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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 23, 2004

23 November 2004, Volume 6, Number 43
PUTTING THE HEADLIGHTS OUT. Alyaksandr Lukashenka is not intending to change his course following the 17 October general elections and the referendum that opened an opportunity for him to run for the presidency an unlimited number of times. On the contrary, his address to lawmakers and government officials on 17 November, at a signing ceremony for amendments to the constitution in line with the 17 October referendum's official results, has indicated that Belarus will most likely wade even further into international self-isolation and political authoritarianism. In his two-hour speech, which dealt primarily with matters of domestic policy, Lukashenka also proposed many solutions for a wide range of everyday problems that he deems acute for his compatriots.

Just like shortly after the 2001 presidential elections, Lukashenka promised some liberalization in the country's private business sphere. That 2001 pledge has never materialized; on the contrary, the government has since introduced a huge number of directives, instructions, decrees, and laws that made developing private businesses much more problematic than before 2001. Belarusian analysts suggest that Lukashenka's current benevolence toward small businessmen -- whom he called "lousy fleas" in a famous quip in the 1990s -- should not be taken for granted, either.

"Many tens and hundreds of thousands of people from villages and cities want to run their own business, beginning from growing cucumbers and weaving baskets to writing modern computer programs," Lukashenka said. "They want to work without being urged on by supervisors.... They are welcome!" According to the Belarusian president, it was not the government's purposeful policy that prevented people from running their own businesses but "unthinkable bureaucratic impediments" as well as "innumerable inspections and requisitions" from unidentified and apparently malevolent state officials.

According to Lukashenka, there is no need to adopt new laws or annul old ones in order to develop the small-business sector in Belarus. "Begin acting in this direction," the Belarusian president told the government officials in attendance. He suggested that they might start with allowing people to register their businesses merely by way of declaration rather than through special permits or licenses.

As for the large state-owned companies, Lukashenka declared that everything will remain as before and there will be neither privatization nor liberalization. "The leading and profitable enterprises are to remain in the hands of the state -- that is, in the hands of the Belarusian people," Lukashenka said. "We are able to find investments for their development within our country. The employees of these enterprises, from ordinary workers to directors, are able to earn decently and have incomes above the average."

Subsequently Lukashenka devoted an extensive part of his speech to criticizing many aspects of Belarus's economic and social life that in his opinion demand immediate intervention on the part of the government. In particular, he blasted state-owned construction firms for not obeying his instruction to build houses for farmers for no more than $18,000 apiece; housing and estate administrations for charging high utility and housing payments; the state-owned retail sales network for cheating customers by using dishonest scales; and the state-run health service for refusing to render help to patients free of charge.

Lukashenka also made some interesting remarks on the state policy toward children. He tasked the government with drawing up regulations that would increase parents' responsibility for their children's upbringing. In 2003, Lukashenka noted, the parents of 4,200 children were deprived of their parental rights and the government had to spend some 16 billion Belarusian rubles ($7.4 million) to keep these children in orphanages. "Things should be arranged in such a way that parents themselves would have to bear the cost of maintaining children in orphanages, boarding schools, and foster homes," Lukashenka said. "If they drink away their money and don't work, we will force them to work and pay all they earn, and more."

Lukashenka also proposed that the government take control of sending sick children, including those affected by fallout from the Chornobyl nuclear accident, for treatment or recuperation abroad and limit this process only to "extreme cases." "Don't you see what children come back from abroad?" Lukashenka said. "That 'consumeristic' way of life, as people used to say in the Soviet era, has already engulfed all the youths in the country. Children return from abroad doubly infused with consumerism. We do not need such upbringing."

Additionally, in an apparent wish to address the problem of Belarus's shrinking population, the Belarusian president ordered the government to put a practical end to the adoption of Belarusian orphans by foreign families. "This process should be reduced to a minimum, practically to zero," Lukashenka stressed. "Our kids should be raised and educated by ourselves."

On 17 November, for the first time during his administration, Lukashenka expressed his dissatisfaction with the fact that more people come to settle in Belarus than emigrate from the country. Until recently this migration statistic has been a major item of Belarusian state propaganda, including the assertion that immigrants come to Belarus because the country is a haven for political freedom and social tranquility. Now, however, Lukashenka has pointed to the negative side of the issue. "Some 40,000 [annually] come for permanent residence in Belarus," Lukashenka said. "It's good as long as they are Soviet people who understand [us] and have the same way of thinking. But time is passing. Where are those Soviet, truly good foundations? They are no more today. Completely alien people come to live with us."

