Belarus: Activist Says Beating Linked To U.S. TripA Belarusian activist has told RFE/RL that his beating by police during a demonstration in Minsk is linked to his recent trip to Washington, where he met with the U.S. president and testified before a Congressional commission.
Following the incident, the United States has warned Belarus that it may extend sanctions against Belarus due to lack of progress in allowing democratic freedoms.
Zmitser Fedaruk, fresh from the U.S. trip last week, was beaten by police on December 12 while participating in a peaceful protest ahead of a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Witnesses have said the acting head of the Malady (Youth) Front was knocked unconscious by police and taken away from the rally in an ambulance.
Fedaruk, speaking to RFE/RL's Belarus Service by telephone on December 13, said he believes he was singled out because of his recent meetings with the U.S. president and lawmakers.
"I think my beating was linked to my trip to America. There were many indications of that," Fedaruk said.
"I was deliberately pushed behind the OMON [special police] cordon and there, separated from the demonstrators, knocked down and beaten. And then they threw me back, saying something like, 'Take your man back, he made a nice trip to America.'"
Fedaruk and about 200 others had assembled on the eve of a visit by President Putin to protest a possible merger between Belarus and Russia. There have been reports that such a merger might be on the agenda of the talks in Minsk between Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
During a press briefing in Minsk on December 13, U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart condemned the Belarusian authorities' actions against Fedaruk and participants of other recent protests.(Watch her statement.)
"These brutal actions reverse what little progress had been made by the authorities in allowing peaceful protests. The Department of State in Washington has expressed my government's deep concern for all of these individuals, and we call on the Belarusian officials to ensure that all necessary medical care is given to those in need," Stewart said.
She said that in the continued absence of progress on the part of Belarusian authorities, "the United States prepares to take further steps against other state enterprises."
Following the Belarusian authorities' targeting of opposition supporters following the 2006 presidential election in which Lukashenka was elected to a third term in office, the United States and the European Union placed travel bans on Lukashenka and other government officials.
Fedaruk said from his hospital bed during his telephone interview with RFE/RL that he appreciates the support he has received.
"I'm very grateful to my friends in the United States who have spoken in my defense and condemned [these] actions of the regime. I was not the only victim; another young man, Zmitser, had one leg broken, and a girl, Palina, had a finger broken," Fedaruk said. "Many returned home from [the December 12] rally with bumps. I was taken to the hospital and was able to speak again normally only today."
Earlier on December 14, the U.S. State Department condemned the use of "brutal force" against protesters and accused Belarusian police of "specifically targeting" Fedaruk when they dispersed the rally, leading to his hospitalization "with serious injuries." "This incident is another in a long series of repressive acts by the Belarusian authorities against their own citizens," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
The violent suppression of the demonstration also prompted an angry response from Congressman Alcee Hastings, the chairman of the U.S. government Helsinki Commission (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe) before which Fedaruk testified as part of a Belarusian opposition delegation visiting Washington last week.
"Unfortunately, the intimidation and abuse by [President] Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime does not seem to be coming to an end anytime soon," Hastings said in a statement. "My colleagues and I on the Helsinki Commission are determined to stand by young Mr. Fedaruk and all those in Belarus -- young and old -- struggling for freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights."
Belarus: Activist Receives 18-Month SentenceA court in Belarus has sentenced a critic of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka who had already served a year and a half in jail to an additional 18 months of confinement.
The move leaves little doubt as to whether a crackdown on student activists is continuing despite Western pressure to release political prisoners.
The court, in the Belarusian court city of Mahilyov, handed down the additional time for opposition activist Artur Finkevich for allegedly violating the terms of an earlier prison sentence. Finkevich had been sentenced to two years of light confinement for "malicious hooliganism" in May 2006 for spray-painting an opposition slogan -- "We want another one!" -- on a building, in reference to authoritarian President Lukashenka.
Finkevich's allies in the Belarusian opposition called the sentence, which was handed down on December 20, an attempt to intimidate pro-democracy activists.
"This is criminal brutality on the part of the authorities," Mykola Statkevich, a former political prisoner, told to RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "They are trying to break Artur and to scare his friends. I'm sure that they will succeed in neither of these things, and someday the people who did it will have to answer in court themselves."
The sentence comes shortly after another opposition activist was severely beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration in Minsk protesting a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It also appears to flaunt demands from the United States and European Union that Minsk release political prisoners as a condition for better relations.
Jan Maksymiuk, acting director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, says that with Minsk's relations with Russia improving, the Belarusian authorities feel less obligated to adhere to Western demands on human rights.
The current director of the Malady Front (Youth Front) youth group, of which Finkevich is a member, was hospitalized last week after sustaining a beating at a peaceful public rally.
