8 June 2004, Volume 6, Number 21
BELARUSTHREE LAWMAKERS GO ON HUNGER STRIKE OVER ELECTION CODE. Three deputies of Belarus's 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, Uladzimir Parfyanovich, Syarhey Skrabets, and Valery Fralou, went on a hunger strike in the parliamentary building in Minsk on 3 June to protest the blockade by the parliamentary leadership of their initiative to put on the agenda a draft bill providing for changes to the Election Code. Their move followed the parliamentary session earlier the same day where parliamentary speaker Vadzim Papou switched off the microphone in the session hall when Fralou was trying to persuade other deputies to put the issue on the agenda.
The three deputies believe -- and this belief is shared by European election watchdogs and much of the Belarusian opposition -- that the country's current Election Code is undemocratic, particularly in its provisions limiting the rights of political parties and nongovernmental organizations to be chosen for election commissions, as well as the rights of election observers in monitoring the election process. The Election Code also provides for early voting five days ahead of the election day, which is widely regarded to be a convenient opportunity for the authorities to manipulate and/or rig elections.
In the statement Parfyanovich, Skrabets, and Fralou publicized shortly before launching their protest, they also warn against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's possible attempt to stage a "constitutional coup d'etat" in order to remain in power beyond 2006, when his second and last presidential term ends. "Mr. President and people surrounding you, we are well aware of your plans to organize another constitutional coup d'etat," the statement said. "But this is not 1996 and you won't get away with a referendum. Alyaksandr Lukashenka is the president only as long as he carries out his functions in accordance with the current constitution. If he attempts to break it once again, if he only thinks about it, even through a referendum, he will instantly lose his legitimacy and become a common citizen of our country who can face criminal proceedings."
On 5 June, the three deputies moved their protest to Fralou's apartment in Minsk. Fralou explained the move by the need of the three protesting deputies to be close to those giving them moral support. Three activists of the opposition United Civic Party (AHP), who pitched several tents in the backyard of Fralou's apartment block, joined the hunger strike on 5 June. The same day, police dismantled and confiscated the tents, warning the AHP activists that they could be punished for staging an unauthorized rally.
RFE/RL's Belarusian Service conducted telephone interviews with Valery Fralou and Syarhey Skrabets late in the evening of 3 June. Below are translated excerpts:
RFE/RL: Where are you right now?
Syarhey Skrabets: I am in the parliamentary building, along with my colleague, General Fralou.
RFE/RL: Are you going to stay overnight there, all three of you?
Skrabets: Yes, sure. We are going to stay here for the night.
RFE/RL: Do you expect the authorities to meet you halfway as regards your demands?
Skrabets: I think we can expect some steps. We even can expect that our bill proposing changes to the election legislation will be put on the agenda of the Chamber of Representatives.
RFE/RL: Do you think that your bill will be passed?
Skrabets: We cannot count on this now, but in my view the deputies will be split equally over the bill -- one half will vote for it, the other will not take part in the voting.
RFE/RL: Have there been any attempts by parliamentary guards to remove you? Or have you made some deal with them?
Skrabets: We have not made any deal with them. Right now we are in the parliament. The guards have not requested or demanded that we do something. But the parliament was cordoned off all day long by the presidential protection service. They did not let anybody in. We left the parliament three times to talk with different correspondents and those people who came to support us.
RFE/RL: How have your friends and families reacted to this radical step of yours?
Skrabets: Not everybody approves of this step, but we need to do something. Our political allies think that we are unprepared for this struggle. And when will we be prepared for it, I ask? When we were in the session hall and Fralou was prevented from speaking in the microphone, and the speaker decided to halt the session, we were forced to take this measure.
RFE/RL: Was the protest an improvisation, not a planned step?
Skrabets: Yes, it was. And later we disseminated our statement. We have been trying to put our bill on the parliamentary agenda for more than a year, but were always blocked.
RFE/RL: What was the reaction of other deputies to your protest?
Valery Fralou: It seems to me that they have not yet understood what happened. When they read newspapers tomorrow, I think many of them will look at this situation differently. Particularly since there were many people in front of the parliament today [when we were reading our statement]. Unfortunately, many deputies have not realized who they were during these 3 1/2 years [after they were elected to the legislature]. They have not realized that they are people's deputies.
