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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: December 8, 2005

8 December 2005, Volume 7, Number 41
SECURITY BILL TO CRIMINALIZE RANGE OF POLITICAL ACTIVITIES. The lower house of the Belarusian National Assembly, the Chamber of Representatives, on 2 December passed in its second reading a tough new security bill that, among other things, would make it a criminal offense both to discredit Belarus's standing abroad and to train people to take part in street demonstrations. Deputies approved the bill by a majority of 97 to four. Human rights activists say the amendments to the criminal law contained in the bill are politically motivated and aimed at undermining the opposition in the run-up to next year's presidential elections.

Human rights activists say they are in no doubt: The draconian new legislation approved so overwhelmingly by the Belarusian National Assembly is intended to stifle what little is left of free and open debate in Belarus.

A former judge of the Constitutional Court, Mikhail Pastukhou, was withering in his criticism. He told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service: "The adoption of such amendments means the de facto declaration of a state of emergency in Belarus. It forbids making all kinds of statements and inhibits the right to public assembly. There's not been a law like it anywhere else in the world."

This week, Aleh Hulak, Valyantsin Stefanovich, Hary Pahanyayla, and Dzmitry Markusheuski appealed to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to withdraw what they called his "politically motivated and repressive" bill.

Hulak tied the bill to next year's presidential election in Belarus. "We see no basis for the introduction of such harsh restrictions on public activities, or on the preparation of mass demonstrations," he said. "Our government does not even try to conceal that this is a response to the upcoming presidential election, and that these legislative amendments are being introduced in order to gain control over the situation."

Few doubt that they are pursuing a lost cause. The bill was submitted by the president and, observers say, will sail undisturbed through both houses of the National Assembly.

What worries human rights activists and opposition politicians in particular are two key points in the bill. The first is a sweeping catch-all amendment to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, which would make it a punishable offense to discredit Belarus's standing abroad. The offense would be punishable by a prison sentence of up to six months.

Critics of the bill point out that its loose wording means it could be used to encompass virtually anything -- any criticism of the president, for instance, or of the political, economic, and social state of the country.

The second makes it a criminal offense to train people to take part in street protests, a clause that appears intended to crack down on the sort of youth movements that were so prominent in the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Kmara in Georgia and Pora in Ukraine played key roles in mobilizing youth activism.

With presidential elections due next year, President Lukashenka appears intent on stifling any home-grown youth movements before they can become a threat. The proposed legislation would impose a prison sentence of up to two years for training people to take part in street protests and other "group activities that flagrantly violate the public peace."

Stepan Sukhorenko, head of the KGB, as the Belarusian security service is still known, this week accused two youth groups, the Youth Front and Zubr of using foreign help to form their organizational core and prepare the ground for mass protests among the young.

Belarus, he said, had to defend itself against unprecedented pressure from abroad -- in particular the United States. The bill would make it easier to crack down on crimes against the state and its ruling bodies, which created the preconditions for foreign pressure. The security services would, he said, take tough but legal action to prevent any disruption of next year's elections. The new legislation moving its way through parliament will undoubtedly facilitate the KGB's task.

Deputy Justice Minister Alyaksandr Petrash joined Sukhorenko in defense of the bill. "I don't have any worries concerning the adoption of this law," he said. "You don't say bad things about your family in public, do you, so don't say bad things about your republic, when it's not really true."

Journalists too find themselves in Lukashenka's firing line. The legislation would make it an offense to call on foreign states or organizations to take measures detrimental to Belarus -- and to disseminate information publicizing such appeals.

The bill now goes to the upper house, the Council of the Republic, for final approval. (Robert Parsons -- RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

REGIONAL LEADERS SET UP COMMUNITY OF DEMOCRATIC CHOICE. A two-day forum aimed at promoting democracy and human rights in a region that spent decades under totalitarian rule concluded on 2 December in Kyiv with the official birth of the Community of Democratic Choice. In spite of assurances from founding members, the new grouping -- which comprises nine countries from the Balkan, Baltic, and Black Sea regions -- is perceived as an attempt to limit Russia�s influence on the post-Soviet area.

Participants in the forum included the presidents of Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, and Macedonia.

