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2002 In Review: A Year Of Growing Isolation For Belarus, Ukraine

Belarus started the year as Europe's outcast, criticized for squelching political dissent and freedom of speech. From there, its situation only worsened: Its top politicians were banned from visiting the United States and most of the European Union, while ties with Russia also became strained. But 2002 may have brought Minsk one peculiar consolation: Ukraine's embattled president is becoming increasingly isolated as well.

Prague, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, speaking on his return from the historic NATO summit in Prague in November said: "Most politicians in Europe and Ukraine understand that Ukraine needs Europe. But most also understand that Europe needs Ukraine, because you can't build a secure European house without Ukraine. We're satisfied that we were able to express our position, to confirm our European-oriented path, our Euro-Atlantic aspirations. And we felt support for this plan. As regards the clouding connected with the well-known situation, it practically wasn't mentioned. Our path remains the same; we will continue along it."

At the meeting, Kuchma said Ukraine "achieved its goals."

To hear him, you might be forgiven for thinking the Prague summit was a chummy gathering of friends. Alas, it was not so -- thanks to the "well-known situation," as Kuchma delicately put it. That's a euphemism for U.S. allegations, which Kuchma denies, that he approved the sale of a radar system to Iraq in violation of UN sanctions. If Kuchma hardly heard the subject mentioned at the Prague summit, perhaps that's because NATO made clear he was not invited and snubbed him when he arrived anyway.

The NATO cold shoulder was an embarrassing cap to a year in which Kuchma has become increasingly isolated, as the United States pursued the Iraq radar allegations and, together with the European Union, voiced growing concern over press freedoms in Ukraine. Steven Pifer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said last month that relations between the two countries are at a low point and in a "crisis of confidence" over the claims of radar sales.

At home, Kuchma was dogged by allegations of corruption, while the opposition became more strident in calls for his resignation.

There's a depressingly familiar ring to it all -- look at Belarus, Ukraine's neighbor to the north. Its authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has been castigated by Western politicians and human rights observers for trampling on dissent and muzzling the media. And the United States suspects that Belarus also had underhand dealings with the Iraqis, training Iraqi military personnel and providing them with technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Jakub Swiecicki of the Swedish Institute of International Relations said there are growing similarities in the West's treatment of Ukraine and Belarus. "Since the development in those countries is worse and worse, the answer is, 'OK, isolate them,'" Swiecicki said.

Kuchma and other top officials have repeatedly denied the radar-sale allegations, but they've yet to convince the skeptics.

The United States suspended some aid to Ukraine over the affair. In August, U.S. and British experts visited Ukraine to check on the allegations but said the authorities had been less than forthcoming and could not account for four of the Kolchuga radar systems.

Also causing disquiet is the continued mystery surrounding the death two years ago of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Opposition politicians claim Kuchma was involved in the journalist's killing. He has denied the allegations.

Gongadze's death has been a rallying point for the opposition, which staged demonstrations in September on the second anniversary of the journalist's disappearance.

Journalists are also complaining about growing efforts by the authorities to censor unfavorable news. This week the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Carlos Pascual, voiced concern over press freedom. Without a free press, he said, Ukrainian calls for Euro-Atlantic integration would ring hollow.

To be sure, the U.S. administration has been at pains to emphasize that its quarrel is with Kuchma and not Ukraine and that it hopes relations will improve. The United States has withheld $54 million in aid meant for the central government; other aid has not been affected.

The West's ties with Belarus, on the other hand, could hardly be worse.

Last year Lukashenka was re-elected in a poll widely criticized as unfair. Since then, relations between Belarus and the West have gone from cool to downright frosty, as one by one, all the diplomats from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) mission have been expelled from Minsk.

November brought an outright NATO snub when the Czech summit hosts refused Lukashenka a visa. Shortly afterward, all European Union countries except Portugal issued a travel ban on the president and his top associates, as did the United States, and then Norway.

Lukashenka said the EU ban was an "unpleasant and unfortunate mistake" that harked back to the Cold War.

So is isolation the best way to deal with Europe's awkward squad? Can it really nudge Belarus and Ukraine into behaving better? Swiecicki said no. "The influence of the West in those countries is very limited, and the West is doing even more to limit its influence in those countries by [making] the dividing line between the new Europe -- which is emerging as a result of enlargement of NATO and EU -- [and] the eastern part with Russia and Belarus and Ukraine [just deeper] and deeper. There is not much political will or interest in the West to do anything about it," Swiecicki said.

He said the West has much to lose in this approach. "The closest neighbors to the European Union in its new shape will be very, very poor and very unstable politically and economically -- countries like Belarus and Ukraine. And, of course, it will be a source of instability in Europe," Swiecicki said.

This theoretically could push both closer to Russia -- assuming, that is, Russia reciprocates their attentions. Some say it's doubtful Russian President Vladimir Putin will want to give too much support to Kuchma, whose term ends in 2004. And this year Putin poured cold water on Lukashenka's aspirations for closer ties with Russia, Belarus's partner in a loose union.

The year 2002 brought several serious tiffs in Minsk's relationship with Moscow. First, there was a dispute with the Russian beer company Baltika, which said the government never honored a deal to sell it a controlling stake in a Belarusian brewery. Then there was a long-running dispute with MTS, a Russian mobile-phone company that bought a license to operate in Belarus. More recently, Russia briefly threatened to cut gas supplies over unpaid debts.

There was also the bizarre incident at Minsk airport in October, when prominent Russian lawmaker Boris Nemtsov was stopped upon arrival and sent back to Moscow. The Belarusian security service claimed Nemtsov was carrying some $50,000 in cash as well as literature aimed at "destabilizing the situation in Belarus." The Russian Foreign Ministry protested.

At a Moscow meeting in August, Putin called Lukashenka's bluff over plans for a closer union between the two countries. Putin had previously been lukewarm to the idea of closer Belarus-Russia ties. But at the meeting he surprised observers by giving a detailed timetable for reunification. He said another option is for the two countries to join together in a European Union-style arrangement.

Lukashenka has pushed for reunification but not on terms that would see Belarus merely absorbed as "Russia's 90th region," as he put it, which would herald the end of his political career. He wants a confederation that would preserve Belarusian sovereignty.

Back in Minsk, he rejected the plan, saying Belarusians would voice "absolute rejection, an absolute 'no,'" to a referendum asking if they wanted to be absorbed into Russia. "Today, Russia's leadership put forward absolutely unacceptable proposals of an insulting character to us. Even Lenin and Stalin did not go so far as trying to dissolve Belarus and making it a part of the Russian Socialist Republic or the USSR. [Belarus] still [remained] a republic," Lukashenka said.

Shunned by the West and rebuffed by Russia, it's unclear what Lukashenka's options are.

As the year drew to a close, however, there were signs that Belarus would try to come in from the cold, as well as tentative signs it is mending fences with Russia.

Lukashenka visited Moscow again in November, where he accused the media of trying to cause a rift between the two neighbors.

And Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvostou said this month that the OSCE can reopen its observer mission, if it promises to remain politically neutral.