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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 9, 2004

9 September 2004, Volume 6, Number 32
LUKASHENKA ANNOUNCES REFERENDUM TO EXTEND HIS RULE. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka addressed the nation on all national television and radio channels on 7 September and said that he has signed a decree on holding a referendum on 17 October, simultaneously with legislative elections scheduled for that day. Lukashenka said he proposes only one question for the plebiscite:

"Do you allow the first president of the Republic of Belarus, Alyaksandr Ryhoravich Lukashenka, to participate as a candidate in presidential elections, and do you approve of the first part of Article 81 of the Constitution of Belarus to be worded in the following way: 'The president shall be elected for five years directly by the people of the Republic of Belarus on the basis of a universal, free, equal, and direct election law by secret ballot?'"

The current wording of the first part of Article 81 includes the above-cited phrase plus one more: "The same person may be the president no more than two terms." Thus, Lukashenka proposed to remove the constitutional limitation on presidential terms altogether.

Lukashenka was first elected president in 1994, when he received 80 percent of the vote in a runoff with the then Belarusian prime minister. Lukashenka restarted his presidency in 1996 with a fraudulent constitutional referendum, which gave him extensive powers and marginalized the legislature. He won reelection with 75 percent of the vote in 2001, in a ballot that international observers said was neither free nor fair. If Belarusian voters say "yes" to Lukashenka's question on 17 October, he will be able to run for president for a third time in 2006.

Can Belarusian voters say "no" to Lukashenka on 17 October? In theory, yes. The Minsk-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) found in a poll conducted in June that 50.9 percent of Belarusians would be against Lukashenka's hypothetical move to prolong his presidential powers for a third term, while 35.2 percent would back such an attempt; 13.9 percent of respondents remained undecided on this issue or provided no answer.

However, in Belarus, as the saying goes, it actually matters who counts the ballots, not how people vote. Beginning from the controversial 1996 referendum, the executive authorities have taken full control of the election process and made it extremely "unfriendly" for the opposition. Opposition candidates face immense difficulties during the registration process, while opposition representatives are routinely refused seats on election commissions of all levels. In addition, Lukashenka introduced a highly controversial practice of weeklong early voting, during which the election process is out of any public control and which, according to many observers, is the best opportunity for the authorities to manipulate the vote.

This year's parliamentary election campaign is no different from the previous ones organized by Lukashenka. Opposition political parties said they were allocated some 2 percent of the 1,430 seats on the 110 district election commissions. They fared even worse with regard to polling-station election commissions, on which they got only some 0.2 percent of a total of 70,000 seats. Thus, it is practically impossible for the opposition to monitor the voting process and vote count on 17 October.

In his 7 September address to the nation, Lukashenka recalled two major achievements of his 10-year rule: putting the country on the path of "progressive development" after the political and social turmoil that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, and ensuring security for Belarusians. "In the past 10 years, not a single Belarusian has fallen victim to a terrorist act or an armed conflict," Lukashenka said. "We have prevented our country from participating in international adventures that could put your life and safety even under a minimal threat."

Lukashenka's words came less than a week after the shocking hostage crisis in Beslan in Russia, thus accentuating his concern for the Belarusians' peaceful way of life. "In the referendum you will vote for the security of the country, for the life and health of your children and grandchildren," he stressed.

Some observers noted that the Beslan tragedy, apart from providing Lukashenka with a good propaganda argument in support of the prolongation of his rule, will also make things easier for him in Moscow if the Kremlin chooses to oppose Lukashenka's intention to stay in power beyond 2006. According to this line of reasoning, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now much too occupied with the Beslan crisis and its aftermath and will have neither the time nor the will to interfere with the announced plebiscite in Belarus. And if the 17 October plebiscite, as should be expected, provides a "yes" to Lukashenka's question, it will be much more difficult to persuade him later not to run for president in 2006.

The Belarusian opposition is too weak, fragmented, and marginalized to prevent Lukashenka from winning the 17 October referendum. Paradoxically, however, the announcement of the presidential referendum makes the opposition somewhat stronger by giving it a clear-cut goal and direction in the 17 October election campaign -- to mobilize the electorate against Lukashenka's third term. "People should simply vote for a candidate who is against Lukashenka's third term," Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists, commented immediately after the announcement of the referendum. And opposition United Civic Party head Anatol Lyabedzka added: "In this situation, our main rivals are not candidates for people's deputies supported by the authorities, but the referendum itself."

It seems reasonable that the Belarusian opposition should now launch an immediate campaign against Lukashenka's intention to extend his rule. Because winning a referendum by rigging or manipulating the vote is one thing, while winning it in people's minds is quite another.

