Lukashenka Abandons Courtship Of West
Belarus's tenuous and clumsy courtship of the West has decisively hit the skids. And in case there was any doubt, authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made it clear in his annual speech to the nation on April 29 that the West had no right to demand the release of political prisoners. A day later, Belarusian authorities gave 10 U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.
In his speech, Lukashenka used a particularly mocking tone -- and some colorful language -- in reference to the person the West has been pushing hardest to have freed: imprisoned opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin.
"He wanted the entire world to make speeches to free him and for the Belarusian authorities to cave in under the pressure. Who needs you?" Lukashenka told the nation. "You are like used toilet paper, and you think somebody needs you."
Kazulin, a former university rector, finished far behind Lukashenka in a 2006 election and was jailed for helping organize mass protests against the results. The United States and the European Union have called for Kazulin's release as a condition for better relations.
The April 29 speech and the diplomatic expulsions mark the latest in a series of low points in Belarus's rapidly deteriorating relations with the West. The moves follow a fresh crackdown on pro-democracy activists this month.
Back And Forth
Analysts say the events of the past two days are a clear signal that Minsk is scrambling firmly back into Russia's orbit.
"Lukashenka has decided that since relations with Russia aren't bad, then why play some games with the West. What's the point?" says Valery Karbalevich, a political analyst with the independent Minsk-based Strategy Center for Political Analysis. "Therefore the Belarusian authorities have settled on this policy."
After falling out with Russian President Vladimir Putin early last year over Moscow's demand that Belarus pay market prices for energy, Lukashenka haltingly tried to improve ties with the United States and the European Union.
But the rapprochement stalled over several issues, most notably Lukashenka's refusal to release Kazulin. Karbalevich says that while Lukashenka was willing to release some political prisoners, he is adamant about keeping Kazulin locked up.
"Lukashenka is simply afraid of him. He is afraid that if he were free then he would become a decisive opposition leader," Karbalevich says. "Also, Kazulin was not long ago a member of the old nomenklatura. Lukashenka wants to show what happens to people who go over to the opposition."
As a result, the European Union, which demands the release of all political prisoners, would not lift visa restrictions on Belarusian officials. And the United States responded to the refusal by freezing the accounts of the state-controlled oil-processing and chemical company Belnaftakhim and barred Americans from dealings with it.
Belnaftakhim earns about one-third of Belarus's foreign-currency revenues and is widely rumored to be among the main sources of Lukashenka's personal fortune.
At the same time, relations with Russia dramatically improved when Moscow agreed to a heavily subsidized price of $128 per 1,000 cubic meters for the second quarter of 2008.
Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom had previously indicated that Belarus, which was paying $119 per 1,000 cubic meters, would face a much steeper price increase.
Minsk subsequently demanded that the United States reduce the staff of its embassy in the country to five people, a move Washington called "unprecedented and unwarranted." U.S. officials confirmed on April 30 that they would "do everything possible" to meet the 72-hour deadline for 10 diplomats to leave the country.
Authorities have also stepped up their campaign against pro-democracy activists.
On April 22, a Belarusian court sentenced opposition activist Andrey Kim to 18 months in prison for allegedly attacking a police officer during a protest in January. Two days later, on April 22, another activist, Syarhey Parsyukevich, received a 30-month sentence for allegedly beating a guard while serving a 15-day sentence for participating in the same protest.
In his April 29 speech, Lukashenka fiercely defended the crackdown, ridiculed the young pro-democracy activists, and questioned the motives of opposition leaders.
"Who should we protect in this case? Hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens or a group of unrestrained loafers who want to play the role of professional revolutionaries with someone else's money," Lukashenka said. "Honestly, I feel sorry for these kids who are posing as revolutionary fighters. They are put in the front lines like meat, while those behind them seek to fulfill their own personal political ambitions. A whole dynasty of professional revolutionaries is emerging."
In response to the crackdown, Hans-Gert Poettering, the president of the European Parliament, called Belarus "Europe's last dictatorship."
Lukashenka in his speech pledged to modernize Belarus's economy, bring the country into the ranks of "leading nations," and double average monthly wages by 2011.
But with a command-style economy that is heavily dependent on Russian largesse, he left it unclear how this would be accomplished.
Minsk-based political analyst Alyaksandr Klaskouski tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service that Lukashenka is feeling economic pressure but has decided that opening up the country politically and economically carries too much risk for the regime.
"I would say this is like putting old wine in new bottles," says Klaskouski. "They want to modernize the country. They want to build nuclear power plants and attract investment. But they don't want to lose even one bit of their power. They have decided to pursue an authoritarian modernization."
