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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: July 31, 2001

31 July 2001, Volume 3, Number 29
TRADE UNION BOSS BECOMES LONE DEMOCRATIC 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. In this way, the five complied with their previous pledge to propose a single candidate from a broad coalition of democratic and opposition forces in a bid to oust dictatorial President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Initially, there were as many as 25 people vying to run in the presidential elections on 9 September. Several of them subsequently abandoned their bids, while most failed to collect the minimum 100,000 signatures required for registration as presidential candidates. The Central Election Commission reported last week that only four persons -- incumbent President Lukashenka, Liberal Democratic Party leader Syarhey Haydukevich, Domash, and Hancharyk -- supplied no fewer than 100,000 signatures.

The choice of Hancharyk came as a surprise to the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, which loosely unites five major opposition parties and many influential NGOs in Belarus. The council would have preferred Domash, the former governor of Hrodna Oblast, as the single democratic candidate. The independent weekly "Nasha Niva" on 23 July disclosed some criteria that were taken into account during a five-hour discussion between the five potential candidates on 21 July about which of them should challenge Lukashenka.

According to the weekly, the results of sociological surveys were the basic arguments in favor of Hancharyk. Public opinion polls indicate that one-fourth of Lukashenka's supporters would also be inclined to vote for Hancharyk, and one-fifth for Domash. Moreover, in Lukashenka's "traditional regions of support" -- Mahileu, Homel, and Brest oblasts --Hancharyk is viewed less negatively than Domash by voters. The tacit assumption is that the city of Minsk, Hrodna Oblast, as well as the western raions of Minsk and Vitsebsk oblasts will for the most part vote for anybody except Lukashenka. Another score for Hancharyk. Hancharyk also has a somewhat higher popularity rating than Domash among those older than 50 and with pensioners, and it is assumed that younger generations will opt for "non-Lukashenka" in the presidential ballot. One more score for Hancharyk.

"Nasha Niva" also made an interesting suggestion regarding the increasing leverage in opposition circles of the recently created leftist movement named "For a New Belarus." The movement is led by former Agriculture Minister Vasil Lyavonau (who was previously imprisoned by Lukashenka) and includes such important figures as former Supreme Soviet speakers Stanislau Shushkevich and Mechyslau Hryb, as well as a number of Soviet-era nomenklatura representatives who have been marginalized, shunned, or even persecuted by the Lukashenka regime. According to the weekly, "For a New Belarus" firmly believes that only a revolt by the current regime's nomenklatura -- which primarily means a refusal to falsify the vote count -- will unseat Lukashenka. And this revolt, Lyavonau's group argues, is more likely to occur when Lukashenka is challenged by Hancharyk, because the 61-year-old Hancharyk is a typical Soviet-era nomenklaturshchik, whom many in the Lukashenka administration allegedly regard as an acceptable successor to the incumbent president.

Indeed, Hancharyk's Soviet-era career was that of an exemplary Party functionary. Hancharyk graduated from the Belarusian Institute of National Economy (1961) and the Academy of Social Sciences under the Central Committee of the CPSU (1976). In the 1960s, he worked as an economist and a party functionary of the raion level, in the 1970s he advanced to assume oblast-level positions, and in the 1980s he was given a job in the Central Committee of the Belarusian branch of the CPSU. Since 1986, he has been chairman of the Trade Union Federation of Belarus.

There were virtually no problems for Hancharyk in his trade union post during the Soviet-era or in the pre-Lukashenka period of independent Belarus. Following the long-standing Soviet tradition, he behaved as the government wanted him to behave. Serious troubles appeared only in the late 1990s, when Lukashenka -- apparently desiring to gain more control over the industrial working class, which he saw as the biggest threat to his rule -- launched a smear campaign in the media against Hancharyk. Lukashenka's control services conducted several massive inspections of the Trade Union Federation's activities and books in an unsuccessful bid to find something that would discredit Hancharyk. The latest inspection began two weeks ago, shortly after Hancharyk made public documents implicating top law-enforcement officials (and possibly Lukashenka) in the killing of opposition figures in Belarus.

