New Europe Battles Lukashenka
That's when the Polish government stepped in and offered him the opportunity to continue his studies in Warsaw.
In addition to getting a good education in Poland, where he is studying linguistics, Skrabatun is also learning a thing or two about opposition politics -- from activists who successfully fought against communist rule there two decades ago.
"I meet with people in Poland who fought against the communist regime and I gain experience from them," Skrabatun said. "They tell me how it was for them and they understand how it is for me. They know what I am talking about because they had the same situation."
His experience in Poland, Skrabatun says, has helped him to more effectively battle Alyaksandr Lukashenka's authoritarian regime:
"Every week I go to Belarus and do the same things I was doing before I left for Poland," Skrabatun said. "Perhaps now I have even more strength and more possibilities because in Poland I made new acquaintances and contacts with international organizations that can help us."
Safe Haven For Students
Skrabatun is among hundreds of Belarusian students who were kicked out of school for political reasons and taken in by Polish universities.
Other former communist countries who are now EU members -- like the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Estonia -- are also admitting Belarusian students who have run afoul of the regime. When Lukashenka closed down Minsk's European Humanities University in 2004, for example, Lithuania agreed to host the EU-funded institution in Vilnius.
Giving opposition-minded students a safe place to study -- and a safe haven for their political activism -- isn't the only way Europe's newest democracies are battling the continent's last dictatorship.
From taking in political asylum seekers, to financing independent media, to pressing the European Union to take a stronger stand on human rights violations, the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have become the beleaguered Belarusian opposition's best friends on the continent.
"On the one hand there is moral assistance, moral support," said Ilya Hlybouski, a native of Belarus who works for the Prague-based humanitarian organization People In Need.
The Czech Republic, for example, has taken in nearly 300 political asylum seekers from Belarus.
The Polish government last year began financing Radio Racja, which broadcasts uncensored news into Belarus in both the Belarusian and Russian languages. Warsaw is also preparing to begin satellite television broadcasts into Belarus.
Moreover, the Polish, Czech, and Lithuanian governments have become increasingly outspoken inside the European Union about opposing human rights violations in Belarus.
Old Vs New Europe
Belarusian opposition activists say such lobbying is important, especially since Europe's old powers like France and Germany have often been wary of alienating Minsk's ally Russia.
"They are...our ambassadors to old Europe, because there people don't always know what it is to live in a society of fear. They haven't lived in such a society in a long time, and some never have," Belarusian opposition politician Alyaksandr Milinkevich told RFE/RL on the sidelines of a recent conference in Prague.
"So when I talk to leaders of these countries, I ask them, 'Be our ambassadors there. The time will come when we will have our own people, but for now we need you,' and they fulfill this function."
A specialist in the former Soviet Union at the German Council on Foreign Relations, Alexander Rahr, says the new EU members have sparked a "heated debate" in Brussels about its policy toward Russia -- and by extension toward Belarus, and Ukraine.
"I must say that they do it very intelligently. They bring their arguments forward," Rahr said. "They have maybe what the old West does not have, they have moral political arguments having been victims of the Soviet past, of communism, which they bring to these discussions, where of course the old Europeans cannot contradict."
Eugeniusz Smolar, head of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations, says that his government and others in the region are motivated by a strong sense of moral obligation.
"We had been enjoying the help of the Western trade unions, the American Congress and President [Ronald] Reagan and President [Jimmy] Carter before, and the Polish hero [former U.S. National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski," Smolar, who himself was imprisoned by Poland's communist regime in 1968 after protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, said.
"As you know, they were very active in applying human rights as a measure of success in international relations, or let's say as a measure of decency," he added. "So the same goes with us. Generally speaking, the Poles are democratically inclined people and they would like to help and they accept that such help is being offered to people less fortunate, especially those who are our neighbors."
But Smolar says Poland's stance is also partially pragmatic -- the desire to have a stable and democratic neighbor to the east.
