Accessibility links

Breaking News

Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report: November 23, 2007

For Ukraine's Miners, Demand And Dangers Mounting

By Claire Bigg

Miners go back to work in Zasyadko, one day after the accident happened

November 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As the country marks three days of mourning, Ukraine today buries the first victims of a coal mine blast that so far has claimed 89 lives. Another 11 miners are still missing since the November 18 explosion and are feared dead.

Deadly methane blasts are not rare in Ukraine, which is the world's second-deadliest country for miners after China. But the disaster at the Zasyadko mine, located near the eastern city of Donetsk at the heart of the country's coal industry, is the worst of its kind since Ukraine's independence.

Miners and their families are pinning the blame squarely on the government, which they say has done little to improve miners' safety in its drive for greater productivity.

"An accident like this could have been prevented if the state had carried out its responsibilities properly and controlled the situation in the industry," says Mykhaylo Volynets, the chairman of Ukraine's independent trade union for miners.

The country's coal industry, Volynets claims, is riddled with "corruption and irresponsible behavior" at the managerial level.

Dangerous Labor

Ukraine's run-down coal pits are among the most hazardous in the world. The Zasyadko mine, despite being one of the country's largest and best-equipped, has still been plagued by a string of disasters: 125 miners died there between 1999 and 2002.

A number of miners said they intended to quit their jobs at the Zasyadko mine after the deadly blast. But the mine's leadership is likely to find quick replacements. In economically depressed eastern Ukraine, coal mining for many remains the only source of income.

Mykola Surhai, who served as a Ukrainian coal minister during the Soviet era, says mining safety has deteriorated since the 1991 breakup of the USSR.

"New mines have to be built, equipment should be upgraded, funds should be allocated for protection and new security equipment," says Surhai. "There used to be a law controlling work in the mining sector and other industries. All controlling organs were guided by this legislation and security rules. These were compulsory for all."

Volynets agrees, claiming the number of mining deaths in relation to the volume of coal produced has tripled in Ukraine since the country gained independence.

"It's become worse, much worse. The system of work has disintegrated, particularly the work safety system," he says. "The coal industry is plagued by poor funding, bad management, a low level of responsibility for security, and a lack of governmental will to fix the problems. So these accidents repeat themselves over and over."

Paid To Produce

Part of the problem is that Ukrainian mines are deeper than average, usually running more than 1,000 meters underground. The danger is compounded by routine safety violations. In the country's now mostly private mines, workers are paid by the amount of coal they extract and often disable gas-detecting devices in order to continue work.

The government has pledged to pay relatives of the Zasyadko victims about $20,000 per miner in compensation. But this has done little to soothe the grief and outrage sparked by the most recent tragedy.

Serhiy Harmash, an independent Ukrainian journalist, says miners will continue dying unless money-hungry officials shift priorities.

"If this mine continues to function, I'm convinced more people will die. People have been dying there, and lessons still haven't been learned," says Harmash. "Now we have another accident. If nothing is done, people will continue dying. I think that's what is going to happen, because for our so-called leaders, money is more important than the lives of simple workers."

President Yushchenko has criticized the government's safety record

Ukraine is unlikely to follow in Europe's footsteps and move away from its coal industry, which currently accounts for 95 percent of the country's energy sources.

During a visit to Donetsk on November 19, Yushchenko criticized the government for the poor safety record in mines. But he said coal production will nonetheless remain a top priority for Ukraine.

"Ukraine's coal reserves amount to some 175 billion tons. This represents energetic security for more than one Ukrainian generation," Yushchenko said. "The coal industry has been a priority over the past century, and I'm convinced it will remain a national priority for many more years."

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose stronghold is based in coal-rich eastern Ukraine, sought to minimize his government's responsibility in the tragedy.

"Not a single mine in the world is safe from such incidents," he said during his visit to the Zasyadko mine. The government, he said, is "definitely" working to increase coal production.

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

Colored Revolutions: High Hopes And Broken Promises

By Salome Asatiani

Mikheil Saakahsvili (left) and Viktor Yushchenko -- whose revolution did better?

