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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: October 4, 2005

4 October 2005, Volume 7, Number 35
CAN THE OPPOSITION UNITE TO CHALLENGE LUKASHENKA? A 1-2 October congress of pro-democratic forces in Minsk selected Alyaksandr Milinkevich as its candidate to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in next year's presidential election. More than 800 delegates cast their votes for three contenders aspiring to represent the unified Belarusian opposition in the 2006 presidential ballot: United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin, and Milinkevich, a representative of Belarus's civil society. Kalyakin dropped out after the first round, and Milinkevich edged out Lyabedzka in the second round, with 399 votes to Lyabedzka's 391.

Milinkevich, 58, holds a doctorate in physics and mathematics, but has been a civil-society activist for most of the past decade, leading the Ratusha nongovernmental organization (1996-2003) and the Belarusian Association of Resource Centers (since 1998). Milinkevich previously worked with the Physics Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences and the University of Hrodna in western Belarus, and served as deputy head of the Hrodna Oblast Executive Committee from 1990-96. In addition to Belarusian and Russian, he speaks English, French, and Polish.

To date, Milinkevich has participated little in Belarus's political life and is relatively unknown to the broader public. Paradoxically, this may be an advantage in the presidential campaign next summer. All the other opposition leaders in the country, including Lyabedzka, have been repeatedly vilified by official propaganda and, according to independent polls, are distrusted by the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, who are highly skeptical of party politics in general. Milinkevich has not been targeted by the state media. In addition, his nonpartisanship gives him a certain edge over other opposition politicians in what seems to be the uphill task of maintaining the unity of the cantankerous Belarusian opposition until the 2006 election.

Milinkevich seems to be taking a realistic view of the political situation in Belarus and does not pin much hope on beating Lukashenka. He told RFE/RL on 3 October that Belarus's Central Election Commission will confirm any election result that Lukashenka dictates without actually bothering to count the votes. The real aim of his presidential bid, Milinkevich stressed, is to launch a wide "door-to-door campaign" to mobilize people and take them to the streets to defend "their dignity." Regime change in Belarus, according to Milinkevich, can only occur following a wide popular protest, similar to Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004.

Milinkevich said the 1-2 October congress in Minsk actually gathered all important democratic forces in Belarus, except for the Social Democratic Party, which is led by former Belarus State University rector Alyaksandr Kazulin. Milinkevich does not rule out that Kazulin or other opposition figures might run in the 2006 presidential election, claiming to represent the democratic opposition. Such a development, according to him, would be deplorable, since the opposition's strength is in unity.

According to independent surveys, some 45 percent of Belarusian voters think Lukashenka, who has served as the country's president since 1994, should be replaced in 2006. Ten percent of respondents declare that they will back any presidential candidate from the united opposition. Thus, in theory, there is a potential for a "colored revolution" in Belarus. It is up to the opposition in general and Milinkevich in particular to determine how the democratic camp will exploit this potential.

During the 2001 presidential election campaign, the Belarusian opposition -- influenced strongly by Hans Georg Wieck, then the head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk -- made a disastrous choice, selecting Soviet-era trade-union functionary Uladzimir Hancharyk to challenge Lukashenka. The result of that choice was that some opposition forces refused to campaign for Hancharyk, and Hancharyk disappointingly failed to mobilize Belarusians for an anticipated post-election anti-Lukashenka protest.

Milinkevich, if he wants to be successful in his "door-to-door campaign," should now be prudent and flexible and steer clear of any conflicts in the tentative coalition formed at the opposition congress in Minsk. As of today, he appears to have a good chance of managing this. (Jan Maksymiuk)

OPPOSITION CANDIDATE HOPES TO HAVE BROAD PUBLIC SUPPORT. Allied Belarusian opposition activists on 2 October named Alyaksandr Milinkevich as their single candidate to challenge President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in next year's presidential election. Milinkevich talked to RFE/RL in a wide-ranging interview taken by Valentinas Mite.

RFE/RL: Mr. Milinkevich, do you think you have a chance of defeating Lukashenka?

Milinkevich: It's impossible to beat Lukashenka in the elections, because we haven't had real elections in Belarus in a long time. We will use the elections -- which are our constitutional right -- to conduct a broad political campaign. We hope to win this campaign.

RFE/RL: All of Belarusian media is in the hands of the authorities. How do you plan to deliver your message to the voters?

Milinkevich: It's really very difficult. For 10 years already, Belarusian politicians have not been allowed to use radio and television. Nobody ever sees them [on TV]. So it's no wonder they have low ratings. But during these years of dictatorship, we've learned how to use one very good method for making our case. It works even in the West and in democratic countries. It is delivering the message straight to people's doors.

RFE/RL: If any other candidate emerges claiming to represent a democratic alternative to Lukashenka, will you try persuade him to give up his candidacy on your behalf?

Milinkevich: It would be better if one candidate represents all the democratic forces and that was the aim of the congress [that elected Milinkevich] -- to reduce the number of competitors. But we cannot prevent Lukashenka from providing candidates who would work for his sake.

RFE/RL: If you win, would you support Belarus joining the EU and NATO?

Milinkevich: We would like to preserve the current constitution and remain a neutral country. As concerns the EU, of course, cooperation with Europe is extremely important for us because the current regime has taken the country to a state of complete self-isolation.

RFE/RL: What is your attitude regarding a union with Russia?

Milinkevich: As concerns the union with Russia, we -- including the Communists -- think we should be a sovereign independent state that has very good relations and cooperates closely with Russia.

RFE/RL: What is your attitude towards privatization in the country, including the privatization of land?

