Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: December 12, 2006

December 12, 2006, Volume 8, Number 42
THE GENERATION THAT NEVER KNEW THE SOVIET UNION. On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine gathered at a site in the Belarusian forest of Belavezhskaya Pushcha to declare that the Soviet Union was dead.

They announced the formation of a new alliance, the Commonwealth of Independent States. For those who lived through it, it was a heady but uncertain time. Hopes of social change and political freedom mixed with fears of economic freefall and the disintegration of state institutions. But what about those with no memory of that time?

RFE/RL spoke to young people born in December 1991 and living in the former USSR about their experiences as the first post-Soviet generation.

"I had heard that the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991. My parents tell me about that time a lot," says Jangyl Tashbayeva, who was born on December 27 in the city of Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. "There was a lot of hardship at that time. Instead of helping each other, people at that time thought only about their own fate. It was a very hard time."

"I know about communism through what I heard from my parents and grandparents," says 15-year-old Ayrat, who grew up in Tatarstan. "I heard that in the Brezhnev era, life was easier because it was a calm time. But if you consider the period before Brezhnev, for example the Stalin and Lenin eras, it was harder for people due to mass repression. So I'd choose the Brezhnev era to live in, because that was the calmest time."

Born thousands of miles apart, the only thing these teenagers share is their month of their birth -- December 1991.

It was the month the Soviet Union collapsed, the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed, and life as many people knew it was changed forever.

Inga Ghukasyan was born December 4 in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where she still lives with her parents -- her engineer father, Edik, and her mother, Marina, a mathematician.

A pretty 15-year-old with long dark hair, Ghukasyan is growing up in a different world than her parents.

She studies English instead of Russian, is already intent upon becoming an economist, and looks to herself -- rather than the state -- to ensure her success in a highly competitive educational environment.

"I have heard from my parents that getting a higher education was easier and living conditions were better then than they are now. I think when my parents were my age, they had more privileges than I do. Living now is a struggle; you have to work hard to succeed," Inga says. "In their school years, my parents had no problem entering a university and gaining a profession with the base knowledge they acquired in school. But for me, though now I study hard at school, I can't enter university unless I have private classes to get prepared for my entrance exams."

Other CIS teenagers have inherited similarly positive notions of life in the Soviet Union.

Jangyl's father was a tradesman in Soviet times, but now owns a store in Bishkek. Her mother, likewise, gave up her Soviet-era career as a nurse to work as a shop assistant.

Jangyl, the second of three children who says her favorite hobbies are music and dancing, says her parents sometimes speak fondly of the Soviet Union. A family photo shows a younger Jangyl with her father

"They say good things. For instance, before 1991 they were able to buy a lot of things for one som [Soviet ruble.] It was much better than the prices we have today. A box of matches was just a tyiyn [Soviet kopek]. For one som, they used to be able to fill an entire basket. They could buy all their food for one som," Jangyl says.

For Aleh Sushko, a 15-year-old living in Belarus, it wasn't money that was a problem for his parents. It was finding something to buy with it.

"They've told me that the situation in 1991 was very difficult. In order to buy food, they needed to stand in very long lines. At that time [people] had money, but there was nothing to buy. And now it's the other way. You can buy almost everything but you don't have the money to do it," Aleh says.

Aleh's birthday is December 8, the day the Soviet Union was formally declared defunct. He lives with his parents in a modest two-room apartment in Zyalony Luh, a suburb of Minsk. The family does not have a car or a dacha, but they do have several bicycles, a piano, and shelves filled with rows and rows of books.

For children born in December 1991, the 15 years of post-Soviet life are all they've ever known. But what was it like for the parents who saw their children come into the world just as the USSR was falling apart?

In Yerevan, Inga's father, Edik Ghukasyan, said it was a difficult time to bring a child into the world.

"I remember December 1991. Awful times.... We had no electricity, it was very cold, and we had very bad living conditions. The Soviet Union had collapsed and Armenia had become a newly independent state," Edik says. "Everyone in Armenia was going out to join street protests. We wanted to be independent, and then we were, and we were very glad for that.... We didn't stop to think about the impact it would have on our children's lives. It was something that needed to happen, and it happened."

Belarus under autocratic leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has, more than other former republics, maintained a Soviet-style characteristic. But it has seen dramatic changes as well.

Aleh's mother, 41-year-old Iryna, says the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union have been a mix of good and bad: "Everyday life has perhaps become better when we compare it to the perestroika years. At that time it was so difficult to get food and clothes for babies; you could only get them with coupons. But morally, it was better at the beginning. [Now] the Soviet [state] symbols have returned, Stalin has once again become a hero in Belarus, [and] history and the constitution are being rewritten."

In Kyrgyzstan, Jangyl Tashbayeva's parents say that despite the difficulties of the time, they're happy to have brought a child into a rapidly changing world.

Jangyl's mother, Maria, says she and her husband saw an independent Kyrgyzstan as a chance to give their daughter a secure future.

