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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 4, 2003

4 November 2003, Volume 5, Number 41
AUTHORITIES CONTINUE TO CURB PRO-DEMOCRACY ACTIVISM. Uta Zapf, chairwoman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly's ad hoc working group on Belarus, has condemned recent closures of Belarusian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The reasons given for the closures have formally been "technical violations" of the regulations on the formation and operation of NGOs. However, she told a Minsk news conference on 1 November at the end of a three-day fact-finding visit, "the sheer number of the closures leads one to suspect a political motive."

The NGOs so closed include the Youth Christian Social Union, Civil Initiatives, Varuta (named after a semi-legendary castle), Kontur (Contour), Ratusha (City Hall), the Association for Legal Assistance to the Population, Zhanochy Adkaz (Women�s Reply), Vyasna (Spring), and the Independent Society of Legal Studies -- all concerned in some way or another with the promotion of democracy and/or the monitoring of human rights violations. Two other, similar organizations -- the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Leu Sapeha Foundation -- recently received warnings from the courts, and fear that they will be closed in the near future.

The OSCE working group regards these closures as a "very negative step" on the part of the authorities and urges them to "seek genuine cooperation with these organizations, rather than undermining their very existence," Zapf said.

The "technical violations" are often of an extremely petty nature. Young people trying to register a Belarusian chapter of the European Youth Parliament were told that their documents were not in order since the letterhead on the various documents did not match. (The original letterhead was colored, whereas the necessary photocopied duplicates were in black and white!)

Similar difficulties are reported by churches officially considered "nontraditional" in Belarus. The pastor of the Minsk Calvinist community, Alyaksey Fralou, recently told the Forum-18 news service that although in the 16th century there were "hundreds of Calvinist communities" in Belarus, today's authorities "forgot" this fact when drafting the 2002 law on religion. As a result, the Minsk Calvinists have so far not received the official permission they need to be able to conduct religious services legally.

Zapf's visit to Minsk coincided with several significant events. The House of Representatives approved amendments to the law on public meetings, tightening up the restrictions to bring the law into line with presidential edicts No. 36 of 9 September 1999 and No. 11 of 7 May 2001. In particular, the amendments specify that a political party may be closed down for a single serious violation of the regulations during a single event, including causing material damage to the value of more than $80,000, or failure to prevent disturbances that constitute a risk to life or health. They also abolish the possibility of holding gatherings at short notice when "a quick public reaction to events in the country and abroad that could significantly affect interests of the Belarusian nation, the fate of other peoples, states, and the whole international community." Until now, at least in theory, the law allowed such an emergency meeting or rally to be held at five days notice instead of the usual 15. This provision has now been cancelled, on the grounds that it violated the procedures for considering applications.

Even when permission is granted for such events, the restrictions often nullify their impact. Pro-democracy rallies, demonstrations, and pickets, which for maximum effect would need to take place in the center of Minsk or outside the relevant building, are routinely relegated to Bangalore Square on the outskirts of the city. Noncompliance brings swift retribution. Thus, during Zapf's visit, Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, leader of the independent Union of Automobile and Agricultural Implement Workers, received a 10-day jail sentence for staging a one-man picket in defense of workers' rights, not -- as per permission -- on Bangalore Square, but on Kastrychnickaya Square in the city center.

His defiance is by no means unique. After the court verdict "closing" Vyasna, its head, Ales Byalatski, stated that the organization nevertheless would continue to exist and carry out its work of monitoring human rights violations. Even more significantly, on 1 November, some 20 representatives of pro-democracy NGOs and political parties and also certain individuals on their own behalf signed a declaration establishing a new organization called the European Coalition Free Belarus. This, the declaration says, aims to foster the "European traditions and ideals of Belarus" which were "violently interrupted 200 years ago" (i.e. by the incorporation of Belarus into the Russian Tsarist empire), in accordance with the "European inclinations of the majority of the Belarusian population" and contrary to the "anti-European policies and actions of the current authorities" (see also item below).

Precisely the kind of organization, in Zapf's opinion, a Belarusian government should be eager to foster. But unless the current regime has a sudden change of heart, the founders and signatories of the new coalition must surely fear it will be yet another target for harassment and repression.

This report was written by Vera Rich, a London-based freelance researcher.