Milinkevich: Privatization in Belarus will take place. It was frozen at one point because it was being handled by practically only one man -- [Lukashenka] -- and only for his own benefit. He privatized the country. Privatization is needed to give the country a new dynamic. As concerns land, we need to give land to private owners

RFE/RL: What reforms should have priority in Belarus?

Milinkevich: The main thing is to bring Belarus back to the ranks of civilized countries. We need to restore independence of the three branches of power. We should give freedom to press, and we should start economic reforms.

HAS YUSHCHENKO BETRAYED THE ORANGE REVOLUTION? On 27 and 28 September, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko appointed some 20 ministers to the new cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov. The appointments apparently marked Yushchenko's recovery of control over a government that found itself in a serious political crisis, triggered by public allegations of corruption in the presidential entourage and the sacking of the previous cabinet of Yuliya Tymoshenko. However, many in Ukraine and abroad wonder if Yushchenko has not paid an excessive price for getting the new cabinet down to work so quickly.

Yushchenko suffered an unpleasant setback in the Verkhovna Rada on 20 September, when Yekhanurov fell three votes short of being approved as prime minister. Therefore, to secure himself against such nasty surprises in the future, Yushchenko made a political deal with his main rival in the 2004 presidential election, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. After that, Yanukovych's Party of Regions parliamentary caucus, consisting of 50 deputies, threw its support to Yekhanurov and the latter's nomination was easily endorsed on 22 September with 289 votes (226 were required for approval).

Yushchenko and Yanukovych outlined their political pact in the 10-point "Memorandum Of Understanding Between The Authorities And The Opposition," which was signed by both politicians and by Yekhanurov shortly before the 22 September vote. Some Ukrainian media have speculated that the memorandum was accompanied by a "secret protocol," in which Yushchenko allegedly made even more concessions to Yanukovych in exchange for the latter's support for the new cabinet. But even without any supplement, the memorandum is such a bewildering document that it has prompted many in Ukraine to assert that Yushchenko has betrayed the ideals of the November-December 2004 Orange Revolution and backed down on many of his election promises.

To start with, the memorandum stresses the need to implement the political reform that was a cornerstone of the compromise reached by Yushchenko and the Verkhovna Rada in the 2004 election standoff and that paved the way for his victory. According to a package of laws passed by the Verkhovna Rada on 8 December 2004, the political-reform law redistributing powers among the president, the parliament, and the prime minister is to take effect automatically on 1 January 2006. There was no apparent reason to include such a point in the memorandum, perhaps apart from Yanukovych's personal desire implicitly to insult Yushchenko by suggesting that the latter might have played with the idea of canceling the reform in order not to lose his current presidential prerogatives.

Point two of the memorandum emphasizes "the impermissibility of political repression against the opposition." However one looks at this statement, it is obviously embarrassing and disadvantageous for Yushchenko. Because the phrase either implies that Yushchenko might resort to such repressions or provides the opposition with a strong point of reference if the authorities undertake any legal action against opposition figures who might violate the law.

However, the most stunning statement in the memorandum is the third point, whereby Yushchenko obliges himself to draft a bill on amnesty for those guilty of election fraud. It was the massive election fraud in the 2004 presidential election's second round that pushed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians into the streets and made Yushchenko's victory in the repeat second round possible.

Now Yushchenko seems to have forgotten or ignored that fact and is offering general pardon for the fraudsters, taking upon himself the role of top judge. Additionally, in the fourth point Yushchenko agrees to legislation to extend immunity from criminal prosecution to local council members, which seems to be another guarantee of the unaccountability to many individuals involved in the 2004 election fraud. What has become of Yushchenko's solemn promise during the Orange Revolution to send "all bandits to jail"?

The signatories of the memorandum also agree that it is necessary to urgently adopt laws on the opposition, the cabinet of ministers, and the president; form a cabinet on the principle of separation of government from business; provide legislative guarantees of ownership rights; ban pressure on judicial bodies; and conduct the parliamentary and local elections on 26 March 2006 without governmental interference or the use of "administrative resources." Each of these pledges, if interpreted in a manner unfavorable to Yushchenko, represents a significant step back from Yushchenko's election manifesto or, at a minimum, testifies to Yushchenko's public humiliation by his former presidential rival, whose political career seemed to have been tarnished forever by his behavior in the 2004 presidential.

"Signing the memorandum, the president may have earnestly wished to put an end to the crisis. But the price he paid was too high: The deal gave rise to a more serious crisis, a crisis of trust," the Kyiv-based weekly "Zerkalo nedeli" opined. And Yushchenko's staunch ally in the Orange Revolution, former Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko, described the Yushchenko-Yanukovych pact in even more bitter words: "For the people, the ideals of the Maydan [Kyiv's Independence Square, seen as the Orange Revolution's main rostrum] mean that the law should be the same for everyone, that evil should always be punished, and that those involved in corruption should be removed from politics," Tomenko wrote in an article for the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 28 September. "For the new authorities, however, it is acceptable to collaborate with Yanukovych, who personifies all the worst features of the previous regime and who became the catalyst of the Orange Revolution."

Arguably, the Yushchenko-Yanukovych deal provides a lot of propagandistic ammunition for former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who intends to launch her 2006 parliamentary election campaign under the slogan of continuing the Orange Revolution until a victorious conclusion and with the intent of regaining the job of prime minister after the elections. Now Tymoshenko can persuasively claim that she, not Yushchenko, has remained true to the Orange Revolution ideals.

A recent poll by the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Fund found that Tymoshenko's eponymous bloc is supported by 20.7 percent of Ukrainians, about the same as Yanukovych's Party of Regions. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine People's Union is third, with the support of 13.9 percent. It seems that Yushchenko's political troubles, temporarily alleviated by the deal with his former rival, will return to him amplified by the 2006 parliamentary elections. (Jan Maksymiuk)