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AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT IN POLAND ON STATE VISIT. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met on 31 March with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski in Warsaw during a two-day state visit to Poland, Turan reported. Aliyev discussed the Polish proposal to extend the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk pipeline to include oil from Azerbaijan. Several bilateral agreements on cooperation in the areas of agriculture, defense, education, and trade were also signed during the visit. Ukrainian Ambassador to Baku Anatoliy Yurchenko told journalists on 31 March that Germany has offered a 2 billion-euro ($2.59 billion) credit towards the cost of renovating Ukraine's pipeline system, including restoring the original direction of the Odesa-Brody pipeline and extending it to Gdansk, echo-az.com reported on 1 April. RG/LF
...AND GEORGIAN, UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS PLEDGE SUPPORT. Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk visited Bishkek on 31 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. They met with speaker Tekebaev, acting Foreign Minister Otunbaeva, and Central Election Commission Chairman Tuigunaaly Abdraimov. A meeting with acting President Bakiev was also planned. Zurabishvili and Tarasyuk stressed that the purpose of their visit was to share their countries' experience with the postrevolutionary return to normality. They also noted that Georgia and Ukraine would be willing to act as intermediaries in talks with ousted President Akaev, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. DK
UKRAINE SCRAPS VISAS FOR EU, SWITZERLAND FOR FOUR MONTHS. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has signed a decree abolishing visa requirements for citizens of the EU and Switzerland from 1 May to 1 September 2005, Yushchenko's personal website (http://ww2.yuschenko.com.ua) reported on 31 March. The decree says the measure is intended "to ensure the truly open nature of Ukrainian society, implement Ukraine's strategic course of integration into European community, and create proper conditions for attracting investment" as well as to contribute to the "proper preparation and organization" of the 2005 Eurovision song contest that Ukraine will host on 21 May. JM
UKRAINIAN TROOPS LIKELY TO LEAVE IRAQ BY MID-OCTOBER. President Yushchenko told U.S. journalists in Kyiv on 31 March that Ukraine might withdraw its entire military contingent from Iraq by mid-October, Yushchenko's personal website reported. "This will be mid-October, but I do not rule out that days may be changed according to [the pullout] schedule," Yushchenko said. "Our conceptual position is that our soldiers should leave Iraq this year." JM
UKRAINE'S FIRST LADY RECEIVES UKRAINIAN CITIZENSHIP. Kateryna Chumachenko, the wife of President Yushchenko, has obtained Ukrainian citizenship, Ukrainian media reported on 31 March, quoting presidential spokeswoman Iryna Herashchenko. Herashchenko added that an official statement on this matter will be made in the near future. Chumachenko's parents, who were born in Ukraine, met in Germany during World War II and married in 1945. They subsequently immigrated to the United States. Chumachenko, who has been living in Kyiv since 1999, has held U.S. citizenship. JM
EUROPEAN COURT TO CONSIDER CASE OF GONGADZE VERSUS UKRAINE. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has declared admissible an application lodged in the Gongadze v. Ukraine case in September 2002 by Myroslava Gongadze, the wife of slain journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, the court announced in a press release on 31 March. Gongadze was kidnapped and executed in September 2000. Myroslava Gongadze argues that under Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to life) that the death of her husband was the result of a forced disappearance and that state authorities failed to protect his life. She also complains that the state failed to investigate the case in a coherent and effective manner. JM
POLISH FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS FOR TRANSDNIESTRIAN AUTONOMY. Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld proposed on 31 March that Moldova resolve its conflict over the Transdniester region by granting it autonomy, Reuters reported the same day. "The solution should be based on recognition of full self-government of Dnestr within an integral Moldovan state," Rotfeld told a news conference in Chisinau. He was holding talks with Moldovan leaders on behalf of the Council of Europe. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has led efforts to find a settlement to the conflict, with Russia and Ukraine helping mediate. Moldovan President Voronin has called for a different approach, seeking to get Romania, the United States, and the European Union directly involved in the process. BW
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a problem on its hands. In the most immediate sense, that problem is about money: "The OSCE currently has no agreement on its budget for 2005," OSCE spokesman Keith Jinks said. "And the situation is that now, as we approach the end of the first quarter, there is a certain tension and that inevitably has been a subject of discussion -- a behind-the-scenes, continuing discussion -- to try to find a way of resolving the budget issue."
