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...AS A GAZPROM EXECUTIVE SHOWS. Gazprom Deputy CEO Aleksandr Medvedev told the Moscow energy conference on March 13 that Russia is a reliable energy supplier for the European Union despite the recent Ukrainian gas crisis, which, he argued, the media blew out of proportion. "Gazprom was, is, and will be a reliable guarantor of gas supplies to Europe," he said. Speaking on the margins of the conference, he stressed that a recent EU "green paper" on energy issues, which criticized Russia's reliability as a supplier, represented an approach that is "unilateral" and "totally unjustified." He argued that Gazprom needs reliable, long-term buyers, adding that "you can't have road safety by taking care of pedestrians without thinking of drivers' security, too." Medvedev argued that the EU's need for gas supplies is bound to increase and that "there are only four sources of gas in the world: Qatar, Iran, Algeria, and Russia." Asked whether Russia is the only stable supplier of that group, he replied: "You can answer that question yourself." PM
ABKHAZ PARLIAMENT PROTESTS 'SANCTIONS' ON TRANSDNIESTER. In a statement adopted on March 13, the parliament of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia accused the international community of "double standards" in declining to recognize Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh as independent states, regnum.ru and Interfax reported. The statement further decried as "sanctions" that could "lead to social and economic tension and a new humanitarian catastrophe" the newly introduced regulations requiring that all cargo crossing the Transdniester section of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border must clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). The statement said that in the event of a further "escalation" of the situation in Transdniester, Abkhazia reserves the right to suspend talks with the Georgian government on seeking a solution to the Abkhaz conflict. LF
FIVE UKRAINIANS, TWO BELARUSIANS JAILED OVER OPPOSITION RALLY. Courts in Minsk on March 13 sentenced five Ukrainians detained the previous day at an opposition rally in the Belarusian capital to 10 days in jail each, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Police arrested some 15 participants at the rally, held in support of opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, including a group of students from Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). The Ukrainians were found guilty of taking part in an unauthorized protest and disorderly behavior. "They [police] behaved very crudely, they used physical force and foul language. They put me in a cell together with some drunks, who praised Lukashenka and cursed. Actually, I didn't sleep the whole night; I was afraid that they might do something to me," Natalya Kosarchuk, an arrested Ukrainian girl, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. Also on March 13 in Minsk, one Belarusian was sentenced to 10 days in jail, one was given three days, and three were ordered to pay a fine of $300 each in connection with the same rally. Several more detainees are to stand trial on March 14. The presidential election is on March 19. JM
UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION HOLDS RALLIES OVER VOTING RIGHTS. The opposition Party of Regions gathered some 2,000 people in front of Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in Kyiv on March 14 to demand changes to electoral legislation, UNIAN and Interfax-Ukraine reported. In particular, the Party of Regions wants parliament to give precinct election commissions the right to add names to voter lists on election day. The parliament on March 14 passed a bill allowing such a procedure on election day, but only in instances where individual voters have already won a court decision to ensure their name is entered accurately on the list. The opposition alleges that the authorities compiled lists of voters for the March 26 parliamentary elections with many deliberate mistakes and omissions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006) aimed at depriving many voters of the right to cast ballots. The People's Opposition bloc, led by Progressive Socialist Party head Natalya Vitrenko, staged a separate rally in Kyiv on March 14, demanding that the government allow Ukrainian citizens in Transdniester to vote in the March 26 elections. Volodymyr Marchenko from the Progressive Socialist Party told a crowd of some 1,000 people that there is not a single polling station organized by the Ukrainian authorities in Transdniester, where according to him 67,000 people have Ukrainian citizenship. JM
TRANSDNIESTER BLOCKS TRUCKS FROM UKRAINE TO PROTEST NEW CUSTOMS RULES. Transdniester officials refused entry to 81 cargo trucks from Ukraine on March 13 as part of a protest against new customs regulations, AP reported the same day. On March 3, Ukraine and Moldova instituted the customs rules, requiring goods passing through breakaway Transdniester to clear Moldovan customs, in an effort to combat smuggling. Transdniester officials called the move an economic blockade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). "Cargo traffic in transit from Ukraine through the Transdniester region of Moldova is still blocked by the so-called Transdniester authorities, except for several instances," Ferenc Banfi, head of a European Union mission helping to police the border, said. BW
RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
A Survey of Developments in Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team.
