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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: July 14, 2004

14 July 2004, Volume 6, Number 25
VIRTUAL POLITICS: BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION AND THE OSCE. During the session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly in Edinburgh on 8 July, the delegation of Belarus's Chamber of Representatives to that forum signed a joint declaration with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's working group on Belarus expressing its intention "to contribute to making the October parliamentary election in Belarus meet OSCE standards for free and fair elections," the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly website ( reported, quoting Uta Zapf, the group's chairwoman. According to Zapf, the declaration includes the obligation of Belarusian lawmakers to work toward assuring fair access to the media for all candidates, balanced coverage of the election campaign in the state-run media, and political diversity on the electoral commissions of all levels.

"It would be an exaggeration to say that I am optimistic [about the fulfillment of the declaration by Minsk]," Zapf told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service. "But I think that we should take advantage of any move, including when Belarusian parliamentarians take up the responsibility of guaranteeing elections in Belarus in line with OSCE standards. We are not speaking about the possibility that they will change everything that [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka is doing. We proceed from the fact that Belarusian parliamentarians placed their signatures under the demands of European parliamentarians."

Originally, it was planned that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Edinburgh would discuss Zapf's strongly worded draft resolution condemning antidemocratic practices by the Lukashenka regime. But Zapf, much to the chagrin of the Belarusian opposition, withdrew the draft because, as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly website put it, she recognized that a "significant step" was made by the Belarusian delegation in supporting the recommendations of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights with regard to elections in Belarus.

Vintsuk Vyachorka, leader of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that the declaration signed in Edinburgh is "yet another move in the political game" conducted by President Lukashenka's regime. "[For the regime, a] declaration on paper is one thing, while practice is another. Hardly anything will change after the return of the official delegation from Edinburgh."

United Civic Party deputy head Yaraslau Ramanchuk was no less skeptical about the signed declaration. "In the past 10 years, Europeans have regretfully failed to understand Mr. Lukashenka and his attitude to political reforms in the country. When we saw how lawmakers voted down amendments to the Election Code, it became clear to us that there will be no improvement in the election situation. There are no legislative grounds for this." Ramanchuk was referring to the 22 June vote in the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives, in which 71 legislators rejected liberalizing changes to the Election Code proposed by three dissident lawmakers who staged an 18-day hunger strike in June.

Dzmitry Bandarenka, a leader of the Charter-97 Belarusian opposition group, went as far as to charge that Uta Zapf "shares responsibility with Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime" for the current crackdown on the Belarusian opposition. Bandarenka recalled that it was Zapf who "initiated procedures" that allowed the Belarusian National Assembly to fill Belarus's vacant seat in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in February 2003, that is, effectively legalized the Lukashenka-subservient legislature in the eyes of the European community. The move, Bandarenka added, was followed by a new round of persecution against the Belarusian opposition.

Bandarenka's charges are obviously exaggerated and unfair. The OSCE employed a lot of techniques in the past, including a string of resolutions condemning Lukashenka or seeking to make a deal with him, in order to launch a dialogue between the Belarusian regime, self-isolated in the European arena, and the opposition. Regretfully, all those techniques has provided no tangible results. One has to be fair, however, and admit that not only Lukashenka should be blamed for this situation. The opposition's repeated mistakes and failures in major political campaigns have evidently reinforced Lukashenka's conviction that he has no need for such a dialogue.

In November 1999, during an OSCE summit in Istanbul, Lukashenka signed the summit declaration that, among many other provisions, called for a political dialogue in Belarus under the aegis of the OSCE and stressed the need to remove "all remaining obstacles to this dialogue by respecting the principles of the rule of law and the freedom of the media." The dialogue was launched shortly afterwards and the opposition managed to draft an accord on its access to the state-controlled media with presidential aide Mikhail Sazonau. But that was apparently a step too far for Lukashenka, who in December 1999 sacked Sazonau and threw the draft in the garbage.

