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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 27, 2002

27 August 2002, Volume 4, Number 32
LUKASHENKA TRADES INSULTS WITH PUTIN OVER INTEGRATION. Things in Moscow have gone really bad for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka since mid-June. Russian President Vladimir Putin on 13 June, two days after a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart, called Minsk's proposals for a common Belarusian-Russian state "legalistic nonsense" and flatly refused to follow the integration path that, in his view, would lead to the recreation of "something along the lines of the Soviet Union" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 June 2002).

"It's necessary to separate flies from the cutlet," Putin stressed in June, and commentators in both Russia and Belarus were quick and unanimous in explaining that the Russian leader meant "intrusive Belarusian flies" buzzing over the "fat cutlet of the Russian economy." To make matters even more clear, Putin publicly reminded Minsk that Belarus's economy amounts only to some 3 percent of Russia's.

Putin's pronouncements in June about integration with Belarus did ring an alarm bell for Lukashenka, who admitted for the first time that the Kremlin wants to absorb Belarus as the "90th subject of the Russian Federation." However, Lukashenka subsequently tried to shrug off these pronouncements by joking that Russia "is a democratic country," therefore Putin "has the right to say what he thinks." Lukashenka pledged not to give up Belarus's sovereignty in the union with Russia and predicted that the Belarusian-Russian integration will advance like a "wave rolling in from both nations."

On the eve of his 14 August meeting with Putin in the Kremlin, Lukashenka announced that Belarus is ready to integrate with Russia "as far" as the Russian leadership is prepared to advance. But he was apparently not ready for what Putin proposed at a joint news conference following their talks. Putin put forward a detailed timetable for "ultimate unification" of both states. According to Putin, both countries should hold referendums in May on creating a federal state on the basis of the Russian Constitution, introduce the Russian ruble as the new state's single currency as of 1 January 2004, and elect a president of the new state in March 2004.

Lukashenka, who had usually been very loquacious on integration issues, was visibly stunned and did not make a single comment on Putin's "ultimate unification" proposals in Moscow. He recovered only during his return flight to Minsk. Upon arriving at the Minsk airport, Lukashenka said that Putin's proposals are tantamount to "dividing Belarus into seven parts, including these parts into the Russian Federation, and granting to these Belarusian parts equal rights with Russia's regions." Lukashenka called these proposals "unacceptable for Belarus."

It was apparently the massive welcoming reactions to Putin's proposal to incorporate Belarus into Russia by Russian politicians and media that made Lukashenka respond in tougher and more abusive terms in subsequent days. On 21 August, Lukashenka said Putin's integration proposal is "of an insulting character" to Belarus. "Even Lenin and Stalin did not go so far as to try to dissolve Belarus and make it a part of Russia or even of the Soviet Union," he added.

On 22 August, Lukashenka said Putin's "ultimate unification" proposals were an "impromptu" at the news conference, adding that he saw as Russian presidential aides "planted" a paper of them into Putin's hand. "The third question [proposed by Putin for the referendums] -- to form union bodies on the basis of the Russian Constitution -- is totally absurd. Such proposals cannot be drawn up sober-mindedly," Lukashenka said. There has not been any reaction from the Kremlin to Lukashenka's insulting comments.

Some commentators in Russia and Belarus have voiced the opinion that, following Putin's "ultimate unification" proposal on 14 August, Lukashenka's days in the post of Belarusian president are numbered. Some even have gone so far as to suggest that the days of Belarusian independence are numbered as well. Both predictions seem to be overly optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on who looks at Belarusian-Russian relations and from which position).

While it is quite easy for the Kremlin to bring about a "local economic collapse" in Belarus and unseat Lukashenka on a wave of popular ire, it is hardly believable that Moscow would venture such a step without having a suitable successor who could mind his own (and Russian) business in Minsk without making too many claims for the Russian "cutlet." Up to now, no such figure to replace Lukashenka has been in sight.

