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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 17, 2001

17 April 2001, Volume 3, Number 14
LUKASHENKA POSITIONS HIMSELF FOR RE-ELECTION. Speaking before the National Assembly on 10 April, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka admitted that he is not much concerned about when exactly the presidential ballot will take place. "It seems to me that, according to the constitution, it is the right of the Chamber of Representatives to set a presidential election date, is it not? As you decide, so it will be," Lukashenka said, in response to a query from a lawmaker who wanted to know which election day would suit the incumbent president.

Lukashenka's words, of course, should not be taken at face value. The Chamber of Representatives -- which was carefully staffed by the executive branch in a phony ballot last October -- will set the date of presidential elections as instructed by the presidential administration. As of now, the only certain fact is that the decision on the election date must be made no later than 27 June, while the presidential ballot should take place no later than 27 September.

Lukashenka appears to be testing the nerves of the opposition: he knows the date of the elections, while his opponents do not and are forced to remain in a state of suspension. Thus far, this tactic has proved advantageous to Lukashenka: the democratic opposition has not agreed on a single candidate and has not made any significant steps to advertise potential challengers to the incumbent president. Meanwhile, Lukashenka is being vigorously advertised as a presidential candidate by the state- controlled media.

A recent poll by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) graphically reflects the Belarusian situation in which only one politician is presented favorably by the state-monopolized media. The poll found that Lukashenka can count on 41.4 percent of the vote in presidential elections, while his potential challengers have ridiculously low support: former Premier Mikhail Chyhir -- 3.3 percent; Trade Union Federation of Belarus head Uladzimir Hancharyk -- 1.5 percent; and former Hrodna Oblast Governor Syamyon Domash -- 1.2 percent. However, the poll also found that 32.3 percent of Belarusians do not want Lukashenka to serve a second term, while 26.1 percent are undecided on this issue. NISEPI argues that those who are undecided would also not vote for Lukashenka if he were challenged by an appropriate candidate.

Lukashenka is apparently aware that he has lost his decisive support among the electorate over the past seven years of his rule and that he may lose the ballot under unfavorable circumstances. Therefore, he is taking every measure to avoid any surprises in the election campaign. Last month, Lukashenka issued a decree introducing rigorous state control over foreign free assistance to Belarus. The decree was unanimously perceived abroad as a move oriented primarily to block the training of some 14,000 election observers in Belarus, which is being conducted under the aegis of the OSCE. Lukashenka did not conceal the true intention of the decree in his 10 April address to the National Assembly, when he said that the West wants "to falsify" the Belarusian elections by installing its own election monitoring system in the country. He pledged to prevent such a development.

The legislative elections in October 2001 -- in which mass violations of election procedures and falsifications of election results were reported by independent observers -- assured Lukashenka that the executive authorities have a tight grip on electoral commissions and that he may count on a repetition of their performance in the presidential campaign. Lukashenka announced that he is not going to change the election law, which gives clear preferences to the administration in manning the electoral commissions at all levels. Changes in the election law were one of the key demands of the OSCE to democratize the election process in Belarus. It seems that Lukashenka is not concerned about possible nonrecognition of the ballot by the international community and wants to stay in power at the expense of further deepening Belarus's isolation.

What really matters for him is how Russia will react to the election campaign in Belarus. Thus far, the Kremlin has not shown its preference regarding Belarus's next ruler. But there are some trifles that are worrying Lukashenka. Moscow has not apportioned any amount of the $100 million loan promised to help stabilize the Belarusian currency (the decision on the loan was made almost six months ago). And the reception of Lukashenka in the Kremlin by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the 5th anniversary of the Russian-Belarusian Union was rather frigid. "If we lose these elections, Russia's days will be numbered," Lukashenka threatened shortly after his trip to Moscow. This could only mean that the Kremlin has not yet given its go-ahead to Lukashenka.

