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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 25, 2004

25 May 2004, Volume 6, Number 19
YALTA SUMMIT PRODUCES LITTLE OF SUBSTANCE. The presidents of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan -- Vladimir Putin, Leonid Kuchma, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and Nursultan Nazarbaev, respectively -- gathered in the Ukrainian sea resort of Yalta on 23-24 May to discuss further moves in developing the Single Economic Space (SES), the body they created in September 2003. The agreement on the SES commits the signatories to establishing a free-trade zone and a customs alliance as well as ensuring free movement of commodities, labor, services, and capital between the four countries. It also calls for a high level of political coordination of economic and financial policies of the four states.

The Yalta meeting, apart from the reiterated declaration of the four leaders to pursue closer integration within the SES framework, has produced little of substance. The presidents agreed that, in order to proceed with further integration, experts need to prepare 61 draft accords and some 50 normative acts that could give some shape to the hitherto amorphous SES idea. These documents are to be viewed by the four presidents at their subsequent summit in Astana in September. "Each should lose something in order to find something else at the end of the road," Kuchma reportedly said in summing up the Yalta summit on 24 May.

However, what specifically should be lost and/or found by the SES signatories remains unclear. The presidents in Yalta seemed to disagree as regards SES priorities. Putin said the first package of documents to materialize the SES might be signed in 2005 or early 2006. According to him, this package should include accords on the harmonization of foreign trade, the introduction of common customs tariffs, and the creation of the same competition environment for businesses of the four countries. Putin also stressed the need to set up a supranational "regulatory body" for pursuing SES policies.

Ukraine insists that the formation of the SES should be started from the creation of a free-trade zone without any reservations. According to Kuchma, it is sufficient to adopt some 13 documents in order to achieve this goal. Kuchma expressed hope that these documents could be prepared and signed as soon as in the first quarter of 2005. In its economic relations with Russia, Ukraine is primarily concerned with Moscow's collection of value-added tax on Russian oil and gas exports according to the country-of-origin principle; that is, in Russia. The introduction of a free-trade zone would switch this collection to the country-of-destination principle, a move that could give Ukraine's budget some $800 million annually.

The Kazakh president said in Yalta that the SES formation should be started with the establishment of a customs union. "Otherwise, I don't understand what we are going to do next," he was quoted as saying. "And afterward we need a transport union." Nazarbaev stressed that such an approach to the creation of the SES would allow the four states to present the same conditions while applying for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Lukashenka was less clear than Kuchma and Nazarbaev in his vision of the SES. On arriving to Yalta, he announced that Belarus is unlikely to receive any additional advantages in relations with the other three countries at the current stage of the SES's development. "[Belarus] has advanced further than the others in relations with our major partner, the Russian Federation, and the economic measures that we are taking now in the framework of the four are behind the level that exists between Belarus and Russia," Lukashenka said. But following the summit talks, he assured journalists that Belarus does not "regret" joining the SES even if its economic interests are "satisfied" up to 90-95 percent in the Russia-Belarus Union. "But we are international people and advocate the processes of integration," he argued. "Moreover, the remaining 5 percent is not insignificant either."

In theory, the creation of a trade alliance with the same rules of the game for a market of some 225 million consumers is not a bad idea. Today's European Union was also preceded by the European Common Market, a much looser economic alliance than the current union run by an army of bureaucrats in Brussels. But some in the post-Soviet area, particularly in Ukraine, are afraid that Russia is primarily seeking an alliance that could give it political levers of control over republics that left the Soviet Union in 1991. The Ukrainian opposition also argues that the full implementation of the SES treaty will deprive Ukraine of any prospects of integrating with Europe in the future.

In an apparent move to address such fears, Putin stressed in Yalta that the SES will not hinder its members' moves to participate in "European integration processes." "None of these countries is entering an [already existing] organization," he said. "It would be wrong to think that someone is dragging someone else into some sort of a regional organization by force. We have gathered together in order to work out, through discussion, rules of economic behavior that are favorable to each of the four countries."

It would be hasty to conclude right now that the SES is facing a brighter future than that of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS, inaugurated by the Slavic "core" of the Soviet Union -- Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine in December 1991 -- and shortly afterward joined by Kazakhstan, has since then turned into nothing more significant than a talking shop. On the other hand, the creation of the SES might be Russia's last chance to firmly place some of the post-Soviet states in its sphere of political and economic influence. Therefore, Russia might now be ready to make some bolder moves and/or concessions in order not to lose this chance.

Whatever the final outcome of this latest reintegration attempt in the post-Soviet area, one can already say that the SES formation will be the principal issue on the political agenda of Ukraine and Belarus for many years to come. Brussels has recently unambiguously suggested that these two countries have no prospects of becoming EU members. And as a wise old saying maintains, nature abhors a vacuum. (Jan Maksymiuk)

MORE ON LIBEL SUIT AGAINST 'UKRAYINSKA PRAVDA.' With a few exceptions, Ukraine's media is controlled by the government or too intimidated to criticize the country's leadership.

The best-known exception is the Internet news site "Ukrayinska pravda" (, whose editor, Heorhiy Gongadze, an outspoken critic of government corruption and the administration of President Leonid Kuchma, was found beheaded four years ago.

