14 March 2006, Volume 8, Number 10
BELARUSLITTLE HOPE FOR A FAIR CONTEST AS EARLY VOTING BEGINS. Early voting for Belarus's presidential election is due to begin on March 14. The vote pits incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka against three candidates who have little, if any, chance of upsetting his bid for a third five-year term. In the end, the importance of the Belarusian vote may not be its outcome, but the public response it provokes. Will Belarusians take to the streets to protest an unfair election -- and how will the state respond?
Not everyone is laboring under the pretense that Belarus's upcoming presidential vote will represent a legitimate political contest.
Some Belarusians interviewed by RFE/RL's Belarus Service on Monday said they thought all candidates in the March 19 were being given equal opportunity to get their message across. Others weren't so sure:
Woman: "It seems to me they get almost the same chance. They've all had equal time on the radio and everything else. We're already bored with all their talk."
Man: "Lukashenka, as president, has better access to the press. But I think the others get a sufficient opportunity to express their thoughts."
Woman: "No, no. It's not equal."
Man: "It's not equal."
Man: "Well, first of all, I think that the incumbent should temporarily resign his duties in order to run for president. Otherwise, all these rallies and the state press have no choice but to promote the president."
Man: "At present, we can't say they're equal. We see that TV and radio are constantly promoting only one candidate -- the incumbent. The others don't have even 5 percent of the opportunities and possibilities that he does."
Even so, the ruling regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears to be taking no chances when it comes to ensuring election success.
Riot police on March 12 arrested around a dozen Ukrainian and Belarusian activists attending a Milinkevich rally in the capital Minsk.
Hanna Horozhenko, a television reporter with Ukraine's Channel 5, was reporting live from the rally to news presenter Natalia Moseychuk when she and her cameraman were also apprehended by police. Horozhenko, who began with a straightforward report about the groups attending the rally, broke into horrified screams as she was accosted by police and forced into a law-enforcement van before her mobile phone was cut off.
Horozhenko and her cameraman were released after several hours, following an intervention by the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk.
But at least two of the Ukrainian activists have been given 10-day jail sentences, and Belarusian authorities have said they will deport any foreigners planning to take part in public rallies aimed at "destabilizing" Belarus ahead of the election.
They have also accused the European Union and the United States of funding the opposition with the aim of fomenting public unrest.
Brussels and Washington deny the claim. But they have already condemned the vote as unlikely to be free or fair, and are watching carefully the run-up to the election.
In a hearing on March 9, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government agency, criticized as "abysmal" Belarus's pre-election climate, and warned Lukashenka to refrain from postelection violence against peaceful demonstrations.
Among the hearing's speakers was Belarusian student activist Iryna Vidanova, who said the country's youth would play a "key role" in the elections.
"In Belarus, young people are the most open-minded, tolerant, and pro-European segment of the population. It should come as no surprise that a December survey found that more than one-third of those supporting the democratic candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich were under 30. Belarus has a very young society, and many of these young people will vote for the first time. But 77 percent of young people doubt that the elections will be fair," Vidanova said.
Arrests like those on March 12 underscore the lack of public trust in the upcoming vote. They were just the latest actions by Lukashenka's camp to silence opposition voices ahead of the ballot, which formally begins on March 14 with early voting.
In recent weeks, scores of opposition supporters have been arrested, fined, or otherwise harassed. Authorities have cracked down on nonstate newspapers and censored television appearances by Lukashenka's political rivals.
Belarusian special forces went so far as to physically assault the second opposition candidate in the race, Alyaksandr Kazulin, after he tried to enter a building where Lukashenka was holding a political assembly in early March.
Following the sweep of "colored revolutions" that brought political transformation to Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, many had hoped Belarus would follow suit with a youth-driven "denim revolution" of its own.
But many in Belarus concede the country -- which under Lukashenka has enjoyed economic and social stability -- is not yet ready for such an uprising.
Svyatlana Aleksiyevich, a Belarusian writer and passionate commentator on Belarusian society, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service she has little hope this week's election will bring change to the country: "I'm afraid that it seems to me that we don't have the kind of internal strength to beat this situation. That is primarily because the state is strong -- and also brazen, let's put it like that. I've already said that [former Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma didn't shoot on his own people. [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov -- he did. So let's think, what kind of government do we have? For example, as far as I understood, at a recent large gathering, they said troops would have automatic rifles with which to defend this government. In fact, they're talking about defending a single person."
