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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 13, 2001

13 November 2001, Volume 3, Number 43
BUILDING ON THE BONES OF STALIN'S VICTIMS. For the past seven weeks, Belarusian opposition groups and non-governmental organizations have been protesting against the government-ordered reconstruction of the Minsk beltway near a wooded area called Kurapaty, where the Stalin-era NKVD conducted mass executions and burials of "enemies of the people." The protesters fear that the expanding beltway will cut into and destroy a significant part of the Kurapaty burial ground, which is on the list of Belarus's historical and cultural heritage memorials.

On 8 November, the authorities sent riot police and bulldozers to tear down a tent camp set up near Kurapaty by young people from the Youth Front and Zubr groups. The police used truncheons and tear gas to deal with protesters, while the bulldozers and road construction workers smashed down crosses erected along the beltway by defenders of the memorial site. "The regime that destroys crosses are Satanists, not Christians," one opposition activist commented on the police action. "We are not listening to you -- we are deaf and mute," was the retort from a baton-wielding policeman to an RFE/RL correspondent's question about what the policeman was doing at Kurapaty.

Small protest rallies by opposition activists took place at Kurapaty in the following days, but the road-reconstruction work proceeded under police protection. It seems that the defenders of the Kurapaty memorial will likely fail to elicit a wider social response to their cause. Courts in Minsk, which are extremely efficient in dealing with anti-regime protests and demonstrations, have already begun handing down fines to those Kurapaty defenders who were arrested on 8 November.

The Belarusian public learned the grisly truth about Kurapaty in mid-1988, when archeologist Zyanon Paznyak published an article in the Minsk-based literary weekly "Litaratura i mastatstva" about what he discovered during his excavations at Kurapaty. According to Paznyak, the Stalin-era NKVD executed and buried some 220,000-250,000 people there, mainly in 1937-41 -- the peak period of the Stalin terror in the Soviet Union. Paznyak's publication, which was actually the first significant fruit of Gorbachev's glasnost in Belarus's public life, sent shock waves throughout the country. A non-governmental organization devoted to the documentation of crimes in the Stalin era was launched in the wake of that shock, while Paznyak formed and headed the Belarusian Popular Front, the country's first opposition group. In 1989, under the pressure of public opinion, the Belarusian government created a commission to probe Paznyak's findings. The commission confirmed that the Kurapaty graves contain the remains of NKVD victims but said that their number is significantly lower that Paznyak's estimate and stands at some 30,000. Kurapaty was officially declared a memorial site, but the government took no further steps to honor the victims or their burial place. However, the government passed a resolution in 1993 to bypass the Kurapaty site while modernizing the Minsk beltway in the future.

The political situation in Belarus changed radically after Alyaksandr Lukashenka was elected the country's president in 1994. For many apologists of the Soviet system, Lukashenka's assiduous drive to revive the Soviet Union served as a good opportunity to repair the image of the Stalin regime, which had bean dealt a heavy blow during Gorbachev's glasnost period and after the breakup of the USSR. Another official commission "found out" that the number of the people buried at Kurapaty stands at "a mere" 7,000." Furthermore, the commission concluded that it is virtually impossible to establish who is buried at Kurapaty: victims of the Stalin terror or the Nazi genocide.

Many opposition activists in Belarus would argue that the government's decision of 2000 to expand the Minsk beltway into the Kurapaty memorial site is the logical continuation of the Lukashenka regime's policy, which glorifies Soviet-era achievements and whitewashes Soviet-era crimes. It should be noted that such a policy has scored considerable successes in Belarus. Even if the October Revolution anniversaries or other Soviet-era occasions are now celebrated by only a handful of gloomy and embittered communists, one should not overlook the fact that the numbers of those opposing the Lukashenka policy of forced re-Sovietization are not impressively larger.

On one hand, the Kurapaty case doubtless highlights the weakness of civil society in a country that is generally believed to be the most heavily Sovietized and Russianized of all the former Soviet republics. But on the other hand, it suggests that in such post-Soviet societies as Belarus it is necessary to study one's own history as well as build democracy. It is hard to imagine that such a decision to build a road on the bones of Stalin-era victims could be made, for example, by the Ukrainian government. Leaving aside the question of whether Ukraine is more democratic than Belarus, one should note that Ukraine has already advanced in promoting historical knowledge beyond the stage where "historical experts" could freely present black as white and vice versa. This seems to be an unambiguous achievement of Ukraine's nation-building, even if, as some argue, Ukraine has so far failed on all other counts.

