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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 28, 2004

28 April 2004, Volume 6, Number 15
WHO WANTS TO FEED PEASANTS? Delivering his annual address to the National Assembly on 14 April, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka revealed to legislators that the country "has matured for the implementation of a large-scale program for revitalizing the Belarusian agricultural sector," Belarusian Television reported. The government, according to the president, has begun working out this program "both theoretically and practically."

Lukashenka said the program will be based on two principal tenets. First, the state will continue to support the agricultural sector through a system of "preferences" -- they are to amount to 2.7 trillion Belarusian rubles ($1.25 billion) from 2004 to 2009, which is approximately equal to the sector's annual gross domestic product.

Second, the state is going to attract private capital to resuscitate loss-making collective farms (kolkhozes and sovkhozes). "Legal conditions are being created for prosperous people to invest their money, revive the agricultural production -- in many farms it is necessary to literally put peasants on their feet, because they have forgotten what production discipline means -- and obtain proceeds in the form of property," Lukashenka said.

Lukashenka assured the National Assembly that the government is really serious in its intent to breathe new life into the agricultural sector. "All that I said will be forced, imposed, and set up in the most authoritarian way," the president pledged. "This should be realized by our private businessmen...who work on our market and get decent profits, and these profits should be invested not in Mercedes cars or dubious undertakings but in our land. In this way we will put and end to all talks about how we are obstructing the emergence of private owners in the countryside."

The Belarusian Ministry of Statistics and Analysis reported in the past two years that the ratio of loss-making agricultural enterprises in the country fluctuated between 50-60 percent of the total.

Last month the Belarusian president apparently made the first step toward the intended resuscitation of the ailing agricultural sector. He issued a decree stipulating that economic entities taking control of loss-making farms before 2006 will be entitled to deferments on those farms' lingering debts, tax arrears, and overdue utility bills. The decree, however, does not provide for any changes in land ownership in the countryside -- all collective-farm land will remain state-owned. "I wish to decentralize some systems, including the system of control over the agricultural sector," Lukashenka divulged last week during his tour of Chornobyl-affected areas in Homel Oblast.

Alyaksandr Yarashuk, head of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions and former chairman of the Trade Union of Workers of the Agro-Industrial Sector, told Belapan that he does not believe in Lukashenka's assurances to slacken the state grip on the agricultural sector. "The decentralization of management in a separate economic sector is impossible," Yarashuk said. "It is possible to disassemble the command-and-administrative system only as a whole, in all spheres of life."

According to Yarashuk, as long as the country does not introduce private land ownership, there will be no serious changes in the performance of the agricultural sector. "It is necessary to pass a decree or adopt a law introducing private land ownership," Yarashuk said. "As matters stand today, there is a decree offering a kolkhoz to an entrepreneur. But tomorrow another decree may take this kolkhoz back."

According to Belapan, officials in Minsk Oblast have already begun looking for prospective investors in loss-making collective farms in the region. Out of a list of 125 nearly bankrupt collective farms, private businessmen reportedly selected 69 enterprises that are worth investing in. It is not clear yet whether collective farms managed by private companies and businessmen will be excluded from the state-purchase system under which prices for agricultural products, sale quotas, and buyers were determined primarily by the government, not by the market or farm managers. It is also not clear how, if at all, workers of collective farms will be consulted on the decreed takeovers.

Judging by all appearances, Lukashenka has recently discovered for himself the truth that things in the economy may go pretty well without official directives, decrees, and instructions. "We simply prevent people from working," he said unexpectedly in Homel Oblast last week. "Now I'm watching over the sowing campaign. We have not held any large-scale conferences [on the sowing campaign]. But they are sowing no worse than before. They are sowing no worse than when I intervened." (Jan Maksymiuk)

IS THE MUKACHEVE BALLOT A FORERUNNER OF THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE? The mayoral election on 18 April in the Transcarpathian city of Mukacheve (about 100,000 population) has become the hottest political topic in Ukraine in recent days. The election pitched Viktor Baloha, lawmaker of the opposition Our Ukraine bloc, against Ernest Nuser, who was supported by the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) and presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk. According to Our Ukraine, Baloha won a decisive victory, obtaining 19,385 votes, while Nuser was supported by 13,895 voters. However, the city election commission allegedly robbed Baloha of his victory, giving Nuser 17,416 votes and Baloha 12,297 votes.

The Mukacheve ballot promised to be an exciting event because of the bitter rivalry that has been developing between Our Ukraine and the SDPU-o in general and their leaders, Viktor Yushchenko and Medvedchuk, respectively, in particular for the past several years. However, it seems none of the some 80 Ukrainian lawmakers and dozens of journalists and foreign observers who were in Mukacheve on 18 April were fully prepared for what happened there. All of them were shocked by what they saw and some of them were harshly beaten.