LITTLE HOPE FOR A FAIR CONTEST AS EARLY VOTING BEGINS. Early voting for Belarus's presidential election is due to begin on March 14. The vote pits incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka against three candidates who have little, if any, chance of upsetting his bid for a third five-year term. In the end, the importance of the Belarusian vote may not be its outcome, but the public response it provokes. Will Belarusians take to the streets to protest an unfair election -- and how will the state respond?
Not everyone is laboring under the pretense that Belarus's upcoming presidential vote will represent a legitimate political contest.
Some Belarusians interviewed by RFE/RL's Belarus Service on Monday said they thought all candidates in the March 19 were being given equal opportunity to get their message across. Others weren't so sure:
Woman: "It seems to me they get almost the same chance. They've all had equal time on the radio and everything else. We're already bored with all their talk."
Man: "Lukashenka, as president, has better access to the press. But I think the others get a sufficient opportunity to express their thoughts."
Woman: "No, no. It's not equal." Man: "It's not equal." Man: "Well, first of all, I think that the incumbent should
temporarily resign his duties in order to run for president. Otherwise, all these rallies and the state press have no choice but to promote the president."
Man: "At present, we can't say they're equal. We see that TV and radio are constantly promoting only one candidate -- the incumbent. The others don't have even 5 percent of the opportunities and possibilities that he does."
Even so, the ruling regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears to be taking no chances when it comes to ensuring election success.
Riot police on March 12 arrested around a dozen Ukrainian and Belarusian activists attending a Milinkevich rally in the capital Minsk.
Hanna Horozhenko, a television reporter with Ukraine's Channel 5, was reporting live from the rally to news presenter Natalia Moseychuk when she and her cameraman were also apprehended by police. Horozhenko, who began with a straightforward report about the groups attending the rally, broke into horrified screams as she was accosted by police and forced into a law-enforcement van before her mobile phone was cut off.
Horozhenko and her cameraman were released after several hours, following an intervention by the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk.
But at least two of the Ukrainian activists have been given 10-day jail sentences, and Belarusian authorities have said they will deport any foreigners planning to take part in public rallies aimed at "destabilizing" Belarus ahead of the election.
They have also accused the European Union and the United States of funding the opposition with the aim of fomenting public unrest.
Brussels and Washington deny the claim. But they have already condemned the vote as unlikely to be free or fair, and are watching carefully the run-up to the election.
In a hearing on March 9, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government agency, criticized as "abysmal" Belarus's pre-election climate, and warned Lukashenka to refrain from postelection violence against peaceful demonstrations.
Among the hearing's speakers was Belarusian student activist Iryna Vidanova, who said the country's youth would play a "key role" in the elections.
"In Belarus, young people are the most open-minded, tolerant, and pro-European segment of the population. It should come as no surprise that a December survey found that more than one-third of those supporting the democratic candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich were under 30. Belarus has a very young society, and many of these young people will vote for the first time. But 77 percent of young people doubt that the elections will be fair," Vidanova said.
Arrests like those on March 12 underscore the lack of public trust in the upcoming vote. They were just the latest actions by Lukashenka's camp to silence opposition voices ahead of the ballot, which formally begins on March 14 with early voting.
In recent weeks, scores of opposition supporters have been arrested, fined, or otherwise harassed. Authorities have cracked down on nonstate newspapers and censored television appearances by Lukashenka's political rivals.
Belarusian special forces went so far as to physically assault the second opposition candidate in the race, Alyaksandr Kazulin, after he tried to enter a building where Lukashenka was holding a political assembly in early March.
Following the sweep of "colored revolutions" that brought political transformation to Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, many had hoped Belarus would follow suit with a youth-driven "denim revolution" of its own.
But many in Belarus concede the country -- which under Lukashenka has enjoyed economic and social stability -- is not yet ready for such an uprising.
