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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: June 15, 2005

15 June 2005, Volume 7, Number 22
THE SLOW-BOILING DICTATORSHIP. A Belarusian political analyst recently compared the Lukashenka regime's repression of its political opponents to cooking a live frog in a kettle. If a frog is thrown directly into boiling water, it will almost certainly jump out and save its life. But if a frog is put into cold water and heated gradually, the poor creature will boil to death largely unaware. The latter method, the analyst argued, perfectly reflects the way in which Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime has been dealing recently with political dissent.

Arguably, the Lukashenka regime would not have found it very difficult or time consuming over the past five years -- when it actually ceased paying attention to what the West was saying -- to imprison all significant opposition leaders and activists, ban all influential nongovernmental organizations, and shut down all opposition-minded or independent newspapers. Bloated police forces are more than sufficient for rounding up all the participants in any opposition rally (usually several dozen people), while courts are only too ready to mete out extended jail terms to those "disturbing the public peace" and "impeding public traffic."

There are probably several good reasons as to why the regime has not taken such drastic steps. First, it is likely that the regime fears that overheating the political atmosphere could push the "frog" into making an uncontrollable leap. Second, the regime still needs to have a controllable group of opponents at large in order to justify its ever-increasing repressive character.

Whatever the true motive behind this tactic of creeping repression, it seems to be working quite smoothly. Virtually every week brings new arrests and/or jail sentences for oppositionists, as well as new administrative and legislative measures introduced to make the parameters of political and intellectual freedom even narrower than before. If the current pace of repression is maintained until the presidential election that is due some 12-15 months from now, Belarus will fully deserve the dubious accolade of "Europe's last dictatorship," which some Western politicians and media have been calling the country for several years. There will hardly be any niches left for the Belarusian opposition when Lukashenka takes on his anticipated third presidential term.

Last week, a district court in Minsk sentenced opposition activist Andrey Klimau to 18 months in a correctional-labor colony, finding him guilty of disturbing the public peace during an opposition protest he organized in Minsk on 25 March. Prosecutor Vadzim Paznyak demanded that Klimau be sentenced to three years in a high-security prison with no right to amnesty. Ten days before, following the demand of the prosecutor, the same court sentenced opposition leaders Mikalay Statkevich and Pavel Sevyarynets to three years of "restricted freedom" and corrective labor each, finding them guilty of organizing a series of unauthorized demonstrations against the official results of the 17 October 2004 constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections.

Statkevich and Sevyarynets had already been convicted and served jail terms for the same offenses shortly after the 2004 votes. "Convicting Statkevich and Sevyarynets a second time for exercising their internationally acknowledged rights of expression and assembly is a travesty of justice and a clear abuse of the courts for political purposes," the U.S. Embassy in Minsk commented on their current punishment.

Nor is it Klimau's first custodial sentence. He spent four years in prison from 1998-2002 on charges of embezzlement and forgery, which were widely believed to be trumped up in order to punish him for his role in attempting to impeach Lukashenka in 1996. Klimau could also receive a harsher term in the near future, as he has also been accused of insulting Lukashenka in three books he published after leaving prison.

At the end of May, Lukashenka issued a decree limiting the use of the words "national" and "Belarusian" in the names of organizations. The word "national" may be used only in the names of government agencies, organizations whose property is owned by the state, and media outlets founded by the government. Political parties, national nongovernmental organizations, national trade unions, and banks are allowed to include the word "Belarusian" in their names, but not the word "national." Private media outlets are not allowed to use either the word "national" or the word "Belarusian" in their names.

The decree orders organizations and companies that do not meet the new requirements to apply for re-registration within three months. The act, while being a bizarre example of authoritarian whim, apparently targets, apart from other potential victims, three independent newspapers -- "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," "Belorusskaya gazeta," and "Belorusskiy rynok." These publications could face a lot of problems in re-registering and staying afloat under new names.

While not subject to the vocabulary restrictions, the only nationwide opposition daily, "Narodnaya volya," may also find it hard to survive after it was recently fined 15 million rubles ($7,000) to pay damages to six people who claimed that it had printed their names under an opposition political manifesto without their consent. The fine, painful as it is in a country with an average monthly salary of some $200, is not totally crippling. However, the daily is facing another libel suit of more than $90,000 for its articles about contacts between the Belarusian government and politicians in the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

And, of course, there will be more opportunities for the Belarusian KGB in the future. In May, a law came into effect allowing KGB agents to conduct searches of private apartments and offices of public organizations, including foreign ones, without search warrants -- even if that means breaking in. Another novelty in the law is the provision allowing the KGB to plant secret agents in any organization in Belarus. Those exposing such agents to the public will face imprisonment of up to five years.