As for Belarus, most people there still remain "deaf and mute" with regard not only to political appeals from the world's democracies but also to more basic calls connected with their national and historic identity. The task of imparting a sense of distinct national identity to the Belarusians is no less important than that of putting Belarus onto a path of democratic development. In fact, these two tasks are interrelated and should be pursued simultaneously by all those desiring to see Belarus's future in the democratic part of the world.

KYIV PATRIARCH WARNS AGAINST LIQUIDATION OF INDEPENDENT ORTHODOX CHURCH. Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate), told journalists on 6 November that the government is preparing the liquidation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's autocephalous status. Patriarch Filaret said he drew this conclusion after reading a government document dated 24 October 2001, which is a plan for a promotional action called "The Year of Ukraine in Russia." According to Filaret, the document envisages such measures as the building of a Ukrainian-Russian church, the organization of an assembly of Ukrainian and Russian hierarchs, and the Moscow Patriarchate's offer of autonomous status to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. "They want to forcibly drive us into [mere] autonomy and subordinate us to Moscow Patriarch [Aleksii II]," STB television quoted Filaret as saying.

Patriarch Filaret also said none of the Kyiv Patriarchate was invited to talks on the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that took place in Zurich on 29-30 October. He added that the government was represented at those talks by State Committee for Religious Affairs head Viktor Bondarenko, who visited Moscow and Constantinople before going to Zurich. "We do not know what was discussed at those talks, but the fact that they were held behind our back testifies that some murky business is being done," Interfax quoted Patriarch Filaret as saying.

According to the Kyiv Patriarch, that "murky business" may relate to the creation of two autonomous Orthodox churches in Ukraine: one of them subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate (some 9,000 Ukrainian Orthodox parishes which are currently under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate), the other under the Constantinople Patriarchate (some 1,000 parishes, mostly in western Ukraine, which belong to the third major Orthodox organization in Ukraine -- the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church). Filaret did not say what center -- Moscow or Constantinople -- would take charge of some 3,000 parishes belonging currently to the church he leads.

Filaret said that Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew I, who has repeatedly declared his readiness to help Ukraine's three Orthodox churches to unite, is now being pressured by Moscow. "We do not know whether he [Bartholomew I] will withstand this pressure or agree to autonomy of the Ukrainian Church," Filaret noted. According to Filaret, establishing two autonomous Orthodox churches in Ukraine would be tantamount to the situation in which the country "does not have its own national church that defends the interests of the state." And he added: "This would be a prelude to a division of Ukraine itself."

The government denied it has made any decisions regarding the country's Orthodox churches. "Certain media have recently freely interpreted one internal working document of the Cabinet of Ministers' secretariat, which is not of a normative character and which cannot be regarded as a document explaining the government position. This brings about undesirable tension in society," the government said in a statement.

In addition, Deputy Premier Volodymyr Seminozhenko assured the public and Filaret that the government is not seeking autonomy for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). "Of course, we would like to have a single Orthodox Church, which would eliminate a lot of currently existing problems," Seminozhenko said, but added that "no artificial intervention from the outside is able to help resolve such a tricky problem" as the current conflict between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kyiv Patriarchate over their Ukrainian flocks.

"Tragic as the [11 September] events in our own country were and as serious an undertaking as the war against terrorism will continue to be, we must not overlook the brutality and injustice of a regime such as the one led by Lukashenka -- especially in the heart of Europe�. Because of Lukashenka, Belarus has emerged as a dark island of repression, censorship, and command economy in a region of consolidating democracies. Belarus has tragically become the Cuba of Europe." -- U.S. Senator Jesse Helms on 7 November, introducing a bill, "Belarus Democracy Act of 2001," that calls for U.S. sanctions on the Lukashenka regime and $30 million in assistance to the Belarusian opposition.

"If Lukashenka continues to surrender Belarusian sovereignty, this bill will strip his government of the diplomatic properties it currently enjoys in the United States. Indeed, if he is successful in his warped effort to recreate the Soviet Union, the government of Belarus will sadly have no need for these properties." -- U.S. Senator Jesse Helms on 7 November.