Has Belarusian Regime Adopted New Tactics Toward Opposition?
An estimated crowd of 10,000 people took part in the rally, in support of the country's independence, in front of Minsk's Academy of Sciences, after coming there in three separate columns. The columns had to sidestep police cordons or break through them with incidental scuffles.
Police, however, were relatively tolerant and did not resort to major arrests or beating, as was the case on some previous occasions.
What's more, the city authorities organized two competing events on the same day, also under slogans supporting Belarusian independence. Does this mean the opposition and the government have finally found common ground in their struggle for hearts and minds in Belarus?
On March 25, popularly called Freedom Day, the Belarusian opposition every year marks the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, the first Belarusian state, which was proclaimed in Minsk on March 25, 1918 and crushed by the Bolsheviks some nine months later.
Thus, the date of March 25 clearly reminds Belarusians that their ancestors did not necessarily link the fate of their state to that of Russia, as the official historiography in present-day Belarus states.
Throughout the rule of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Freedom Day has been an anathema to the government, whose declared goal was to seek rapprochement with Moscow rather than detachment from it. Therefore, the Belarusian authorities have, in the past, tried to prevent the opposition from taking people to the streets on March 25.
This year, however, apart from its usual approach of making preventive arrests and beefing up the police presence in Minsk, the government resorted to a different tactic.
The city authorities organized an open-air concert in the capital on March 25 at noon and another one at a city airport in the evening. The concerts were held under the widely advertised motto "For An Independent Belarus."
It seems that the primary goal of these concerts was to divert the attention of Minsk residents from the opposition-organized rally but, as some opposition activists were quick to indicate, in this way the government obliquely celebrated Freedom Day on its own.
Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front and an organizer of the opposition rally, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that, thanks to the authorities, Freedom Day had for the first time become an all-city holiday.
"It turned out that the action extended to the entire city. Every man on [Freedom] Day was given the chance to celebrate in his own way," Ivashkevich said. "Those who wanted to scuffle with police, did so. Those who wanted a peaceful march, got it. Those who wanted a rally, got it. Those who wanted to celebrate the day jointly with the authorities, got it. It was a full-blown holiday."
But Minsk-based philosopher Ihar Babkou suggests that there may have also been a deliberate intention on the part of the authorities to take advantage of the ideological stock of the opposition and give official backing to the idea of independent Belarusian statehood.
According to Babkou, after appropriating national properties those in power in Belarus may now want to appropriate some pro-independence sentiments.
"It seems to me that [the authorities] have begun to softly include, to softly absorb into their own armory, all things that formerly were characteristic of the opposition. With what can it be connected? It can be connected with the fact that properties have finally been divided, and that these people do not want any longer to look from an ideological point of view like populists or socialists but want to build normal capitalism on the periphery [of the former Soviet Union]," Babkou said.
More Carrots, Less Sticks
Moreover, Babkou argued that the West, preoccupied with more important global issues than the "last dictatorship in Europe," may soften its stance with regard to President Lukashenka and try to "softly absorb" Belarus into its fold by offering carrots rather than sticks to the regime.
"I think that Belarus today does not belong to the 10 top bugbears of the world. In this sense, I think that the old Europe, at least the old Europe, will continue its strategy of a soft absorption, that is, as Lukashenka is now trying to softly absorb and neutralize the opposition, the old Europe will try to do the same with the Belarusian regime," Babkou said.
In view of the colder relations between Minsk and Moscow following a row over gas and oil prices in January, such a European approach toward the Belarusian regime cannot be ruled out.
As Belarusians in Minsk fought their way through police cordons to manifest their support for independence of their country, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the united Europe in Berlin that the EU is ready to form "a full partnership" with Belarus and boost financial aid to the country if it adopts democratic reforms.
(Hanna Sous and Yury Drakakhrust from RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)
Kyiv Assassination Leaves Trail Of Intrigue
Maksim Kurochkin's high-profile connections have fueled a storm of speculation about the possible reasons behind his death.
