18 January 2006, Volume 8, Number 2
BELARUSSUPPORTERS OF OPPOSITION CANDIDATES FACE HARASSMENT, ABUSE. Presidential candidates in Belarus have two weeks left to collect 100,000 voter signatures needed to official add their names to the ballot. Three of the seven candidates have already crossed the threshold, including united opposition figure Alyaksandr Milinkevich. But signature collectors for Milinkevich and other opposition candidates say they have been routinely stopped and harassed by the authorities, and have sometimes had their signatures seized.
Belarus goes to the polls to elect a president on 19 March, but this is an election with a difference.
As many as seven candidates will be vying for the popular vote -- but no one doubts the outcome, not even the opposition leaders still struggling to gather enough support to join the contest.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich is the leader of the united opposition and widely seen as the strongest of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's challengers.
Yet even he concedes that the task of ousting Lukashenka is beyond his powers -- at least this time around: "It's impossible to beat Lukashenka in the elections, because we haven't had real elections in Belarus in a long time. We will use the elections -- which are our constitutional right -- to conduct a broad political campaign. We hope to win this campaign."
Lukashenka, who is seeking an unprecedented third term, claims to have already collected nearly 1 million signatures. Milinkevich and a third candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, by contrast, have just passed the 100,000-signature threshold. But Milinkevich is fairly sanguine about the odds.
What do you expect, he says, when the opposition is denied access to the media, cut off from foreign support and constantly harassed by the authorities. Among ordinary Belarusian voters, the profile of opposition leaders, his own included, is extremely low.
The answer, he believes, is to take the message direct to the people -- by knocking on their doors.
But opposition activists find themselves harassed by the police at almost every turn. Nina Kavalyova, a cultural instructor at a hostel for workers in Vitsebsk, is one of those."Some [people in our district] collected signatures for Lukashenka, while I collected for Milinkevich. I got 124 signatures in Pershamayski District alone," Kavalyova says. "Then yesterday I was summoned by the manager [of my hostel] who told me: 'Go to the human resources department. You need to tender your resignation.'"
Valyantsina Kudlatskaya from Homel was collecting signatures for both Milinkevich and Kazulin, when she and her colleagues were subjected to intense police scrutiny.
"Our nomination group was turned upside down by police last week. Police officers even called at our homes and workplaces," Kudlatskaya says. "They had orders to check everything. There were phone calls from the KGB. Now some members of the nomination group are going to stop collecting signatures because they were told [to choose between] collecting signatures or [keeping their] jobs."
Kazulin's presidential nomination group sent formal protest letters to the Central Election Commission and the Prosecutor-General's Office alleging obstruction of the collection of ballot-access signatures.
The group says its members were not admitted to a student dormitory of Yanka Kupala State University in Hrodna, while officials in Slutsk, Minsk Oblast, refused to register the gathered voter signatures.
The group also alleged that some of its members were pressured to quit the signature collection for Kazulin, and that unauthorized individuals in Vitsebsk and Minsk collected signatures for Lukashenka at workplaces during work hours, which is forbidden by the Electoral Code.
Sometimes the approach is less direct, as Alyaksey Lapitski, who is collecting signatures for Milinkevich, reported from Zhodzina: "What's happening is that they're misinforming people in the factories on a mass scale -- they are saying that if you sign for Lukashenka, you have no right to put your signature down for any other candidate. This is wrong. We have asked the electoral commission to take appropriate action."
The intimidation is not always so blatant and clumsy. In December, one of the few surviving opposition newspapers, "Salidarnasts," was forced to close down after Belposhta, the state postal service, decided to remove it and two other opposition papers from its distribution service.
That followed the decision just three months earlier by Belsayuzdruk, the state monopoly that runs the nationwide network of kiosks and newsstands, to terminate its contract for the sale of "Narodnaya volya," another opposition paper still clinging on to existence.
A 27,000-copy print run of "Narodnaya volya" was stopped on 9 January on its way from a printing plant in the Russian city of Smolensk and offloaded at the district police department in Vitsebsk Oblast.
And in an attempt to neutralize any attempt by the opposition to mobilize popular support through public rallies -- as in Ukraine's Orange Revolution last year -- parliament introduced legislation in December that makes it a crime both to discredit the name of Belarus abroad -- a catch-all offence open to wide interpretation -- and to train people to take part in street demonstrations.