Apparently to prevent Belarus's "truly good foundations" from eroding, Lukashenka ordered the mayor of Minsk to remove French models "with grimy faces" on billboards along his route to work and employ Belarusian beauties to advertise domestic watches. "Take photos of our girls to advertise watches of our enterprise [the Luch plant in Minsk]," Lukashenka stressed. "And let them [foreigners] pay our girls for advertising imported watches." (RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that Cindy Crawford, even though she is not a French national, became the first casualty of Lukashenka's order to introduce more domestic flair in the advertising business in Minsk.)

Lukashenka also warned ministers against "the temptation to create laws for the entire country." His ire in this regard was presumably prompted by the recent directive of the Interior Ministry's State Vehicle Inspection ordering all Belarusian drivers, as is the rule in many European countries, to drive with their headlights on during the daytime from November through March in order to increase road safety. "The sun shines, there is as much light as you could wish for, but cars drive with their headlights on," Lukashenka noted. "Who gave you the right to change the traffic rules?" A day later, the Belarusian president issued a decree canceling this directive. Belapan reported on 19 November that the Interior Ministry has declined to comment on this latest presidential decree. (Jan Maksymiuk)

UKRAINE IN TURMOIL AFTER PRESIDENTIAL VOTE. Some 150,000 people took part in a rally on Independence Square in Kyiv in the evening of 22 November, protesting against what they see as the government's falsification of the previous day's presidential runoff between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. With 99.38 percent of the vote tallied, the Central Election Commission (TsVK) announced earlier in the day that Yanukovych won 49.42 percent of the vote to Yushchenko's 46.7 percent. Meanwhile, Yushchenko told the crowd on Independence Square that by resorting to massive fraud, primarily in Ukraine's eastern regions, the authorities stole 3.1 million votes from him and, consequently, his election victory.

Speaking to some 60,000 people on Independence Square in Kyiv earlier the same day, Yushchenko called on Ukrainians to organize popular resistance against the alleged vote fraud and defend his election victory. In addition, Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's political ally, has called on Ukrainians to launch a nationwide strike. Yushchenko's backers have pitched some 300 tents along Khreshchatyk, Kyiv's main thoroughfare, and are reportedly decided to stay in them until Yushchenko is declared the country's elected president. There have been also reports that Yushchenko's supporters are coming to Kyiv from the provinces despite police blockades of the roads around the capital and elsewhere in the country, while the authorities are bringing Yanukovych's adherents to Kyiv in buses.

In the meantime, local councilors in several cities in western Ukraine, including Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk, have adopted resolutions claiming that they will recognize only Yushchenko as the legitimate president and supporting the opposition call for a general strike. The Kyiv City Council has passed a resolution expressing distrust in the Central Election Commission. The opposition has also managed to collect 150 signatures among parliamentary deputies to call for an emergency session on 23 November to discuss the situation in the country and pass a vote of no confidence in the Central Election Commission. It is not clear how such a vote, if passed, could influence the official results of the 21 November ballot. Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn told journalists on 22 November that any resolution of the Verkhovna Rada on the TsVK would be only a "political gesture."

Both Western and domestic independent election monitors have concurred that the 21 November vote in Ukraine was far from democratic. The Committee of Voters of Ukraine (KVU), a nongovernmental electoral watchdog, reported on 21 November that illegal voting by absentee ballot was the biggest problem in the second round of the presidential election on 21 November, UNIAN reported. "Our observers have registered more than 100 buses carrying these people, and one can gather that tens of thousands [of people] have voted in this way," KVU head Ihor Popov told journalists.

The KVU also reported numerous incidents of assaults on observers and journalists, and even kidnappings. "Up to a dozen people have been kidnapped today by criminal-looking individuals," Popov claimed. Other alleged irregularities included preventing observers, both domestic and international, and journalists from entering polling stations, the use of counterfeit ballots, and the failure to sign or stamp ballot papers by some commission members.

The OSCE International Election Observation Mission for the Ukrainian presidential runoff said in its preliminary conclusions on 22 November that the vote did not meet a considerable number of democratic election standards. According to the OSCE mission, the Ukrainian executive authorities and the Central Election Commission "displayed a lack of will to conduct a genuine democratic election process." U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), President George W. Bush's special envoy for the Ukrainian election, said the Ukrainian government was involved in a "concerted and forceful program of election-day fraud and abuse."

