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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 18, 2003

18 November 2003, Volume 5, Number 43
OUR UKRAINE COMPLAINS OF CAMPAIGN DISRUPTIONS BY GOVERNMENT. Supporters of Ukraine's largest opposition bloc, Our Ukraine, are blaming the government for disrupting a series of meetings across the country organized to explain the party's platform to potential voters.

Viktor Yushchenko is the leader of Our Ukraine, a candidate in next year's presidential election, and -- according to polls -- the country's most popular politician. Yushchenko and Our Ukraine accuse regional officials of disrupting a rally two weeks ago in the eastern city of Donetsk by packing a previously booked hall with hundreds of anti-Yushchenko demonstrators (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 4 November 2003). The party says many of the demonstrators were drunk and alleges they had been paid to take part. Our Ukraine also says police and local officials tried to block Yushchenko and his group from disembarking from their plane and leaving Donetsk airport.

Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said Our Ukraine had not "coordinated" with Donetsk police to hold the rally.

Yushchenko says he has no doubt the government is responsible for the attempts to wreck his party's meetings. He told RFE/RL he has a copy of a confidential document, allegedly originating from the office of the presidential administration, that includes instructions to local authorities for how to oppose Our Ukraine rallies, saying, "This was handed to us by competent sources from several regional authorities -- people whom we trust."

Yushchenko said the document contains advice on how to disrupt appearances by himself and his supporters, how to prevent well-known local figures from taking part in rallies, and how to infiltrate anti-Yushchenko people into rally venues.

The document is similar to instructions alleged to have been distributed by the presidential administration to Ukrainian newspapers, TV, and radio. Called "temnyky," the alleged documents instructed the media on how to handle the news to cast the government in the best light and to besmirch the opposition. It was leaked to opposition members of parliament earlier this year and then made public.

Yushchenko says the government's actions show why Ukrainians need to elect a president that will oversee a government committed to the democratic rights enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution. "The constitution does not work in Ukraine and these fundamental rights for [free] assembly and the conduct of meetings, as has been shown in Donetsk, don't work," he said.

Serhiy Vasylyev is the head of the presidential administration's press and information policy department and is the person accused of authoring the "temnyky." In an interview with RFE/RL, he denied that the "temnyky" or the new document Yushchenko claims to have were distributed by his office.

"From the moment the opposition started to attack the presidential administration, there have been so many declarations about various documents, beginning with those associated with my field of work, the so-called 'temnyky' -- which were written by others but are attributed to the presidential administration and directly to me -- and other so-called documents referred to by Mr. Yushchenko and other members of the opposition. So many of them have been mentioned that, in all seriousness, I don't want to speak about them," Vasylyev said.

Vasylyev said that, in the run-up to the election, many unsubstantiated allegations have been made by enemies of the Ukrainian government. He said the accusations now being made by Yushchenko should be viewed with that in mind. "What Viktor Yushchenko says is one thing, and what the truth may be is another," he said.

He said the document Yushchenko claims to have should be subjected to expert examination. He said there are many identifying marks on genuine official documents that prove they are the real thing. "The document that Mr. Yushchenko displays is not proof that the presidential administration is really responsible for what Mr. Yushchenko accuses it of," Vasylyev said.

In addition to Donetsk, similar campaign disruptions occurred on 9 November in the northern city of Sumy. Our Ukraine officials claim local authorities mobilized police and paid demonstrators to prevent a rally, which eventually was held in the open air instead of in a hall. The tires of some 30 buses scheduled to carry Our Ukraine members to the rally were slashed. Police detained activists distributing Our Ukraine literature.

Vasylyev said he does not believe the version of events from Donetsk and Sumy that is being put forward by Our Ukraine. He suggested the authorities in those cities did not abuse their powers and that people were merely exercising their democratic rights to oppose Our Ukraine. "The streets were filled with representatives of society. The streets were filled with the electorate, which either will or will not vote for Yushchenko. That's their right. That's democracy in this country," he said.