Our Ukraine sent two parliamentary deputies as observers to each of Mukacheve's 36 polling stations. The vote itself seemed to take place in a relatively peaceful manner, observers said, even though groups of neo-Nazi-like hooligans -- with shaven heads, leather coats, and combat boots -- moved around the city in packs or stood before polling stations intimidating voters. When the election ended those groups reportedly attacked, burglarized, and destroyed some polling stations, in an apparent reaction to the publicized results of an exit poll that predicted a landslide victory for Baloha. According to different reports, many local police officers either were too scared to react to the attacks or turned a blind eye to their actions. Notably, none of the rampaging hooligans was arrested.

Our Ukraine lawmaker Mykola Polishchuk, an academic and well-known neurosurgeon who was an observer in Mukacheve on 18 April, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 19 April that the attacks intimidated some polling-station commissions to the extent that they were unable and/or afraid to sign polling-station protocols for several hours. However, judging by the results authorized by the protocols from 35 polling stations, the Our Ukraine observers at midnight were sure of Baloha's victory and even began to celebrate it. Several hours later they were informed that the city election commission announced Nuser as the winner.

A group of Our Ukraine lawmakers tried to get information on the decision at the city's election commission headquarters where they were met by a unit of riot police; six lawmakers were reportedly beaten there. "I am absolutely sure that what is now taking place in Mukacheve has been authorized by the presidential administration," Polishchuk said. "This is being done by the SDPU-o, which has a fascist orientation in its actions." Moreover, it later turned out that all protocols from the polling stations have disappeared from the election-commission office.

President Leonid Kuchma on 20 April instructed Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasylyev to investigate, jointly with the Ukrainian Security Service, possible irregularities in the Mukacheve election. According to presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska, the alleged irregularities may include the beating of lawmakers, the disappearance of election documents, dismissals of government employees, and illegal actions by law-enforcement officers. Earlier the same day, Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko met with Kuchma to demand the dismissal of Interior Minister Mykola Bilokon, presidential-administration chief Medvedchuk, and Transcarpathian Oblast Governor Rizak over what he described as "gross violations" in the Mukacheve election. An opposition-sponsored motion in the Verkhovna Rada to request that Kuchma sacks these officials fell 12 votes short of the majority needed for approval.

Some commentators in Ukraine believe that the Mukacheve hullabaloo on 18 April was orchestrated by the SDPU-o and Medvedchuk as a sort of "dress rehearsal" of the presidential vote due on 31 October. According to this line of argument, Medvedchuk tested how both the Ukrainian public and the international community would react to a large-scale election manipulation. Judging by the reaction of the domestic public, no significant group apart from independent journalists and commentators, the opposition lawmakers, and voters in Mukacheve has shown real interest in what happened in that city on 18 April. Foreign commentators were more vociferous -- at least in the media -- in protesting over the Mukacheve ballot but it remains to be seen whether their pronouncements will be heeded by Kyiv. First of all, it is not known whether the announced official probe into the Mukacheve controversy will provide any tangible results.

What can be suggested now, without waiting for the results of the official investigation into the Mukacheve scandal, is that European election watchdogs, including the OSCE Office for Democratic Institution and Human Rights, should immediately start mobilizing and training as many monitors for the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine as possible. The sheer numerical force of foreign monitors will hardly intimidate the aforementioned gangs in Ukraine, but it may slightly reassure those who will be coming to the polls and those who will have to sign polling-station protocols. (Jan Maksymiuk)

THE END OF RUSSIAN-LANGUAGE BROADCASTING? Ukraine's National Council for Television and Radio (NRPTR) on 14 April adopted an unexpected resolution that obliges all national and "interregional" (covering at least half of Ukraine's 25 regions) broadcasters to start broadcasting only in Ukrainian as of 19 April. Broadcasts in other languages -- Ukraine's minority languages, including Russian -- will be allowed only at the regional and local levels in areas with significant ethnic-minority populations and with NRPTR approval of a relevant application from the ethnic community concerned. Moreover, even local and regional broadcasters are obliged to produce no less than 50 percent of their programs in Ukrainian.

The NRPTR is an eight-member body -- four members are delegated by the Verkhovna Rada and the other four by the president -- that is responsible for issuing broadcasting licenses. Licenses are usually granted for five-year periods. However, the NRPTR does not have the legal instruments needed to revoke broadcast licenses; this can only be done by a court. Therefore, the NRPTR also signaled -- apparently, to lend more weight to its 14 April resolution -- that it is going to request that the Verkhovna Rada give it the right to cancel broadcast licenses after issuing three official warnings to a broadcaster. However, as matters now stand, the NRPTR can penalize broadcasters only by refusing to extend their licenses when they expire.

