Belarus: Release Of Political Prisoners Focuses On Kazulin Case
His wife, Iryna, died on February 23 after a long battle with breast cancer.
Kazulin had said that he would starve himself to death and be buried together with his wife. A person on "dry" hunger strike usually lives no longer than a week. It was Kazulin's second hunger strike since he was jailed in July 2006 for staging antigovernment rallies.
Belarusian law permits prisoners to be temporarily released for funerals of family members. But the warden of the prison in Vitsebsk where Kazulin is being held had said that Kazulin is guilty of several conduct violations and will not be permitted to leave without special permission from Minsk.
Many Belarusians spoke out in support of Kazulin being released. "A lot of people are calling from the regions and saying they are ready to converge in the capital for a political protest," Kazulin's former lawyer, Ihar Rynkevich, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "But we are urging them not to do this because we are confident that authorities will have the sense to respect the law and that Alyaksandr Kazulin will be able to visit his family."
Kazulin is serving a 5 1/2-year sentence for organizing antigovernment protests following the March 2006 presidential election, in which he ran unsuccessfully against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
His first hunger strike, held shortly after his detention to protest Lukashenka's authoritarian rule, lasted 53 days.
Kazulin's supporters are keeping a particularly keen eye on his fate since he is now Belarus's last political prisoner, despite an international outcry and concerns over his health.
Over the past few weeks, authorities have unexpectedly released six detainees regarded by Western states as prisoners of conscience -- businessmen Yury Lyavonau and Mikalay Autukhovich, opposition youth activists Artur Finkevich and Zmitser Dashkevich, journalist Alyaksandr Zdvizhkou, and opposition politician Andrey Klimau.
The most recent to walk free was Zdvizhkou, who was released on February 22 after three months in prison. He had been sentenced to three years' imprisonment in connection with his newspaper's republication of controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
"My health is not good. I had severe flu, almost without medicine, which affected my hearing. I want to undergo tests and restore what I can. I lost half my teeth."
Zdvizhkou has said that his short stay in prison was enough to seriously damage his health.
"My health is not good," he says. "I had severe flu, almost without medicine, which affected my hearing. I want to undergo tests and restore what I can. I lost half my teeth."
Belarusian officials have yet to provide precise motives for the early releases.
Finkevich, a leader of the opposition Youth Front organization, who was jailed for writing political graffiti, says his release likely fits into Lukashenka's efforts to seek rapprochement with the West.
"Youth Front activists and people concerned about my fate protested every day in my defense," he said. "Salidarnasc, the Committee of Defense of the Repressed headed by Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Ina Kulay, worked through diplomatic channels and lobbied for this decision. It can also be interpreted as an attempt by Lukashenka to make concessions to Europe."
Brussels and Washington have consistently urged Belarus, described by many as "Europe's last dictatorship," to free its political prisoners and put an end to the repression of dissidents. Persistent human rights violations have led Western countries to slap sanctions on Belarusian officials and enterprises.
Lukashenka obviously expects to be rewarded for the releases, which he has himself described as a "goodwill gesture." After the first detainees walked free earlier this month, the Belarusian leader said it was now "the turn of the European Union to show its good intentions."
Lukashenka's regime has taken other steps signaling a desire to make up with its foes in the West.
Lukashenka this month gave the European Commission the green light to open a branch in Minsk, approval the commission had been waiting for since 2005. Belarus also softened its public stance on NATO, with Defense Minister Leanid Maltsev stating that the military alliance's eastward expansion posed no threat to the country.
But EU officials, who are believed to have lobbied for the release of individual prisoners, insist that any "good intentions" will come only after Belarus frees all political prisoners, including Kazulin.
"Yes, this is a step in the right direction. But nevertheless it is not sufficient," says Christina Gallach, the spokeswoman for the European Union's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana. "What matters now is that all political prisoners are released. This is what will prompt the European Union to progressively normalize relations."
Eugeniusz Smolar, a political analyst at the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations, says Belarus will have to take more radical reforms to win Western trust.
"We need to remind ourselves of the policies of the Soviet regime before 1989," he says. "There were ups and downs, there was a time when people were jailed and then a time when people were released without major policy changes. However happy we are that people are no longer in jail, we need to look not at individual cases but at whether consistent policies are taking place toward liberalization, freedom of the media, freedom of association."
The latest developments in Belarus have sparked speculation of a new chill in Lukashenka's once-warm ties with Moscow.
