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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: March 9, 2004

9 March 2004, Volume 6, Number 8
HIGHER EDUCATION -- LUKASHENKA-STYLE. Belarusian university and college curricula officially contain a new subject this semester, "Fundamental Ideology of the Belarusian State," a course of 16 lectures and eight seminars introduced on the direct instructions of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But getting started is another matter. On the eve of the new seminar, the newspaper "Belarus Today" revealed that the necessary textbooks had not yet been written, and the Education Ministry was advising universities to wait until the books were ready. In any case, Nadzeya Hanushchenka, head of the Education Ministry's department for teaching social sciences, said the lecturers for the new courses had been specially trained at the Presidential Academy of Management and the Republican Institute of Higher Education and "could manage quite well without a textbook."

Hanushchenka further claimed that the Education Ministry would not try to control the ideology lecturers or the content of their teaching. But this is no guarantee that others may not do so, and the fact that lecturers are being trained at an establishment directly answerable to the president is widely seen in university circles as a further blow to academic autonomy.

Over the past year, there have been several such blows, some of which have evoked high-level diplomatic protests. These include:

The Yakub Kolas Belarusian Humanities Lyceum. Founded in 1992 by Uladzimir Kolas (no relation of the poet after whom the school is named), by 2003 this was the last school in Minsk using the Belarusian language as the teaching medium for all subjects. In May 2003, the Ministry of Education tried to replace headmaster Kolas by a ministry appointee who spoke only Russian. When the staff, pupils, and parents protested, the ministry ordered the school closed -- ostensibly because the building was unsafe -- and announced that in due course a "Minsk Humanities Lyceum" would replace it. In spite of police repression, a protest campaign was launched and still continues; the teachers and pupils continue to hold classes in makeshift premises. Last month, the Ministry of Education formally abandoned its plans for a replacement, Russian-taught lyceum -- there had been not a single applicant for a place in it.

The European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk. This is a private institution, with strong international links and exchange programs. There is no language issue here, its Rector Anatol Mikhaylau favors Russian and considers the Belarusian language inappropriate for academic teaching. But its foreign links were suspect: in December 2003, Education Minister Alyaksandr Radzkou accused it of "turning itself into a walk-through courtyard" for foreigners. Then on 21 January, Radzkou sent for Mikhaylau and "invited" him to resign the rectorship. With the full support of his colleagues, he has so far refused. Ten European ambassadors and charges d'affaires called on Radzkou to express concern. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement calling the EHU "a symbol of Belarus's attempt to be open and cooperate with Western countries" and Mikhaylau's leadership the best guarantee of its "fruitful activity and independence." Foreign academic bodies, in particular the Oxford-based Europaeum, which sponsors the work of EHU, showed similar concern, and both the European Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are reportedly watching developments.

The International Humanities Institute (MHI) of the Belarusian State University (BDU). This was set up in 1998 as a center for Jewish studies in order to reintroduce Jewish studies in Belarus after a break of 50 years. Again, there was considerable international funding, both for its academic programs and new classrooms and dormitories. In mid-February, when students and staff were dispersed for the inter-semester break (and hence protests were more difficult to organize), the MHI was closed on Education Ministry orders. The official reason was "reorganization" of the BDU; some teaching and research in Jewish studies would continue, dispersed to other departments. Jewish leaders, in Belarus and abroad, linked the closure with the growth of what they term "state-sponsored anti-Semitism" in Belarus and expressed fears that the MHI's assets may be assigned to the BDU's proposed new theological department where teaching would focus on the Orthodox Church, which Lukashenka (although a professed atheist) favors for ideological reasons.

But the MHI also fits into the larger picture. As one EU diplomat in Minsk (who declined to be identified further) observed: "The common thread is political. The lyceum is widely regarded as a hotbed of pro-democratic sentiment, the students of the EHU solidly voted 'the wrong way' last time round, and the Jewish connection of the [MHI] means its political contacts and sympathies are unwelcome to the authorities who...are promoting a home-grown ideology."

Other institutions are not immune. Even the BDU -- considered the flagship of Belarusian higher education -- has suffered; its right to elect its own rector has been withdrawn and the rector's former ex officio ministerial rank cancelled.

And the Minsk-based International Sakharov Environmental University (ISEU) -- again a body with strong international links -- was left 14 months without a head, following the sudden death of its rector, Alyaksandr Milyutsin, in October 2002. Under Milyutsin, a student English-language debating society had flourished at ISEU, but during the interregnum, it was forbidden to invite outside participants -- a development which ISEU's foreign associates found perturbing in an institution named after a champion of freedom of speech. The new rector, Syamyon Kundas, has continued this ban.