"I believe it is pretty natural to have a neighbor, which is democratic, prosperous, predictable, not showing signs of behaving like the old Soviet type of state. Because there is always increased insecurity [about] what they might do, not only to their own population, but also in terms of foreign relations," Smolar said.
But despite the support abroad from the new EU members, Smolar said sooner or later Belarus's deeply divided opposition will need to show results at home.
"You know, success breeds success. If the Belarusian opposition cannot show positive results it is very difficult to gather support in Europe."
No More EU Trade Preferences For Belarus
The Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits will be suspended on June 21 as punishment for the Belarusian government's failure to implement the International Labor Organization's (ILO) recommendations regarding the country's trade unions.
The Geneva-based ILO has said that in Belarus union bank accounts have been frozen, union activists fired from their jobs, and there have been limitations on the right to strike.
Those charges led the European Union to announce on June 15 that Belarus would be removed from the GSP. The "preferences" are intended to benefit developing countries by lowering tariffs.
Stephen Adams, a press officer for the EU's Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, says that the EU's intention isn't to isolate Belarus.
"The intention is simply to apply a little bit of pressure in a way that encourages Belarus to ensure that workers in that country are granted the labor rights, the rights to freedom of association that they're entitled to under Belarus's own ILO commitments," Adams says.
But the Belarusian Foreign Ministry has said the measures will hurt ordinary Belarusians.
The government-funded Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB) said in a May statement that the European Union's "sanctions" would "result, first of all, in workers' decrease in incomes, reduction of social guarantees, [and] loss of jobs."
Mikalay Belanouski, the head of the Minsk branch of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, accuses the EU of double standards.
"There are many countries in the world where the rights of workers and trade unions are simply nonexistent. But nobody takes such measures against them today," Belanouski says.
The EU says it has given Belarus plenty of chances.
Press officer Adams says that the EU has had 4 1/2 years of dialogue with Belarus on this issue and in December 2006 gave Belarus a six-month grace period -- the last chance to make good on its ILO commitments.
In the past, the EU has accused the Belarusian regime of rigging elections and clamping down on the political opposition. It has hit Minsk with financial sanctions and placed a travel ban on senior Belarusian officials.
Belarus does a significant amount of business with the European Union, its second-largest trade partner. According to EU figures for 2004, Belarus did $7 billion worth of export trade with the EU -- out of a total of $16.7 billion.
Only 12 percent of Belarus's products exported to the EU benefit from the preferential tariffs.
Among the exports to be affected would be farm machinery and chemicals, but not oil and gas from Russia that travels to Europe via Belarus.
The head of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Labor Unions, Alyaksandr Yarashuk, told AP that the country could lose between $270 million to $540 million a year.
But an economist at the Vilnius-based independent Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, Kiryl Haiduk, says that figure is likely to be much smaller.
In fact, he says, the impact on the Belarusian economy will be "very small."
"The most pessimistic estimate of losses is from $52.2-$66.6 million per year and the optimistic, and I would say more realistic, estimates range from $23-$36 million per year," Haiduk says.
Haiduk says that, even with the withdrawal of preferences, Belarus's exports to the EU are concentrated in sectors that have relatively low tariffs anyway.
Whatever the impact, the EU has made clear that it is prepared to reinstate the preferences in the future.
"If the ILO was to rule, to demonstrate to the European Union that Belarus had brought its practice in line with its ILO obligations, [then] the trade preferences could be reinstated very very quickly," Adams says.
(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report)
Russian-Ukrainian Pipeline Conflict Resurfaces
As in past negotiations, the issue is not only the price Ukraine will pay for gas in 2008, or how much Russia will pay Ukraine in transit fees -- the major question is about who will control the vital Ukrainian gas-pipeline network to Europe, an asset that Russia's state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom, has persistently sought to obtain.
Speaking at a press conference with visiting Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in Moscow on June 23, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov referred to the construction of the Bohorodchany-Uzhhorod pipeline, a partially completed 240-kilometer extension of the planned Novopskov-Uzhhorod main-trunk pipeline that would transit natural gas from eastern to western Ukraine. The extension has a projected annual capacity of 19 billion cubic meters of gas and will cost about $560 million.
