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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: July 2, 2002

2 July 2002, Volume 4, Number 26

The next issue of "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" will appear on 23 July 2002.
JOURNALISTS SENTENCED FOR LIBELING LUKASHENKA. A district court in Hrodna on 24 June sentenced Mikola Markevich to 2 1/2 years and Pavel Mazheyka to two years of "restriction of freedom" after finding them guilty of libeling President Alyaksandr Lukashenka during the 2001 presidential election campaign in their weekly "Pahonya." The verdict means the journalists will not be placed in a regular prison but will have to live in guarded barracks, work at a factory or on a collective farm, and return to the barracks each day at an appointed time. The sentences are more lenient than the jail terms of the same duration that the prosecutor requested. The men have 10 days to appeal, which both have pledged to do.

In the run-up to the 9 September 2001 presidential election, "Pahonya," where Markevich was editor in chief, published several articles questioning whether Lukashenka could run for re-election while being widely suspected of involvement in the disappearances of people opposed to his regime. During the trial, the journalists argued that the articles could not in fact have defamed the president, since the entire print run of the weekly that carried them was confiscated by police at the printing press.

"They simply appointed me to be guilty, guilty because during the presidency of Lukashenka, people are disappearing, guilty because the media writes about these facts," Markevich said in the court on 21 June.

Defense lawyer Syarhey Tsurko said the verdict is politically motivated and violates the Belarusian Constitution: "This is an unconstitutional decision, which completely flies in the face of constitutional norms and guarantees that are declared in the Belarusian Constitution. This is an extremely harsh punishment, a very harsh punishment. This is the first such verdict in the history of Belarus."

Catherine Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the International League of Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization based in New York. Fitzpatrick, reacting to the verdict, told RFE/RL that the decision is "very bad news." She said the verdict means a new stage of repression may be in the offing in Belarus.

She said it is getting increasingly difficult to attract world attention to the worsening situation in Belarus. She believes the international community should take firmer action against what is happening in Minsk. "There should be consequences [for Belarus], but not just simple statements saying that everybody deplores those actions and just asking [the Belarusian authorities] to release the journalists. There should be more tangible political consequences," Fitzpatrick noted.

Fitzpatrick did not specify what measures should be taken. However, she said she is upset by the passive position of the U.S. government, which has not yet made an official statement defending the journalists.

Kiril Koktysh from the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, who is the author of "The Transformation of the Political Regime in Belarus," told RFE/RL that he believes there is nothing extraordinary in the verdict. "This event could be valued [by others] as something extraordinary. However, it is a quite routine and an ordinary event for Belarus after 1996," Koktysh said.

Koktysh said that in Minsk some independent newspapers, such as the daily "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," continue to be published but that only the country's small political elite, concentrated in the capital, reads them. Those people, he believes, are completely cut off from the problems of the rest of society.

Koktysh said the problems of present-day Belarus are much bigger than the repression of one or two journalists. The whole of Belarusian society is fragmented, he said, and the government wants to keep it that way. "The authorities do not bother very much about what a group of Minsk intellectuals think," Koktysh noted. "However, they are not inclined to tolerate any new seedbeds of opposition. It is worth remembering that 'Pahonya' was a newspaper published in the provinces, in Hrodna."

According to Koktysh, no one aside from the small group of elites will consider the verdict in Hrodna a tragedy or even pay the slightest attention to it.

(RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite wrote this report with contributions from RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.)

CHORNOBYL FALLOUT -- BRINGING IT DOWN ON BELARUS TO SPARE RUSSIA? Western nuclear scientists are at last coming to accept what people in Belarus have claimed for years -- that the radioactive contamination from the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 was deliberately "shot down" over Belarus in order to prevent it from blowing back on to Moscow. However, even 16 years after the event, they are unwilling to put their names to that theory.

Maps of the fallout which appeared in the Soviet Belarusian press only three years later, at the beginning of February 1989, revealed two patches of high radioactivity isolated from the main focus of contamination, where there had been heavy showers of rain just as the fallout was passing over.

The population of these areas has always maintained that the rain was artificial -- "seeded" on orders from the Kremlin. Soviet authorities dismissed these reports as "radiophobia" fomented by "antisocialist elements" -- and said they did not have the technology to "bring down clouds" in that way (although for years, the Soviet media had claimed exactly the opposite, with circumstantial accounts of crops saved from storm damage by prophylactic "cloud seeding"). Western scientists tacitly accepted the Soviet denials in that view -- partly in the belief that no government would act so callously and also because they considered the Chornobyl-polluted area a unique "laboratory" for studying the migration of radioactive contamination in the soil and did not want to provoke the authorities into denying them visas. However, the bulk of circumstantial evidence is now causing them to think again.