Svyatlana Aleksiyevich, a Belarusian writer and passionate commentator on Belarusian society, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service she has little hope this week's election will bring change to the country: "I'm afraid that it seems to me that we don't have the kind of internal strength to beat this situation. That is primarily because the state is strong -- and also brazen, let's put it like that. I've already said that [former Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma didn't shoot on his own people. [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov -- he did. So let's think, what kind of government do we have? For example, as far as I understood, at a recent large gathering, they said troops would have automatic rifles with which to defend this government. In fact, they're talking about defending a single person."
Milinkevich has asked supporters to join him in central Minsk after polls close on March 19 -- not for a revolution, but simply to "defend their choice."
But the country's top police official, Vladimir Naumov, has said all rallies will be banned on election day. He has vowed to use "all means within the law" to disperse protesters. (Daisy Sindelar)
PROMINENT WRITER SEES LITTLE POTENTIAL FOR CHANGE. Svyatlana Aleksiyevich was born to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother in 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk (Ukraine), where her father served as a Soviet Army officer. After her father was released from military service, the family moved to Belarus. Aleksiyevich graduated from the journalistic faculty of Belarusian State University in Minsk in 1972. She is the author of five books written in Russian: "The War's Unwomanly Face" (1985), "Last Witnesses" (1985), "Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War" (1989), "Enchanted by Death" (1993), "Chornobyl Prayer: Chronicle of the Future" (1997), and "The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt" (2001). Aleksiyevich belongs to the best-known Belarusian authors abroad. Her books have been translated in more than 20 countries.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service held an online news conference
with Svyatlana Aleksiyevich on March 8. The full transcript of the
conference is at
http://www.svaboda.org/forum/forum.aspx?ForumID=26&y=2006. Below are translated excerpts.
Question: Speaking frankly, I have never belonged to the admirers of your writings. Perhaps it is because you and your books emit negative energy toward all things Belarusian, toward Belarus. Anyway, what are your reasons for considering yourself a Belarusian writer?
Svyatlana Aleksiyevich: I have often heard such an opinion, particularly from young people. I think [this opinion] stems from a feeling of weakness, from the unwillingness to understand in what world we are currently living.
Why do I write in Russian? Because I am creating a chronicle of utopia. [This] utopia spoke Russian. All this huge country, all this horrible experiment, all this big lie -- its language was Russia. Therefore it would not be close to the historical truth if I wrote my chronicle in Belarusian.
Why do I consider myself a Belarusian writer? You know, I consider myself a writer in general. I do not deny that I am a Belarusian writer. I do not deny that I am a citizen of the world. I do not deny that I have been brought up mostly on Russian culture, Russian ideas. For example, I could not have written my Chornobyl book without [Nikolai] Fedorov, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, [Konstantin] Tsiolkovsky.
The formulation of the question is rather strange for the present day, I would even say -- outdated. I have lived for 2 and 1/2 years in Paris. It's sufficient to live there for just one month in order to see that 40 percent of children going to kindergartens are either black or [of Asian origin]. And 60 percent of children going to schools are either black or [of Asian origin]. There has already been such a term in use in Germany as "constitutional patriotism." That is, we see that in the future Europe will become a place where perhaps half or one-third of Berlin's population will consist of people of totally different cultures -- there will be Arab and Chinese quarters. This is already a fact of life, a fact of the future.
We are a belated nation. We are still resolving problems of the past. And we put forward the language problem as the most important. It is an important problem for us, indeed, but I want to repeat: The pattern of the past is becoming less and less suitable for projecting the pattern of our future life. The future is absolutely unpredictable. I have talked with German and French intellectuals. They did not suspect until the last riots in France that there is no French France any longer. The country is different. And the future is sort of different, too.
Question: What is your prognosis regarding the upcoming election? Does Belarus have a chance to get a new president this spring?
Aleksiyevich: I'd like our life to change. [I'd like] our country and people to get some other symbol, some other figure, to open other horizons for us in order to enter, as they say nowadays, the civilized world. But I'm afraid that we lack the kind of inner strength to beat this situation, primarily because the authorities are strong -- and also brazen, let's put it like that.
[Former Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma did not shoot on his own people. But [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov did. So let's think -- what kind of government do we have? For example, as far as I understood, at a recent big gathering [the All-Belarusian People's Assembly in Minsk on March 2-3] they spoke about defending the current government with submachine guns. In fact, to defend a single person...