Our Ukraine says such rallies are essential because the country's mass media gives little or no coverage to opposition parties.

Western diplomats and institutions have criticized the campaign disruptions. The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst, said interference in the campaign efforts of Our Ukraine is a "matter of concern."

The Council of Europe, of which Ukraine is a member, monitors whether governments adhere to democratic standards. Hanne Severinsen is the representative to Ukraine for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). She told RFE/RL that one of the most important human rights is the right to peaceful assembly and that if Ukrainian authorities do not ensure that right, free elections are impossible.

"If one of the most popular blocs and one of the most popular politicians cannot hold a rally without being disturbed, then I think we will have really an attempt to disrupt this [presidential election] campaign," Severinsen said.

She said local authorities loyal to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma likely believe that using their powers to disrupt opposition activities is considered part of their duty. Severinsen said Kuchma must ensure every political party in Ukraine has the right to hold meetings freely. "Kuchma promised [on 10 November] the American ambassador that there should be both democratic and transparent elections. So what he says is very fine, but if his authorities do not do anything, he is responsible," she said.

Severinsen visited Ukraine to speak with journalists and members of parliament about censorship during the election campaign. She said she will report back to her colleagues at PACE that the "temnyky" are having a considerable effect. "I will report on the meeting I had on [10 November] and about how 'temnyky' really seem to be influential in the way media, especially electronic media, now cover everything," she said. "If you look at the different TV stations, they have the same news in the same order. This is something new and, in a way, more efficient than when some of [the journalists] feared for their lives and then were courageous [enough to defy them]. But now they are uniform."

Vasylyev, the head of the presidential administration's press and information policy department, believes Severinsen is being duped by the opposition. "They have made her -- Mrs. Severinsen -- a 'zaruchnyk' [an instrument] in a political game," he said. "They have made her an instrument by which opposition groups try to influence the situation beyond Ukraine's frontiers by exploiting the name of the Council of Europe. Mrs. Severinsen obviously does not, because she does not possess complete information, or by using information from only one source publicizes things that really do not correspond to the truth."

Severinsen said PACE is setting up a special commission of observers to monitor the presidential election in Ukraine, which is scheduled for October 2004. She says it will begin its work in February.

RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky wrote this report.

LACK OF ACTION ON TRANSDNIESTER AFFECTS KYIV, CHISINAU. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma met in Chisinau on 13 November with his Moldovan counterpart, Vladimir Voronin. Kuchma's two-day official visit to neighboring Moldova includes the signing of several bilateral agreements, as well as meetings with Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev and parliamentary speaker Eugenia Ostapciuc.

Voronin said after his meeting with Kuchma that relations between the two neighbors are excellent. "We have no outstanding issues with Ukraine, and we have the good intention of turning our bilateral relationship into a model for the whole of Europe," Voronin said.

Analysts agree the most important issue between Moldova and Ukraine remains the settlement of the dispute between Moldova and its breakaway Transdniester region. Ukraine is part of the tripartite mediating team in the dispute, along with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Kuchma told reporters that Ukraine wants a negotiated settlement of the dispute. "I understand that the Transdniester problem is important not only for Moldova, although we can say that it is the most important Moldovan grievance," he said. "It is indisputably important for Ukraine, too, for we are interested to have a stable state as a neighbor. The Ukrainian side has reiterated its firm principles on this issue -- no interference in [Moldova's] domestic affairs and respect for Moldova's territorial integrity, as well as the need to resolve the issue by negotiations."

Under a 1999 OSCE accord, Russia agreed to withdraw tens of thousands of tons of military equipment and 2,000 troops from Transdniester by the end of last year. But Moscow did not observe last year's deadline, which was extended until December of this year. So far, it appears that Moscow will fail again to meet the deadline.

Moldovan affairs analyst Vladimir Socor of the Washington-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS) says that neither Moldova nor Ukraine is happy with the prolonged presence of Russian troops in the region. Socor told RFE/RL that the Russian withdrawal from Transdniester is what he called a "test" for the embattled Kuchma, who is facing growing pressure at home from the opposition.