November 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Rose and Orange revolutions ushered in a wave of optimism that similar "colored revolutions" would soon spread Western-style democracy throughout the Soviet Union.

But as anniversaries of the events in Georgia and Ukraine approach, high hopes and great expectations have been replaced with apprehension.

Georgia became a regional trendsetter in November 2003, when the popular resistance that followed rigged parliamentary elections transformed into the Rose Revolution that spelled the downfall of the ruling regime.

The movement promised a break with past practices of corruption and kleptocracy, to be replaced with democratic governance and improved social conditions. And the charismatic face of the opposition, Mikheil Saakashvili, led the charge.

"We need new blood to come into politics in Georgia to replace the scumbags and corrupt deputies, ministers, and members of various parties who don't care about the people," the soon-to-be president said.

The revolution reached its peak with the opposition's seizure of the parliament building, and on November 23, 2003, President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned, prompting a massive celebration in Tbilisi.

One year later, it was Ukraine's turn, and once again flawed elections served as the stimulus.

Tens of thousands of Orange-clad Viktor Yushchenko supporters took to the streets on November 22, 2004, when it became apparent that presidential elections held the day before had been skewed in favor of the "blue" camp's candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.

As a result of the outcry, a new vote was ordered for late December, and Yushchenko emerged as the winner.

Yushchenko touted the Orange victory as the "people's choice," and promised to lead Ukraine in a new and democratic direction.

"The falsification by the Central Election Commission only postponed the time of recognition of the real choice of the people," he said during his January 23 inauguration ceremony. "This choice was proclaimed today in parliament and I took an oath on the Bible."

With their revolutions, two countries that shared a similar Soviet past and proximity to Russia appeared to start a new chapter. Saakashvili and Yushchenko vowed to spur development and democratization of their respective countries, and promoted integration with trans-Atlantic structures.

The two leaders enjoyed enthusiastic moral support from the United States, which touted the developments in Georgia and Ukraine as the advancement of democracy.

In early 2005, Saakashvili and Yushchenko were even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by influential U.S. Senators John McCain and Hilary Clinton. "In leading freedom movements in their respective countries," the senators' letter to the Nobel Institute read, the two presidents "have won popular support for the universal values of democracy, individual liberty, and civil rights."

Saakashvili and Yushchenko established a strong personal bond as well, the beginnings of which could be seen during the Georgian president's address to the Ukrainian people on November 23, 2004, during the peak of the Orange Revolution. "Dear Ukrainians, dear brothers and sisters," Saakashvili said in Ukrainian. "I speak to you on this holy St. George's Day. I wish you success, peace and calm, justice and victory."

'Who Has Done Better?'

But today, most analysts agree that Georgia and Ukraine have taken quite different postrevolutionary paths.

While Ukraine is widely seen as having more success in establishing democratic procedures of governance, Georgia is considered to be better off in terms of carrying out structural and economic reforms. The citizens of both countries, meanwhile, are waiting for promises of prosperity to come true.

"Who has done better, who has done worse? The Ukrainian achievements never looked as good as Georgian ones, but I wonder if the Ukrainian achievements are actually rather more sustainable," says Nicholas Redman, an Eastern Europe analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Meanwhile, both countries have experienced political crises at home.

Georgia was criticized for the heavy-handed crackdown on opposition protests on November 7 (epa)

In Ukraine, disagreements emerged between the main voices of the Orange Revolution -- Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko -- and ended with Yushchenko dismissing Tymoshenko as prime minister. That, combined with the continued rivalry with Yanukovych, resulted in political stalemate.

Yanukovych, enjoying the support of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, emerged as prime minister. And only recently, following September's parliamentary elections, has the Orange camp regrouped enough to consider the possibility of a new Orange coalition.

In Georgia, Saakashvili's government has been accused by the opposition of consolidating power, tightening control over the media, and failing to push through much-needed judicial reforms.

Such criticisms resulted in the recent staging of massive opposition rallies throughout the country -- and came to a head in Tbilisi when Saakashvili's administration chose to forcefully disperse opposition protesters just as their numbers seemed to be on the wane.

