Origins Of 'Revolutionary Development' In Russia-Ukraine Relations A Mystery
Putin hailed the overture, coupled with Ukrainian interest in drilling for natural gas on Russian territory, as a "revolutionary development" that was in the "interest of both countries."
Circling The Wagons
Ukrainian officials and lawmakers responded quickly to Putin's comments, made on February 1 to reporters assembled for the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy.
Within days, legislation had been passed forbidding the sale or transfer of ownership of Ukraine's trunk gas pipeline to another country. An investigation was also launched to determine just who may have been responsible for making such proposals.
Vitaliy Hayduk, chairman of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, soon provided some insight.
Hayduk told a February 16 press conference that, after a meeting of the Yushchenko-Putin Commission in December, it was in fact an unidentified aide of Putin's who had delivered a memorandum containing such proposals. "Given its content," Hayduk said, "such a memorandum was deemed unacceptable and could not be signed."
Hayduk's claims were supported the next day by the deputy head of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's administration, Oleksandr Chaliy. On February 17, Chaliy revealed that Putin had proposed the idea of an asset swap -- Ukraine's pipeline in exchange for Russia granting Ukraine the right to drill for gas on Russian soil -- during a January 10 phone conversation with Yushchenko.
However, Chaliy said, the Ukrainian president had rejected the idea. "No proposals to exchange assets" ever came from Yushchenko, Chaliy insisted.
Public suspicion then turned to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko.
Looking For Answers
Yanukovych at first appeared be caught off guard by the Ukrainian parliament's harsh reaction to Putin's comments -- even within the ranks of his own Party of Regions. In the immediate aftermath, Yanukovych made a number of contradictory statements on the issue while trying to blame the scandal on members of Yushchenko's administration.
But Hayduk's and Chaliy's testimonies that Russia's proposals had been rebuffed by Yushchenko's administration served to embarrass Yanukovych's government, which turned to Boyko to arrange a campaign to save face.
As Hayduk made his revelations, Boyko met with Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller to discuss "the development of strategic cooperation between Russia and Ukraine in the oil and gas sector."
No details were provided of what the two men spoke about.
However, Interfax reported that the day before the meeting Boyko had said Ukraine should be given access to Russian gas reserves since UkrHazEnergo -- a partly Russian joint venture between the Swiss-registered gas trader RosUkrEnergo and Ukraine's Naftohaz Ukrayiny -- was already working in the Ukrainian market.
The flaw in Boyko's logic, though, is that UkrHazEnergo can hardly be considered a Russian company. Only one-quarter of the firm belongs to Gazprom -- the rest belongs to Ukraine's Naftohaz and two private Ukrainian businessmen.
Interfax on February 15 also cited Boyko as saying he knew of an agreement Yanukovych had with the "leadership of the Russian Federation" under which Ukraine would be allowed to produce gas in Russia.
This revelation led to question about with whom in the "Russian leadership" Yanukovych had reached such an agreement. If it was Putin, could this be the origin of the Russian president's announcement in Munich?
One theory is that Yanukovych agreed to Putin's proposals under the condition that UkrHazEnergo -- whose role in Ukraine's energy sector is being debated -- be kept in tact.
Putin, as the theory goes, may have gone ahead and made the agreement public in the believe that it was a done deal.
If so, the strong resistance his words received in Ukraine must have been an embarrassment to the Russian leader -- both because he was caught jumping the gun on his dealings with Ukraine and because of the realization that he may not be as influential in dealings with Ukraine as he expected when Yanukovych became prime minister.
Why Can't Belarus's Opposition Just Get Along?
Milinkevich was picked as the unified opposition's presidential candidate at a similar congress in October 2005. Some 800 delegates from all over Belarus were involved in the ballot that gave Milinkevich a narrow edge over United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka.
Following the March 19, 2006 presidential election -- in which he officially obtained 6 percent of the vote -- Milinkevich became the primary voice of the Belarusian opposition in the West.
Milinkevich has been regularly received by high-ranking European politicians. In October 2006, he was honored with the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.
Milinkevich's high exposure in the West may have aroused envy among fellow opposition leaders like Lyabedzka or Belarusian Party of Communists head Syarhey Kalyakin, who also unsuccessfully competed with him for the role of the unified opposition's presidential candidate.
In January of this year, the Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces -- the coordinating body of the unified opposition, which is formally chaired by Milinkevich -- proposed that the chairmanship become a rotating post open to all party leaders.
This rotational principle is expected to be approved during the March congress. Milinkevich, however, vigorously contested the idea.