The 14 April resolution also calls for a month-long monitoring of Ukrainian broadcasters to examine how they react to the new regulations, as well as for the creation of a permanent working group to deal with problems pertaining to the use of the Ukrainian language on radio and television. It also requires that all licenses issued by the NRPTR after 18 April will stipulate that nationwide and interregional broadcasters use only Ukrainian in their programs. The NRPTR said the broadcasters that currently operate under licenses requiring less than 100 percent Ukrainian-language programs will not have to apply for new licenses immediately.

The 14 April resolution was unexpected in at least two aspects. First, it came without any previous announcements or public consultations. After all, language is among the most sensitive and controversial public issues in Ukraine. According to the 2001 census, Ukrainian was declared as the mother tongue by 67.5 percent of Ukraine's 48.5 million people. However, according to estimates, at least 50 percent of Ukrainian citizens -- notably those living in the east and south of the country -- prefer speaking Russian. Second, the conditions of existing broadcast licenses -- which routinely stipulate that programs in Ukrainian should account for 50 percent or 75 percent of the entire programming -- have so far been ignored by many broadcasters without any legal or other consequences. Why should the situation be altered right now?

The resolution reportedly has not caused any immediate changes in the proportion of Ukrainian-language and Russian-language programs on most Ukrainian radio and television stations. It seems that most Ukrainian broadcasters do not believe the resolution is serious and are treating it as a recommendation rather than an order. Predictably, the resolution was harshly criticized by the Ukrainian Communist Party, which is supported mainly in Russian-speaking regions. The Communists claim that the decision to switch to 100 percent broadcasting in Ukrainian will "instigate hostility among peoples living in our state."

"Ukraine is becoming a unique state in Europe, a state losing its indigenous language, which is being pushed out by official languages of other states," NRPTR Deputy Chairman Vitaliy Shevchenko said. Even if Shevchenko's assessment of the language situation in Ukraine is exaggerated, it is certain that the Ukrainian language needs "affirmative action" from the state to become a full-fledged means of communication in Ukraine's public life. But it is also very doubtful that an administrative ban of the Russian language in broadcasting -- a method strikingly reminiscent of the Soviet-era command system's practices -- is a step in the right direction. Many would argue that the publication of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels in Ukrainian translation would be a far better contribution to the promotion of Ukrainian than any ban on using Russian in Ukraine.

It is hardly imaginable that lawmakers -- from both the left wing and the right wing of Ukraine's political scene -- will heed the NRPTR and give the council the right to revoke the licenses of broadcasters who are reluctant to switch entirely to Ukrainian. First, in a presidential election year, such an administrative tool in the hands of a state body could easily be misused for the politically motivated closures of media outlets. Second, the rekindled stir around the language issue could hurt both government-supported and opposition presidential candidates rather than boost their election chances, although it is difficult to say at the moment who would be the biggest loser. The problem is that most people in Ukraine, both Ukrainian and Russian speakers, are very fond of many of the programs imported from Russia -- especially some of the live talk shows -- and could become very angry if they were to give them up because those shows are not in Ukrainian. Most likely, the NRPTR resolution of 14 April will be "inconspicuously forgotten" -- at least for the time being.

"Belarus in the next few years may become a leading exporter of certain vegetables. Within the framework of a many-day tour of the republic that began today [21 April], Alyaksandr Lukashenka made himself familiar with advanced technologies for growing onions and green peas that are being successfully implemented in the agricultural enterprise 'Lenin's Precepts' in Petrykau Raion, and gave orders to considerably increase the production of these agricultural crops." -- Belarus's state-run news agency BELTA; quoted by the Moscow-based "Russkii kurer" on 23 April.

"Anyone who thinks we will become members of the European Union, fully-fledged members, so to speak, in the near future -- must be a big-time believer in science fiction." -- Leonid Kuchma during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crimea on 23 April; quoted by Interfax.

"We want to occupy a place in the world division of labor that is worthy of our countries. We do not want Russia to be restricted to putting just gas and oil on the international market. And I don't think anybody in Ukraine wants Ukraine to trade just in sugar beets, especially since nobody needs beets." -- Putin at the meeting with Kuchma in Crimea on 23 April; quoted by Interfax.

"You might tear your breeches apart [while trying to integrate with the Single Economic Space and the Europe Union simultaneously]. -- Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk in an interview with Hromadske Radio (Public Radio); quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 26 April.