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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: October 29, 2002

29 October 2002, Volume 4, Number 41
MEDIA WATCHDOG PUBLISHES 'PRESS-FREEDOM INDEX.' Last week, the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders published the first worldwide "press-freedom index," a ranking of 139 countries according to their respect for press freedom. The index was drawn up by asking journalists, researchers, and legal experts to answer 50 questions about a range of press-freedom violations, such as murders or arrests of journalists, censorship, state monopolies, and the severity of punishment for violating media laws.

The index ascribes to the reviewed countries scores within a range from 0 (maximum freedom) to 100 (minimum freedom). The list is topped by Finland, Iceland, Norway, and the Netherlands (0.50 each). The four worst press-freedom offenders are North Korea (97.50), China (97.00), Burma (96.83), and Turkmenistan (91.50).

Belarus (52.17) is quite close to the bottom, ranked 124th. Russia (48.00) is 121st, and Ukraine (40.00) is 112th. Poland, with its score of 7.75, occupies 29th place jointly with Spain. (Jan Maksymiuk)

DID MILITARY INTELLIGENCE PROFIT FROM ILLEGAL ARMS SALES? "Rzeczpospolita" on 22 October published a lengthy report charging the Military Information Services (WSI) with profiting from illegal arms sales conducted by the private company Steo and the state-run firm PHU Cenrex in the period 1992-96, with the participation and collaboration of WSI officers. According to the daily, thousands of handguns, rifles, and Kalashnikov submachine guns, as well as several million rounds of ammunition, from Polish Army arsenals were allegedly sold to Croatia and Somalia (which were under a United Nations embargo) and to the Russian mafia. The District Court in Gdansk on 22 October resumed the trial of a dozen defendants in a case involving illegal arms trading by Steo and PHU Cenrex before immediately postponing it due to the revelations in "Rzeczpospolita."

According to the daily, the WSI assisted Steo in obtaining an arms-trading license and thus making it possible for the company to strike 15 deals for weapons sales from 1992 through 1996, with the collaboration of international arms trader and suspected terrorist Monzer al-Kassar and a "corrupt official" in the Latvian Defense Ministry. The value of all the contracts, according to the export invoices, amounted to $4.5 million, while the market value of the sold weapons was twice that amount, the daily reported. Steo is still in operation, but its license for trading in arms was withdrawn immediately after "Rzeczpospolita" started to make inquiries about it.

The State Protection Office, which in 1998 detained the people who are now on trial in Gdansk, investigated the illegal arms trade by Steo and Cenrex. "Rzeczpospolita" alleges that some other officers who were responsible for illegal arms deals are still working with the WSI.

"Until we have assured ourselves that there is some grain of truth in this successive sensation, we will not be commenting on it. In any case, I will not be commenting on it," Polish Television quoted Premier Leszek Miller as saying on 22 October.

The opposition Civic Platform and Law and Justice have announced that they will seek a parliamentary debate over the illegal-arms-trade allegations published in "Rzeczpospolita."

Meanwhile, Defense Ministry spokesman Eugeniusz Mleczak told PAP that some information in the daily's report came from WSI classified files. "The person writing the report was aware of having disclosed documents classified as state secrets," Mleczak said. He added that the ministry is considering suing "Rzeczpospolita" for disclosing state secrets. (Jan Maksymiuk)

LIBERAL RUSSIAN LEADER EXPELLED FROM MINSK -- TO WHOSE BENEFIT? The Belarusian KGB detained Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Boris Nemtsov on his arrival at the Minsk international airport on 23 October and promptly put him on a plane back to Moscow at the Minsk domestic airport. Nemtsov, accompanied by State Duma Deputy Speaker Irina Khakamada (SPS), planned to attend a conference on Belarusian-Russia integration in Minsk, with the participation of Belarusian opposition leaders. Khakamada, though not detained, chose to leave Minsk with Nemtsov. This incident garnered headlines in both Belarus and Russia on 23 October, but in subsequent days it was eclipsed by the hostage-taking drama in Moscow.