Since that time, the Lukashenka regime has consistently taken advantage of every convenient occasion to vilify the opposition in the eyes of voters and marginalize its political weight. The opposition has so far proved incapable of countering Lukashenka's sway over the electorate. Arguably, this happened, to a large degree, due to the lack of coordination among opposition parties as well as due to fallible strategies used by them in different political campaigns.

All opposition parties bar one boycotted the 2000 parliamentary election. That election was deemed undemocratic by European observers, and the Chamber of Representatives elected in 2000 was not immediately allowed to take a seat on the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (this happened only in February 2004). This was a small victory for the Belarusian opposition, which took part in OSCE Parliamentary Assembly activities through its representatives who were regularly invited to attend OSCE events. However, the 2000 boycott, according to many Belarusian commentators, subsequently backfired with a fateful loss of communication between the opposition and ordinary voters. To put it bluntly, Belarusian opposition leaders have since then become much better known in Europe than in Belarus.

The communication between the Belarusian opposition and voters was not reestablished in either the 2001 presidential election or the 2003 local polls. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk, led by energetic German diplomat Hans Georg Wieck, formally managed to unite the opposition behind one candidate to challenge Lukashenka in 2001, but the choice of the candidate -- colorless Soviet-era nomenklatura man Uladzimir Hancharyk -- was so frustratingly unfortunate that some opposition parties refused to campaign for him or campaigned only half-heartedly. During the local election in March 2003, it became evident that the Belarusian opposition has almost completely lost ties with the provinces and the countryside. For some 24,000 seats contested in that election, the opposition was able to field only several hundred candidates, primarily in the capital, provincial centers, and other larger cities. Needless to say, the opposition's election gains were close to nil.

Instead of trying to restore some sort of communication with domestic voters following the 2001 presidential election, the opposition appeared to focus its efforts on blocking the regime's participation in European forums, notably in sessions of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The opposition was fairly successful in this effort, but those efforts have had no effect whatsoever on Belarusian voters, for whom they remained totally unknown. Some Belarusian commentators sarcastically dubbed those efforts "virtual politics."

The upcoming parliamentary election in October will hardly bring any radical improvement in the opposition's standing in Belarus. The opposition is approaching this election in typically divided fashion. There will be at least two separate election blocs among the opposition -- the Popular Coalition Five Plus and the European Coalition Free Belarus -- with each of them proposing its own set of candidates. And one of the major opposition parties, the Conservative Christian Party, is calling for a boycott of the polls. It is not difficult to foresee that even if Belarusian voters heed the opposition's message in the campaign's clamor, it will confuse them rather than mobilize against the government-favored candidates.

There will most likely be no "logistical support" for the Belarusian opposition in the October election from the OSCE. After Lukashenka drove Wieck from Minsk in December 2001, the OSCE Office in Minsk under the leadership of Eberhard Heyken, which came to replace the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group in 2002, has so far been very cautious and tended to avoid any contacts with the opposition that could irritate Lukashenka. In the longer run, hopefully, this situation may turn beneficial for opponents of the regime. They may eventually come to the conclusion that their political future depends not on "virtual politics" pursued by them in Vienna, Strasbourg, or Edinburgh, but on people living in those numerous Belarusian cities and towns that they failed to visit in the past several years. (Jan Maksymiuk)

OLIGARCHIC PARTIES BACK YANUKOVYCH'S PRESIDENTIAL BID. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was proposed as a joint presidential candidate of the pro-government majority in the Verkhovna Rada in mid-April, shortly after this majority failed to pass a constitutional-reform bill intended to limit the prerogatives of the president and expand those of the prime minister and the legislature.

At that time, the appointment of Yanukovych as the main challenger of Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych in the 31 October election was primarily seen as a propaganda move on the part of pro-government parties. Following the abortive vote on the constitutional-reform bill, the pro-government majority was in visible disarray and urgently needed to reassure both itself and its electorate that it still possessed political initiative.