Even more significantly, the Higher Attestation Commission, which grants all postgraduate degrees in Belarus, recently received a letter -- ostensibly a copy of one sent to President Lukashenka by a group of World War II veterans -- protesting against a doctoral dissertation on 20th-century Belarusian emigre literature presented by literary scholar Ales Pashkevich. The veterans begged the president -- in language reminiscent of the Stalin era -- to protect Belarusian scholarship from the "antistate, antipatriotic, national-traitorous ideology of fascist lackeys." The commission, which had previously approved the dissertation, took note, and Pashkevich's doctoral degree has been withheld.

Nor do less prestigious institutions escape. Although membership in the Lukashenka-sponsored Belarusian Republican Youth League (BRSM) is not formally obligatory for students, those who join get priority access to stipends and dormitory accommodation, while nonmembers are threatened with unspecified future "problems." Last week, however, the BRSM chapter at Baranavichy Light Industry College announced that they were quitting the BRSM, and put on the badges of the banned pro-democracy youth organization Zubr. To the Lukashenka regime, the public defection, even of an obscure provincial college, was clearly inadmissible. As the Charter-97 website reported, the next day, the defectors were pressured to disavow their actions in writing, and when they refused, 15 BRSM members from other Baranavichy BRSM chapters were bussed to the television studios in Minsk to appear on a news program and repudiate the defections as a "provocation" and "fabrication" -- an attempt to "rewrite events" that, with fitting irony, occurred on the anniversary of the death of one of the greatest exponents of the technique -- Josef Stalin.

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

DOCUMENTARY ON CHORNOBYL WINS OSCAR. Maryann DeLeo is an independent American film director, whose documentary "Chernobyl Hearts" recently won an Academy Award for best short documentary film. The film focuses on the plight of children in Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of western Russia who were exposed to radiation from the 1986 nuclear accident at Chornobyl in Ukraine. RFE/RL recently spoke to DeLeo by telephone.

RFE/RL: How do you feel about winning the Oscar?

DeLeo: Sort of a miracle. It's amazing. You know, this is not an easy film [to watch] because there are so many children who are sick and who are really hard to look at. I never thought anybody would want to see it. And the fact that people cared, and the fact that the Americans, the Academy, voted for it, I find it just a beautiful miracle. I am so happy.

RFE/RL: How did the idea come to you to make the film in the first place?

DeLeo: Looking back, I really think there was something about destiny in there. A friend of mine visited the United Nations and saw an exhibition that Adi Roche [the executive director of the Chornobyl Children's Project] and the Chornobyl Children's Project organized. My friend was so angry and upset at what he saw [because he believed] that everyone had forgotten about Chornobyl. That he did not know that this was happening. He kind of sent me to look at the exhibits, and then someone else told me that, oh, you should make a film. And then the door started to open. I really feel like it was not me. It was something guiding me. And that's how it happened.

RFE/RL: Did you face any specific problems working in a restrictive country such as Belarus? Did you experience any difficulties when the filming started?

DeLeo: I was fortunate, because Adi Roche has been going to Belarus for maybe 12 or 13 years. She has good relationships with the people there and everyone knows that she is there to help the people. So we had an easy time, and all the people in hospitals and I think everybody felt that we were there for a good reason.

RFE/RL: What do you think of sanitary conditions in Belarus and the plight of the children?

DeLeo: It is pretty shocking, and I think the Belarusians are kind of overwhelmed. There are so many institutions and so many kids, and they are just lacking in so many things. In one of the hospitals there was just one nurse on duty for the whole hospital, and a lot of kids are not in good situations, which is not enough care. I mean the people there are doing the best they can, but they need money, they need help, they need a lot of things.

RFE/RL: Has making such a difficult film changed you as a person?

DeLeo: Yes, [I am] definitely changed. It was the hardest film I've ever made. I've been doing this for 20 years, and I really struggled with this film. I did want to show hope in the midst of all the difficulties. I think, finally, I achieved that with the heart surgeon in the film who does operate on some of the kids, and they manage to survive, and so I think that's the hope that we can all help each other. But it's very hard to look at kids who are sick. You have to have a reason, but I think the reason is that we need to know that radiation is still affecting millions of people since that accident.

I tried to focus on whatever good moments there were. Really, they didn't want anything from me, they just wanted somebody to be there with them, to see them blow bubbles, and they were happy. So, I think, maybe, I didn't pretend but I held back some of my feelings, and waited till I was alone in my room, before I really wept for them and their situation.

[During the filming of the movie, DeLeo also received a small amount of radiation poisoning. She was asked about that.]

DeLeo: Yeah, but it was a small dose, and I was only in Belarus for a short time. And I think I am okay now. There are people living with that every day. Our translator, she has some Cesium-137, and she says, "Look, there is not much I can do, I live here, I can't go anywhere, and I just have to do the best I can."

