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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 28, 2006

November 28, 2006, Volume 8, Number 40
LUKASHENKA PROPOSES UNION WITH UKRAINE. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made some surprising announcements on November 23 as Minsk prepared to host a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Meeting in the Belarusian capital with a group of Ukrainian journalists, Lukashenka informed them that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had "announced" that he will not be coming to the CIS summit on November 28. Lukashenka also proposed the formation of a Ukrainian-Belarusian state, and even admitted to rigging Belarus's last presidential election.

The news that the Ukrainian president would not be coming to the summit came as quite a shock to the journalists, as neither Yushchenko or any of his aides had issued such a statement.

Later in the day, Vitaliy Hayduk, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, refuted Lukashenka's comments by saying Yushchenko was, in fact, planning to visit Minsk.

Apparently out of concern that Yushchenko might refuse to meet with him, Lukashenka touted the potential success of such talks. "If only Belarus and Ukraine could reach an agreement, the configuration of economic and political relations in the region would completely change," he said.

Asked by the Ukrainian journalists to clarify what he had in mind, Lukashenka said Minsk and Kyiv could work out a joint stance on "oil and gas issues," including a coordinated policy on tariffs for Russian gas transit to Europe. "What if we pursued a single policy in talks with Russia on this matter?" Lukashenka said. "Would it be worse? It would be better. So let's do it."

Lukashenka did not conceal his concern over Moscow's declared intention to increase the price it charges Belarus for natural gas in 2007. Belarus could find itself paying as much as $200 per 1,000 cubic meters, compared to the current rate of $47. By insisting on the price hike, Gazprom has made clear that it wants Lukashenka to give up control over Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas-pipeline operator.

After complaining to the Ukrainian journalists about the expected price increase and about what he sees as Moscow's intention to put Belarusian economic entities in a disadvantageous position compared to Russian businesses, Lukashenka admitted that he would welcome the idea of forming a union state with Ukraine. He went so far as to suggest that, because of the "comparable" sizes of the two states, such a union might even be more feasible than one with Russia.

According to the Belarusian president, such a political formation could face a bright future. "Pray God it happens some time. Believe me, everybody would have to take this [Belarusian-Ukrainian] state into consideration," Lukashenka said. "We would bargain a great deal from the world for our peoples."

Vintsuk Vyachorka, leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that, in making such comments, Lukashenka is beginning to promote an idea first proposed by the Belarusian opposition 15 years ago. At that time, Vyachorka noted, the opposition sought to seek closer ties and, if possible, a union with Ukraine and the Baltic states in order to counter Russia's political and economic clout.

According to Vyachorka, such a move on the part of Lukashenka testifies to his desperation in the face of Russia's economic pressure. "I think that today Mr. Lukashenka has no response to this challenge, to this deadlock into which he himself has brought our country," he said.

Another prominent opposition activist, United Civic Party deputy head Alyaksandr Dabravolski, agrees with Vyachorka. But Dabravolski does not believe that Lukashenka is serious in speaking about a union with Ukraine. According to Dabravolski, Lukashenka is merely trying to blackmail Moscow.

"Now, when Russia wants to obtain actual money for its energy resources, it has become apparent to everybody that there is nothing behind the [Belarus-Russia] union state," Dabravolski said. "There is neither foundations nor a roof. All opposition forces have warned that it is necessary to talk with Russia about cooperation while taking into account real [national] interests. Now, as usual, Lukashenka will try using blackmail or persuasion."

Will Lukashenka broach the union idea to Yushchenko if the Ukrainian president does, in fact, come to Minsk for the summit? Such a scenario cannot be ruled out.

It is quite reasonable to assume that if the two were to meet in the future, the issue of Russian gas supplies to, and Russian gas transit through, Belarus and Ukraine might come up. Both countries now seem to have similar problems in ensuring their energy security. In other respects, however, any potential understanding between Lukashenka and Yushchenko is unlikely.

In March, Ukraine held parliamentary elections that were praised in Europe as almost exemplarily fair and democratic. The same month, Lukashenka was reelected for his third straight term in a ballot that was internationally decried as deeply flawed and fraudulent.

Lukashenka on November 23 acknowledged that he rigged the March presidential election. But he claimed to have stolen the vote from himself, not from the opposition. "Yes, we falsified the last election. I have already told the Westerners [about this]. As many as 93.5 percent of voters voted for President Lukashenka. But they said this was not a 'European' result. So we made it 86 [percent]. That is true," Lukashenka said. "If we were to start recounting ballots now, I don't know what we would do with them. The Europeans told us before the election that if there were 'European' figures in the election, they would recognize our election. And we tried to make European figures."

If Lukashenka, in fact, went to such lengths to be recognized by Europe to no avail, then it is easy to understand why he is becoming increasingly bitter toward Europe, in particular, and the West in general.