Milinkevich has asked supporters to join him in central Minsk after polls close on March 19 -- not for a revolution, but simply to "defend their choice."
But the country's top police official, Vladimir Naumov, has said all rallies will be banned on election day. He has vowed to use "all means within the law" to disperse protesters. (Daisy Sindelar)
AS VOTE NEARS, REGIME THINS OUT OPPOSITION RANKS. Courts in Minsk on March 9 handed down 15-day prison sentences to Belarusian opposition leader Vintsuk Vyachorka, the deputy campaign head for opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich -- the main political rival to incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the March 19 presidential vote. Nine other Milinkevich supporters were also given the same sentence. All were found guilty of organizing unsanctioned campaign stops in Minsk the previous day. Two days earlier, a Milinkevich supporter was heavily fined, and another jailed, on similar offenses. It appears that Lukashenka's regime is doing what it can to prevent the public from meeting with members of the political opposition in the run-up to the vote.
Vyachorka and three other opposition activists were detained by police immediately after a March 8 campaign appearance by Milinkevich at a cinema on the outskirts of Minsk, where some 1,000 people had gathered.
Later the same evening, at a second campaign stop in the city center, six more Milinkevich supporters were arrested.
Belarusian authorities, citing the country's law on public gatherings, say the opposition can hold campaign meetings only after receiving official permission.
Neither of the Milinkevich meetings on March 9 were formally authorized, they say, and presidential candidates and their representatives should not enjoy immunity from prosecution should they break the law.
Arguing his case before the court, Vyachorka said the country's constitution and electoral code allows all candidates seeking public office to campaign freely.
"[This] is a direct violation of the right to electioneering, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, the electoral legislation, and the criminal legislation," Vyachorka said. "I think that a relevant criminal case will be opened against those preventing us from exercising our constitutional rights."
Would it have helped to obtain official permission to hold such meetings? Some would say no. Authorities have already exercised somewhat shrewder techniques apparently aimed at thwarting Milinkevich's election campaign.
Earlier this week, a court in Mahilyou imposed a fine of $750 on opposition leader and Milinkevich ally Anatol Lyabedzka, finding him guilty of organizing an unsanctioned campaign rally in that city. Lyabedzka was promised the use of a hall at a local university. But the authorities refused to grant him the venue at the last minute, and he was forced to hold a meeting outdoors, thus violating the law on public gatherings.
The same court in Mahilyou on March 7 jailed for 15 days Uladzimir Shantsau, a regional campaign manager for Milinkevich, for a similar offense. It appears authorities are eager to prevent the opposition from speaking to potential voters.
Why have Belarusian authorities seemingly resorted to such open methods of impeding the opposition's campaign? Lyabedzka, for one, says it may be because Milinkevich and others have succeeded in changing public perception of the autocratic Lukashenka, who is seeking an unprecedented third term.
"In the beginning they [authorities] had a more or less favorable attitude regarding meetings [with voters]. This was how I saw it, based on meeting I participated in. The initial meetings took place without incident," Lyabedzka said.
"But later, the authorities resorted to provocations and attempts to foil these [gatherings]. The authorities began to be afraid that the campaign had been gathering pace and that the very development of the campaign had not worked in their favor."
Milinkevich, the candidate supported by most opposition parties and groups in Belarus, is of the same opinion. He told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the Lukashenka regime is afraid that it might lose control over the course of the election campaign:
"[The authorities are] afraid of everything. They are so intimidated -- they have intimidated society, but they have also been living in fear themselves," Milinkevich said. "I think that this process of jailing our people will continue. The main goal is to strip our campaign of its leadership."
Milinkevich has called on his supporters to gather at a central square in Minsk after the closure of polling stations on March 19. Milinkevich emphasizes that he is calling for peaceful protests, not a revolution. But he simultaneously stresses that people should be ready "to defend their choice."
In practical terms, the 15-day sentence on Vyachorka and the other campaigners means that 11 Milinkevich supporters will remain in jail during the remainder of the election campaign and even a few days after the vote.
Jailing prominent opposition leaders and campaign activists both in Minsk and the provinces ahead of March 19 is not the only measure the Lukashenka regime appears to be using to minimize the risk of a popular protest after the presidential vote.