RFE/RL correspondent Jan Jun wrote this report.

VERKHOVNA RADA MOVES ON WITH PROPORTIONAL ELECTION LAW. The Verkhovna Rada voted 262 to seven on 5 March to adopt in its first reading a bill postulating a fully proportional party-list system for parliamentary elections. The document -- referred to in the Ukrainian media as the Rudkovskyy-Klyuchkovskyy bill after the names of its main authors, Mykola Rudkovskyy from the Socialist Party and Yuriy Klyuchkovskyy from Our Ukraine -- calls for the election of 450 lawmakers in 225 constituencies from the lists of those parties and blocs that win at least 3 percent of the national vote, instead of the existing 4 percent voting threshold. The adoption of a purely proportional system is a sine qua non for the Communist Party and the Socialist Party to support constitutional reforms that are being promoted by the presidential administration (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 10 February 2004).

It is noteworthy that essentially the same bill was put to a vote in the Verkhovna Rada in February 2003, when it was supported by 217 deputies (nine votes shy of the required majority for approval) from Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Social Democratic Party-united, that is, from the parties that easily cleared the 4 percent voting threshold in the March 2002 parliamentary ballot in the nationwide constituency, in which 225 parliamentary mandates were contested under a proportional party-list system. This time Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not take part in the vote. Even one of the authors of the bill, Our Ukraine lawmaker Yuriy Klyuchkovskyy, did not support it.

Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko explained that his bloc -- which won more than 100 parliamentary seats in 2002 primarily owing to a proportional election system applied to the half of the contested mandates -- did not participate in the vote because it cannot accept the lowering of a threshold for parties and blocs to make it into the Verkhovna Rada. "The issue of the threshold is of principal importance," Yushchenko said. According to him, the vote on the proportional election law was a "ticket to a coup" that will eventually lead -- through the subsequent adoption of a constitutional reform bill -- to the installation of an "emperor" in the post of prime minister. Yushchenko also argued that lowering the voting threshold will fragment the legislature even further than it is now, thus making it very problematic to form a viable pro-government coalition consisting of six to eight factions.

Yuliya Tymoshenko said her bloc refused to support the proportional election bill for reasons of principal. "The law on the proportional election [system] that was adopted today [5 March] is a banal bribe that was offered to opposition forces to ensure their support for the anticonstitutional mutiny," she charged. "I am stating that we have never accepted bribes and will never vote for laws that are democratic by name but in essence do not leave a stone standing in the people's power. The law on the proportional election [system] gives power to the clans.... Pretending to be witty and worrying about election innovations while the independent press is being destroyed in this country is the same as worrying about the temperature of tea in a train that is going off the rails."

Could Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc prevent the final adoption of the proportional election bill and thus block the constitutional reform as a whole? It seems that the chance to persuade the Socialists, let alone the Communists, into voting against the proportional election bill in its current form has been lost once and for all. But there is still a glimmer of hope that the support for the bill will be dropped by some deputies from the pro-government parliamentary coalition who were elected in 2002 in single-mandate constituencies under a first-past-the-post system. Reportedly, far from all of them are happy with the all-proportional election system, fearing that they may fail to secure an "electable place" on some party list in 2006.

UNIAN reported on 5 March that nearly 60 deputies elected primarily in single-mandate constituencies have addressed President Leonid Kuchma with an appeal to initiate a referendum to learn the electorate's opinion about an all-proportional election system. They reportedly pledge their support for the constitutional reform promoted by the pro-presidential camp but simultaneously warn that an all-proportional election system will be a "step back under today's circumstances" and will lead to "monopolization of the country's political life." The appeal also warns that a fully proportional election law will deform the representation of regions in the Verkhovna Rada and slacken the accountability of lawmakers to the local electorate.

It is not clear if the signatories of the appeal are sufficiently resolved to vote against the fully proportional election bill in its second reading. If they did so, then of course the passage of the constitutional-reform bill would be thrown into doubt. Therefore, it is not out of the question that now, when the preliminarily approved election bill is being reviewed by the parliamentary Constitutional Committee, the committee may introduce some "regional modifications" to the fully proportional electoral procedure in order to address the fears of deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies and thus stifle their potential rebellion. That, in its turn, could raise objections on the part of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, whose ability for compromise on the election bill seems to have been exhausted by their consent to the lowering of the election threshold to 3 percent. (Jan Maksymiuk)

AUTHORITIES CLOSE DOWN RADIO KONTYNENT. Ukrainian police on 3 March entered the Kyiv building of Radio Kontynent and, while the station was on the air, confiscated its transmitter, thus shutting down its broadcasts.

Radio Kontynent was often critical of the government of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. It also broadcast Ukrainian-language programs by the BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and, since 28 February, Radio Liberty.

