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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 12, 2002

12 February 2002, Volume 4, Number 6
EDITORS URGE WEST TO KEEP PRESSURE ON LUKASHENKA. Three editors and the vice president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists met last week with U.S. State Department officials, human rights organizations, and the international media. At an RFE/RL press briefing in Washington on 7 February, the four men said the plight of independent media in Belarus has only worsened since September's controversial re-election of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Western rights groups say nonstate Belarusian newspapers, and radio and television stations face harassment in the form of unfair taxes, predatory audits, and punishing printing and distribution costs. Lukashenka, who claims to have won nearly 76 percent of September's vote, defends his handling of the independent media.

Two of the newspaper editors -- Mikalay Markevich of "Pahonya" and Iosif Syaredzich of "Narodnaya volya" -- face criminal charges they say were brought because of their coverage of the opposition during last fall's presidential campaign.

Although his Minsk daily is still being published, Syaredzich says he faces libel charges and possible jail time for his critical coverage of Lukashenka. But Syaredzich, who like the others spoke in Russian for lack of a Belarusian interpreter, says he's not alone in facing fresh government pressure:

"What's been going on now, ever since the elections, is every week or two, either I or other journalists are summoned to the Prosecutor's Office for interrogation," he noted.

The editors' remarks substantiate reports from Belarus that Lukashenka has launched a crackdown against those who opposed his bid to retain power, including the arrest of several top Belarusian businessmen.

The Belarusian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a telephone message left by RFE/RL asking for comment on the editors' allegations.

The editors are urging the international community not to let up the pressure for change in Belarus. They voiced concern that such pressure is waning, citing a recent statement by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that expresses "cautious optimism" about a draft law on the nonstate Belarusian media.

A U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that the assessment by the OSCE -- which is set to issue a key decision on 21 February about who will represent Minsk in its 52-country Parliamentary Assembly -- "is certainly premature."

Belarus's delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has long been a source of dispute with Lukashenka. Lukashenka argued that the parliament installed by him in November 1996 was the legitimate parliament of the country and should have been recognized by the OSCE. However, the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly refused, continuing to recognize the old Supreme Soviet as the legal representatives of Belarus.

The representation decision is viewed as vital by the Minsk opposition. If the OSCE lets in Minsk's new National Assembly -- widely viewed as a rubber-stamp parliament -- the opposition says it will legitimize Lukashenka internationally and provide him with even more license to crack down domestically.

To be sure, the OSCE -- whose Minsk mission seeks to help the former Soviet republic of 10 million people make the transition to democracy -- faces a tough task. Lukashenka last fall accused the OSCE of working with the opposition to topple him.

The editors say Lukashenka is still the only political power in Belarus -- a fact they blame on his virtual media blackout but also on the disorganized opposition's errors and "inconsistent" Western policy.

"You have to come to the conclusion that this state of affairs came about because of the inconsistency of the West," Markevich said. "Western countries have failed to develop a clear, consistent policy to condemn these evils -- disappearances, alleged arms sales -- when they occur. It's their lack of consistency that's allowed it to occur."

Markevich's "Pahonya," based in the western city of Hrodna, was shut down last November. Markevich says he was punished for publishing a statement by opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations condemning Lukashenka's re-election as fraudulent -- the same charge made by the U.S., the European Union, and the OSCE.

"Pahonya," which means "chase," is named after the national symbol of Belarus -- a medieval knight on horseback raising his sword. But the image lost its official status following a 1995 referendum and has since become a symbol of the struggle to maintain the Belarusian language and state in the face of what many in Belarus believe is Russian encroachment.

Markevich says the publishing of books and newspapers in the Belarusian language has collapsed since the arrival of the pro-Russian Lukashenka, who has also shut down most native-language schools.

"What you have now with the closure of my newspaper, 'Pahonya,' is you don't have any provincial newspaper left now that is publishing on political and social issues specifically in the Belarusian language," Markevich said. And he added, "We are using the terms 'ethnocide' and 'linguacide' to describe what's going on today in Belarus."

However, the editors acknowledge that Lukashenka still has a large base of popular support, especially in rural areas. They say this is largely a result of seven years of one-sided state media and television, which they say is comparable in power to the work of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels.

Asked why only a handful of people turned out to protest the election results on 10 September in Minsk, Syaredzich said many in Belarus have lost hope that change is possible. He cited a Belarusian proverb: "If you call someone a pig 100 times, on the 101st time he will oink. And they oinked."

(This report was written by RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan in Washington, with contribution from Roland Eggleston in Munich.)