It is also highly improbable that Moscow could undertake a political incorporation of Belarus as a whole or in parts. Such a turn of events could be fraught with unpredictable repercussions in both Belarus and the international arena. For example, it could push the Lukashenka regime and the anti-Lukashenka opposition to cooperate -- and even call for international assistance -- in the face of an annexation.

Russia could lose too much in Belarus by risking a political change and possible instability there. It should be recalled that Lukashenka -- no matter how erratic he is in the political arena -- secures unconditionally the transit of Russian oil, gas, and commodities to Europe. The Lukashenka regime also serves as Russia's intermediary in various financial and business deals, including arms sales. It makes no sense for the Kremlin to oust such an ally.

What has obviously changed after Putin's "ultimate unification" proposals of 14 August is Lukashenka's status as the promoter of Russian-Belarusian integration. Putin put an end to Lukashenka's illusions to play some political role in Russia by creating supranational bodies of power in the Belarus-Russia Union. Putin made unambiguously clear that Lukashenka is not an equal political partner for him. This was a painful lesson for Lukashenka and, judging by his reactions, he still needs time to digest all the instructions he was given in Moscow. But there is no other way for Lukashenka than to go to Moscow again once he comes to terms with the enormous public humiliation he suffered in August 2002. Quite obviously, he will come there in the status of a supplicant rather than of a partner. And nobody can predict now how long it will take for the Kremlin to let him present his supplication. (Jan Maksymiuk)

SHUSHKEVICH ON NEOCOMMUNISM IN BELARUS. A book review by Vera Rich of Stanislau Shushkevich's "Neokommunism v Belarusi, ideologiya, praktika, perspektivy," Smolensk, 2002, 284 pp. (in Russian).

This is a brilliant and insightful work from the nuclear physicist who, through a quirk in history, became the chief architect of the Belavezha Accords -- which formally wound up the terminally ill Soviet Union -- and the first head of state of independent Belarus whose less than grateful country has rewarded him with a state pension of around $1 a month. Under similar circumstances, many ousted leaders would have taken refuge in self-justification. Shushkevich's work, on the contrary, addresses this subject with a calm and scholarly detachment.

"Neocommunism," in Shushkevich's definition, is the "ideology of a communist revanche, which denies the objectivity of the causes of the fall of the communist regimes in the USSR and the countries of the 'socialist camp.'" This ideology, he continues, "has become, in the 'post-Soviet space,' an instrument for the active mobilization of the population in support for antidemocratic authoritarian regimes. The most vivid example of this is the regime of Lukashenka in Belarus."

Shushkevich analyses this "example" in detail, beginning, in sound scholarly style, by analyzing "communism" (as defined by the October 1961 Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), and setting out in tabular form the principal differences between the communist and western "liberal-democratic" views of the individual, society, law, and human rights. Having defined his terms, he gives a brief outline of Soviet society, and pinpoints the "key difference" between "classical Soviet communism" and the "Belarusian model of neocommunism," namely, that in the latter: "the realization of the communist postulates" by the regime is taking place not in a totalitarian but an authoritarian political system which does not seriously restrict its potential capabilities but nevertheless gives it recourse to "greater populism and a more refined system of state propaganda." He then presents what is, in effect, an apologia for his own term of office -- the impossibility of reversing in three years the 73 years of Soviet depredations in Belarus, the "inertness" of the country's political elite, the reluctance of the entrenched bureaucracy to take on any promarket, prodemocracy reforms. Then, having defined concepts and initial conditions, he proceeds to his main theme -- the rise and deeds of the Lukashenka regime.

His account -- and even the section headings -- make for grim reading: "Liquidation of local self-government," "Liquidation of freedom of expression," "The power of the courts and the procuracy," "Liquidation of parliamentarianism," "Restriction of civil rights and freedoms," "Escalation of repression and political terror" -- all against a background of a deteriorating economic situation both at the macro and micro levels, and a constant propaganda war, aimed at discrediting democratic institutions and the "West," hunting out and scapegoating imaginary "internal enemies," and promoting a cult of the president's "charisma and power." Writing shortly after Lukashenka's re-election in September 2001, Shushkevich concludes that Belarus has become a police state in which "elections have become a farce, and a change of power could be effected only by a 'coup at the top' or a 'social explosion,'" though, in his opinion, the latter is "improbable."