"The situation in Transdniester represents a test for the statesman which Ukrainian President [Leonid] Kuchma is, or wishes to be. I am sure that both Ukraine and President Kuchma do not want to perpetuate the Russian military presence in Transdniester, which represents a thorn in Ukraine's side," Socor said.

But Socor says Ukraine has no real weight in the mediation process. "Ukraine is just a spectator in the Transdniester negotiations," he said. "Ukraine was included in the so-called tripartite mediation mechanism at the initiative of Yevgenii Primakov when he was foreign minister of Russia. The aim was that this mechanism, categorically dominated by Russia, looks less Russian. Kyiv has neither the will nor the capacity to compete with Russia for political influence in Transdniester. Ukraine does not have this capacity."

Moldova says the least Ukraine could do to help settle the dispute is agree to step up controls at the border with Transdniester.

Transdniester, a narrow strip of land along the left bank of the river Dniester, is sandwiched between Moldova proper and Ukraine. Pro-Russian Transdniester separatists broke away from Romanian-speaking Moldova in 1990 over fears of possible reunification between Chisinau and Bucharest. The separatists have been constantly accused of the large-scale production and smuggling of drugs, arms, and human beings into Ukraine and Russia, which reportedly earns the separatist regime an estimated $1 billion annually in illicit revenue. Furthermore, arms smuggled from Transdniester have reportedly ended up in the hands of international terrorist networks.

Moldovan officials, who have no control over the border posts between Transdniester and Ukraine, have long tried to persuade Kyiv to permit Moldovan customs officers to operate on the Ukrainian side of the border to stifle contraband. But Kyiv, despite initially accepting the proposal in September 2001, expelled the Moldovan officials after less than 24 hours.

Analyst Socor says some top Ukrainian officials, as well as local ones, have a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. "First of all, Ukraine tolerates Transdniester's foreign trade," he said. "Ukraine agreed to impose strict controls on imports into Transdniester, but has left exports from Transdniester completely free. Almost certainly, local officials and local trade interests along the border with Transdniester are benefiting from this trade. Some officials in Kyiv have attempted to curb the illegal trade on the border with Transdniester, but their efforts have been hampered by other officials in Kyiv, which means that some senior officials in [Ukrainian] President [Leonid] Kuchma's administration probably benefit from the illegal trade."

But international organizations have repeatedly warned Kyiv to act against the contraband if it wants better political and economic ties with the West.

Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has been eyeing membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as improved cooperation with an expanding European Union, in order to alleviate grave economic problems.

Socor says current Ukrainian policy on the border with Transdniester is benefiting a minority of corrupt Ukrainian officials, but works against Ukraine's national interests. "Both the European Union and the World Trade Organization demand that Ukraine curb this practice on the Transdniestrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border," he said. "Ukraine wants closer ties with the EU and also wants to become a member of the WTO, but the interests of this probably small number of corrupt officials run counter to Ukraine's national interests."

RFE/RL senior editor Eugen Tomiuc wrote this report, with contribution from RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau.

CORRECTION: "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" erroneously identified Andriy Shkil as holding a leading position in the Social Democratic Party-united in western Ukraine. It is Oleh Vitovych who should have been mentioned in this context. Andriy Shkil is in the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc.

"If we fail to take countermeasures, Tuzla Island may completely disappear from the surface of the earth or of the sea.... The current [in the Kerch Strait] has been washing away a part of the island every day. When earlier the speed of the current in the area was 2 knots, now it stands at 4 to 6 knots, that is, earlier it was 4 to 5 kilometers per hour, now is 9 to 10 kilometers per hour. Apart from this, the [Russian] dam has changed the direction of the current, and it is now striking directly into Tuzla Island. I don't want to say this was planned in advance, but the course of developments is fairly dangerous for Tuzla." -- Ukrainian lawmaker Ihor Ostash on 17 November, commenting on the fact that the sea has eaten away some 100 meters of Tuzla Island in the past two weeks; reported by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.