To date, none has been willing to "go public," arguing that -- in the political climate of today's Belarus -- to give their names would not only endanger their visas (and their continuing research) but also put their informants at risk. However, the following emerged in informal discussions on the sidelines of a recent scientific conference:

1. One researcher, whose official brief is to monitor whether the soil of these areas can be safely brought back into cultivation, has begun collecting the reminiscences of local inhabitants as to what they remember of the days immediately after the accident. He made no attempt to "lead" his "witnesses." Amid the many purely personal incidents (weddings, May Day celebrations, etc), there were repeated reports of unusual activity of aircraft and/or rockets being fired in the vicinity. One man, the chief administrative officer of his locality, stated categorically that he had seen an aircraft with "stuff coming out of the back." Many people remembered that the rain showers which followed were "unusually heavy" and that -- unlike "normal" rainstorms in early May, were not accompanied by thunder. Challenged by colleagues that such reports were "subjective," the researcher pointed out, "These people are farmers and know about rain!" When further asked why such claims had never been made before, he pointed out that, to date "no one [i.e., no Western scientist] had bothered to ask the locals!"

2. A senior scientist who had been working mainly in Russia stated that what he termed an unimpeachable Moscow source, who at the time of the accident "had been in a position to know," admitted that the clouds were, indeed, brought down. People like his informant, this scientist said, "are prepared to talk in cars -- particularly Western cars!" (i.e., where there is little likelihood of "bugging").

In fact, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, one scientific paper was published in the West which -- on the basis of local claims -- tested the soil for traces of silver iodide, the chemical most widely used for seeding. No such traces were found, the report said. But this is at best negative evidence. The soil samples in question were taken more than six years after the accident -- and the small amounts of silver left by seeding could well have leached out of the soil in that time. Alternatively, the Soviets might have used a different chemical for seeding.

One scientist who has worked on the Chornobyl contamination since 1992 is Dr. Alan Flowers of Kingston University (U.K.). Many of his colleagues in Belarus, he says, seem to accept as established fact that the clouds were seeded -- but again, they have never publicly admitted this. When asked -- 16 years after the event and with the Soviet officials who would have taken the decision to "seed" the cloud presumably out of office, retired, or dead -- he replied that "for a full understanding of the distribution and effects of the Chernobyl fallout, we need as much evidence as possible. What caused the rain is still an uncertainty in our knowledge about the intensity and nature of the contamination."

(This report was written by Vera Rich, a London-based free-lance researcher. She was Soviet correspondent for the scientific journal "Nature" at the time of the Chornobyl disaster.)

RUSSIA SEEKS LARGE STAKE IN UKRAINIAN GAS PIPELINE. Russia appears prepared to become involved in Ukrainian politics in order to pursue its plans for joint control of the country's gas pipelines to Europe. The industry newsletter "Petroleum Argus" reported two weeks ago that Russia is trying to create a lobby of powerful Ukrainian interests to fight political opposition to its pipeline plans.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Anatoliy Kinakh, met in Kharkiv on 21 June to conclude a series of agreements, including a 10-year transit accord to handle Russian gas deliveries through 2012. The deal signed by Russia's Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny will allow Russia to ship at least 110 billion cubic meters of gas through Ukraine annually. Officials said prices and other terms would be settled by 1 July.

The prime ministers also pledged quick implementation of a decision reached three weeks ago by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Leonid Kuchma with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in St. Petersburg to create a consortium for managing and developing the pipelines. "Special working groups will soon work through an intergovernmental agreement to bring the will of our presidents into fruition," Interfax quoted Kasyanov as saying.

Putin has said the consortium could attract $2.5 billion in investment to Ukraine for upgrading the aging pipelines and $15 billion more in the next decade for developing the gas network. Ukraine hopes the deal will also end Russia's plans to build bypass routes around the country to handle the expected growth in gas exports to Europe over the next 20 years.

In a market comment, the Moscow investment firm United Financial Group (UFG) gave the pact good reviews, saying, "Having resolved the Ukrainian transit problem, Gazprom will not only reduce current gas losses, but will also be able to abandon its expensive plans to build alternative export routes across Poland or the Baltic Sea." UFG said the agreement would also "provide Gazprom with control over gas off-takes by Ukrainian consumers." The Russian monopoly has long sought such control because of unauthorized diversions of its gas shipments in the past. The diversions have left Ukraine with an unsettled $1.4 billion in debt.

But the pact may also produce a political struggle because Ukraine has resisted all previous variations of Russian control over its pipelines for years. Opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former deputy prime minister, has vowed to fight the agreement, which requires legislative approval in Ukraine.