President Lukashenka is taking no chances. (Robert Parsons)
PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES DISCUSS GAS SUPPLIES, PRICES. On 8 January, RFE/RL's Belarus Service held a roundtable discussion on Russian gas supplies with five presidential candidates. The participants in the discussion were: Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party; Alyaksandr Kazulin, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada); united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich; Zyanon Paznyak, the exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party; and former General Valery Fralou. The following is selected excerpts of the transcript.
RFE/RL: For you as presidential candidates, what lessons do you take from the Russian gas row with Ukraine?
Zyanon Paznyak: We have possibilities [to affect Russia] that Ukrainians lack. Namely those which are provided by interdependency between Belarus and Russia. I have in mind [Russian] military bases, which exist in Belarus practically free of charge and their price should be included into the price [Belarus pays] for gas. However, Belarus is losing this game. Very cheap and practically free-of-charge transit should also be included into the price and there are some other possibilities, which Ukraine lacks. However, Ukraine has one very important resource -- it has a national government and, largely because of this powerful and critical resource, it was easy for Ukrainians to stand up to this insolent and silly [Russian] blackmail and to win. We do not have such a resource and our first aim is to acquire such a resource. The Belarusian problem is that we have a pro-Moscow government and this is the biggest curse for the Belarusian people.
Syarhey Haydukevich: I don't think that [the gas crisis] threatens Belarus in the upcoming decade. My opinion is based on facts. I often visit Russia and have serious meetings there. I can make one point: Belarus will not find itself in the Ukrainian situation because Belarusian interests are based on other grounds than Ukraine's. It is completely not objective to say, as Ukrainians do, that Russia wants to increase the gas price because Ukraine seeks to join NATO. I do not think that Ukraine did the right thing -- you should not forget that you cannot choose neighbors and should be friends with your neighbors. In this sense [Ukrainian President] Viktor Yushchenko has disappointed me.
Alyaksandr Kazulin: We can make several conclusions and I think that all of them are evident. Anything that comes for free has strings attached. We should understand that nothing is ever for free. Secondly, to deal with any crisis we need to have a steady legal base. Agreements, which can be interpreted in different ways, earlier or later, end in misunderstandings and provoke conflicts as a result. That's what we have seen. If Yushchenko fulfilled the obligations taken by the former government the price would have been different from the one we have now. I should say that I do not fully support this quick rise to $230, but Russia offered $160 to Ukraine and Ukraine refused -- and did it in a bad way. You should not behave this way with a great country.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich: I think that Russia has demonstrated once more that it seeks obedience from its neighbors, first of all from the countries of the former Soviet Union. Concerning gas prices, the main lesson for us is that we should be ready for the new prices, especially bearing in mind that in the near future Russia will join the World Trade Organization and will also have to increase gas prices for us. Unfortunately, the Belarusian economy is not ready for that.
Valery Fralou: I do not think that the Belarusian authorities are eager to learn lessons from the crisis or learn any economic lessons as their only purpose is to stick to power. Concerning economists, they have learned their lesson long ago -- our economy, which is totally dependent on cheap energy, is not able to adapt to free market conditions. It only makes the situation, which exists in Belarus, worse. The economy is being ignored by politicians who only have one aim -- staying in power.
RFE/RL: As potential candidates, what gas prices would you agree with Russia?
Kazulin: I can guarantee that the price for gas would be as low as possible and would not increase as rapidly as in Ukraine. Of course, we all understand that, as world gas prices go up, prices in Russia will also increase. Of course they will go up in Belarus, too. It is clear that we should plan our politics according to world tendencies. But it is clear that the gas price in Belarus will not be so high....
Milinkevich: I was not sitting at the negotiating table and it is very difficult for me to talk about the prices. But of course the prices should not be around $200. The prices should go up gradually. Gas prices will reach world levels in a year or a year and a half, but moving to the world prices now will mean a collapse for the Belarusian economy. The new Belarusian authorities will be better partners for Russia. I think that the new Belarusian authorities will show Russia that it is easier to deal with them, that it is possible to talk openly about everything and sign new agreements. But in no way will we cancel old agreements. We will honor them until they expire. We will fulfill those obligations, which Belarus is currently taking, though sometimes they are unfavorable.
Fralou: I think it will be very difficult to build new economic relations with Russia keeping in mind that we depend from Russia very much. Now I am not ready to give the price, which we might be able to agree during the negotiations. Probably we should find some other means, which would allow the Belarusian economy to stay aloof with prices going up considerably.