U.S. EXPERT SAYS MELNYCHENKO'S TAPES ARE AUTHENTIC. On 7 February, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service broadcast a live program with the participation in the RFE/RL Washington studio of Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Zhyr, the head of the temporary commission of Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada dealing with the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, and Mykola Melnychenko, a former major of Ukraine's State Protection Service, whose secret recordings made in President Leonid Kuchma's office provoked the "tape scandal" in Ukraine. There were also a group of Ukrainian journalists on a live link in the RFE/RL Kyiv studio. The program -- "Evening Liberty" -- was moderated from the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague. Below are excerpts of a discussion in that program, translated from a transcription that was subsequently placed on the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

RFE/RL: "In a few minutes, we will begin a news conference devoted to the conclusion of an expert examination of Mykola Melnychenko's audio recordings. The examination was conducted by the specialized U.S. firm Bek Tek, which is cooperating with the FBI, following a request from the temporary special commission of Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada dealing with the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze....

"Mr. Zhyr! I'm asking you to inform us and our guests about the author of the U.S. expert examination, about the firm that conducted this examination, and about its results and legal consequences for both Ukraine and the main heroes of those recordings."

ZHYR: "Good evening! Indeed, I have before me a laboratory report from the Bek Tek firm, which examined recordings passed to our commission by Mykola Melnychenko. I underscore that these were only the recordings pertaining to the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. The manager of this firm is the world-known U.S. expert Bruce Koenig, a specialist who worked with the FBI for 25 years, including 20 years as a leading specialist for analysis of audio and video materials. Anybody willing to get [more] information about this person may look at the 'Ukrayinska pravda' website. I only underscore one thing -- at present he is participating as an expert in the UN war crimes tribunal that is hearing [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's case.

"What was subject to the examination? The recording devices that were used for making recordings relating to Heorhiy Gongadze, as well as other materials that needed to be examined....

"I am not going to read all conclusions -- we will do this in Kyiv where we will make public the entire report. I have a translation [of the conclusions] into Russian. [Therefore] I'll read some excerpts in the Russian language: 'The samples of the recordings that were submitted for examination are a clone of the originals, and they are unbroken [Russian: tselnye] recordings without any traces of changing or editing of audio information in the five given cuts of the two files. The flow of speech in the five given cuts testifies to the fact that no fragments of phrases or sentences were joined together by means of separate sounds, words, or short phrases.'

"Then three points of these conclusions follow. I want to say that yesterday, when I obtained these conclusions from Bruce Koenig, we had a comprehensive conversation. I was interested in the main question -- is Mr. Koenig ready to testify at any court hearing that the conclusions made by his firm are true?

"Mr. Koenig answered me that he more than once testified as an expert in various criminal proceedings, including in those connected with the impeachment of presidents. And no court has cast doubt on expert examinations made by him. Therefore, he is ready and he has agreed to testify before any court or any organization, including the UN tribunal, and to prove that these conclusions are true and that the recordings he analyzed were not doctored in any way...."

RFE/RL: "Thank you, Mr. Zhyr. Do you think that the Ukrainian judiciary will recognize the validity of this examination or, perhaps, one will have to use some international measures regarding its legal recognition in Ukraine?"

ZHYR: "Dear friends! I will voice my position once again. I would like the investigation into the Gongadze case, as well as those into other resonant take place in Ukraine. I have spoken about this more than once, and I emphasize this today that, having today Mykhaylo Potebenko in the post of Ukraine's prosecutor-general, we will never be able to conduct full and objective investigations into these criminal cases. Because his voice is heard in [Melnychenko's] recordings, and today nobody -- at least I and those colleagues in the commission I spoke to -- doubts that it is the voice of the prosecutor-general, that it is not doctoring. And those conversations testify to the fact that the deeds he did were far away from the protection of rights of Ukrainian citizens.

"I do not rule out that if no appropriate decisions are made in Ukraine in the near future, I will be one of those who will initiate civil and, possibly, criminal cases outside Ukraine's borders in connection with facts included in Melnychenko's recordings."

RFE/RL: "Thank you, Mr. Zhyr. We are of course interested to know how Mr. Melnychenko feels himself following the public announcement of the results of this examination...."

MELNYCHENKO: "...I was informed about the results of the examination a little earlier than your listeners. I'm glad that the truth has finally found its way into the world. I regret that such a high-level professional examination was not made a year ago. Then its consequences for the Ukrainian people would have been much better. I myself feel well. As people say, my enemies won't see the day when I feel worse."

