Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 15, 2006

September 15, 2006, Volume 8, Number 31
WILL PRESIDENTIAL PARTY SPLIT OVER RULING COALITION? The Reforms and Order Party surprised fellow Our Ukraine constituents when it recently announced it was switching alliances and entering the opposition in order to avoid a partnership with a government it accused of posing a threat to democracy.

What is taking place in Our Ukraine can be described as the final stage in the disintegration of the Orange Revolution camp that helped bring Viktor Yushchenko to the presidential post in December 2004.

The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc was the first to leave the pro-presidential alliance, in September 2005, after Yushchenko removed Tymoshenko from the post of prime minister.

When the Party of Regions, led by Yushchenko's erstwhile presidential rival, Viktor Yanukovych, won the parliamentary elections in March, an opportunity arose for Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to reunite in an effort to prevent Yanukovych from returning to power.

But as old political wisdom asserts, being in opposition unites, while being in power divides. Lingering animosities and personal ambitions prevented the leaders of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party from resurrecting their 2005 ruling alliance.

Thus, the second force to quit the Orange Revolution camp was the Socialist Party led by Oleksandr Moroz. The Socialists unexpectedly switched sides in July, signing an "anticrisis" accord with the Party of Regions and the Communists.

Yushchenko then tried to salvage the situation by having Our Ukraine sign a declaration of national unity with the anticrisis coalition. That deal allowed Our Ukraine to obtain several ministerial portfolios in Yanukovych's cabinet and represented a symbolic agreement between the signatories to pursue the basic goals and ideals of the Orange Revolution.

Running the government jointly with the Communist Party, however, has turned out to be an unpalatable idea for many Our Ukraine politicians. Only 30 of Our Ukraine's 80 lawmakers voted in August to confirm Yanukovych as prime minister, despite the fact that the bloc delegated four ministers to his cabinet, in addition to three ministers appointed by Yushchenko.

Mykola Katerynchuk, the chairman of the executive board of the Our Ukraine People's Union (NSNU) -- which constitutes the core of the Our Ukraine parliamentary bloc -- suggested that those NSNU members who backed Yanukovych in the vote should leave the union.

But this proposal was criticized by NSNU leader Roman Bezsmertnyy, who is in favor of Our Ukraine joining the anticrisis coalition on the basis of a new coalition accord.

How to do this, however, is a major headache for Yushchenko's loyalists.

Lawmaker Mykhaylo Pozhyvanov from the People's Rukh of Ukraine, another important component of Our Ukraine, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that his party took a "very stiff position" on a potential expanded coalition.

"We see the possibility of forming a new coalition, but only if it was done simultaneously with a full reformatting of the leadership of the Verkhovna Rada and the government. To which, I think, these guys [from the anticrisis coalition] will never agree," Pozhyvanov said. "And [we want a coalition] without the Communists. It is a very stiff position. It has not gained much favor with Borys Ivanovych [Bezsmertnyy], but it was approved by voting."

The Reforms and Order Party from the Our Ukraine bloc has overtly switched to the opposition, charging that Yanukovych's government poses "a direct threat to democracy, the national-cultural self-identification and development of the nation, and fundamental principles of the Ukrainian statehood."

However, others from Our Ukraine, like former National Security and Defense Secretary Petro Poroshenko, have not lost hope of making a deal with the anticrisis coalition.

"Everything depends on the efficiency of the negotiating process," Poroshenko said. "I can't say that the negotiations are running very smoothly. There were different views regarding both the name and principles of the coalition -- it has to be a new coalition. It is very much a matter of principle [for us] to include the programmatic provisions of the declaration of national unity into the coalition agreement."

Some Ukrainian political commentators and analysts, like Kostyantyn Maleyev of the Kyiv-based Philosophical Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, believe that Our Ukraine will not be able to reach a unifying conclusion on what position to take on working with Yanukovych's cabinet.

"It is quite apparent that there are diametrically opposing views regarding this issue in Our Ukraine, as well as opposite trends regarding the development of Our Ukraine itself," Maleyev said. "It seems that these contradictions cannot be overcome in the future."

In theory, Yanukovych does not need Our Ukraine's support in parliament -- his Party of Regions, the Socialists, and the Communists jointly control 240 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, which is sufficient to pass most legislation.

In practice, however, backing from Our Ukraine may be needed to introduce some economic measures where the views of the Marxism-rooted Communists and Socialists differ from those of the pro-market Party of Regions.

