Milinkevich Voted Out Of Belarusian Opposition CoalitionMay 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Alyaksandr Milinkevich has been voted out of his post as the head of the opposition coalition in Belarus.
Members of the Belarusian opposition, meeting at an opposition congress held on May 26-27 at the culture palace of the Minsk Automotive Factory, voted to replace Milinkevich with four coleaders who will serve on a rotating basis.
Milinkevich challenged President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in last year's presidential election, and led opposition protests following that vote. But his speech at the Minsk congress on May 27 did little to convince the 600 opposition delegates that they should rally behind him.
"My position is as follows: It is possible for us to unite seriously if we determine several values. I say it once again -- values," Milinkevich told the opposition congress. "It is impossible to unite seriously just against one person. I propose very simple values for those who support me. I hope that all of you share them as well. These values are democracy, independence, and integration with Europe. It is very important."
The congress vote highlights the divisions in Belarus's fractious opposition.
Milinkevich has called the system of rotating opposition leader "weak and inefficient."
Other opposition figures have defended the system, saying it will allow each of the coleaders to focus on different areas, for instance international relations.
A Radical Figure?
Milinkevich supporters regard him in the same vein as leaders such as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power during that country's 2003 Rose Revolution.
RFE/RL's Belarus analyst Jan Maksymiuk says that Milinkevich was supported by many younger opposition supporters.
"Milinkevich is seen as a more radical figure than the other opposition leaders. But Milinkevich does not believe any dialogue is possible with the authorities, and he puts stress on civil-disobedience actions, [and] on street demonstrations," Maksymiuk said. "And he was actually the only opposition leader who said that 'our main goal is to integrate with Europe.'"
Milinkevich was elected as the unified opposition's presidential candidate in October 2005.
He was defeated in a landslide by incumbent Lukashenka in the March 2006 presidential election, and led street protests after the vote. The European Union, the United States, and the OSCE condemned the election, in which many opposition activists were arrested, as unfair.
Milinkevich became widely known in the West as the face of the Belarusian opposition.
After this weekend's vote, Milinkevich says he plans to form a new "movement."
Meanwhile, the opposition coalition has approved a new strategy that supports dialogue with the authorities, rather than civil disobedience.
One of the four new co-leaders of the opposition coalition, Sergei Kalyakin, said "we must unite not around an individual but around the idea of change."
For Reunited Parliament, Even Two Days Together Is Too Much
Ukrainian lawmakers from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine returned on May 29 to the Verkhovna Rada after a nearly two-month hiatus to vote on legislation needed to hold early parliamentary elections.
The lawmakers had avoided the Rada since President Viktor Yushchenko's April 2 decree dissolving parliament.
But a May 27 deal between Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz paved the way for their return.
Backing Away From Confrontation
The political crisis apparently reached its peak on May 26.
That was when President Yushchenko reportedly summoned to Kyiv some units of the Interior Ministry riot police, after issuing a decree the previous day placing them under his control.
Police troops loyal to Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko then blocked local highways to prevent the Yushchenko-led riot units from entering the capital.
With bloodshed a possible outcome of the standoff, Yushchenko called for urgent talks with not only Prime Minister Yanukovych -- with whom he has met regularly during the troubled past two months -- but also parliament speaker Moroz, whom he had publicly ignored since the impasse began.
In the early hours of May 27, Ukrainian television showed Yushchenko shaking hands with Yanukovych and Moroz and announcing that "the crisis is over."
The three officials signed a deal setting preterm polls for September 30. This means that Yushchenko will have to issue a third decree on early elections, thus nullifying his April 27 decree that scheduled them for June 24.
According to the May 27 deal, parliament will be legally dissolved after the voluntary resignation of the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (YTB). The two groups jointly control some 170 seats in the 450-seat Rada; their withdrawal would take parliament below the 300-seat minimum it needs to legally function.
For that reason, one should expect not so much a shift in Ukrainian politics in the fall as a continuation of the current state of affairs.
This is different than Yushchenko's two April decrees, which based the disbanding of parliament on accusations the ruling coalition (the Party of Regions, the Socialists, and the Communists) had illegally poached opposition deputies to expand the ruling majority to 300 votes.
The coalition does not want to take the blame for the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada. Asking the opposition to resign instead seems to be the most significant concession Yushchenko had to make in order to strike a deal on new elections.
It remains to be seen, however, if Our Ukraine and YTB leaders can persuade their lawmakers to give up their parliamentary mandates -- something that is meant to happen as soon as the Verkhovna Rada adopts all the legislation necessary to hold the September 30 snap elections.
