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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: June 6, 2005

6 June 2005, Volume 7, Number 21

Starting with this issue, "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report" -- which was called "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" from May 1999 through January 2004 -- is changing its name to "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report" to reflect the expansion of its coverage to include developments in Moldova.
LUKASHENKA'S REPRESSION MACHINE TIGHTENS THE SCREWS. The convictions on 31 May of opposition leaders Mikalay Statkevich and Pavel Sevyarynets represent the latest episode of what appears to be a constantly expanding series of repressive steps the Belarusian regime has aimed at opponents in the wake of the October 2004 votes and ahead of the presidential election slated for 2006.

The regime has apparently decided that repression, including imprisonment and intimidation, is the best method to pave the way for yet another "elegant" victory by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Statkevich and Sevyarynets were punished for their roles in staging Belarus's largest antigovernment protests in recent years. On 18 October, the opposition drew thousands of people to downtown Minsk to protest the official tallies, which were widely believed to have been rigged in favor of Lukashenka (the referendum conferring on him the right to run for the presidency an unlimited number of times) and of pro-government candidates to the country's lower house, the Chamber of Representatives. Police on 18 October detained only a few people in an apparent effort to avoid using force in the presence of foreign journalists and election observers in the Belarusian capital that day. But a similar rally on 19 October was brutally dispersed by riot troops, who arrested some 50 people and beat United Civic Party head Anatol Lyabedzka, who was hospitalized with broken ribs. Several smaller protests over the next few days were dispersed by the authorities, and those detained were immediately punished with jail terms of up to 15 days.

The Belarusian opposition has no other avenue for venting dissatisfaction with the government than leading people into the streets. No opposition politician was allowed into the country's bicameral National Assembly in 2004. No opposition politician is allowed to appear on state-controlled radio or television, while private radio stations remain silent over opposition activities as well as most political topics out of fear that they might lose their broadcast licenses. There are still several independent newspapers in which opposition views may be presented, but as a rule the circulation of such periodicals in small and limited to the capital and a few other major cities. The authorities' primary tactic now appears to be silencing and intimidating those who are not yet afraid to take to the streets and speak openly against the regime. That effort has intensified since Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

The regime closed the year 2004 by sentencing opposition politician Mikhail Marynich to five years in prison after finding him guilty of stealing computers and other office equipment that was leased to his organization by the U.S. Embassy in Minsk. Marynich claimed the bizarre case against him was fabricated by the KGB in order to prevent him from participation in the 2006 presidential election. (He was prevented from taking part in the 2001 presidential election after the Central Election Commission refused to register him as a candidate, arguing that he failed to collect the required number of 100,000 signatures -- a claim that Marynich denied.) The Statkevich verdict -- and Statkevich had already announced plans to compete in the 2006 presidential election -- eliminates him as a potential challenger to Lukashenka in 2006 or as an organizer of the opposition's election campaign.

In March, Belarusian retailers protested for more than a week against an 18 percent import duty on goods from Russia by staging rallies and refusing to work at their stalls and kiosks. It is noteworthy that the government declined to take any retaliatory measures against those vendors, whose demands were of a purely economic character, apart from jailing their leader for several weeks. The only other person punished severely in connection with those protests was Maryna Bahdanovich of the opposition United Civic Party, who was fined $2,200 for political statements made at a vendors' rally in Minsk. Bahdanovich was also fined some $1,800 for organizing and participating in an antigovernment demonstration in Minsk on 26 April. Court officers have already confiscated a dozen household items from Bahdanovich in lieu of payment of the fines. "Anyone who wants to engage in politics, especially in this country, must be aware of the potential consequences," Bahdanovich commented. It is evident that the authorities do their utmost to instill fear of political dissent.

In what appears to have been another effort to demoralize the opposition, police on 15 May arrested former dissident lawmaker Syarhey Skrabets, charging him with attempted bribery of a regional official. Skrabets and two other lawmakers staged a hunger strike in June 2004, demanding liberalization of the country's Election Code. In April, Belarusian Television aired a report alleging that law-enforcement agencies have detained a Lithuanian citizen who reportedly delivered $200,000 to finance Skrabets' political activities. Skrabets commented that the report was stage-managed by the KGB to embroil him in a trumped-up criminal case. The story relating to Skrabets' alleged foreign funds appears to have waned, presumably because authorities in the meantime managed to build a bribery case against him.