"I am not afraid of competition, and am ready to enter the struggle for leadership [of the opposition] once again," he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "But when the coalition decided that there would be a rotation, I immediately said that I'm not interested. Because rotation means that there is no leader, and that all are leaders, at the same time. Everyone becomes a leader for a few months and is subsequently replaced. You can be a leader once every three years. [But] you cannot beat the dictatorship with such an unclenched fist."
Milinkevich also suggested that the procedure for selecting delegates to attend the congress was far from transparent, and subject to "manipulation" by other aspirants to the role of unified opposition head.
Independent trade unionist Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, the organizer of the March congress, said Milinkevich's refusal to participate represented a "split" in the opposition ranks.
Communist Party head Kalyakin -- who managed Milinkevich's election headquarters in the run-up to the 2006 presidential vote -- has accused Milinkevich of skipping the congress out of fear of losing the leadership post.
"In my opinion, the man is simply not sure he can get support at this congress," Kalyakin said. "Therefore, he's given up without even trying to compete in this matter. Anyone giving up is not right."
Lyabedzka, who clearly has leadership ambitions of his own, sees Milinkevich's refusal to participate in the opposition congress as his formal withdrawal from politics.
"It is apparent that from this moment on, the united democratic forces have neither a de jure nor a de facto leader," Lyabedzka told RFE/RL. "Milinkevich has probably decided to return to the place from which he entered politics -- the civic sector."
But not everyone in the opposition seems certain that Milinkevich's departure is the best way to resolve the leadership controversy. One such politician is Vintsuk Vyachorka, head of the Belarusian Popular Front Party, which strongly backed Milinkevich as the single presidential challenger during the 2005 opposition congress.
Vyachorka believes the widening animosity between Milinkevich and the remainder of the Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces may end up harming both sides.
"We understand that a congress without Milinkevich cannot be a congress of united democratic forces," Vyachorka said. "But Milinkevich without the united democratic forces is not a nationwide leader either."
To avoid such a situation, Vyachorka has proposed a compromise "for the sake of unity," whereby Milinkevich would remain chairman of the
Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces and continue to serve as the
opposition's key representative in the West. This position could be confirmed by the opposition congress, which Vyachorka has proposed be postponed until May.
At the same time, Vyachorka has suggested the creation of a post of chairman of a presidium to the Political Council of Pro-Democratic Forces, which could be held by other party leaders on a rotational basis. According to Vyachorka, the presidium chairman could keep an eye on the council chairman, and vice versa.
It remains to be seen whether Vyachorka's proposal is viable. The council held a meeting on February 19 to discuss the idea, but ended without a conclusive decision.
The controversy comes at a time when the Belarusian opposition could be playing an important role in shaping the country's future.
Belarus's energy-price row with Russia has prompted Lukashenka to make rare overtures toward the West. A confident opposition -- one that was able to speak with one voice both at home and abroad -- could help forge those ties.
As it stands, however, the opposition is weak and unable to significantly influence the political situation. If the rift over its leadership continues to fester, the opposition may fail at a time that could otherwise prove its greatest political hour.
Young Belarusians Send Their Love To Europe
Since 1997, opposition-minded young people have gathered in Minsk to show their support for joining the European Union.
In recent weeks, Belarus's president has made a number of comments to the press about increasing ties with Europe. But European officials say such overtures are not enough: they want President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to match his words with political reform.
Their numbers this evening in Minsk were small -- probably several dozen -- but the atmosphere was heavy with symbolism.
An RFE/RL reporter in Minsk says that police detained five activists earlier today and have cordoned off the central Liberty Square, although some activists have broken through.
Barys Haretski, an activist from the group Youth Front that is organizing this year's parade, says the event in Minsk's central Liberty Square will look like a theatrical show.
"Activists will personify the countries of the EU, dressed in the costumes of these countries. They will form a burning circle. They will light these Bengal lights [a signal flare] and at a certain point the person representing Belarus will enter the circle," Haretski says. "At that moment, the circle will turn into a burning heart. After that we plan to parade through the center of town stopping at European embassies."
There, participants of the parade will drop off Valentine's cards.
Given President Lukashenka's recent comments in the Western press calling for greater dialogue with the EU, Haretski is hopeful.
"The Youth Front does not consider this to be a day of romantic love where people gather to exchange kisses, but a true day of love for our country and love for Europe. We approach this holiday through the prism of love for Belarus and love for Europe and demand love, freedom, change and the inclusion of Belarus in the European community," Haretski said.
Last week, the Belarusian government appealed for foreign investors, hoping to attract up to $1 billion to make up for diminishing Russian subsidies.