RFE/RL: Radio Liberty has been informed that you may move your protest to a private apartment. Do you think that by doing so you will be able to remain in the public spotlight?
Fralou: What does a hunger strike mean? It is when a man ceases to eat. Now we need to continue doing our work, which does not boil down to a hunger strike. We have a lot of work to do. We will be making trips instead of sitting here covered with some quilts. When we get tired, when it becomes really difficult for us, we will lay down. But as long as we keep our strength, we will be working. (Jan Maksymiuk/Alex Znatkevich)
SWEDEN ACCUSED OF APPLYING 'DOUBLE STANDARDS' TO BELARUS. The Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (Svenska Freds- och Skiljedomsfoereningen, or Svenska Freds for short), the world's oldest and Scandinavia's largest peace organization, placed on its website (http://www.svenskafreds.se) on 1 June a report charging that the Swedish government, while speaking for democracy and human rights in the domestic and international arena, simultaneously supports the highly repressive regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus by purchasing military equipment from that country.
According to Svenska Freds, Sweden imported no less than 90 million Swedish kronors ($12 million) worth of "military materials" from Belarus in 1996-2003. "By supporting the Belarusian state-run military industry, Sweden upholds one of the world's most repressive regimes," Svenska Freds Chairwoman Frida Blom commented on the Swedish-Belarusian trading in arms. "Simultaneously the Swedish government claims that it is dissociating itself from that regime. [Sweden's] double standards in this issue are obvious, and its actions are objectionable."
"Since 1996, when Lukashenka's dictatorial ways began to show in real earnest, Sweden has been an important buyer of high-tech military supplies from the Belarusian state," the Svenska Freds website reported. "These were mostly various types of laser sights that the Swedish Army and police bought in large amounts. The latest contract, concluded in the autumn 2003, pertains to 2,050 laser sights that are now being shipped to Sweden. The value of the deal has not been made public, but according to Svenska Freds' estimates, it probably exceeded 4 million kronor."
Svenska Freds noted that in the same period, from 1996-2003, Sweden channeled into Belarus, through the Swedish state-run development agency Sida, some 60 million kronors to support pro-democracy activism in that country. "In actual fact, more money went to the repressive regime [in Belarus] than to the forces that are working for democracy and human rights," the Svenska Freds wrote. "In this light, the [Swedish] government's pledges that it pursues a coherent foreign policy focusing on human rights look like sheer hypocrisy."
Svenska Freds underlined that Belarus's military exports to Sweden are important to Minsk not only from an economic, but also political point of view. First, Sweden is internationally perceived as a technologically advanced nation, therefore Sweden's high-tech military purchases from Belarus are a clear token of recognition to the Belarusian military industry. Second, trade with such a country as Sweden gives Minsk a higher level of legitimacy in its international trade in weapons, which was repeatedly described in the past as the most secretive and dubious business pursued by the Lukashenka regime. (Jan Maksymiuk)
UKRAINEWHY WAS LAZARENKO TRIED IN THE UNITED STATES? Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko became a multimillionaire while in power from 1996 to 1997.
A U.S. federal district court in California last week decided that he made that money through corruption and found him guilty on 29 charges, including conspiracy to launder money, money laundering, and fraud, as well as transportation of stolen property. Lazarenko, who was in jail for nearly five years while awaiting trial, has not yet been sentenced but could face around 20 years in prison.
It is rare for the United States to put on trial foreign leaders, whether serving or former. Lazarenko, 51, was arrested when he arrived in the United States and asked for political asylum after fleeing Ukraine. He has previously been convicted in absentia by a Swiss court of money laundering and has been charged with murder in Ukraine. He has said he will appeal the verdict.
The case was tremendously complex and took almost five years to prepare. Lazarenko's defense attorney acknowledged that Lazarenko used his position to make a fortune, but said that had been usual and acceptable behavior in the 1990s in Ukraine.
American lawyer and journalist Mary Mycio lives in Ukraine. She practiced law in California, the state where Lazarenko was tried, and explained that in the end Lazarenko was convicted because he broke U.S. laws rather than Ukrainian ones. "The laws that he broke were American laws -- American laws on money laundering," she said. "Basically, the fundamental crime at the heart of money laundering is that the money is derived from criminal activity and then it gets into American banks and goes through the whole laundering process."