On March 2, plainclothes policemen beat and detained for a day the election's second opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin. A number of his supporters and journalists on the scene were also reportedly beaten.
A day later, Belarusian police seized a print run of 250,000 copies of the Minsk-based opposition-minded "Narodnaya volya" daily, which had been printed in Russia.
The issue contained information about Kazulin's beating, as well as an account of a meeting between opposition candidate Milinkevich and voters, and the text of Kazulin's televised address to voters.
On March 6, Belarusian Television censors removed passages from Milinkevich's and Kazulin's addresses to voters that were considered damaging to the incumbent president.
Milinkevich commented to RFE/RL's Belarus Service on March 9 that the Belarusian authorities "are not even trying to create an illusion of honest elections."
Does the Belarusian opposition have a realistic chance of rallying its supporters on March 19 to protest against what already seems to be a dishonest and deeply flawed electoral process?
Such a protest cannot be ruled out. However, observers within Belarus are highly skeptical regarding any potential regime change after March 19. Belarusian political analyst Uladzimir Matskevich believes that the opposition needs to be prepared for much bleaker and even more challenging times.
"There are no legal possibilities left for us to continue our work in the future," said Matskevich. "Therefore, we need to learn to live as dissidents in Cuba do, and to prepare ourselves for more serious, so to say, more basic forms of struggle." (Jan Maksymiuk)
(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)
PROMINENT WRITER SEES LITTLE POTENTIAL FOR CHANGE. Svyatlana Aleksiyevich was born to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother in 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk (Ukraine), where her father served as a Soviet Army officer. After her father was released from military service, the family moved to Belarus. Aleksiyevich graduated from the journalistic faculty of Belarusian State University in Minsk in 1972. She is the author of five books written in Russian: "The War's Unwomanly Face" (1985), "Last Witnesses" (1985), "Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War" (1989), "Enchanted by Death" (1993), "Chornobyl Prayer: Chronicle of the Future" (1997), and "The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt" (2001). Aleksiyevich belongs to the best-known Belarusian authors abroad. Her books have been translated in more than 20 countries.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service held an online news conference with Svyatlana Aleksiyevich on March 8. The full transcript of the conference is at http://www.svaboda.org/forum/forum.aspx?ForumID=26&y=2006. Below are translated excerpts.
Question: Speaking frankly, I have never belonged to the admirers of your writings. Perhaps it is because you and your books emit negative energy toward all things Belarusian, toward Belarus. Anyway, what are your reasons for considering yourself a Belarusian writer?
Svyatlana Aleksiyevich: I have often heard such an opinion, particularly from young people. I think [this opinion] stems from a feeling of weakness, from the unwillingness to understand in what world we are currently living.
Why do I write in Russian? Because I am creating a chronicle of utopia. [This] utopia spoke Russian. All this huge country, all this horrible experiment, all this big lie -- its language was Russia. Therefore it would not be close to the historical truth if I wrote my chronicle in Belarusian.
Why do I consider myself a Belarusian writer? You know, I consider myself a writer in general. I do not deny that I am a Belarusian writer. I do not deny that I am a citizen of the world. I do not deny that I have been brought up mostly on Russian culture, Russian ideas. For example, I could not have written my Chornobyl book without [Nikolai] Fedorov, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, [Konstantin] Tsiolkovsky.
The formulation of the question is rather strange for the present day, I would even say -- outdated. I have lived for 2 and 1/2 years in Paris. It's sufficient to live there for just one month in order to see that 40 percent of children going to kindergartens are either black or [of Asian origin]. And 60 percent of children going to schools are either black or [of Asian origin]. There has already been such a term in use in Germany as "constitutional patriotism." That is, we see that in the future Europe will become a place where perhaps half or one-third of Berlin's population will consist of people of totally different cultures -- there will be Arab and Chinese quarters. This is already a fact of life, a fact of the future.
We are a belated nation. We are still resolving problems of the past. And we put forward the language problem as the most important. It is an important problem for us, indeed, but I want to repeat: The pattern of the past is becoming less and less suitable for projecting the pattern of our future life. The future is absolutely unpredictable. I have talked with German and French intellectuals. They did not suspect until the last riots in France that there is no French France any longer. The country is different. And the future is sort of different, too.
Question: What is your prognosis regarding the upcoming election? Does Belarus have a chance to get a new president this spring?
