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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 22, 2006

22 February 2006, Volume 8, Number 7
MONTH OF ELECTION CAMPAIGN SET TO BEGIN. On 17 February Belarus's Central Election Commission announced that it had registered four candidates for the 19 March presidential poll -- incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Liberal Democratic Party leader Syarhey Haydukevich, and Social Democratic leader Alyaksandr Kazulin. Of the four, two are opposition figures -- Alyaksandr Kazulin and Alyaksandr Milinkevich. Some opposition supporters might have hoped the two would join forces, putting forth a single candidate who could provide more of a threat to incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But Kozulin and Milinkevich are keeping their campaigns separate.

It may be a quiet campaign. Kiril Paznyak, the editor in chief of "Belaruskie novosti," says the candidates will have to ask permission to organize rallies.

"They will have the right to communicate legally with the population. They will be allowed to meet voters," Poznyak said. "However, restrictions are already being imposed. Authorities in Minsk have announced that in order to meet voters, they will need to get permission. However, the election law says no such permission is required."

The opposition considers this move unconstitutional.

A poll taken by the Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of January found that nationwide, nearly 55 percent of Belarusians intend to vote for Lukashenka. For Milinkevich, that figure is just 17 percent.

Paznyak says Lukashenka enjoys many advantages as an incumbent president.

"[State-owned] newspapers, radio [and television] clearly favor Lukashenka, giving him the most attention. Practically some 70-90 percent of the media's focus is given to Lukashenka," Paznyak said. "Reports about him in the newspapers and on television are largely positive. The attitude to opposition candidates is largely negative."

Officially, the candidates are prohibited from campaigning until their final registration is announced on 17 February. But authorities say Lukashenka's wave of media coverage is related not to the campaign but simply to information about his current presidential duties.

At the same time, Paznyak says, the state-owned media appears to be stepping up its critical coverage of the political opposition overall and the individual candidates in particular.

As the president, Lukashenka also has the protection of antidefamation legislation, which makes public criticism of him almost impossible.

Even without the support of the media, Lukashenka is likely to win the race. The odds are so overwhelmingly in his favor that many observers are wondering why the opposition was unable present a more serious challenge.

Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with Strategy, a Minsk-based political analysis center, says the political ambitions of Kazulin, a former rector of Belarusian State University, are to be blamed for the failure.

"From the very beginning, Alyaksandr Kazulin and his team did not participate in the opposition's coalition games. Their theory was that the opposition did not enjoy the support of society," Karbalevich said. "[They suggested] that some new people and some kind of third force should appear to oppose both Lukashenka and opposition."

Karbalevich says that Kazulin has continued along this path despite the fact that his popularity has registered at just 3 percent.

Paznyak of "Belaruskie novosti" says that both Kazulin and Milinkevich have put their ambitions ahead of the opposition's cause. He says both politicians suggested different scenarios for possible unification, but offered terms that were unacceptable to the other.

In the end, however, Paznyak says it is difficult to understand why Kazulin has chosen to go it alone.

"It is clear that both have ambitions. Of course, a stronger force is behind Milinkevich -- the united opposition," Paznyak said. "As far as Kazulin is concerned, he is supported only by one force -- the Belarusian Social Democratic party."

Both Milinkevich and Kazulin have repeatedly said that they will not entertain the idea of a partnership with the third candidate, Liberal Democratic Party leader Syarhey Haydukevich.

They say Haydukevich, a lawmaker in the Chamber of the Representatives, is too close to Lukashenka. (Valentinas Mite)

TURKMENISTAN'S PRICE DEMANDS IMPERIL MOSCOW-KYIV GAS DEAL. Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko was in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi last week when he commented on a decision by the Turkmen leadership to raise the price of natural gas. But his words may have had the greatest impact all the way back in Kyiv, where they came as a grim reminder Ukraine's gas woes are far from over.

To backtrack -- Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as Turkmenbashi, declared on 11 February that he intended to raise the price of natural gas from $65 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters this autumn.

On 16 February, Khristenko said that decision meant a necessary adjustment in the prices Kyiv will pay for its gas supplies under the terms of the deal struck in January by Russia and Ukraine, ending a pricing dispute that saw temporary shutoffs in supplies of Russian gas not only to Ukraine but to a livid Western Europe as well.

Under the deal, Ukraine this year is to receive 34 billion cubic meters for $95 per 1,000 cubic meters from an intermediary, RosUkrEnergo, which in turn will purchase gas from Russia's Gazprom as well as from Turkmenistan, which accounts for nearly one-half of Ukraine's deliveries from Russia.

But "everything is changing," Interfax cited Khristenko as saying. "And even the fixed-price formula for RosUkrEnergo may fluctuate depending on the situation on the market."

"Niyazov's position is predictable," Khristenko said. If Turkmenistan raises the gas price, he continued, the gas price formula for Ukraine will necessarily change as well.

The developments prompted a Ukrainian delegation comprising Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov and Naftohaz Ukrayiny head Oleksandr Ivchenko -- who negotiated the January accord with Russia's Gazprom and RusUkrEnergo -- to travel on 17 February to Turkmenistan in hopes of clarifying the situation.

From Kiyv's point of view, the gas deal left a lot to be desired. The terms are set for only the first six months of 2006, and questions about RosUkrEnergo and its shadowy role as middleman in the gas delivery chain have lent even greater uncertainty to the fate of the highly criticized accord.

Speaking in Madrid on 7 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that Ukraine, not Russia, insisted on keeping RosUkrEnergo in the deal. But subsequent statements by officials in Ukraine appear to indicate the opposite. John Herbst, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, on 16 February criticized the inclusion of the middleman company.

"RosUkrEnergo is a suspicious organization, and it is difficult to understand why it plays such a significant role in such an important agreement," Herbst said, according to Ukrinform. Herbst's statement was the latest in a series of critical remarks made by U.S. officials about the company in recent weeks.

His remarks echoed those of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who said in a 14 February statement that he shared the concern of the European Union and other international organizations regarding the "scarcity of information" about RosUkrEnergo and its partial owner, Raffeisen Investments.

Interfax the same day cited the president as indicating that all attempts by Ukraine to receive necessary information about RosUkrEnergo had been "fruitless."

Appearing 16 February on Ukraine's Channel 5 television, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said Kyiv is ready to bypass RosUkrEnergo and sign gas contracts directly with Gazprom, but added it cannot do so without Moscow's consent.

Yekhanurov added that he has sent a letter to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov informing him of this. But Khristenko, in his remarks in Vietnam, described RosUkrEnergo as a "sufficiently transparent" company and said there was no need to drop it from the existing deal," Interfax reported.

The situation has been regulated," Khristenko said. "The agreements that have been reached were based on the stipulation that RosUkrEnergo would be the trader working with the primary supplies of Central Asian gas, and a structure that could position itself on both the Ukrainian and Western markets."

"The structure," he added, "is sufficiently transparent." (Roman Kupchinsky)