And on February 13 in Minsk, Lukashenka, receiving the credentials from a group of new foreign ambassadors, spoke of mutually beneficial cooperation with Europe.
But European officials seem unconvinced that such comments reflect a genuine change of heart from a leadership that has long been staunchly anti-Western.
Bogdan Klich, chairman of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Belarus, says he doesn't believe that "behind those political messages there is a real willingness of the authoritarian system to begin the road to democracy."
Recent events in Belarus tend to support Klich's view. On February 4, Belarusian security services broke up a meeting of the Youth Front opposition youth group, detaining many of the activists.
And a week later, police and KGB officers rounded up 26 activists of the Association of Belarusian Students who were meeting at a private house near Minsk.
These types of events will do little to ingratiate Belarus with the European Union.
The EU has made it plain to Minsk -- start to democratize and we will help you. In November 2006, the union outlined what Belarus needed to do to receive Brussels' help.
Despite Lukashenka's recent overtures, the European Commission's external-relations spokeswoman, Emma Udwin, says those requirements still stand.
"The kind of things that we [the European Commission] are looking for are rather concrete. We would like to see the release of Mr. [Alyaksandr] Kazulin and other political figures, for example. That would be a very strong signal," Udwin said.
"Cooperation with the Council of Europe, granting visas to OSCE representatives on freedom of the media, for example, or even actually approving our request to open a [European] Commission delegation in Minsk."
If Belarus did show some progress, Brussels says it would make travel to EU countries easier for Belarusians, increase trade cooperation, and offer Belarusian students scholarships at European universities.
And with further democratic development, Belarus could move closer to the EU through gradual economic integration.
For now, though, the direction of Lukashanka's regime remains unclear. A president who has forged his career on Soviet nostalgia, he has suddenly started sending mixed signals.
While attempting to woo Europe, Lukashenka has said he wishes to continue to be Russia's outpost in the West. And he is also fomenting closer ties with Iran at a time when that country is increasingly at odds with Europe and the United States.
In recent years, activists have been beaten and arrested by police at the Valentine's Day parades.
This year, activists are still meeting, despite the Minsk city authorities banning the march.
(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)
Moldova: Broadcast Privatization -- Reform Or Censorship?
The case filed by the staffs of Antena C and Euro TV was due to be heard in court on February 20. But the hearing was postponed for a week after the judge said he had fallen ill.
It's the fourth adjournment in a month for the case, which is coming under increasing scrutiny from the international community. Both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.S. Embassy have released statements criticizing the handling of the closures of the two stations, as well as a second radio broadcaster, BlueStar at 103.5 FM, in the city of Balti.
Among the concerns was fear of the deterioration of the free press in Moldova ahead of local elections in May.
Ambassador Louis O'Neill, head of the OSCE mission to Moldova, said in a January 19 press release that "the broadcasting code adopted by the Moldovan parliament in 2006 provided the country with an excellent opportunity for real progress in creating a free and vibrant broadcasting landscape. It is disappointing to see that this chance may be lost due to missteps in the way the new legislation is being implemented."
And in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service and the BBC conducted in Chisinau on February 16, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Colleen Graffy said the closures represent a serious challenge to media freedom.
"We believe that the development of free independent and pluralistic broadcasting media is vital for the establishment of a functioning democracy in the Republic of Moldova, and for its declared goal of European integration," Graffy said. "And therefore, examples such as Antena C and 103.5 FM give us grave concern."
The fight over the broadcasters began on December 14, 2006, when the stations' directors, Antena C's Vasile State and Euro TV's Arcadie Gherasim, were dismissed and new directors were announced.
In response, the staff of the two stations interrupted an extraordinary session of the Chisinau Municipal Council (CMC) and threatened other acts of civil disobedience.
On December 16, Antena C -- which frequently aired reports critical of the government -- went off the air in the middle of a talk show debate about its reorganization, reportedly because of technical issues.
The CMC then opened bidding for Antena C on January 2. After some difficulty in acquiring bids, Dunitru Liuticov was announced as the winning bidder on January 17, offering 1.05 million Moldovan lei (about $80,000) for the station. On January 22 the sale was approved by the CMC, and the station was put back on the air on the 23rd.
Further controversy was sparked when, on February 5, the new director announced the liquidation of all departments and programs, adding that the station would broadcast news and music programs without DJs.
Under the new plan, the focus of the station will be on publicity, employing 40 public relations agents. According to a statement signed on February 7 by 10 media nongovernmental organizations in Moldova, this process would involve firing 25 of its 27 journalists.