Rights activists say the sentence fits into a pattern of intimidation against pro-democracy youth activists. "This is an attempt to break him, to break his dignity," Ina Kulej, chairwoman of the Committee for the Protection of Victims of Political Repression and the wife of Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milenkevich, said. "And of course it is also a signal to the youth that [the authorities] have the means to control you."
According to the conditions of his house arrest, Finkevich was required to live in a barracks-like detention facility, work in a day job designated by the authorities, and report to officials the facility at regular intervals.
Prosecutors accused him of being late to work, reporting late to officials at the facility, and of being intoxicated. Finkevich said at the trial that he was on medication.
Some of Finkevich's friends and political allies from Malady Front opposition group said they showed up at the trial expecting him to be acquitted and released. "Both girls and boys were crying [after the sentence]," activist Alena Makarevich said. "To be honest, I went there in hopes of congratulating Artur [after his expected release]. The defense lawyer said the maximum would be one year and then the prosecutor asked for two years. We are all shocked. We will file a bunch of complaints. We will not let this stand. I think there will be a campaign in Finkevich's defense and the authorities will be sorry that they have done it."
Ukraine: Tymoshenko Gets Second Shot At PremiershipUkraine's parliament on December 18 confirmed Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister, returning the controversial pro-Western politician to power three years after the Orange Revolution catapulted her to a short-lived, divisive premiership.
Tymoshenko won the bare minimum necessary -- 226 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada -- with the support of her own Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc of her Orange Revolution ally, President Viktor Yushchenko.
Addressing lawmakers before the vote, Tymoshenko vowed to battle corruption and curb the power of oligarchs who have in the past wielded influence over public officials.
"I believe that the process of cleansing in Ukraine cannot be reversed," Tymoshenko said. "Maybe for a few months more you will be able to cling to power. Maybe for a few months more you will be able to scratch together a few bits of Ukrainian resources. But in the end, you will have to return everything, right to the last drop. Hear my words."
Tymoshenko also tried to assure supporters that her Orange Coalition with Yushchenko would hold together and govern effectively, despite its razor-thin majority in parliament and history of bickering and conflicting ambitions.
An Uneasy Partnership
Analysts have their doubts, and expect the resuscitated Orange coalition to be short-lived due to bitter rivalries within the coalition -- particularly between the president and his new prime minister.
"The challenge [for Tymoshenko] remains the same, which means lukewarm support -- if it can be called support at all -- from Yushchenko and his camp," says Kyiv-based political analyst Ivan Lozowy. "It's the reason why [Tymoshenko's] election was so difficult. It's the reason why it is going to be difficult for her to get anything through the Rada, the parliament."
Moreover, presidential elections are due to take place in 2010. Tymoshenko is widely believed to covet Yushchenko's job, and tensions between the uneasy allies can be expected to rise as the vote approaches.
"Presidential elections aren't that far down the road; just two years away. And President Yushchenko and especially the people around him are very wary of Tymoshenko as a candidate," Lozowy says.
Tymoshenko replaces Viktor Yanukovych, the Orange Revolution antagonist, as prime minister. Yanukovych and his Party of Regions had pushed unsuccessfully for a broad coalition following early parliamentary elections in September.
The Party of Regions led that vote with 34 percent, followed closely by Tymoshenko's bloc with 30 percent and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine-Peoples' Self-Defense with 14 percent.. But a broad coalition was not to be.
Speaking in parliament today, Yanukovych warned that Tymoshenko's return to the premiership could destabilize Ukrainian society.
"I think today's event will deepen political instability and foment confrontational processes in society," Yanukovych said. "Once again, we see the beginning of an era of new challenges to our country, a time of trial by crises, political intrigues, and squabbles -- I mean, first and foremost, inside the Orange team."
A Test Of Democracy
In a sign of the mistrust embedded in Ukrainian politics, today's vote was conducted by a show of hands, and took more than one hour. Parliamentary Speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk grinned broadly as he cast the vote that finally put Tymoshenko over the top.
The laborious process was necessary because a vote last week on Tymoshenko's candidacy -- in which she won just 225 votes -- was marred by allegations of tampering with the electronic voting cards and tallying machines.
Beforehand, Tymoshenko called the vote a test of Ukraine's democratic standards. "I think that today's vote will provide evidence as to whether or not there are shadowy political practices in our country," she told lawmakers.
Tymoshenko has long been a controversial figure in Ukrainian politics. She made a fortune in the gas industry in the 1990s, served as deputy prime minister from 1999 until 2001, and was briefly jailed on corruption charges that were subsequently dropped.
