Belarus: Kazulin Released To Attend Wife's Funeral
Belarusian authorities granted Kazulin, who is serving a 5 1/2-year sentence on charges of staging antigovernment rallies, a three-day release to allow him to attend the funeral of his wife, who died over the weekend after a long battle with cancer. After a spate of recent releases, Kazulin is now Belarus's last political prisoner.
Kazulin's departure from the prison was so discreet that not even a group of reporters gathered outside the facility were aware that he had left.
Back home in the family's flat in Minsk, Kazulin put aside any need for private grieving with his two daughters, Volha and Yulia. Instead, he was almost immediately on the phone, giving interviews and speaking to supporters, pacing up and down a corridor. In the living room stood numerous pictures, draped in black, of Kazulin's wife, Iryna, who died on February 23 of breast cancer at the age of 48.
"There were days when I received as many as 200 letters in jail," he told one caller as he paces back and forth. "The strange thing was that almost all of them were from foreign countries. Belarusians still need to wake up."
'The Illegally Convicted A. Kazulin'
Kazulin was driven surreptitiously from the Vitsebsk penal colony in an ordinary Zhiguli -- the car of the warden, Vital Ahnistsikau.
Just a day earlier, Ahnistsikau had refused to grant Kazulin the temporary bereavement leave permitted under Belarusian law, telling journalists Kazulin was guilty of "disciplinary violations."
Late on February 25, however, he was apparently given a form authorizing Kazulin's release.
"You can't imagine what it was like in the colony at that point. It was surrounded by riot police. Inside there were security guards everywhere. No one was allowed to move," Kazulin said, describing the preparations for his clandestine release.
Earlier in the day, Volha and Yulia Kazulina had appealed to authorities in Minsk to secure their father's release, and organized a public gathering of remembrance for their mother.
Nearly 1,000 people flowed onto Minsk's October Square, holding lit candles and appealing for Kazulin to be allowed to attend his wife's funeral.
Kazulin recalled how he first heard his wife had died.
On the morning of February 24, Ahnistsikau called him to his office and showed him a telegram bearing the news. A day earlier, Kazulin had asked for access to a telephone to call home and speak to his wife, whom he knew to be gravely ill. But a phone, he said, was "not found."
The news of his wife's death was a terrible blow. He said he was devastated that he had not been able to support his wife in her final hours.
"I said: 'That's it. Up until now, my wife's illness was holding me back. Now nothing is holding me back.' And I immediately went on a hunger strike. I ripped off all my prison tags and said I wasn't going to follow the colony rules anymore. Then I wrote a four-page letter declaring my hunger strike and explaining my illegal arrest, and the necessity of being at my wife's funeral."
He signed his letter "the way I sign everything -- 'the illegally convicted A. Kazulin.'"
"I said I was starting a dry hunger strike" -- refusing both food and water -- "and I said I was either going to bury my wife myself or be buried with her. I think [the authorities] already understood that I was resolute about my actions and of course I think the rally of solidarity that took place in Minsk and spread across the country also had a great impact on the regime."
'My Heart Is Breaking'
Kazulin believes his wife, who went public with her illness in an attempt to raise awareness about the disease, was "pushed to the final stage" of her cancer by the government -- starting with his arrest, shortly after the March 2006 presidential election, in which Kazulin was a candidate and an outspoken critic of the ruling regime.
“Alyaksandr Lukashenka knew well that she was already sick at that time," Kazulin said. Once he was sent to jail on charges related to the antigovernment rallies that followed the vote, Iryna "lost the strength she needed to fight her illness."
The last straw, Kazulin added, was an apparent deal offered last week by Lukashenka: Kazulin could receive an early release and help his wife seek treatment abroad -- but only, it was strongly implied, if the couple agreed to never come back to Belarus.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service speaks to Kazulin on his release (In Russian)
"If I had asked them to give me a million dollars, they would have, if it had meant getting me out of Belarus," Kazulin said.
But Alyaksandr and Iryna refused to agree to the conditions. The price they paid was never seeing each other again.
"My heart is breaking," Kazulin said. But he spoke calmly, certain that her death would not be in vain. In a video shot by RFE/RL, Kazulin says, "Her love, life, and death are saving the whole of society, making it cleaner and brighter, showing the people that one should fight unsparingly until the very end." He appears to take a certain satisfaction in the fact that the day of her death coincided with Fatherland Defender's Day in Belarus -- "she was the best defender," he says.