ARTEM SHEVCHENKO (ICTV TELEVISION): "What is your opinion about the conclusions of the Kroll [Associates private investigative agency, in September 2001] regarding your work; in particular, those asserting that you could not make the recording in the way you told about to [Ukrainian lawmakers] Shyshkin, Zhyr, and Holovatyy? I mean, that [it was impossible to make recordings] on a dictaphone placed under the sofa [in Kuchma's office]. Judging by Kroll's conclusions, you lied. But if you did [the recordings] in some other way, why did you lie?

MELNYCHENKO: "Mr. Zhyr will answer this question for you in a more comprehensive manner. As regards...the examination by Kroll, they did not ask me for explanations how I did that. They made a superficial examination, while Mr. Zhyr can tell you in which manner the recordings regarding Gongadze and [lawmaker Taras] Chornovil were made."

ZHYR: "...Following this examination [by Koenig], I'd like to put a full stop to the discussion about whether [Melnychenko's recordings] were doctored or not. If anybody continues to have any doubts about it, there is a procedure for how to deny such things. I can hardly imagine that there is a single person in the world -- including in the Kroll legal service -- who will try to deny the conclusions of the examination we are talking about.... As regards the materials that were passed [to our commission] by Melnychenko and the episodes submitted for analysis [to Koenig], I bear the full responsibility for my words."

OLEKSIY STEPURA (KYIV-BASED JOURNALIST): "Which specific episodes do you have in mind?"

ZHYR: "You will learn more details [when we come back to Kyiv]. These are episodes where Leonid Danylovych Kuchma talks with former Interior Minister Kravchenko and Mr. Lytvyn [presidential administration chief], where Leonid Danylovych expresses his wish that Heorhiy [Gongadze] be moved to Chechnya. That is, the episodes that are known to everybody."

GENDER ISSUES IN ELECTION CAMPAIGN. In the late Soviet era, fixed quotas ensured that one-half of seats in local councils and a third of the seats in Ukraine's Supreme Soviet were allocated to women of the Ukrainian SSR. In Ukraine's three parliaments elected in 1990, 1994, and 1998, women's representation initially declined and then slightly increased from 2.9 to 4.6 to its current 8 percent, but it still lags far behind that of the Soviet era. Nevertheless, women's issues continue to remain marginal to the concerns of mainstream politicians in Ukraine.

In the March 1998 parliamentary elections, only one party -- the All-Ukrainian Party Women's Initiative (VPZhI) -- campaigned on a gender platform. Its result of 0.58 percent of the vote placed it 22nd on the list of 30 blocs and parties competing in that ballot.

In contrast, Women for the Future (ZhzM), one of two election groups in the current election campaign with a gender platform, has scored far more impressive results in opinion polls, which have averaged between 6-7 percent. These figures ensure that the group will easily pass the 4 percent voting barrier to qualify for the distribution of 225 seats contested under a proportional system. According to a January poll by the Ukrainian Institute for Social Studies, 10 percent of women and 2 percent of men will vote for Women for the Future.

Within Ukraine's 130 registered political parties, five are devoted to women's issues. The VPZhI, registered in October 1997, is the oldest of these. It is also the only party based outside Kyiv, in Kharkiv. Three others are also small parties -- the Women's Party of Ukraine (registered in March 1997), the Women's People Party United (September 1998), and the Solidarity with Women Party (December 1999).

Women for the Future's rise to third place in popularity among the 35 election blocs and parties has been meteoric. Its registration on 30 March of last year was suspiciously only a day before the deadline for parties to be registered to ensure they could compete in the 31 March parliamentary elections. Within less than a year, Women for the Future has managed to allegedly attract 320,000 members within 500 branches, an impressive figure when compared to the Communist Party's 140,000 members.

Women for the Future is led by individuals with ties to the former Soviet Ukrainian nomenklatura and to Leonid Kuchma when he was prime minister in 1992-93. According to Professor Alexandra Hrycak, a Western expert on gender in Ukraine, the ideology of Women for the Future is Soviet and not in tune with gender issues and the women's rights movement in the West. Women for the Future does not oppose the Soviet-era stereotype of women's role in politics being confined to areas such as maternal and child-welfare issues.

Valentyna Dovzhenko, the head of Women for the Future, also heads the All-Ukrainian Voluntary Fund of Hope and Good (VDFND). She is also the former head of the now-defunct Ministry of Family and Youth Affairs, which was established in 1997. She is currently the head of the parliamentary Committee on Family and Youth. The head of the controlling committee of VDFND and the president of another NGO, the National Fund for the Social Defense of Mothers and Children, is Lyudmyla Kuchma. The VDFND was established by the Soviet-era Union of Ukrainian Women led by Maria Orlyk, a leading member of Women for the Future.