"Petroleum Argus" said Russia is preparing to counter the resistance by forming a Ukrainian "Gazprom lobby." The group is said to include industrial interests that would benefit from the massive investment in the gas network. "Argus" said, "Ukrainian pipeline producers -- united into the so-called 'Donetsk clan' -- appear keen to support the proposed consortium." The newsletter named the Industrial Union of Donbas, which controls the Khartsyz pipe plant, and the Interpipe Corporation, based in Dnipropetrovsk. It listed metallurgy groups and equipment makers as "likely backers," saying, "All these companies offered to support the joint venture if it chooses Ukrainian rather than foreign pipes."

Russia may have just the man to lead such a lobbying effort in former Prime Minister and Gazprom Chairman Viktor Chernomyrdin, now Moscow's ambassador to Ukraine. Ironically, the Ukrainian manufacturing sector viewed as a constituent of the "Gazprom lobby" has been embroiled in a near trade war with Russia for the past two years. Russian charges of dumping and threats of 40 percent tariffs led to an agreement on quotas for Ukrainian pipes last year.

But the matter refused to stay settled as Russia imposed duties and Ukraine retaliated with tariffs on a range of other Russian goods in March. Last year, the "Kyiv Post" quoted economists saying that Russia was using the dumping issue to pressure Ukraine on accepting control of its transit lines. The economic stakes for Ukraine are high. The "Kyiv Post" said that steel exports accounted for 15 percent of the country's gross domestic product two years ago.

Since the start of the controversy, reports have suggested that Gazprom was a reluctant participant in protectionist measures for Russian pipemakers. As a main customer of the Ukrainian factories, Gazprom is said to have preferred its less costly pipes. Despite the flap over tariffs and quotas, the old links could make the current alliance a formidable force.

The report of the lobbying effort seems to be a sign of problems to come on the transit accord. While political leaders have portrayed the gas agreements as an end to the disputes, they may only be the start.

(RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld wrote this report.)

UKRAINIAN-RUSSIAN HISTORICAL COMMISSION RAISES STORM. The creation of an intergovernmental commission of Ukrainian and Russian historians on 24 May in Moscow has aroused a storm. Deputy Prime Minister for the Humanities Volodymyr Semynozhenko, who oversaw the establishment of the commission from the Ukrainian side, is no stranger to controversy. His openly Russophilic views fit in well with the reorientation of Ukrainian foreign policy according to the "To Europe with Russia!" drift that gathered speed after 2000, when the West began to shun President Leonid Kuchma. Not surprisingly, Semynozhenko is behind the decree to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the 1654 Pereyaslav Treaty (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 7 May 2002) as Kuchma's parting gift to Ukraine in 2004. Semynozhenko is also heavily involved in the 2002 "Year of Ukraine in Russia" and 2003 "Year of Russia in Ukraine" festivities.

It was Russia that suggested the idea of a joint commission of historians. Two historical episodes are covered negatively in Ukrainian historiography, the Russian side complained to Semynozhenko at the Moscow meeting. These deal with the 1932-33 artificial famine in Ukraine which left between 5 million and 10 million dead (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 12 June 2002), and the war between Bolshevik and White Russian armies and the independent Ukrainian People's Republic in 1917-21.

This attempt at agreeing on joint Russian-Ukrainian historical interpretations is not a new development. Two years ago, a special issue of the Moscow-based illustrated historical journal "Rodina" entitled "Rossiya i Ukraina: Vekhi istorii" was published with a congratulatory preface by Kuchma. The issue had 150 A4 pages divided into three sections: "Kyiv Rus and Novgorod Rus," "Russia + Little Russia = Empire," and "Ukrainian SSR-Russian SFSR, Ukraine-Russian Federation." All three sections of this special issue of "Rodina" fall in line with the "To Europe with Russia!" foreign-policy ideology favored by Kuchma and oligarchic centrists. That is, Russia and Ukraine were always together in the past and therefore should continue to be in the future.

Opposition soon grew to the joint Russian-Ukrainian historical commission from the cultural intelligentsia, academics, national democratic parties (Republican Party Sobor, a member of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc), parliamentary factions (Our Ukraine), and women and youth NGOs. An open letter was addressed to government ministers and the president attacking the very idea of a historians commission with Russia. A Committee in Defense of Ukrainian History was set up to coordinate the protests led by well-known historian Yaroslav Dashkevych.

Young people have been particularly active in the protests, as they were in the "Kuchmagate" crisis of 2000-2001. The website, which grew on the strength of youth activists within the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement, actively promoted the campaign. Government e-mail addresses were flooded with standardized electronic protest letters. Young Rukh, headed by Our Ukraine deputy Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, launched pickets of the Kyiv government building from 11 June.

