Analysis: Political Prisoner As Swap Commodity
On January 23, Belarusian authorities released Zmitser Dashkevich, the leader of the opposition Youth Front, after he served 16 months of an 18-month sentence for heading an unregistered organization.
Dashkevich's release was followed by a that of another Youth Front leader, Artur Finkevich. Finkevich spent two years under a "restricted freedom" regime for writing political graffiti, and then in October 2007 had his sentence extended by another 18 months for violating the rules of his correctional facility. On February 5 of this year, however, the court considered Finkevich's appeal, unexpectedly shortened his second term to six months, and released him immediately.
Ten days later, President Lukashenka ordered the released of Andrey Klimau, an opposition politician who in August 2007 was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the president and calling for revolution in an article posted on the Internet. Klimau, who served as a legislator in the Supreme Soviet of Belarus in 1995-96, had been jailed twice before. He served four years of a six-year sentence he received in 1998 on charges of embezzlement; in 2005, he was sentenced to 18 months of "restricted freedom" for his role in organizing a demonstration in Minsk.
Following the decision on Klimau, it became apparent that some backstage deal had been made between Minsk and Brussels on the issue of political prisoners. So it was no surprise at all when on February 22, Belarus's Supreme Court shortened a three-year prison term given to journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou to three months. Zdzvizhkou was sentenced in January for republishing the controversial Danish cartoons displaying the Prophet Muhammad in an independent newspaper in 2006.
In the meantime, it became known that in the first half of February, Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau -- who is among Belarusian officials currently subject to an EU travel ban -- secretly visited Germany. There, it can be presumed, Martynau suggested how Europe might reward Minsk for releasing its political prisoners.
The details of the deal were not made public. But it was clear to all that its ultimate success depended on the release of the last of Belarus's prisoners of conscience, former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was serving a 5 1/2-year prison term for leading an antigovernment demonstration in the wake of the 2006 presidential election.
Carrot And Stick From EU
For the past 10 years, the European Union has concocted a rich brew of measures meant alternately to punish Lukashenka for un-European behavior, to lure him into behaving in a more respectable manner, or to financially and morally support his opponents in their attempts to oust him. As of yet, such efforts have been to no avail.
Lukashenka tops the list of 36 Belarusian officials banned from entering the EU because of their role in vote-rigging and cracking down on human rights. The last country to invite the Belarusian leader for an official visit was France, in 1996. Ironically, after his meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, Lukashenka said he greatly admired France's presidential form of government -- to the degree that he wanted Belarus to emulate it without delay. In November 1996, Lukashenka staged an infamous and heavily rigged constitutional referendum that handed him authoritarian powers and did away with the fledgling democracy Belarus had acquired at the time.
To that stricture, Brussels added a sweetener, issuing in November 2006 a "new message to the people of Belarus," in which the European Commission promised to rain the benefits of its European Neighborhood Policy upon Belarus in exchange for democratic concessions from the governing regime. There are 12 conditions the EU extends to partnership governments in this money-for-democracy trade -- including transparent elections, freedom of expression and association, fair treatment by the judicial system, and the release all political prisoners.
When Lukashenka freed Dashkevich, Finkevich, Klimau, and Zdzvizhkou, it was clear that he was acting under a swap deal concluded with Brussels. But the deal collapsed when it came to Kazulin.
The Kazulin Case
In 1994, when Lukashenka was first elected president, Kazulin was a deputy education minister. In 1996, Lukashenka appointed Kazulin rector of Belarusian State University (BDU) in Minsk. Kazulin, who was known at the time to refer to himself as "the president's man," was reelected to the same post by BDU professors in 2000. From 1998-2001, Kazulin held the rank of minister in the Belarusian Cabinet of Ministers. In 2001, however, Kazulin's luck began to turn. Lukashenka fired him in connection with a criminal investigation into a company affiliated with the BDU, although Kazulin's complicity in the case has never been confirmed.
In 2005, Kazulin switched to the opposition, joining one of Belarus's cantankerous social-democratic parties. In 2006, he unsuccessfully challenged Lukashenka in the presidential race. Kazulin positioned himself as an opposition candidate, although the united opposition stood behind another hopeful, Alyaksandr Milinkevich. In his words and actions both before and after the March 19 election, Kazulin proved to be much more radical than Milinkevich.