The fact that Kurochkin was one of the major Russian supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's failed presidential bid in 2004 has attracted much attention in the wake of the killing.
And Kurochkin's business and political ties are not being discounted as a possible motive, Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Kupyanskyy said on March 28.
"We are following several leads, including Kurochkin's activity in the Russian Federation," Kupyanskyy said. "We do not rule out a possible link to his activity in Russia. The reason for most contract killings is associated with conflict situations linked with the commercial activities or business interests of the victim."
Kurochkin was shot in broad daylight on March 27 while being escorted from a Kyiv courthouse by three police officers.
The bullet went through his heart and he died soon afterward. One of the police escorts was wounded by the same bullet. The shot is believed to have come from the 8th floor of a nearby building where police later found a rifle they suspect is the murder weapon. The shooter escaped.
The Russian Club
Kurochkin was the founder of the Russian Club in Kyiv, an organization with which many prominent Russian "political technologists," including Gleb Pavlovsky and Kremlin aide Igor Shuvalov, worked on behalf of Yanukovych during his presidential campaign. The club had the active support of Russian Abassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin and included many prominent supporters of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma among its ranks.
After the Orange Revolution brought Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, a warrant for Kurochkin's arrest was issued by then-Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko.
Kurochkin was charged with extortion in a number of business deals in Kyiv involving the Hotel Dnipro, an outdoor market, and three sanatoriums in the Crimea that he was accused of obtaining illegally.
Kurochkin returned to Moscow after the election and then, in an unexpected move, decided to return to Ukraine in November 2006, where he was arrested at Kyiv's Borispil Airport.
Soon afterward, Lutsenko was forced out of his Interior Ministry post by the cabinet headed by Yanukovych, who had become prime minister earlier in the year.
Reason To Be Afraid
During Kurochkin's pretrial hearing on March 27 -- just minutes before he was killed -- he pleaded with the judge to release him and claimed that a contract had been put out on him. "I don't want to die" he reportedly told the presiding judge, who nonetheless ordered him to remain in confinement.
Kurochkin apparently had reason to fear for his life.
In 2004, he survived a bomb attack outside his Russian Club. In March 2007, a bullet-riddled Toyota Landcruiser was found on a highway outside Kyiv containing the bodies of his bodyguard and two close associates. His business partner, Volodymyr Vorobyov, was killed in Dnipropetrovsk in late 2006.
There are also more recent developments that add intrigue to the circumstances of Kurochkin's killing.
The "Ukrayinska pravda" website noted that by returning to Ukraine voluntarily, Kurochkin knew that he faced immediate arrest, yet he chose to do so nevertheless.
This has led to inference that Kurochkin may have been considering revealing what he knew about the workings of the Russian Club and any dirty tricks used during the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election in return for his freedom. One unsolved mystery that derives from the campaign is determining who is responsible for poisoning candidate Viktor Yushchenko.
The man who opposed Yushchenko in the contentious election, Prime Minister Yanukovych, expressed his concern about Kurochkin's killing and other recent crimes during a cabinet meeting on March 28.
"The recent crime situation in the regions is worrisome, particularly the high-profile killings, including yesterday's," Yanukovych said. "We had also faced similar situations in several regions before that. We agreed that individual operative groups would be set up to deal with those regions. I would like to hear your report now."
The Kurochkin case promises to reopen numerous questions about the nature of the 2004 election in Ukraine. Firstly, why did Yanukovych's team work with Kurochkin? And why did Chernomyrdin, Pavlovsky, and Shuvalov -- men with direct ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin -- agree to be associated with an organization created by a man with a criminal record in Russia and Ukraine?
The Ukrainian opposition will also likely question the effectiveness of a Yanukovych appointee, Vasyl Tsushko, as Lutsenko's replacement as interior minister. "Ukrayinska pravda" pointed out that Tsushko had failed to protect the life of a high-profile suspect wanted on serious criminal charges -- and that this alone should compel him to resign.