The outcome of talks this month between Lukashenka, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Putin's chosen candidate in the March 2 presidential election, Dmitry Medvedev, remains unclear.
But energy issues are very likely to have topped the agenda. Medvedev, who chairs Russia's gas monopoly, Gazprom, has a record of showdowns with Lukashenka that culminated with Gazprom briefly cutting natural-gas deliveries to Belarus in January 2007.
Russia's ambassador to Belarus, Aleksandr Surikov, has pledged that his country will raise natural-gas prices for Belarus by no more than 10 percent this year. But in a recent interview with Russian television, Lukashenka claimed Gazprom is threatening to double gas prices.
Minsk and Moscow are also embroiled in an ongoing quarrel over a planned joint union state between the two countries, with Belarus refusing to give up any of its sovereignty.
Both issues may be pushing Lukashenka to consider warmer ties with the West. But severing ties with Moscow altogether is not an option, according to Konstantin Zatulin, a pro-Kremlin State Duma deputy who heads the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Institute.
"There is no doubt that Belarus is seeking to build bridges with Europe," says Zatulin. "But this is nothing more than an ordinary game aimed at raising one's own stakes. In reality, Belarus cannot afford to turn down Russian energy or any other forms of ties with Russia."
Kazulin's case will put Lukashenka's drive to mend fences with Europe and the United States to the test this week.
Belarus: Authorities Free Another Political Prisoner
The former deputy editor in chief of the "Zhoda" newspaper confirmed his release in a telephone conversation with RFE/RL within hours of a closed-door meeting at which the Supreme Court shortened his sentence from three years to three months.
"I was asked to leave my cell with all my belongings," Zdzvizhkou said. "I thought they might have decided to transport me to the [penal] colony. Later, it became clear that I was being processed for release." He added that rather than releasing him directly, authorities put him in a vehicle with tinted windows and, over his objections, drove him to a train station.
Zdzvizhkou was sentenced on January 18 but had been in detention since his arrest in November.
He complained that his incarceration had left his "hearing and sight deteriorated" and he had lost "half his teeth." He added that he was "feeling unwell" after his release and that "paramount for me now is to regain my health."
Zdzvizhkou was convicted of "inciting racial, national, or religious enmity or discord" after his newspaper reprinted controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. His former newspaper, "Zhoda," was ordered closed after the publication of those cartoons in 2006.
Zdzvizhkou's lawyer, Maya Alyaksandrava, told RFE/RL that the Supreme Court made the decision based on the "extraordinary circumstances" of the case, but did not elaborate.
"I had hoped for such a decision, but it was only a very slim hope," the journalist's mother, Hanna Zdzvizhkova, said upon hearing of his imminent release.
Prisoners Of Conscience
Zdzvizhkou is one of several Belarusians considered to be political prisoners by Western governments and human rights groups. In recent weeks, at least four such prisoners of conscience have unexpectedly been set free by court rulings or extraordinary decrees by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Opposition leader and former lawmaker Andrey Klimau was released from prison on February 15 after a presidential decree, which he said came as a "complete surprise." He had been serving a two-year jail term that started in August for insulting the president and calling for revolution in an article posted on the Internet.
Two student activists, Artur Finkevich and Zmitser Dashkevich, both leaders of the Youth Front opposition movement, have also been released from prison or "light confinement" in detention facilities since the beginning of the year.
Jan Maksymiuk, the acting director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, said Lukashenka looks to be responding to the European Union's demand that Belarus release political prisoners if it wants dialogue with the West. "Everything depends on one man in Belarus," Maksymiuk said.
The release of political prisoners has been at the top of the EU's list of conditions for Belarus to meet before it can expect improved relations with the bloc.
The Supreme Court's decision to release Zdzvizhkou came one day after the European Parliament on February 21 unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the Belarusian authorities to release Zdzvizhkou and another political prisoner, former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin. Kazulin is currently serving a 5 1/2-year prison term for organizing antigovernment demonstrations in the wake of the 2006 presidential election, .
Zdzvizhkou is the head of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, or Hramada, the body that founded the "Zhoda" newspaper.
The European Parliament resolution has welcomed the recent releases but condemns new measures taken against opposition activists who have participated in peaceful demonstrations, some of whom have been jailed or expelled from university in recent weeks.
(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)
Romania/Moldova: Divided By A Common Language
Landlocked Moldova doesn't have a navy, and isn't known as a regional military heavyweight, but that isn't keeping it from battling with Romania over the existence of a "Moldovan" language.