Mycio said where the "dirty" money comes from is irrelevant as long as it is being laundered through the U.S. banking system. "The criminal activity can happen anywhere -- which also makes sense -- because a lot of money derived from money laundering comes from things like arms trafficking and narcotics and prostitution and that sort of thing and can happen all around the world," he said.
But crucially, under U.S. law, Mycio said, the money being transferred or laundered has to be shown to have been obtained illicitly. "In the case of Lazarenko, the prosecution argued that he received his money from extortion, bribery, that sort of thing," she said. "And so all of those activities happened on Ukrainian territory, but then that money that was earned from those activities was laundered through American banks."
Roman Kupchinsky writes about crime and corruption for RFE/RL and has followed the Lazarenko case closely. He said Lazarenko's defense lawyers argued that the former prime minister was behaving like many other former politicians in the former Soviet Union who used their positions to amass huge wealth. That was a problem for the prosecution, Kupchinsky said. "In order to prove money laundering, however, you have to prove that the money that was being laundered was earned illegally and there came the question of Ukrainian jurisdiction -- was that a violation of Ukrainian law at the time?"
He said the prosecution successfully made a case that Lazarenko had extorted money -- a crime in Ukraine during his time as prime minister. Their key witness was Ukrainian businessman Petro Kiritchenko, who told the court he felt forced to give Lazarenko many millions of dollars and ownership of half of a company to help expand his firm.
Kupchinsky said the prosecution did not have to prove Lazarenko physically transported stolen property in the form of illicit funds. It was enough to prove that he had committed mail fraud -- a crime that covers many actions. "Mail fraud includes wire transfers of illegal money, which was a statute which was originally brought in to combat drug money being moved about -- that's the bottom line," he said. "That's why they were able to use the U.S. jurisdiction to try the case in San Francisco."
The only previous case of such a prominent political figure being tried by the United States was the conviction in 1992 of former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega in 1992. He was captured after the United States invaded Panama in 1989 and is currently serving a 30-year prison sentence on drug-trafficking charges.
Mycio said that it is unusual for one state to put on trial the head of another and there were initial difficulties over what to charge Noriega with. "In that case, the United States used this little bit of legal maneuvering because as a rule, a kind of principle of international law, is that one country cannot put another sovereign on trial," she said.
She said the United States would probably never put on trial a serving head of state or prime minister, and that in Noriega's case the United States argued that his election to power had been illegitimate. "In the case of Lazarenko, had he been an acting prime minister, I would really doubt they could have brought any kind of criminal charges against him, but because he's a former prime minister they could do that," she said.
Kupchinsky said the U.S. government had been concerned at the official corruption in Ukraine, which they were sure emanated from the highest levels. Washington had made discreet diplomatic as well as more public pleas for Lazarenko to stop his corrupt practices or for him to be removed.
Kupchinsky said the Ukrainian government ignored Washington's requests and the United States waited for an appropriate opportunity to send a strong signal to the Ukrainian leadership. "So, the United States decided to act and they had a chance when he entered the United States on an ineligible visa," he said.
The judge is expected to announce Lazarenko's sentence within the coming weeks. But the case will not be resolved until the appeals procedure is over and that, Mycio said, could take years. (Askold Krushelnycky)
QUOTES OF THE WEEK"We have the Commonwealth of the Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Community, the Single Economic Space in the image of the Eurasian Economic Community and purportedly even somewhat further than the Eurasian Economic Community, the Russia-Belarus Union, GUUAM, and other organizations -- there are so many that it is sometimes difficult for experts, let alone common people, to make them out." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; quoted by Belarusian Television on 2 June.
"Indeed, I and [Our Ukraine leader Viktor] Yushchenko are political opponents. But there has not been and cannot be any war between us. So, there cannot be any reconciliation between us. But as regards the improvement of relations -- why not? If, for example, Yushchenko makes his faction vote for political reform, I will welcome this step with all my heart. My reaction will be the same if he supports a single presidential candidate proposed by the parliamentary majority. I think it would be wise for him [to do so]." -- Presidential-administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 5 June.
The tragedy [of Ukraine] is not only in the fact that [President Leonid] Kuchma [may run for a third term], but also in the fact that [Our Ukraine leader Viktor] Yushchenko and [Prime Minister Viktor] Yanukovych mean a Kuchma-3 scenario, too. They are [Kuchma's] children, he begot them and brought them up." -- Ukrainian Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, quoted by the "Glavred" website on 3 June.