The opposition's access to print media, however insignificant and ineffective, seems to be a thorn in the regime's side as well. In mid-May, the Information Ministry issued the second warning this year to the only opposition daily, "Narodnaya volya." (Two official warnings in one year can be sufficient grounds for authorities to close it.) The ministry said the daily released false information by publishing the names of five people under a manifesto of the opposition movement Will of the People, which was launched in February. Simultaneously, the five people in question have sued the daily for libel, saying they did not sign the manifesto and demanding an exorbitant sum of 250 million Belarusian rubles ($116,000) in damages. Will of the People leader Alyaksandr Kazulin suggested that the authorities might have used pressure to make the five people revoke their signatures. "People supporting [our manifesto] are pressured to withdraw their signatures by way of threats and blackmail," he said. Irrespective of the reasons behind the suit, if "Narodnaya volya" loses, it will likely have to close down because it will not be able to pay the damages.

"We do not expect that what is to take place in Belarus in 2006 will be an election -- it is going to be a political campaign with no rules," Lyabedzka, who is among the prospective challengers to Lukashenka from the opposition camp, told Ukrainian journalists in Kyiv last week. "We have strong political will, and we are determined to fight until we win. If the election proves undemocratic, we are ready to take to the streets." That the 2006 election might prove undemocratic comes as no surprise to most observers of the Belarusian political scene; but few of those pundits would argue that Belarusians are likely to take to the streets en masse following an undemocratic vote.

On 29 May, some 100 representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia who wanted to propose their own presidential hopeful were forced to gather in a forest outside Minsk because no one in Minsk dared provide them a venue for the forum out of fear of official retaliation.

Belarusians are still a long way from being prepared for any Orange Revolution of their own making. (Jan Maksymiuk)

KYIV'S PLAN FOR TRANSDNIESTER GETS MIXED RECEPTION. A Ukrainian plan for the settlement of the conflict between Moldova and its separatist region of Transdniester, which was revealed to the public on 20 May, has received quite a wide spectrum of opinions and assessments -- from moderately optimistic to overtly skeptical and pessimistic. However, even though the resolution of the conflict seems to be no less far away than it was before Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko first mentioned Kyiv's plan at a GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) summit in Chisinau on 22 April, the plan has already produced some positive results.

First, Chisinau and Tiraspol agreed to resume their talks on the 13-year-old conflict, which were suspended last summer, and sent their representatives to discuss the plan in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsya on 16-17 May. Second, Chisinau and Tiraspol reportedly concurred that their negotiations, which were earlier conducted in a five-party format involving Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), should now include additional mediators from the United States and the European Union. Both Washington and Brussels have already confirmed their interest in taking part in the Transdniester conflict settlement.

The Ukrainian plan sets its main objective as peaceful and democratic reintegration of Moldova within the borders of the Moldovan SSR as of 1 January 1990 and under the constitutional system of the Republic of Moldova, with a "special status" being granted to Transdniester. The plan does not use the words "federation" or "confederation" for outlining future relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol.

The plan, within its time frame of 18 months, essentially provides for passing a law by the Moldovan parliament by August to define Transdniester's special status as an autonomous entity within the Republic of Moldova; holding early and democratic elections to the Transdniestrian legislature under international monitoring by November; and subsequently delineating the spheres of competence of authority between central and autonomous government bodies.

The plan includes a number of important specific provisions. Thus, Transdniester may have its own constitution that should be in compliance with the Moldovan Constitution. Transdniester may also have its own symbols -- flag, coat of arms, anthem -- to be used together with the symbols of the Republic of Moldova. Furthermore, Tiraspol has the right to participate in making foreign-policy decisions by Chisinau in matters that affect Transdniester's interests (the scope of these interests is to be defined in advance by both sides). And the plan stipulates that Transdniester should have the right to secede from Moldova if the latter joins another state and/or ceases to be a subject of international law (this provision obviously addresses the fear of Transdniester residents that Moldova may reunite with Romania in the future).

