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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 18, 2001

18 September 2001, Volume 3, Number 35
WIDE-MARGIN LEFTIST VICTORY PREDICTED BY SURVEYS. Last week's polls conducted by the OBW and PBS polling agencies concurrently predicted that the Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union (SLD-UP) coalition will obtain 47 percent of the vote in the 23 September election to the Sejm. According to OBW, parliamentary seats may also be claimed by Civic Platform (13 percent of the vote), the Peasant Party (11 percent), Law and Justice (10 percent), Solidarity Electoral Action of the Right (8 percent), and Self-Defense (5 percent). According to PBS, apart from the SLD-UP, parliamentary seats could be distributed among the Civic Platform (14 percent of the vote), the Peasant Party (9 percent), Solidarity Electoral Action of the Right (8 percent), Law and Justice (7 percent), Self-Defense (5 percent), and the Freedom Union (5 percent). Simulations showed that the SLD-UP could obtain an outright majority of seats in the 460-strong parliament -- 241 according to OBW and 244 according to PBS.

SHOULD LUKASHENKA BE REGARDED AS A LEGITIMATE PRESIDENT? Belarus's Central Election Commission announced on 10 September that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka overwhelmingly won his reelection the previous day, garnering no less than 75 percent of the vote. His rival, unified opposition candidate Uladzimir Hancharyk, obtained a mere 15 percent.

In a statement issued the same day, the OSCE said Belarus's electoral process had "fundamental flaws." Europe's election watchdog noted that the authorities did everything possible to block the opposition, including changing the campaign rules by decree, failing to ensure the independence of the election administration, failing to properly control early voting, and creating a campaign environment that was seriously detrimental to the opposition. The statement also said the authorities launched a campaign of intimidation against opposition activists, domestic observers, and independent media, and a smear campaign against international observers.

The U.S. State Department was far harsher in its assessment of Belarus's ballot, stressing that "Lukashenka has merely used a facade of elections to engineer a meaningless victory for himself." The U.S. State Department said the election cannot be internationally recognized. Washington pledged to consult with the OSCE on what steps to take to restore democracy in Belarus.

How many people really voted for Lukashenka will most likely remain a mystery. The authorities and election officials prevented independent monitors from tabulating precinct-by-precinct votes and offering an independent picture of the vote. At the same time, the use on a mass scale of a controversial early voting procedure has spawned widespread suspicions that the authorities may have resorted to mass falsifications during those five days of practically unmonitored early voting.

Gerard Stoudman, the head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, told RFE/RL on 10 September that he has no evidence of manipulations of the election figures in Belarus. Stoudman, who led the OSCE's monitoring effort in the Belarusian ballot, added that in such a heavily Sovietized country as Belarus it is easy for the authorities to ensure a favorable election outcome without resorting to outright falsification of the figures.

The OSCE's final assessment of Belarus's presidential ballot is still to come, but it is already evident that the organization as a whole as well as each state participating in it will soon face a difficult question -- what to do about Lukashenka? Is he a legitimate president or not? Should European states resume political contacts with his regime or isolate it even further?

"A policy of isolation has never worked. It is clear that if this country [Belarus] feels like a fortress under siege, like Iraq, Yugoslavia under Milosevic, Cuba, etc., there will be no changes for the next 15 years," Stoudman told Reuters. It is likely that in time more and more European politicians will express their support for Stoudman's argument.

Does that argument in favor of not isolating Lukashenka mean that the effort, led primarily by the U.S., to support the anti-Lukashenka opposition and establish some mechanisms and structures of civil society in Belarus has suffered a failure? Not necessarily so. "The most important result of this election is the development of democratically and politically competent institutions in civil society," OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group head Hans Georg Wieck believes. Of course, it is primarily up to the Belarusian opposition to show that it can prove equal to further challenges and maintain its unity that was so painstakingly achieved shortly before the presidential election. But it is also obvious that Belarus's nascent democratic groups need further moral and financial support from the West in order to overcome their frustration in the wake of Lukashenka's election triumph.

Last week, the "Christian Science Monitor" revealed that Washington spent $24 million in 2000 to support NGOs and opposition groups in Belarus, and is going to spend no less this year. Although such sums may seem pretty fat in the country where National Bank reserves do not exceed $200 million, they are in no way commensurate with the money that is spent to counter any democratization processes in Belarus and to keep the Lukashenka regime afloat.

According to opposition estimates, supporting Belarus's antiquated economy -- which also means keeping the Lukashenka regime relatively popular among wider strata of the Belarusian population -- costs Russia no less than $1 billion annually. Russia supports Lukashenka by offering his regime cheap oil and gas, regular debt relief, and access to taxes on products heading for Russia. Russia is also the principal market for Belarusian producers who could have faced immense difficulties in finding buyers elsewhere.