Ukraine views the completion of this extension as a strategically important project that would increase the throughput capacity of its gas-transportation system to Europe.
However, in April, the deputy chairman of the management committee of Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, Valery Golubev, said that construction of the extension was unjustified because there is no demand in Europe for additional Russian gas.
And in a revealing statement made in May, Golubev said that "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."
In his June 23 comments, Fradkov downplayed Golubev's threats. "The issue of the Bohorodchany-Uzhhorod pipeline is one of the links in the broader question of deeper cooperation between the countries in the gas sphere," he said. "In this context we are trying to generate interest in Russian companies, particularly Gazprom, to take part in the Ukrainian gas-transportation system."
Fradkov no doubt knew that it would not require a great deal of effort to interest Gazprom in gaining some control over Ukraine's pipeline system, but by linking the completion of Bohorodchany-Uzhhorod to that issue he pushed the Ukrainian side into a corner and set the stage for a new confrontation.
Yanukovych was noncommittal in his response. He said the project has very good prospects and that a decision would be reached this autumn, adding that Ukraine would take into consideration its own interests as well as those of Russia, Central Asian states, and European consumers.
The joint venture to build the Novopskov-Uzhhorod pipeline, at a cost of $2.2 billion-2.8 billion, was formed in 2004 between Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Gazprom. It was originally scheduled to be completed by 2009, but construction was postponed from 2005 to February 2006. Since then little, if anything, has been done.
The pipeline, if and when completed, would give Ukraine the capacity to increase by 25 percent its flow of Russian gas to Europe -- a significant money-making proposition for Kyiv.
Ukrainian planners also believe that Novopskov-Uzhhorod would insure the country against breakdowns of the aging Urengoi-Uzhhorod pipeline, parts of which have been in operation for 20-30 years.
Fradkov has not been the only one to set the stage for confrontation.
In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin stirred up a hornet's nest when he publicly announced that the Ukrainian government had approached Russia with the idea of unifying the countries' respective gas-pipeline networks.
Putin hailed the overture as a "revolutionary development" that was in the "interest of both countries."
In response to Putin's announcement, the Ukrainian parliament almost unanimously passed legislation 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.
Ukrainian leaders have not responded to Fradkov's latest offer, but it is becoming evident that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is willing to counter Russia's latest attempt to gain influence over Ukraine's gas pipelines by initiating an investigation into the operations of UkrHazEnergo, a joint venture between Ukraine's Naftohaz and RosUkrEnergo, the Swiss-based middleman which holds the monopoly for providing Ukraine with gas from Central Asia.
UkrHazEnergo's participation in the Ukrainian domestic gas-distribution system was essentially forced upon Ukraine by Gazprom during the January 2006 gas dispute with Russia.
Addressing a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council in June, Yushchenko complained about the role played by Ukrainian businessman Dmytro Firtash, whose company Centragas owns 50 percent of RosUkrEnergo, (the other 50 percent is owned by Gazprom) and thereby exerts substantial influence on UkrHazEnergo's activities.
According to a confidential memo summarizing this meeting, Yushchenko stated that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) believes that UkrHazEnergo's monopoly on gas distribution to industrial clients in Ukraine could be contributing to Firtash's growing presence in Ukraine's chemical industry.
Firtash owns two important chemical plants in Ukraine -- an industrial soda plant in the Crimea (Crimea Soda) and a fertilizer plant (Rivnoazot). In addition he controls Crimean Titan, a titanium plant.
Yushchenko also expressed alarm about a growing conflict between UkrHazEnergo and the Industrial Union of the Donbas (IUD) over the price UkrHazEnergo was charging the IUD for gas. The implication being that UkrHazEnergo was price gouging the IUD in order to enrich Firtash and Gazprom.
In 2006 Firtash received $365 million from RosUkrEnergo as his share of 2005 profits. Some in Kyiv believe this to be an extravagant sum for a principle of a company that does not own any gas fields, pipelines, or other assets. By comparison, Gazprom Chairman Aleksei Miller receives a salary $1.4 million in addition to $1.4 million in stock options, according to the Russian website gazeta.ru.