The moment of truth for Yanukovych occurred last week, when most parties constituting the pro-government coalition held their congresses in order to confirm or reject his candidacy. Apart from the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which proposed its leader Anatoliy Kinakh, prime minister from March 2001 to November 2002, as a presidential hopeful, all the other parties threw their support behind Yanukovych. Simultaneously, these congresses significantly reduced the probability that incumbent President Leonid Kuchma will run for the post of president for a third time, an option made possible for him by a ruling of the Constitutional Court in December 2003.

Perhaps, the most crucial of these forums was a congress of the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) in Kharkiv on 10 July. The SDPU-o is led by presidential-administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, so the party's decision on Yanukovych was expected as an important indicator of Kuchma's real intentions in the 2004 presidential campaign. Medvedchuk told the congress that power in Ukraine should remain in the hands of "centrist forces" and stressed that Yanukovych is the only candidate of these forces who can win the presidential election. Five hundred delegates to the congress unanimously endorsed Yanukovych's candidacy.

Medvedchuk also told the delegates that the most important political task in Ukraine is to implement constitutional reform in order to introduce a "parliamentary-presidential model" of government. He stressed that Yanukovych is a staunch supporter of such reform, which was initiated by the SDPU-o in collaboration with the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. Curiously enough, Yanukovych's election manifesto published this week does not highlight the urgent need for a constitutional reform but mentions it almost casually, in the same line with judicial, administrative, and military reforms. However, irrespective of what happens with the constitutional reform in the future, one has to admit that it was a tremendously clever idea on the part of Medvedchuk in particular and the pro-Kuchma camp in general. This idea has driven a big wedge between Our Ukraine and the Socialist Party and, to a large extent, prevented them from striking an election coalition deal.

For Viktor Yushchenko, the most disappointing event last week was apparently a congress of the Popular Democratic Party (NDP), which is led by former Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko. Pustovoytenko, prime minister from July 1997 to December 1999, signaled earlier this year that he does not like Yanukovych as a joint presidential candidate of the pro-government camp and may run himself. However, the NDP congress on 10 July cast its support behind Yanukovych. The congress was attended by Viktor Pynzenyk, one of the leaders of Our Ukraine. Pynzenyk ardently but unsuccessfully appealed to the congress to back Yushchenko's presidential bid, arguing that the NDP and Our Ukraine are pursuing the same political goals. Pustovoytenko was rewarded for his backing of Yanukovych with the post of coordinator of the bloc called "Together for the Sake of Future," which is intended to be a wider coalition of political parties and other organizations supporting Yanukovych in the election campaign.

Yanukovych's presidential bid was also backed by two other oligarchic parties -- the Popular Agrarian Party headed by parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn and the Labor Ukraine Party led by National Bank head Serhiy Tyhypko. Tyhypko became chief of Yanukovych's election staff.

Thus, all major oligarchs of the pro-Kuchma camp, in the face of the "Yushchenko threat," have united behind Yanukovych's presidential bid, even if, from their point of view, he does not seem to be the most suitable candidate for the presidential job. Yanukovych is the leader of the Donetsk-based Party of Regions and the Donetsk-based oligarchic clan. Some fear that his possible victory in the presidential election may considerably upset the current "oligarchic balance" in Ukraine, which is ensured by Leonid Kuchma, and redistribute political and economic clout in favor of one regional oligarchic group.

All surveys in Ukraine indicate that Yushchenko is backed by some 23-25 percent and Yanukovych by some 16-18 percent of the electorate. This proportion will most likely change in the course of the election campaign, but almost all observers agree that there will be a second election round on 21 November, three weeks after the 31 October ballot, and that Yushchenko and Yanukovych are the most probable contenders in that round. Thus, it could turn out that these three weeks in November will become one of the most fateful periods in Ukraine's modern history. Given that Yanukovych's candidacy will be supported not only by the state-administration machine but also by the united political, financial, and media potential of most Ukrainian oligarchs, Yushchenko's chances to win the election do not look very good. Yushchenko will hardly mobilize the financial and propagandistic potential that could match Yanukovych's campaign resources. But there is still time for Yushchenko to prevent his election chances from becoming slim. (Jan Maksymiuk)