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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 21, 2004

21 September 2004, Volume 6, Number 34
LUKASHENKA SEES TO UNIVERSITY EDUCATION. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka launched the new academic year with an address at the University of Baranavichy, in which he said that it is "better to create universities" than have young people die from bullets. This aphorism was not only tactless -- in view of the hostage tragedy then unfolding in Beslan -- but was clearly meant as an apologia for his own regime. For, he implied, universities could only flourish in conditions of what he called "stability," which in the presidential newspeak is a synonym for his own authoritarian rule.

To underscore the point, a few days later, large numbers of Minsk schoolchildren were taken from their classrooms to what they understood would be a meeting of mourning and sympathy for the victims of the Beslan school siege in Russia, but which turned out to be the announcement of the forthcoming referendum on a change in the constitution designed to empower Lukashenka to extend his rule indefinitely.

His expressed concern for university education, however, had not stopped his officials, a few weeks earlier, from closing what had been viewed as a flagship for the post-Soviet reconstruction of Belarusian higher education, the privately funded European Humanities University (EHU) in Minsk. They used a cynical ploy: The lease on the buildings was cancelled, and then, before EHU could find alternative premises, its operating license was withdrawn on the grounds that it could not provide the basic classroom space required by health and safety regulations.

The true reason, however, was undoubtedly that the "Western-style" education provided by EHU did not please Lukashenka and his ideologues. Open pressure on the EHU had been going on for many months; indeed, there is some indication that as early as spring 2002 the rector, Anatol Mikhaylau, had received an unofficial warning not to let democracy go too far. The state authorities objected, in particular, to its extensive program of academic exchanges and visiting lecturers that, in the words of one official, were turning it into a "walk-through' courtyard.

The formal closure, at the height of the summer vacation, was clearly timed to minimize the response from the international academic community. Nevertheless, the impact abroad was considerable; the two leading English-language higher-education weeklies "The Times Higher Education Supplement" and "The Chronicle of Higher Education" gave the closure extensive coverage. There were expressions of concern from the European Union, the international education organizations Europaeum and Campus Europae, and from foreign universities that had exchange agreements with the EHU. Several of the latter -- in Poland, Germany, and the United States -- offered free places to EHU students. In Russia, the St. Petersburg Smolnyi Institute offered a 40 percent discount on fees to 200 ex-EHU students.

These offers were of considerable importance. Many of the EHU courses had no parallel in the Belarusian state system, and transfer to another university in Belarus would have meant the students having to start their university course again from the beginning. There were fears, too, that those who could find a place in a state university might face difficulties. Gesine Schwan, president of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder, who last year supervised a management course at EHU, told the newspaper "Die Tageszeitung" that she feared that during the coming year the ex-EHU students would face a continual battery of examinations, and that these tests would then be used as an excuse to drop up to two-thirds of them from their courses, thus "justifying" the closure of EHU on the grounds that its standards were too low.

Such examinations have, in fact, already begun, not only to check the ex-EHU students knowledge, but also to control their activities. One such student who intended to visit Vilnius next weekend for a "democracy-building" meeting hosted by the Lithuanian chapter of the European Youth Parliament must instead take an unscheduled examination on 25 September or else lose her university place.

The regime's dislike of international contacts was typified -- a few days before the closure of EHU -- by the expulsion from Belarus of Dr Alan Flowers of Kingston University, a physicist studying the aftermath of the 1986 nuclear explosion at Chornobyl. No official reason for Flowers' expulsion has so far been given. However, one student prominent in pro-democracy activities, and who is therefore regularly called in by the KGB, reports being told during the course of one such conversation that Flowers was expelled not because of his Chornobyl-related work but on account of his "active interference in politic life of Belarus under the cover of academic objectives." Flowers, in fact, has always been careful while in Belarus to steer clear of what in the West would be termed "politics"; he has never had any contact with any political parties, groups, or fractions. What he has done, however, is to foster pro-democracy activities among Belarusian students -- debate and discussion clubs -- and to assist them to participate in such activities at an international level. And such activities are less and less possible now in Belarusian universities. As one ex-EHU psychology student mourned, "We have lost the possibility to participate openly in the European process, because now we are the students of state universities, in which it is not safe to show your pro-Europeans views."

