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PUTIN WARNS OF 'GEORGIAN MILITARIZATION'... President Vladimir Putin said on a nationally televised question-and-answer session on October 25 that the North Korean decision to test a nuclear weapon was the result of failed diplomacy on the part of unnamed others. He argued that "one of the reasons [why North Korea conducted a nuclear weapon test] is that not all parties in the negotiation process were able to find the right tone for conducting these negotiations. You must never drive the situation into an impasse and never push one of the parties in a situation from which it can find no way out other than exacerbating the situation." He stressed nonetheless that the test was "inadmissible" and called for the resumption of six-party talks. Asked about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin slammed what he called "the militarization of Georgia" and warned again against unspecified "bloodshed" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2006). He called instead for "concord...and compromise," stressing that "we are not striving to increase our territory." Putin noted the "contradictions" between respect for Georgia's territorial integrity and the right of others to self-determination, especially in light of the "precedent of Kosovo." He recalled that "the Georgian people have always been close to Russia." Turning to Ukraine, Putin said that Ukrainian independence is a reality but that Russia "cannot remain indifferent" to what goes on there. PM
Of all the sectors hit by the repressive backlash of autocratic regimes in the former Soviet Union, news media have suffered most.
Two recent murders of journalists on the territory of the former Soviet Union (FSU) have brought into sharp relief the grave danger that confronts news professionals who dare to report independently.
In Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin's activity in Chechnya as well as a thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead by an assassin on October 6 in an elevator in her apartment building in Moscow's city center.
In Turkmenistan, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died in September at the hands of Turkmenistan's repressive security apparatus. According to local human rights observers, Muradova suffered head and neck injuries while in detention. Turkmen authorities refused the family's request for an autopsy and did not make known the cause or date of Muradova's death.
The deaths of these two journalists represent the most recent in a pattern of escalating abuse that spans most of the FSU countries. While virtually none of these countries has been friendly to independent media since the Soviet Union's collapse, the sharp downward spiral for press freedom dates to the first of three "colored revolutions."
The response from the autocrats since that time has been unambiguous. Since Georgia's Rose Revolution in November 2003 -- which was followed by Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 -- autocratic regimes have implemented an increasingly brutal response to home-grown and foreign journalists who take an independent line.
This trend is borne out in the last three years' data in "Freedom of the Press," Freedom House's annual global survey of media independence. In this period nine of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet states' press-freedom ratings have deteriorated. Uzbekistan, Russia, and Belarus registered the steepest declines. Overall, 10 of the 12 post-Soviet states are ranked "Not Free," indicating that these countries do not provide basic guarantees and protections to enable open and independent journalism.
Attacks on journalists, heavy handed takeovers of independent news outlets and use of pliant prosecutors and courts to harass journalists and news organizations are increasingly prominent features of autocratic FSU politics.
In Belarus, the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka put into effect a virtual information blackout in advance of that country's presidential election in March of this year. The regime disabled Internet and cell-phone access in the days leading up to election day. Ordinary Belarusians who sought independent news sources online related how dial-up Internet connections were inaccessible due to "technical difficulties." Belarusian journalists are routinely subjected to physical abuse, including beatings and, sometimes, death. In October 2004, Veranika Cherkasava, who reported for the opposition weekly "Solidarnost" and wrote on sensitive issues, was killed in her Minsk apartment.
In Uzbekistan, independent journalists have been in the crosshairs of the repressive regime of Islam Karimov, who has sought to crush all alternative voices in that country. The authorities have forced foreign news organizations, including RFE/RL and the BBC, out of the country. Local journalists, within reach of the regime's security apparatus, face far graver dangers.
Russia has applied a "full-court press" against independent journalists and news organizations in the past three years. In the months leading up to Anna Politkovskaya's death, the Kremlin lowered the boom on remaining independent news organizations.
The acquisition of "Kommersant" last month by Alisher Usmanov, a Kremlin-friendly businessman, punctuated a series of Kremlin-backed media takeovers and represented a devastating blow to the country's already enfeebled independent media. More ominously, numerous journalists have been assaulted - 13 killed - during President Putin's tenure. Among them Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of "Forbes," who was shot nine times with a semiautomatic weapon on the street outside his Moscow office in July 2004.
The Soviet-style leaders who govern these unreformed countries understand well the importance of controlling information, access to it and its content.
This assault on media freedom does not occur in a vacuum, however. The treatment of the independent press is a barometer of broader adherence to democratic principles and human rights standards, which these regimes now defy routinely and seemingly with ever-greater confidence.
Perhaps the most chilling indicator of the depths to which press freedom has fallen is the impunity with which this behavior is undertaken. In Russia, none of the contract killings of journalists has been solved in Putin's nearly six years in office.
The popular democratic movements in Georgia and in other reform-starved countries served as a wake-up call to the region's autocrats, who responded by asserting complete dominance over the news media, among other things to minimize the spotlight a free press shines on government activity and performance.
