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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 3, 2004

3 February 2004, Volume 6, Number 4

Beginning with this issue, "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" will appear under the new name of "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report" and will concentrate its attention on current political, socioeconomic, and cultural developments in Belarus and Ukraine.
ELECTRICITY DEFICIT TO COME AFTER GAS SHORTAGE? Belarus, already locked in a dispute with Russia over gas supplies, has now halted imports of Russian electricity. Again the issue is one of price -- the Russian supplier Unified Energy Systems (EES) had raised its charges by 30 percent. Officially EES blamed the rise on a price-rise in transmission costs imposed by the Russian Federal Energy Commission. Unofficially, Russian sources say, the EES is "tired of supplying Belarus at Russian prices."

This latter explanation echoes that of Russia's main gas exporter, Gazprom, which cut off supplies to Belarus on 1 January (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 13 and 27 January 2004). Hitherto, Gazprom had charged Belarus for gas at the same price as that paid by Russia's adjacent Smolensk Oblast. If these prices were to continue, Gazprom said, then Belarus must agree to its gas-transport company Beltranshaz being privatized and converted into a joint venture in which Gazprom would acquire a majority holding at a price of around one-sixth of what the Belarusians consider the shares should be worth. (Whether EES has similar designs on Belarusian assets is, so far, unclear; it is noteworthy however that Russia is now running Armenia's nuclear power station, and has just acquired the largest Armenian thermal generating station, Razdan, and the associated generating company under a debt-settlement arrangement).

Although Belarus has electricity-generating capacity of its own, this is not at present enough for self-sufficiency. According to Uladzimir Kardula, director-general of the state energy-generating concern Belenerha, last year Belarus generated 25.9 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity and imported 7.6 billion kWh -- almost a quarter of its total consumption. At present, Kardula said, Belenerha is covering the shortfall by stepping up its own output from oil- and gas-burning thermal power stations to produce an additional 22 million -23 million kWh a day, using fuel oil and gas. But oil and gas also come from Russia, and since the beginning of this year, the main Russian exporter Gazprom has supplied no gas to Belarus whatsoever.

A contract has just been concluded with a smaller Russian concern, Itera, to supply 516 million cubic meters of gas to Belarus in February, which, an Itera spokesman told the ITAR-TASS agency, will cover "the established daily volumes of gas meeting the requirements of Belarus" for the month. But this deal presumably did not envisage the extra gas needed for the power stations. (Though an estimate cited by the Charter-97 website says the gas contracted from Itera will be sufficient for 11 days only). And both fuel oil and the gas supplied by Itera are expensive.

Ironically, the crisis over electricity comes at a time when Belarus is planning a major restructuring of its electricity sector. Various scenarios are under way to separate generation from transmission, and to transfer all administrative matters from Belenerha to the Energy Ministry. This, according to Deputy Energy Minister Alyaksandr Sivak, will make it easier to attract the investment needed to upgrade and replace the worn-out Soviet-era generating equipment and transmission lines. Interviewed in January by the Belapan agency, Sivak spoke glowingly of a future in which Belarus would exploit its geographic position to become, eventually, an exporter of electricity both eastwards and westwards, and, in particular, to take advantage of Lithuania's reduced capacity when, under EU requirements, it phases out its Ignalina nuclear power station.

A few days earlier, at the start-up ceremony for an upgraded generating unit in Belaazyorsk (Brest Oblast), President Alyaksandr Lukashenka outlined plans for a new power station there, which, he said, will export electricity to Western Europe. Significantly, according to the president's press service, Russia's Itera is expected to become a major investor in this project. For the present, however, Belarus continues to buy electricity from Lithuania (indeed, it recently negotiated a new contract, apparently in anticipation of the Russian price rises), and such purchases seem likely to continue -- at least as long as Lithuania has supplies to spare, that is, while Ignalina is still in operation.

The Ignalina nuclear station (which is of the RBMK type used at Chornobyl) is located close to the Lithuanian-Belarusian border and, rather than have it closed, Lukashenka at one point proposed purchasing it and shifting the border to transfer it into Belarusian territory. That proposal came to nothing but did, however, focus public attention once again on what many Belarusian energy experts privately see as the only long-term solution to the country's energy problems -- nuclear power.

In today's Belarus, however, such views are still not for public consumption. The Chornobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986 (only 8 kilometers across the border in Ukraine) left a quarter of the territory of Belarus seriously contaminated by radioactivity, and even now, 18 years later, expert estimates of the final costs to health and the environment are still being revised -- upwards. Although, as the radioactivity decays, some areas are gradually being brought back into cultivation and settlement, the trauma of the disaster remains strong in public consciousness, and the latest UN proposals to try to encourage people to return to their former home-areas could well stir up, rather than allay, public fears of nuclear power.

In the meantime, Russia's electricity interests, no less than gas, are riding roughshod over the key clauses on joint planning and allocation of energy resources in the 1999 Union Treaty between Russia and Belarus.

This report was written by Vera Rich, a London-based freelance researcher.

LARGEST OPPOSITION NEWSPAPER CLOSED ON CHARGES OF ANTI-SEMITISM. Judge Iryna Saprykina of the Shevchenkivskyy District Court in Kyiv on 28 January ordered the closure of the opposition newspaper "Silski visti" after finding it guilty of fomenting interethnic strife in last year's article on Jews in Ukraine. The article, titled "Jews in Ukraine Today: Reality Without Myths," was penned by Vasyl Yaremenko, whom Ukrainian media identify as a professor of the Interregional Academy for Personnel Management.