The Trade Union Federation of Belarus has between 2 and 3 million members. If all of them (and their families) voted for Hancharyk on 9 September, Lukashenka would face a humiliating defeat. But is seems that Hancharyk's pull among his trade unionists has been considerably eroded by the Lukashenka administration, which has made enormous efforts to organize a rival trade union federation and managed to chip a number of trade union organizations at some factories in Minsk and elsewhere from Hancharyk's monolith. When Hancharyk called last year for a 30,000-strong trade union rally in Minsk to protest the appalling economic situation, only some 3,000 turned up.

One aspect of the presidential campaign is certainly auspicious for the Belarusian opposition. If in fact Domash withdraws from the race, there will be only three contenders: Lukashenka, Hancharyk, and Haydukevich. This automatically puts Hancharyk in the public spotlight, a development extremely undesirable for Lukashenka who, according to many commentators, wanted to register as many contenders for the presidency as possible in order to confuse the electorate. Even without access to the state-controlled media, the opposition is thus likely to be able to impart to voters the simple information that Lukashenka has a democratic rival and that this rival is Hancharyk.

There is also Haydukevich, the leader of the local replica of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's infamous party. But few people in Belarus or Russia treat Haydukevich seriously. Belarusian democrats are inclined to believe that Haydukevich is Lukashenka's headache rather than their own, since Haydukevich appeals to much the same electorate as the incumbent president does. If this is so, then another thing the democrats need is "a revolt of the nomenklatura." Such a revolt seems to be the sine qua non condition for defeating Lukashenka, because he staffed territorial election commissions (formed at the oblast and raion levels) entirely from his own people and, according to recent reports by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service correspondents, is repeating the trick with voting precinct commissions.

REVENGE FOR TOMATO HIT. The story of jobless Syarhey Laptseu -- who hit President Lukashenka with a tomato on 3 July, was sentenced to seven days in jail by a Minsk court and amnestied by Lukashenka in what seemed to be an unusual act of benevolence on the part of Belarus's dictatorial ruler (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 10 July 2001) -- had a very sad continuation. The Minsk-based independent "Nasha svaboda" reported that Laptseu, while collecting signatures in support of presidential hopeful Alyaksandr Yarashuk in Minsk on 17 July, was harshly beaten by a group of young thugs who introduced themselves as being "from law-enforcement bodies" (This is a Russian cliche dating back to the Soviet-era: "iz organov"). While beating Laptseu, they repeated several times: "We will wean you off lifting your hand against the president." Laptseu, having suffered serious injuries, spent a night in hospital. "Nasha svaboda" concluded: "Now it's clear how much Lukashenka's clemency is worth: He has had his revenge, anyway. Most likely, Laptseu now thinks it would have been better for him to serve his term in jail."

A PAST THAT CAN'T BE EXPUNGED. Vandals have destroyed a monument near Minsk to the victims of Stalin-era mass murders in Belarus, an official of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front said last week.

Uladzimir Yukho suggested that this action appears to represent an attempt to expunge from the record one of the most notorious events in Belarusian history and one of the most important sources of the Belarusian national movement over the last two decades.

Yukho noted that the small granite memorial presented to the people of Belarus by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton when he visited that site in 1994 had served as a focal point for the Belarusian opposition.

The discovery in the 1980s of the Kurapaty mass graves helped to power the rise of the Belarusian democratic movement. Activists of the Popular Front say that the graves, located in a forest near the national capital, contain the remains of hundreds of thousands killed in the 1930s. But officials of the current Belarusian regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka have attempted to play down the importance of Kurapaty and insist that there are no more than 7,000 dead buried there.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the defacement of this monument, and no one has been arrested or identified as a suspect. But the significance of this monument for the country's democratic movement and the timing of this attack may lead at least some in the Belarusian opposition to suspect that supporters of Lukashenka have somehow been involved. If that is in fact the case, recent history suggests, no one is ever likely to be charged or convicted of this crime.

That will certainly have consequences because from the time of the discovery of the mass graves at Kurapaty, they have been one of the prime motivating factors behind the country's national and democratic movements. Indeed, most activists in those movements over the last decade have sought to honor the Kurapaty site, frequently insisting that people coming to Belarus must go there to understand that country and its past.

Indeed, as Yukho made clear to Western news agencies last week, Belarusian democrats were at the site as recently as last week and thus are in a position to date more or less precisely when the destruction of the monument took place. Moreover, the fact that the American government erected this monument is for many Belarusian democrats a symbol of the interest of the West in Belarusian independence and democracy.