The Ukrainian agency that allots radio frequencies to broadcasters, Ukrchastotnahlyad, says Radio Kontynent's license to broadcast on its FM frequency had expired. The agency's deputy director, Pavlo Slobodyanyuk, said Radio Kontynent has been in violation of statutes for more than a year for broadcasting on its bandwidth without a license.

Opposition politicians say the move appears to be yet another attempt to stifle free media ahead of presidential elections in October. One of those is Socialist Party lawmaker Yuriy Lutsenko, who secured the release of three Radio Kontynent staff who were detained on 3 March without being charged.

"Today, we're witnessing the final destruction of freedom of speech. They are shutting not just the opposition, I emphasize, but any independent forms of mass media. We must understand that the Ukrainian government is preparing not for elections but for the appointment of the next president of Ukraine, the next Kuchma, and to this end, they are closing down all independent media," Lutsenko said.

The closure comes a month after another Ukrainian station, Radio Dovira, announced it was stopping broadcasts of Radio Liberty programs on its FM channels, shortly after a Kuchma supporter took control of the station.

Some of the mass media in Ukraine is directly owned by the state; most outlets are owned by private entrepreneurs loyal to Kuchma or by those seen as too intimidated to annoy the government. Opposition politicians thus have little chance to voice their opinions.

Western broadcasters have contracts with Ukrainian FM stations to use their channels for an agreed number of hours each day, due to FM's clearer signal and accessibility. Because of the Radio Dovira episode, Radio Liberty had been looking for FM broadcasters to transmit its programs. It began using Radio Kontynent's FM channel on 28 February. Radio Liberty and the BBC are still broadcasting to Ukraine using AM and shortwave signals.

RFE/RL President Thomas Dine issued a statement in which he sharply criticized the closure of Radio Kontynent. "We at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are angry and outraged by this blatant act in suppressing factual news and information from a variety of high-quality journalists. Ukraine's name and its people are badly damaged; the first freedom -- free expression -- is harmed," the statement said.

BBC spokeswoman Katie Byrne says the British broadcaster also regrets the closure. "We were sorry to hear that Radio Kontynent, a partner of the BBC for many years, has been taken off air," she said. "Many BBC listeners in Kyiv have been tuning into our programs through Radio Kontynent, and we are sad that they will now be deprived of this option." She said the BBC is making alternative arrangements for broadcasting on FM and will advertise in Ukrainian newspapers to tell listeners on which channels they can find BBC programs.

Byrne said the BBC had been aware of Radio Kontynent's long-standing disputes with the government. "We're fully aware of the disputes in the background and the situation with Radio Kontynent, which we have widely reported in our news broadcasts, including interviewing the director [on 3 March] to give his side of the story," she said. "And we have supported them all the way. But we can't comment on whether or not it's political."

Radio Kontynent station director Serhiy Sholokh called the closure illegal. He said his company has been in prolonged court proceedings over the license dispute and that those proceedings, in Ukraine and at the European Court of Human Rights, have not finished. Under Ukrainian law, says Sholokh, the authorities have no right to take action against his station until the court procedures were completed.

Lutsenko also says the action is illegal. "For three years, Radio Kontynent has been fighting attempts to cancel its broadcast license, and as long as court proceedings are still ongoing they should not have been touched," he said. "But the Ukrainian government treated this matter in more or less a reasonable way for three years until, on top of everything else, Radio Liberty started its broadcasts. They could not stand the fact that Radio Liberty was able to broadcast in Kyiv again."

Sholokh said he was summoned last week for a meeting with people connected to Kuchma's presidential administration and warned that his station would be shut down if he cooperated with Radio Liberty. "The first thing they told me was that if I put Radio Liberty on air, that would be the end for me and the end of the radio station," he said. "They proposed that I work with them but without publicizing the fact so that nobody else would know they promised that all my legal problems would end, all the proceedings against Radio Kontynent, and that I'd be like a fish in butter [well looked-after] -- that I'd have money and everything else."

Sholokh fled Ukraine before the 3 March raid on his offices. He says he fears for his life and will only return to Ukraine if Kuchma guarantees his safety.

Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko says he has no doubt the closure of Radio Kontynent is politically motivated. "In the run-up to the presidential election, the authorities are seeking totalitarian influence on information sources -- that is why they resort to such blatant actions," he noted.

RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky wrote this report.

"President Kuchma made clear to me during our nearly two-hour meeting last month that he sees the Bush administration as giving little thought, good or bad, to Ukraine, except to repeat what it hears from Russia. The suspicion within the political opposition is that Ukraine's contribution to the coalition in Iraq was intended to buy amnesty from the United States. This cannot be true, but the perception discourages government opponents." -- Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state from 1997-2001, in the 8 March issue of "The New York Times."