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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 15, 2004

15 September 2004, Volume 6, Number 33
EU WARNS AGAINST UNFAIR PRESIDENTIAL REFERENDUM -- BUT TO WHAT AVAIL? The Council of the European Union said in a statement on 13 September that it has "serious and well-grounded doubts as to whether the necessary conditions for holding a free and fair referendum in Belarus are fulfilled." The statement was referring to a 17 October referendum -- to be held concurrently with parliamentary elections -- on whether President Alyaksandr Lukashenka should be allowed to run for a third term (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 9 September 2004). "[If] the parliamentary elections and the announced referendum do not take place under free and fair conditions, this cannot remain without its consequences for the relations [between Brussels and Minsk]," the council's statement added.

Moreover, Peter Schieder, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), said on 14 September that the assembly will "draw the necessary consequences" if the 17 October referendum is not held in conformity with PACE standards. "Our concern is based on the undemocratic way in which the November 1996 referendum was held, giving sweeping powers to the president, and on the gross manipulation of subsequent parliamentary and presidential election," Schieder explained. "As a consequence, the assembly suspended the Belarusian parliament's special guest status in January 1997. Belarus's accession process to the Council of Europe has remained frozen since then."

It is hard to imagine what "consequences" administered by Brussels might actually persuade Lukashenka to change his undemocratic ways or give up his intention to rule Belarus beyond 2006 (some pessimists say for life). In the past eight years, the EU repeatedly tried to modify Lukashenka's behavior by condemning the 1996 referendum and subsequent elections in Belarus as dishonest and banning the Belarusian president and his closest aides from entering EU countries; but to no visible avail. The last time Lukashenka made an official visit to Europe was in April 1999, when he met with then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade during the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. Lukashenka is surely dismayed by the reluctance of European leaders to meet with him, but not to the extent that could induce him to correct his policies. As long as Russia continues to support his regime economically, Lukashenka does not seem to care much about his isolation in the international arena.

Given the Belarusian government's total control over the electoral process in the country and its immense experience in organizing fraudulent election campaigns, none of Belarusian independent political observers doubt that the Central Election Commission will publicize such results of the 17 October referendum that lift the constitutional two-term restriction on presidency and allow Lukashenka to run for reelection in 2006. According to the Belarusian Constitution, a referendum may amend the constitution only if it is backed by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters. Since there are some 6.5 million eligible voters in that country of 10 million, Lukashenka needs at least 3.25 million voters to say "yes" to him on 17 October.

Independent sociological surveys suggest that no fewer than 50 percent of all Belarusians do not want to cancel the two-term constitutional limit on the presidency. But the official results of polls in Belarus have rarely, if ever, confirmed findings of independent sociological surveys. For example, before the 1996 referendum, surveys suggested that some 72 percent of voters would back a postulate -- proposed by the legislature -- that all branches of power in the country must be financed openly and exclusively from the state budget. However, the authorities reported that just 32 percent of voters backed this proposal in the referendum only, while more than 65 percent were against it. One should not expect that the 17 October referendum will be different -- and confirm some essential findings of independent pollsters.

Because of the lack of transparency in the vote-counting process in Belarus, neither international election monitors nor ordinary Belarusian voters will know for sure how many people in Belarus actually want Lukashenka to rule for more than two terms. But a flagrant falsification of the upcoming presidential referendum by the Belarusian authorities could eventually backfire on Lukashenka. If a majority of Belarusians feel themselves duped after the announcement of the referendum's official results, this could spell the beginning of the end of Lukashenka's political career. Winning a referendum on paper is not the same as winning it in people's minds. (Jan Maksymiuk)

VERKHOVNA RADA MANEUVERING BEFORE PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT. Last week, nearly 50 lawmakers from three groups in the Verkhovna Rada -- Center, Democratic Initiatives-People's Power, and the Popular Agrarian Party -- announced that they were quitting the pro-government coalition. The move appears to have dealt an unexpected blow to the position of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who is also a leading presidential candidate. Yanukovych and Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko are generally tipped to fare best in the 31 October presidential ballot and fight for the presidency in a runoff three weeks later. "It is not pleasant for me to speak about, but I must say that the parliament is becoming an unreliable partner," Yanukovych commented on the parliamentary desertions on 11 September.

The parliamentary desertions from the pro-government camp also seem to have cast further doubt on the successful outcome of the constitutional reform devised by the presidential administration in cooperation with the Communist Party and the Socialist Party in order to shift the center of political power from the president toward the government and the parliament. The opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc believe that the constitutional reform is a ploy by incumbent President Leonid Kuchma intended to secure the current regime's control over the country in the event that Yushchenko wins the presidential elections. The Verkhovna Rada approved preliminarily a constitutional-reform bill in June. Now, during the ongoing parliamentary session, the bill must be backed by 300 lawmakers to become law. The desertions make such a vote extremely problematic, if not impossible.

On 13 September, President Kuchma met with leaders of caucuses of the pro-government coalition to discuss the situation in the legislature. The meeting was not attended by Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, the leader of the Popular Agrarian Party, whose lawmakers left the pro-government coalition. "[Kuchma] regrets when people do not understand that the [parliamentary] majority and the [constitutional] reform are necessary not for the president, but for Ukraine," Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary caucus head Leonid Kravchuk commented after the meeting. Kravchuk also expressed regret that the Ukrainian president has no constitutional power to dissolve the legislature in the event that it is incapable of forming a viable coalition to support the government.