Paznyak: The price of gas, which is agreed between Minsk and Moscow, is advantageous for Russia. Otherwise, this price wouldn't exist. It is useful for them not only politically but also economically. By the way, the world price is neither $160 [per 1,000 cubic meters] nor $230 dollars -- these figures reflect the price of blackmail. If the French and Germans are getting the gas for $160, in our case, one should remember the 200 kilometers distance [to transport the gas to Belarus.] The price of the gas for Belarus, bearing in mind the proximity, shouldn't be higher that $80. The price of the Russian military bases in Belarus should also affect the price Belarus pays for gas.
Haydukevich: Every candidate should explain to the people, to pensioners, what prices we will have to pay for the Russian natural resources. The Belarusian economy depends on that. I have no doubt that the gas prices will not go up if I am elected the president of Belarus. For me personally it is clear. Gas prices do not belong to the sphere of economics but to politics. If for instance Syarhey Haydukevich would declare that he wants to be a strong ally of the EU; if he and his entourage would start making declarations that irritate the neighbors, I have no doubt that the attitude towards me will be completely market based. In this sense I completely support [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I completely support President Putin in the row with Ukraine.
UKRAINEWHY DID PARLIAMENT SACK YEKHANUROV'S CABINET? Opposition groups in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada on 10 January voted to dismiss the cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, pushing the country into a serious political crisis amid an ongoing parliamentary election campaign. Although the official reason for the no-confidence motion in the government was last week's deal on gas supplies to Ukraine, it appears that the opposition's desire to undermine the electoral chances of pro-government and pro-presidential forces played a no less important role in the vote.
The no-confidence motion in Yekhanurov's cabinet was backed by 250 lawmakers in the 450-seat legislature, primarily from the Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Social Democratic Party-united, the Communist Party, and two groups supporting parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn. Lawmakers from the pro-presidential Our Ukraine caucus and the Socialist Party, which participates in the government, did not vote.
Simultaneously, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a resolution saying that the gas deal concluded by Naftohaz Ukrayiny with Gazprom and the Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo company on 4 January represents a threat to Ukraine's national security.
Under the deal, this year Ukraine is to receive 34 billion cubic meters of gas for $95 per 1,000 cubic meters from RosUkrEnergo, which in its turn is to purchase the gas from Russia's Gazprom, as well as from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
Ukrainian lawmakers said in their resolution that the 4 January deal violates previous gas accords between Ukraine and Russia, in particular a contract between Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny of 2002, in which Gazprom obliged itself to supply gas to Ukraine for $50 per 1,000 cubic meters from 2005-09.
The resolution criticizes the Ukrainian government for allowing RosUkrEnergo, an obscure business entity, to become the monopolist of gas supplies to Ukraine. The document also points out that last week's gas deal guarantees the price of $95 per 1,000 cubic meters for Ukraine only for the first six months of 2006, while simultaneously setting a stable tariff for Russian gas transit for five years.
Premier Yekhanurov, who spoke on the gas deal in the parliament before the no-confidence vote, argued that it was the best possible compromise under strong pressure from Moscow, which demanded a price of $230 per 1,000 cubic meters. Yekhanurov also maintained that resorting to international arbitration over the 2002 gas-supply contract with Gazprom and previous intergovernmental gas agreements with Moscow was not a good option for Kyiv, since, he argued, both sides would have to wait for years for a ruling in such a quarrel.
Opposition lawmakers, however, did not heed these arguments and voted Yekhanurov out of his office, simultaneously charging him with the task of a caretaker until a new cabinet is formed.
But the formation of a new cabinet may prove to be a tricky task. Under the constitutional reform that took effect on 1 January, it is possible for the current legislature to dismiss the current cabinet but impossible to form a new one. This can by done only by a new composition of the Verkhovna Rada to be elected on 26 March.
On the other hand, President Viktor Yushchenko cannot form a new government either, since the constitutional reform in force gives a decisive say in this regard to the parliament. Yushchenko said in a statement on 11 January that Yekhanurov's cabinet will continue to perform its tasks as if nothing has happened.
If the opposition knew that it is impossible to replace Yekhanurov prior to the parliamentary elections, why did it decide to hold a no-confidence vote in him?
It seems that the primary reason behind the no-confidence vote was to send the strong message to the electorate that Yushchenko and his government no longer represent the people's interests and that voters should look for other depositors of their political hopes.
However, it is not presently obvious that the no-confidence vote can improve electoral chances of major opposition forces. Yekhanurov said the move against his cabinet is likely to improve the standing of the pro-presidential camp in the elections since, he asserted, Ukrainians are rather prone to take the side of a wronged party in quarrels, that is, the government in this case.