The answer to the question of why the Women for the Future party has managed to become so popular so quickly is access to "administrative resources." "Administrative resources" or closeness to centers of power, such as the executive, ensure high popularity and victory in Ukraine's elections. Independent and thereby genuine women's parties, such as the four women's parties other than the ZhzM, stand little chance in elections when Women for the Future has executive support and -- more importantly -- the backing of the country's first lady, Lyudmyla Kuchma. The only other registered gender party for the elections, the Women's Party of Ukraine, has no access to these resources and has been unable to attract any popularity.

Women for the Future was created especially to ensure that another pro-presidential faction would exist in the next parliament. It will therefore play the same role as the Greens in the 1998 elections, who were able to win 5.43 percent of the vote by targeting floating voters, the undecided, and those disillusioned with party politics. In this sense, Women for the Future campaigns on a platform of hostility to the very idea of the worthiness of party politics. The platform of Women for the Future and its traditional campaigning style appeals to women aged between 30-40 and centers on such issues as women's rights, health (e.g. breast cancer), and domestic violence. Women for the Future's closeness to Ukraine's first lady has also drawn comparisons to the Yugoslavian United Party of the Left led by Slobodan Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovich.

Women for the Future has been defined as an "albino" by the weekly "Zerkalo Nedeli/Dzerkalo Tyzhnya" because it is devoid of any ideological platform. The party's popularity has not grown because of advertising or rousing speeches in defense of women's rights. On the contrary, its members have instead traveled around Ukraine distributing material assistance at schools, military bases, and factories. In Sumy and Kharkiv oblasts, foodstuffs have been distributed free of charge. In all rayons in Chernivtsi Oblast, "Photos for Mother" actions were undertaken in each school, kindergarten, library, and cultural clubs -- free photos were made of children standing next to Women for the Future party symbols. Afterward, presents were distributed free of charge to poor and needy families. Dovzhenko has denied that this is tantamount to drawing on "administrative resources" or that there was anything immoral in doing this.

According to the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a third of the distribution of free assistance by election blocs in Ukraine is undertaken by Women for the Future. Grandiose concerts by Ukrainian and Russian pop stars in towns and villages throughout Ukraine organized by the party cost some $100,000, according to "Zerkalo Nedeli/Dzerkalo Tyzhnya." Yet, the party is vague about the sources of the funds to finance the high cost of running such a brash campaign by Ukraine's newest women's party.

Women for the Future is likely to enter the next Ukrainian parliament. But, this is not likely to advance women's rights, in the sense understood by women's movements in the West, because of the Soviet ideological influence on the party. Instead, Ukraine will obtain another pro-presidential faction in parliament that differs little from other oligarchic factions led by the opposite gender.

(This report was written by Taras Kuzio, a research associate at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.)

"This is [a piece of] feminist concrete that won't change even under the influence of hydrochloric acid." -- Roman Catholic Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek commenting on the proposal of Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, the minister for matters of the equal status of men and women, to allow abortion in Poland because of "social reasons"; quoted by PAP on 11 February.

"However you look at it, [it follows that] the prince of the church [Bishop Pieronek] insulted the minister of the Polish Republic [Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka]. I had to react to it in some way." -- Krystyna Sienkiewicz, a senator of the leftist Labor Union, commenting on her initiative to change legislation in order to tax some revenues of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland; quoted by PAP on 11 February.

"Judging from the viewpoint of a Western man, you on Radio Liberty are undoubtedly right [in your opinions]. The freedom of expression, the freedom of gatherings, the inviolability of private property are holy [notions] for Germans or Americans. But for a majority of Belarusians, it is something incomprehensible and remote. What is the use of the freedom of expression for a Belarusian or a Russian, if they are unable to buy shoes or beer for those few kopecks they earn in a kolkhoz? What is the use of the inviolability of private property for them if they have not owned any property since their birth? Lukashenka is an ideal president for Belarusians -- he tightens the screws, jails swindlers, dislikes the rich, comforts the poor, and pays [wages] to everybody, even if small ones. Many generations will die before something changes and people realize in what heap of garbage they live." -- Teacher Volha Mezina from Minsk in a letter to RFE/RL's Belarusian Service; quoted on 8 February.

"The Ukrainian economic model is more similar to that of Latin America than of Europe. We are in debt up to the neck." -- President Leonid Kuchma to his ministers on 8 February, ordering them "to correct" the economic course so that Ukraine can join the EU in 2011; quoted by Interfax.