This, however, is only the midpoint of the book. In his next long chapter Shushkevich turns his attention to the growth of authoritarianism in the other regimes of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), country by country, with comparative regional summaries (Central Asia, the Caucasus, European CIS), analyses which, though shorter than his study of Belarus, would be invaluable for anyone wanting a quick but comprehensive briefing on those countries. This chapter ends with a section on Russian-Belarusian relations, on which he pronounces categorically that "Russia wants to swallow Belarus and does not hide this." He also adds some remarks on the role of the Polish Solidarity movement and Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 in the downfall of communism -- the uniting of a broad-based resistance with a "cabinet of theoretician-patriots putting their professionalism at the service of their country," an approach which, Shushkevich stresses, "allowed the number of victims to be minimized." He further notes the importance with which Polish political thinkers throughout the post-World War II period put on Belarusian and Ukrainian sovereignty as a guarantee of that of Poland.

The following chapter returns to Belarus, to consider the economic and social results of Lukashenka's neocommunism -- the stifling of economic freedom, plummeting standard of living, pensions swallowed up by inflation -- and an ever-bleaker outlook, particularly for the most vulnerable social groups. Meanwhile, the abolition of customs barriers with Russia and the transit rates for Russian oil and gas -- notes Shushkevich, quoting the prestigious Russian journal "Novoe Vremya" -- "saves and will save the Russian raw-materials corporations (and consequently the Russian budget) billions of dollars."

A penultimate chapter -- "Chronicle of Recent Events" -- analyzes, with significant quotations from international observers and the western media, the manipulation of the 9 September 2001 "elections" that returned Lukashenka to office, the role of Russia (including the Russian Orthodox Church) in them, and the effects of the 11 September attacks on Russian-policy priorities. The final chapter, "Conclusions" may be epitomized by two sentences from it: "Belarus continues in a state of profound, systemic crisis. The chief barrier to the course of market economy reform, democratic structural transformation, and integration of the country into the world civilized community is the ruling of the effectively totalitarian political regime."

The content of this book, for anyone who values concepts of freedom, democracy, and the human and civil rights of the individual, is necessarily depressing. Shushkevich's lucid exposition, however, serves to alleviate, a little, the reader's progress along the "via dolorosa" of Belarus. Its importance for anyone having anything to do with Belarusian matters -- whether at the level of summit diplomacy or that of an immigration clerk considering an application for political asylum -- cannot be overestimated. There is one unusual aspect of the book: it is in the Russian language. The copy which reached this reviewer came with a message from Shushkevich saying that he hoped "no one would think that a former head of state could not speak Belarusian." The choice of language, he said, was the decision of the sponsors (the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) so that it would reach a wider audience. An even wider audience, however, would be reached with an English-language edition. One hopes that one will appear in the near future.

KUCHMA MAKES PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKE AT OPPOSITION. In a televised address to the nation to mark the 11th anniversary of Ukraine's independence on 24 August, President Leonid Kuchma said the country needs to move to a different political system -- a parliamentary-presidential republic. "Ukraine has been formed as a presidential-parliamentary republic, with all the advantages and shortcomings of this system," Kuchma said. "Most likely, there was no other way. Under the circumstances of the lack of democratic tradition and of weak political parties, the president had to take upon himself the responsibility for adopting important decisions, including and first and foremost -- on economic issues.... But [now] I am convinced that for its further development, Ukraine needs to transfer to a different political system -- a parliamentary-presidential republic."

Kuchma said he has already ordered that a working group be set up to prepare a draft of political reform, and appealed to all political forces, including the opposition, to take part in this task. According to Kuchma, Ukraine may achieve this systemic shift by amending its constitution and giving the right to form a government to a parliamentary majority. Kuchma called on the Verkhovna Rada to create such a majority in order to form a coalition cabinet "in the near future" without waiting for relevant constitutional changes.