OPPOSITION FORMS NEW PRO-EUROPEAN ALLIANCE. Mikalay Statkevich, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), announced in Minsk on 1 November the formation of a new opposition coalition that will seek closer ties with the European Union, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. The European Coalition Free Belarus, as the new formation is called, in addition to Statkevich's party will include the Belarusian Women's Party Hope, the Youth Front, the Free Belarus bloc based on the Charter-97 opposition group, and some 20 other organizations.

"The goal of this coalition is very noble -- to give a European future to our people," Statkevich told journalists. "We realize that this is a colossal task, and we are looking for supporters of this idea. We are not looking for enemies, this is not a coalition directed against anybody. We will win if people who formerly took different positions support the idea of a common Europe."

Statkevich stressed that the European Coalition Free Belarus should not be perceived as a political rival of another opposition alliance composed of five political parties: the United Civic Party, the Belarusian Popular Front, the Belarusian Party of Labor, the Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly, and the Belarusian Party of Communists. "We are in favor of unification of all democratic forces. We believe that today we have created the foundation for building a single democratic alliance," he said.

Statkevich said the new coalition will seek to create "pro-European" election block during election campaigns in Belarus. (Jan Maksymiuk)

YUSHCHENKO PREVENTED FROM HOLDING CONVENTION IN DONETSK. The Our Ukraine bloc led by Viktor Yushchenko failed to hold a congress of democratic forces planned in Donetsk on 31 October. After arriving in Donetsk that day, Yushchenko and his supporters were confronted with hostile crowds both at the local airport and in downtown Donetsk in what looked like a highly coordinated effort to prevent the Our Ukraine gathering and fan anti-Yushchenko sentiments in the city. The entire city was adorned with billboards with an image of Yushchenko in a Nazi uniform extending his hand in a Nazi salute and calling for the "purity of the nation." Some 1,500 mainly young and drunk people filled the planned venue and effectively prevented Our Ukraine from holding the congress. Neither the police nor officers of the Security Service did anything to stop them. Yushchenko pointed to the presidential administration in Kyiv as an organizer of this obstruction but, judging by many press reports on what happened in Donetsk on 31 October, the truth may be a little more complex.

Yushchenko, 49, is Ukraine's most popular politician and a sure contender in the presidential election that is expected to be held a year from now, on 31 October 2004. Yushchenko has very strong support in western Ukraine, quite good backing in the center of the country, but only scanty support in eastern regions, such as Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, or Luhansk. These are overwhelmingly Russian-speaking regions, where people treat "Ukrainian-speaking nationalists" from western Ukraine with distrust, to say the least. Yushchenko, though he was born in Sumy Oblast in northeastern Ukraine and avoids any radicalism in the sensitive language issue, is nevertheless perceived in the traditionally pro-Russian eastern Ukraine as a "nationalist." The congress in Donetsk was intended to change this image and allow Yushchenko to get a sort of foothold in the region, which is controlled both economically and politically by a group of oligarchs known as the Donetsk clan (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 26 November and 10 December 2002).

Neither President Leonid Kuchma nor Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (a member of the Donetsk clan) are interested in allowing Yushchenko to become president in 2004. Kuchma, who is forbidden by the constitution to run for the post of president for a third time in a row, is now confronted with the difficult task of finding a successor that could guarantee him a quiet retirement. Obviously, Yushchenko is not his choice. Yanukovych, according to many observers, may be harboring presidential ambitions himself. Therefore, it is no wonder that both the presidential administration headed by Social Democratic Party-united leader Viktor Medvedchuk and Yanukovych may be vitally interested in preventing Yushchenko from reaching the electorate in Ukraine. A confidential instruction of the presidential administration to the heads of oblast administrations (governors) -- which was presented by some Ukrainian newspapers and personally by Yushchenko on RFE/RL on 31 October -- obliges governors to take a number of countermeasures to "minimize the public and political resonance" of democratic forums organized by Our Ukraine in the regions. The events in Donetsk on 31 October, according to many observers, developed in accordance with this instruction.

According to many Ukrainian publications, including the "Ukrayinska pravda" website and the "Grani" weekly, the plan of "countermeasures" against Yushchenko in Donetsk was coordinated by Donetsk Oblast Council head Borys Kolesnykov, Donetsk Oblast Governor Anatoliy Bliznyuk, and Donetsk Oblast Deputy Governor Vasyl Dzharta. The entire "anti-Yushchenko operation" was also allegedly supported by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest oligarch whom many call the "real boss" of Donetsk and the backbone of the Donetsk clan.