"After we were transported to the other airport, someone threw on the table an unknown case with a large number of wads of dollars -- eight huge wads of $100 banknotes -- and false SPS brochures, in front of television cameras," "Komsomolskaya pravda" quoted Khakamada as saying later the same day at the Sheremetevo-1 airport in Moscow. "We were asked: 'Whose case is this?' Nemtsov promptly said it was not his case. Then they asked me. I also denied it was mine. Then they took the case away. This was what we may call a dirty provocation. They apparently decided to demonstrate to the Belarusian people that we finance opposition parties in Belarus and carry U.S. dollars in cash in our suitcases, didn't they?"

"They wanted to expel only me," Nemtsov commented. "But it turned out that I was with Khakamada. And they didn't dare touch her, because Lukashenka hadn't ordered [the KGB] to touch Khakamada. Now we will always be together."

Belarusian KGB spokesman Fyodar Kotau said on 23 October that Nemtsov was expelled in accordance with Belarus's law on the legal status of foreigners and stateless persons. "We received a phone call this morning warning that Nemtsov was going to bring a large sum of money in hard currency into the Republic of Belarus to support his allies," Kotau noted. "I don't think there is any need to name these allies. Everybody remembers the well-known conversation about overthrowing the legitimately elected president of our country through joint efforts," he added. Kotau was obviously referring to the transcript of a telephone conversation between Nemtsov and Belarusian opposition leader Anatol Lyabedzka -- published in Russia and Belarus in September -- in which the two politicians seemed to discuss plans to oust President Alyaksandr Lukashenka with assistance from the Kremlin (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 10 September 2002).

The version that Nemtsov was trying to smuggle $50,000 and subversive publications into Belarus was also confirmed by Belarus's Foreign Ministry. "The Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Belarus thinks that representatives of the Russian Federation's political circles should visit Belarus with comprehensible goals," Foreign Ministry spokesman Pavel Latushka added. "Belarus's Foreign Ministry has [already] drawn attention to Boris Nemtsov's repeated, inadmissible, insulting statements and actions with regard to the Belarusian state, which has friendly relations with Russia. Boris Nemtsov's efforts to complicate the development of Belarusian-Russian relations [and] to halt integration processes, [as well as] his categorical disagreement with the policy of the building of a union state, are damaging not only Belarusian-Russian relations but also prospects for building the union."

The same day, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that reports of Nemtsov's deportation from Minsk were met "with bewilderment and deep concern" in Moscow. "The abuse of the freedom of travel of Russian and Belarusian citizens within the framework of the union state by no means agrees with the special relationship between Russia and Belarus," ITAR-TASS quoted from the statement. "It is clear that the incident was inspired by certain circles not interested in the development of Russian-Belarusian cooperation and integration. Russia hopes that the Belarusian leadership will offer explanations regarding the incident."

Belarusian President Lukashenka commented on the incident on 24 October, saying he is sure the incident will not spoil Belarusian-Russian relations. He also expressed a more personal view of Nemtsov's trip to Minsk. "[Nemtsov] said yesterday that...he and Khakamada are now inseparable for life," Belarusian Television quoted the president as saying. "I don't think they had to take $50,000 with them to Minsk [to prove that]. We could arrange their wedding for life free of charge.... There are people in Russia who have sickened not only the authorities but also society as a whole. I think [Nemtsov and Khakamada] are [among such people]," Lukashenka added.

Most Belarusian and Russian commentators agree that Nemtsov's expulsion on 23 October did not follow a sudden "telephone call" earlier the same day -- as suggested by Minsk -- but was an operation prepared by the KGB well in advance, with Lukashenka's approval. Those commentators also argue that Lukashenka hates Nemtsov so much that, in order to take revenge on him, the Belarusian president will not even avoid taking steps that may directly affect Minsk's relations with Moscow. Nemtsov has repeatedly spoken very negatively of Lukashenka, pointing to the Belarusian president as the main obstacle to Belarusian-Russian integration.