At another private university with strong international links -- the International Sakharov Environmental University (ISEU) -- during the past year the new, state-appointed rector, Syamyon Kundas, seems determined to save his institution from the fate of the EHU. In a clampdown that seems strangely inappropriate in a university named after a champion of free speech and democracy, student debating clubs have been banned and all the pro-rectors appointed by Kundas's predecessor have been replaced, because, as one expressed it, "we did not sing to the same tune."

ISEU students have been quick to take the hint. When an ISEU drama group appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, they fielded reporters' questions on the situation in Belarus with the bland comment "We are not interested in politics." A disclaimer, however, which was somewhat difficult to accept at face value, since the surreal entertainment they were presenting was entitled "Think about Freedom!" But in Belarus, alas, doublespeak is becoming an increasingly important, if unacknowledged, part of the university syllabus. (Vera Rich)

POISONING IMPAIRS YUSHCHENKO'S ELECTION CAMPAIGN. Two weeks ago, leading opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko stopped his election tour of Ukrainian regions and "disappeared" from the political arena in Ukraine. The first news as to what happened to the Our Ukraine leader came a week later, when his personal website ( announced on 13 September that Yushchenko had recovered from a bout of "acute poisoning" and was getting ready to continue his election campaign trips. Yushchenko's spokeswoman, Iryna Herashchenko, was quoted as saying that Yushchenko was in good physical condition.

Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko's campaign manager, caused a sensation on 17 September by announcing that Yushchenko's recent bout of poisoning may have resulted from an intentional attempt on his life. Zinchenko quoted doctors from a clinic in Vienna, who examined Yushchenko, as saying that Yushchenko's ailment was caused by "a viral infection and chemical substances that usually are not contained in foodstuffs." Since the examination in Vienna was made six days after the poisoning, Zinchenko added, it proved impossible for the doctors to identify what "chemical substances" might have been involved.

Ukrainian independent media have since somewhat elucidated the situation around Yushchenko's unexpected and mysterious ailment. Yushchenko fell ill on 6 September, suffering from an acute headache and pains in his abdomen, chest, and face the following day. His facial nerves were paralyzed. Ukrainian doctors diagnosed his illness as gastric flu and received relevant treatment. Yushchenko's physical condition, however, deteriorated, and his election staff decided to send him for an examination to the Rudolferhaus clinic in Vienna, where he arrived on the evening of 9 September. Austrian doctors diagnosed Yushchenko's illness as acute pancreatitis -- inflammation of the gland that secretes digestive enzymes as well as the hormones insulin and glucagon to the stomach -- and concluded that it could not be caused by food poisoning alone. Ukrainian surgeon Mykola Korpan, who works in Rudolferhaus, told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 20 September that Yushchenko's condition had been "stabilized" by Rudolferhaus doctors. Korpan added that the poisoning posed a direct danger to Yushchenko's life.

Yushchenko returned to Kyiv on 18 September to take part in a 70,000-strong rally organized by his election staff under the motto "Come and Listen." The Kyiv rally was broadcast by Channel 5, the only television channel in Ukraine backing Yushchenko's presidential bid, and transmitted live to big screens in a number of Ukrainian cities where Yushchenko's supporters gathered for local "Come and Listen" meetings. People were reportedly shocked or at least embarrassed to see Yushchenko looking so deathly ill, with a visibly swollen and half-paralyzed face, who had difficulties reading his text and frequently resorted to using his handkerchief because of excessive salivation. What was planned as a triumphant return of Yushchenko to the election campaign, apparently turned into a grave advertising miscalculation. Rumors, kindled by the government-controlled media, have begun to circulate in Ukraine to the effect that Yushchenko has suffered an apoplectic stroke or a heart attack that may have lasting consequences for his physical and mental abilities. Instead of a feeling of compassion for Yushchenko as a potential victim of poisoning by his political adversaries, people may have developed the suspicion that their candidate is inadequate for the post he aspires to.