Consequently, many democratic activists there are certain to blame the Lukashenka regime and its supporters for this action -- all the more so since the destruction of this monument took place just as the Belarusian opposition has joined forces to advance a single candidate to run against Lukashenka in presidential elections now scheduled for 9 September.

So far, the destruction of the Kurapaty monument has attracted relatively little attention in either the Belarusian or international media. But because of its centrality in the life of many Belarusians, the demolition of this monument may have consequences very different than some might expect and lead to greater activism by the democratic opposition in Belarus.

Indeed, this action in Belarus this week recalls one of the more infamous stories of the Cold War. Once, when he came to the United Nations, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev warned the Greek prime minister that if Athens continued to support NATO and the West, it might be necessary for Moscow to attack the Acropolis with nuclear weapons.

The Greek leader responded that Mr. Khrushchev might very well be able to destroy the buildings on the Acropolis but that the Soviet leader would never be able to destroy the ideas of democracy and freedom that the Greeks gave birth to more than two millennia ago.

In like manner, the vandalization at Kurapaty is unlikely to expunge the memory of the events it commemorates.

(RFE/RL Director of Communications Paul Goble wrote this report.)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE LISTS U.S. CONCERNS ABOUT UKRAINE. U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice held talks with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and other top officials in Kyiv on 25 July, during which she delivered a strongly worded warning to Ukraine, saying its integration into Europe depends on democratic reforms, transparent probes into the recent killings of journalists, and fair elections, international news agencies reported. Rice was the first major policymaker from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to visit Kyiv, therefore her voice was given particular attention in Kyiv. At a news conference following her talks with Ukrainian officials, Rice touched upon a wide range of the Bush administration's concerns about Ukraine.

Rice said it is important for Ukraine to push economic and political reforms simultaneously. Rice praised progress on economic reforms in Ukraine and said that she heard assurances during talks with Kuchma and others that Kiev is firmly on the democratic path. "The leadership of the country realizes that the world is watching over developments in Ukraine," she said.

Rice confirmed that she discussed the killings of journalists Heorhiy Gongadze and Ihor Aleksandrov with Ukrainian leaders, adding that she demanded a full investigation into those murders.

Regarding next year's parliamentary elections in Ukraine, Rice said: "The world will be watching the elections in 2002, and not just on the day of the election but throughout the campaign to be sure that all voices have the opportunity to be heard." Answering a journalist's question as to whether she believes that the Ukrainian government will match its promises with deeds, Rice said: "We are not so easily fooled. The United States knows a free election when it sees one. It knows a free campaign when it sees one."

Rice also said that Ukraine promised to stop supplying weapons to Macedonia. (In recent months, Macedonia has purchased eight Ukrainian Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters along with four Su-25 aircraft, nearly doubling its air force, and there has been talk of the Ukrainian construction of a technical support base to repair the aircraft.) "I have been able to further consult on issues of security, including missile defense and arms to Macedonia, and I have received assurances from the Ukrainian government that those will cease, because we really do believe that there is only a political solution," AP quoted Rice as saying.

"I have been given a choice: either voluntary death or release from jail after I make testimony they want me to make." -- Yauhen Sakalouski, the first provost of Homel State Medical Institute, in a letter secretly passed to journalists from his solitary confinement cell in Homel, southeastern Belarus; quoted by Belapan on 26 July.

"We need Lukashenka as a manager of Belarus, as one pulling Belarus up to our level. We will have a Yugoslavia and a Kostunica [in Belarus] if anyone replaces him, nothing good will follow. Lukashenka has tested a model of strong rule, he has made the KGB work [efficiently] -- this is a good model, it can be applied on Russia's territory. Lukashenka's victory will be useful for us, I wish him victory." -- Russia's Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, quoted by the "" website on 26 July.

"Russian pop artists are recruited for fat fees to form propaganda teams in order to support the beggarly and fearful Lukashenka regime in the upcoming sham elections. Their sham character is not doubted by anybody, but everybody is putting a brave face on this shitty game. The 'Slavic Bazaar' festival has been irrevocably transformed from an interethnic forum into a heavy baton of the father Lukashenka, into a moral and ideological prop to the pariah regime. It should be stressed that the empty Belarusian treasury allocated no less than $1 million for this event. Is it not shameful to participate in it?" -- "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 27 July, commenting on last week's "Slavic Bazaar" music festival in Belarus, which was attended by Lukashenka, Putin, and Kuchma.