In the evening of 7 September, when Lukashenka was about to announce his decision on the 17 October plebiscite, the authorities herded several hundred people into a central square in Minsk under the pretext of staging a meeting to express support and sympathy for those who suffered from the Beslan hostage tragedy. But it turned out that these people were needed there to show "spontaneous" support and enthusiasm for Lukashenka's intention to extend his rule. The crowd reportedly reacted to Lukashenka's referendum speech, which was shown on a specially established television screen, with silent shock. As long as Belarusians are capable of such reactions, the Belarusian opposition's case is not completely lost. (Jan Maksymiuk)

BELARUSIANS SET TO MIX WITH EUROPE WITHOUT LUKASHENKA. Two Belarusian organizations came into being in Europe in the past 10 days. Both organizations have pledged to work toward integrating Belarusians living in Europe, outside the Republic of Belarus, and support efforts oriented toward democratizing the situation in Belarus. Both organization have also appealed to the European Union to help them achieve their goals.

Several dozen representatives of Belarusian ethic communities in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Russia, as well as Belarusian immigrants and refugees in the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Estonia, and Italy gathered in Prague, the Czech Republic, on 28-29 August to create the Democratic Forum of Belarusians in Europe (DFBE). The Prague meeting elected a 19-member Coordinating Council of the DFBE that, apart from representatives from the above-mentioned countries, included also three people from Belarus.

"We think that the European Union should take an active position in dealing with Belarus and give its people to understand that they will be welcomed in Europe," the Prague meeting wrote in an appeal to the European community. "Therefore, we appeal that you -- within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy and a plan of actions with regard to Belarus -- create as favorable conditions as possible to support independent initiatives [in Belarus], the spreading of uncensored information, local self-government, and educational and research programs independent from the authorities."

The Prague meeting of Belarusians condemned the regime of President Lukashenka in Belarus as "antidemocratic and illegitimate" and expressed its solidarity with "those forces in the Republic of Belarus that are striving to build a democratic civic society in the country and establish a political system based on European democratic values and models."

A congress of the "last-wave" of Belarusian political refugees in Antwerp, Belgium, on 4 September set up a Belarusian Union, a coordinating body for Belarusian political refugees in Europe, the website reported. The congress elected a Council of Representatives of the Belarusian Union and its coordinator, Ihar Lazarchuk.

The Antwerp congress adopted a resolution pledging to establish close contacts and cooperation with European "political and social institutions," set up a "single informational-analytical center of the Belarusian diaspora," launch a website, an Internet newspaper, and an Internet radio station, and open a "humanitarian fund for supporting the development of democracy in Belarus." The congress also branded the Lukashenka regime as "anti-Belarusian and antidemocratic." (Jan Maksymiuk)

KYIV OPENS DANUBE DELTA-BLACK SEA CANAL AMID INTERNATIONAL CONTROVERSY. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on 26 August officially inaugurated navigation on the newly built Bystraya Canal in the Ukrainian part of the Danube River Delta. "In the future, the estuary of Europe's longest river may transform into a large European transport intersection," Kuchma said at the inauguration. "The Danube River is opening a floodgate for an increased transport flow.... The volume of shipments through the Ukrainian part of the Europe-Caucasus-Asia transport corridor, according to EU experts, will increase 20-fold."

The same day, the Romanian government said it intends to appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague over the Bystraya Canal, saying the canal is posing a major environmental threat to the Danube River Delta, a unique ecosystem in Europe. Last month, concerns about the opening of the Bystraya Canal were also voiced by the European Commission and the U.S. State Department. Both Brussels and Washington cited environmental impact of the Bystraya waterway as the basis for their apprehensions.

Has the international controversy around the Bystraya Canal been caused by ecological concerns alone? They seems to be quite important and substantiated, but they are surely not the only ones. Kuchma told journalists on 26 August that international criticism of the canal project, which is yet to be completed, was motivated by political and economic reasons rather than environmental. "We know very well whose interests stand behind these attempts to stir the waters around the canal, while in fact all international ecological requirements were met during its construction," the Ukrainian president added. Let's look first at the environmental aspect of the Bystraya controversy. The Danube Delta region encompasses some 800,000 hectares of land and water, of which 680,000 is in Romania and 120,000 in Ukraine. A large part of the delta on both sides of the Romanian-Ukrainian border was recognized by UNESCO in 1991 as a specially protected wetlands area called the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is a habitat and feeding base for many rare fish species and birds, including pelicans, cormorants, herons, and eagles. Seven fish species and nine bird species in the delta are included on the European Red List.

The problem is that the controversial canal cuts in two the Ukrainian part of the bilateral reserve. Bystraya is actually a 9-kilometer estuary linking the Kiliya (Chilia) arm of the Danube with the Black Sea. In mid-May a German company, contracted by the Ukrainian government, started deepening the Bystraya estuary from its actual depth of 4.2 meters to 7.2 meters and reinforcing its banks. The first stage of the canal construction was completed on 26 August. The firm was also contracted to build a 3-kilometer-long canal outlet into the sea by digging through the sea sandbar at the Bystraya mouth. It is not clear from press reports whether Ukraine will need some excavation works along the 170-kilometer-long Kiliya arm of the Danube, which is a natural border between the two states.

