Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 19, 2002

19 November 2002, Volume 4, Number 44
BELARUS AND UKRAINE: PRESIDENTS THAT FALL SHORT OF EURO-ATLANTIC STANDARDS. Two scandalous political developments have burst onto the international agenda prior to the NATO summit in Prague on 21-22 November. The first concerns the Czech Republic's denial of a visa to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, effectively preventing him from coming to the country to participate in a sitting of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). The second is NATO's decision to hold a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at the summit at the foreign-minister level in an apparent attempt to prevent Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma from coming to Prague. While Lukashenka will definitely not appear in Prague, Kuchma has preferred to keep NATO in suspense until the very last moment. According to what appear to be deliberately unconfirmed media reports from Ukraine, Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko will come to Prague at the head a Ukrainian delegation to the NATO-Ukraine Commission talks, while Kuchma is considering leading another delegation to a session of the 46-member EAPC.

It is no wonder that media always seek sensational and spicy aspects of any event, irrespective of how serious or historically momentous that event might be. Therefore, their focus on the turmoil caused by Lukashenka and Kuchma in the context of the Prague summit is understandable. But it is also true that, in general perception, the NATO summit in Prague -- which is expected to extend NATO membership invitations to as many as seven postcommunist states and has been labeled in advance a historic event -- lacks the momentousness it would have had if NATO membership had been offered to those seven Central and Eastern European states 10 years ago. The past decade has greatly blurred the Cold War division line in Europe, while the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States have radically redefined the North Atlantic alliance's military goals and priorities. In fact, the upcoming expansion of NATO seems to be a political move rather than a military one, while the military consequences of this step might more greatly affect other parts of the globe than Europe itself.

As in the case of the three Central European states (Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary) that were admitted to NATO in March 1999, it will take years before the new members -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria -- are able to make a palpable contribution to NATO's "firepower." This aspect of NATO enlargement is obviously understood by NATO planners and strategists, and it has also spawned a great deal of ironic commentary in Russia as well as in the United States, which now seems to uphold NATO's military reliability completely with its own efforts. However, the political significance of the current NATO expansion should not be underestimated. In actual fact, the inclusion of these seven new countries into NATO is in reward for the progress they made toward shaking off their "Eurasian" political legacy and acquiring new, "Euro-Atlantic" identities. It is also a clear sign of how greatly the realm of democracy and political stability in Europe has expanded since the breakdown of communism in Europe in 1989, including headway into what was formerly known as the Soviet Union. For the countries that were admitted to NATO in 1999 or are to be admitted in the second wave following the Prague summit, NATO membership is firm evidence that they belong to the West. Their future membership in the EU will only confirm and seal this eventuality.

"We are convinced that fundamental human rights and freedoms are not being protected and respected in Belarus, and that is one of the basic values upon which the Euro-Atlantic alliance was founded," Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said in justifying the visa denial to Lukashenka. Few would deny that human rights in Belarus are abused, freedom of speech is suppressed, and political choices are limited. Similar accusations, however, can justly be made with regard to some regimes in post-Soviet Central Asia that will be represented by their leaders at the Prague summit. Does this mean Lukashenka is correct in claiming the West resorts to "double standards" in assessing the level of democracy in Belarus in comparison with post-Soviet Central Asian countries? To a certain degree, yes. But it also should be taken into account that none of NATO's "partners for peace" in Central Asia has been suspected, as has Belarus, of rendering military assistance to Saddam Hussein's regime and training Iraqi antiaircraft gunners who could conceivably be asked to down NATO aircraft.

It seems that NATO applied a similar rationale in not inviting the Ukrainian president to Prague. The record of human rights abuses and suppression of media under the rule of Leonid Kuchma actually puts Kuchma on a par with Lukashenka. But here, too, the decisive reason for snubbing the Ukrainian leader appeared to be the U.S. allegation that Kuchma approved the sale of an early-warning radar system to Iraq -- potentially putting the lives of NATO pilots at risk through the work of another NATO "partner for peace."