In addition, Yanukovych may need Our Ukraine in the ruling coalition as a sort of legitimization of his government in the eyes of the West.

But irrespective of the final outcome of this coalition-building story, it is already evident that the pro-presidential Our Ukraine, which several months ago stood a realistic chance of dictating its own conditions for the government, will now have to reconcile itself to the status of a secondary political force.

Our Ukraine's political weight may be diminished even further by lawmakers who choose to switch to the opposition and side with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. According to cautious estimates, there may be around 20 such defectors. (Jan Maksymiuk)

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Tetyana Yarmoshchuk contributed to this report.)

YANUKOVYCH BLOWS HOT AND COLD IN BRUSSELS. Ukraine's prime minister confirms his country's enthusiasm to join the EU, but adopts a step-by-step approach to NATO.

A visit to Brussels by Viktor Yanukovych on September 14 was not his first as Ukraine's prime minister.

Given, however, that the last time Yanukovych was prime minister was immediately before the Orange Revolution in 2004, the current visit was eagerly awaited by EU and NATO officials as an opportunity to probe his government's intentions.

And true to most expectations, Yanukovych confirmed Ukraine will continue seeking EU membership.

His EU host, the Finnish foreign minister and current EU chair, Erkki Tuomioja, gave Yanukovych's renewed call for an accession perspective a courteous, if clearly noncommittal welcome.

"I would say that the most important result of this meeting was that we were able to confirm, to take first of all on our side to welcome and take note of Ukrainian intentions to continue their European vocation, and from our side our firm commitment to furthering this," Tuomioja said.

When it comes to action, however, the EU remains cool. Only this week, the European Commission floated plans to negotiate a new partnership treaty with Kyiv -- underscoring that the treaty would not address the issue of membership.

One EU diplomat, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that the Ukrainian side was told in the run-up to Yanukovych's visit not to press the issue. "Don't ask, because you won't like the answer," was how the official summed up the EU message delivered to Kyiv.

The official said the EU met Yanukovych on September 14 with a pre-prepared "defensive point" to ward off demands for a membership perspective. The "defensive point" boils down to the standard EU line -- Ukraine's EU membership is not presently on the agenda. This does not mean that the EU has formally ruled it out, but simply that it wants to focus on concrete cooperation and reforms to bring the two sides closer.

The EU is encouraging political and economic reforms in Ukraine to bring the country closer to its own legislative standards. And the union is holding out for the prospect of a free-trade zone with Ukraine, but on condition the country first joins the World Trade Organization.

Ukraine is also hoping to sign an agreement by the end of this month easing EU visa rules. Although Yanukovych on September 14 described the agreement as the first step on the road towards the abolition of visas altogether, it will in the foreseeable future be limited to cutting red tape, visa fees, and waiting times.

Ukraine itself must sign up to a readmission treaty obliging it to take back illegal immigrants who reach the EU via its territory.

The EU was also keen to win assurances from Yanukovych that Kyiv will continue its strict enforcement of controls on the border with Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester. Yanukovych said today Ukraine will continue supporting the peace plan put forth last year by the country's president, Viktor Yushchenko.

Finnish Foreign Minister Tuomioja on September 17 took pains to acknowledge that the fact that Yanukovych hails from the pro-Russian camp in Ukraine will not in itself hamper cooperation with the EU.

"We [also] covered relations with Russia, because our common view and understanding is that there is no contradiction between Ukraine's good relations with Russia and good relations with Europe -- and neither with [the] EU's good relations with Russia," Tuomioja said. "So, we do not see any competition in this respect."

However, Yanukovych revealed his pro-Russian colors while visiting NATO headquarters the same day. The Ukrainian prime minister told NATO ambassadors that his country wants to move step by step about plans to join the alliance because of public opposition.

This means Kyiv has given the cold shoulder to those NATO member states -- led by the United States and Poland among others -- who were preparing to indicate at the alliance's November summit in Riga that a membership invitation is in the offing. Ukraine's relations with NATO are, in the words of one NATO diplomat, now "on ice." (Ahto Lobjakas)

TRANSDNIESTER TO HOLD REFERENDUM AMID INTERNATIONAL ISOLATION. Moldova's separatist Transdniester region is due to hold a referendum on September 17 to decide whether it should stay independent in order to join the Russian Federation in the future, or give up independence and reunite with Moldova.

The Moldovan authorities have strongly condemned the vote. While the international community has largely shunned the poll, Moscow has not said whether it will recognize the results of the referendum.