In the above-mentioned telephone conversation with Lyabedzka, Nemtsov suggested that the Kremlin is ready to cooperate with the Belarusian opposition to oust Lukashenka in order to develop a "European Union type" of integration with Belarus. Lukashenka, who is known for being very sensitive to any kind of criticism and unfavorable statements about him, could hardly be pleased while reading the transcript of the conversation in the Moscow-based ultranationalist newspaper "Zavtra," in which Nemtsov referred to him as a "bastard," an "outcast," a "clown," and a "monster."

"The [expulsion] scandal that took place at the Minsk airport yesterday is first and foremost a manifestation of the barbarian nature of our regime," Belarusian opposition activist Yury Khadyka told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 24 October. "Everything [that happened] was primarily dictated by [Lukashenka's] personal dislike [of Nemtsov]. As for other motives, they will be presented later.... It is evident that the expulsion may exacerbate Belarusian-Russian relations. This is why I think this action was ill-considered and mistaken. This expulsion has fully played into Moscow's hands. Now Moscow can, by referring to this foolery, adopt any economic or political sanctions [against Belarus]."

It remains to be seen whether there will be other official reactions to Nemtsov's deportation in addition to the statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry. ITAR-TASS quoted a slew of remarks by Russian State Duma deputies condemning Lukashenka. Thus far, however, the Russian legislature has not issued any official statement on the expulsion.

Could Lukashenka benefit in some way from last week's banishment of Nemtsov from Minsk? RFE/RL's Belarusian Service suggested on 25 October that he could.

Last week, Minsk failed to agree with Gazprom on additional Russian gas supplies to Belarus. The problem is that Belarus consumes more Russian gas than it has contracted, pays in a very untimely manner, and has already accumulated a gas debt nearing some $300 million. According to Gazprom deputy head Aleksandr Ryazanov, Belarus in January-September siphoned off 1.5 billion cubic meters of Russian gas. Moreover, Ryazanov stressed that Minsk pays in cash only for some 8 percent of the contracted supplies. "The results of our recent talks were depressing," Belapan quoted Ryazanov as saying. Ryazanov noted that Gazprom, which has been selling gas to Belarus at a reduced price, suffers losses and is ready to help Belarus find suppliers to deliver gas at "free" prices. He noted that free prices means that Belarus would have to pay at least $35-36 for 1,000 cubic meters, whereas it now pays $24 to Gazprom.

According to RFE/RL's Belarusian Service, if Gazprom persists in its reluctance to supply more gas to Belarus, and if the Belarusian government subsequently fails to warm some apartments during the upcoming winter, Lukashenka could somehow justify this failure by accusing Moscow of applying economic sanctions on Belarus over the expulsion of Nemtsov, a declared enemy of Belarusian-Russian integration. It will be cold comfort, undoubtedly, but politically it would be a much better explanation than simply admitting that the government has no money to buy gas for the winter. (Jan Maksymiuk)

IS UKRAINE ARMING GEORGIA AGAINST RUSSIA? Since August, Ukraine and Georgia have sent out contradictory signals over the sale of antiaircraft defense systems by Ukraine to Georgia. This became urgent for Georgia after planes -- Georgia has claimed they were Russian -- bombed Georgian territory in August, killing innocent civilians. The raid was allegedly targeted at Chechen guerrillas and their Muslim supporters in the Pankisi Gorge near the Georgian-Russian border.

In August-September, Russia threatened to launch ground and air assaults on the Pankisi Gorge to root out the Chechens who were allegedly using it as a safe haven before re-entering Chechnya. Russia pressured the United States for a deal whereby Washington would agree to Russian military intervention in Georgia in return for Russia's dropping its opposition to likely U.S. military action against Iraq. In the meantime, Georgian forces took back the lawless Pankisi Gorge in October and reported the presence of no Chechen guerrillas.