'I Feel More Free Than Those Outside'
Kazulin said today's Belarus is not unlike a penal colony. "Only this colony is contemporary and modernized, and the ones in charge are the ones who are themselves guilty of crimes," he says. One-third of the letters coming in and out of Vitsba-3, he said, never make it to their intended destination. The majority of complaints about illegal detentions are never heard. As a former presidential candidate, Kazulin says his time in prison has proved a valuable experience that has exposed him to many of the harsher realities of Belarus -- trumped-up charges, arrests made to fulfill police quotas, and planting drugs on innocent suspects.
"Tens of thousands of these kinds of falsified criminal matters need to be reviewed," Kazulin said, suggesting that Lukashenka's past career as a penal colony official has much to do with the current problems in Belarus's penal system.
Kazulin was asked whether he had gotten used to life in prison. In response, he said he felt he remained a free man despite his incarceration. He endured punishments, hunger strikes, and solitary confinement, but he said he would never submit to pressure to confess to the charges against him.
"I will never sign any request for clemency," he said, before going on the attack. "During these three days I am free, I will sue Lukashenka for the pain and suffering inflicted on my wife, Iryna."
Why was Kazulin released? He says he's sure the public gathering late on February 25 made an impression on authorities in Minsk.
"When they saw more than 1,000 people last night [gathered on October Square], gathered in spite of the threat of a crackdown to remember Iryna, the authorities became afraid that thousands more would converge as they did two years ago" during the protests that followed the Belarusian elections," he said. "I thank all those people. The light always prevails."
The EU had also called for Kazulin's release.
Ukraine: Gas Crisis Averted, But Underlying Problems Remain
Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly, halved shipments to Ukraine earlier this week over what it claimed was $600 million Kyiv owed it for gas delivered this year. The gas giant threatened further cuts unless Ukraine settled its debt and agreed to a gas-price hike.
But the last-minute deal, clinched after telephone negotiations between the two countries' leaders, appears to be little more than a temporary bandage. Moscow and Kyiv have yet to iron out the deep-running differences underlying their gas disputes.
A key sore point is the involvement of middleman companies in the gas trade between the two countries -- RosUkrEnergo, half-owned by Gazprom; and UkrGazEnergo, owned by RosUkrEnergo and Ukraine's state gas company, Nafothaz.
Ukraine's prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, has been campaigning for the elimination of what she says is an opaque mechanism to embezzle vast fortunes at the expense of Ukrainian consumers.
Moscow has consistently demurred, a stance widely seen as dictated by a small group of elites profiting directly from the scheme. Roman Kupchinsky, an RFE/RL energy analyst, says Moscow could also be using the intermediaries as a bargaining chip with Ukraine.
"The intermediaries are not in Russia's interest either, as a country. Russia loses taxes because of intermediaries, it gives away money for no good reason to intermediaries, and it doesn't really fulfill any role," Kupchinsky says, adding that there must be a reason why Russia insists on the intermediaries.
"Gazprom wants to get into the Ukrainian domestic market, it wants 50 percent of the market," Kupchinsky notes. But he says that "Ukrainians won't allow that," because it would bankrupt their own Naftohaz.
Gazprom has spared no effort to convince the world that its recurrent gas standoffs with Kyiv are purely economic. In reality, few doubt they have strong political overtones.
The latest dispute dealt a blow to the already fragile coalition between President Viktor Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, who both rose to power in the 2005 Orange Revolution after reversing the presidential victory of Moscow's anointed candidate.
Despite their shared Western leanings, the former allies have adopted conflicting strategies in their dealings with Gazprom. Yushchenko this week ordered his firebrand prime minister to immediately return to the negotiation table with Moscow.
The president in February reached a deal on Ukraine's debts with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. But the agreement appears to have gone amiss following Tymoshenko's subsequent visit to the Russian capital.
The row has also prompted fresh charges that Moscow is using its vast energy resources as a political weapon. Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based analyst with the "Power And Interest News Report," an independent organization studying international relations, says: "Gazprom's moves are not entirely due to business problems. I think Gazprom is striking back at Europe, firstly because Europe recognized Kosovo's independence without listening to Russia's concerns, and secondly because Ukraine is heading toward NATO integration."
