Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: January 24, 2006

24 January 2006, Volume 8, Number 3
OPPOSITION WANTS MORE FOCUSED SUPPORT FROM EU. Although resigned to losing the presidential elections on 19 March, the Belarusian opposition is seeking more focused EU help. Two Belarusian opposition representatives told a meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels today that the EU should make aid funds directly available to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's challengers. They also warned that after Lukashenka's highly likely win, the EU must beware conferring any legitimacy on him.

The EU is a welcome source of support for the Belarusian opposition, but one that is too often sluggish, unwieldy, and ill-informed. This was the gist of the addresses of two Belarusian opposition figures during a small meeting at the European Parliament today.

Jaroslav Romanchuk, a vice-chairman of the United Civic Party and a member of the opposition Coalition Five-Plus (5+), said the opposition expects from the EU clear messages of support and a quick injection of funds.

The messages will be delivered to a high-level Belarusian opposition delegation that will visit Brussels on 30 January.

Romanchuk said the money is needed to allow the opposition to make the best of the less than two months of campaigning left: "We distribute leaflets, information materials, papers, special issues. We do our best but definitely we lack resources and support right now in order to print materials, to distribute materials -- and this is, essentially, the fundamental issue of the European support at this particular moment."

Romanchuk said the opposition wants to tell "millions" of Belarusians about alternatives to Lukashenka's regime. Its joint candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, however, is prevented from campaigning until his candidacy is formally approved.

Romanchuk said that after Lukashenka last week asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send observers, the EU must be careful not to legitimize Lukashenka. He indicated the Belarusian opposition believes the elections will be fixed and Lukashenka will subsequently win a landslide victory.

Hence, Romanchuk said, the EU must look beyond the routine monitoring of the polls. "I would recommend and I would ask you [that is, the EU countries] to send as many people -- even without observer status because that's not about the observation per se but the support of the people who would act after the day of the elections," Romanchuk said. "Primarily, people should come one, two days before the elections and then will stay for another two days because I think the main event would be on 20 March. Then will be like the clash of forces, and that will be kind of the reality of this political campaign."

He said that to know the world remains informed would "boost the morale" of the people preparing to protest against the results.

Romanchuk and Leonid Zaiko, an independent economist who attended the meeting, warned that the EU must be prepared to respond to developments quickly after the elections.

Both said Lukashenka appears to be preparing ground for a possible falling out with Russia. Zaiko said Lukashenka's unwillingness to hand over Belarusian gas infrastructure to Russia may provoke reprisals.

Romanchuk said Lukashenka could then try to portray himself as the champion of Belarusian independence and appeal for Western support. He said the EU would then face tough choices.

Zaiko said the Belarusian economy is increasingly turning away from Russia toward the EU. "It's an unusual situation. Because you could imagine that for the real political [choice] of Lukashenka, Russia is the strategic partner for the policy of the Belarusian leader," Zaiko said. "[He] is oriented to strengthening the contacts with Russia, but in [reality] the economic objectives show that [this] is the time of the increasing of economic contacts with the European Union, and decreasing [of those] with Russia."

But Zaiko said that Belarus remains extremely dependent on Russian oil, gas, and other raw materials.

Both Romanchuk and Zaiko warned that Belarusian civil society will face a crisis after Lukashenka's expected victory, with increasing numbers of young and entrepreneurial people leaving the country.

Romanchuk said that in such a situation, the EU must give up its current policy of seeking contact with individuals in the civil society and avoiding direct contact with the opposition. This, he said, is a "bad trade-off," allowing Minsk to selectively ban organizations it considers dangerous.

He said the EU must also find ways of directly funding opposition groups and Western organizations working with them. So far, all EU aid money needs to be approved by the government in Minsk.

Romanchuk said the EU's recent support for outside media broadcasts is "important," but has very little impact. He said Deutsche Welle, which began EU-funded broadcasts last autumn in Russian, reaches a very limited audience.

"As for Deutsche Welle, the controversy is not in the language, of course, of broadcasting, when we design programs for Belarus, we should really know what's going on there, what people know, how they get information," Romanchuk said. "I think that even in the expert community, [the proportion of] people who know [how] Deutsche Welle can be heard is like 1 percent. So, [for] the general public if you want to send a message to Belarusians about the situation in the European Union, the situation in their own country, Deutsche Welle probably is the least feasible and the least useful means."