But it would be unrealistic for Lukashenka to expect sympathy, either publicly or privately, from his Ukrainian counterpart who is still enjoying the positive international response to the Orange Revolution and successful parliamentary elections. (Jan Maksymiuk)

GEORGIA/UKRAINE: REVOLUTIONS WITH SIMILAR ROOTS, DIFFERENT LEGACIES. Two years ago, Kyiv's Maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) was filled with the sound of protesters chanting "Yushchenko!" and calling for a fresh -- and fair -- round of presidential elections.

It was a far cry from the laments that could be heard in the Ukrainian capital last week, during observances of the second anniversary of the Orange Revolution.

"Everything went in a way we didn't expect," journalist Hryhoriy Vahapov told Reuters. "We thought the whole system would change, that all dubious figures would be purged from the political elite. This didn't happen."

Vahapov is one of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who returned to Maydan night after night in bitter cold to protest falsified election results and launch then-opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency.

The electric atmosphere of the Orange Revolution captured the world's attention and was hailed by many as the final step needed to break free from Moscow's grasp and run with open arms toward the West.

Two years later, however, it is the revolution's villain -- Viktor Yanukovych -- who has risen to political primacy. He is now prime minister, backed by a ruling parliament coalition led by his Party of Regions.

Yushchenko, by contrast, has seen his star fall. He has parted company with his revolution ally, the charismatic Yuliya Tymoshenko, and seen his Our Ukraine bloc -- and its Western aspirations -- retreat into the opposition.

The Ukrainian president appears unwilling to give up the fight. But his tone is sometimes less than triumphant.

"Things aren't over yet," Yushchenko told Reuters. "If you value the democratic process, if you value the fact that the nation came of age and formed opinions over time on specific values, let's respect that. But for some reason, some people want everything here and now, this minute. I believe this is the wrong approach."

Ukraine's muted two-year anniversary came one day before the three-year anniversary of a second popular uprising -- Georgia's Rose Revolution.

In 2003, opposition activists stormed the Georgian parliament to demand the resignation of entrenched leader Eduard Shevardnadze and call for new elections to replace an earlier parliamentary vote widely criticized as rigged.

From Shevardnadze's ashes rose a new generation of young, Westward-looking officials -- led by Mikheil Saakashvili, who took over as president in January 2004.

On the surface, Saakashvili has had greater success than his Ukrainian counterpart in maintaining a steady political course. But the government is not without its detractors, and an Interior Ministry shake-up earlier this year called into question the integrity of the Georgian leadership.

However, local elections in October were seen as a critical affirmation of Saakashvili's leadership. The ongoing standoff with Russia, moreover, may have infused Georgian society with a higher-than-usual sense of solidarity. This is a notable contrast from Ukraine, where Russia plays a highly divisive role.

Moscow retains an undeniable influence on both Georgia and Ukraine, and showed no regrets about Yushchenko's loss of stature. Both Tbilisi and Kyiv have raised Russian hackles by paving a hasty course toward Western integration.

Some analysts now see a long battle ahead as the two countries hang in the balance between a possessive Russia and an increasingly cautious Europe.

"As far as Western, or European, aspirations are concerned, I feel that both countries are on the right track, even though we see a degree of Euroskepticism," says Jakub Boratynski, a political expert with Poland's independent Stefan Batory Foundation, which works to support democracy building in Central and Eastern Europe.

"But I think this has a lot to do with the feeling that the EU is giving inadequate encouragement. I think it's going to be a very long and painful process, but these countries will be moving toward the West. This process, however, will be periodically obstructed by Russia, which unfortunately in the current political situation sees this as a zero-sum game."

Adding to the mix of the colored revolutions is the spring 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, which saw the overthrow of the government of authoritarian leader Askar Akaev.

The Kyrgyz political climate remains far from settled, with the government opposition reforming along new political lines. But the fluidity permits a degree of political flexibility. Opposition protests earlier this month forced through constitutional changes that substantially reduce the president's powers.

While the long-term legacies of the colored revolutions may be hard to gauge, observers say there are short-term achievements of value.

The most notable example may come in Ukraine, although its results may be difficult for some Yushchenko supporters to swallow -- the March 2006 parliamentary elections that brought Yanukovych and the Party of Regions to power was generally deemed by observers to be the country's cleanest post-Soviet election.

Even though supporters of the Orange Revolution are seeing their hopes of political change fade, Boratynski says the country's mass public uprising of two years ago still puts it far ahead of a country like Russia, where civic activism is weak at best.

"I think the legacy of the Orange Revolution is the Ukrainian people's feeling that they can choose their own government," Boratynski says. "This sound pretty basic and banal, but I think the fundamental fact is that it marks a huge difference with, for instance, how the situation in Russia is developing today."

So while disappointment is widespread among many of the Ukrainians who gathered for daily vigils in November and December of 2004, there are still those who say they would do it all over again.

Among them is Ukrainian pop singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, whose group, Okean Elzy, wrote a song extolling the spirit of the Orange Revolution.

"If you ask me today whether I'm prepared to do it all again, I would say 'Yes, without question,'" Vakarchuk says. "I would go again into the street because the values we were fighting for are those of freedom -- freedom to make decisions, freedom to be a full-fledged citizen of one's own country." (RFE/RL Central Newsroom)