, how successful I am in my policy.' At this moment, I think we'll continue to support the United States' position," he says.

Vinkeles-Malchers adds that, since Lukashenka is getting all the support he needs from Russia, the Russians must be an integral part of the diplomatic pressure exerted on Belarus. Thus, when Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to inch closer to the West and pursue reform, Belarus could, so to speak, be a part of the bargain.

"There is very little the European Union can do. It seems that Lukashenka is not interested in all we have to offer. There is a possibility that [Belarus] will shift [toward democracy] without us doing anything and that might be preferable from our point of view."

Today, future EU members Poland and Lithuania, by EU standards, have amicable relations with Belarus through extensive trade and other contacts with Belarusian representatives. The unique position that these countries enjoy means that they will play a pivotal role in future EU-Belarus relations.

Lithuania, during its 2002 six-month presidency of the Council of Europe, prioritized the issue of relations with Belarus, claiming that the country's current international isolation was unacceptable. Hoping to ease the tensions between the EU and Belarus, Poland and Lithuania have requested to act as mediators. Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Evaldas Ignatavicius, in an interview with RFE/RL in 2002, questioned the EU's strategy for striking up a dialogue. "The EU has formulated its provisions for dialogue -- more press freedom, increasing the role of the parliament, abolishing the death penalty -- but without Belarus, it will be impossible to push forward," Ignatavicius said.

(This report was written by Carl Bjernstam, Joakim Larsson, and David Shishoo from Lund University, Sweden. The report is based on their recent study of EU approaches toward Belarus, which was published in the Swedish quarterly "Internationella Studier.")

IS LUKASHENKA WINNING BACK HEARTS AND MINDS? The popularity of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been a phenomenon that has demoralized most of his opponents since the beginning of his rule. His skill to win the hearts and minds of Belarusians seemingly came to an end after the last presidential elections, in which he lost nearly half of his social base. However, Lukashenka once again demonstrates his ability to reclaim it. A September poll conducted by the Minsk-based Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) shows that his approval rating has rebounded to 31.7 percent of the electorate, up from 26.2 percent in March-April.

Remarkably, for most of this period Lukashenka was engaged in a battle with the Kremlin over the conditions of the Russia-Belarus Union, which he seems to have lost. Nevertheless, Lukashenka may have had a point when declaring to the Russian media in July that the keys to his power are in Minsk and not in Moscow. Regardless, the new boost to his rating confirms that external pressures are used by Lukashenka to his domestic political advantage, and Russia has only replaced the West as a major external threat against which he now mobilizes his supporters. Overall, however, three factors contributing to yet another boost to Lukashenka's popularity should be considered.

The first factor is the appraisal of life conditions. Thus, there is a considerable increase in the number of those who believe that Belarus is moving in the right direction (30 percent against 22 percent in March-April). The percentage of those thinking otherwise dropped from 62 percent to 48 percent. There is also a growing expectation that life conditions will improve soon (19 percent versus 8 percent in March-April). Such social optimism does not reflect any real-life boost to the economy but stems rather from the ability of the regime not to worsen life conditions any further as compared to the previous winter, when hikes in utility prices seriously hampered living standards. If so, Lukashenka's revived popularity may be short lived and it could witness another downturn this winter with a new increase in the gas bills.

The second factor is the lack of political alternative. This fall, NISEPI asked respondents for the first time, whether they would vote for someone new who, in their opinion, would be a credible contender against Lukashenka. In a head-to-head battle, such a hypothetical alternative candidate would win 56 percent of the vote against only 22 percent for Lukashenka. At the same time, 83 percent declared that they knew nobody who could play this role. The existing opposition personalities and parties still do not spark public enthusiasm. When asked to chose in a hypothetical race between Lukashenka and Valery Fralou, one of the leaders of the opposition Respublika group in the Chamber of Representatives, 34 percent chose Lukashenka and only 17 percent Fralou. Unfortunately, no other potential candidate was put in the running, which partly reflects NISEPI's own effort to promote Fralou and the pro-Russian Respublika as the only realistic alternative to Lukashenka.

Overall, the absence of a prominent contender considerably affects the political attitudes of those voters who are by now ready to shop for alternatives. Having none in sight, many of them once again turn their sights to Lukashenka. The president, in the meantime, makes every effort to make sure that such an alternative will not emerge.

The third, and perhaps most unexpected factor, is Lukashenka's successful reincarnation into some sort of nationalist and a defender of political independence, which, contrary to observers' expectations, was welcomed by the electorate. For almost a decade, Lukashenka was firmly associated with the Russia-Belarus Union project, which in a way epitomized his personal political mission. When his popularity took its first serious slump 18 months ago, alongside growing public support for the union with Russia, some questioned the validity of the poll data. Sociologists attributed this paradox to the rising popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose rating is several times higher in Belarus than Lukashenka's own. Hence, if the trend continued, the public war of words between the two leaders should have strengthened pro-Russian sentiments and brought forth a further decline in Lukashenka's popularity, opening the way for the Kremlin to move against the Belarusian leader.

Ironically, exactly the opposite trend can be observed now. Recent disagreements between Lukashenka and the Kremlin over details of the union project (including privatization, a joint currency, and the union's proposed constitution) have pushed the Belarusian leader into a dramatic shift in favor of a pro-independence stance in his official rhetoric. This has not only boosted his public image, but also pro-Russian sentiments in Belarusian society appear to be steadily waning. Thus, the percentage of those in favor of a Russia-Belarus federation declined from 25 percent to 18.5 percent since the previous poll. Among Lukashenka's supporters, the popularity of a federal union has declined from 38 percent to 23 percent, whereas no similar change of opinion can be noted among his opponents. Hence, the growing support for independence was fully absorbed by Lukashenka and not the opposition.

The introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus is approved of by less than half of the population (44 percent). Only 10 percent agrees that Russian business is the best potential buyer for Belarusian assets. (Even Western corporations fare more favorably, with 15 percent of respondents approving their participation in privatization.) Finally, when asked to make a hard choice between either Russia or the European Union, 47 percent of respondents chose the Eastern neighbor versus 36 percent in favor of European integration. (At the same time, as much as 60 percent of the population declared their support for joining the EU -- however, around a quarter of the population believe that it is possible to integrate into Russia and Europe simultaneously.)

Even though a considerable part of the population remains strongly pro-Russian, there is a clear sign that recent rifts in the Russia-Belarus Union have caused many Belarusians to think about different strategic options for their country's future. Moreover, the 36 percent in favor of the EU may be considered a large number, given the fact that public debate about Belarus-EU relations is virtually nonexistent. European integration is publicly ruled out as a feasible option not only by the regime but also by a large section of the opposition elite.

Hypothetically, integration with Europe could be used as a platform for consolidating the anti-Lukashenka opposition. However, a stereotype that no platform other than support for a union with Russia (read -- Putin) could exist for the opposition if it wants to successfully challenge Lukashenka, has been enforced for the last few years by independent media and research centers. The opposition has thus found itself split over whether it should manipulate such stereotypes and accept a more pro-Russian position. Independent analysts and opposition politicians favoring this shift have frequently justified their position by the belief that Lukashenka's switch to support of independence would only damage him politically, as pro-Russian aspirations presumably had reached the point of no return.

However, Lukashenka himself not only managed to turn the trend around, but has also reclaimed societal territory from his opponents. This may finally bring a serious identity crisis in the opposition camp and leave it chasing support without a clear message and a sense of direction.

(This report was written by Vital Silitski, a Minsk-based freelance researcher.)

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ADOPTS RESOLUTION ON 1932-33 MAN-MADE FAMINE. The U.S. House of Representatives on 20 October adopted the following H. RES. 356 "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding the man-made famine that occurred in Ukraine in 1932-1933":

"Whereas 2003 marks the 70th anniversary of the height of the famine in Ukraine that was deliberately initiated and enforced by the Soviet regime through the seizure of grain and the blockade of food shipments into the affected areas, as well as by forcibly preventing the starving population from leaving the region, for the purposes of eliminating resistance to the forced collectivization of agriculture and destroying Ukraine's national identity;

Whereas this man-made famine resulted in the deaths of at least 5,000,000 men, women, and children in Ukraine and an estimated 1-2 million people in other regions; Whereas the famine took place in the most productive agricultural area of the former Soviet Union while food stocks throughout the country remained sufficient to prevent the famine and while the Soviet regime continued to export large quantities of grain;

Whereas many Western observers with first-hand knowledge of the famine, including 'The New York Times' correspondent Walter Duranty, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting from the Soviet Union, knowingly and deliberately falsified their reports to cover up and refute evidence of the famine in order to suppress criticism of the Soviet regime;

Whereas Western observers and scholars who reported accurately on the existence of the famine were subjected to disparagement and criticism in the West for their reporting of the famine;

Whereas the Soviet regime and many scholars in the West continued to deny the existence of the famine until the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991 resulted in many of its archives being made accessible, thereby making possible the documentation of the premeditated nature of the famine and its harsh enforcement;

Whereas the final report of the United States Government's Commission on the Ukraine Famine, established on December 13, 1985, concluded that the victims were 'starved to death in a man-made famine' and that 'Joseph Stalin and those around him committed genocide against Ukrainians in 1932-1933'; and

Whereas, although the Ukraine famine was one of the greatest losses of human life in the 20th century, it remains insufficiently known in the United States and in the world: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that --

(1) the millions of victims of the man-made famine that occurred in Ukraine in 1932-1933 should be solemnly remembered and honored in the 70th year marking the height of the famine;

(2) this man-made famine was designed and implemented by the Soviet regime as a deliberate act of terror and mass murder against the Ukrainian people;

(3) the decision of the Government of Ukraine and the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) to give official recognition to the famine and its victims, as well as their efforts to secure greater international awareness and understanding of the famine, should be supported; and

(4) the official recognition of the famine by the Government of Ukraine and the Verkhovna Rada represents a significant step in the reestablishment of Ukraine's national identity, the elimination of the legacy of the Soviet dictatorship, and the advancement of efforts to establish a democratic and free Ukraine that is fully integrated into the Western community of nations."

CORRECTION: "Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" on 14 October erroneously identified the Battle of Lenino in October 1943 as the first battle fought by Polish soldiers after Poland's defeat in September 1939. It was actually the first battle fought by them on the eastern front. Between September 1939 and October 1943, Polish soldiers fought with their Western allies in Norway, France, Great Britain, and Africa.

"Nobody thinks about Ukraine as being halfway between anywhere -- not a bridge, not a buffer, but a valuable strategic partner in a hugely important part of the world, an independent, sovereign nation state proud and ambitious to become part of the Euro-Atlantic mainstream.... We want a democratic and prosperous Ukraine to find its rightful place in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations and we want Ukraine to be an active and effective contributor in dealing with security challenges." -- NATO Secretary-General George Robertson in Kyiv on 20 October; quoted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.