Meanwhile, lawmaker Stepan Havrysh told journalists after the meeting with Kuchma that the pro-government coalition in the parliament "formally" consists of 230 lawmakers; that is, it still has a majority in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. "Lowering your trousers does not mean taking them off completely," Havrysh added in an apparent reference to the fact that 11 lawmakers from the Center group left the pro-government coalition for good, while 36 legislators from the Democratic Initiatives-People's Power caucus and the Popular Agrarian Party announced their "suspension" of participation in the alliance. It seems that only a parliamentary vote on some government-proposed bill might eventually clarify the situation in the Verkhovna Rada and show whether or not the notions of "withdrawal and "suspension" are essentially different for Ukrainian lawmakers.

The breakup of the pro-government parliamentary majority plays directly into the hands of Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the opposition alliance that sees Yushchenko as a likely winner of presidential elections in 2004 and is currently uninterested in any political reform curbing presidential prerogatives. But it is not unlikely that Prime Minister Yanukovych also opposes pursuing the constitutional reform in the hope that he, not Yushchenko, will grab the highest political post in Ukraine. It is noteworthy that television channels controlled by the presidential administration -- UT-1, 1+1, and Inter -- kept silent last week about the split in the parliamentary majority, while the Donetsk-based Ukrayina television station controlled by oligarch Rynat Akhmetov, Yanukovych's closest ally, reported extensively on the event. Thus it appears that a likely failure of political reform in Ukraine in 2004 is the most unwelcome prospect primarily for Kuchma and his chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk, who might find it hard to secure significant political roles under a new president.

Some Ukrainian commentators have argued that the main reason for the coalition split was economic rather than political. Lawmakers from the Democratic Initiatives-People's Power caucus suspended their participation in the pro-Kuchma majority citing a lack of coordination and communication between the government and people's deputies regarding privatization processes in Ukraine. Last week, Yanukovych's cabinet decided to pool state stakes in the Halychyna and Ukrtatnafta oil refineries with the basic capital of state-controlled oil company Ukrnafta. The move reportedly benefited the Pryvat business group -- whose interests are lobbied by the Labor Ukraine caucus in the Verkhovna Rada -- to the detriment of the so-called Kharkiv Group of deputies united in Democratic Initiatives-People's Power. Thus, in this context, the pullout of Democratic Initiatives-People's Power from the pro-Yanukovych parliamentary coalition might have been intended as a sort of blackmail applied to Yanukovych in particular and his cabinet in general.

On the other hand, the withdrawal of Lytvyn's agrarians from the pro-government coalition can be seen as an attempt by the Ukrainian parliamentary speaker -- who was previously head of the presidential administration -- to find a more distinct political role for himself in a post-Kuchma era. Opening the fall parliamentary session on 8 September, Lytvyn suggested that irrespective of who wins the presidential election, the winner will treat the Verkhovna Rada like his predecessors did -- that is, like a body expected to follow the political will of the head of state. Lytvyn expressed his indignation over "provocative disregard for constitutional norms" in the election campaign and said Ukraine suffers from "criminal" privatization and "total corruption." He also proposed creating a special parliamentary commission to monitor how election laws are observed in the presidential campaign. The commission was set up with votes from the opposition and lawmakers of the three factions that deserted the pro-government coalition.

It is hard to say whether the seeming disintegration of the pro-government coalition in the Verkhovna Rada might seriously impair Yanukovych's presidential bid. The executive machine in Ukraine and the government-controlled electronic media seem to work uninterruptedly to promote him as Kuchma's only possible successor. But last week's manifestation of defiance by some 50 lawmakers with regard to Kuchma and Yanukovych suggest that -- at a minimum -- Ukraine's political class perceives Kuchma's political legacy and Yanukovych's possible succession as neither unquestionable nor secure. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"To dupe the Russian political elite is not difficult. It likes to be fooled. Postimperial messianic complexes were always characteristic of the Russian political elite.... We are stubbornly seeking to impose the choice on our neighbors -- either Russia or the West.... But what can the Russian elite offer to its former neighbors from the communal apartment [Soviet Union]? Nothing aside from pompous talk about its grandeur, its historic mission, the messianic assignment of the Russian ethnos, etc. Of course, [it can offer] energy resources at domestic prices. This is a much more interesting topic, indeed. There will always be politicians who will be ready to pose for some time as 'pro-Russian' in exchange for [cheap energy resources], not just for a song. [Belarusian President] Alyaksandr Lukashenka has reached a virtuoso level in the business 'oil in exchange for grandeur.' Every year the pro-Russian Great Slav came to Moscow, signed another insignificant piece of paper about a deeper and final merger with Russia, broke a glass with vodka in the Kremlin, and went back home with a package of economic preferences worth $1 billion. Like a majority of poorly educated dictators of the 20th century, both great and small, Lukashenka is a natural-born genius in psychology. He has understood perfectly well all the complexes and fantasies of the Russia political elite and exploited them adeptly and greedily, but he has not assumed even for a moment that he would become merely a governor of Minsk or an oblast-committee secretary." -- Russian political scientist Andrei Piontkovskii in a commentary published on the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( on 10 September.