Lukashenka's reelection -- on which Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the Belarusian leader immediately after the preliminary election results were released by Minsk -- is presenting a troublesome dilemma for the Kremlin too. There has recently been an increasing number of voices from Russian politicians and political experts asserting that Moscow's support for Lukashenka costs Russia too much and is detrimental to Russian interests in the long run. Russia is apparently gradually becoming aware that it may be possible to maintain Belarus in the Russian sphere of influence without having the "last dictator in Europe" installed in Minsk.

In his independence-day greeting to Lukashenka in July, Putin spoke about Belarus's commitment to freedom and democracy as a necessary precondition for unification with Russia. While unification with Russia may not necessarily be the Belarusian opposition's primary goal, Moscow's tougher course toward Belarus's autocratic leader would obviously be welcome by all anti-Lukashenka groups. The presidential ballot in Belarus clearly testified that Moscow's political and economic leverage in that country remains a major factor that must be taken into account by all political players. Hancharyk and other opposition politicians have made an attempt at currying Moscow's favors in the presidential campaign. This time they failed, but 9 September 2001 in no way means the end of politics in Belarus.

ETHNIC RUSSIANS OPPOSE KYIV'S LANGUAGE POLICY. The closure of Russian-language schools in Ukraine over the last decade has prompted ethnic Russian groups there to protest what they see as a policy designed to promote the assimilation of ethnic Russians into the Ukrainian nation.

Three ethnic Russian groups in Ukraine -- the Russian Movement of Ukraine, the Russian-Ukrainian Union, and For A Single Rus -- have announced plans to picket the Ukrainian Education Ministry because of what they say is Kyiv's policy of "liquidating Russian-language education in Ukraine and [promoting] the assimilation of Russians and Russian-language citizens."

According to a press release issued by the Russian Movement of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government over the last decade has changed the language of instruction in 1,300 schools from Russian to Ukrainian. As a result, the press release said, only 10 percent of the schools in the country are now conducted in Russian even though "not less than half of the population considers Russian to be its native language."

The Russian Movement said that this shift is taking place despite the wishes of parents and that written appeals to the education authorities have not produced any results. The group said that it will now engage in picketing government offices and other forms of protest in order to attract attention to this issue.

In most of the post-Soviet communist countries, questions concerning the language of instruction are among the most sensitive and contentious of all public issues. On the one hand, anything that touches the lives of children and their futures is something adults are likely to take seriously. And on the other hand, the debates taking place now reflect the continuing shadow of Soviet-era policies. But nowhere are these discussions more difficult than in Ukraine.

During the Soviet period, Moscow allowed union republics to have schools in their own national languages but promoted the use of Russian as the language of instruction both where there were sizable numbers of ethnic Russians and where parents could be persuaded that learning the language of what was called "interethnic communication" would give their children a better chance in their future professional lives.

In Ukraine, both of these groups were numerous. By 1989, the date of the last Soviet census, ethnic Russians constituted more than 20 percent of the population of Ukraine. And many Ukrainians, whose language is closely related to Russian, accepted happily or not that having their children go to Russian-language schools was career-enhancing.

But with the end of the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians, like their counterparts in other post-Soviet republics, decided that they could and should promote their national language as part of their general effort at nation- and state-building. Indeed, many of them felt that changing over to Ukrainian was almost a patriotic duty.

Such attitudes became even more widespread as Ukrainians recognized that the Russian Federation where millions of Ukrainians live -- the exact number is a matter of dispute -- did not in the past and has not now provided any Ukrainian-language schools for its citizens. And many Ukrainians were upset that international bodies that regularly urged Ukraine to keep Russian-language schools never demanded that Russia open Ukrainian-language ones.

Kyiv's gradual shift in the language of instruction from Russian to Ukrainian in many schools is widely popular among Ukrainians. But not surprisingly, it is generating a backlash among ethnic Russians and among those Ukrainians who grew up speaking Russian. As a result, Ukraine now finds itself caught between Ukrainians who want their children to speak Ukrainian and ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians who want their children to speak Russian.

The picketing announced by the three Russian groups in Ukraine is unlikely to change anyone's mind. But it will certainly call attention to a political issue that is far from resolved, one that may ultimately be more important than economics or geopolitics in determining Ukraine's future.

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

"I have saved up some money. If Luka[shenka] loses, I'll buy a computer; if he wins, I'll buy a [foreign] visa." -- A Belarusian student on the eve of the 9 September presidential election in Belarus; quoted by "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 12 September.