"Now every person has started to fight for his own life. If Kyrgyzstan can stand on its own feet, we hope it will be good for the lives of our children. Now we have both the good life and hardship, coexisting at the same time." (RFE/RL Central Newsroom)

NATO PREPARES FOR ENERGY WARS. During last month's NATO summit in Riga, U.S. Senator Richard Lugar urged the alliance to declare that an energy boycott of any member be seen as an act of coercion against all members of the alliance and one that requires a collective response.

U.S. Senator Richard Lugar urged NATO to update its charter. "We are used to thinking in terms of conventional warfare between nations, but energy could become the weapon of choice for those who possess it," he said.

Lugar warned the opening session of the NATO meeting that "it may seem to be a less lethal weapon than military force, but a natural-gas shutdown to a European country in the middle of winter could cause death and economic loss on the scale of a military attack."

The senator used Russia's brief cutoff of gas to Ukraine in January as an example of the dangers that could lurk ahead.

"The Ukrainian economy and military could have been crippled without a shot being fired, and the dangers and losses to several NATO member nations would have mounted significantly," Lugar said.

The day before pressure was reduced in the pipeline that supplied Ukraine (and Europe) with natural gas, NTV, which is controlled by the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, aired long news segments showing Gazprom technicians preparing for the cutoff. The scenes, which were aired globally, resembled a wartime propaganda operation.

Such a tactic could have been Russia's way of showing that it was not prepared to help subsidize a pro-Western, pro-NATO, Ukrainian government and would limit its energy subsidies only to pro-Russian leaders in the former Soviet republics.

It could also have been a warning to the West to stop its support for "colored revolutions," as seen in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.

Lugar's words at the NATO summit did not go unnoticed in Moscow. Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, told Interfax, "The participants in the summit took great interest in the current problems of energy security, which would seem like a warning of the pressure NATO intends to exert on relations [with Russia] with regard to energy resources."

Energy cutoffs have been used as a geopolitical tactic before. For instance, in July 1941, the United States declared a de facto oil boycott on imperial Japan by freezing all of its financial assets in the United States, which were then being used to pay for oil purchases.

Three days later, Japan launched an invasion to grab Royal Shell Petroleum's southern Indonesian oil fields.

The United States at that time supplied Japan with 80 percent of its oil and, had the oil boycott been proclaimed years earlier, critics have said that the devastating war in the Pacific might have been avoided.

A more recent example is the OPEC oil embargo of the United States in 1973, which, in the words of Henry Kissinger, the architect of U.S. foreign policy at the time, "altered irrevocably the world as it had grown up in the postwar period."

Israel's expected victory over Egypt and Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur War angered the Arab states. When the United States announced a $2.2 billion emergency aid package to Israel in October 1973, Saudi Arabia responded by announcing it would cut off all shipments of oil to the United States. The other Arab oil producers followed suit.

Daniel Yergin, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the petroleum industry, "The Prize," quoted Kissinger as saying the decision to use oil as a weapon was "political blackmail."

Despite the economic damage and disruptions caused by the embargo, the United States never officially regarded it as an act of war by OPEC.

It was, however, the beginning of a new era for world oil. Yergin points out that most Western leaders knew "precious little" about international economics and quotes Kissinger telling aides, "Don't talk to me about barrels of oil. They might as well be bottles of Coca Cola."

Most world leaders would know the difference these days and are painfully aware of the importance energy plays in international politics.

But the question remains as to what exactly an organization like NATO can do. Had Ukraine been a member of NATO at the time of the brief Russian gas embargo, would the alliance have been able to protect it from economic damage?

And could NATO hold sway over Russia to prevent such an embargo and how would it replace Ukraine's needs for Russian and Turkmen gas with that from another supplier?

Political strategists will likely be busy trying to find the answers to those questions. (Roman Kupchinsky)

OPPOSITION LEADER RECEIVES SAKHAROV PRIZE. Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich today received the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.

In an emotional speech, Alyaksandr Milinkevich acknowledged the sacrifices made by other politicians, students, and ordinary Belarusians and dedicated the prize to all those who oppose President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's rule.

"This is not only my prize. Together with me, this prize also goes to all those Belarusians who are struggling for freedom, all those who came to the square this spring [during and after the presidential election] to defend their dignity, all those who were and still are imprisoned, those who were expelled from universities and who were fired from their job," Milinkevich said.

Speaking in Belarusian, Milinkevich called attention in particular to the plight of former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for his role in street rallies that followed Lukashenka's reelection. Kazulin had refused food for nearly two months before his wife confirmed today he had ended his hunger strike.

The ceremony for the award -- named after Nobel prizewinner Andrei Sakharov, a strong advocate of reforms and civil liberties in the Soviet Union -- was led by the president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell. During his speech in Strasbourg, Borrell condemned Belarus as "Europe's last dictatorship."

EU external-relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner issued a statement in Brussels saying the prize "recognizes Aleksander Milinkevich's personal efforts, and the efforts of all those in Belarus who strive for democracy at their own personal risk." Ferrero-Waldner also said the award serves as a reminder of the EU's resolve to work for freedom and democracy in Belarus.

During his speech and the press conference that followed, Milinkevich called for more EU support, although he avoided direct criticism of Brussels.