Government delegations from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland also attended the gathering, along with observers from the United States, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Addressing the forum , Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told the 120 participants that the Community of Democratic Choice would focus on three main objectives -- the promotion of democratic values, regional stability, and economic prosperity.

"I'm convinced that the discussion at our forum today is about something more than democracy," said Yushchenko. "In fact, real rapprochement is taking place between our nations in their common desire to strengthen democracy, stability, and economic development.

He continued: "I'm convinced that it is these basic values that are to become a foundation for our partnership, both between states and between peoples, in the 21st century."

Yushchenko paid tribute to his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, for "inspiring" the two-day forum.

The basic principles of the Community of Democratic Choice are contained in a joint statement signed by Saakashvili and Yushchenko last August in the Georgian resort town of Borjomi.

The Borjomi Declaration, as the joint statement is known, envisions the Community of Democratic Choice as a "powerful instrument for removing the remaining divisions in the [Baltic-Black Sea] region, human rights violations, and any type of confrontation, or frozen conflict."

Participants in the Kyiv forum adopted a final declaration in which they vowed to work closely together "with a view to strengthening peace, democracy, and prosperity on the European continent."

Of the nine founding members of the Community of Democratic Choice, two -- Georgia and Moldova -- are confronted with unresolved separatist conflicts, which started during the period of turmoil that preceded the Soviet collapse. Both Moldova and Georgia accuse Russia of secretly supporting their breakaway regions of Transdniester, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.

Yushchenko today hinted Ukraine and Georgia might use the new grouping to attempt to internationalize their respective sovereignty disputes. He said the Community of Democratic Choice would put a particular emphasis on conflict resolution.

"The achievement of stability -- in particular through the regulation of existing conflicts -- will create prerequisites for opening up the significant economic potential of our region," said Yushchenko. "In this way, we will foster political, security, and economic rapprochement between the Western and Eastern part of the European continent, and the development of each nation."

Some political commentators -- especially in Russia -- believe the Community of Democratic Choice aims primarily at weakening Moscow's influence in the Black Sea region.

Others, like former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovskii, see the new grouping as overtly pro-American.

In comments made to Russia's "" information website on 1 December, Pavlovskii said he believed the Community of Democratic Choice would "serve as an antechamber for Ukraine to join NATO."

Yushchenko said the new grouping should not be seen as directed against either Moscow or the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.

"Our initiative is not directed against any third countries or institutions," he said. "On the contrary, I see the Community of Democratic Choice as open dialogue between friends, adherents of ideas for promoting democracy and the supremacy of law."

In spite of Yushchenko's remarks, the Kyiv gathering has not been warmly welcomed by Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly declined an invitation to attend the forum, sending an embassy official in his place.

A headline on Russia's "" information website today referred to the new grouping as "The Unfriendly Community."

"" commentator Ilya Zhegulyev wrote: "Hiding behind democratic slogans," all of the members of the Community of Democratic Choice will use the forum to "voice their grievances toward Moscow."

Some Ukrainian commentators also believe the new forum challenges Russia's leadership in the region.

"Yushchenko and his friends have set up a new CIS," wrote the "Ukrayinska Pravda" electronic newspaper after the forum ended.

Talking to reporters in Kyiv on 1 December, Georgia's State Minister Giorgi Baramidze -- who is in charge of his country's European integration -- readily admitted the new alliance was being formed, if not to confront Russia, then at least to counterbalance its influence.

"We're talking here of political interests and ties that are still in the making," said Baramidze. "It is extremely important that we should know who�s going where, because, democracy-wise, Russia is in a very difficult situation today -- to put it mildly. In nearly all domains, we can often see alarming signs of authoritarianism [there]."

Eastern European participants to the Kyiv gathering vowed to help Georgia and Ukraine continue their rapprochement with the West.

Addressing the forum, Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek said that Europe "cannot afford" to remain divided between prosperous and safe countries on the one hand, and nations "with low quality of life and no security" on the other.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin in turn called for the Community of Democratic Choice to develop its own institutions.

"I believe that our community, representing as it does a possibility for integrating those countries that have chosen a European orientation, should [consider] creating its own parliamentary assembly and synchronizing its markets and human resources," said Voronin.