Similar polls were held in 1990 and 1991 to create the self-styled Dniester Republic and declare independence from Moldova.

Pro-Russian secessionists fought a short but bloody war with Moldova in the summer of 1992. The fighting left some 1,000 people dead and was halted by Russian troops stationed in Transdniester.

Since then, no country has recognized Transdniester.

Negotiations on Transdniester's final status have been on and off for more than a decade under mediation from Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). More recently, the United States and the European Union have also gained observer status at the talks.

The region receives unofficial but strong support from Russia, and two-thirds of its 555,000 citizens speak either Russian or Ukrainian. Many hold Russian passports. Some 1,500 Russian troops are still deployed in Transdniester, despite Russia's pledge to withdraw all its forces and equipment by 2002.

The referendum consists of two mutually exclusive questions: "Do you support the course toward the Dniester Republic's independence and ensuing future free accession to the Russian Federation?" And "Do you consider it possible that the Dniester Republic give up its independence and then join Moldova?

Independence and eventual unification with Russia are expected to win overwhelming backing in Sunday's vote. The only problem could be the turnout, since many of Transdniester's almost 400,000 eligible voters are working abroad.

In order to be valid, a simple majority of "yes" votes is needed, provided the turnout is over 50 percent. Some 262 polling stations have been prepared and early voting has been allowed five days in advance.

Moldova has adopted a parliamentary statement condemning the vote. And the international community has declared the referendum illegal, and called on the separatist leadership to resume negotiations, which have been suspended for half a year.

The head of the OSCE mission to Moldova, Louis O'Neill, told RFE/RL that the poll is illegitimate.

"The OSCE will not recognize this referendum, and we have no intention to support or observe a unilateral action, which calls into question the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova," O'Neill said. "Particularly when you consider the suggestive character of the questions, which are themselves compound questions, each one of them contains two parts, so there really should be four questions, and that they pretty much imply the desired answer."

The European Union and the United States have also shunned the vote. Emma Udwin, spokeswoman to the EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said the referendum will not change the status quo.

"We don't recognize Transdniester as a state, we don't recognize Transdniester's independence and there is no country that does," Udwin said. "This referendum, which will be held doesn't alter any part of that state of affairs. It will not be recognized by the EU, we understand that it will not be recognized by the OSCE, and therefore it is not something that will have international validity."

David J. Kramer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said no one should question whether Transdniester is part of Moldova. So far, Russia has not said whether it will recognize the results of the poll. The Russian Foreign Ministry today issued a statement saying that referendums were "seen in recognized democratic states as an important legal basis for building civil society."

However, some Russian officials have spoken in favor of recognizing the Transdniester referendum and an upcoming similar poll. On November 12, Georgia's separatist pro-Moscow region of South Ossetia is holding a referendum.

Konstantin Zatulin, the director of the Institute of CIS Countries and a Duma deputy from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, said Russia is generally in favor of referendums.

"Russia definitely respects the principle of referendums to decide the fate of nations and populations. In my opinion, Russia is totally prepared to recognize, under certain conditions, the independence of Transdniester from the Moldovan republic, especially since this independence has long been a fact," Zatulin said.

Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed separatist region, has also re-affirmed its independence from Georgia. The three pro-Russian territories cite the precedent of Montenegro, which broke off from its union with Serbia through a referendum in June.

The EU's Emma Udwin does not think the analogy is a good one: "We do not see a parallel between the Transdniestrian referendum and the Montenegrin referendum for the very simple reason that there was a contractual agreement between Serbia and Montenegro that such a referendum could take place and would be recognized -- that is not the case with Transdniester."

Officials in the separatist regions are also closely following talks on the future status of Kosovo. (Eugen Tomiuc)

WHY DO TRANSDNIESTRIANS WANT TO BREAK FROM MOLDOVA? Transdniester is usually depicted as a place where people and their thoughts are tightly controlled by a repressive regime aided by a Soviet-era propaganda machine and security services. The result of the government-inspired referendum on September 17 on a political divorce from the Republic of Moldova, therefore, seems to be a foregone conclusion. But could it be that people in Transdniester would want to disassociate themselves from Moldova in any case, regardless of government pressure? Historical, cultural, and economic arguments all suggest that they might.

Politically, the problem of Transdniester came into being in 1924, when the then-Soviet authorities created the so-called Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on the left bank of the Dniester (Nistru) River, alongside the eastern border of Romania. The Soviet "autonomous Moldavia," carved out of the Ukrainian SSR, had an area of 8,300 square kilometers and a population of some 500,000.