According to some commentators, Yushchenko's election staff made a serious mistake by publicizing the allegations about a deliberate attempt on his life too late, just a day before the rally in Kyiv. Besides, instead of clearly delineating who might be interested in liquidating Yushchenko, his campaign manager, Zinchenko, resorted to publicizing physiological aspects of the candidate's illness, thus baffling rather than enlightening ordinary voters. What's more, Zinchenko supplied the government-controlled media with ammunition to present Yushchenko's bout of poisoning as a farcical incident rather than a potentially lethal one.

A majority of Ukrainians remained ignorant about Yushchenko's real condition on 18 September, when state-run and oligarchic media began to issue sarcastic reports suggesting that Yushchenko suffered from poisoning from some exotic food or just alcohol. "I would recommend checking food before consumption in order to avoid stomach problems," Vasyl Baziv, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, told journalists on 17 September, thus establishing the tone of official comments on Yushchenko's condition. "Let Zinchenko taste the food first, before Yushchenko begins to eat it.... That's what rulers did in the Middle Ages," Baziv added.

It is perhaps characteristic of the atmosphere of the presidential election campaign in Ukraine that none of the 25 presidential candidates, Yushchenko's rivals, has expressed public sympathy with Yushchenko or wished him a quick recovery. Instead, the general mood among Yushchenko's adversaries seems to have been defined by marginal presidential candidate Yuriy Zbitnev, who publicly advised that Yushchenko should request that a paramedic give him an enema in order to overcome his health problems.

Yushchenko's staff apparently understood its mistake -- and potential damaging effects of this mistake to Yushchenko's standing as a presidential candidate -- on 21 September. On this day Our Ukraine's lawmakers demanded that the Verkhovna Rada form a special commission to investigate the reasons behind Yushchenko's health crisis. More than 400 lawmakers in the 450-seat legislature supported this measure. And the message that Yushchenko sent to his electorate on 21 September was unambiguously clear. "I am not a gourmand relishing in Eastern or Western cuisines," Yushchenko said in the Verkhovna Rada. "I eat the same borsch, potatoes, and pork fat as you, as 47 million people in Ukraine.... What happened to me is not linked to a food problem. What happened to me is a problem linked to the political regime in Ukraine."

On the other hand, the Prosecutor-General's Office on 20 September begun a separate inquiry into the public allegations that Yushchenko's recent bout of poisoning may have been caused by a deliberate attempt on his life. For the next several weeks, the problem of Yushchenko's poisoning is set to dominate the presidential election agenda in Ukraine. It remains to be seen who will win this propagandistic duel -- Yushchenko or his main rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

It is already evident, however, that Yushchenko has irrevocably lost two weeks of campaigning, which may gravely impair his presidential bid. Because of the blockade of positive information about Yushchenko in state-controlled and oligarchic media, his election campaign was built on regional tours and direct meetings with voters. The schedule of these meetings has now been seriously disorganized, and Yushchenko's election staff seems presently to be at a loss how to proceed. Moreover, it is not clear whether Yushchenko's health will allow him to continue his election trips. The doctors said they have "stabilized" his condition, but they did not say that they have ensured his recovery. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"Look at what a beautiful place the 1,000-year-old Vaukavysk has turned into thanks to our efforts, against the wishes of those who have been whining that 'the country is in crisis' and attempting to veer the country off the path of constructive work. The appearance of dozens, hundreds of cities and towns across Belarus has been improved as well.... Yes, this has required hard labor. Both ministers, lower-ranking officials, and ordinary workers have been groaning. It is hard. But should this drive and pressure and energy coming from me stop, everything will wither away and fall into decay, as was the case in the early 1990s. We cannot let this happen. We've had enough of experiments." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a national harvest festival in Vaukavysk in western Belarus on 18 September; quoted by Belapan.

"I have visited all of you and seen that the current authorities are in their death throes. However, you cannot see this on television. Television channels are switched off and newspapers are shut down for a single word of truth. The television screen has become a distorting mirror. We cannot recognize ourselves or our country on it. This lying information has set our teeth on edge. But we cannot be fooled. This authorities fear to look the truth in the face. The authorities fear us, and not without good reason. The bandits in power understand: The [presidential] elections will be a verdict passed on the authorities by the people. Bandits will go to jail!" -- Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko at a rally of some 70,000 in Kyiv on 18 September; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.