Anti-Yushchenko groups in Donetsk consisted mainly of students (from colleges and vocational training schools) and outdoor market vendors. Some of the students were reportedly paid 20-40 hryvnyas ($3.75-$7) for their participation in the anti-Yushchenko action. Most of them were treated to free beer and, to a lesser extent, free vodka. Vendors were reportedly released from paying market fees for three days; additionally, they were threatened that they would lose their market places if they failed to appear at the anti-Yushchenko rally. Every group of 10-15 anti-Yushchenko demonstrators had a "leader" -- usually a young man with a shaved head -- who told them what anti-Yushchenko slogans to shout and when. The weekly "Grani" called these young men "Akhmetovjugend" but did not provide more details about their organizational affiliation.

"All who are today involved in politics and want to feel spicy sensations, while not anticipating the reaction of the Ukrainian people to this, should most likely secure themselves with pampers instead of engaging themselves in politics," Prime Minister Yanukovych commented on the Donetsk events, adding that Our Ukraine forgot to "measure the temperature" in the city before it went to hold a congress there. Ukrainian commentators perceive this comment as Yanukovych's unambiguous approval for how the Donetsk authorities welcomed Yushchenko in the city. Moreover, according to some reports that were corroborated later by Yushchenko, the firm that placed billboards with the Our Ukraine leader in a Nazi uniform belongs to Yanukovych's son. At first glance, it may appear that Yanukovych came out the winner of this clash with Yushchenko in Donetsk, which is seen by many as an unofficial inauguration of the 2004 presidential election campaign in Ukraine.

However, some aspects of the anti-Yushchenko hullabaloo in Donetsk may be extremely uncomfortable for Yanukovych as a potential rival of Yushchenko in the presidential election. For example, many anti-Yushchenko demonstrators waved Russian flags and shouted insulting remarks about the Ukrainian language. These two things alone, even apart from the heavy-handed orchestration of "popular protest" in Donetsk against Yushchenko, hardly present Yanukovych in a positive light, as a potential leader to be accepted by most Ukrainians. After all, a national leader should not be associated with any denigration of the indigenous language or culture of the country he runs or is going to run. Thus, it seems that someone, either in the Donetsk clan or in the presidential administration, intentionally "overstretched" the anti-Yushchenko protest in Donetsk "in the eastern direction" in order to make Yanukovych's chances to be chosen by Kuchma as his successor less probable.

Yushchenko's lesson from Donetsk is bitter. Some even speculated that Yushchenko might be able to strike a deal with the Donetsk oligarchs ahead of the presidential election. For example, they could support his presidential bid, while he, after being elected president, would appoint a prime minister proposed by them. Now it is clear that Yushchenko and the Donetsk oligarchs are at war, and he cannot count on tapping their financial resources or using their political clout in eastern Ukraine. Our Ukraine's alliance with a political force that is not seen in eastern Ukraine as a "nationalist" and/or "anti-Russian" now seems to be a must if Yushchenko wants to be a serious presidential rival to the candidate fielded by the "party of power" and the oligarchs. Since Our Ukraine's election alliance with the Communist Party of Petro Symonenko seems to be one of the least probable political developments in Ukraine, one should now expect a warming of relations between Yushchenko and Oleksandr Moroz, leader of the Socialist Party of Ukraine. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"[Russia] is a mad country. We do not want to live like you. There are, perhaps, only two or three people in Belarus who want to live like you." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a prerecorded television program broadcast by Russia's NTV on 31 October; quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 3 November.

"My father was a prisoner of Auschwitz for your sake, lackeys!" -- Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in Donetsk on 31 October, on seeing billboards depicting him in a Nazi uniform with a hand extended in a Nazi salute; quoted by "Grani" on 3 November.

"The conflict around Tuzla is practically wrecking all of Russia's plans regarding Ukraine. It is wrecking the ratification of the accord on the Single Economic Space. It is wrecking the implementation of some military doctrines that Russia has planned to develop jointly with Ukraine. It is also ruining Russia's international image.... We can see that, following the outbreak of this conflict, Russia has lost its magic influence on a part of Ukraine's pro-Russian population. In other words, a consolidation of the nation has begun [in Ukraine].... This conflict is detaching the people of Russia from those of Ukraine.... Therefore, Ukraine should not tremble today and seek to settle the conflict by giving away part of its territory to Russia. Ukraine should take an iron-concrete stand on its frontier and make a fortress of this island [Tuzla].... There is no need today to hold talks at any price [with Russia]. We have to build a unity of the nation around this incident." -- Ukrainian opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko in an interview with Hromadske Radio on 31 October.