In an interview on 29 March with RFE/RL, Jinks acknowledged that Moscow is threatening not to pay its contribution to the 2005 OSCE budget unless the organization agrees to focus less on democracy and more on security issues.
He said the OSCE is trying to address Russian concerns, noting that a special panel is looking into criticisms leveled against the OSCE last summer by a Russian-led group of former Soviet republics.
That panel is due in June to deliver recommendations on possible reforms to the current OSCE chairman, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel. But while future reforms may shift the OSCE's resources away from Europe and toward Central Asia, Jinks said its mission will not be compromised, regardless of Russian threats.
"[Rupel has] said that human rights are non-negotiable," Jinks says. "He made that very plain. He said that there are basic standards and these can't be adjusted on the grounds of improving the security situation in the world. In other words, human rights do remain paramount in the role of the organization."
Last year, Russia contributed about $10 million to the 55-member OSCE, which operates on the basis of consensus among its members. Its refusal so far to contribute to this year's budget means the OSCE, according to Jinks, will soon have to adopt an emergency, month-to-month budget that will make launching any new or important initiatives nearly impossible.
The budget issue appears so acute that, according to a report in the "International Herald Tribune" on 29 March, the European Union recently circulated a confidential document asking member states to help support the OSCE's $240 million budget -- or risk its collapse.
Jinks, for his part, rejects that possibility. "It's not a question of the organization being in any way paralyzed or coming to any kind of crisis point," he said. "But obviously, it's not a satisfactory situation, and it's not one that the chairmanship of the organization wishes to see continue for any day longer than it has to."
Russia has long been vocal in its criticism of the OSCE, whose missions have provided guidance for democratic dissidents across the Commonwealth of Independent States.
In July, Moscow led a group of eight other former Soviet states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan -- in a statement that accused the OSCE of not respecting the national sovereignty and internal affairs of the countries in which it operates.
Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have since had popular political uprisings that came on the heels of strong OSCE and Western criticism of their election processes. And the once pro-Russian government of Moldova, which also signed the statement, has since turned toward the West.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the possibility of political change coming in next year's scheduled polls in Kazakhstan and Belarus. Under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus has consistently criticized the OSCE mission in Minsk, officially downgrading its status in 2002.
"Clearly, it's not just with the OSCE that relations are tense," said Dafne Ter-Sakarian, a Eurasia analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London. "Clearly, Russia is increasingly concerned about 'Western interference' in its traditional sphere of influence. So, it's got to try to curtail this if possible. [Withholding money from the OSCE] is one way that it's attempting to do so."
Russia also accuses the OSCE of ignoring what it sees as discrimination against Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia, while spotlighting human rights and democracy shortcomings in other former Soviet republics.
But the "International Herald Tribune" quoted the confidential EU document as saying: "At the heart of the present crisis lies a more fundamental 'values gap.' Russia's main problem with the OSCE concerns those things we most value in it -- its monitoring of human rights and democracy."
The original mandate of the OSCE, which dates to 1975, was to focus on human rights, but also security and economic issues. Russia now says it wants to "balance" those three areas. But the OSCE's Jinks said the organization has always principally been about human rights and democracy.
EIU analyst Ter-Sakarian believes Russia's threats are merely tactical. She said Russia's foreign policy is keenly focused on gaining entry to and influencing key international institutions such as the OSCE -- not on leaving them.
"It's more of a brinkmanship game," she said. "The most Russia can hope for is for the OSCE to be sort of conciliatory. Russia can't really afford to walk away from these institutions, because they're the only foothold it has on being an international player at all."
Still, Russian rhetoric continues to heat up. Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov was quoted as saying, "Unless the OSCE is reformed drastically, it will have no future."
RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
A Survey of Developments in Belarus and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team
OPPOSITION LOOKS FOR PRESIDENTIAL RUNNER. Ten Belarusian opposition parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), roofed under the coordinating body called the Permanent Council of Democratic Forces (PDSDS), have recently moved toward selecting a democratic challenger to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the presidential elections expected next year. Four persons have submitted bids to the PDSDS to vie for what is called the "single opposition candidacy" in 2006. But there is no agreement among the entire opposition spectrum as to how to proceed with the selection or whether the opposition should have a single presidential hopeful at all.
By the 28 March deadline, the PDSDS registered four opposition aspirants to run in the 2006 presidential race: United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, Belarusian Party of Communist leader Syarhey Kalyakin, Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly leader Stanislau Shushkevich, and Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who has no party affiliation but his presidential bid is supported by the Belarusian Popular Front, another major component of the PDSDS. It was expected that at least one more opposition politician, former Belarusian Social Democratic Party leader Mikalay Statkevich, will also register himself in this company but Statkevich changed his mind at the very last moment, citing his disagreement with some rules in the selection procedure.
The PDSDS is planning to hold a congress of democratic forces, most likely in the fall, at which some 750 delegates are expected to appoint a single opposition contender for the presidential post by secret ballot. The delegates to the congress are to be picked under a multi-stage procedure from regional cells of democratic parties, NGOs, independent trade unions, as well as from former democratic candidates in parliamentary elections.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that on 30 March this multi-stage procedure was set off by representatives of political parties and NGOs in the city of Homel, southeastern Belarus, who elected city representatives to a regional convention that will subsequently choose delegates to the nationwide congress of democratic forces. Where the nationwide congress will take place is an enigma right now; some fear that the Lukashenka regime will do everything possible to prevent Belarusian democrats from gathering at any roofed location, as happened many times in the past, and they will be forced to hold their congress on the street or in a forest.
As regards Statkevich's objections, he said he decided not to file his application with the PDSDS because of procedural requirements relating to the ensuing campaign of seeking support for his presidential aspirations in the provinces. "Authorities instituted criminal proceedings against me, imposing travel restrictions," Belapan quoted Statkevich as saying. "I cannot travel outside Minsk to conduct my campaign as required by the rules of procedure." According to Statkevich, the PDSDS also restricted opportunities for non-affiliated candidates to participate in the selection. "This may be the reason why [opposition] figures like Valery Fralou, Uladzimir Parfyanovich, Alyaksandr Vaytovich, and Uladzimir Kolas stay out of the process," he noted.
Others are doubtful about whether the PDSDS has the right in general to organize the selection of a single democratic challenger to Lukashenka. "It is not comfortable for me to play the role of a mute in the show run by the force that chooses not a people's but a single candidate," former dissident lawmaker Fralou told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. Fralou's colleague, former legislator Syarhey Skrabets, is of a similar opinion. "The candidate [selected by the congress organized by the PDSDS] will not win," Skrabets opined. "The victory requires work in the provinces, but this has not been taking place. The opposition has not done anything extraordinary or striking in the past 11 years. Therefore, linking your political future to them is like wading into a bog or quagmire -- you may not find a way out of it afterwards."
Judging by the current moods in the Belarusian opposition, there may be quite a sizeable group of candidates claiming to be democrats and wanting to challenge Lukashenka in 2006. That is not an auspicious scenario for the democratic camp in Belarus. Belarusian opposition parties are too weak to organize a full-scale election campaign for one single candidate, let alone for half-a-dozen. If they dream about repeating Ukraine's Orange Revolution in Belarus, they should be aware that it only can happen when all of them have stood behind a single runner and done their best to persuade Belarusian voters that they can win.
Ukraine's Orange Revolution one more time confirmed a solid political truth in the post-Soviet territory -- you can win an election against an authoritarian regime only in the first election round. Well, Ukraine actually needed three election rounds to install Viktor Yushchenko as the new president, but it was the first round that decided everything -- people massively took to the street to protest the victory by a pro-government candidate and the regime's future became doomed.
