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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: July 24, 2001

24 July 2001, Volume 3, Number 28
OPPOSITION HOPEFULS UNITE AROUND SINGLE CHALLENGER TO LUKASHENKA. Four politicians supported by the Belarusian opposition -- Mikhail Chyhir, Syamyon Domash, Syarhey Kalyakin, and Pavel Kazlouski -- said on 21 July that they will withdraw from the presidential race and form a united campaign behind Uladzimir Hancharyk, the head of the Trade Union Federation of Belarus, Belapan reported. In this way, the five complied with their earlier pledge to propose a single candidate from a broad coalition of democratic and opposition forces in a bid to oust dictatorial President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. According Belapan, if the Central Election Commission refuses to register Hancharyk as a presidential candidate, the role of a single democratic candidate will be assumed by Domash. The agency also reported that if Hancharyk wins the September presidential elections, he will call on Domash to form a new government.

"Today's decision has removed a heavy burden from all of us," Stanislau Shushkevich, Belarus's head of state in the early 1990s, commented to Belapan regarding the five's decision to field Hancharyk against Lukashenka. "Now we should unite and work together for the man who has been trusted by the five to be No. 1. I call on all activists of all opposition parties to give up party and personal ambitions and work in team for Uladzimir Ivanavich Hancharyk," Shushkevich added.

Vintsuk Vyachorka, the leader of the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF), said Hancharyk should immediately take steps toward consolidation of opposition political forces in Belarus. "We expect Mr. Hancharyk to make unambiguous statements about his attitude toward Belarus's independence and return to the democratic path of development, the separation of power branches, economic reform, the Belarusian people's national and cultural future. This will determine the degree of the participation of the BNF, the country's largest democratic organization, in the presidential campaign of Uladzimir Hancharyk."

Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission said on 23 July that, according to "preliminary data," only four aspirants out of the 22 who collected signatures (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 19 June 2001) -- Lukashenka, Hancharyk, Domash, and Syarhey Haydukevich -- managed to supply the minimum of 100,000 signatures required for the registration as presidential candidates.

According to the 2001 presidential election schedule, between 21 July and 4 August local election commissions will verify the validity of signatures collected by aspirants seeking to register as presidential candidates. The Central Electoral Commission will register eligible candidates between 5 and 14 August.

According to a poll held by Belapan among 500 Minsk residents from 10-13 July, only 33 percent or respondents said Belarusian voters will have a "decisive influence" on determining the results of the 2001 presidential elections. Thirty-one percent said these results will be determined by the authorities, while 10 percent felt that Russia will have a decisive say in the presidential ballot.

MOSCOW PAPER SUGGESTS U.S. TRIED TO MAKE A DEAL WITH LUKASHENKA. The Moscow-based "Novye izvestiya" on 17 June run an intriguing article "How To Become an Outcast" by Yegor Mikhaltsov, in which the author claims that in early 2001 the U.S. State Department proposed to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a "secret agreement" envisaging a "step-by-step improvement of relations" between the U.S. and Belarusian governments. Mikhaltsov did not disclose from where he obtained his information. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Minsk told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 19 July that the "Novye izvestiya" article includes "a number of inaccuracies." The spokesman, however, refused to confirm or deny whether there were negotiations on the "secret agreement."

According to Mikhaltsov, in January U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Michael Kozak passed to President Lukashenka a note proposing "to immediately begin unofficial talks in a very narrow circle." In February, the U.S. Embassy in Minsk worked out a draft agreement named Ad Referendum. Another name of the document was Belarus-U.S. Package Understanding. The document, approved by the U.S. State Department, envisaged a series of "concessions" from both sides. The essence of the agreement was in the provision that if Lukashenka were to agree to hold "free and fair presidential elections" with the observance of democratic procedures, the newly elected Belarusian president -- be it even Lukashenka himself -- would promptly be recognized by the U.S. (and the international community) as a legitimate ruler.

Mikhaltsov further asserts that all top officials in Lukashenka's entourage -- apart from two "hawks," Prosecutor General Viktar Sheyman and Presidential Administration First Deputy Chief Uladzimir Zamyatalin -- endorsed the proposed deal. Deputy Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau was a particularly active promoter of the accord. The Belarusian side supplied the proposed document with a schedule for "implementing reciprocal actions." A final version of the agreement -- a "joint draft" -- was worked out on 4 April.

Mikhaltsov quotes several examples of "reciprocal actions" from what he said was the planned agreement. Example 1: The Belarusian authorities release political prisoner Andrey Klimau and allow him to leave Belarus "before 1 June" -- in return, the White House makes a statement that "the political climate in Belarus has obviously changed for the better" and voices a wish "to develop the cooperation of [both countries'] businesses." Example 2: Lukashenka issues a decree whereby the Central Election Commission is formed out of 12 representatives of the opposition and 12 representatives of the government -- the U.S. ceases "to actively oppose Belarus's desire to obtain a seat in the UN Security Council." Example 3: Lukashenka quits persecuting former Premier Mikhail Chyhir, former Defense Minister Pavel Kazlouski, and former Agricultural Minister Vasil Lyavonau in court -- the U.S. creates a special team of investigators from the FBI and Interpol in order to examine the disappearances of opposition figures Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, and Dzmitry Zavadski, and agrees to clear the Belarusian authorities of their alleged involvement in the disappearances (should the accusations prove to be groundless).

The Belarusian president reportedly rejected the proposed deal. "Many do not understand why Lukashenka rejected the agreement. It was his and our chance, particularly since he believed that he would win the election in an honest and fair way," "Novye izvestiya" quoted an unnamed official from Lukashenka's entourage as saying. Mikhaltsov concludes that Lukashenka was simply afraid to agree to free, democratic elections. According to the "Novye izvestiya" author, now the U.S. is set to not recognize the results of the Belarusian presidential ballot irrespective of any developments in the election campaign.