The court's ruling has caused an outcry of indignation on the part of the opposition -- Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc -- which see the presidential administration as an agent behind the closure of the largest antigovernment newspaper, which has a circulation of some 520,000, in the presidential-election year. While not denying that the closure may play into the hands of the government, many Ukrainian observers agree, however, that the court's decision is fully supportable. Yaremenko's article, which was published by "Silski visti" on 30 November 2003, can doubtless be categorized even by non-jurists as rabidly anti-Semitic.

Yaremenko's lengthy piece of writing is in fact a follow-up to the one he published in "Silski visti" on 15 November 2002 -- "The Myth of Ukrainian Anti-Semitism." Yaremenko copiously quotes from letters of those readers of his first article who supported his point of view. His main thesis is that Jews in Ukraine are a privileged national minority and actually run the country by controlling its mass media, finances, and basic economic sectors. Any attempts to oppose this situation or even to point out that such a state of affairs exists, Yaremenko argues, are without delay presented in the media controlled and/or owned by Jewish oligarchs as manifestations of Ukrainian anti-Semitism and Judophobia. All television channels in Ukraine, Yaremenko says, are in the hands of "Zionists," and Ukrainians are forced to feed on "informational and spiritual products of the Jewish ideological kitchen." He includes oligarchs Viktor Medvedchuk, Hryhoriy Surkis, Viktor Pinchuk, Vadym Rabynovych, and Yukhym Zvyahilskyy in a much longer list of "Zionists" in Ukraine. According to Yaremenko, "nearly one-third" of the Verkhovna Rada deputies are Jews. He satirizes the Ukrainian parliament by saying that it is now in the process of transforming itself into an "Israeli Knesset" or Ukraine's "central synagogue."

Much more aggressive are Yaremenko's "historical" excursions. He claims that Jews "organized" the tragic 1932-33 famine in Ukraine to take "revenge" on millions of Ukrainians. Moreover, Yaremenko asserts that in 1937-38 millions of Ukrainians were killed by the NKVD, which was run by "leaders of Zionism" and consisted of 99 percent Jews. He also says that during World War II Ukraine was invaded by German fascists along with a 400,000-strong "horde of Jewish SS men."

A lawsuit against "Silski visti" was brought to court by an organization called the International Antifascist Committee. The newspaper argued in court that Yaremenko's article -- which was a portion of his previously published book -- was printed as a separate leaflet in addition to the main issue to advertise the book. Under the press law, the editors claimed, newspapers are not responsible for the content of advertisements they print. But Judge Saprykina told the 31 January-6 February issue of "Zerkalo nedeli" that there was no mention whatsoever in the 30 November 2003 issue of "Silski visti" that Yaremenko's text is an advertisement. Saprykina added that Ukraine's press law unambiguously stipulates the closure of publications that stir up racial, ethnic, or religious antagonisms. Saprykina also said her ruling does not mean that "Silski visti" will cease to appear immediately -- appeals against her verdict may prolong the life of the newspaper for at least a year, if not overturn it altogether.

The "Silski visti" case -- apart from the problem of anti-Semitism and that of restrictions on the freedom of expression in Ukraine's public life -- has also brought to the fore the issue of the democratic credentials of the Ukrainian opposition. It has not passed unnoticed by Ukrainian observers that the opposition, while protesting the closure of "Silski visti," did not touch upon the content of Yaremenko's outpourings. A statement signed by Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko says the closure is a "manifestation of totalitarian policy" of the government vis-a-vis undesirable media and accuses the court of following instructions of the authorities to eliminate the opposition media outlet. "We condemn the cynical reprisal against the opposition newspaper and express our support for the 'Silski visti' editors," reads the last phrase of Our Ukraine's statement. And the statement does not include a single word of reference to, let alone condemnation of, Yaremenko's shameful article.

It is not difficult to guess that if Yushchenko remains silent on Yaremenko's anti-Semitic escapade in "Silski visti," he will risk -- at best -- losing sympathy and support of many circles in the West that see him as a Ukrainian exponent of Western democratic values and principles. At worst, he may be accused of harboring anti-Semitism himself and trying to exploit it for his political purposes. In a situation where the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians live in glaring poverty and some of the country's most notable and fabulously rich oligarchs are of Jewish origin, it cannot be ruled out that anti-Semitism may become for some parties in the Our Ukraine bloc a political tool for mobilizing support in the presidential election. Then, the image of Yushchenko as a rabid nationalist -- which is being laboriously presented to the electorate by the Communists and pro-government forces alike -- may also be supplemented with some anti-Semitic features. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"The Belarusian people deserve a better life, but it's all in their own hands. Freedom does not come to those who are silent." -- Cypriot lawmaker Christos Pourgourides, rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, on the high-profile disappearances in Belarus; quoted by Belapan on 28 January.

"The Communists of Ukraine are firmly convinced that if [Viktor] Yushchenko comes to power, the right-wing nationalistic forces will bring NATO troops in here, break all ties with Russia, launch a new grandiose redistribution of property, [and] destroy the last remaining sprouts of democracy in Ukraine." -- From a statement by Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko on 27 January; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"We are not building a power system according to a principle of succession, as happened with our neighbors. We are not building a power system by way of street demonstrations or a revolution. We are building a power system by way of political reform. By way of a political reform that will make it possible to project Ukraine's development for many years to come. At the same time, we are building a new type of democracy -- a consensual democracy, which is based on a consensus of the elites." -- Stepan Havrysh, leader of the pro-presidential majority in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada; quoted by the "Biznes" newspaper on 26 January.