On the other hand, if Kuchma chooses to come to Prague in defiance of NATO hints that he is not welcome, it seems unlikely that he will be denied a Czech visa the way that Lukashenka was. Like it or not, it was under Kuchma's rule that Ukraine has asked for and been granted a place in the waiting room of Europe. This fact alone arguably grants Kuchma the right to somewhat different treatment by European leaders than that afforded Lukashenka. Ukraine has essentially found the path it must pursue, with or without Kuchma. Under Lukashenka, Belarus has failed to find a place within any alignment, defying through its actions both political expediency and common sense. Most likely, the West has come to the conclusion that life will be much simpler if it ignores Belarus's current leader. (Jan Maksymiuk)

POLISH ECONOMIC EXPERT WARNS AGAINST NEW 'IRON CURTAIN' ON EU FRONTIER. The Irish referendum of October 2002 on the enlargement of the European Union cleared the way for the accession to the EU in 2004 of 10 more states, of which eight -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- belong to the former communist bloc. This 60 percent increase in the number of member states will impose strains on both old and new members, as Hanna Gronkiewicz-Walc noted in this year's M.B. Grabowski Memorial Lecture "After Enlargement" (an annual public lecture at London University endowed by the late Polish emigre philanthropist M.B. Grabowski to increase knowledge of Poland and Polish affairs and culture). For the new members must continue to strive to meet the EU's economic and legal accession criteria, while the existing members will have to cope with a greater burden on the EU budget -- since the "new" members will contribute only around 5 percent of the total GDP of the enlarged union.

Gronkiewicz-Walc is a former head of the National Bank of Poland, and is now vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and is thus is excellently equipped to address the economic aspects of EU enlargement. She proved herself, moreover, equally competent to what one might call the psychological aspects of expansion, and in particular, the danger that the eastern frontier of the enlarged EU could become a new "Iron Curtain" -- this time an economic one.

Thus, replying to a question on the postenlargement relations of Poland with its non-EU eastern neighbors, Belarus and Ukraine, she remarked that the existing EU 15 do not understand the importance of Ukraine for Poland and for the enlarged EU as a whole. Many EU politicians, she said, still do not see any difference between Ukraine and Russia. The EU, she urged, should take a "more positive" attitude toward Ukraine, which, in her opinion, was a future member of the union: "not in 2010 or 2012 -- but some day!" Poland could and should play a mediating role between the EU and Ukraine. A "pro-Ukrainian lobby is needed," she said, noting that this was a fact well understood both by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, and, too some extent, by his predecessor Lech Walesa. On Belarus, Gronkiewicz-Walc observed more briefly that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is a "difficult" person but added that "things can change very rapidly," as the events in Eastern Europe over the last two decades have shown.

Indeed, even in the few days since Gronkiewicz-Walc's lecture, there has been a slight hint of such a "change," or at least an indication that in spite of Lukashenka's frequent expressions of antipathy to the EU, his regime does not want to see itself sidelined in EU negotiations concerning the region. On 12 November, it was announced that an agreement had been reached between the EU and Russia on Russian access to the Kaliningrad exclave following the accession of Poland and Lithuania to the EU. Such access had posed a number of diplomatic problems: Russia had to be assured that it could maintain its flow of citizens and goods between the exclave and the rest of Russia, while Lithuania must be guaranteed its sovereign right to cross its territory. There were practical problems too -- the cost of new border controls, and fears that too-easy access could facilitate the entry of illegal immigrants, drugs, etc into the EU. The solution was a package of measures including "flexible" Lithuanian controls at the frontier, multientry and one-off "facilitating transit documents" for Russian citizens, an independent "feasibility study" on high-speed nonstop transit trains, and EU financial and technical help to implement the measures and develop the economy of the exclave.

This agreement, however, deals exclusively with transit through Lithuania, and the negotiations therefore did not involve Belarus. This clearly did not please Belarusian Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvastou. Three days after the deal was announced (and in the midst of the diplomatic flurry caused by the Czech Republic refusing a visa to Lukashenka), Khvastou told a news conference that the transit problem had not been resolved "in an adequate way" by the EU-Russian deal. Belarus, he said, is a "crucial transit country" and should therefore have been involved in the negotiations. (Vera Rich)

CONFERENCE IN WASHINGTON URGES 'REGIME CHANGE' IN MINSK. "Regime change" as a term has gotten a lot of play recently with regard to U.S. policy toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But participants at a conference in the U.S. capital on 14 November suggested Washington should apply the term to Belarus, which the U.S. says sells arms to Saddam.

U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Michael Kozak says Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has chosen the wrong side in the war on terrorism and will soon face the consequences of his illegal arms sales to Iraq. Kozak made his remarks on 14 November at a conference on Belarus hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, an independent think tank in Washington.

Kozak joined international experts, officials, and Belarusian opposition leaders at the conference, entitled "Axis of Evil: Belarus -- The Missing Link." The title suggests that Belarus should have been included along with North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as part of U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil." It was an apt title for a forum whose participants criticized Lukashenka's authoritarian rule and examined ways to achieve "regime change" in Minsk.