The pre-World War II Soviet Moldavia included what is today known as the Republic of Moldova's secessionist region of Transdniester (4,160 square kilometers) plus an additional chunk of Ukraine of an approximately equal area.

According to a Soviet census of 1926, Romanians accounted for some 30 percent of the population of the Moldavian Autonomous SSR, while Ukrainians made up some 49 percent and Russians 8 percent. The capital of this republic, originally set in Balta (now in Ukraine), was moved to Tiraspol in 1929.

Apparently, the Moldavian Autonomous SSR was created by Soviet leader Josef Stalin to induce Romanians living in eastern Romania -- the so-called Bessarabia, or the eastern half of the historical Principality of Moldova -- to campaign for incorporation into the Soviet Union. Bessarabia belonged to tsarist Russia from 1812-1918, and the Bolsheviks after the 1917 October Revolution refused to officially recognize the region's unification with the rest of Romania.

In June 1940, the Soviet Union -- following the secret deal made with Nazi Germany in the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact -- occupied Bessarabia and shortly afterward created the Moldavian SSR, which included most of Bessarabia and the strip of land known today as Transdniester. The second half of the erstwhile Moldavian Autonomous SSR was returned to Ukraine.

Thus, the Moldavian SSR -- which in 1991 transformed into the independent Republic of Moldova -- was a fairly artificial formation, consisting of most of Bessarabia -- a historically and ethnically Romanian territory -- and Transdniester, which was predominantly Slavic in its ethnic composition and throughout history remained beyond the Principality of Moldova's political borders.

The Moldavian SSR, like many other Soviet republics, was subject to vigorous programs of Sovietization and Russification and underwent some significant demographic changes as well.

For Moldova in general and Transdniester in particular, the Soviet period was marked with an inflow of mostly Russian and Ukrainian migrants, primarily well-educated managers, skilled industrial workers, and party functionaries. Ethnic Romanians (Moldovans) during the Soviet era remained overwhelmingly rural and agricultural. They were also socially less mobile and had less formal education than Russians and Ukrainians.

In Transdniester, Soviet-era migration modified the ethnic makeup of the area, making it "more Russian." According to a local census in 2004, Transdniester had 555,000 inhabitants (31.9 percent Moldovans, 30.3 percent Russians, and 28.8 percent Ukrainians). The percentage of Moldovans remained virtually the same as it was in the Moldovan Autonomous SSR, but the percentage of Ukrainians considerably decreased and that of Russians considerably increased.

Although no reliable sociological data are available in this regard, it appears that Transdniester residents -- Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans alike -- did not develop warmer feelings toward the Moldovan (Romanian) culture and language during the Soviet era.

Russian in the Soviet Union was the language of cultural and social advancement. There is no good reason to believe that Moldovan peasants, joining the ranks of industrial workers in Tiraspol and their more successful, Russian-speaking urban milieu, cared very much about preserving their native tongue or nourished the idea of an independent Moldovan statehood.

Thus, Transdniester became an exemplary place where the cultural uprooting of newcomers (Russians and Ukrainians) and the sudden urbanization of socioeconomically inferior natives (Moldovans) contributed to the formation of a Soviet-minded society. A similar result, but on a considerably larger scale, was achieved by the Soviet authorities in the Belarusian SSR.

The current Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov has expressed confidence that all nationalities taking part in the referendum will overwhelmingly back the secession from Moldova and a potential merger with Russia. Explaining his conviction, he said this week that all Transdniestrians have a "pro-Russian mentality."

This may in part be true, particularly since the Russian troops in Transdniester are officially portrayed as a guarantor of peace and interethnic harmony in the region, while continuing Russian political and economic assistance is presented as a sine qua non for the region's survival.

But a no less important part of the truth may be that many Transdniestrians have also developed a "pro-Soviet mentality" that is more interested in perpetuating the atmosphere of the Soviet Union than developing Transdniestrian national aspirations.

Economic considerations also seem to play an important role in the Transdniestrans' desire to break away from Moldova. The Republic of Moldova has actually failed to introduce any meaningful economic reforms in the post-Soviet period and remains the poorest country in Europe, with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) estimated at $900. (Ukraine's GDP, by comparison, is $1,700; Lithuania's is $7,500, and Poland's is $13,000.)