In Chornobyl Disaster's Wake, A Fading Legacy Of 'Green' Awareness
But then an odd thing happened. Environmental groups held public hearings, local residents were mobilized, and a letter-writing campaign to lawmakers was launched. Weeks later, the plan was dead.
It was a landmark victory for Kazakhstan's environmentalists -- a fledgling movement that traces its roots to the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.
It was a rare success, however. As the international community marks the 22nd anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident on April 26, vibrant Green movements that can influence environmental policy in the former Soviet Union remain few and far between.
The Chornobyl blast was caused by a massive power surge at the plant, located near Pripyat in Ukraine. It blew the 1,000-ton lid off a reactor and initially killed two people. Another 29 emergency workers died within the next three months. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that fallout from the disaster will account for no more than 4,000 deaths worldwide. But Greenpeace and other environmental groups say the total is in the hundreds of thousands.
Despite such dire predictions, authorities in the regions affected by Chornobyl have typically pushed ecological concerns far down on their agendas in favor of short-term economic or political gains. Nascent grassroots Green movements have also suffered from the emergence of authoritarian regimes in countries like Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan.
"Green movements are more developed in countries with stable regimes, where people are for the most part confident in their future, where they are provided for, where finding a piece of bread or life-supporting medication is not a problem," says Aleksandr Velikin, the head of the Chornobyl Union in Russia's Leningrad Oblast and a former "liquidator," one of the hundreds of thousands of people from across the Soviet Union who were brought in to clean up after the nuclear explosion at Chornobyl.
Rising Green Consciousness
Such luxuries have so far eluded the post-Soviet space, where environmentalists continue to face an uphill battle.
Russian activists, for example, failed in 2001 to prevent a nuclear waste-import scheme similar to the one that Kazakhstan's Greens blocked. Moscow also plans to build 40 new nuclear reactors by 2030, over the objections of the country's environmentalists. Belarus, which to this day screens milk and other agricultural products for radioactive contamination, is likewise planning to build a new nuclear plant.
It wasn't always this way. Many analysts describe the years between the Chornobyl disaster and the 1991 Soviet breakup as the high-water mark of environmental activism in the region.
"The Chornobyl catastrophe changed people's awareness and their attitude toward the environment; toward technical progress, which doesn't always bring good; and toward the fact that atomic energy must be handled very cautiously," says Vladimir Chuprov, the chief nuclear expert at Greenpeace-Russia.
Soon after the accident, physicists and other scientists lobbied for enhanced nuclear safety. Within a few years, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika took root, even the general public began to press for more information.
"For those scientists who were aware of the immediate consequences of the Chornobyl accident, there was a very immediate reaction among a number of them to address the issues that the Chornobyl accident created," says Alan Flowers, an expert in radiology at London's Kingston University who has done extensive research on the effects of the Chornobyl disaster. "And this occurred directly in the period very soon after the accident in 1986, because many scientists were very aware of the fallout and of the very dramatic consequences on the population."
Flowers, who was expelled from Belarus in 2004 for unauthorized contacts with NGOs, says the scientists' concerns mushroomed into more broad-based political activism in the general public. He says the "large-scale" reaction that ensued included campaigns for the publication of information and maps about the Chornobyl fallout.
Observers say this gave a boost to environmental groups that were already forming in the increasingly open political atmosphere.
"In the Soviet Union, you couldn't criticize the system, the party, but ecology was one of the issues to which the Soviet leadership paid no attention. The ecological movement had already begun, and Chornobyl gave it a huge boost," says Chuprov.
In Ukraine, the new environmentalism dovetailed with an emerging independence movement. And in Belarus, as Flowers notes, it sparked the rise of the republic's first post-Soviet head of state, Stanislau Shushkevich, who led the republic's independence drive and served as chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1991-94.
"In particular, Stanislau Shushkevich came to prominence because as a physicist, he was very aware of the true extent of fallout and the need to publicize and open up information to the public on the locations of the fallout," Chuprov says. "He became the people's champion on publicizing information on the Chornobyl accident in Belarus."
Kazakhstan, which was not directly affected by the Chornobyl fallout, nevertheless provided many of the liquidators who cleaned up after the explosion. When they returned home, some joined -- and helped publicize -- the emerging environmental movement there.
Today, Kazakhstan has one of the stronger environmental movements in the former Soviet Union. Analysts and activists say that this is because the environmental situation there is particularly dire, even by post-Soviet standards.
According to estimates cited in the media, nearly 10 percent of Kazakh citizens are suffering the aftereffects of hundreds of Soviet-era nuclear bomb tests at the Semipalatinsk testing site, which was closed in 1991. Falling rockets and debris from the Baikonur Cosmodrome have also caused ecological damage.