The assassination was highly unusual. The use of a high-powered rifle strays from the more common close-range use of handguns, automatic weapons, or even bombs during assassination bids.
Deputy Interior Minister Kupyanskyy said on March 28 hat the investigation is focusing on two suspected perpetrators of the attack.
"There were two criminals -- [one] 1.85 meters tall, [the other] 1.75 meters -- fit, wearing black masks and jackets," Kupyanskyy said. "They disappeared from the scene of the crime in a silver Mazda. Later, this car was found in a yard at Lesya Ukraynka Street in Kyiv. The investigation and the search for the owner of the car is under way."
What is certain is that the assassin was a highly trained marksman, considering Kurochkin was shot through the heart from a distance of 300 meters.
Counting Losses As Russian Wine Ban On Moldova Lingers
Vadim Gustov, the head of the CIS Committee of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, had a frustrating message for reporters in Chisinau on March 21 -- some of Moldova's vintage wines may return to the Russian market, but only in two months' time.
Exports were originally expected to resume at the beginning of 2007. But it now appears that Moldova will spend most of this year with no wine exports to Russia. Even once they resume, they will be highly restricted.
Gheorghe Cozub, chairman of the Moldovan Wine Exporters' Union, said in a February interview with the country's Infotag news agency that he believes Russia is dragging its feet.
"I just can't find another explanation for this strange situation," he said. "Two months have already passed since Moscow announced the opening of wine trade with Moldova. And although many promises were made, nothing concrete has been done."
Russia's delay in lifting the ban, and the uncertainty about what restrictions will remain once exports resume, have placed Moldova's economic prospects for this year in severe jeopardy.
Using Economic Leverage
After the collapse of communism, Moldova lost a large part of its manufacturing sector. This was due in part to economic collapse, but also to the fact that the country's industrial hub was located in the breakaway region of Transdniester. Either way, the end result was that Moldova was forced to rely even more heavily on agricultural and wine exports.
Prior to the ban, the wine industry was estimated to account for somewhere near 25 percent of Moldova's gross domestic product (GDP), with 80 percent of that wine exported to Russia.
Then, in March 2006, Russia's chief sanitation officer, Gennady Onishchenko, announced a ban on the import of Moldovan and Georgian wines. He said the wines posed a health risk because they contained pesticides, heavy metals, and other hazardous substances.
Many observers criticized the move as political retribution for both countries' pursuit of closer relations with the West.
The ban, after all, did not affect other former Soviet republics that also export wine to Russia, including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Armenia. Moreover, the United States and the European Union, which both have stricter guidelines and enforcement than Russia, have continued to import Moldovan and Georgian wine.
Vlad Spanu, president of the Moldova Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, argued that the economic collapse of the 1990s left few Moldovan winegrowers with the means to purchase the fertilizers and pesticides they are now accused of using.
Moldova's response was twofold. First, it implemented new programs of standards and controls. Winemakers are now required to obtain a state certification stamp for export, and a number on the bottle allows inspectors and consumers to find the history of their wine through an online database. Moldova's government has also taken steps to codify how wine is labeled.
The deadlock was not broken, however, until Moldova threatened to block Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. In November 2006, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an agreement, whereby Moldova would support Russia's entry into the WTO, and Russia would lift its embargo on Moldovan wine.
The effects of the ban have been devastating. Moldova's trade deficit with Russia ballooned to $193 million from January to November 2006, compared to an $86 million surplus during the same period in 2005.
The Moldova-Vin export agency estimated the loss in sales for the wine industry at over $180 million between March 2006 and January 2007. They also reported that Moldova's wine production dropped dramatically as well. Companies produced about 8.96 dekaliters of bottled wine in 2006, a 63-percent decrease from 2005.