Of course, I'd like to hope [for the better], but I don't see grounds for optimism today, because there is one powerful argument at work. One needs to do justice to [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka.
I realize that dictators are in principle uneducated. And [they are] in principle uncultured. Otherwise, they would not be dictators. But thanks to his intuition, he [Lukashenka] has put a powerful social factor into action.
A large percentage of people in this society agree with what is taking place in the country. It means that they can earn a living somewhere, village children can be schooled somewhere, there is some quota for them in institutions of higher learning, there is still some education and health care free of charge. That is, he has brought the resources of socialism into operation. This is exactly what has been lost in neighboring countries -- in them people were hurled directly from war-style socialism into a wild [free] market, and they have felt themselves lonely and confused. Lukashenka has intuitively mixed up some things. It cannot be denied that he has brought into operation many factors that are important during a transition from socialism to capitalism. I think that today he is a [prominent] figure for the majority of people. [But] everybody realizes that he is a transitory figure. Everybody has already realized this [on the threshold of his] third term. But I think that he has time yet -- psychological time in the minds of a part of the population in our country. And I'm afraid that there will be no changes for the time being.
Question: What are the main problems of today's Belarusian literature?
Aleksiyevich: The problem of Belarusian literature is that there is no Belarusian literature. Today, we have a confused, depressed society and confused readers. Some young writers are still trying to say something but this is more like playing literary games or illustrating national ideas. The writers of older generations have fallen silent for good. The tools that were used during the previous confrontation, in the Soviet era, do not work today, because today the confrontation has shifted toward its existential aspect. Our historical time has been stopped. One can say that Belarus is a museum. In Ukraine you can see completely different processes. There is movement there. Our time has been stopped by the authorities.
Question: In your opinion, why does Lukashenka hate so much the Belarusian language and culture?
Aleksiyevich: I have already said that dictators are in principle uncultured people, this is their footing.... Lukashenka is a man from the Soviet times, molded solidly by the Soviet era, a man with a strong desire for power, who of course wants to remain in history. But he has already used up his potential. He has nothing to move forward with.
As for adopting something new, embracing the Belarusian [national] idea, surrounding himself with some intellectuals or people with ideas about the future -- he has no proper antennas any longer. I think he has already begun to move in a circle, and he has begun to lead the nation in a circular fashion. It is understandable why. He does not have any other possibilities any longer. Because he is confined to his time and, I would say, his loneliness. (Translated by Jan Maksymiuk)
KYIV TIGHTENS CUSTOMS CONTROLS ON TRANSDNIESTER. On March 3, Ukraine introduced new customs rules along the Transdniestrian stretch of its border with Moldova. The new rules make the shipment of any goods from the Russian-speaking separatist Transdniester region that have not been cleared by Moldovan customs illegal. The Ukrainian move has effectively imposed a ban on exports by Tiraspol to Russia, its main trade partner. Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov said the move is tantamount to an economic blockade and threatened to withdraw from multilateral talks on the settlement of Transdniester's conflict with Moldova. Will the tightened Ukrainian-Moldovan border controls make the unrecognized Transdniestrian Republic more pliant in reunification talks with Moldova or just bring more chill to the "frozen conflict"?
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov declared in Kyiv on March 6 that Ukrainian customs officers will now be giving free passage across Ukraine only to those Transdniestrian shipments that have a stamp from Moldovan customs.
The rules had been enacted three days earlier, and Yekhanurov noted that Ukraine had given Transdniester notice of the change in February. Still, he acknowledged with some surprise and disappointment, Tiraspol's response to date had been "inadequate."
Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev had comments as well about the new customs rules. Speaking March 6 in Chisinau, Tarlev said the regulations are intended to make Transdniestrian business entities register according the Moldovan law and legalize their external trade activities.
At the same time, Tarlev denied Tiraspol's assertion that the Ukrainian move is an economic blockade of Transdniester that was planned in collusion with Moldova.