The use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannon to suppress the movement led to a state of emergency that lasted nine days. The country has not recovered from the acute crisis, and is now awaiting a presidential election that Saakashvili moved up from the fall of 2008 to January 5 in an attempt to appease the opposition.

Weak, Divided As A Strength

For many analysts, such as Ukrainian political commentator Ivan Lozovy, the problems Georgia and Ukraine have encountered following their revolutions are largely due to Saakashvili's and Yushchenko's dissimilar personal characteristics, and divergent ways of governing.

"In the case of Yushchenko -- passivity and weakness," Lozovy says. "In the case of Saakashvili -- strong-headedness and, I would say, an overtly great desire to see things done right away, and only his way."

He adds that while Ukraine's "soft" leadership may have contributed to the lack of reforms there, Georgia's "strong-handed" leadership has presented the problem of trying to make too much progress too quickly.

Georgia's and Ukraine's significantly divergent social, economic, and cultural landscapes have also played a crucial role in the way that the two countries have come to govern themselves.

Ukraine's regional diversity, the split between the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west, is key to understanding its political culture. This difference was well reflected in the initial mandate the two leaders received -- Yushchenko came to power with approximately 52 percent of the vote, winning a slim eight-percentage-point majority over his eastern-backed rival Yanukovych. Saakashvili, by contrast, won an overwhelming victory, with 96 percent of the vote.

Are the political clashes of Tymoshenko (left) and Yanukovych actually a sign of democratic progress in Ukraine? (epa file photo)

Some consider the Ukrainian east-west divide to the be a source of internal weakness. But others, such as Georgian political commentator Bakur Kvashilava, argue that it holds the benefit of laying the groundwork for the establishment of democratic principles and procedures.

"Such regional disagreements complicate governance of a country, of course," Kvashilava says. "But long-term, as history and other examples teach us, if two opposing sides can agree on one fundamental issue -- that Ukraine must be integral and undivided, for instance -- then chances are they will also agree on a second fundamental issue, that the only correct path for coming to power is the democratic one -- elections, referendums."

There has been a clear effort to solve all political crises -- no matter how acute -- through negotiation and accommodation in post-Orange Revolution Ukraine. For Kvashilava, this indicates that democratic procedures are finally taking root in the country's political culture, creating a telling contrast with Georgia.

"In Georgia, as the recent events demonstrated, it was absolutely legitimate and acceptable for the population, as well as some representatives of the opposition, to call for the president's resignation, [the opposition's] assumption of power, 'saving the people' and so on," Kvashilava says. "The majority of protesters applauded these slogans -- and this indicates that democracy, as the only way of life, in Georgia has not been established as firmly as in Ukraine."

Ukraine's regional and linguistic diversity has also served as a basis for less radical shifts in foreign policy. While in Georgia most political forces -- and certainly the one in power -- are openly pro-Western and have expressed the desire to distance Georgia from Russia's influence, Ukrainian politicians have been more restrained and cautious.

"The checks and balances that exist in Ukraine, because of various divisions within the country, meant the Ukrainian government, while it was always very keen on close relationship with NATO, was never able to go flat out and seek NATO membership, or the initial Membership Action Plan," Redman of the Economist Intelligence Unit explains. "Whereas Saakashvili has had a very free hand in Georgia, and was able to do that. So he was more out-and-out pro-Western, pro-NATO, than the Ukrainians ever managed."

But that approach has come back to bite Georgia in another sense, as it served to strain further its already deteriorating relationship with Russia and has fueled aggressive rhetoric by Russian politicians who can't afford to show the same hostility to Ukraine, lest they risk alienating Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

Georgia and Ukraine still have much work to do to fulfill the many promises made during the Rose and Orange revolutions. The initial euphoria has long since subsided and, as Redman puts it, it has become clear that the two countries' prospects are far from immune to unexpected twists.

"Georgia is more of an open canvas, where a leader can do more -- but can also drag things in a fairly disastrous direction," Redman says. "Whereas any Ukrainian leader is still rather hampered, and that limits the capacity for doing damage -- but it also limits the capacity to make positive change."