However, the West's remonstrations against the Ukrainian ballot appear to carry little weight with the Ukrainian authorities. For them, much more important was the position of the Kremlin, which did not conceal its sympathies for Yanukovych during the election campaign. On 22 November, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly congratulated Yanukovych's on his election victory, saying that "the battle has been hard-fought, but open and honest."

It appears highly improbable that the Ukrainian authorities will yield under the current upsurge of anti-Yanukovych protests and declare Yushchenko the winner. Two other options seem to be more likely -- either the authorities will wait with Yanukovych's inauguration until the anti-government rebellion exhausts itself or, if the protests prove to be persistent and well-attended, the presidential ballot may be declared invalid and incumbent President Leonid Kuchma will continue to rule for another half a year in order to prepare a new election.

Yet, irrespective of the final outcome of the current standoff in Ukraine, it will be very problematic, if not impossible, for Kuchma to assure the political continuity to his regime, which he repeatedly urged during the election campaign. Ukraine seems to have waken up for a new political life, in which millions of people are no longer wishing to mutely endure electoral manipulations, official lies, and autocratic ways of governance. Seen from this perspective, Ukraine's presidential election of 2004 appears to be the most opportune event in Ukraine's 13 years of independence for politicians, both from the pro-Yanukovych and pro-Yushchenko camps, to practice the difficult art of political compromise in order to ensure the unity of the bitterly divided nation. (Jan Maksymiuk)

WHAT MIGHT A YANUKOVYCH PRESIDENCY BRING? If rapidly unfolding events in Kyiv do not reverse Viktor Yanukovych's seemingly insurmountable lead in official figures that have emerged in the wake of the Ukrainian presidential runoff on 21 November, his official triumph will not have been totally unexpected.

Most Western election monitors agree that enormous pressure was brought to bear on local officials, government agencies, and the media by the administration of Leonid Kuchma to ensure Yanukovych's election.

Yanukovych would assume leadership of a bitterly divided country. In such cases, the procedure might presumably be to attempt to heal rifts in society and at the same time fulfill campaign promises to the electorate. Given that many voters are alleged to have been coerced or paid to cast their ballots for him (some are believed to have cast them often), Yanukovych might arguably be more flexible in this respect.

Nonetheless, he would be expected to make good on some of his campaign pledges. Promises to increase government salaries and pensions are unrealistic and would require flooding the economy with new hryvnyas, and unless he was willing to risk a major rise in inflation, such economic promises would have to be shelved and more realistic measures adopted.

His proposal for dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship would require a change in the constitution, a difficult task under the best of circumstances but an even more formidable one under the pall of perceptions of electoral foul play.

In light of the furor it might cause amid postelection bitterness, Yanukovych's advisers might well urge him to bury his divisive pledge to make Russian the country's second official language.

As for Yanukovych's foreign policy, the West and Russia would need to carefully monitor his behavior on the following issues:

1. Ukrainian-Russian relations. The hyperactivity of the Russian political establishment in promoting Yanukovych would be a debt that Yanukovych would be expected to repay in full. Any future Ukrainian government would most likely acquiesce to Russian President Vladimir Putin's relentless drive to integrate large sectors of the Ukrainian economy with Russia's.

One important factor in the Ukrainian-Russian relationship is more difficult to decode: Does Yanukovych view himself as president of Ukraine or as governor of the "South Russian gubernia"? Do the managers of the Donetsk and other Ukrainian clans and financial-industrial groups wish to see Russian ministers interfere in their business dealings?

Anatolii Chubais recently proffered a concept of Russian "liberal imperialism," it should be kept in mind, which was not warmly received by the Ukrainian political or business elite regardless of their support or antipathy for Yanukovych.

The Single Economic Space (SES) would likely expand and become a more or less permanent feature in the region. This body, created at President Putin's initiative, seeks to first coordinate and then merge the economic might of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan into what some insist on calling a "customs union" or a "free trade zone" while others see it as another example of Russian economic imperialism.

If a President Yanukovych did the unlikely and allowed Putin a free hand in setting policy for the SES, the economic-imperialism view would likely predominate and the Ukrainian economy would be seen as becoming more beholden to Moscow. How this would affect potential investors is difficult to gauge.

As it stands today, a great deal of Ukrainian economic growth is dependent on cheap Russian and Turkmen energy resources. If Putin were to play the gas "card," which he mistakenly did in the case of the much more pro-Russian Belarus, a Yanukovych administration might respond in kind and block the gas pipeline that supplies 90 percent of Russian gas destined for Europe. By doing so, Ukraine could prevent billions of dollars from going to the Russian treasury.