In a telephone conversation with George W. Bush after Politkovskaya's murder, Putin reportedly told the U.S. president that "all necessary efforts will be made for an objective investigation into the tragic death." The increasingly corrupt and unaccountable systems that Putin and other autocrats in the region have enabled make the prospect of such an investigation all but impossible.(Jennifer Windsor is Executive Director at Freedom House. Christopher Walker is Director of Studies at Freedom House.)
UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER ANNOUNCES GAS DEAL WITH RUSSIA FOR 2007... Viktor Yanukovych said at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov, in Kyiv on October 24 that Ukraine in 2007 will receive at least 55 billion cubic meters of imported gas for no more than $130 per 1,000 cubic meters, Ukrainian and international media reported. "Negotiations are concluding in Russia.... As soon as the executives arrive in Ukraine, they will show these contracts," Interfax-Ukraine quoted Yanukovych as saying. This 55 billion cubic meters of Central Asian gas, along with 20 billion cubic meters of gas extracted domestically, will reportedly be sufficient to meet Ukraine's needs in 2007. All of the gas imported by Ukraine is supplied through the Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo intermediary and is bought by UkrGasEnergo, RosUkrEnergo's joint venture with Naftohaz Ukrayiny. Now Ukraine pays $95 per 1,000 cubic meters of a Turkmen-Russian gas mix supplied by RosUkrEnergo. JM
...AS RUSSIAN PREMIER PREFERS TO TALK ABOUT WTO, NATO... Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said in Kyiv on October 24 that the issue of gas supplies to Ukraine was not discussed at his meeting with Yanukovych, adding that these talks are being handled by companies, primarily Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Considering the advanced character of Russia's relations with the [World Trade Organization] and the desire to build a strategic bilateral economic [Russian-Ukrainian] relationship, we should certainly consult with each other more often and synchronize our countries' WTO negotiation processes," Fradkov said. The Russian prime minister noted that "strategic cooperation" between Russia and Ukraine means "having a special relationship of trust [and] sharing mutual priorities both in foreign and domestic policies as well as at the bilateral level." Fradkov also stressed that Ukraine's NATO bid "must not harm Russia." JM
...AND SOME HAVE DOUBTS ABOUT GAS PRICE, VOLUME. Volodymyr Saprykin, an energy expert from the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center, suggested to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on October 24 that the price Ukraine will have to pay for imported gas in 2007 may be higher than $130 per 1,000 cubic meters. According to Saprykin, out of the 42.5 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas contracted for Ukraine, RosUkrEnergo will take some 16 billion cubic meters as payment for its transit service, thus leaving Kyiv with a resulting gas shortage. "As of today, we lack the knowledge of the price and the volume of Russian gas that has to be supplied to Ukraine next year. Without Russian gas, [Ukraine] will not hold its balance [between gas needs and gas imports]," Saprykin said. "Therefore, 130 is not the final and the highest price point. In other words, I think it is necessary to expect an [additional] accord between Gazprom, RosUkrEnergo, and Naftohaz Ukrayiny," Saprykin asserted. JM
HAS UKRAINE MADE POLITICAL CONCESSIONS IN GAS DEAL WITH RUSSIA? Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on October 24 denied media reports claiming last week that the Ukrainian government was ready to make political concessions in gas negotiations with Russia, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "This is all nonsense. Normal talks are in progress. They primarily focus on economic issues," Azarov said. Russia's "Kommersant" suggested on October 25 that Moscow had set a number of political conditions for Kyiv in exchange for the gas price of $130 per 1,000 cubic meters. According to the Russian daily, Moscow pushed for holding a referendum by Ukraine on the country's accession to NATO, which could apparently put the idea of Ukraine's NATO bid on the back burner for an indefinite time. "Kommersant" also alleged that Moscow demanded that Kyiv should promise to continue importing Turkmen gas exclusively via Russia and to keep its tariffs for Russian gas transit unchanged. JM
MOLDOVA SAID TO HAVE FREEST PRESS IN THE CIS. According to Reporters Without Borders, Moldova enjoys the most press freedom in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Mediapuls reported on October 24. No CIS country, however, ranked in the top half of the organization's survey. Moldova placed 85th out of 168 countries in Reporters Without Borders' International Press Freedom Index. Georgia was the CIS country with the second-highest ranking, at 89th worldwide. Armenia placed 101st, Ukraine 105th, Tajikistan 117th, Kyrgyzstan 123rd, Kazakhstan 128th, Azerbaijan 135th, Russia 147th, Belarus 151st, and Uzbekistan 158th. Turkmenistan came in 167th, finishing ahead of only North Korea. 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.
PRO-PRESIDENTIAL BLOC GOES INTO OPPOSITION. Our Ukraine has announced that it is switching to the opposition and pulling its ministers out of the government.
Our Ukraine leader Roman Bezsmertnyy said in the Verkhovna Rada on October 17 that his bloc's decision to go into opposition was caused by its disagreement with policies pursued by the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, which is often referred to as an "anticrisis coalition."