Aleksiyevich: I'd like our life to change. [I'd like] our country and people to get some other symbol, some other figure, to open other horizons for us in order to enter, as they say nowadays, the civilized world. But I'm afraid that we lack the kind of inner strength to beat this situation, primarily because the authorities are strong -- and also brazen, let's put it like that.
[Former Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma did not shoot on his own people. But [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov did. So let's think -- what kind of government do we have? For example, as far as I understood, at a recent big gathering [the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 2-3] they spoke about defending the current government with submachine guns. In fact, to defend a single person...
Of course, I'd like to hope [for the better], but I don't see grounds for optimism today, because there is one powerful argument at work. One needs to do justice to [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka.
I realize that dictators are in principle uneducated. And [they are] in principle uncultured. Otherwise, they would not be dictators. But thanks to his intuition, he [Lukashenka] has put a powerful social factor into action.
A large percentage of people in this society agree with what is taking place in the country. It means that they can earn a living somewhere, village children can be schooled somewhere, there is some quota for them in institutions of higher learning, there is still some education and health care free of charge. That is, he has brought the resources of socialism into operation. This is exactly what has been lost in neighboring countries -- in them people were hurled directly from war-style socialism into a wild [free] market, and they have felt themselves lonely and confused. Lukashenka has intuitively mixed up some things. It cannot be denied that he has brought into operation many factors that are important during a transition from socialism to capitalism. I think that today he is a [prominent] figure for the majority of people. [But] everybody realizes that he is a transitory figure. Everybody has already realized this [on the threshold of his] third term. But I think that he has time yet -- psychological time in the minds of a part of the population in our country. And I'm afraid that there will be no changes for the time being.
Question: What are the main problems of today's Belarusian literature?
Aleksiyevich: The problem of Belarusian literature is that there is no Belarusian literature. Today, we have a confused, depressed society and confused readers. Some young writers are still trying to say something but this is more like playing literary games or illustrating national ideas. The writers of older generations have fallen silent for good. The tools that were used during the previous confrontation, in the Soviet era, do not work today, because today the confrontation has shifted toward its existential aspect. Our historical time has been stopped. One can say that Belarus is a museum. In Ukraine you can see completely different processes. There is movement there. Our time has been stopped by the authorities.
Question: In your opinion, why does Lukashenka hate so much the Belarusian language and culture?
Aleksiyevich: I have already said that dictators are in principle uncultured people, this is their footing.... Lukashenka is a man from the Soviet times, molded solidly by the Soviet era, a man with a strong desire for power, who of course wants to remain in history. But he has already used up his potential. He has nothing to move forward with.
As for adopting something new, embracing the Belarusian [national] idea, surrounding himself with some intellectuals or people with ideas about the future -- he has no proper antennas any longer. I think he has already begun to move in a circle, and he has begun to lead the nation in a circular fashion. It is understandable why. He does not have any other possibilities any longer. Because he is confined to his time and, I would say, his loneliness. (Translated by Jan Maksymiuk)
UKRAINEKYIV TIGHTENS CUSTOMS CONTROLS ON TRANSDNIESTER. On March 3, Ukraine introduced new customs rules along the Transdniestrian stretch of its border with Moldova. The new rules make the shipment of any goods from the Russian-speaking separatist Transdniester region that have not been cleared by Moldovan customs illegal. The Ukrainian move has effectively imposed a ban on exports by Tiraspol to Russia, its main trade partner. Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov said the move is tantamount to an economic blockade and threatened to withdraw from multilateral talks on the settlement of Transdniester's conflict with Moldova. Will the tightened Ukrainian-Moldovan border controls make the unrecognized Transdniestrian Republic more pliant in reunification talks with Moldova or just bring more chill to the "frozen conflict"?
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov declared in Kyiv on March 6 that Ukrainian customs officers will now be giving free passage across Ukraine only to those Transdniestrian shipments that have a stamp from Moldovan customs.
The rules had been enacted three days earlier, and Yekhanurov noted that Ukraine had given Transdniester notice of the change in February. Still, he acknowledged with some surprise and disappointment, Tiraspol's response to date had been "inadequate."
Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev had comments as well about the new customs rules. Speaking March 6 in Chisinau, Tarlev said the regulations are intended to make Transdniestrian business entities register according the Moldovan law and legalize their external trade activities.
