Belarus Fails To Win Seat On UN Rights CouncilMay 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- After two rounds of voting at the UN General Assembly, Belarus has failed in its bid to win a seat on the United Nations' Human Rights Council.
Bosnia entered the race at the last minute, reportedly persuaded by Western governments alarmed at the prospect of Belarus being elected to the council.
In the vote on May 17, Slovenia was elected with 188 votes in the first round in the 192-member General Assembly. In the second round of voting, Bosnia beat Belarus by 112 to 72 votes.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad spoke on May 17 to journalists at the UN in New York after the vote in the General Assembly.
"We were particularly concerned about Belarus [being elected a member of the Human Rights Council]. Some have called it the last dictatorship in Europe," Khalilzad said.
Poor Rights Record
Belarus has been routinely criticized for its human rights record, under autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Critics charge that Lukashenka's regime has falsified elections, imprisoned opposition activists, and curtailed free media.
The United States and the European Union have placed travel sanctions on the president and other senior officials.
Former Belarusian Ambassador to the UN Henadz Buraukin said he understands the logic of Belarus attempting to get a seat on the council.
"Why did Minsk choose this council to try to get a seat on? I think they chose it so they could say to [critics of Belarus], 'You criticize us for our human rights record, but we have now been included on the UN Human Rights Council,'" Buraukin said.
Before Bosnia entered the race, only Belarus and Slovenia were contesting the two seats. The distinct possibility that Belarus could have been elected to the council prompted an outcry from many human rights groups.
A number of rights groups, including U.S.-based Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, appealed to the General Assembly to reject Belarus's bid.
Hillel Neuer, the executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, a group that monitors the performance of the United Nations, said his group tried to convince governments that human rights abusers should not have a role on the rights council.
"We said [to governments] that Belarus is a government that refuses to cooperate with the Human Rights Council's own investigator on Belarus. How can you run for a seat on a body with which you refuse to cooperate with their simple requests?" Neuer said.
But Neuer said that Belarus failing to get elected to the council is only a partial victory. Of concern, he says, is the successful election to the council of Egypt, Angola, and Qatar -- countries he says have poor records on human rights.
The UN Human Rights Council was created in March 2006 to replace the UN Human Rights Commission.
The commission had been discredited because some countries with poor rights records had used their membership to protect one another from condemnation.
But the new council has also come in for criticism, most recently when it decided in March to end scrutiny of Iran and Uzbekistan.
Neuer said that not that much has changed from the old human rights commission. He says countries still vote to protect each other.
"The council is a bit of a joke. It would be the stuff of perfect comedy, if it weren't so tragic," Neuer said.
"When it was inaugurated last year, the new council was supposed to be a reform of the discredited commission. It was supposed to, I'm quoting now the High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who hailed it as the 'dawn of a new era.' Well, 12 months later not a single human rights abuse in any of the worst abusers, listed by Freedom House for example, the 19 countries that are the worst abusers, not a single one has been addressed."
All of the 47 members on the Geneva-based council have now been elected.
Agreement On Early Elections In Ukraine Remains Unclear
The president and the prime minister have created an anticrisis group to do all necessary paperwork for that purpose and have pledged to set the date of early polls within days.
But the anticrisis group seems to be bogged down in arguments about how to start the election campaign, thus casting doubts on whether Yushchenko and Yanukovych understood each other properly.
On May 4, Yushchenko and Yanukovych astonished journalists in Kyiv by stating that they had reached a compromise on the bitterly disputed issue of early parliamentary polls, which were ordered by two presidential decrees disbanding the Verkhovna Rada. The April 2 decree scheduled the elections for May 27, while the April 26 decree rescheduled them for June 24.
It is still not clear what were the main components of the political compromise between Yushchenko and Yanukovych.
The ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party refused to dissolve and appealed against both of Yushchenko's decrees to the Constitutional Court. Deputies from the opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc refused to participate in parliamentary sittings after April 2 and began preparations for pre-term polls.
Yanukovych said on May 4 that the immediate task following his deal with Yushchenko earlier the same day was to find "an algorithm of actions" for parliamentarians.