Romanchuk said that to promote Deutsche Welle would take a lot of time and money. Instead, he said, the EU should seek to coordinate its media programs with Radio Liberty, which he said remains by far the most popular independent radio station in Belarus. (Ahto Lobjakas)

CRIMEA LIGHTHOUSE BECOMES ANOTHER BUMP IN RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA. Port authorities in Yalta, Crimea, on 13 January took over a lighthouse that had been used thus far by Russia's Black Sea Fleet. The takeover has provoked a diplomatic squabble between Moscow and Kyiv and drawn public attention in both countries to the Russian military presence in Ukraine. The rekindled controversy over the deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, apart from spawning diplomatic wrangles, may also have meaningful economic and political repercussions.

Moscow reacted to the takeover of the lighthouse with angry statements from government and military officials who described the Ukrainian move as a "seizure" of the Black Sea Fleet's property and demanded that it be immediately returned to the Russian Navy.

Kyiv responded that the lighthouse, as one of the "hydrographic installations" used by the Russian Navy in Ukraine, does not belong to Russia. Of the 101 "hydrographic installations" used by the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the 1990s, Ukraine now has 66 under its control.

Both sides quote the same document -- the intergovernmental agreement on the deployment of the Black Sea Fleet of 28 May 1997 -- to support their arguments.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who suggested earlier this month that Russian sailors in Crimea should defend their property with arms, has no doubt as to Russia's right to use the disputed lighthouse: "The sea navigation facilities of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, part of which is stationed on Ukrainian territory, in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, were each specifically mentioned in a special section of the 1997 basic agreement, including the Yalta lighthouse. So, when Ukraine says that this lighthouse is not mentioned anywhere, it is not true."

But the truth hidden within the mentioned "special section" of the 1997 agreement may be difficult to decipher.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 January quoted a part of the so-called Addendum No. 2 to the 1997 agreement, in which the Yalta lighthouse is mentioned under the codename Ya-13. But Ya-13, along with other facilities, is designated in the addendum for joint use by Ukraine and Russia. The addendum also stipulates that a definitive list of facilities in use by the Russian Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory is to be approved by a separate intergovernmental accord. Such an accord, however, has never been concluded.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasyl Filipchuk obfuscated the row by asserting that the codename Ya-13 cannot refer to the Yalta lighthouse, since, Filipchuk explained, Addendum No. 2 lists exclusively naval facilities in Sevastopol, which is 80 kilometers away from Yalta. Filipchuk also admitted that Kyiv does not know what Ya-13 stands for.

And Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko said both sides, in order to clarify the whole controversy, need to take a clear-cut stock of facilities that are used by the Russians: "We have to make a proper inventory, finally. We assume that the Russian side is also interested in this and we hope we will meet no obstacles in this regard. Otherwise, Russia will be obviously violating its obligations."

Kyiv began to publicize its demand for making a "proper inventory" of Black Sea Fleet facilities in December 2005, after Moscow signaled its intention to increase its price for gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006. Some Ukrainian politicians suggested that Kyiv could use the rent for the lease of naval installations to Russia as a bargaining chip in talks on the price of Russian gas.

Under the 1997 agreement, Russia's fleet is to remain in Crimea until 2017 for a lease rent equal to $98 million annually. Ukraine does not receive this payment in cash -- the rent is just entered in the books as an item reducing Ukraine's state debt to Russia.

Some Ukrainian media speculated last year that the rent Russia nominally pays to Ukraine for the deployment of the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea is just a fraction of the sum that the fleet's commanders purportedly charge for subleasing the land and facilities they use to private businesses, including tourist agencies. Crimea is a coveted recreation place for the whole post-Soviet area, and every hectare of land there is of great value.

Fleet reportedly uses 18,000 hectares of land in Crimea. The Student Brotherhood, a Ukrainian organization that staged several pickets in Crimea earlier this month against what it sees as an unlawful use of Ukrainian land and facilities by the Russian Navy, estimates that the country's budget could gain as much as $3 billion annually if Ukraine took over the controversial possessions from Russia.