Moldova's Local Elections Show National Trends
While the Communist Party received the most votes and seats in local polls, their popularity dropped substantially, and analysts have begun to wonder if an electoral shift is beginning before the 2009 parliamentary elections.
On June 17, residents of Moldova's capital city, Chisinau, lined up to vote in the second round of elections for the city's mayor. On four previous occasions, the city has attempted to elect a mayor to replace Serafim Urechean, who left office to become a member of parliament, and all four times turnout was too low for the elections to be valid.
This year there were no such problems, as the turnout of nearly 36 percent was well above the 25 percent threshold for the elections to be valid.
Not only did Chisinau's citizens elect their first full-term mayor in over two years, but they also delivered the ruling Communist Party its biggest defeat.
The Communist candidate, Veaceslav Iordan, was defeated by the 29-year-old candidate from the Liberal Party, Dorin Chirtoaca. Iordan received 38.83 percent of second-round votes, while Chirtoaca received 61.17 percent.
The victory of a young liberal in the most competitive of the local elections was only one of many events in an exciting election. Many now are asking what these results mean for future elections.
Most Trusted Party
Public opinion polls consistently show that the Communist Party and its leaders are the most trusted in Moldovan politics. Their performance in the polls has been bolstered by relatively strong economic growth since they first gained control of parliament in 2001.
Their support base, however, has waned in the face of economic problems caused largely by a Russian ban on wine and food exports from Moldova.
In the first round of elections, held June 3, the Communist Party won about 35 percent of all local council seats and 36 percent of all municipal seats. This compares to 45 percent and 48 percent respectively in 2003.
In both rounds of mayoral elections, the Communists won a total of 328 races, or about 37 percent. In 2003, they won 41 percent.
Arcadie Barbarosie, director of the Public Policy Institute of Moldova, suggested that these results represent a more general trend of declining support for the Communist Party. This is driven by several factors, including: tiredness of the old leadership, rising unemployment and poverty, and several unpopular policies. Barbarosie said that the 2009 parliamentary elections may see the Communist Party returning to the opposition.
The decline in the Communist Party's vote share, however, failed to produce a definitive winner from the various opposition parties.
Although it turned in the best national performance of the opposition parties, the results were varied. In the Chisinau municipal council race, MNA lost half of its seats, mostly to the Liberal Party.
Other significant parties were the Democrat Party, with 78 mayors, the Christian Democrats, with 62, and the Social Democracy Party, with 25. In total, 16 parties won at least one of the mayoral races and 135 of the seats were filled by independents, reflecting the continued fragmentation of Moldova's political scene.
While the Liberal Party claimed arguably the largest prize of the election with Chirtoaca's election in Chisinau, the party won only 11 other races, reflecting its limited organizational reach outside of the capital.
Individual, Not Party
That so many opposition parties continue to compete in the local races may pose a problem for parliamentary elections, since these are decided by party-list proportional representation.
Some of these results reflect more on the individual candidates fielded by the parties than on support for the parties themselves.
Barbarosie pointed to polls showing that the most likely reason for Moldovans to change their political opinion is if they do not like the candidate their party nominates. He suggests that this played a key role in the Chisinau elections, as a number of the traditional communist electorate simply did not show up to support Iordan.
While the competitiveness of local elections may have increased since 2003, the fairness of the elections is still being criticized by international observers.
The most commonly cited shortcomings have been the intimidation of election candidates and media bias.
Dieter Boden, head of the OSCE's election observer mission, said there were a number of cases throughout the country where candidates were threatened with dismissal or suspension from their jobs because of their political activities.
Monitors also noted substantial inequality in media access for candidates. In particular Boden highlighted the limited coverage received by some candidates, while the activities of state authorities were covered extensively, favoring pro-government candidates.
Susan Bolam, head of the delegation of the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, said in a news conference that, while the elections were generally well-administered, observers noted some problems in ballot secrecy and improper administration of polling stations.