"That would help our countries to adapt in the event they later join the European Union. If [EU membership] does not happen [quickly], that would still give those countries whose entry remains a longer-term objective the possibility to develop with dignity."

In their final declaration, the Democratic Choice Community country members said they would meet again in Bucharest in March 2006. Vilnius and Tbilisi will host two other regional forums later that year. (Jean-Christophe Peuch -- RFE/RL correspondent Viktor Minyaylo contributed to this report from Kyiv.)

STATE OF EMERGENCY DECLARED OVER BIRD-FLU OUTBREAK. Ukraine's parliament on 6 December approved President Viktor Yushchenko's proposal to declare a state of emergency in three districts of the Crimean Peninsula following an outbreak of bird flu. Yushchenko has toured the affected region and said the outbreak was the result of a "miscalculation" by veterinary authorities. The president promised to take all possible measures to stop the spread of the deadly virus. More than 2,000 domestic birds are estimated to have been killed by the virus, and authorities have killed an additional 22,000 domestic birds following searches of houses in the area. However, no human infections have been recorded in the country.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said that "radical measures" are being taken to contain the bird-flu outbreak in the country.

Ukraine officially recorded its first case of bird flu on 3 December. Six villages -- home to some 6,969 people -- located in the marshlands near the country's southeastern Syvash Bay have been affected.

The reaction since the official announcement was swift. Nineteen medical teams were dispatched to the villages, and some 901 people -- including 150 children --who may have handled sick birds are under medical observation.

However, local residents say that birds began dying in September and that much more could have been done to prevent an outbreak. Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that in October they began recording large numbers of dead birds near Sivash Bay -- a popular stopover for birds migrating between Russia and Africa or the Middle East.

The government has promised to compensate for losses, but farmers whose poultry have died say it is too little. Oleg Putrin, a resident of the village of Nekrasovka, told Reuters news agency that the money ($2 per chicken and $4 per goose) would not cover his losses.

"What they are paying us [for the birds] is a joke. I can't buy any bird for that money. Not even talking about the bird feed I wasted," Putrin said. "They had to do it a month ago. But they [veterinarians] first came and said that birds were dying because they had eaten something bad. Then they suggested something else. If they had just started to take this measures in time, it would have helped."

Yushchenko apparently addressed concerns over the response of the regional veterinary services by firing the country's chief veterinary inspector, Petro Verbytskyy.

The president also sought to reassure the Ukrainian population yesterday by outlining the steps the country has taken to stem the outbreak.

"Today, the issue is absolutely under control," Yushchenko said. "The birds are being destroyed and by 12 December all residents, first of all children, will be vaccinated. Therefore, we can say that Ukraine has dealt with this problem in a very organized way."

Yuriy Yakymenko, director of political and legal programs at the Oleksandr Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies in Kyiv, says the immediate response to the outbreak has been satisfactory.

"I think the reaction of the Ukrainian president and the Ukrainian government to the situation on the whole was adequate to its gravity," Yakymenko said. "It also includes the declaration of a state of emergency, which still needs to be approved by the parliament. However it should be said that the president's decision to remove the head of the [State] Veterinary Service indicates that the measures taken were not enough."

Many things remain unknown. A special adviser to the head of the World Organization for Animal Health, Alex Theirmann, told RFE/RL that tests are being conducted on to determine the exact strain of virus that is killing the birds in Ukraine.

"It [a sample of the flu strain found in Ukraine] has been sent to the research laboratory just to confirm and make sure that we're dealing with the virus that we thought we had in the neighboring countries, meaning H5N1," Theirmann said. "The additional tests are being conducted and then it will be confirmed. It is very likely that it is H5N1 because it has been found in neighboring countries, but we have to characterize every isolate [isolated strain] and make sure we know what we are dealing with and also make sure that we know whether the virus is changing or not."

H5N1 is a type of bird flu that has mutated and has killed at least 68 people since it emerged in Asia in 2003. The deadly H5N1 strain has been recorded in birds in Romania, Turkey, Croatia, and Russia.

Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Oleksandr Baranivskyy has described the virus found in the Crimea as "highly pathogenic." He said birds were dying after being exposed to the flu for no more than two to eight hours.

Researchers in Britain and Italy are expected to announce the results of the tests by 8 December. (Valentinas Mite)