As a fiery opposition leader during the 2004 Orange Revolution, she rallied massive crowds in central Kyiv protesting a rigged presidential election that authorities initially said was won by Yanukovych.
The protests, and the Supreme Court's subsequent overturning of the results, led to a victory by Yushchenko in a repeat contest. Once in office, Yushchenko appointed Tymoshenko prime minister in February 2005.
But Tymoshenko struggled with the messy business of day-to-day governance. She also frightened investors by threatening to overturn privatizations and introduce price controls on fuel.
Tymoshenko and Yushchenko's alliance descended into constant bickering, and in September 2005, the president fired his former ally. That move split the Orange forces and opened the door for Yanukovych's political comeback as prime minister after the victory of his Party of Regions in the March 2006 parliamentary elections.
Since last serving as prime minister, Tymoshenko's popularity has increased largely as a result of her populist positions on economic issues. It is unclear, however, whether that will be enough to overcome her troubled ties with her erstwhile Orange Revolution ally.
Moldova: A Political Battle, With Christmas At Its Center
Chisinau, by contrast, conspicuously lacks a tree. In its place: a bitter political feud that is spoiling many a Moldovan's holiday spirit.
The dispute began earlier this month when Moldova's Communist president, Vladimir Voronin, declared that the traditional holiday tree would appear on Chisinau's main square only on December 30 -- days after Western Christmas.
Chisinau's new, pro-reform mayor, Dorin Chirtoaca, had different plans.
"We thought that the Christmas tree shouldn't come after Christmas," says Lucia Culev, the deputy mayor of the Moldovan capital. "The mayor then ordered that a tree be erected and decorated by December 23, so that December 24 or 25 could be a proper holiday."
On December 9, accordingly, a Christmas tree went up on Chisinau's main square. But the mayor's initiative was short-lived. That night, police removed the tree and blocked off the site. In televised remarks, the city's police chief declared he had no intention of obeying the mayor's directive, even if it meant breaking the law.
Like Russia, Moldova officially celebrates Christmas on January 7, according to the old Julian calendar. But growing numbers of Moldovans now prefer to observe Christmas on December 25, particularly in the capital, where the tree's removal has upset many.
"All European countries put up Christmas trees as soon as December 1," said one woman in the city center. "Even in Moscow, in Russia, they have Christmas trees, beautiful ones. Why not here?"
"I would like the Christmas tree to come earlier, because it's a national holiday and it should be celebrated in a bigger way," a man added. "December 30 is too late; people travel to the city center and have nowhere to go. Some go to expensive restaurants where they can have a good time. But the Christmas tree is available to everyone; that's where most people converge."
East Vs. West, Old Vs. New
Nearly all Moldovans are Orthodox Christians. Some are loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church, which follows the Julian calendar. Others, however, are members of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which celebrates Christmas according to the new Gregorian calendar, on December 25.
Voronin's decision to postpone the tree's debut until the final days of the year belies not only his pro-Russian stance but his communist loyalties as well. In the Soviet era, New Year's was the main winter holiday, and fir trees traditionally went up on or around New Year's Eve.
Advocates of the December 25 Christmas say there is no sense celebrating the birth of Christ according to one calendar and the new year according to another.
The row has a certain comical dimension. But Igor Botzan, a Moldovan political analyst, says alarming tendencies lurk behind the squabble.
"It would be very funny if it weren't so sad," says Botzan. "In this country, no initiative, not even holidays, can be carried out without the president's approval. This dispute has to be viewed within the context of the ongoing conflict between the central authorities and the opposition."
This is, in fact, the first time Chisinau residents have been denied a Christmas tree before December 25. Voronin's government has not publicly taken responsibility for the tree's removal. But many view the move as retribution for the election this year of 29-year-old Chirtoaca, a dynamic opposition figure, who took the post after years of communist mayoral rule.
"The ruling party's popularity is dropping. It's lost almost 20 percent over the past two years," Botzan says. "That's why during the [June] local elections, the president declared the end of the political partnership with the opposition, and launched a fierce campaign against the opposition."
Many see the Christmas tree ban as a direct result of that campaign. They say it can also be interpreted as a hostile gesture toward neighboring Romania. Relations between the two governments soured after Romania vowed to ease legislation allowing Moldovans to obtain Romanian citizenship, prompting Voronin to accuse Bucharest of undermining his country's national security.
In the meantime, Chisinau residents may have to brace for more spoiled celebrations. Christmas is the second holiday to be marred by political feuding. On October 14, border guards attempted to bar Romanian mayors from reaching Chisinau, where Chirtoaca had invited them to attend City Day festivities.
City Day happened to coincide with Wine Day, a celebration overseen by Voronin -- and no Romanians, seemingly, were welcome.