Last spring, the U.S. State Department accused Minsk of training Iraqi forces to use the S-300 antiaircraft system, possibly against British and U.S. jets patrolling the "no-fly" zones over Iraq -- or against American-led forces leading any war to disarm Saddam. Kozak said much of America's information on Belarusian arms transfers must remain secret to protect intelligence-gathering methods. But he did make this remark to the conference: "The training of people to use this system was directed at one thing: to shoot down American and British aircraft. And that was something we didn't take too kindly to."

Last spring, the State Department told RFE/RL that the training of 10 Iraqi officers took place following last year's 11 September attacks on the U.S. and Bush's subsequent edict that America will not differentiate between terrorists and nations that sponsor them. Belarus denies any involvement in any military cooperation with Iraq.

Kozak said he believes that not only has Belarus continued selling arms to "rogue states" since 11 September, its sales have intensified at a time when Washington is considering military action to disarm Iraq of alleged arms of mass destruction. "We offered the Belarusian authorities opportunity to cooperate in suppressing arms sales to rogue states and terrorist groups. Unfortunately, while there's been a rhetorical response, they seem to have chosen the wrong side in the war on terrorism."

Conference host Radek Sikorski, a former Polish deputy foreign and defense minister, elicited laughter when he followed up Kozak's address with a warning to Lukashenka: "The message from this conference to Lukashenka is: 'President Lukashenka, be careful, because if your buddy in Baghdad gets thrown out, we will find the evidence of what you've been up to with him.'"

The conference also discussed Lukashenka's alleged human rights abuses and antidemocratic rule, including the still-unsolved disappearances of four opposition members. U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) told the forum that he considers Belarus to be an "authoritarian cesspool in the center of Europe" that "needs to be drained."

And some participants speculated that change is around the corner -- that Russia is finally beginning to turn against its long-time ally Lukashenka, and that this could spell the end of Lukashenka and the start of democracy.

But others were less sure. Hans-Georg Wieck was head of the OSCE Monitoring and Advisory Group in Minsk, which was recently shut down on grounds it was interfering in Belarusian politics. Wieck said Russia had "an elegant chance" to get rid of Lukashenka during the September 2001 elections, but decided in the end not to support a rival candidate. Wieck acknowledged there are signs Russia now "regrets its decision" to support Lukashenka, who won in a landslide election that was dubbed "neither free nor fair" by the OSCE. Wieck said, however, that in his opinion, Moscow still has clear designs on Minsk. "We should have no illusions that for the prevailing mood in Moscow, Belarus is a Russian province," he noted.

Vintsuk Vyachorka, leader of the opposition Belarusian National Front, said the most Belarus could hope for from Russia is for it to withdraw its support for Lukashenka and not to compromise Minsk's sovereignty.

Wieck said global supporters for change must unite to make up for the OSCE's absence in Minsk and work to prepare civil society in Belarus for democratic transition once "the moment of truth" arrives: "This society of dedicated people, or of frustrated, or of frightened people, altogether, needs the moral, political, and material support to be prepared to take over responsibility -- tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or in five years."

To that end, Vyachorka and others urged the U.S. to use its leverage with Russia to effect change in Belarus. Vyachorka also expressed hope the U.S. Congress would pass the Belarus Act, a bill under consideration in both houses that proposes further isolating Minsk and giving robust economic assistance to the opposition in a bid to bring down Lukashenka.

The bill has yet to come up for vote and appears to be a low priority, although further revelations about arms sales to Iraq would do a lot to bring Lukashenka to the attention of U.S. lawmakers. Senator McCain, a top Republican presidential candidate in 2000, said he is hopeful the new Congress will pass the bill sometime next year.

With the U.S. and Russia allied in the war on terror, McCain added that he hopes Putin will realize that Moscow's backing of Minsk is a stain on his reputation in the West. He said it is clear that without Russian support, "there would be no Lukashenka." (Jeffrey Donovan)

"You know, Gennadii Nikolaevich, our policy, particularly in this complicated time, requires flexibility in international relations -- this is obvious, since we are weaker than we were in the times of the Soviet Union. This policy requires concessions, some compromises. But if it possible to make compromises on Cuba, on Central Asia, on Caucasian republics, even on Ukraine, then Belarus for Russia, Gennadii Nikolaevich, if a frontier that Russia does not have the right to abandon.... Russia does not have the right to make compromises on Belarus. [Belarus] is a frontier where the Russian people should stand today to the death, despite any pressure from the West." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to Russian Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev in Minsk on 18 November; quoted by Belarusian Television.

"The act of not issuing a visa [to Belarusian President Lukashenka] is not an expression of any kind of aversion toward Belarus. It does not affect its membership [in the Partnership for Peace]. It is an expression of aversion toward the authoritarian manner of rule represented by Alyaksandr Lukashenka." -- Czech President Vaclav Havel on 19 November; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.