Ukrainian and international environmentalists essentially fear that the construction and operation of the Bystraya shipping canal will enhance the water flow in the Bystraya estuary and reduce it in other estuaries (particularly Sulina and Sfintu Gheorghe in Romania), thus changing the hydrological balance of the delta and destroying or gravely endangering the natural ecosystem with its rare animal and plant species. The operation of the canal may also turn the delta's wetlands into meadows, thus undermining one of the most important ecological functions of the area -- biofiltration.

It is noteworthy that the Ukrainian Academy of Science was against the Bystraya project, proposing alternative routes for the waterway that bypassed the biosphere reserve. The government, however, did not heed those proposals. Most likely, it was because the Bystraya route seemed to be the least costly and time-consuming option for making it a waterway navigable by large sea vessels.

The Danube is an important navigation artery in Europe. The 2,857-kilometer-long river crosses 10 European countries; a network of its tributaries and mainland canals connects it with eight more countries. Until now, Romania has had a monopoly on controlling the navigation along the Danube to the Black Sea -- either via the Danube's Sulina and Sfintu Gheorghe arms or the Cernovoda-Constanta canal some 120 kilometers to the south -- and reaped financial benefits from charging transit fees. Ukraine seems to have broken this monopoly, thus depriving Romania from a part of these earnings.

Kyiv said the Bystraya project is intended to divert some 60 percent of the traffic on the Sulina and Sfintu Gheorghe arms to the Kiliya arm and then to the Bystraya Canal. According to the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian vessels will save no less than $2 million annually in navigation fees paid hitherto to Romania. Moreover, Kyiv expects to earn an unspecified lump sum from charging transit fees on foreign ships going through the Bystraya Canal.

Moreover, Kyiv estimates that the full-fledged operation of the Bystraya Canal will provide some 4,200 new jobs for people living in the Ukrainian part of the delta, thus boosting this poor and stagnant region economically and socially.

However, RFE/RL analyst Michael Shafir suggests that the economic importance of the Bystraya Canal for Ukraine is overshadowed by its strategic and political significance. It is not unlikely, Shafir argues, that the construction of the Bystraya Canal is a Kyiv ploy intended to facilitate reaching a "bogus compromise" with Bucharest in the much more important controversy over how to divide the continental shelf around Serpents Island, which is some 50 kilometers east of the Danube Delta. The shelf is allegedly rich in oil and gas deposits. According to this line of argument, Kyiv may halt the use of the Bystraya Canal in exchange for Romania's giving up any claims to the controversial shelf.

Earlier this month, Romania threatened that to also take Ukraine to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to resolve the dispute over the shelf. Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana reportedly canceled his official visit to Ukraine planned for this month. The relations between Ukraine and Romania are currently very sour. But Ukrainian-Romanian talks on the delimitation of the controversial shelf will be continued this week. It remains to be seen whether the Bystraya Canal issue will turn from an environmental and economic problem into a purely political one. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"All these years [of my presidency] I have been carrying cautiously and with trepidation this bright crystalline vessel named Belarus in my hands before me. I am carrying it, fearing to let if fall, because it is so fragile and vulnerable. You will surely agree with me that we would not like this purity and beauty created by us to fall into the hands of an irresponsible, casual politician." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in his 7 September speech announcing a referendum on his right to seek presidency for a third time; quoted by Belarusian Television.

"Do you know that, in accordance with the law, a man may not be promoted to the rank of a police sergeant if he has a criminal record? He may not become a sergeant, but he may become the president of Ukraine. Is this not an absurdity?" -- Oleksandr Zinchenko, manager of the presidential election campaign of Viktor Yushchenko, to voters in Lviv, in an apparent reference to Yushchenko's main rival, Prime Minister Yanukovych, who was twice sentenced for criminal offenses (the sentences were later annulled); quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 6 September.

"As regards [presidential candidate] Viktor Yushchenko [and the fact that his wife is a U.S. citizen].... Unfortunately, we live in the society that has been indoctrinated with Soviet ideology [and] ideologically poisoned, therefore it reacts inadequately to some elementary things. Well, he [Yushchenko] has an American wife. But excuse me, we have dozens of people, dozens of power wielders, ministers, and even the president himself, who have wives of Russian origin. What, are all of them Russian spies? What conclusions should we make of that? This is a sort of madness. This anti-Americanism [in Ukraine] simply scares me, because it testifies to some pathology in society. On one hand, our government and our authorities swear that they are strategic partners of the United States; they sent troops to Iraq to help [U.S. President George W.] Bush or save [Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma from international sanctions.... On the other, they blame Yushchenko for a mortal sin -- his pro-Americanism. This is paranoia." -- Ukrainian political scientist Mykola Ryabchuk commenting on anti-American sentiments in Ukraine and their possible influence on Yushchenko's presidential bid; quoted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 3 September.

"I don't believe in exit polls. These are new, modern techniques, which will be used in Ukraine for the first time. We don't know how to manipulate them." -- Ukrainian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, commenting on the plan of several major pollsters in Ukraine to hold a large exit poll during the 31 October presidential ballot; quoted by UNIAN on 31 August.