Commenting on the "Novye izvestiya" article to Belarusian Television on 18 July, Belarusian Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvastou said he disagrees with the assertion that "the [U.S.-Belarusian] talks concerned a secret agreement that could radically change the current situation." Khvastou added: "There has been, and are, no secret talks about a possible deal. It is [our] usual work that has been begun, is continued, and will be continued."

YUSHCHENKO'S BLOC AND OTHER BLOCS. On 15 July, from atop Ukraine's highest peak, Hoverlya in the Carpathian Mountains, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko announced the formation of an electoral bloc named Nasha Ukrayina (Our Ukraine) and called on pro-reformist, democratically minded, and nationally conscious forces to join it. Some 2,000 members of Ukraine's two Rukhs and the Reform and Order Party, as well as journalists, climbed Hoverlya to mark the 11th anniversary of Ukraine's sovereignty and listen to Yushchenko's announcement.

Yushchenko's announcement had been impatiently awaited in Ukraine since 26 April, when he was voted out of his post as prime minister jointly by the Communists and oligarchical groups in the parliament. Shortly after the vote of no confidence, Yushchenko addressed his supporters outside the parliamentary building, pledging to return to politics soon.

Yushchenko said on 15 July that he wants Our Ukraine to win next year's parliamentary elections and form a government. The bloc and its manifesto are to be forged this fall. Yushchenko named no specific forces during his 15 July pronouncement, but its is already clear that Our Ukraine will include the Popular Rukh of Ukraine (Hennadiy Udovenko's wing), the Ukrainian Popular Rukh (Yuriy Kostenko's wing), and the Reform and Order Party of Viktor Pynzenyk. Most likely, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists will also join Our Ukraine.

Yushchenko is Ukraine's most popular and most trusted politician. A recent poll by the GfK-USM polling center found that if presidential election had been held in July, Yushchenko would have obtained 32.4 percent of the vote. The same poll found that Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko would have been backed by 17.4 percent of voters, and incumbent President Leonid Kuchma by 10.2 percent. It is no wonder that the bloc headed by the former premier is tipped by most Ukrainian commentators to win a significant parliamentary representation.

It is difficult to make any predictions regarding Our Ukraine's election chances some eight months before the election date, but it is already clear that Yushchenko must look for more allies in order to build a force that would be able to control the future parliament. As of now, he may be sure of voters' support in western Ukraine, where both Rukhs have most of their adherents. But in Ukraine the political climate is defined not by the traditionally nationalist western areas of the country, but by the heavily populated and industrialized east. As of now, Yushchenko appears to have little leverage, if any, in the east. There is a danger that his personal popularity may not help Our Ukraine's candidates in eastern constituencies.

Yushchenko has apparently decided not to confront President Kuchma directly, so he rejected suggestions to join and head the anti-Kuchma opposition grouped in the National Salvation Forum (FNP) and the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement. Therefore, the recently created FNP election committee -- the Fatherland Party, the Sobor Party, the Social-Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Conservative Republican Party, and the Republican Party -- will most likely compete for parliamentary seats with Yushchenko's people. True, Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former close associate of Yushchenko in his cabinet and currently the head of the NFP election committee, said her bloc is going to propose "peaceful coexistence or cooperation" to Yushchenko. But it is difficult to see how such a goal can be achieved in practice, especially as both Our Ukraine and the FNP heavily rely on voting support in western Ukraine.

Following in Yushchenko's and Tymoshenko's footsteps, other groups have also announced their political alliances for the 2002 ballot. Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz said his party will make an election alliance with the All-Ukrainian Party of Working People, the Social Democratic Party, the Party for the Protection of Farmers' Interests, and the Greens of the 21st Century Party. The pro-Kuchma parties -- the Agrarian Party, the Popular Democratic Party, the Party of Regions, and the Labor Ukraine Party -- signed a declaration to create a joint election bloc. Ivan Chyzh, the leader of the All-Ukrainian Association of Leftist "Justice" (and former associate of Moroz), announced that he is currently negotiating the construction of a "very original and very powerful" election bloc. And two pro-Russian parties are working to create a separate coalition named the Russian Bloc for the 2002 parliamentary elections.

One should also remember that there is the powerful Communist Party in Ukraine, with voter approval not below 20 percent. And there are two influential oligarchical parties, the Social Democratic Party (United) and the Democratic Union, which, according to popular opinion, possess big administrative, financial, and media leverage in Ukrainian politics. Thus, Yushchenko faces an uphill task of building and promoting his bloc in Ukraine's political arena. The initial conditions for his initiative are auspicious. According to some analysts, Our Ukraine can count on some 23 percent support among the electorate as of now, which means that the planned bloc is already the country's most popular political force. But the election campaign has not yet started. And this also means that Yushchenko's rivals have not yet started to work toward undermining his political clout.

"People say there is a problem of sugar [shortages in Belarus]. This is a problem created artificially [by my enemies] before the presidential elections." -- Belarusian President Lukashenka to workers in Vitsebsk on 21 July; quoted by Belarusian Television.

"Viktor Yushchenko confirmed his reputation as a man inclined to putting on a big show: To announce the creation of his bloc on the Hoverlya peak was a lofty act in every sense of the word. But he also remained true to another trait of his's: His description of the goals of the new bloc [Our Ukraine]...was, as usual, bombastic and somewhat complicated. So, typically, nobody has understood anything -- including those who have already joined Our Ukraine." -- The Kyiv-based weekly "Zerkalo nedeli" on 21 July.