Kuchma also said the country's shift to a parliamentary-presidential republic would require changes to election legislation. "In other words, we need a proportional election system, but of a European type," Kuchma said. The president also noted that Ukraine urgently needs a reform of its territorial administration. "Shifting to a parliamentary-presidential model and strengthening the role of local self-governments -- this is exactly our European choice," Kuchma noted.

What has pushed the Ukrainian president to make such a political about-face and offer more powers to the parliament? It should be remembered that in April 2000 Kuchma organized a constitutional referendum intended to curb parliamentary powers rather than to expand them. And, quite recently, Kuchma has referred to the Verkhovna Rada as a "center of destabilization in the country."

"If it is a serious proposal...then the communist parliamentary caucus together with pro-presidential factions could muster 300 votes during the fall parliamentary session to make [relevant] changes in the constitution," Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko commented after hearing of Kuchma's proposal for political reform. "But I am far from believing that the president's statement was motivated by his desire to improve the political system of the state to expand democracy and accountability [of the authorities] for their policies to the Ukrainian people. I think that this step was made in connection with the countrywide protest actions [planned by the opposition in September]. The president and his entourage are trying to weaken the opposition's demand that Ukraine move from a presidential-parliamentary to a parliamentary-presidential republic."

Yuriy Lutsenko, a coordinator of the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement, said that by making his proposals, Kuchma "has snatched away the initiative from the opposition, which has announced mass protest actions under slogans demanding a change in Ukraine's political system." Lutsenko believes that Kuchma's reform ideas could become flesh in the form of "a constitutional accord on transferring a part of the presidential powers to the parliament" in the form of "a direct presidential decree." Lutsenko believes that the protest actions planned for this fall will not be called off. "It is another matter that they may take place under different slogans. It is dependent on the authorities whether the protest actions will be held under radical slogans or under slogans supporting a change of the political system," Lutsenko added.

While most Ukrainian commentators agree that Kuchma's announcement of political reform is intended to defuse the potential of the opposition protest to some extent, some of them suggest that the presidential proposal primarily targets Viktor Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine bloc, which has, until recently, wavered as to whether to join the Communists, the Socialists, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement in the upcoming protests. With his offer, those commentators assert, Kuchma is proposing to Yushchenko that he enter a parliamentary coalition with the pro-presidential group and form a coalition cabinet -- the goal pursued by Our Ukraine after it suffered a setback in the election of parliamentary leadership earlier this year.

Yushchenko's reaction was rather distrustful. While noting that Kuchma's proposal to form a coalition government coincides with Our Ukraine's postulates, he said "we read the notion of coalition in a different way" than the president. "I think Ukraine does not need a government formed by political forces that will be artificially herded into a parliamentary coalition," Yushchenko added. He reportedly said that both a presidential-parliamentary and parliamentary-presidential republic could be efficient politically, but added that the current situation in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada discredits the idea of parliamentary democracy. As of now, Yushchenko added, the parliament is a "puppet in the hands of some forces," therefore, in his opinion, it is inexpedient to move toward a parliamentary-republic system.

There are also voices in Ukraine suggesting that Kuchma does not see a worthy successor in whom he could entrust the entire store of presidential powers after his retirement in 2004, therefore he has proposed to curb these powers in a bid to win the title of major reformist. (Jan Maksymiuk)

CORRECTION: "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" on 20 August erroneously reported that the town of Uman in Ukraine is the birthplace of the founder of the Hassidic movement (Baal Shem Tov). In fact, Uman is where one finds the grave of Nachman of Bratslav (Baal Shem Tov's great-grandson), the founder of the Bratslav (Breslover) Hassidic movement.

"If there are sports in a country, it does not need either a Ministry of Foreign Affairs or a government. Sports are decidedly politics. And they are the pride of the nation. If a country is able to train athletes and maintain their form at a high level, it is a [real] country. If it is unable to do this, if everything crumbles and disintegrates there, it is a pitiful country." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka at the Raubichy sports center near Minsk on 23 August, as quoted by Belarusian television.