On the morning of May 29, Yushchenko suspended his April 26 decree dissolving parliament. The suspension was for two days -- just long enough to give legislators time to vote on early-election legislation.
Deputies -- including those from the opposition who have steadfastly avoided parliamentary debates during the past two months -- gathered for a session that afternoon. They made some swift and promising steps toward fulfilling the election deal between Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz.
First, in a conciliatory move, the Verkhovna Rada rescinded previous resolutions by the ruling coalition lambasting Yushchenko for his dissolution decrees.
Second, lawmakers held fresh votes on the more than 50 bills the Rada had passed during the oppositions' two-month absence.
In the third and most important move of the day, lawmakers adopted a bill on reforming the Central Election Commission. This was a major concern for politicians on both sides of the conflict.
The bill allows the Verkhovna Rada to change the composition of the election commission following a formal request by the president.
Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz reportedly agreed that the commission will comprise 15 members. Seven will be proposed by the ruling coalition, seven by the opposition, and one -- most likely, the head of the commission, will be proposed jointly by the president and the prime minister.
It was a constructive day's work -- but one that appeared to exhaust the goodwill and readiness of both sides to continue moving forward.
Opposition lawmakers failed to gather for the morning parliamentary session today, presumably because points of agreement between the coalition and the opposition on any further legislation were in short supply.
This legislation was prepared by the anticrisis working group that Yushchenko and Yanukovych set up in early May in an attempt to defuse the crisis.
The anticrisis group has reportedly coordinated "90 percent" of the legal foundation for the new polls, but has bogged down in arguments over several important issues.
In particular, the sides reportedly disagree on introducing the so-called "imperative mandate" provision into the law on people's deputies. This would prevent lawmakers from defecting from their caucuses in the Verkhovna Rada, precluding a repeat of the apparent poaching that sparked the crisis two months ago.
There is also no agreement on how to compile a voter registry that could be independent from the voter lists held by regional administrations.
The May 27 deal stipulates that the Cabinet of Ministers and the Central Election Commission are obliged to produce such a list before the September 30 polls, but lawmakers reportedly differ on ways of identifying eligible Ukrainian voters.
Yanukovych's Party of Regions is afraid that regional governors -- all of whom were appointed by Yushchenko -- may manipulate the voter lists to the party's disadvantage.
Yushchenko's Our Ukraine had similar apprehensions during the 2004 presidential ballot, when the regional governors controlling the voter rolls were allied with Yanukovych.
Another possible stumbling block to reaching a final agreement on the early polls is the fate of Svyatoslav Piskun, whom Yushchenko fired from the post of prosecutor-general on May 24. The ruling coalition wants Piskun reinstated, while Yushchenko, who simultaneously appointed a replacement for him, is not inclined to back off.
For these reasons, it is not clear whether the Verkhovna Rada will manage to settle its disagreements over the September 30 polls today, as expected by Yushchenko.
To make these elections happen, Yushchenko will need to issue a relevant decree no later than August 2. So there are still two months for Ukrainian politicians to solve the current conflict without setting yet another election date.
If Yushchenko succeeds in having early elections in the fall, some in Ukraine will surely see this development as his victory. But this victory will hardly give him additional political profits.
The problem is that, according to sociological surveys, the future arrangement of forces in the Verkhovna Rada may be very much like the current one. Indeed, given the fully proportional party-list electoral system in Ukraine, it is very likely that the legislature will be predominantly filled with exactly the same faces as now.
For that reason, one should expect not so much a shift in Ukrainian politics in the fall as a continuation of the current state of affairs. And the current state of affairs resembles a permanent institutional crisis, rather than the way to the prosperous and democratic Ukraine that Yushchenko promised during his inauguration in January 2005.
Face-Off Over Prosecutor Heightens Ukrainian Political Crisis
More scuffles followed when Interior Minister Vasyl Tsushko arrived at the Prosecutor-General's Office with a riot-police unit. Tsushko was later quoted as saying that a "coup d'etat" has been initiated in Ukraine by the president.
The appointment of Piskun to the post of prosecutor-general by Yushchenko on April 24 came as a surprise to many in Ukraine. Piskun held the post twice already, in 2002-03 and 2004-05. In 2005, he was fired by none other than Yushchenko, who was reportedly displeased with Piskun's handling of major criminal cases.
Why, then, did Yushchenko appoint Piskun once again? Some say it was because Piskun had protested his 2005 dismissal in court and won a protracted case against presidential lawyers. According to this line of reasoning, in reinstating Piskun Yushchenko simply obeyed the law.