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listed Belarus as an "outpost of tyranny," along with Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Iran, and North Korea. This may seem to be an overstatement with regard to Belarus in 2005 -- as the designation "dictatorship" was in 1999 or 2000 -- but under the leadership of Lukashenka the country has every chance of living up to this categorization in the not-so-distant future. (Jan Maksymiuk)

GOVERNMENT ATTEMPTS TO GET GRIP ON CORRUPTION. During the last two months of 2004, as the Orange Revolution was changing the face of the Ukrainian body politic, approximately $1 billion left Ukraine. Some of this money was reportedly private and some belonged to the Ukrainian treasury. The people responsible for transferring this money out of the country have been identified, according to a spokesman for the Ukrainian Interior Ministry (MVD), and investigations into the matter are under way, Interfax reported on 1 June.

This announcement was the latest in a series of statements made by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies on the promised postelection cleanup of corruption and crime in Ukraine. According to Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, some 18,000 criminal cases have been initiated by the MVD since the new government took power at the end of January.

The most widely publicized cases so far have been the arrests of two regional governors, Borys Kolesnykov from Donetsk Oblast and Ivan Rizak from Transcarpathian Oblast. Both men are in prison while investigations of their cases continue. Kolesnykov was arrested on charges of extortion while Rizak was charged with "inducing suicide." The Prosecutor-General's Office claims that he did so by harassing an individual to the point that the person committed suicide. Both men were known as supporters of former President Leonid Kuchma and their arrest has led the opposition to declare that they are being "politically persecuted."

In mid-June, Rizak's two assistants were also charged with crimes and put on a wanted list.

Another Kuchma-appointed regional governor, Volodymyr Shcherban from Sumy, has been indicted on a number of charges, including extortion, and is being sought by the police. He is alleged to have fled to Russia. Shcherban, originally from Donetsk, was the leader of the Liberal Party of Ukraine prior to being indicted.

On 7 June, Interfax-Ukraine reported that the former deputy head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), Volodymyr Satsyuk, was being sought in connection with "grave crimes." According to Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun, Satsyuk reportedly left Ukraine and an Interpol red alert will be posted for him.

Satsyuk has often been mentioned in connection with the poisoning of President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. The dinner party during which many suspect that dioxin was administered to Yushchenko took place in Satsyuk's summer home.

However, after the 7 June announcement, Interfax quoted a "source close to the investigation of the poisoning" as saying that Satsyuk was being sought for misuse of SBU funds and not in connection with the Yushchenko poisoning.

One highly visible case is that of Ihor Bakay, the former head of the presidential property-management department in Kuchma's administration. Prior to holding that position, Bakay was the head of Naftohaz Ukrayiny, the state oil and gas monopoly, from which he was forced to resign in 2001 after being exposed for having conducted a series of suspicious transactions. After leaving Naftohaz, Bakay was elected to parliament, though according to numerous parliamentarians, he only appeared once in the session hall -- to be sworn in.

Bakay was indicted in March on charges of defrauding the state of tens of millions of dollars in a series of illegal real-estate transactions and an Interpol warrant for his arrest was issued. At that time, Russia's ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, announced that Bakay had obtained Russian citizenship. Apparently Bakay had fled to Moscow during the 2004 election campaign and obtained citizenship, but it remains unclear if he received it in Kyiv from Chernomyrdin or in Moscow. Chernomyrdin has denied issuing Bakay a Russian passport.

The Ukrainian authorities have asked the Russian Foreign Ministry for Bakay's extradition to stand trial in Ukraine, but there has been no response to the request so far.

In May, Ukrainian Transport Minister Yevhen Chervonenko met with Bakay in Moscow. Chervonenko told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website that Bakay travels around Moscow freely, accompanied by armed bodyguards.

A number of other wanted Ukrainian suspects are believed to be hiding in Moscow, including former Odesa Mayor Ruslan Bodelan, former Interior Minister Mykola Bilokin, and former MVD General Oleksiy Pukach.

Pukach is wanted on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Heorhiy Gongadze, an Internet journalist killed in September 2000. Two other MVD officers have already confessed to taking part in the killing and are presently in jail in Kyiv.

Former Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych was asked on 1 June to appear for questioning by the Prosecutor-General's Office in conjunction with a case involving the improper use of state funds when he was prime minister. Yanukovych did not appear on the date he was requested to and was said by his office to be in Moscow. He did, however appear the following day.

The consequences of a possible indictment of Yanukovych, the leader of the Party of the Regions, could be disruptive for the government and might polarize Ukrainian society once again, since Yanukovych did obtain almost half the votes cast in the final round of the elections.

On 3 June, SBU head Oleksandr Turchynov was quoted by Interfax as saying that in 2004 alone, over 3 billion hryvnyas ($594 million) was stolen from the budget in different value-added-tax (VAT) repatriation schemes. The individuals and companies responsible for the different VAT rackets are being investigated, Interfax reported on 3 June. One such company allegedly involved in VAT schemes is the charitable foundation for children run by former President Kuchma's wife, Lyudmyla.

Another major investigation centers on the activities of the state-owned railways operated by the Transport Ministry. It's former head, Heorhiy Kirpa, was often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2004. Kirpa committed suicide during the election campaign.

The Transport Ministry was apparently involved in large-scale fraud and on 3 June Interfax reported that 13 managers of the railways company were facing charges.