The Moldovan government asserts that its official language is distinct from Romanian -- a claim vigorously contested by Romania, which believes the language Moldovans speak is merely Romanian by another name.
The outside world was recently offered some insight into the controversy when Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu squared off for some verbal sparring during an international security conference in Munich.
Despite the fact that their native languages, whatever their label, differ mainly in accent and in some vocabulary words, the Romanian foreign minister chose to address the Moldovan president not in his mother tongue, but in French.
"In my opinion, the Moldovan Republic has a very important place in the line proposed by Europe's neighbor policy," Cioroianu said. "I hope the detail that the Moldovan Republic and Romania share the same language will be an advantage, at least in a technical sense."
The Moldovan president responded in kind -- speaking in Russian. "I have answered a million times, and I will answer again a billion times: It's up to the population to name its country's language," Voronin said. "We held a referendum on October 1, 2004, in which 87 percent defined their language as Moldovan. But we're still having never-ending debates with Romania about which came first, the chicken or the egg."
It is Voronin who has carried the torch in Moldova's quest for linguistic independence since he took power in 2001.
While the language issue has since then been irritant in Moldova's relations with Romania, which was forced to cede most of what is today Moldova to the Soviet Union after World War II, the European Union is increasingly finding itself in the middle of the debate.
This is because Brussels must placate one of its newest members, Romania, while also facilitating ties with one of its newest neighbors, Moldova.
Good-neighborly relations with Moldova are of great importance to the EU because developments in the country's separatist republic of Transdniester could have Europe-wide ramifications.
Romania, meanwhile, has insisted that the EU make no reference to a "Moldovan language" it in its official documentation regarding Moldova, which belongs to the bloc's European Neighborhood Policy.
That argument sits well with those officials who believe the EU, which already has 23 official languages, is struggling with "linguistic proliferation."
To further complicate matters, such language issues are overseen in the EU by a specially appointed commissioner for linguistic diversity. And currently that post is held by Leonard Orban, whose Romanian citizenship makes him subject to questions of neutrality.
Orban says that "on the one hand, the EU recognizes the right of every [outside] country to [name] their language according to their wish." But on the other hand, "there is the sensitivity of a member state regarding this subject," he added. "And from this point of view, the European institutions should and are accommodating this issue of the sensitivity of the member state [concerned]."
During a recent speech on January 14 before the European Commission, Moldovan President Voronin was thwarted in his efforts to speak "Moldovan," as the commission could only provide a Romanian interpreter.
At Voronin's insistence, the little makeshift booth housing the interpreter initially sported a sign saying "English -- moldovenesc." Before the long wait for the press conference was over, however, the sign had disappeared. European Commission officials had apparently been advised that it offended the sensitivities of EU member Romania.
The interpreter herself provided the icing on the cake -- when, upon emerging from her booth, she told RFE/RL she was Romanian.
Does Moldovan Exist?
The controversy isn't only confusing within the walls of bureaucratic institutions, however. Ask nearly any Romanian if the Moldovan language exists, and you will likely receive a negative answer.
And you will commonly get a similar answer within Moldova's borders, as RFE/RL found out on the streets of Chisinau. "Well, someone thinks it exists," answered one Moldovan man.
"Romanian is a holy language and it will remain our language for good. Romanian will always be Romanian. The only language I speak," another Moldovan said. "I don't think the Moldovan language exists; it was simply invented."
When RFE/RL asked another man what language he speaks, he answered, "Bessarabian!" Bessarabia was the official name of the former Romanian province that makes up much of modern Moldova.
When asked if there is a difference between the Romanian language and the Moldovan language, another Moldovan answered, "There is no doubt about it; normally it's Romanian." He continued: "People who have completed [higher] studies realize what language they speak. Common people may be fooled, because from 1812 [to 1918] this land was a Russian province, and Russian has clearly made its way into our lexicon, in this way modifying the Romanian language. It is easy to realize that we do not need translators between two brothers, who can understand each other alone. Mr. Voronin mixes up two things: his political ideology with the roots of this people and the history of this people."
Despite his critics, Voronin is carrying on in his crusade -- even if he has to resort to Russian to make his point.
"The Moldovan state will celebrate its 650th anniversary next year, while the Romanian state is only 170 years old," Voronin said. "So what came first: the chicken or the egg? The Moldovan Republic's Constitution says that the country's national language is Moldovan, not Romanian. Yes, they are identical. But historically it's called Moldovan, and it's going to stay that way."