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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: October 25, 2006

October 25, 2006, Volume 8, Number 36
ARE HUNGER STRIKERS LOSING THEIR POWER TO PERSUADE? Jailed Belarusian opposition politician Alyaksandr Kazulin on October 20 began a hunger strike he hopes will draw attention to the country's human rights abuses.

His family and political party have reportedly urged him to forgo the protest -- not only out of concern for his personal well-being, but also because they believe hunger strikes have lost their power as a political tool.

The West had critical words to say when Kazulin, the former rector of Belarus State University and head of the Hramada party, was sentenced in July to 5 and 1/2 years in jail for his role in a peaceful opposition march.

Now, says his wife Iryna, Kazulin is hoping the West will once again come to his defense.

"As far as I understood, he primarily wants international organizations to speak out [on Belarus]. I asked him straightforwardly: 'When will you decide to end your hunger strike?' He answered that [he will do this] when the Belarus issue is put on the agenda of the United Nations," Kazulina said.

Hunger strikes are seen throughout the world as a protest of last resort and a powerful form of moral pressure.

They have been used by everyone from Indian spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi to prisoners at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Denis O'Hearn, a sociologist and biographer of perhaps the world's best-known hunger striker, Irish republican Bobby Sands, says it's the ultimate form of protest.

"It takes a very long time, it's a very painful way for someone to die. And if people are willing to go through that, either to the death or nearly to the death, it's quite an extreme and wrenching form of protest," O'Hearn says.

Sands was the first of 10 Irish republicans who systematically starved themselves to death in a British jail to protest prison conditions.

He died in May 1981, after 65 days in which he ingested nothing but water and occasional spoonfuls of salt to give his body the minimum it needed to stay alive.

Hernan Reyes, who oversees prisoner medical issues for the International Committee of the Red Cross, says determined strikers want to stay alive as long as they can.

The longer they fast, the rationale goes, the more extreme their suffering -- and the more powerful their message. It only takes a few weeks for the physical pain of a fast to become profound.

"You don't feel hunger after a few days because of the ketosis. You have ketones in your bloodstream, which actually stamp out sensations of hunger as we understand it," Reyes says. "But of course there are other sensations. After a couple of weeks you'll have what we call nystagmus, which means that you have these uncontrolled rapid eye movements which give you a feeling of dizziness or vertigo, and you feel like you just go off a carousel that's been spinning around very fast. And it's extremely unpleasant. People throw up, they can no longer drink their water. And this is definitely one phase of the hunger strike which all hunger strikers who reach it do remember."

That phase is rapidly approaching for the more than 150 Protestant believers in Belarus.

They launched a hunger strike on October 5 to protest the ejection of their community called the New Life Church from property it legitimately purchased from the state in 2002.

The New Life community says authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other officials have been relentless in their repression of religious minorities in Belarus.

Now 14 days into the fast, they have vowed to see the strike through to the end if their demands are not met.

New Life member Uladzimir Mackevich says the group remains determined.

"[Our] mood is good, elated. We are convinced that we will win. It is a serious, composed mood. The initial enthusiasm has ended, and now we are soberly confident," Mackevich said.

The mass protest may be getting results. New Life on October 18 filed an appeal with Belarus's Supreme Economic Court against the city decision to confiscate the church's land.

The group filed the appeal at the recommendation of Lukashenka's aide for ideology. The president, in a sudden show of sympathy, had ordered that the church be helped.

Reyes says the success of a hunger fast -- among both prisoners and regular protesters -- largely depends on how willing a government is to stand by as a person or a group slowly and painfully starves itself:

"To protest by fasting is for prisoners very often the last resort they have to make their protest known outside. Of course, this implies that they can make it known outside, which is not always the case in many countries. [It also implies] that the country actually cares about their image -- not the prisoner's image, but their own image as authorities, as being benevolent and listening to this last resort of this prisoner calling for some specific action," Reyes says.

Lukashenka is not usually credited with having a benevolent side. But a third hunger strike has also gained the attention of the authorities.

Independent trade unionist Alena Zakhozhaya has been fasting since October 3.

She is protesting what she says is discrimination against fellow union members by a regional tire factory that is part of Belnaftakhim, the state petrochemical concern.

Her campaign appeared to score a victory earlier this week, when Belnaftakhim representatives promised to deliver unpaid bonuses and restore other benefits promised under the terms of the union's collective bargaining agreement.

But until the money had arrived in the proper accounts, Zakhozhaya says she will continue her fast.

"A representative of the concern [told me]: 'Stop your hunger strike, give us 10 days and we will resolve this problem.' I said 'I can't, you'll trick me one more time.' Therefore, as long as I can hold my ground, I will hold it," Zakhozhaya says. (Daisy Sindelar)

(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

PRO-PRESIDENTIAL BLOC GOES INTO OPPOSITION. Our Ukraine has announced that it is switching to the opposition and pulling its ministers out of the government.

Our Ukraine leader Roman Bezsmertnyy said in the Verkhovna Rada on October 17 that his bloc's decision to go into opposition was caused by its disagreement with policies pursued by the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, which is often referred to as an "anticrisis coalition."