The most prominent case, however, remains that of Kuchma and his alleged involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Heorhiy Gongadze. Kuchma has been called in for questioning twice since leaving office. According to SBU head Turchynov, Mykola Melnychenko, Kuchma's former bodyguard who made secret audio recordings in the president's office, has agreed to be interviewed by the U.S. FBI. The FBI has also agreed to authenticate Melnychenko's recordings, specifically those passages where Kuchma is alleged to be telling his subordinates to "take Gongadze, turn him over to the Chechens," which could constitute an order to kidnap the journalist.

If the FBI authentications show the recordings to be genuine, Kuchma is liable to be arrested on kidnapping charges. It would be an event which many Ukrainians have waited five years for. (Roman Kupchinsky)

PARLIAMENT APPROVES KYIV'S PLAN FOR TRANSDNIESTER. With a vote of 96 deputies of the total of 101, the Moldovan parliament on 10 June passed a declaration endorsing the plan for the Transdniester conflict settlement that was proposed by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko nearly two months ago (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 6 June 2005).

Subsequently, in an appeal addressed to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and Romania, Moldovan lawmakers called on Russia to withdraw its military contingent from the separatist region of Transdniester by the end of 2005 as well as to remove and/or destroy the armaments and ammunition stored in Russian-controlled depots in Transdniester. In yet another resolution, the Moldovan legislature appealed to the OSCE and the Council of Europe for assistance in democratizing the breakaway region.

Before the votes, the parliament was addressed by President Vladimir Voronin, who urged deputies to adopt Yushchenko's plan as the "most interesting and promising" of all the conflict settlement schemes that have ever been discussed between Chisinau and Tiraspol. "The plan, in a very subtle and intelligent way, sidesteps those sharp problems that have always impeded the settlement process -- the pullout of foreign troops from the territory of Moldova, the delineation of powers between the central authorities and Transdniester, ways for ensuring stability in the security zone, and the establishment of legal control over the Transdniester stretch of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border," Infotag quoted Voronin as saying.

According to Voronin, the most crucial provision of Yushchenko's plan is that it provides for the future of Moldova as a territorially and politically integral state. "Ukraine focuses the attention on a major settlement mechanism that is being proposed to Moldova for the first time as a path toward achieving its territorial integrity -- the democratization of Transdniester. Even if the plan had included this one provision alone, Viktor Yushchenko's proposal should have been welcomed warmly," Voronin asserted.

The Moldovan president recounted the main stages of Yushchenko's plan for reintegration of Moldova. The first step is to be made by the Moldovan parliament, which needs to pass a bill on the "main principles" of Transdniester's autonomous status within the Republic of Moldova. According to Voronin, this document should simultaneously determine electoral procedures for Transdniester's legislative bodies, including its Supreme Soviet. In the next step, an international election commission operating under an OSCE mandate is to organize elections to Transdniester's Supreme Soviet by the end of 2005. If the elections are deemed democratic, newly elected Transdniester deputies should join their colleagues in Chisinau in finalizing the bill on Transdniester's autonomous status -- its final version is to be approved by the legislatures in both Chisinau and Tiraspol.

Touching upon the issue of Russian troops in Transdniester, Voronin said the Moldovan people see no "political or geostrategic" reasons for their deployment there. "We think that the armed people in Moldova's security zone should be replaced with observers operating under an international mandate," he stressed. "There can be no realistic reintegration, no strengthening of mutual trust in the region with the help of armed people. We want the OSCE to vigorously support our position on this."

The first Russian reactions to Moldova's parliamentary endorsement of Yushchenko's plan were rather inauspicious for the further progress of the Transdniester settlement process. "The parliament of Moldova should take into account the opinion of Transdniester, and there should be no such situation where only Voronin and Yushchenko regulate the situation in the unrecognized republic. They have taken too much upon themselves," Russian State Duma First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska said.

At the same time, the head of the Duma's Committee for International Affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, signaled that there may be other problems as well, aside from Moscow's apparent dislike of Kyiv's prominent role in the settlement process. "Our troops are not stationed in Transdniester by Russia's own will," Kosachev said. "We have long said and continue to say that we are ready to pull our troops out, but unfortunately Transdniester's leadership is preventing us from doing it because it sees Russia's military presence [in Transdniester] as a certain guarantee against the resumption of military actions by the opposite side."

In mid-May, representatives of Chisinau and Tiraspol met in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsya and -- in the presence of mediators from Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE -- discussed Yushchenko's plan, effectively resuming their talks that were broken last summer. Media reports on that meeting suggested that both Chisinau and Tiraspol were favorable toward the plan. However, to make any further progress, the plan needs to be endorsed by the Kremlin, which has so far remained silent on it. The official backing of the Ukrainian plan on 10 June by the Moldovan parliament apparently does not make any breakthrough in the Transdniester conflict settlement, but surely makes it very problematic for Moscow to restrain from taking an official stance on the plan any longer. Now it is obviously Moscow's turn to make a move in the Transdniester game. (Jan Maksymiuk)