"Kazakhstan is a place where many international environmental problems are concentrated," Mels Eleusizov, leader of Kazakhstan's Tabighat (Nature) movement, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "Here we have Caspian problems -- a huge issue; the Aral Sea problem -- the whole world is talking about it and it has been affecting more and more aspects of life day after day; the Balkhash Sea issue -- the issue that has been getting similar to what we have in Aral region; Semey [Semipalatinsk nuclear test field] and many other test fields. Every single city in Kazakhstan has its own [ecological] challenges."
But the burst of ecological activism that followed Chornobyl lost its momentum after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. The Soviet successor states quickly became more concerned with economic development than ecology.
"We gave a lot of recommendations to the government. But the government has made it clear that it doesn't need them," Eleusizov says. "The government is focusing on economic issues now -- it cares mainly about oil and other mineral resources. Meanwhile, ecological issues seem to be on the second level of interest. But I can tell you, at some point it will be too late for anybody to take care of the ecology."
Many post-Soviet governments in recent years have become increasingly authoritarian, leaving little room for independent environmental movements. The most glaring example, of course, is Belarus, the country most affected by the Chornobyl disaster and where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime ruthlessly suppresses any form of public dissent, including environmental activism.
"Discussion of grassroots activism is pretty much a barren territory in Belarus, insofar as any nongovernmental activism is very closely scrutinized and has been for very nearly a decade in Belarus," Flowers says.
True to form, Belarusian authorities are widely expected to break up a march by the country's liquidators, which is scheduled for April 26 to mark the Chornobyl anniversary.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Katsyaryna Gancharova, a member of the country's Ekadom environmental group, says that despite the numerous bureaucratic and political obstacles placed in its path, the Green movement is determined to persevere.
"The registration process is complex. On the whole, civic organizations are barely surviving because the very unfavorable situation in the country doesn't allow them to function as they should," Gancharova says. "But the Green movement is nonetheless developing, people are interested in ecology. This question is becoming increasingly topical."
RFE/RL's Belarus, Kazakh, and Ukrainian services contributed to this report
Russia Prepares For Lengthy Battle Over Ukraine
However, many serious pundits in Russia have been less smug. They appear to regard the objections formulated by Germany and France as temporary obstacles and think that NATO remains bent on including Kyiv and Tbilisi around its table. Ukraine is of particular concern, because, as the emerging neo-nationalist ideology in Russia argues, without that country, Moscow cannot restore its status as "the center of power in Eurasia."
"NATO membership for Ukraine means death for Russia," nationalist publisher Aleksandr Prokhanov has said.
At the same time, Russia's ruling elite is acutely aware of its significant geoeconomic interests in Ukraine, particularly since Ukraine and Belarus are the main conduits for Russian hydrocarbon exports to Western Europe.
Finally, Putin has a personal stake in the outcome. During Ukraine's 2004-05 Orange Revolution, Putin personally intervened on the side of then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who led the "anti-Orange" camp. The failure of that heavy-handed intervention was presented around the world, including in Russia and Ukraine, as a major foreign-policy fiasco for Moscow. Media reports at the time indicated that the failed effort in Ukraine was coordinated by Putin's then chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev.
Russian analysts realize that support in the United States for Ukraine's eventual NATO membership is not limited to the George W. Bush administration. It has bipartisan backing in both houses of the U.S. Congress, both of which this year passed resolutions of support. Russian media have noted that all the remaining U.S. presidential candidates -- Senators John McCain (Republican, Arizona), Hillary Clinton (Democrat, New York), and Barak Obama (Democrat, Illinois) -- support NATO membership for both Ukraine and Georgia. Obama was an initiator of the corresponding resolution in the Senate.
In addition, the concluding document of the NATO summit in Bucharest, which was endorsed by all NATO members of both "old" and "new" Europe, clearly states that Ukraine and Georgia should become members of the alliance.
Russian pundits have also noted with concern that, although a majority of Ukrainians still opposes NATO membership, that majority is slipping. The pro-Kremlin news agency RosBalt earlier this month published research that indicates the percentage of Ukrainians actively opposing membership has fallen from 70 percent to 35 percent in the last two years. Other research indicates that 60 percent of Ukrainians oppose joining NATO while 40 percent favor membership.
Moreover, the Ukrainian government is working to continue turning this tide. President Viktor Yushchenko told Germany's ZDF television recently that he thinks the percentages can be reversed within two years. Yushchenko's belief is well-founded, as the country's political elite -- with the exception of left-leaning parties -- is solidly pro-NATO and Ukrainian media -- which, unlike Russia's, are genuinely independent -- broadly support membership.