"Ukrayinska pravda" continued its work after Gongadze's death, and continues to publish on nearly a daily basis articles that make damaging allegations about the conduct of government officials. Perhaps most notably, the site has published evidence linking Gongadze's murder -- and the subsequent cover-up -- to President Kuchma and some of his closest allies. Kuchma and his associates deny involvement in the killing or obstructing the investigation.

Now, two plaintiffs are bringing a libel suit against "Ukrayinska pravda" and are seeking not only cash settlements but the seizure of the website's equipment and bank accounts -- something that would undoubtedly bring the site's operations to a halt, at least temporarily (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 18 May 2004).

The two plaintiffs are Valeriy Vorotnik and Mariya Sambur. Vorotnik is an adviser to the deputy head of Ukraine's Social Democratic Party-united. The party's head, Viktor Medvedchuk, is the powerful chief of Kuchma's presidential administration.

Sambur is a lawyer who once worked for the independent Institute for Mass Information, which closely followed the Gongadze case, and last year published a posthumous letter from an important witness in the investigation who implicated President Kuchma in the killing. The witness, Ihor Honcharov, died in police custody and his body was cremated without an autopsy.

"Ukrayinska pravda" accused Sambur of tampering with Honcharov's letter in order to protect Kuchma. Specifically, the site has alleged she removed several lines from the letter that directly implicated Kuchma in the crime. The website also alleges that Sambur works for presidential-administration chief Medvechuk, and that she and Vorotnik acted as administration intermediaries in threatening the owner of a Ukrainian radio station broadcasting Western programming from the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and RFE/RL.

The owner, Serhiy Sholokh, refused to cancel the programming. His station was later subjected to a police raid and his broadcasting equipment was confiscated. Sholokh has since fled the country, saying he fears for his life.

Sambur told RFE/RL the articles in "Ukrayinska pravda" are riddled with inaccuracies. She said neither she nor Vorotnik were given the chance to offer their point of view to the site before the articles were published -- something "Ukrayinska pravda" disputes.

Moreover, Sambur denies tampering with the Honcharov letter, and said Ukraine's human rights ombudsman and a parliamentary committee saw the letter and can testify to its content. "None of them asserts that in those letters that I submitted there is something that has been left out," she said.

"Ukrayinska pravda" has suggested it is strange that a person like Sambur, who previously worked to defend the rights of independent media, should resort to a lawsuit rather than trying to settle the matter privately.

But Sambur has defended her position. "The thing is this: the constitution gives people rights, and if they are violated a person turns to the courts. 'Ukrayinska pravda' considers that I worked for an organization that defended the rights of the press. Well, I am a lawyer and I always defend the rights of a person whose rights have been violated. And I am doing that now, insofar as this is my profession," she said.

A reporter for "Ukrayinska pravda," Serhiy Leshchenko, said the website has not been told exactly what aspects of its reporting are accused of being libelous. "In my opinion we are facing a process with many facets," he said. "Firstly, it's to whitewash, or to clean up the image, of certain political forces and certain individuals from the scandalous situations that were caused by the departure abroad of Serhiy Sholokh, when he in fact fled Ukraine."

He said the swiftness with which the case has been brought suggests that senior figures like Medvedchuk are involved. The libel complaints were only lodged on 23 April but the case is scheduled to begin on 27 May, an unusually quick turnaround.

Leshchenko believes the case is intended to disrupt the site's work in the months ahead of presidential elections this fall, and to intimidate other independent news media. "The other aim is to cause problems and obstacles for 'Ukrayinska pravda' in the form of demanding financial compensation to the extent of 20,000 hryvnyas [$3,800] and there is also a demand for the confiscation of our accounts and property," he said. "That speaks for itself. And if the court agrees to this demand, then for a time -- probably quite a long time -- there would be obstacles to the publication of 'Ukrayinska pravda.'"

Sambur jokingly dismissed the idea she was working for Medvedchuk. "If the court finds that I have been working for Mr. Medvedchuk, then I will turn to the courts to demand that Mr. Medvedchuk pays me for working for him," she said. "At the moment I haven't got the grounds to complain about Mr. Medvedchuk, as there is no evidence that I work for him."

Leshchenko is confident that, come what may, "Ukrayinska pravda" will continue to publish, but admitted it will cause problems if their computers and other equipment is confiscated. "It's practically impossible to close down an Internet site in today's world of communication. But it would be obstructive if we were forced to organize alternative technological capabilities. It would distract us from gathering material for our journalistic work," he said. (Askold Krushelnycky)

"We need to do something specific, to make everybody realize that our happiness is here, in the Single Economic Space." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Yalta on 24 May, during a press conference with the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan; quoted by "Kommersant-Daily."

"The situation in Iraq has changed in such a way that we have been transformed from bogus peacekeepers into occupiers." -- Lawmaker Oleh Bilorus (Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc), appealing last week in the Verkhovna Rada for the passage of a resolution on the pullout of the Ukrainian contingent from Iraq; quoted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 20 May.

"If we win [the presidential election] in the first round [on 31 October], we will be drinking for three days." -- Ukrainian Interior Minister Mykola Bilokon at a meeting with his regional subordinates in Donetsk on 21 May; quoted by the Obkom website (