But since Piskun's return to the Prosecutor-General's Office took place amid a bitter political standoff between the president on one side and the prime minister and parliament on the other, it seems that Yushchenko wanted Piskun to help him enforce his decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and calling for new elections.
Yushchenko indirectly confirmed that this version of Piskun's comeback was more likely when he accused Piskun of pursuing "political activities" instead of "working."
"Political activities continue at the prosecutor's office," Yushchenko said at a news conference on May 24, where he explained his reason for sacking Piskun. "Why isn't the presidential decree on early elections being carried out? Because the cabinet is not carrying it out. Why isn't the cabinet carrying out the presidential decree? Because the Prosecutor-General's Office is not working."
Thus, Piskun seems to have disappointed Yushchenko to a great extent.
The formal reason for the dismissal was Piskun's failure to give up his parliamentary seat within 20 days after his appointment, as stipulated by law.
Piskun said his sacking was illegal, explaining that he filed his resignation from parliament earlier this month. But since Piskun formally remains a lawmaker, it appears that Yushchenko's move is legally defensible.
The forcible reentry of Piskun into his office, during which officers of the pro-presidential State Protection Directorate and the pro-government Interior Ministry scuffled with each other, has obviously exacerbated the political crisis in Ukraine.
Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous political bloc and a Yushchenko ally, revealed to journalists on May 24 that the previous day, President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych reached an agreement on the date of early parliamentary elections. She suggested that the incident at the Prosecutor-General's Office was intended to derail this agreement.
Later the same day, Yushchenko also confirmed this news, but he suggested that the agreement was blocked in the anticrisis working group, which was set up by him and Yanukovych in early May to prepare necessary bills and documents for launching snap elections.
After the May 24 incident in the Prosecutor-General's Office, reaching an agreement on early polls seems to have become an even more difficult task than it was before.
Today, Yushchenko issued a decree canceling the subordination of the riot police to the Interior Ministry and resubordinating them to the president.
Also today, Viktor Shemchuk, whom Yushchenko appointed as acting prosecutor-general to replace Piskun, said he has opened a criminal case against Interior Minister Tsushko for exceeding his authority. Meanwhile, the Prosecutor-General's Office remains cordoned off by Interior Ministry forces, while Piskun claims he is still in charge there.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which is believed to be loyal to the president, also opened an investigation today into Tsushko's intervention in the Prosecutor-General's Office.
Additionally, the SBU summoned for interrogation Judge Valeriy Pshenichnyy. Yushchenko dismissed Pshenichnyy along with two other judges from the Constitutional Court nearly a month ago, accusing them of violating their oaths of office. But the three judges have reportedly had their dismissals revoked by court decisions and still participate in sessions of the Constitutional Court, which is examining the constitutionality of Yushchenko's decree of April 26 to dismiss parliament and call for new elections.
Recoiling From The Brink?
However, despite these developments, which have evidently worsened the political climate in Ukraine, optimists assert that the conflict will be resolved very soon.
Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko expressed his conviction on May 24 that the scenes of riot policemen breaking into Piskun's office, which were filmed and subsequently broadcast nationally, will have a sobering effect on both warring politicians and ordinary Ukrainians.
Former SBU head Yevhen Marchuk said today that the lack of agreement between Yushchenko and Yanukovych is primarily due to "radicals" who, Marchuk added, are in both the Yushchenko and Yanukovych camps and want "more radical" methods for resolving the crisis. Marchuk did not mention any names.
It seems that one such "radical" may be the Socialist Party, which is clearly not interested in having preterm elections. According to all sociological surveys, the Socialists currently have no chance of overcoming the 3 percent voting threshold that qualifies for parliamentary representation. In other words, early elections might mean the Socialist Party's political demise.
Additionally, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, who is also parliament speaker, may feel offended by the fact that Yushchenko publicly ignores him and discusses the crisis only with Yanukovych. Therefore, it can be argued that the May 24 action in the Prosecutor-General's Office by Interior Minister Tsushko, who belongs to the Socialist Party, was motivated not only by his sense of official duty but also by party politics.
However, regardless of whether the fight between security officers in the Prosecutor-General's Office was purely accidental or intentionally orchestrated, it seems that the Ukrainian political class has now approached a line that cannot be crossed without plunging the country into political turmoil with unpredictable consequences.
President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych are now facing the toughest test of their political careers.
Gazprom Hones Its Strategy On Ukraine
"If politicians make a decision to establish closer economic ties between our countries, this will guarantee lower gas prices. However, if the politicians decide to separate these ties, then the price of gas for Ukraine will be same as for Germany. Does Ukraine really want this? I want to stress that Russia does not need this," Golubev said.