All Belarusian commentators tend to agree that the Kremlin -- with its economic and media leverage in Belarus -- can easily unseat the Belarusian autocratic leader and install a new, more moderate one. But the same commentators add that there actually are no serious reasons for Putin to strike down Lukashenka who -- irrespective of his erratic and autocratic behavior -- remains loyal to Russia and its interests. There is also a possibility that the Kremlin will not make any official or unofficial moves to influence the Belarusian elections. Such a development would signal to Lukashenka that he can put all of his administrative machinery in motion and hold, as he has pledged, "the most democratic and honest elections in the world."


(Below is the concluding part of a live telephone interview given by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 3 April. Part 1 was published in the previous issue.)

On the Gongadze Case

RFE/RL: Leonid Danylovych, don't you think there is a tiny chance that Heorhiy Gongadze is alive?

KUCHMA: I have always believed in this chance. I'd like this chance to be a reality, I give you my word of honor. You know, I was glad when [lawmaker Serhiy] Holovatyy made public the results of German genetic tests saying that [the tested samples] were not from Gongadze's body. God willing, this may be true, there have already been [similar] examples. It was reported by our neighbors that a person disappeared and was found later. (Ed. note: possibly, Kuchma refers to the disappearance of former National Bank Chairwoman Tamara Vinnikava in Belarus, who subsequently emerged in Great Britain.) God willing, this may be true, then a lot of problems could be resolved.

RFE/RL: And what, in your opinion, must be specifically done in the Gongadze case in order to unravel this mystery?

KUCHMA: First and foremost, it is necessary to stop speculating on the Gongadze case. You know, there have actually been a lot of mysteries since the first day. I don't want to dwell on them, journalists dwell on them in their investigations very often.

As regards the authorities.... You know that we have invited FBI [experts]; some independent groups from Russia are also working in Ukraine. We are fully open, you're welcome, let's investigate the case together instead of doing what we have done thus far: blackmailing; psychological warfare against Ukraine [and] against the state. The point is not [personally] with Kuchma -- you should realize that -- but with the president of a country, and with Ukraine herself. Many do not want to understand that.

RFE/RL: But do you have specific grounds to believe that there is a chance that Gongadze is alive?

KUCHMA: In general, as long as the tests are inconclusive, hope is the last to die. I always proceed from this [premise].

RFE/RL: This is grounded only in your feelings, not in some specific....

KUCHMA: I have no grounds [to believe otherwise]. When Russian expert Ivanov announced that there is a 99 [percent of certitude that the found body is Gongadze's], I said I'm a man who deals with certitudes, therefore I cannot doubt [Ivanov's finding, I cannot assume] that such an expert as Ivanov may resort to a falsification. Because this is [his] professional domain, in which he will never allow himself to act against his ethics.

I have begun [to think that Gongadze may be alive] after some people told investigators in Lviv, Vinnytsya, [and] the Volyn region that they saw him after [his disappearance]. Particularly since those statements were made by people who studied with him. Were those statements deliberately [falsified], or what? Up until now they have not withdrawn [their statements]. Second, the German experts questioned [the identity of the discovered corpse]. God willing, [Gongadze may be alive]. Let's hope for something anyway.

On the Tape Scandal and Melnychenko

RFE/RL: Has the tape case brought anything positive to you personally?

KUCHMA: The positive thing is that I've seen who is who. I've seen people who work with me, not only in my closest entourage. First of all, those on Pechersky Pahorby where the offices of the government, the parliament, and the presidential administration are located.

RFE/RL: Does this mean that the case somewhat helped you to introduce order in the realm of presidential security?

KUCHMA: No, I've never placed my security above all other issues. I've never paid any attention to that. The protection service of the Ukrainian president is perhaps the least numerous not only in Europe but also in the post- Soviet area. It is not I who should handle [my own] protection. There is a service that should protect and be accountable. They handled it badly, and I fired the head of the state protection service. This was made [not for the sake of showing my authority], this was an example that one needs to carry out one's duties conscientiously.

RFE/RL: Did you plan to oust [former Security Service head Leonid] Derkach and [former Interior Minister Yuriy] Kravchenko, or was [their sacking] the result of some emergency situation in Ukraine? Are they responsible for what happened?