In the second of his two campaign appearances on state-run television, Kazulin stunned the nation by touching upon Lukashenka's family life and morals. He disclosed that the incumbent president had a mistress, and a young son from the relationship. The nominal first lady, Halina Lukashenka, had meanwhile been living in a provincial city since Lukashenka's inauguration in 1994. Lukashenka was far from pleased to have his personal life parsed by a political opponent. Kazulin was subject to a harsh beating by presidential bodyguards when he tried to enter the so-called All-Belarusian Assembly, a grand propaganda event intended to endorse Lukashenka as "the people's candidate" two weeks before election day.
On March 25, 2006, during an opposition march led by Kazulin from downtown Minsk to a prison holding several hundred protesters incarcerated in the wake of the presidential election, Kazulin was arrested. In July 2006, he was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison on charges of hooliganism and disorderly conduct. At the time, some commentators suggested that Lukashenka saw Kazulin -- a charismatic and strong-willed politician -- as a potential threat, and was determined to keep him in jail past the point of a second presidential challenge in 2011.
During his incarceration in a penal colony in northern Belarus, Kazulin staged a 53-day hunger strike, demanding that the UN Security Council place Belarus's human rights situation on its agenda. His demand was not fulfilled but, nevertheless, his protest had resonance on the international scene, and even prompted the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to raise the issue at a closed-door Security Council session.
On February 23, 2008, Kazulin's wife Iryna died after a long battle with breast cancer. Kazulin was given a three-day release from the penal colony to attend her funeral in Minsk. While at home, he confirmed the previously reported rumors that Lukashenka offered him an early release to help his wife seek treatment abroad but only on the condition that they would never come back to Belarus. He said both he and his wife refused to accept this condition. Kazulin, who gave a spate of interviews to both international and independent domestic media during those three days, returned to prison with the bearing of a man with unbending political convictions, if not that of a national hero and martyr.
Lukashenka subsequently tried to quell the furor incited by Kazulin's appearance in the capital by publicly vilifying the Belarusian opposition in general as paid mercenaries of the West, and Kazulin in particular as "used toilet paper." But it is now obvious for everyone that, with the Kazulin case, the Belarusian president showed not only his well-known malevolence but also a less well-known political weakness -- wanting to get rid of a political rival by forcing him to emigrate.
Another Lukashenka Growing Up?
There are apparently no immediate threats to Lukashenka's rule in Belarus. Russia's continued benevolence in subsidizing gas supplies to Belarus supports the Belarusian "market-oriented socialism" as a viable economic model. But recently, perhaps inspired by the Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev power deal in Russia, Lukashenka has begun to publicly muse about his successor.
In April, state-run television showed Lukashenka in the company of a small, fair-haired boy. While visiting a provincial city, Lukashenka reiterated a curious but casual remark dropped earlier this year that his youngest son would be Belarus's future president. And the Interfax news agency, while commenting on this news, noted in passing that Lukashenka has "three sons, and the youngest, Mikalay, is four years old." The identity of the boy has not been officially confirmed, but there is some speculation in the independent Belarusian press that Lukashenka is indeed thinking about preparing this mysterious child to succeed him.
If so, Lukashenka would have to continue in his current post for the next 31 years until his purported youngest son reaches 35 and becomes constitutionally eligible to run for the presidency. By then, Lukashenka would be 85 years old. Given his current good health, and the political-longevity model of fellow leaders like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who remains vigorous at the age of 83, Lukashenka could well attempt such a strategy.
But there are other potential options. Some publications, citing Lukashenka's predilection for changing the constitution (he's already done it twice), suggested he could adjust it again to lower the age of presidential eligibility to 18. In that case, a changeover could be expected in 2022 -- meaning just another 14 years of Lukashenka's rule to go.
More Political Prisoners Coming
Lukashenka, for the time being, has abandoned any plan to swap Belarusian political prisoners for better relations with Europe.
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, 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.
On May 22 and 27, in relation to the same protest, a court in Minsk sentenced nine youth activists to two years and one to 18 months of "restricted freedom" without sending them to correctional institutions. The verdict implies that if they violate the regime of serving their sentences, they may be sent to real penal colonies.