The indirect effects on the economy have been even larger, since a number of other industries depend on the wine industry. Moldova's National Statistics Bureau estimates that industrial production dropped by 6.9 percent in 2006 compared to 2005. This was the first time in six years that Moldova has posted such a loss.
Even if the ban is lifted in May, the economic impact will be felt throughout this year and into the next.
Cozub of the Moldovan Wine Exporters' Union described some of the problems facing Moldova's wine industry in the coming year. "The [raw] materials have to be immediately sold or processed, for they cannot be stored any longer," he said. "However, processing requires money -- not to mention that each month of delay adds to the wine material production costs. Personally, I think that in 2007 the crisis in our wine industry will be deeper than last year."
A similar warning came from Constantin Olaru, the director-general of the Vismos wine factory, one of the biggest of its kind in Moldova. "If we fail to resume our exports to Russia, we shall not be producing anything," he said.
How trade will be conducted, when and if it is resumed, is still unclear.
Onishchenko has already told Moldovan winemakers that they will face uniquely tough restrictions, including inspections of every batch of wine sent to the Russian border. He has also warned that not all of the companies who previously exported to Russia will be allowed to return to the market.
In addition, Moldovan winemakers will face a tough time reentering the market. While imports from other countries have not been able to completely fill the gap in the Russian market, suppliers have started to import from Greece, Australia, and other wine-producing nations.
Because of a bumper harvest in many regions of the world, Moldova's standard wine prices are not as far below those of other countries as they once were.
Russia's criticism of the safety of Moldovan wine has also had the effect of reducing confidence of potential buyers elsewhere.
As Leonid Popovich, vice president of Moldova's national association of vintners and wine dealers, said, "Moldovans must offer very favorable terms to wholesale traders in order to return into retail trade -- but even in this case, taking into account their bitter experience, they will purchase wines in small lots and very cautiously."
All of this suggests that Moldova -- already officially Europe's poorest country -- will face another difficult economic year in 2007, despite promises of increased aid from Western organizations.
(Ryan Kennedy is a PhD candidate and a Fulbright researcher from Ohio State University who recently returned to the United States after living in Moldova.)
The Example Of Gagauz-Yeri As An 'Unfrozen Conflict' RegionCOMRAT, Gagauz-Yeri, Moldova; April 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As policymakers search for lasting solutions to Kosovo and unresolved conflicts in the former Soviet Union, many overlook the example of Moldova's semiautonomous region of Gagauz-Yeri. The southern Moldovan region, populated by a Turkic Christian group that fled the Russo-Turkish Wars in the 19th century, launched an independence drive in 1994.
But unlike the region of Transdniester, which fought a short war of independence with Moldova in the early 1990s that remains unresolved, Gagauz-Yeri managed to bridge its differences with Chisinau and now enjoys wide-ranging autonomy. Emmet Tuohy and Melinda Haring spoke for RFE/RL with the region's recently elected governor, Mihail Formuzal, about the history, current problems, and future prospects of Gagauz-Yeri.
RFE/RL: How long have you been involved in politics? What positions have you previously held?
Mihail Formuzal: For the most part, I have never been involved in politics as such, nor do I have much desire to be in the future. Instead, I consider myself to be first of all a manager and an administrator. All of the positions that I have held have been related to working with people. In the army, I served in many positions of authority, just as I have held many supervisory posts in civilian life. As deputy mayor and then mayor of the city of Ceadir-Lunga, and now as governor [baskan] of Gagauzia, I have worked and will continue to work with people. I think that not every person can boast of such a record of service and such work experience as I can.
RFE/RL: Why did you seek the position of governor? What are your priorities for Gagauzia?
Formuzal: I will try my best to answer this question without the unnecessary rhetoric that so many people use while responding to similar questions. I am fully aware of the profound crisis in which Gagauzia finds itself today -- and I am fully capable of leading Gagauzia out of it. I am a hard-working person who knows his goals. Furthermore, I am confident in my strengths and it will undoubtedly help me to achieve my objectives. As for priorities, it is clear above all that my priority is economic growth, combined with ensuring a sufficient standard of living for the people of Gagauzia.