Ukraine already has two intergovernmental commissions of historians with Poland and Romania. Of these two, the Polish-Ukrainian has been by far the more successful. One of the products of this research is the publication of large volumes of documents on Polish-Ukrainian relations in the 1930s and 1940s, such as "Polskie Podziemie 1939-1941. Lwow, Kolomyja, Stryj, Zloczow." These hitherto unpublished archives are taken from both countries' Interior ministries and security services.

The Polish-Ukrainian commission has built on a process of normalization between Poles and Ukrainians that began in the late 1940s in the diaspora. This process was supported by Pope John Paul II and by Solidarity and the Polish anticommunist opposition during the 1980s. Nobody has therefore complained about the very idea of the Polish-Ukrainian historians commission because there is evidence on both sides of the desire to overcome past problems.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with coordinating the revision of national histories. Such a process has been taking place in Europe since 1926, when the League of Nations established a voluntary committee of historians. Since 1951, such a coordinating committee has functioned at the Brunswick International Schoolbook Institute.

Nevertheless, the Russian-Ukrainian commission is problematic because it talks of "harmonization" of historical facts at a time when Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation and normalization remains decades behind that undertaken by Poles and Ukrainians. Ukrainian opponents of the commission are well aware that Russia has avidly supported Belarus and Moldova in reintroducing Soviet-era textbooks. "Harmonization," Ukrainians opposed to the commission believe, seems to indicate reintroducing the Russian imperial viewpoint.

In addition, Dr. Stephen Velychenko, a historian and Toronto-based expert on Russian and Polish historiography of Ukraine, pointedly asked, "What is the point of involving the state in history writing? There is no CPSU any more to whom historians have to make petitions."

The creation of the Russian-Ukrainian historians commission will also be challenged by a growing body of Russian historians who are more willing than Kuchma or Semynozhenko to move away from "harmonization" toward the reconciliation and normalization work undertaken by Poles and Ukrainians. Writing in the April issue of the journal "Nations and Nationalism," Professor Vera Tolz surveys the decline in attempts by Russian historians to associate the Russian tsarist empire or the USSR with "Russia," or to see Kyiv Rus as the first "Russian" state. Kyiv Rus is now portrayed with three capitals (Kyiv, Novgorod, and Lagoda), while Ukraine and Russia signing the Pereyaslav Treaty in the 17th century are described as different in culture, language, political traditions, and customs.

This development is the first attempt, Tolz believes, whereby Russian historians are in the "process of inventing a truly national tradition" outside the imperial past. Attitudes toward Ukraine are evolving from the pure derision aimed at the very idea of an independent Ukraine to gradual acceptance, particularly after the signing of the Russian-Ukrainian treaty in 1997.

After less than two weeks of protests, Semynozhenko backed down, claiming that no joint Russian-Ukrainian textbooks will be published. He passed the buck by claiming that textbooks lie within the competency of the Ministry of Education. The problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon, however. Education Minister Vasyl Kremen, a member of the oligarchic Social Democratic Party-united, supports the creation of the joint commission.

(This report was written by Dr. Taras Kuzio, who is a resident fellow at the Center for Russian and East European studies at the University of Toronto.)

"We did not abuse the freedom of expression because it is impossible to abuse something that does not exist in Belarus." -- Journalist Pavel Mazheyka in his final statement at his trial in Hrodna on 21 June. Quoted by the Charter-97 website (

"The freedom of expression in Belarus is guaranteed by laws. However, the freedom of a man who takes advantage of the freedom of expression is not guaranteed by anything -- it is dependent, as I have experienced myself, on the whims of several people." -- Mazheyka in his final statement at his trial in Hrodna on 21 June. Quoted by the Charter-97 website.

"The instigators and inspirers of this trial treat it as a sort of litmus test: Will society swallow this absurdity, will it keep silent over the persecution of the natural right of every one of us to criticize the authorities and express our attitudes toward the authorities? Or will it protest and prove that during the 65 years that have passed since [the Stalinist terror upsurge in] 1937 we have been immunized against lawlessness, violence, and treachery? Today, they [instigators and inspirers] still look at us, sounding us out time and again; they look at our reactions to their attempts to bring the country back into the USSR. Today, it is not the year 1937 yet. However, if society turns a blind eye to the danger, if it fails to note that cunning prosecutors are pulling it back into a concentration camp, into the gulag, then,... 'Appetite,' as people say, 'grows in the act of eating.'" -- Journalist Mikola Markevich in his final statement at his trial in Hrodna on 21 June. Quoted by the Charter-97 website.