"The main goal of our joint decision is to hold fair and democratic elections. What should be done for that? We will now give instructions to the working group, which will work out an algorithm of actions for members of parliament, actions that will help stabilize the situation in the country," Yanukovych said.
But Yanukovych had apparent difficulties in explaining the reasons for his compromise with Yushchenko in a televised address to the nation on May 4, when he spoke primarily to thousands of his supporters who had came to Kyiv from the east and the south of Ukraine to support him and protest the dissolution of parliament.
Yanukovych said he agreed to early polls to prevent a split of the country and an economic ruin. And he alleged that the work of the Constitutional Court had been blocked, which made it impossible for the ruling coalition to overcome the crisis on the basis of jurisprudence. Yanukovych apparently referred to the dismissal of two Constitutional Court judges, Syuzanna Stanik and Valeriy Pshenichnyy, by Yushchenko several days earlier.
However, the sacking of Stanik and Pshenichnyy did not block the work of the Constitutional Court -- for holding legitimate sessions, the 18-member panel needs a quorum of 12 judges, and there were still 16 judges available. What the dismissal of the two judges may have blocked was the ability of the Constitutional Court to pass a decision favorable for Yanukovych.
Ukrainian political commentator Viktor Chyvokunya wrote on the "Ukrayinska pravda" website earlier this week that before the sacking of Stanik and Pshenichnyy, 11 judges were inclined to declare Yushchenko's decrees dissolving the Verkhovna Rada illegitimate. After the sacking, this number reportedly dropped to nine.
Since the Constitutional Court's decisions are legally binding only if they are endorsed by at least 10 judges, Chyvokunya argues that Yanukovych realized that early parliamentary polls could not be prevented by the Constitutional Court, and therefore he agreed to cooperate with Yushchenko in organizing them in order not to give up political initiative entirely to his rival.
It is still not clear what were the main components of the political compromise between Yushchenko and Yanukovych.
Yanukovych's people in the anticrisis working group, who continue to believe that Yushchenko's decrees of April 2 and April 26 are illegal, assert that Yushchenko promised to Yanukovych to return to the "legal framework" in dealing with the crisis, which means that the decision to dissolve the parliament should be made by deputies themselves.
Party of Regions lawmaker Taras Chornovil reiterated this belief to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on May 8: "The self-dissolution [of parliament] was agreed upon by the president and the prime minister. The decision was final. But for some reason [opposition politicians] are now going back on their words by arguing that the agreement was not quite to that effect. They consider for some reason that when the president spoke about suspending the Verkhovna Rada and calling for new elections on the basis of a political decision, [he wanted that] to be done on the basis of the presidential decree that disbands us."
But on the same day, President Yushchenko made a statement that appears to contradict Chornovil's words.
"It is not the parliament that makes decisions on pre-term parliamentary elections in Ukraine. It is an exclusive power of the president. But in this case I would welcome [the situation] if political forces in parliament reached a consensus on the date of pre-term parliamentary elections," Yushchenko said.
The working group, which was initially expected to finish its work by May 8-9 and come up with a package of bills that were to be approved during a one-day parliamentary sitting to start an early election campaign, seems to have stuck in mutual accusations of disrupting the compromise reached by Yushchenko and Yanukovych.
In particular, the Socialists and the Communists, who reacted to the Yushchenko-Yanukovych deal with visible discontent, argue that parliament needs to amend the constitution in order to give lawmakers the right to dissolve themselves. According to these parties, only the Verkhovna Rada's self-dissolution allows to overcome the current crisis in a strictly legal way.
Since endorsing amendments to the constitution requires two parliamentary sittings within two different sessions, the Verkhovna Rada could dissolve itself no sooner than in September or October, while potential pre-term elections could be held no sooner than 60 days after that move. It is no surprise that the opposition accuses the ruling coalition of torpedoing the Yushchenko-Yanukovych deal.
Is there any other way out of the current political stalemate in Ukraine? Our Ukraine leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on May 8 that he does not lose his hope.