"In the past two months we witnessed a break in Ukraine's domestic and foreign course that was supported by the Ukrainian people during the election of President Viktor Yushchenko. Integration with the World Trade Organization is being ruined, programs of cooperation between Ukraine and the EU have actually been halted," Bezsmertnyy said.
Bezsmertnyy called on opposition parties, both within and outside the Verkhovna Rada, to set up a "confederation" to support the pro-European course championed by President Yushchenko.
"Regarding our proposals in today's situation, we call on opposition forces in parliament and outside parliament to form a European Ukraine [opposition alliance] as a confederation, to work out an action plan that would be aimed at creating an alternative to the actions of the anticrisis coalition and the current government," Bezsmertnyy said.
Bezsmertnyy did not say a single word about Our Ukraine's relations with the BYuT, its former ally in the 2004 Orange Revolution. Both blocs split in September 2005 because of their failure to run a coalition government.And they suffered an even worse failure while trying to form a new coalition after the March 2006 parliamentary elections.
The BYuT announced the creation of an "interfactional" opposition association in the Verkhovna Rada last month and made former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko its leader. So far Tymoshenko has managed to attract only two defectors from the Socialist Party to this opposition alliance.
Meanwhile, BYuT lawmaker Anatoliy Semynoha told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that he and his colleagues will readily welcome Our Ukraine lawmakers among their ranks.
"Our position is comprehensible. We formed an interfactional opposition union, which has been joined by some Socialists. We are inviting our Ukraine as well. I think that it is necessary for them to join [this union] and start working today without inventing a bicycle [anew]," Semynoha said.
However, judging by Bezsmertnyy's announcement on October 17, Our Ukraine is set to reformat the configuration of opposition groups in Ukraine according to its own taste rather than join the Tymoshenko-led group.
Our Ukraine lawmaker Vyacheslav Koval told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that his party has not yet made a final decision on how to proceed in the opposition.
"There has been no decision on whether to create a confederation or not. But perhaps [such a confederation] is a way for attracting parties outside parliament and creating a powerful opposition. However, this needs to be discussed," Koval said.
But the chances that Our Ukraine might get together with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc once again, let alone recognize Tymoshenko's leading role in the opposition, are very slim.
Where do these opposition maneuvers leave President Yushchenko?
Yushchenko said on October 18 that the five ministers delegated to Yanukovych'a cabinet by Our Ukraine should step down in order to be consistent with the position of their bloc. They submitted their resignations to the Verkhovna Rada on October 19 but later the same day Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko changed his mind and said that he will remain in the cabinet.
If Prime Minister Yanukovych replaces these four ministers with people from his party, President Yushchenko will lose a considerable leverage tool in the government. In such a case, apart from Lutsenko, there will be only two pro-Yushchenko ministers in the cabinet -- Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, who were appointed directly by the president.
But Yanukovych may decide against such a solution. There have already been proposals from the Party of Regions to give Yushchenko the right to fill these five ministerial posts with "non-party professionals."
This seems to be a coldly calculated gesture of goodwill toward the president whose powers have been significantly trimmed in favor of the legislature and the prime minister by a constitutional reform enforced in January.
The anticrisis coalition falls 60 votes short of the 300 votes required to override presidential veto over legislation. Therefore, by giving Yushchenko the right to nominate more ministers to the cabinet, Yanukovych may want the president to share responsibility for the cabinet's decisions, even despite the withdrawal of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine from it.
In other respects, however, the failure of the Orange Revolution camp to form a ruling coalition after the March 2006 legislative elections could spell big trouble for President Yushchenko. Prime Minister Yanukovych is firmly set to take away as many prerogatives from the president as constitutional loopholes will allow him.
Yanukovych has recently refused to implement several presidential decrees, arguing that they were not cosigned by him, as stipulated by the constitution.
Yanukovych is also questioning in the Constitutional Court Yushchenko's right to appoint regional governors without coordination with the government.
In addition, pro-Yanukovych regional councilors reportedly passed no-confidence motions in more than 70 oblast or district administration heads. Yanukovych is demanding their dismissal, arguing that under the constitution a no-confidence vote supported by two-thirds of lawmakers is sufficient to oblige the president to sack the head of a district or oblast administration.
Thus, having taken a firm grip on the central government, Yanukovych now appears to be determined to dismantle the network of presidential loyalists in the provinces.
May such a turn of events push Our Ukraine and the BYuT toward reassessing their stance toward each other? BYuT lawmaker Semynoha believes that it may.
"Regarding the opposition and its future, I am convinced that there is no other scenario for Our Ukraine than actually joining the united opposition in the Verkhovna Rada and jointly building democracy in our state," Semynoha said. "If they fail to do it today, they will do it later. Time, voters, and necessity in our situation will simply force them to do it."
But Ukrainian voters will have the chance to discipline their politicians no earlier than in 2009 and 2011, when the country will hold presidential and parliamentary votes, respectively.
Therefore, in the short term, Ukraine will most likely witness confrontation not only between the government and the opposition represented by the BYuT and Our Ukraine, but also between the opposition blocs themselves. (Jan Maksymiuk)
(RFE/RL's Ukrainian 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.