KUCHMA: The Security Service is responsible for that. It is unambiguous.

RFE/RL: Responsible for what?

KUCHMA: For what.... If such things take place.... This is state security, this is national security, [Melnychenko's deed was] practically at the level of [state] treason, at the level of spying. I do not accuse Major Melnychenko, or former major, to be exact. I do not accuse [him], I [only] say that these are traits [of his antistate activities]. These traits should be evaluated in court. But that was a concern of the Security Service. If the president feels discomfort in this issue, then the Security Service failed in its role, didn't it? That was their duty. If the president was eavesdropped on in actual fact, then was that not a concern of the Security Service?

RFE/RL: Apart from Melnychenko, was anybody else eavesdropping on you in your office?

KUCHMA: I don't know of anybody else. I have great doubts that it was Melnychenko who eavesdropped [on me]. In my view, Melnychenko was a tool who was used and subsequently thrown out, that's all.

RFE/RL: Mr. President, I couldn't simply believe when I read an announcement that Mr. [Volodymyr] Radchenko, head of the Security Service of Ukraine, is willing to meet with Melnychenko. Is this true?

KUCHMA: And why not? I said on several occasions that we guarantee Melnychenko's security and that he may come back, but he will be held accountable under Ukrainian law. But if [Radchenko] is willing to meet with Melnychenko, let them meet.

RFE/RL: Incidentally, are you willing to meet with Melnychenko?

KUCHMA: No. I only want to look in his eyes, because I don't remember him. To look in his eyes [to see] how they avoid looking in mine. I do not treat such people as humans. You know how he should be called.

RFE/RL: By the way, he claims that he swore allegiance not to the president but to Ukraine.

KUCHMA: Do not oversimplify. Who swears allegiance personally to President Kuchma? He swore to Ukraine. There is a law. Who swears allegiance to [U.S.] President [George] Bush? There is a law on state protection, and clear-cut duties are written down in it.

On Cabinet Reshuffles

RFE/RL: Derkach and Kravchenko quit the government, or more precisely, you helped them quit. Are you planning further replacements? There are many rumors in Ukraine that Premier Viktor Yushchenko, [presidential staff head Volodymyr] Lytvyn, [State Tax Administration head Mykola] Azarov, and [Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo] Potebenko will quit in the same way. The list is very long.

KUCHMA: The opposition proposes [its own] list: everybody should quit, the opposition should remain. But I want to ask the opposition: Is it only power that you want? And where is your program of what you want [to do]?

I announced more than once that I'm not going to dismiss Yushchenko. If I had wanted, I would have done this long ago. As for replacements, you know the way cabinet changes are made: the prime minister make proposals, we confer on them, then we make decisions. In this way, the minister of fuel and energy was recently replaced. Surely, there will be replacements in the future as well. But this is a process, a sort of creative process. Some [officials] are unable to cope with what they have to cope with, others see that they are unfit for their jobs and quit the government of their own will. This is a permanent process, even though the change of personnel does not contribute to stability in both politics and economy.

On Yuliya Tymoshenko

RFE/RL: Regarding [former Deputy Premier] Yuliya Tymoshenko. Only one aspect. Can you imagine a woman ruling the Ukrainian state?

KUCHMA: In the near future -- no. I proceed from the mentality of Ukrainians. Look at statistics: the attempts of women's parties to win parliamentary seats have failed everywhere. Therefore, I rule out such [a development] for the time being. There is no woman at the Olympus [of Ukrainian politics] who could draw attention to herself with something positive, constructive, with her work, devotion to Ukraine, and not with her own interests.

On His Alleged Isolation

RFE/RL: Mr. President, what foreign trips are you planning? I ask because there is an opinion that many Western countries have closed their doors to you. Your opponents claim that you personally are in isolation.

KUCHMA: Absolute nonsense. First, I have [taken] many trips in Ukraine. In June I am to be in Italy, at a gathering of the Central European Initiative countries, in Naples. And in the near future -- there is a meeting of countries of the Black Sea region in Romania.

RFE/RL: Leonid Danylovych, are you planning a trip to the United States?