The chances of this taking place would be slim, however. In all likelihood, a Yanukovych administration would be unlikely to veer far from the policies set by its predecessor. Yanukovych would weave and bob as the situation demanded in order to maintain a balance between Ukrainian corporate interests and those of its Russian neighbors.

Nonetheless, Yanukovych would not be expected to undo deals such as the one signed on 16 November whereby Russian state oil-pipeline company Transneft assumed control over Ukraine's oil-pipeline system for 15 years.

He is also conscious of the fact that beginning in January 2005, Ukraine will not be able to buy the 36 billion cubic meters of gas it needs every year directly from Turkmenistan but rather must do so from Russian Gazprom, in which the Russian state now holds a controlling stake.

2. Ukrainian-Polish relations could deteriorate to some degree under a Yanukovych administration. The Industrial Union of the Donbas has been involved in a dispute with Polish authorities over its desire to buy the Huty Stali Czestochowa steel mill due to Polish resistance to sell them that valuable asset. Yanukovych would likely lobby on behalf of the Industrial Union of the Donbas and risk being rejected in order to prove his loyalty to the Donetsk Clan.

Yet it is unlikely that Yanukovych would turn away from Poland altogether, given that Poland might remain his only open window to the West and Ukraine's only backer of the country's eventual EU membership.

3. Ukrainian-U.S. relations. Washington would certainly take a dim view of the manner in which Yanukovych was elected. His victory, however, might not have any great impact on relations between the two countries, given that relations were already visibly strained during the last five years of the Kuchma administration. Kuchma's alleged intention to sell an advanced radar system to Iraq, the still-unsolved murder of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, the reversal of the Odesa-Brody pipeline -- all have served to isolate Ukraine in Washington's eyes.

Ukrainian military participation in Iraq was meant to pacify the United States and rehabilitate Ukraine in the eyes of the Washington. Moscow understood this and did not protest when Ukrainian forces were dispatched to Iraq. Yanukovych has promised to withdraw this contingent and would likely keep that pledge.

4. The rise of the Donetsk clan. There can be little doubt that the strength and power of the Donetsk clan, the informal group of individuals and companies that controls much of industrial and financial life in the Donetsk region, would grow immeasurably under a Yanukovych administration. The old adage that "Kyiv makes policy while Donetsk makes money" is no longer accurate: Donetsk now makes both, and anyone who challenges this postulate might find himself in serious trouble.

The rise of the Donetsk clan would clearly affect Ukrainian steel and rolled-pipe exports to Russia, the largest buyer of those commodities. It is projected that by 2020, Russia will need to build up to 27,000 kilometers of new, large-diameter gas pipeline. Many of the enterprises that construct those items are controlled by the Donetsk clan and Viktor Pinchuk, a parliamentarian and outgoing President Kuchma's son-in-law, through his Interpipe group. This would help temper Russians from using the "energy card" against Ukraine.

5. Transparency and civil society. The rise of the Donetsk clan, many of whose cadres might be appointed to senior posts in a Yanukovych administration, would signal few advances for legality and rule of law in Ukraine in the coming five years. A clan purportedly built on violence, assassination, and ruthlessness could hardly be expected to bolster civil society.

Transparency would thus remain a largely alien concept in Ukraine.

In practical terms, law enforcement would thus remain largely under the control of the presidential administration, "guidance" of the press would remain the norm, and the scandals of the Kuchma administration might go unpunished.

The question of Ukrainian membership of NATO and the European Union saw little forward movement during the Kuchma years, and would be unlikely to gather momentum under Yanukovych. It should be noted that at least some of the motivation for keeping Ukraine isolated from the West lies in NATO and the European Union not wishing to upset Russia.

Russia by and large maintained official silence during deliberations on EU and NATO expansion, but Moscow was always present in the minds of Europeans eager to avoid angering their major supplier of energy by getting too cozy with Ukraine. (Roman Kupchinsky)

"Together, we won. The Ukrainian people won. That's a fact. I'm not going to talk about various exit polls. We are speaking on the basis of the true will of the people. We won, and that's it." -- Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko to a rally of some 50,000 backers in Kyiv on 22 November; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"[If the authorities fail to recognize Yushchenko's victory], we will simply take power in our hands, we will lead Viktor Andriyovych [Yushchenko] to the presidential administration office, where he will begin to issue decrees and appoint a new government." -- Yuliya Tymoshenko, a Yushchenko political ally, to a rally of some 150,000 backers in Kyiv on 22 November; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.