At the same time, Tarlev denied Tiraspol's assertion that the Ukrainian move is an economic blockade of Transdniester that was planned in collusion with Moldova.
"There was no economic blockade of the Transdniester region. There was not, is not, and will not be [a blockade]," Tarlev said. "The Moldovan government is not interested in an economic blockade of its citizens, and we want to live in peace and prosperity together with our brothers and fellow citizens from this region."
Moscow -- whose political and economic support is critical to Transdniester's survival -- seems to take a similar view to Tiraspol on the situation on the Ukrainian-Transdniestrian border.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested as much on March 6, during his official visit to Canada, saying: "What is taking place there, according to our information, looks like an economic blockade. If this really is the case, urgent measures are needed, of course, to stop this blockade."
Moscow, however, has apparently not yet made any decision regarding Transdniester. On March 7 it sent an expert group to Tiraspol to study the situation.
The European Union, by contrast, welcomed the new customs rules. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana praised the move on March 6, an endorsement that was echoed by Adrian Jakobovits de Szeged, the EU representative for Moldova, in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova Service.
"We think that the implementation of the declaration of [the Ukrainian and Moldovan] prime ministers is very important for introducing order on the border, and we fully support putting this declaration into practice," de Szeged said.
Last October, following a request from Kyiv and Chisinau, the EU launched a two-year border assistance mission in Ukraine, sending some 50 experts to monitor the comings and goings on the Ukrainian-Moldovan frontier. It cannot be ruled out that Kyiv's new customs rules for Transdniester are a direct result of the mission's findings.
The international community has long been worried by speculation about weapons and drugs smuggling across the porous Ukrainian-Transdniestrian border. While such rumors have never been confirmed, there is ample evidence that smuggling of other commodities and transit-related swindles are rife there.
These practices apparently benefit not only Transdniester, but also people on the other side of the border as well. Transdniester leader Smirnov suggested as much on March 6, when he called on Kyiv to reconsider its new customs controls.
"We urge Ukraine to assess the political consequences of this decision and prevent a large-scale social and economic catastrophe, which will also affect hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens," Smirnov said.
It is not clear what exactly Smirnov had in mind, but it is likely that he was referring to a trade scheme in which shipments of Ukrainian goods in the port of Odesa are declared as being bound for Transdniester and not taxed in Ukraine. Transdniestrian authorities then confirm receipt, but then often reroute the goods back to Ukraine -- a strategy that earns big profits for Ukrainian trade operators and their Transdniestrian partners.
So why has Kyiv decided to put a stop to illegal transit from Transdniester?
One of the reasons seems to be Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's ambition for his country to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) as soon as this year. On March 6, his government made a significant step forward in this regard by signing a protocol on mutual access to commodity and services markets with the United States.
On March 8, Kyiv scored an additional victory when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill permanently exempting Ukraine from trade restrictions imposed under the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which ties trade status to the rights of Jews to emigrate.
Moldova has been a WTO member since 2001. Chisinau may have suggested to Kyiv that Moldova would give a final "yes" to Ukrainian accession to the WTO only once Yushchenko took steps to halt Transdniestrian transit to Russia.
The second reason may be the upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine on March 26, in which forces backing Yushchenko are facing not only his old pro-Russian rival, former Premier Viktor Yanukovych, but also his erstwhile ally, former Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko has repeatedly slammed Yushchenko for yielding to pressure from Moscow and accepting a higher price for gas supplies in 2006. It is not unlikely that, by taking a tough stance on the Russia-backed Transdniestrian regime, Yushchenko is trying to reclaim his reputation as a firm leader and recapture as many nationalist-minded voters from Tymoshenko as possible.
Whatever the real motives behind Kyiv's latest move regarding Transdniester, the new customs controls have obviously hit Tiraspol hard and taken the secessionist regime by surprise. Transdniestrian leader Smirnov could apparently find no strong threats to level in response to the move other than to announce that Transdniester will withdraw from the internationally mediated talks on the settlement of its conflict with Moldova.
"Under these conditions, all negotiations are called off," Smirnov said. "Besides, Ukraine is becoming the main tool in helping Moldova reach its political [aims]."
But as with many times in the past, it seems that it is Moscow -- and not Tiraspol or anyone else -- that will eventually decide whether Transdniester is to continue talks, and with whom. (Jan Maksymiuk)
(RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova Service contributed to this report.)