"We continue to believe that the working group is capable of producing a positive result, that in the coming days the Verkhovna Rada will convene a session with the participation of opposition deputies, and that we will approve five bills that will launch the electoral process for every participant without exception," Kyrylenko said.
"These [bills include] changes to the law on elections and the law on the status of a people's deputy as regards the introduction of imperative mandate, a resolution on holding early elections, and a number of other documents."
But even the biggest optimists in this regard acknowledge that any further progress toward early elections in Ukraine is impossible without another meeting of Yushchenko and Yanukovych, at which they will need to delineate more clearly the "algorithm of actions" they had in mind on May 4.
(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)
Ukrainian Media Puts Spotlight On Latest Political Crisis, But Will Press Freedom Last?
The current situation is very much a continuation of the political struggle from 2004. One of the slogans of the Orange Revolution was "No More Lies!" (Ni Brekhni!), and since coming to power Yushchenko has started to deliver on this promise.
However, after the Party of Regions of Yushchenko's rival, Viktor Yanukovych, won at the parliamentary polls in spring of 2006, they and their coalition partners have been enacting a creeping coup, slowly moving back into positions of power and reintroducing the old way of doing things. Nowhere is this more visible than in the media.
Divergent Political Values
So the real question is: what kind of relationship does the government have with the media? Yushchenko and Yanukovych appear to have very different ideas about the relationship between media and the state.
Since becoming president, Yushchenko has adopted a liberal approach to media policy, with minimal state intervention beyond general regulatory measures and overseeing a slow process of removing the state from media ownership. He has allowed media to write, print, broadcast, and post whatever they wish, and this has allowed freedom of speech to flourish for the first time in the country’s recent history.
Despite facing constant criticism from the media, Yushchenko has not taken any steps to reintroduce state-sponsored censorship, and this is the behavior of a democratic leader. Where Yushchenko falls short, as with so many other issues, is in doing little to introduce or facilitate structural changes which would help consolidate these gains.
Prime Minister Yanukovych and his coalition partners are taking advantage of this and gradually moving to reestablish control -- the creeping coup. Their behavior toward media suggests that their political culture remains stuck in pre-2004 semi-authoritarianism.
A telling incident occurred shortly after the Party of Regions began their political comeback. On July 12, 2006, only a few months after the elections, Party of Regions lawmaker Oleh Kalashnikov attacked two journalists just outside parliament.
The journalists, Marharyta Sytnyk and Volodymyr Novosad from STB television, had the audacity to film him near the Verkhovna Rada. Despite a major outcry from journalists, Kalashnikov faced no consequences -- he continues to sit in parliament and make statements about the importance of constitutional government and the rule of law.
Since the Kalashnikov incident, attacks on the media, some physical, have increased. A recent example took place on March 30, 2007, when Crimean journalists Olena Mekhanyk and Oleksandr Khomenko from the Chornomorka TV station were attacked as they filmed coalition supporters boarding trains headed for Kyiv.
Kuchma-era tactics such as legal actions, harassment, and other forms of intimidation have been on the rise. The pioneering "Ukrayinska pravda” website has been sued six times over the last six months by Parliamentary Speaker Oleksandr Moroz.
Renat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and an influential member of the Party of Regions, recently launched legal action against the popular website "Obozrevatel," after its reporter Tetyana Chornovil found some old neighbors from his home town of Oktyabrskoye and published a series of stories about his youth.
The newspaper "2000" ran what turned out to be a fabricated story, which falsely quoted Renate Wohlwend, rapporteur with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as saying Yushchenko's April 2 decree dissolving parliament was unconstitutional and he should resign.
Equally troubling was a remark to the press by Vadym Dolhanov, the husband of Constitutional Court judge Syuzanna Stanik, who was dismissed from her post by Yushchenko as the court was considering the legality of the president's April 2 decree. Responding to a question from a female journalist about the couple's property holdings, Dolhanov responded by asking the journalist what kind of underwear she was wearing.