In short, there is popular feeling in Ukraine that the country suffers economic losses because of its current arrangement with Russia regarding the Black Sea Fleet. The row over the Yalta lighthouse has apparent political implications as well.

It is not clear whether the takeover of the Yalta lighthouse was inspired from Kyiv or was just a local initiative.

Some cynics have mischievously said that the takeover was staged exclusively by the Yalta port authorities. They say the authorities could not tolerate any longer the fact that the Black Sea Fleet was reluctant to share profits from its supposed commercial activities with them.

But it seems that the Russian-Ukrainian diplomatic quarrel and the publicity around it is now playing into the hands of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who has not taken any steps to quell the developing conflict.

Yushchenko's political position has become very shaky in the wake of a controversial gas deal with Russia on 4 January, under which Ukraine is obliged to pay nearly twice as much for Russian gas supplies in 2006 as it did last year. Yushchenko's erstwhile ally, Yuliya Tymoshenko, even went as far as to accuse the government of betraying national interests in the gas deal.

Therefore, one can hardly expect Yushchenko to show "weakness" toward Russia once again and back down on the lighthouse takeover in the ongoing campaign for the 26 March parliamentary elections. As many times in Ukraine's 15 years of independence, the country's relations with Russia have become a hot issue that may have a considerable impact on the array of political forces after the elections. (Jan Maksymiuk)

EU LAUDS TEMPORARY RESOLUTION OF MOLDOVA-RUSSIA GAS DISPUTE. The European Commission on 17 January welcomed news that Moldova and Russia have reached a temporary settlement in their dispute over gas prices. Although the EU remained neutral in the spat, a commission spokeswoman announced it will be sending an expert to evaluate the security of Moldova's energy supplies, for which the country is heavily dependent on Russia.

Although Brussels warmly welcomed the deal between Russia and Moldova today, officials were well aware that it does not guarantee ultimate closure to the issue.

Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, a European Commission spokeswoman, emphasized in her comments the fact that longer-term talks between Moscow and Chisinau continue.

"The commission does indeed welcome the fact that an agreement has been reached between Russia and Moldova on [the] delivery of gas, and the fact that after being without gas from Russia since the 1st of January the gas has now been turned back on, that is a very welcome development," Ahrenkilde Hansen said. "We understand that in the meantime negotiations will continue with the aim of finding a final settlement, but the deal is there and we welcome it."

Under the deal, for the next four months Moldova will pay $110 for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas -- $30 more per 1,000 cubic meters than it paid last year. What happens when that deal runs out is an open question.

Russia also increased its share in Moldova's gas monopoly Moldovagaz to 64 percent.

Russian gas deliveries -- amounting to 245,000 million cubic meters last year -- had been blocked since 1 January. To cover the shortfall, Moldova purchased gas from Ukraine's reserves.

Ahrenkilde Hansen said the EU will continue to "follow developments closely."

She also said the European Commission will dispatch an energy expert to Moldova on 18 January to review the overall energy situation there "from the perspective of security of supply."

Ahrenkilde Hansen said the expert will conduct a "very general evaluation," looking at the possibility of Moldova joining the energy treaty signed between the EU and countries in southeastern Europe on 25 October. The treaty is intended to create a single space in the countries, and to extend to them EU-relevant legislation and standards. One of the avowed aims of the treaty is the diversification of energy supply.

Ahrenkilde Hansen stressed that the EU is not taking sides in the energy disputes that have flared up between Russia and its neighbors.

"That's not what our expert mission is about," Ahrenkilde Hansen said. "We do consider that negotiations between Moldova and Russia are a bilateral matter and indeed it would not be appropriate for us to get directly involved in the negotiations."

An EU official -- who requested anonymity -- said the EU expert will come up with an assessment of Moldova's energy needs after speaking to "everyone involved" locally. The official said the EU is looking into what it can do to alleviate the situation -- the obvious point of which in the longer term is to reduce Moldova's dependence on Russia.

Another EU expert visited Moldova in December. EU officials stress both that and the current mission were requested by Chisinau under the terms of its EU Neighborhood Policy agreement, which has a provision relating to energy cooperation.

The first expert examined Moldova's request for EU aid to build three new electricity lines from Romania. EU officials did not comment on that project today. (Ahto Lobjakas)