In other words, the pool of political prisoners in Belarus has been partially restored in preparation for any possibility that Brussels will once again launch negotiations with Minsk about improving relations. However, it seems advisable for any future EU negotiators to take into account the other 11 demands formulated in November 2006 -- not only the one about releasing political prisoners. Apparently, releasing some political prisoners is a serious problem for President Lukashenka. But putting them behind the bars is not a problem at all.
Ukraine: Confounding 'Orange' Hopes, Eccentric Incumbent Set To Win In Early Mayoral VoteAfter an unusually long and heated campaign, Kyiv residents have chosen a mayor from among about 70 candidates on a list so long that the ballot paper measured about a meter in length.
Preliminary results put incumbent Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy clearly in the lead with almost 37 percent of ballots. The Chernovetskyy Bloc is also leading in the city council vote.
His reelection would be a blow to Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who secured a parliamentary vote in March to oust Chernovetskyy in connection with what she alleged were illegal land deals.
The early results are also bad news for the fiery prime minister because her preferred candidate, Oleksandr Turchynov, trails Chernovetskyy with under 19 percent in a vote largely seen as a dress rehearsal for the next presidential election in early 2010.
"The Kyiv elections are a serious electoral, psychological, symbolic defeat for Yulia Tymoshenko and her bloc," says Vadym Karasiov, who heads the Kyiv-based Global Strategic Institute, a think tank viewed as close to President Viktor Yushchenko. "She initiated the elections; she thought that in these elections she would get the capital's resources, Chernovetskyy would be removed, she would reformat the city council. As it turns out, having initiated the elections, she lost them and this means a lot of voters and many of the political elite will have doubts about the political possibilities of Yulia Tymoshenko."
Karasiov adds that "her charisma is now going to be doubted because, so far, that charisma has never been doubted and it has never let her down."
Other candidates linked to the democrats who swept to power during the 2005 Orange Revolution didn't fare much better, according to preliminary showings.
Former world boxing champion Vitaliy Klychko of the pro-Western PORA-PRP group garnered almost 18 percent of the vote, while Mykola Katerynchuk, an ally of Yushchenko, is credited so far with just over 4 percent.
The fact that Tymoshenko and Yushchenko backed different candidates highlights enduring divisions within the so-called Orange camp. The two former allies fell out shortly after coming to power, the dispute culminating with Yushchenko sacking Tymoshenko as prime minister in 2005.
The president reinstated her in December after their respective parties won a slim majority in parliamentary elections, but the governing coalition remains fragile. Tymoshenko recently accused Yushchenko of seeking to weaken her standing ahead of next year's presidential election.
Ihor Zhdanov, an independent political analyst, tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that pro-Orange forces could have won the vote had they put differences aside and fielded a single candidate.
"The results of these elections simply confirmed Mr. Chernovetskyy's mayoralty. At the same time, two candidates from the democratic camp, Oleksandr Turchynov and Vitaliy Klychko, together received more votes than Chernovetskyy. What does this mean? It means that had the democratic camp had a single candidate, if people had been able to overcome their ambitions, then they would have had a victory and the mayor of Kyiv would be a representative of the democratic forces. This is the No. 1 conclusion of these elections: that politicians need to curb their ambitions, learn to agree and understand their responsibility to the voters."
But for now, pro-Western forces will have to put up with Chernovetskyy for another mayoral term.
A billionaire and former lawmaker, Chernovetskyy is known for his quirky behavior and often incoherent remarks.
"Who is the mayor today?" he once posed aloud. "Me, it's definitely me. And was there someone before me? I don't remember. I don't think there was anyone."
His political career is marked with controversy. Both he and his wife, for instance, avoided manslaughter convictions after killing two people in separate road accidents.
Chernovetskyy has also raised eyebrows with proposals such as forcing subordinates to undergo lie-detector tests, or with his support for an evangelical church headed by a controversial African minister.
In January, Chernovetskyy made the headlines with his scuffle with Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, whom he accused of punching him in the face and groin after an argument. Lutsenko admitted slapping Chernovetskyy's face but claimed the mayor initiated the fight by kicking him in the knee.
RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this story
EU: Poland, Sweden Breathe New Life Into Eastern Neighborhood
The initiative, unveiled at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, seeks to reinforce the bloc's ties with its eastern neighbors -- with a view to putting at least some of them on the path to EU membership.