The Yanukovych team has also slowly been trying to reestablish a structural control over the media. After the 2006 parliamentary elections, the majority coalition (the Communists, Socialists, and Party of Regions) appointed their own loyalists, Eduard Prutnyk and Ihor Chaban, to head the State Committee for TV and Radio Broadcasting.
On 20 March 2007, the state-controlled Ukrainian National Television Channel 1 canceled its only political debate program, "Toloka." This came one day after Yulia Tymoshenko and Our Ukraine leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko were guests on the show and had positive comments from 80 percent of callers.
There was also a coup attempt in the parliamentary freedom of speech committee, which is led by Tymoshenko ally and lawmaker Andriy Shevchenko. Part of the committee met without him and elected Party of Regions lawmaker Olena Bondarenko acting head on April 26.
Journalists -- Still A Mixed Picture
What has been the reaction of journalists to all of this? At best, their behavior can be described as mixed. Although a truly independent media does not exist anywhere, Ukraine’s media has longer than some to go toward this ideal. Despite the improvement in working conditions with the end of state-sponsored censorship, overall the professionalism of many journalists remains woefully low.
The basic elements of professionalism, autonomy, distinct professional norms and a public service orientation are largely missing. Only one media outlet, maidan.org.ua, bothered to check the source of the Strasbourg disinformation story -- most simply reprinted what was fed to them.
Many journalists still lack a clear understanding of the role media plays in a democratic society, and despite improvements, the media is still not achieving its main purpose of providing clear, balanced and in-depth information and analysis of major events. Those who work for coalition-controlled media outlets continue to print and broadcast what they are told. Ukraina TV's unflinching adherence to the Party of Regions party line is one demonstration of the extent of this problem.
A new tendency -- noted by Olha Herasymyuk, a former TV personality and current Our Ukraine lawmaker -- is that journalists are increasingly avoiding difficult topics relating to the coalition.
“I am noticing that journalists are refraining from critical tones when reporting on the coalition or government activities,” she said during a recent interview. “It's clear that they are becoming increasingly frightened.” Given the renewed pressures they are facing, this return to self-censorship is hardly surprising.
There is, nonetheless, some good news and reason for optimism. Great strides have been made in developing investigative journalism, a genre practically nonexistent in the era of former President Leonid Kuchma. Channel 5, the website "Obozrevatel" and STB TV all conducted independent investigations into allegations of corruption among Constitutional Court judges when this latest crisis broke.
Analytical programs have also improved, with two shows really standing out: "Ya Tak Dumayu" (This is What I Think) hosted by Anna Bezulyk on Studio 1+1 and "Five Kopeks" (best translated as Your Two Cents) with Roman Chayka on Channel 5.
To some degree, innovation is also on the rise. On April 13, a group of national and regional TV stations staged a so-called “Day Without Politicians on TV," where they deliberately avoided inviting the usual talking heads and provided their viewers with an alternative perspective on the news. It seems that the political culture and professionalism of journalists is changing, but to a large degree continues to reflect the major political divisions in society.
Two final points concern the international dimension. Yanukovych and his coalition partners are appealing to Western public opinion, despite renewing pressures on media at home. Socialist leader and presidential opponent Oleksandr Moroz published his thoughts on the crisis on the pages of the "International Herald Tribune," not "Izvestiya" -- a huge change from 2004, when their focus was on Moscow.
The tone of Western reporting on Yanukovych and the coalition has changed, too. On April 22, a "Daily Telegraph" article described the Ukrainian prime minister as “a former weight lifter and onetime racing driver,” who speaks "in the soft baritone that accompanies his deceptively mild manner” when he explains that "'the Ukrainian people have an old democratic tradition.'” No mention was made of his criminal record, the well-reported falsification of the 2004 election, or the creeping coup d’etat which precipitated the current crisis.
The struggle between these two political blocs, and their very different political cultures, is likely to be ongoing. The degree and nature of state intervention into the work of the media will remain an important indicator of just how far democratic consolidation has progressed in Ukraine.
(Marta Dyczok is an associate professor in history and political science at the University of Western Ontario. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)