"There was no economic blockade of the Transdniester region. There was not, is not, and will not be [a blockade]," Tarlev said. "The Moldovan government is not interested in an economic blockade of its citizens, and we want to live in peace and prosperity together with our brothers and fellow citizens from this region."
Moscow -- whose political and economic support is critical to Transdniester's survival -- seems to take a similar view to Tiraspol on the situation on the Ukrainian-Transdniestrian border.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested as much on March 6, during his official visit to Canada, saying: "What is taking place there, according to our information, looks like an economic blockade. If this really is the case, urgent measures are needed, of course, to stop this blockade."
Moscow, however, has apparently not yet made any decision regarding Transdniester. On March 7 it sent an expert group to Tiraspol to study the situation.
The European Union, by contrast, welcomed the new customs rules. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana praised the move on March 6, an endorsement that was echoed by Adrian Jakobovits de Szeged, the EU representative for Moldova, in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova Service.
"We think that the implementation of the declaration of [the Ukrainian and Moldovan] prime ministers is very important for introducing order on the border, and we fully support putting this declaration into practice," de Szeged said.
Last October, following a request from Kyiv and Chisinau, the EU launched a two-year border assistance mission in Ukraine, sending some 50 experts to monitor the comings and goings on the Ukrainian-Moldovan frontier. It cannot be ruled out that Kyiv's new customs rules for Transdniester are a direct result of the mission's findings.
The international community has long been worried by speculation about weapons and drugs smuggling across the porous Ukrainian-Transdniestrian border. While such rumors have never been confirmed, there is ample evidence that smuggling of other commodities and transit-related swindles are rife there.
These practices apparently benefit not only Transdniester, but also people on the other side of the border as well. Transdniester leader Smirnov suggested as much on March 6, when he called on Kyiv to reconsider its new customs controls.
"We urge Ukraine to assess the political consequences of this decision and prevent a large-scale social and economic catastrophe, which will also affect hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens," Smirnov said.
It is not clear what exactly Smirnov had in mind, but it is likely that he was referring to a trade scheme in which shipments of Ukrainian goods in the port of Odesa are declared as being bound for Transdniester and not taxed in Ukraine. Transdniestrian authorities then confirm receipt, but then often reroute the goods back to Ukraine -- a strategy that earns big profits for Ukrainian trade operators and their Transdniestrian partners.
So why has Kyiv decided to put a stop to illegal transit from Transdniester?
One of the reasons seems to be Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's ambition for his country to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) as soon as this year. On March 6, his government made a significant step forward in this regard by signing a protocol on mutual access to commodity and services markets with the United States.
On March 8, Kyiv scored an additional victory when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill permanently exempting Ukraine from trade restrictions imposed under the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which ties trade status to the rights of Jews to emigrate.
Moldova has been a WTO member since 2001. Chisinau may have suggested to Kyiv that Moldova would give a final "yes" to Ukrainian accession to the WTO only once Yushchenko took steps to halt Transdniestrian transit to Russia.
The second reason may be the upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine on March 26, in which forces backing Yushchenko are facing not only his old pro-Russian rival, former Premier Viktor Yanukovych, but also his erstwhile ally, former Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko has repeatedly slammed Yushchenko for yielding to pressure from Moscow and accepting a higher price for gas supplies in 2006. It is not unlikely that, by taking a tough stance on the Russia-backed Transdniestrian regime, Yushchenko is trying to reclaim his reputation as a firm leader and recapture as many nationalist-minded voters from Tymoshenko as possible.
Whatever the real motives behind Kyiv's latest move regarding Transdniester, the new customs controls have obviously hit Tiraspol hard and taken the secessionist regime by surprise. Transdniestrian leader Smirnov could apparently find no strong threats to level in response to the move other than to announce that Transdniester will withdraw from the internationally mediated talks on the settlement of its conflict with Moldova.
"Under these conditions, all negotiations are called off," Smirnov said. "Besides, Ukraine is becoming the main tool in helping Moldova reach its political [aims]."
But as with many times in the past, it seems that it is Moscow -- and not Tiraspol or anyone else -- that will eventually decide whether Transdniester is to continue talks, and with whom. (Jan Maksymiuk)
(RFE/RL's Romania/Moldova Service contributed to this report.)
"RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova 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.