On the other hand, the regime in Tiraspol claims that Transdniester "on a per capita basis... is richer and more industrialized than any of its neighboring countries" (, even though it cites no specific figures. But, perhaps, no specific figures are needed for Transdniestrians to prove their economic superiority.

Confronted with an apparent economic disaster in Moldova, which has no natural resources and is heavily dependent on agriculture, it is hard to imagine many Transdniestrians will hesitate on September 17 when it comes to choosing between "independence" with a rich Russia or "loss of independence" with a poor Moldova. (Jan Maksymiuk)

IN CYBERSPACE, TRANSDNIESTER DOESN'T LOOK THAT BAD. Often criticized as a gangsters' paradise and Soviet theme park, Transdniester is on a charm offensive -- at least in cyberspace.

Take a look at one of a handful of new English-language websites showcasing the breakaway state and you'll get the impression of a forward-thinking young democracy.

If the country's young people aren't break dancing, a reader is led to believe, they'll be blogging or attending an environmental demonstration -- all while enthusing about Transdniester's drive for independence. is one such site. With savvy writing and a slick design, the site aims to challenge popular notions of Transdniester as dreary, corrupt, and run by a repressive regime funded by arms and people trafficking.

The websites quote a number of Westerners marveling at Tiraspol's new football stadium or saying Transdniester is the French Riviera compared to Moldova proper.

Irishman Des Grant is one of those quoted on He says he first came to Transdniester in the early 1990s as part of a humanitarian aid mission, and has been visiting ever since.

"It's an absolutely beautiful country. The people there have a spirit that you don't really get in many Eastern European countries," Grant says. "I've visited probably 20, over 30 countries in the world, in fact, and I have to say that this place really sparkles. There is a warmth and an energy in that small place. If I was to compare it with anywhere in Western Europe it would have to be Switzerland."

Grant is also the founder of the "Tiraspol Times," an online newspaper that professes to be "committed to the truth."

Grant says his intention is to help the free press in Transdniester. But at least one journalist has questioned the methods of the "Tiraspol Times," whose content is largely dedicated to effusive praise of the government or endorsing independence.

Tom de Waal, a London-based journalist and author, was outraged to see an article under his name appear on the "Tiraspol Times" website.

The article, which the site says was "adapted" by a journalist named Michael Garner, appears to support Transdniester's claim to independence.

"I've certainly never been to Pridnestrovie, Transdneister, or Moldova, and I am certainly not arguing, as is written under my name, that Pridnestrovie has a better case for independence than Kosovo," de Waal says.

De Waal says that the publication grafted material onto an article he had earlier written about parallels between Kosovo and Georgia's breakaway territory of Abkhazia. He said he had never heard of Michael Garner, and did not even know his byline had appeared on the "Tiraspol Times."

Confronted with this information, website founder Grant said he had no knowledge an error had been made, but that it would be rectified if it proved to be the case.

It isn't just young European hipsters that Transdniester is targeting in its image campaign, but also the more serious-minded foreign-policy community.

An August report in the U.K.-based "Economist" magazine looked into a group called the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty.

The council is credited with producing a report in support of Transdniestrian independence. But journalist Edward Lucas, who wrote the original "Economist" story about the organization, says he could find little information about the think tank.

"What's really remarkable is that nobody's been able to produce any credible proof or verifiable proof that they have any existence," Lucas says.

All but one of the alleged authors of the report have since denied involvement in the study. The case has provoked suspicions among Western officials like Louis O'Neill, the head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova.

"It even quoted my former colleague at the [U.S.] State Department, who, of course, was never consulted, never said the things he was said to say and generally was distorted," O'Neill says.

So who is behind the sudden crop of polished promotional websites? And who is responsible for the report by the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty?

And where, Lucas asks, is the money coming from?

"I think that the extreme conspiracy theory that the entire thing is run from Tiraspol is quite hard to sustain. I think it's much more likely that it's a mixture of some money from Tiraspol, which might either be government money, money from Mr. [Vladimir] Antyufeyev's State Security Committee, or possibly from one of the wealthy trading companies there," Lucas says.

No doubt, tracking the money is likely to be tough. Grant is vague about the funding of the "Tiraspol Times." In a telephone interview, he says the publication receives no funding whatsoever. But later, in e-mail correspondence, he says the website is funded by unnamed "directors."

Despite the images of cloudless days and young people dancing in the streets, Transdniester may well have to do a little more to shake off its dubious reputation in the West. (Luke Allnutt) (RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc contributed to this report.)