Thus, if the Belarusian democrats fail to mobilize people to take to the street immediately after the election day in 2006, Lukashenka may immediately start celebrating another of his "elegant victories." And such a mobilization is only possible if there is a clear and single election alternative to the autocrat from the democratic camp. Even if for some reason Lukashenka will be forced to hold a runoff, it will be of no use for the opposition if there are no people backing the opposition's case with street rallies. (Jan Maksymiuk)
REFORMS, EVEN IF NOT FAST ENOUGH. Three months have passed since Ukraine's Orange Revolution. Viktor Yushchenko and other opposition figures who led last winter's street protests now occupy government offices. Analysts say the government is trying to implement the reforms it promised -- and is succeeding in some cases. But many Ukrainians are hoping to see more reforms -- and sooner.
Ihor Losev teaches history and philosophy at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy. He says the Orange Revolution has brought some immediate benefits to his country -- like a new tolerance for freedom of expression, particularly in the media.
"Ukraine never knew such press freedom before. We've never had such freedom to criticize the authorities -- not only in semi-underground opposition newspapers, but also in very respectable ones. And sometimes this criticism really pushes the boundaries," Losev said.
The new government has moved quickly on reforms since Yushchenko's inauguration on 23 January. Officials have taken steps to cut back industry tax breaks and investigate past privatization deals. Parliament last week approved a revised 2005 budget supporters hope will lay a course for aggressive economic reform.
There have also been changes in the way the government appears to view its electorate. Stuart Hensel of the Economist Intelligence Unit says authorities now treat society with respect.
"There seems to be a general change in the tone of the leadership in Ukraine, which is a very positive thing," Hensel said.
Still, observers say it is still too early to talk about major reform. Hensel says the new government's work is still largely rhetorical -- and focused more on small changes rather than sweeping actions.
"It's still very early to look for any concrete changes. They [the new administration] in fact spent most of the past two months focusing on issues like personnel changes, and haven't actually come up with any really concrete pieces of legislation that they can move through parliament," Hensel said.
Such delays are not surprising to some. One of the first tasks of Ukraine's new government is to streamline the state apparatus by creating a firm separation between business and politics. But it's a delicate maneuver. Many on Yushchenko's team are themselves successful entrepreneurs.
The administration has also begun the difficult task of reforming the police, secret service, and border and customs officials.
The most visible change to date may be in foreign policy. Ukraine has moved quickly to ingratiate itself with Western bodies like the European Union. Still, such gestures will have little impact until Kyiv is able to fully implement its internal reforms.
Losev of Mohyla Academy says the enthusiasm and excitement that infused the Orange Revolution have faded as the government gets down to the practicalities of holding good on its promises. He says many Ukrainians are impatient, and want to see reforms instituted as fast as possible.
"I think that a lot of things have changed, but people's expectations are too high. We have a specific mentality. A person thinks that if he comes to a rally today, by tomorrow everything in the country should have changed -- and changed exactly the way he wants it to," Losev says.
Still, most Ukrainians still appear to have trust in their new government.
A February poll shows 63 percent of people support Yushchenko -- a rise of 27 percentage points over last October, before the height of the Orange Revolution.
By contrast, support for his former rival, Viktor Yanukovych, has dropped by 8 percentage points, to 29 percent. (Valentinas Mite)
"The past policy of issuing grants only to Belarusian non-governmental organizations should be replaced by flexible programs designed to identify and support those individuals who are literally risking their necks to combat tyranny at home. Funding for Belarusian democracy must come out of the fog of official 'dialogues' and 'cultural exchanges' and flood across the Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian borders to Minsk. This means renting dozens of apartments in Kyiv, Warsaw, and Vilnius, buying thousands of laptop computers and cell phones, and openly supporting Belarusian opposition groups." -- Peter Byrne, a staff writer of the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper on 31 March.
"RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by "RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed every Tuesday.