Ukraine and Georgia have cooperated in the military field since 1996 when they signed an accord on the creation of the Intergovernmental Commission for Economic Cooperation. Ukraine has trained 200 Georgian officers since then at its well-developed military academies, and such training remains a priority in Georgian-Ukrainian military cooperation. Besides Ukraine, Georgia has established military-cooperation programs with the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Turkey. Washington provides $64 million in military assistance each year and is training elite Georgian forces.

Georgia and Ukraine are also linked through the regional CIS group GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova). As Ukraine has progressively realigned its multilateral foreign policy from a pro-Western to a pro-Russian neutrality since the "Kuchmagate" crisis began in November 2000, the strategic importance of the GUUAM group has declined for Ukraine. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma visited Armenia, long suspicious of GUUAM, in October and signed military- and technical-cooperation agreements.

With Ukraine more closely aligned with Russia, it has become increasingly wary of publicizing its military links with Georgia, whose president, Eduard Shevardnadze, is widely disliked in Russia. An October Russian Public-Opinion Foundation poll found that Shevardnadze was the most disliked CIS leader among Russians. Forty-four percent had a negative view of him while only 2 percent thought of him positively. This is coupled with the total lack of transparency that surrounds arms sales in Ukraine in particular and in the Commonwealth of Independent States in general.

Unlike Ukraine, Georgia has an interest in publicizing the acquisition of military technology that would increase its ability to defend its sovereignty. On 17 September, Georgian National Security Council secretary Tedo Djaparidze admitted that Georgia would soon possess a modern air-defense system that would prevent its territory from being bombed. This was a reference to Russia, which had first bombed Georgian forces in the Abkhaz conflict in the early 1990s and has done so sporadically since. The chief of Georgia's General Staff, Lieutenant General Djoni Pirtskhalaishvili, admitted that Ukrainian air-defense units consisting of surface-to-air missiles would be stationed on the Georgian-Russian border.

Djaparidze visited Ukraine recently, where successful negotiations were held on the purchase of an air-defense system for which the Georgian parliament had allocated $12 million. On 28 September, Pirtskhalaishvili admitted that, "Georgia will soon receive antiaircraft systems from Ukraine." He added that the training of Georgians to man these systems "has already begun."

On 1 October, Georgian Ambassador to Ukraine Grigol Katamadze denied his country had signed a deal with Ukraine to deliver air-defense units. It seems highly unlikely that somebody in this position would be kept in the dark over such sales. But, on the same day, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili contradicted the ambassador and confirmed negotiations were indeed taking place. He repeated the view of other Georgian officials that the air-defense units would be used against foreign planes "that strike at Georgian territory."

Although the Ukrainian air-defense units had not yet arrived in Georgia, the Georgians were possibly using their pending arrival to influence Russian military plans against Georgia, which became increasingly aggressive in tone in September-October. Menagharishvili stated that the air-defense units would "shoot down planes no matter who owns them, [whether they are from] Russia or alien planets." But, he added that he hoped their presence would discourage Russia from conducting another bombing raid on Georgia.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko planned to visited Georgia on 7-9 October to discuss arrangements for the delivery and installation of the air-defense units, but his visit was postponed. The unofficial reason for the postponement was the impending arrival of the U.S.-British team of experts in Ukraine to investigate the Kolchuga arms scandal that was first publicly raised by the United States in late September.

On 10 October, Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh was the first Ukrainian official to admit publicly that Georgia and Ukraine were negotiating an arms deal, although he refused to disclose any details. By this time, Georgia had already paid Ukraine $3.6 million in advance of the $12 million total cost of the air-defense units. Georgians were also being trained in Ukraine to use the units, and Georgian officials had disclosed in September what their country was purchasing from Ukraine. Kinakh's circumspection was therefore surprising but fully in line with Ukraine's unwillingness to place arms sales within the new policy of transparency outlined in a presidential decree in August. (Taras Kuzio)

"Your country is the heart of the [Persian] Gulf; our country is the heart of Europe." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the Bahraini king during his recent trip to Bahrain; quoted by Belarusian Television on 28 October.