As for Yuliya Tymoshenko, the no-confidence vote -- which can be seen as an apt act of revenge for dismissing her from the post of prime minister by Yushchenko in September -- may even harm her election chances.
After her split with Yushchenko, Tymoshenko began to claim that it is her bloc, not Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, which preserves the true ideals of the 2004 Orange Revolution. It seems that she will find it much harder to ingrain this conviction in voters now, after she sided with the Party of Regions and the Communist Party -- firm opponents of the Orange Revolution -- in the anti-Yushchenko vote on 10 January.
What seems to be perfectly clear after 10 January is that Tymoshenko, who until recently remained relatively neutral in her public attitudes toward Yushchenko, has finally decided to take a path of war against him. Therefore, one should expect more anti-Yushchenko moves and statements from her side in the election campaign.
Second, the 10 January vote appears to indicate that one cannot exclude any governing alliance in Ukraine after the 26 March elections -- be it between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych or between Yanukovych and Yushchenko, or once again between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. The stakes in the elections are extremely high, and what now can be seen as improbable and unthinkable, may become an act of political expediency after three months. (Jan Maksymiuk)
UKRAINE'S ADDICTION TO GAS. During a January 2001 meeting in Viktor Yushchenko's office about energy conservation, Ukraine's then prime minister reportedly turned to his assistant and asked him to turn out the lights.
Such concessions -- if, indeed, Yushchenko's request was meant seriously -- are rare in Ukraine.
One of the most important and overlooked factors of the recent Ukrainian-Russian gas war is that Ukraine is one of the most energy-intensive countries in the world. Unless it kicks its wasteful habit, this type of crisis could repeat itself year after year as energy prices continue to rise.
It is perhaps easy and convenient to blame Russia and President Vladimir Putin for attempting to take revenge on Ukrainian President Yushchenko for his pro-Western stance or by placing the blame on Russia's "energy imperialism."
Gazprom's inept and heavy-handed handling of the situation certainly went a long way to discredit Russian leaders and have raised serious questions about their intentions. However, the fires have been stoked by Ukraine's stubborn refusal to conserve fuels and to expect that Russia and Central Asia would continue to subsidize its addiction to gas.
The figures for energy consumption in Ukraine are astonishing. Ukraine is one of the most energy wasteful countries in the world. It consumes more natural gas -- 74 billion cubic meters in 2003 -- than Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia combined. Despite the huge amount of energy Ukraine consumes -- 1.5 percent of the world's total energy consumption according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) -- Ukraine's GDP of $300 billion in 2004 was far below Poland's figure of $463 billion.
A 2004 study prepared by Margarita Balmaceda for theU.S.-based Woodrow Wilson Center, "Ukraine's Energy Policy and US Strategic Interests in Eurasia," found that "not only does Ukraine have one of the highest levels of energy intensity in Europe and the world, but its energy intensity (measured as its energy consumption per unit of GDP) actually increased by about 50 percent from 1991 to 1999." But despite these dire figures, few in Ukraine seem to be paying much attention.
Successive governments have largely ignored energy waste: from pipelines in desperate need of repair to poor energy conservation in the home. When confronted over this state of affairs, politicians have prepared numerous energy-conservation plans -- which have never been implemented or even made public.
The Ukrainian American Environmental Association is one group concerned with energy conservation in Ukraine. In a letter to senior Ukrainian officials sent on 20 July 2005 it wrote: "There are many energy-savings measures that can be acted on and implemented very quickly.... These programs have included simple tasks such as urging people to turn off lights and appliances like TVs when not in use, suggesting ways to make doors and windows less drafty, or offering suggestions to motorists on how to drive while using less fuel. Similarly, common-sense energy conservation advice offered to schools, hospitals, stores, and industries has helped reduce energy demand anywhere from 10-30 percent."
Corruption also figures prominently in Ukraine's dismal energy efficiency. The more gas sold to Ukraine, the greater the kickbacks to the chain of suppliers and their protectors in government.
But subsidies are doing much to hamstring Ukraine's energy efficiency. On 23 December 2005, Interfax reported that Gas Ukrayiny, a subsidiary of Naftohaz Ukrayiny, announced that the company planned to supply natural gas to the population and public sector at the current price of about $35-$38 per 1,000 cubic meters for the population and about $46 for public-sector entities. With Ukraine buying gas for $95 per 1,000 cubic meters, household prices will continue to be heavily subsidized. And with gas so cheap, there has never been a pressing need to save it.