"In the past two months we witnessed a break in Ukraine's domestic and foreign course that was supported by the Ukrainian people during the election of President Viktor Yushchenko. Integration with the World Trade Organization is being ruined, programs of cooperation between Ukraine and the EU have actually been halted," Bezsmertnyy said.

Bezsmertnyy called on opposition parties, both within and outside the Verkhovna Rada, to set up a "confederation" to support the pro-European course championed by President Yushchenko.

"Regarding our proposals in today's situation, we call on opposition forces in parliament and outside parliament to form a European Ukraine [opposition alliance] as a confederation, to work out an action plan that would be aimed at creating an alternative to the actions of the anticrisis coalition and the current government," Bezsmertnyy said.

Bezsmertnyy did not say a single word about Our Ukraine's relations with the BYuT, its former ally in the 2004 Orange Revolution. Both blocs split in September 2005 because of their failure to run a coalition government.And they suffered an even worse failure while trying to form a new coalition after the March 2006 parliamentary elections.

The BYuT announced the creation of an "interfactional" opposition association in the Verkhovna Rada last month and made former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko its leader. So far Tymoshenko has managed to attract only two defectors from the Socialist Party to this opposition alliance.

Meanwhile, BYuT lawmaker Anatoliy Semynoha told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that he and his colleagues will readily welcome Our Ukraine lawmakers among their ranks.

"Our position is comprehensible. We formed an interfactional opposition union, which has been joined by some Socialists. We are inviting our Ukraine as well. I think that it is necessary for them to join [this union] and start working today without inventing a bicycle [anew]," Semynoha said.

However, judging by Bezsmertnyy's announcement on October 17, Our Ukraine is set to reformat the configuration of opposition groups in Ukraine according to its own taste rather than join the Tymoshenko-led group.

Our Ukraine lawmaker Vyacheslav Koval told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that his party has not yet made a final decision on how to proceed in the opposition.

"There has been no decision on whether to create a confederation or not. But perhaps [such a confederation] is a way for attracting parties outside parliament and creating a powerful opposition. However, this needs to be discussed," Koval said.

But the chances that Our Ukraine might get together with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc once again, let alone recognize Tymoshenko's leading role in the opposition, are very slim.

Where do these opposition maneuvers leave President Yushchenko?

Yushchenko said on October 18 that the five ministers delegated to Yanukovych'a cabinet by Our Ukraine should step down in order to be consistent with the position of their bloc. They submitted their resignations to the Verkhovna Rada on October 19 but later the same day Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko changed his mind and said that he will remain in the cabinet.

If Prime Minister Yanukovych replaces these four ministers with people from his party, President Yushchenko will lose a considerable leverage tool in the government. In such a case, apart from Lutsenko, there will be only two pro-Yushchenko ministers in the cabinet -- Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, who were appointed directly by the president.

But Yanukovych may decide against such a solution. There have already been proposals from the Party of Regions to give Yushchenko the right to fill these five ministerial posts with "non-party professionals."

This seems to be a coldly calculated gesture of goodwill toward the president whose powers have been significantly trimmed in favor of the legislature and the prime minister by a constitutional reform enforced in January.

The anticrisis coalition falls 60 votes short of the 300 votes required to override presidential veto over legislation. Therefore, by giving Yushchenko the right to nominate more ministers to the cabinet, Yanukovych may want the president to share responsibility for the cabinet's decisions, even despite the withdrawal of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine from it.

In other respects, however, the failure of the Orange Revolution camp to form a ruling coalition after the March 2006 legislative elections could spell big trouble for President Yushchenko. Prime Minister Yanukovych is firmly set to take away as many prerogatives from the president as constitutional loopholes will allow him.

Yanukovych has recently refused to implement several presidential decrees, arguing that they were not cosigned by him, as stipulated by the constitution.

Yanukovych is also questioning in the Constitutional Court Yushchenko's right to appoint regional governors without coordination with the government.

In addition, pro-Yanukovych regional councilors reportedly passed no-confidence motions in more than 70 oblast or district administration heads. Yanukovych is demanding their dismissal, arguing that under the constitution a no-confidence vote supported by two-thirds of lawmakers is sufficient to oblige the president to sack the head of a district or oblast administration.

Thus, having taken a firm grip on the central government, Yanukovych now appears to be determined to dismantle the network of presidential loyalists in the provinces.

May such a turn of events push Our Ukraine and the BYuT toward reassessing their stance toward each other? BYuT lawmaker Semynoha believes that it may.

"Regarding the opposition and its future, I am convinced that there is no other scenario for Our Ukraine than actually joining the united opposition in the Verkhovna Rada and jointly building democracy in our state," Semynoha said. "If they fail to do it today, they will do it later. Time, voters, and necessity in our situation will simply force them to do it."

But Ukrainian voters will have the chance to discipline their politicians no earlier than in 2009 and 2011, when the country will hold presidential and parliamentary votes, respectively.

Therefore, in the short term, Ukraine will most likely witness confrontation not only between the government and the opposition represented by the BYuT and Our Ukraine, but also between the opposition blocs themselves. (Jan Maksymiuk)

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