RFE/RL: Did you encounter any problems during the election process? Were the elections in December free and fair?
Formuzal: Of course, there were some problems. However, these difficulties lie in the past, and I do not want to recall them. Moreover, the new authorities do not under any circumstances intend to carry out any investigations, prosecutions, etc. We simply do not have time for it. Today we face much more important tasks. And as they say, let bygones be bygones. [We] have derived some useful lessons and are going to move forward.
RFE/RL:What was the role of the United States and other Western countries during the elections under which you were elected?
Formuzal: Without a doubt, the United States -- along with other Western countries -- played a very significant role in these elections. Let me remind you that the second round of elections was greatly distinguished from the first one by the far freer atmosphere that prevailed. The second round complied with all the standards of democratic elections. Above all, we link this fact to the visit of foreign ambassadors and representatives of the OSCE Moldova mission to Gagauzia. In fact, there were two visits. The first one took place on November 7. Particularly, it was this day and this visit that became a turning point in conducting fair, free, and democratic elections in Gagauzia.
RFE/RL: Does freedom of speech exist in Gagauzia? What is the situation with the mass media?
Formuzal: Once again, let's not talk about the past -- instead, let's focus on the situation we encounter today. The first step taken by new government was the reorganization of all media in Gagauzia from the state to the public sphere. This means that all journalists no longer feel the pressure of self-censorship; they can now allow themselves to write and speak in accordance with their convictions. Let me give you an example: the new director of the Gagauz television and radio company is someone who worked in the election headquarters of my opponent -- to be exact, my principal opponent. Allow me to underscore the fact that he attained his new position on my initiative -- because this person is a good professional. Clearly, I could have instead tried to promote to that post someone from my own team!
I have to say that, [since] my first day on the job, I have been receiving a great deal of criticism. I must say these critical remarks have been heard from my very first days in office. I have been working for only a month and a half. This also testifies to the fact that freedom of speech is secure. Yet, I have been entirely at ease with this criticism, since it is such an integral part of the democratic political process. It is true that such criticism sometimes disappoints me, as it is directed not at the policies and activities of my new government, but instead at me personally. Surely you will agree that this does not speak in favor of those who criticize me.
RFE/RL: To what degree is the Gagauz language protected? On what level and how often is it taught in schools? Is the Gagauz language the language of communication among the population and also in government bodies?
Formuzal: I must acknowledge that the Gagauz language is currently protected only to a small degree. The state does not allocate resources to its development. In schools, the main problem is that there are not enough books -- and, in some cases, there are no methodological materials [or] handouts necessary for studying the Gagauz language at all. In daily life, the population primarily uses Gagauz, especially in villages. Still, one can often hear Russian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian as well. However, one must admit that Gagauz society is very tolerant in this respect.
Regarding the use of Gagauz in government bodies, unfortunately it is rarely heard.
I know that the European Union has a great number of programs that provide assistance to national minorities. The new administration will work hard to get involved and to cooperate with these programs. We also would like the EU to devote attention to developing the Gagauz language. During the past century, 70 nationalities vanished from the face of the Earth. The world thus lost 70 languages, 70 cultures, and 70 [sets of] customs and traditions. The world has become poorer in terms of cultural heritage -- and we do not want the Gagauz people to become the next in this sorrowful list. Since after all, we are not numerous, there being only 150,000 of us in the world. The Gagauz people are unique, since the language itself belongs to the Turkic language family, while the overwhelming majority of citizens are Orthodox believers. We want this language to be preserved and secured.
RFE/RL: What is Turkey's role in supporting and promoting the Gagauz ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity?