KUCHMA: You know, I don't plan trips to the U.S., it is the U.S. that plans those meetings. I don't think Ukraine is a top priority for the new U.S. administration. But the foreign minister has already paid a visit there. The defense minister is also scheduled to visit the U.S. There is an absolutely normal dialogue under way.

On Ukrainian-Russian Relations

RFE/RL: One more issue, Leonid Danylovych -- while taking advantage of your forbearance with us -- an important issue...

KUCHMA: I see that you want to do away with me on the birthday of my grandson. (Ed. note: Kuchma addresses the interviewer in second person singular, which is fairly informal, if not unkind, in the Ukrainian language on such occasions.)

RFE/RL: No, no, I don't want to...

KUCHMA: I will call you on the birthday of my granddaughter. (Ed. note: Again, the address is in second person singular.)

RFE/RL: This is a very important issue: Russia and Ukraine. Your opponents voice fears that....

KUCHMA: And why don't you listen to my supporters, why do you interview only my opponents? My supporters -- I want to stress that -- outnumber my opponents by thousands to one. Now let us look at who my opponents are. All of them have been asked [previously] to leave the government: ministers, deputy premiers, and so on.

RFE/RL: Leonid Danylovych, you may not believe it but your supporters do not come to Radio Liberty for some reason, they are either afraid or ignore [the station]. Let them come, and we will gladly listen to them.

KUCHMA: All of them will come.

RFE/RL: We will listen to them with satisfaction.

KUCHMA: I'm speaking seriously. Here is my press secretary sitting beside me, I'll instruct him to get in touch with you. Tell him whom he has to contact, a dialogue will be established without fail.

RFE/RL: Very well. Thank you. We are taking you at your word. We will be reminding Mr. [Oleksandr] Martynenko (Ed. note: Kuchma's press secretary), Mr. Lytvyn, [Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Viktor] Medvedchuk, and everybody else that you urged to come to Radio Liberty.

KUCHMA: You're welcome.

RFE/RL: Thank you.

KUCHMA: I will instruct Lytvyn today, as to Medvedchuk, I can only ask him, because he is from a different power branch.

RFE/RL: Still, I have a question.[Some] opponents say Ukraine is losing its independence. Some even claim that you are personally pushing Ukraine into Russia's embrace. Could you say a few words about this?

KUCHMA: I can say this is absolutely untrue. Untrue, as regards the loss of independence. I'm convinced today that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is not pursuing the goal of subordinating Ukraine to himself. They cannot manage it [even] with Belarus, because of economic reasons. Besides, let us put things in their places.

Why should Ukraine -- in whose trade turnover Russia's share has fallen to 40 or 39 percent -- reject this [cooperation with Russia]? So why does all of Europe want to cooperate with Russia? Tell me, please.

I will tell you. Because both Ukraine and Europe are consuming Russian gas, without which we cannot manage. Russian oil, other Russian raw resources. Moreover, [Russia] for Ukraine means a market [for Ukrainian products]. What, are we allowed into Europe [with our products]? Europe is closed for us. So, we should leave Russia. And go where? If one thinks seriously, if one is a serious politician, one cannot put this question in this way.

National interests lie exactly in this. The EU countries are taking exactly the same positions, believe me. Ukraine should have good relations with Russia, [for the sake of] regional security, European security, and, in general, stability on the European continent. All of us are interested in a stable Russia, all of us without exception, including Europe. So let us proceed from this. I think we will not come back to the Cold War era, even though the EU borders are advancing on us, so to say, every day. Therefore, it is necessary today to realize [the need for] cooperation.

On the Authenticity of Melnychenko's Recordings

RFE/RL: Mr. President, let us return to the cassette case. As a conclusion, could you say a few words about the authenticity of those cassettes?

KUCHMA: I will put it in the simplest way. Give me, please, original cassettes. I have no more questions. Give me original cassettes, then I will make conclusions, then conclusions will be made by the organs that can make them. By those that made conclusions regarding the first cassette, where everything was doctored. You know, I haven't listened to the cassettes, and I'm not going to listen to them. Because I said this was a provocation from the very beginning, this is the position I took and will stick to it.