This explanation of pricing for gas sold to Ukraine is different from previous explanations provided by Gazprom managers and by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Such explanations have emphasized that Russia is striving to stop subsidizing gas sales to Ukraine.
"We have subsidized the Ukrainian economy with low gas prices for a decade and we intend to end this practice," Putin said in January 2007. Putin didn't mention, however, that Ukraine buys mostly Turkmen, rather than Russian gas.
The present price Ukraine pays for gas was negotiated in early 2007 and was based upon the January 2006 agreement whereby Gazprom agreed to a price for a "basket" of Turkmen, Kazakh, and Russian gas.
Ukraine wound up paying $95 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2006 and $130 in 2007, when Turkmenistan raised the gas price for Gazprom to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters.
Does Golubev's statement reflect the future of energy relations between Ukraine and Russia?
As of 2007, Ukraine does not buy any Russian gas -- it only imports 50 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas.
Turkmenistan sells this gas to a Gazprom subsidiary company, Gazeksport, for $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazeksport then resells it to RosUkrEnergo, a middleman with headquarters in Switzerland, which resells it to a joint-venture company, UkrGazEnergo, at the Russian-Ukrainian border. It is then sold on to Ukrainian domestic and industrial consumers.
If Gazprom should suddenly determine that the economies of the two countries are not "close enough," it could raise prices. But buying Turkmen gas for $100 and reselling it to Ukraine at the market price of $250-270 could be risky.
Such price speculation could upset the Turkmen leadership, which traditionally has insisted that Gazprom not engage in such deals. Turkmenistan would then most likely be forced to raise the price it charges Gazprom to world market levels.
Golubev's comments raise another question: who is empowered to decide when "closer economic ties" between Ukraine and Russia reach the point of closeness that qualifies Ukraine for a substantial gas-price reduction?
Any price reduction that Russia might give to Ukraine would be, in effect, a very expensive subsidy. Russian politicians and the Finance Ministry might be hard-pressed to accept such an arrangement.
Golubev could well be disguising Gazprom's long-standing efforts to obtain a controlling share in the Ukrainian trunk gas pipeline by talking about "economic closeness" in return for cheap gas. This was the tactic used in Belarus and in Armenia, where Moscow was intent on initially gaining a partial stake and, ultimately, a controlling stake in the pipelines.
The question remains: Is Gazprom willing to sacrifice billions of dollars in subsidies in return for control over the pipeline?
At this time Kazakhstan, according to RIA Novosti, began threatening to raise its price for gas from $100 to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters and the Turkmen leadership was reportedly contemplating a similar price increase. Central Asian gas producers have said that in two years they plan to charge world prices for their gas.
If this were to take place, it would definitely increase the price Ukraine pays for gas -- unless Golubev's formula for cheap gas is implemented.
In mid-May when Putin signed the agreement with Central Asian leaders to build a new Caspian gas pipeline to export Central Asian gas to the West, the price Turkmenistan would charge for its gas was not mentioned.
"The price [for Turkmen gas] is to remain unchanged until the end of 2009, but talks are to be carried through before July 1, 2009, on changing it under long-term deals by bringing it into line with European prices," Interfax reported on May 14.
Golubev's remarks were by and large ignored by the Ukrainian media, which was consumed with the current confrontation between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych, who favors close political and economic ties with Russia, is seen as the beneficiary of Golubev's remarks. But does his business constituency agree with this?
The Industrial Union of Donbas, one of the most powerful business groupings in Ukraine, has had a separate gas-purchasing agreement with Kazakhstan for many years.
Golubev has not been a visible participant in the Ukrainian-Russian gas discussions till now, but given his background he seems to enjoy powerful support from the Kremlin. A former KGB officer, Golubev worked in the St. Petersburg mayor's office when Vladimir Putin and Aleksei Miller, the present head of Gazprom, worked there. In February 2003, he became a member of Gazprom's management committee and in November 2006 became its deputy chairman replacing Aleksandr Ryazanov who had been fired.
Golubev's responsibility at Gazprom is the CIS market for Russian gas sales, one of the most sensitive jobs in Gazprom.
His pronouncements about a vague gas-pricing scheme for Ukraine could be an indication that the Kremlin is intent on trying to use a scare tactic in order to bring Ukraine closer into the Russian fold at the same time helping to further Putin's long-standing support for Yanukovych.
Golubev's attempt to promote this new "carrot-stick" scheme, despite his unrealistic arguments, could mean that Gazprom is trying to both influence Ukrainians to support Yanukovych in return for cheap gas and maneuver Ukraine into abandoning or sharing its control over the largest single gas pipeline for Russian gas to the EU.