It also reflects growing concerns among the EU's newer member states that the bloc is neglecting its eastern neighbors.
Speaking ahead of the EU foreign ministers meeting at the European Policy Center on May 26, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said closer ties with countries like Ukraine and Moldova are hampered by what he called "enlargement fatigue" within the EU.
The EU's current European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) makes no distinction between the bloc's eastern and southern neighbors. (ENP participants include Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Tunisia, and Ukraine.) Crucially, the ENP is designed to remain noncommittal about countries' future membership prospects.
This is a circumstance Poland wants to change. Sikorski said Warsaw and Stockholm are looking for an "ideological" enhancement of the ENP.
"We in Poland make a distinction between the southern dimension and the eastern dimension [of the ENP] and it consists in this -- to the south, we have neighbors of Europe, to the east we have European neighbors," Sikorski said.
He said that this constitutes "a big difference. These are countries -- Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova -- whose entire territories lie in Europe, and by the provisions of the [EU's founding] Treaty of Rome they all have the right one day to apply, to fulfill the criteria [for EU membership], and, perhaps, to become members."
Meanwhile, the EU's southern member states have secured two-thirds of the 12 billion euros ($18.9 billion) available to the ENP between 2007-13 for North African countries -- although they have already been deemed ineligible for EU membership. France is spearheading efforts to set up a "Mediterranean Union" to coordinate EU cooperation with the southern neighbors.
Sikorski said the Eastern Partnership would be one of the main priorities of the EU's Polish presidency in 2011. But the initiative is likely to kick off even sooner.
Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra told journalists as he arrived at the Brussels meeting that the Czech EU presidency in 2009 will also work to "balance" the EU's eastern and southern dimensions.
"We support this Polish-Swedish initiative very much," Vondra said. "It goes in the same direction that we want. And we see that the next year, we need to balance. This year, it is a Mediterranean year. So, the next year would be the eastern year."
Grand Bargain Within EU
Diplomats say the EU's larger member states -- who often oppose the smaller "new" states over issues related to the former Soviet space -- are supportive of the Eastern Partnership initiative. France, which will take over as the next EU presidency in July, is motivated by the need to build support for its Mediterranean strategy among the eastern member states. Germany traditionally takes a close interest in the EU's eastern policy, while Britain is traditionally one of the staunchest supporters of continued enlargement.
It also appears the Polish-Swedish initiative is part of a grand bargain within the EU that has seen Lithuania formally drop its objections to an EU-Russia strategic partnership deal. EU foreign ministers have agreed that the long-delayed talks with Russia can begin at the EU-Russia summit at Khanty-Mansiisk on June 26-27.
Significantly, Poland and Sweden led the EU mediating effort earlier this month when Lithuania first stepped in to veto the talks. Vilnius's concerns -- ranging from trade complaints, the status of criminal investigations, and Russia's recent aggressive moves in Georgia -- are now to be addressed in the course of the EU-Russia negotiations.
The Polish-Swedish initiative is unlikely to bring with it an immediate sea change in the EU's eastern policy. Reflecting the weight of the consensus within the bloc, the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said on May 26 that she does not think it is a good idea to introduce distinctions between the eastern and southern neighbors.
Instead, Ferrero-Waldner said the Eastern Partnership initiative would need to show it can "add value" to the existing Neighborhood Policy. "In Eastern Europe, indeed, there are some issues which can suitably be addressed at a regional level -- for instance, on energy, transport networks, maybe cooperation on trafficking, [cooperation] against illegal immigration," she said.
Ferrero-Waldner appeared particularly concerned the new plan could interfere with the EU's "Black Sea Synergy" scheme announced last year -- which also involves Russia and Turkey.
Poland's Sikorski also stressed the importance of practical cooperation, but in a subtly different sense. He said Ukraine, Moldova, and eventually Belarus would be well-advised to follow the example of the Visegrad group, which was set up by Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary to pursue regional cooperation before those countries were granted entry into the EU.
Sikorski noted that while eastern membership hopefuls "cannot change the rules of accession, they can change the perceptions" in the EU if they demonstrate an ability to work together and reform. This, in turn, could stand them in good stead when the EU "catches its breath" and recovers from the current enlargement fatigue.