The gas cuts revived European fears of new disruptions in the gas flow to EU markets, a quarter of whose gas comes from Russia -- most of it via Ukrainian pipelines.
In the midst of this week's dispute, Gazprom claimed that Ukraine was diverting some of the transit gas earmarked for Europe, bringing back echoes of a similar gas row in 2006 that triggered energy shortages in parts of Western Europe. Recent events reflect badly on Russia, too, by casting doubt on its reliability as energy supplier.
Bordonaro says the bad blood between Moscow and Kyiv is pushing Europe to seek alternative energy routes. This includes efforts to breathe new life into the Nabucco project, a pipeline that would bypass Russia by pumping gas from the Caspian and Central Asian regions to Europe via Turkey and the Balkans.
"Europe has been aware for a couple of years that too much dependence on Gazprom is dangerous for its energy security," Bordonaro says. "In my opinion, Europe will try to push for new key agreements with Libya, Algeria, and it may also try to revive the Nabucco pipeline."
In the meantime, Europe must brace for further rows, cutoffs, and disruptions. In his new role as Russian leader, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev seems unlikely to soften the strong-armed energy policy he has overseen as Gazprom chairman.
Kazakhstan: Ukraine Wins Promises Of Cooperation, But No Energy Deal
Yushchenko's visit to Kazakhstan was planned months ago and timed to coincide with the opening of the "Year of Ukraine" festivities in Kazakhstan. But the renewed disputes that emerged this week between Ukraine and Russian gas giant Gazprom shifted the focus of Yushchenko's visit to trying to strike new deals for supplies of Kazakh oil and natural gas.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, after a meeting with Yushchenko in the Kazakh capital Astana today, briefly raised Ukraine's hopes. "We clearly understand Ukraine's interest in energy resources and, with its large resources and opportunities to increase both oil and gas output in the future, Kazakhstan can potentially meet this need," Nazarbaev said.
But Nazarbaev pointed out that actually increasing energy exports to Ukraine depends on a third party, noting that Kazakh oil is transported to Ukrainian ports through the Russian Transneft oil-transit system, known as the Caspian Pipeline Consortium. He said that Kazakhstan is ready to boost its exports to Ukraine, but that an agreement would have to be sought with both countries and Russia.
Matthew Clements, the Eurasia editor at the London-based Jane's information group, said before the Nazarbaev-Yushchenko meeting that Kazakhstan was unlikely to agree to anything that might jeopardize Kazakhstan's strong ties with Russia.
"Kazakhstan has a closer relationship with Russia than other CIS states or regional states and I think this has been cemented in recent months by the pipeline agreement between Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia," Clements said. "And I think it shows a favorable point of view from Kazakhstan toward Russia and indeed from Russia toward Kazakhstan."
However, Clements continued, "Nazarbaev has shown a great willingness to be quite open-minded in terms of getting as many gas deals as possible into other countries, for instance pipeline and export agreements signed with China; and he's also been very open to the idea of supplying some degree of [gas] across the Caspian towards Europe."
Nazarbaev did venture to say that a deal with Ukraine that does not involve Russia or Russian companies is at least possible. "There is an alternative way to resolve this issue, and that is to reach the Black Sea via Baku," Nazarbaev said. "We're working to restore the old pipeline that runs directly from Baku to the Black Sea, and Kazakhstan has bought out the deep-sea port in Batumi [Georgia] together with its terminals."
For his part, Yushchenko held out the prospect that Kazakh oil could not only be sold to Ukraine, but also transported through Ukraine to other countries in Europe via a Ukrainian pipeline that begins in Odesa on the Black Sea and will eventually reach the Polish port city of Gdansk.
"The goal of the Odesa-Brody [pipeline] project is to deliver Caspian oil to the center of Europe," Yushchenko said. "So we believe there is no alternative to this project. No existing project has been designed to deliver Caspian oil to European consumers by this shortest way."
Talks between the Kazakh and Ukrainian presidents were reportedly cordial, and Kazakhstan is due to send representatives to an energy summit in Kyiv in May. Yushchenko said the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk pipeline project would be among the top issues on the agenda at that summit.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and Michael Mihalisko of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report