I repeat once again: the material on the first tapes, which were made public in the parliament by Moroz, is a gross falsification, an absolute one. Unfortunately, [those recordings] do not include a lot of interesting issues that were discussed in my office and that I can recall. Or conversations with the head of the Supreme Council, with the head of the government, and so on. I have doubts all the time as to what is on those cassettes. Besides, I will say once again that Major Melnychenko was incapable of taping all that is publicized today. There are some powerful forces that had the possibility to tape that. But again, let us look at the original tapes.

On His Openness to the Media

RFE/RL: Mr. President, I'd like to thank you for your interview. [As well as] for your consent and the time you devoted to meet with us. And I congratulate your grandson [on his birthday]. I congratulate you and your family. My best wishes.

KUCHMA: I'd like to add something as a conclusion. I'm always ready for a dialogue. If some problematic questions appear, I'm ready to give an interview on any topic to any broadcaster, either by the phone or to a journalist beside me. And to answer frankly questions about the events that are taking place, to present my opinion on these events. I think [that following such interviews] there will be much more understanding between the Ukrainian authorities and Radio Liberty, and this means that we will have a broader view in the future.

RFE/RL: We sincerely support your idea. Our people from the Kyiv bureau [of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service] will quite soon contact you, so do not turn them away.

KUCHMA: Agreed, I will not turn them away. I'm instructing my press secretary [in this regard].

The weekly "Polityka" on 7 April published an interview with Professor Leon Kieres, head of Poland's National Remembrance Institute (IPN), who ordered an investigation into the 1941 massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, northeastern Poland. In a book published last year in Polish and quite recently in English, New York-based scholar Jan Gross alleged that some 1,600 Jews in Jedwabne were herded into a barn and burned alive by their Polish neighbors, without any incitement from the Nazi forces occupying the town. Excerpts from that interview:

"Polityka": You read Gross' book here, in your office, and what has happened?

"Kieres": It was a shock. It is of course possible to argue with the author about his competence as a historian. Even though I'm not a historian myself, I see that the book lacks a wider context, an analysis of what took place in those parts earlier. But if someone censures me for narrowing the interpretation of the Jedwabne events, for [IPN's] inattention to what Jews did to Poles [during the Soviet occupation in 1939-41], then I would show him "Gazeta Swiateczna" of 1925, which includes a letter from a reader from the Jedwabne vicinity. That reader describes how Jews took control of trade in the town, which had only two Catholic shops, while 40 were run by Jews. Two phrases [in that letter] are shocking to me: "If everybody had done their shopping only in Polish shops, the Jews would have moved out of here long ago. Will we see such a day, will our dreams come true?" Thus, if someone tells me today: investigate the background in connection with the Soviet occupation and the collaboration of Jedwabne Jews with the NKVD -- I would answer him: OK, but let us investigate the entire background, not only what happened under the Soviet occupation, but also what took place earlier.

"Polityka": The discussion about Jedwabne is the first public debate on such a scale in which we have to confront our past in connection with such dramatic events. In your opinion, does the debate prove that we are ready for such a confrontation?

"Kieres": I don't know if we are ready, but I think that we must do this. In essence, this is a confrontation not only with history, but perhaps primarily with the present. A time of trial has come, and we must give ourselves an answer to the question: Who are we in actual fact? We have been proud that we are tolerant, open, heroic. Now let us tell about what is darker [in our character].

"Polityka": All nations have problems with this.

"Kieres": We cannot look for justification in the fact that someone else has not self-examined his own conscience. I think that the worst thing for us would be to stop in the middle of the road. Several days ago, a Sejm deputy asked me at the Wroclaw airport: Are you not afraid that you'll stir up a wave of anti-Semitism [with your investigation]?

"Polityka": It is an important question.

"Kieres": What can I say? If a wave of anti-Semitism emerges in some spectacular way because of the Jedwabne [case], this will only mean that this anti-Semitism simply exists and that it is a challenge for us.