The plan's final provisions envisage that if Chisinau and/or Tiraspol, having signed the plan, fail to comply with some of its provisions, Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE reserve the right to take measures allowed by international law against the signatories. Notably, the Ukrainian plan explicitly does not mention the pullout of Russian troops from Transdniester.

Initially, both Chisinau and Tiraspol were reportedly favorable toward the plan. At least, such an impression could be obtained from media reports on the Vinnytsya talks and some statements voiced shortly after that meeting. For instance, Moldovan Minister for Reintegration Vasile Sova said on 20 May that the plan is "an important [move] from theoretical discussions to practical steps." "We are embarking on an absolute new stage of the Transdniester conflict settlement, and all the chances to solve the problem exist with a due respect for the just interests of the Republic of Moldova and Transdniester residents," Sova asserted.

But on 24 May in Chisinau, in a rare show of unanimity, leaders of Moldova's six major parties -- the Communist Party, the Christian Democratic Popular Party (PPCD), the Democratic Party, the Our Moldova Alliance, the Social Liberal Party, and the Social Democratic Party -- held a news conference at which, according to Moldovan news agencies, they concurred that the Ukrainian plans contains both pluses and minuses. Deputy parliamentary speaker and PPCD leader Iurie Rosca spoke for many when he pointed out that the minuses include Ukraine's failure to mention the pullout of Russian troops from Transdniester or Moldovan-Ukrainian cooperation in establishing joint border checkpoints on the Transdniestrian stretch of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border.

"We have been waiting for years for concrete actions from Kyiv [to set up] joint customs checkpoints on the eastern portion of the Moldovan-Ukrainian frontier," Rosca said. "The withdrawal of Russian troops and armaments [from Transdniester] and the establishment of the said customs checkpoints jointly with Ukraine are two major issues for the Republic of Moldova. All the remaining problems can be resolved with our own forces." Some Russian-language newspapers in Moldova suggested "Washington's hand" in this modification of Chisinau's perception of the plan, reporting that the news conference was held shortly after those leaders returned from a Washington trip sponsored by the U.S. International Republican Institute.

Bucharest's view of the Ukrainian plan is even more critical. Romanian President Traian Basescu stressed that any international regulation of the Transdniester problem should obligatorily include the pullout of Russian troops from the region and tightening the Moldovan-Ukrainian frontier in order to prevent smuggling that, according to Basescu, is the main source of sustenance for the unrecognized Transdniester authorities. Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu signaled another objection when he suggested that the internationally monitored elections in Transdniester could only legitimize the Tiraspol regime and strengthen separatist tendencies in the region.

The Foreign Policy Association, a Moldovan nongovernmental organization that summarized "minuses" of the Ukrainian plan earlier this week, noted that one of the plan's main drawbacks is that Kyiv proposes only two international guarantors of the Transdniester settlement -- Ukraine and Russia -- while assigning a role of mere observers to the European Union and the United States. Russia, the Foreign Policy Association argues echoing the views of many Moldovan and Romanian commentators, cannot be a guarantor of the plan because it is involved militarily in the Transdniester conflict and effectively "rules" the breakaway region.

Does the criticism of the Ukrainian plan mean that the plan will be discarded, just as the so-called Kozak Memorandum of 2003, a Russia-sponsored settlement deal calling for a "federal" Moldova? Not necessarily. Some political analysts suggest that Chisinau may modify the Ukrainian proposal by removing some of its most controversial points (for instance, about giving Tiraspol a say in reintegrated Moldova's foreign policy) or adding some provisions (for instance, about the Russian pullout).

Of course, such potential innovations to the plan will require acceptance from Tiraspol and Moscow. Given Russia's lukewarm attitude to the plan and reluctance to accept the United States and the EU as mediators in the Transdniester settlement, such acceptance may be hard to attain. But some Moldovan politicians are aware that their options are not many. "Isn't it strange that Moldova demands Russia and Ukraine prepare proposals on the Transdniester conflict settlement and then declines them?" Democratic Party leader Dumitru Diacov asked participants in the 24 May press conference in Chisinau. "If we keep on acting like this, one day we may remain alone in facing the Transdniester problem." (Jan Maksymiuk)