Formuzal: It is difficult to overestimate the role of Turkey in these issues. We believe that the existence of our autonomy was made possible thanks to a great deal of support and assistance given to us by the Turkish Republic. It is Turkey that played a decisive role in acknowledging Gagauzia as autonomous, and in resolving this international conflict peacefully. So I do esteem Turkey's contribution.
RFE/RL: To what degree does Turkey support Gagauzia economically?
Formuzal: More than any other state, Turkey has granted us economic assistance. Since the founding of our autonomy, our Turkish friends have worked to help us solve economic problems, and have provided valuable assistance in the social sphere. For example, the principal credit in providing the water supply system of Gagauzia also belongs to Turkey. Our nation will always appreciate and remember this help and attention. However, this economic assistance is not a one-way cooperation. On our part we are trying to create a favorable investment environment so that the Turkish side can invest funds in the economic development of Gagauzia as well as create new places of employment. For this purpose, we have freed them from all kinds of taxes for five years.
RFE/RL: Does Greece play an active role in Gagauzia?
Formuzal: Greece holds a certain interest for us, and for this there are natural reasons. As you know, in Greece, there are many communities and villages where the residents are Gagauz or Greeks of Gagauz origin. In some villages, people...still speak Gagauz. Here in Comrat, there is an active Greek-language study program established with the direct assistance of the Greek government. Greece is financing a number of social projects in Gagauzia. Quite recently we finished the implementation of the first stage of our cooperation, regarding constructing a number of infrastructure improvements. Greece has been very helpful to us.
RFE/RL: How close are your ties with Gagauz communities outside of Gagauzia, especially in Ukraine?
Formuzal: With other Gagauz communities, including that of Ukraine, we enjoy close relations. We are always glad to receive visits from our brethren who live in other countries. Our doors are always open to them. We try to maintain close relations with overseas Gagauz communities in the fields of education, culture, and economics. These are three primary vectors of our cooperation. Practically all our intellectuals maintain close contact with that of Ukraine and these relations are extremely strong and lasting.
RFE/RL: Many have argued that Gagauzia is a model for conflict resolution elsewhere, particularly for the Caucasus, the Balkans, and Transdniester. What, in your view, are the most important lessons for other contested territories?
Formuzal: Indeed, in the middle of the 1990s, Gagauzia and Moldova served as an example to the entire world. At that time, the wisdom of the Gagauz and Moldovan peoples demonstrated that far better results can be achieved when one is armed not with automatic weapons, but with sober minds and political will. For many, it was an important lesson. The leaders of many so-called separatist republics realized that it was not a losing move to undertake dialogue at the conference table -- instead, it's simply a different strategy, one that is often a more effective way of protecting their own interests.
However, the positive achievements of the talks today are being lost to a significant degree.Unfortunately, in recent times we have had cautious relations with Chisinau that lacked trust. These relations were expressed most notably by the center's continuous fear of losing control over Gagauzia and, as a result of this fear, by its constant striving to thrust a leader upon us.It is superfluous to say that such behavior of the central authorities had a reverse effect, and contributed to inflaming tensions in the autonomy itself. However, it is possible to return to trust-based relations. Today, the new leadership of Gagauzia has taken several steps to meet Chisinau halfway. We have clearly announced that we are ready for open, honest, and constructive dialogue.
Our degree of readiness and openness to undertake talks is exemplified in particular by our policy regarding government employees. Approximately 20 percent of the members of our Executive Committee are Moldovans, and among them are high-ranking officials and members of the ruling councils of Moldovan political parties. We do not differentiate among people in terms of their nationality or political affiliation. Examples are not hard to find. The finance minister is an ethnic Moldovan, as is the interior minister. Two weeks ago we approved the candidacy of the Communist Party representative for the position of deputy head of the regional administration, which is a rather high position -- even though I am not a Communist supporter.Our main criterion is professional aptitude. And in this respect we would like Gagauzia to become a place of innovation where the benefits of this approach can be exemplified. It goes without saying that we are waiting for an adequate reaction on behalf of Chisinau. We would like the higher leadership of the country to understand that they can work more effectively with us than with the previous government. There is only one principal condition: that Chisinau get rid of its harmful political phobia regarding the alleged "separatist republic" of Gagauzia.