This is insignificant compared to Ukraine's highly subsidized metallurgy and chemical industry, which consumes gargantuan amounts of gas. Companies such as Interpipe, the Kryvorizhstal steel works, and the Industrial Union of the Donbasthrive on cheap and plentiful gas supplies, which allow the owners to produce steel at rock-bottom prices.
The metallurgy industry was the main factor behind the rapid growth of Ukrainian gross domestic product (GDP) in 2001-04. The government of former President Leonid Kuchma and former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was loath to see it drop -- something that was sure to happen if gas prices increased. Russia, in turn, was interested in supporting the Kuchma-Yanukovych government for political reasons and continued to supply cheap gas in the hope that this would keep the bond strong.
That bond could be partly broken by Ukraine's (and Russia's) application to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO has impressed upon post-Soviet states that they must pay market prices for energy in order to improve the efficiency of their economies. Ukraine has another six months before it renegotiates with Russia the price it pays for gas. One highly placed Naftohaz Ukrayiny official in Kyiv told RFE/RL that it would be the height of irony if Putin, by raising the price of gas to Ukraine, forced Ukrainians to conserve energy and adopt European norms -- thereby hastening Ukraine's entry into the European Union. (Roman Kupchinsky)
MOLDOVACHISINAU HOPES 'FIVE PLUS TWO' WILL ADD UP TO ONE UNITARY STATE. A new round of international multilateral talks on Moldova's breakaway territory of Transdniester will begin in the Chisinau on 26-27 January. The issues topping the agenda are the democratization and demilitarization of the separatist region. Moldova has been seeking the withdrawal of Russian troops and munitions from Transdniester. The new round of talks will mark the second occasion that observers from the United States and EU have joined what were previously five-part negotiations. Moldovan officials are hoping that the new expanded format -- now referred to as five plus two -- will eventually lead to a breakthrough in the more than decade-long conflict.
In September, representatives of Chisinau and Tiraspol along with mediators from Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), invited officials from the United States and EU to participate as observers in the five-party negotiations.
Moldovan officials participating in an RFE/RL briefing on 11 January say the invitation sprung from a frustration with the lack of progress witnessed in previous rounds.
Alexandru Flenchea, head of the information and analysis division of Moldova's Ministry of Reintegration, recalled that Moldovan officials felt that their Russian counterparts were engaged in "negotiations for the sake of negotiations."
"For a decade we couldn't reach any results in the negotiation process because we had Russian Federation representatives on one side, and we had Transdniester delegation," Flenchea said. "I must say here that all Transdniester leaders are citizens of the Russian Federation. And we could often see that the positions expressed by the Russians and the Transdniester delegation were the same. And the Ukraine usually was very passive in those times but things have changed last, last year. Therefore, it was very difficult for us to reach a good viable solution because all of the initiatives were usually blocked."
At the same time, Flenchea was careful to emphasize that Moldova is not pinning all of its hopes on the multilateral process. Chisinau is still engaged in bilateral negotiations directly with Moscow.
Chisinau authorities have even talked with their counterparts in Tiraspol, who they officially do not recognize. For example, the 2004 school crisis forced officials on both sides of the Dniester River to talk. During the summer, Transdniestrian separatists closed down schools that were teaching in Moldovan language with Latin script.
"Speaking about the Transdniester authorities, we meet with their representatives within the negotiations," Flenchea said. "But sometimes there is a need to contact them when there is a need to solve great problems. I refer to the school crisis. We needed to settle that problem to make the schools operate, function, because it was beyond politics. We needed the kids to go to school."
The new round of talks follows closely after Belgium's Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht assumed his country's presidency of the OSCE. De Gucht has pledged to resolve Europe's so-called frozen conflicts, which includes the Transdniester problem. This week, de Gucht signaled from Brussels that he will not a adopt a tougher stance vis-a-vis Russia. He also criticized Moldovan authorities for their own harder position.
"One of the complicating factors is the recent stance of Moldova on this, which is in fact asking for a unitary state," de Gucht said. "So, to a certain extent they have been backtracking on this. And that's what I mean, that maybe we should try to find a solution to the military problems which is not necessarily linked to an immediate solution to the political problem itself."
De Gucht added that Belgium will try to avoid "theoretical debates" on Russia's failure to meet a 2002 deadline to remove its troops and munitions from Transdniester.
However, more recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Russian troops must remain in Transdniester after a negotiated settlement to prevent munitions from falling into the wrong hands. Lavrov has also insisted the Transdniester conflict can only be resolved through direct talks. (Julie A. Corwin)