U.S. State Department official Graffy said the changes at Antena C would deprive Moldovan audiences of access to a variety of news and information.
"We believe that this presents a serious challenge to freedom of the press in Moldova and to the diversity of opinion and ideas available to the Moldovan public," Graffy said. "The [U.S.] Embassy, together with members of the international community, really deplore this arbitrary manner in which the radio was reorganized and its staff fired."
Compliance with the Law...
The closure of Antena C and the other broadcasters had its roots in Moldova's adoption of a new Audiovisual Code, which came into force on August 18.
The code was a response to recommendations from the Council of Europe that the government construct measures to ensure the freedom of the media and unify media laws. These reforms were to include privatization of most public media outlets and further guarantees of independence for outlets which remained public.
The first draft code generally fit within these goals, but notably absent was any mention of local public media outlets. The Council of Europe noted this absence in their reports on the draft versions of the law, saying that the absence of regulation might result in the liquidation or privatization of local public stations.
This was especially troubling for the authors of the report in areas where there was not a sufficient market to support private stations. They recommended, as one option, "incorporating one or all of these public radio stations into TRM" -- the state-owned national radio-TV broadcaster, TeleRadio Moldova.
In responding to these recommendations, the final version of the Audiovisual Code left the CMC with the option of affiliating Antena C and Euro TV with TRM -- which has also been criticized by the OSCE for not being independent. Alternately, they could pass them into private property, using a public tender. The CMC decided they should be privatized.
Supporters of the decision argue that, in addition to complying with the Audiovisual Code, privatization would resolve what some suggested was a bias in Antena C's coverage of news and information. In particular, they accuse the station of being overly influenced by the former mayor of Chisinau, Serafim Urechean, who is now the head of the Moldova Noastra (Our Moldova) alliance in parliament.
As Antena C's new director, Veaceslav Satnic, stated, "[T]he product that was broadcast was not an objective, equidistant one, and pluralism of opinion was not respected."
In the case of BlueStar, the radio station saw its license revoked by the Council for Audiovisual Coordination (CCA), officially for failing to uphold the new guidelines.
CCA President Cornel Mihalache said the decision to give the frequency to a competitor station, City FM, was based in part on their adherence to a new mandate to produce a large part of their program in the state language.
"Their project represents what BlueStar couldn't provide for 10 years: a real local radio, with a lot of social and economic information. City FM is also ready to respect the language criteria."
BlueStar staff argues that its recent programming did respect the new language guidelines, and has accused the CCA of basing its decision on earlier programming logs, when the station provided a portion of its broadcast in Russian.
Ecaterina Cojocar, the director of BlueStar, says the CCA broke Moldovan law by failing to follow the proper procedure of notifying the station of perceived violations before revoking its license.
"Around 26 people are now without work," she said. "We want to see the projects presented by the competition, to judge if the CCA was correct in its decision. According to the law, we should have been warned first if we were failing to respect the rules. But in the last 10 years, we haven't received a single criticism."
...Or Manipulating Local Elections?
A number of other groups disagreed with the CMC decision. In a commentary, the news agency Info-Prim Neo called the reorganization "the most far-reaching attack on the press and journalists who are inconvenient to the ruling party since 2004" -- the year TRM was liquidated by the Moldovan parliament in a move critics said was an attempt to eliminate government critics.
The commentary accuses the ruling Communist and Christian Democratic coalition of trying to manipulate the outcome of the May 2007 local elections by eliminating some of the few media outlets that were critical of their policies.
In protest to what they labeled "antidemocratic proceedings" against Antena C and Euro TV, two members of the CMC left the Christian Democratic Popular Party.
On February 10, 11 media and human rights NGOs working on the Soros-funded project, "Monitoring of the Audiovisual Code Implementation," came out with their criticism of the implementation of the new Audiovisual Code.
Among their complaints was that the application of the new law to the Chisinau public stations Antena C and Euro TV had deprived the public of the right to information, ignored the community's opinion, and infringed on staff members rights.
It remains to be seen whether the lawsuit brought by Antena C and Euro TV staffers will reverse the fate of the broadcasters.
The plaintiffs hope the lawsuit, brought against the CMC and Chisinau's former interim mayor, Vasile Ursu, will overturn the decision to sell the media institutions and appoint new management.
They have also asked that proper working conditions be restored and that 100,000 Moldovan lei be paid to each claimant to repair moral damages and to develop the stations.
(Ryan Kennedy is a Ph.D candidate and a Fulbright researcher from Ohio State University who recently returned to the United States after living in Moldova.)