RFE/RL: Some have argued that Gagauzia lacks real autonomy and that Chisinau calls the shots. Is this true? How is power divided between Comrat, the capital of the Gagauz-Yeri autonomous region, and Chisinau?
Formuzal: We do have the full legislative basis necessary for the existence and functioning of the autonomy. Insofar as the autonomy does not exercise its full powers, it is first of all our fault and only then the fault of Chisinau. From time to time, Chisinau causes some complex difficulties for us, but this is quite understandable. The actions of the central authorities are dictated by the same obsessive fear of losing the southern region of the country. However, the very fact that we in Gagauzia are letting others restrain our own autonomous rights can neither be justified nor explained. We ourselves have not [yet] enjoyed those possibilities provided by our law.
There is no distinct division of powers between Chisinau and Comrat. This delimitation is partially provided by the Constitution of the Republic of Moldova, the Code of Gagauzia, as well as the Law on the Particular Legal Status of Gagauzia. There do exist certain discrepancies between Moldavian and Gagauz legislation. Yet, we hope that in the near term the bilateral Moldovan-Gagauz commission established to eliminate these inconsistencies will [remedy] this problem.
RFE/RL: How would you characterize Russian-Gagauz relations?
Formuzal: Gagauzia has always enjoyed friendly and close relations with Russia. Throughout its history, our people have experienced many reversals of fortune, and fate has led us to live among many different nations. With the Russian nation in particular, we have been very closely connected. Above all, we are thankful to Russia for the land on which we continue to live to this day. We are also grateful for the education that the majority of our nation has obtained. Today, we continue to receive valuable interest, attention, and support from Russia.
RFE/RL: What was the effect on Gagauzia of the growth of tension between Russia and Moldova? How did Russia's ban on Moldovan wine imports affect the region's economy?
Formuzal: The worsening of Moldovan-Russian relations has affected us in the worst way possible. Our economy -- which, even before the ban, was underdeveloped -- was practically paralyzed after [ the ban was enacted.] After all, our region's earnings from the most part come from wine making, tobacco growing, and horticulture. And I remind you that, following the ban on wine imports, there were similar bans imposed on fruit and tobacco. It is difficult to explain the upheavals that Gagauzia has experienced. All of these industries remain in dire straits. But we believe that in the short term we will be able to overcome these problems.
RFE/RL: What has the impact of increased natural-gas prices been on the Gagauz people?
Formuzal: Obviously, it has been very severe. In one sense, there was a reprieve, at least for many of our citizens, as the unexpectedly warm winter allowed them to reduce gas consumption. However, notwithstanding even this, the new gas prices are out of reach for the majority of our population. Many of our elderly are forced to freeze to death in their own unheated homes. Some elderly people have told me that they put bottles [filled] with hot water in their beds. It was certainly a severe upheaval for people. Wages and prices should certainly grow faster than energy prices. Yet for the time being, prices for services are surpassing growth in wages as well as pensions.
RFE/RL: What is the ultimate outlook for Gagauz-Yeri? Do you believe that things are getting better or worse overall?
Formuzal: Not only do I believe that things will get better -- I know it for sure! The new government will do everything in its power so that people will be able to feel positive changes within a year . Increasing people's quality of life is our highest priority. To achieve this change, we [already] have all that we need. We have fertile land, hard-working people, a professional management team, a well-developed action plan and, most importantly, a tremendous will to work for change. We do believe we can change people's lives for the better.
(Emmet Tuohy is a Fulbright Research Fellow in Kyiv, Ukraine, and assistant director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. Melinda Haring is a former Freedom House staffer who now works as a freelance writer based in Kyiv, Ukraine.)