Observers in Moscow have also expressed concern that the traditionally pro-Russian elements in Ukraine have been antagonized by the recent gas wars and various other clumsy efforts initiated by Moscow. In October, for instance, the pro-Kremlin Eurasian Youth Movement (ESM) entered Ukraine and vandalized some state symbols at the summit of the country's highest peak.
The protest outraged the Ukrainian authorities and public opinion, especially after press reports suggested that the instigator of the action was International Eurasian Movement leader Aleksandr Dugin. The ESM is part of Dugin's umbrella organization. In the wake of the scandal, Putin fired Modest Kolerov, the head of the presidential-administration department in charge of ties with CIS countries who had enlisted Dugin as an adviser.
Pro-Kremlin propagandists also emphasize the idea of a "military threat" from the alliance, even though some of Russia's top defense officials are skeptical of such a threat. First Deputy Prime Minister and former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, for instance, said in April 2007 that Russia faces no military danger on its Western borders, saying that the real potential danger lies in the Far East and the Pacific region.
"It is true," Ivanov said, "that we have NATO [in the west], but we have acceptable relations with it and a system of treaties and mechanisms has been established." This assessment, made during a speech in Vladivostok, went little noticed by the central mass media. As a result, a significant segment of Russian public opinion is convinced the Western alliance presents a military threat to Russia.
Meanwhile, the war of words is continuing. CIS Institute Director Konstantin Zatulin debated Anatoliy Hrytsenko, chairman of the Verkhovna Rada National Security and Defense Committee, recently on NTV. Hrytsenko laid out a passionate defense of the pro-NATO position.
"The richest people in both Russia and Ukraine long ago made the decision in favor of NATO," Hrytsenko said. "Their children study in universities in NATO [countries]. They buy property and yachts in NATO. They send their wives to give birth in NATO countries. They buy soccer clubs in NATO countries. Do you think the citizens of Russia are stupid? If not, then you are. How long will you continue to inflict Soviet-propaganda stereotypes on them?"
Unable to respond logically, Zatulin simply accused Hrytsenko and Ukraine of "treason." In general, Russian media hit the theme of Ukraine's "treason" heavily in the days surrounding the Bucharest summit.
In refusing MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia, NATO explained that the step is unwarranted because of "unfavorable public opinion [in the two countries] and unresolved ethnic conflicts." Since Moscow feels it can do little to turn the current tide of public opinion in Ukraine, policy analysts are looking at the second issue. The Kremlin has successfully manipulated "unresolved ethnic conflicts" in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Kosovo to advance its geopolitical interests.
In a March 31 article in "Izvestia," Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is a leader of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, urged Moscow not to extend its treaty of friendship, cooperation, and partnership with Ukraine. That document expires on April 1, 2009. The 1999 treaty establishes the border status of the Crimean Peninsula and the right of Russian Black Sea Fleet to use its base at Sevastopol. Luzhkov argued that withdrawing from the treaty would allow Russia to reopen its territorial claims on Crimea, which has an ethnic-Russian majority and was part of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) during the Soviet period.
The day after Luzhkov's article appeared, some Duma deputies made similar arguments in hearings on the question of Ukraine's possible NATO membership.
On April 7, "Kommersant" reported that Putin had questioned Ukraine's right to exist during a closed-door Russia-NATO Council meeting in Bucharest. Citing an unidentified NATO source, the daily said Putin told his counterparts that in order to prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance, Russia was prepared to claim the eastern and southern parts of the country. "Ukraine will cease its existence as a state," Putin purportedly said.
Ukraine's reaction to the report was surprisingly muted. Verkhovna Rada speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk told journalists in Moscow that he does not consider such threats "realistic," adding that the idea of splitting Ukraine is "illusory." In fact, Yatsenyuk has good reason to be sanguine. The Ukrainian public and the political elites are united in opposing any division. Even the pro-Moscow Party of Regions and the pro-Russia oligarchs of eastern Ukraine have little taste for division. Perhaps more importantly, a split Ukraine would not satisfy Russia's economic interests, since even the rump western portion would be able to disrupt flows of Russian energy exports to Western Europe.
This does not mean that Russia will stop playing this card. Vladimir Batyuk, an expert with the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada, has said the Kremlin's goal is to split the alliance as deeply as possible on the issue of further eastward expansion, not the absorption of Ukrainian territory. In fact, he added, the Kremlin does not want to see too great a weakening of the alliance, to say nothing of its disintegration: "If NATO disintegrates or is defeated in Afghanistan, then Russia will face a Taliban threat again, just as it did eight years ago."