It was left to Borrell to note that despite all EU efforts, the situation in Belarus has deteriorated markedly since 2004, when the Belarusian Association of Journalists was the recipient of the Sakharov Prize.

Milinkevich, who said he will donate his 50,000 euro ($65,900) check to the European Parliament, strove to place Belarus's plight in a broader context. He said the EU must review the way it interacts with dictatorships at large, and not treat them as ordinary, legitimate regimes. The EU has so far been barred from funding activities in other countries not sanctioned by their governments.

Instead, Milinkevich called for a European "anti-dictatorship fund" to allow the EU to take direct action against authoritarian regimes.

"What the united Europe is missing is a mechanism of concrete assistance to those struggling inside undemocratic countries -- it is not Belarus alone that suffers from injustice," Milinkevich said. "The European Union has practically no such mechanisms today. The European Union was created to help those who have chosen the democratic path and who want to follow that path. And the European Union should urgently work out flexible assistance programs for those who are under dictatorships."

But the Belarusian opposition leader also displayed a new awareness that change in his country cannot be brought about by outside pressure. He offered a bleak analysis of the prospects of Lukashenka's regime, saying its members now resist attempts by Russia to buy up the country's infrastructure fearing they'd be stripped of their status. On the other hand, Milinkevich said, the regime also knows "democracy would kill it."

Hence, Milinkevich concluded, "no elections" can change the situation in Belarus. Instead, he called for massive street action, saying he would take opportunities ahead of the upcoming legislative elections to create awareness of this need.

"A dictatorship never wants to go away on its own. And we say absolutely frankly that it is impossible to change the situation in our country by elections, just as it has been impossible under other dictatorships," Milinkevich said. "Therefore, we believe in street action. We want a great number of people to come out to the streets and say to this government, by peaceful means, that there is no place for dictatorship on Belarusian soil."

Milinkevich also appealed to the EU not to increase visa costs for Belarusian citizens, slated to rise to more than 60 euros ($80) next year. EU member states agreed earlier this year not to raise visa rates for countries with which it has negotiated or is negotiating a visa-facilitation agreement. These include Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Belarus, however, will not qualify for visa relief, as cooperation with Lukashenka's regime remains conditional on democratic reforms.

Milinkevich also said planned economic measures against Belarus might do more harm than good. The EU is considering removing Belarus from its most-favored-nations list later this month.

Brussels argues this is necessary less as a response to Minsk's intransigence than simply as a reaction to the absence of independent trade unions in the country. Earlier this week, however, commissioner Ferrero-Waldner said the EU could postpone the move by six months to give Lukashenka a "period of grace." (Ahto Lobjakas)

U.S. COMPANY VIES FOR OIL CONTRACT. Negotiations are continuing between the Ukrainian government and the Houston-based Vanco Energy Company for the right to drill for oil in the Black Sea.

Talks on the tender, which would be the first granted to a Western investor in Ukraine's oil-and-gas sector, took place on December 6 in New York on the sidelines of a business forum aimed at attracting U.S. investors to Ukraine. Negotiations are expected to end in January 2007.

Ukraine could net billions of dollars if the deal goes through. If signed, Ukraine would get at least 51 percent of the future profits from the production-sharing agreement (PSA).

But there has been speculation that the negotiations have stalled and that Russia's state-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, may become Ukraine's partner in the project.

Ukraine's Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko denied that the Ukrainian government is interested in Gazprom's participation.

"There are always topics of dispute when negotiating a project of such magnitude but I do not doubt that we will find a compromise," Boyko said. "The negotiations with our partners [Vanco Energy] have demonstrated that we are close to [a deal]. By the end of January [2007] we will sign an agreement."

Vanco Chairman Gene Van Dyke also downplayed rumors of significant differences between his company and the Ukrainian government.

"I think there are only rumors, I've heard nothing of that from the official point of view, we've been awarded the tender and you've heard what the minister [Boyko] said. We're negotiating constructively to finish an agreement within the time allowed," Van Dyke said.

Vanco itself does not have the capacity to conduct seismic-exploration drilling at a depth of over 600 meters below sea level. Instead, it will hire subcontractors for the job.

"The type of terms we hope to achieve once it's agreed -- and it's not yet agreed -- would fall in the middle range of production-sharing agreements around the world," Van Dyke said of the project. "It will be certainly compatible with other agreements in what I would call 'frontier exploration areas' and 'areas of deep water,' which has additional mechanical risks and cost involved."

The tender is being negotiated for a period of at least 30 years with possible 10-year extensions.

But questions have been raised about Ukraine's business environment -- in particular, corruption.

Western investors are eying the Vanco tender as a test for Ukraine's commitment to liberalize its economy and to introduce much-needed transparency.

Van Dyke says that he doesn't see political risks because the contract is too big and too important for Ukraine.

As for Ukraine's high place on the annual Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Van Dyke says that he sees no problem with that either.

"I'm aware of that, I've seen that index," Van Dyke said. "I don't feel the influence of that in this project. This contract has the advantage of being very large and very visible and very important to the government and to us, so, that adds transparency." (Nikola Krastev)