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RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team
DO MORE RURAL STUDENTS AT UNIVERSITIES MEAN LESS URBAN TROUBLE? University admissions procedures in Belarus have been altered this year to ensure an unprecedented intake from rural areas. The changes, which with one exception have gone unchallenged by senior academics, would appear to have a political subtext.
At the beginning of June, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka warned the heads of universities and other institutions of higher education that they should be prepared for "surprises" during their forthcoming entrance examinations, and that for the purpose of "order and discipline," the entrance examinations -- for both state and private institutions -- were to be monitored by a special government commission, aided by the KGB (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2002). The tone of his statement -- and the involvement of the KGB -- suggested that the order and discipline would be primarily political, with the exclusion of applicants who had any record of opposition activities. In fact, the surprises go further. Changes in the admission rules have been introduced, which suggests a preemptive strike directed at a whole cohort of young people who are perceived as likely future "oppositionists" -- the city dwellers.
Lukashenka had already tampered with the higher-education process in a number of ways. In particular, he reinstated for a number of disciplines the old -- and much hated -- Soviet process of "distribution" by which new graduates had to work for a number of years in posts allotted them by the state. In Soviet times, the rationale was that they thus repaid the state for their notionally free higher education. Lukashenka's reintroduction of the practice was justified as being necessary to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers, medical professionals, and other essential personnel for the areas of Belarus still suffering from the effects of the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster. (The Chornobyl nuclear-power station lies a few kilometers south of the Belarus-Ukraine frontier, and it is estimated that 70 percent of the fallout came down on Belarusian territory.) Certainly, such posts in the "zone" need to be filled, but it is typical of Lukashenka's regime that this should be done by direction from above, rather than by, say, offering financial or social incentives. At the same time, pedagogical faculties and colleges use a targeted admissions process, with a place in higher education tied to one's future job -- in effect, a means of ensuring that young people from rural areas return there to work, rather than taking more attractive city posts.
Until now, the two schemes have operated separately. This year, however, according to professor Uladzimir Pletsyukou, rector of Brest State University, they have been effectively combined, so that 50 percent of places will be targeted and the remaining 50 percent will be divided equally between applicants from rural areas and applicants from cities. The net result, he told the newspaper "Belorusskaya gazeta," will be that up to 75 percent of places will go to rural applicants, which "could lead to collisions over individual specializations."
The newspaper spells out, albeit in guarded terms, the probable political motivation for the change: "Students are a most active social group that has not experienced feelings of profound gratitude for modest stipends and obligatory 'distribution.' And the scandalous voting histories of urban students during the presidential elections, and their participation in opposition meetings, possibly put it into someone's head that the problem could be solved by 'changing' the students as far as social groups are concerned." The newspaper then goes on to remind its readers -- perhaps as its own political insurance -- that the bases for targeted and distributed places is "to service the shortage of specialists in the Chornobyl zone and the rural economy."
The new rules apply to all state universities and institutions of higher education in Belarus. Only one rector, Pletsyukou, has raised any objection. The silence of the rest is not surprising. Lukashenka has already ensured that the rectors of all major academic institutions are his own nominees. Under the circumstances, it is surprising that anyone spoke out at all. But Pletsyukou, although he was appointed only recently, seems prepared on occasion to step out of line. A few weeks ago, he allowed his university premises to be the venue of a three-day training seminar for the Belarusian chapter of the European Youth Parliament (EYP) -- a pro-democracy organization with headquarters in the U.K., which originally operated in Western Europe only, but which in the last decade has expanded and flourished in virtually all postcommunist countries. In Belarus, however, in spite of the efforts of would-be EYP members and the urgings of various Western diplomats, the Belarusian authorities have consistently refused to register the Belarusian chapter of the EYP, often offering the most trivial excuses for their refusal.
As for the new university admission rules, if, as "Belorusskaya gazeta" suggests, "someone or other" devised them in order to reduce the presence of the opposition-minded urban youth in the universities, then he may simply have shifted the problem elsewhere. For the young urbanites who cannot get into higher education will, if male, become liable for military service. Hence, as the paper points out, while this year's university intake includes a record number of rural entrants, the draft will contain an unprecedented number from the cities. (Vera Rich)
KUCHMA REACTS SWIFTLY TO AIR-SHOW CATASTROPHE IN LVIV. Ukraine was in mourning on 29 July for the 83 people (including 23 children) killed and 116 injured at an air-show disaster in Lviv on 27 July, when a Sukhoi 27 jet fighter crashed into a crowd of spectators. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma broke off his holiday in Crimea to fly to the scene of the disaster.Following the inspection of the site, the Ukrainian president fired Chief of General Staff Petro Shulyak and air-force commander Viktor Strelnykov. Following Kuchma's instruction, Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko fired Serhiy Onyshchenko, commander of the air corps whose 60th anniversary the air show was celebrating. Shkidchenko himself tendered his resignation over the crash and is reportedly awaiting Kuchma's decision.
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun said on 29 July that the two pilots of the Su-27 were given an "incorrect task" by air-force commanders, who had not taken into account necessary safety precautions. "The pilots used a plan given to them by their air commanders," Piskun said. "We believe that plan was wrong. The plan was approved with violations of procedures."
Piskun called the incident the result of "military negligence," adding that there are signs the pilots themselves were responsible for what he said were "criminal acts."
A commission has been set up to investigate the cause of the crash, the worst air-show disaster in history. The panel is headed by National Security and Defense Council Secretary Yevhen Marchuk, who on 28 July praised the two pilots as being "top-class."
Top-class pilots they may be, but Volodymyr Toponar and Yuriy Yehorov -- who managed to eject seconds before the crash -- are now facing a criminal investigation. The Prosecutor-General's Office said it has detained several top officers, including Strelnykov.
The swiftness of the official reaction is a far cry from the obstinate denials that initially followed another air tragedy last October. Then, Ukrainian troops on military exercises accidentally shot down a Russian passenger plane over the Black Sea, killing all 78 on board. It took several days before the authorities accepted responsibility.
Generous commentators have suggested that the authorities have learned from that incident and from another tragedy in Russia: Kuchma's hasty return was contrasted with Russian President Vladimir Putin's widely criticized decision to stay on vacation after the "Kursk" nuclear submarine sank two years ago in the Barents Sea, killing all on board.
But Kuchma was wrong if he thought his swift response would head off criticism.
"Was there really any reason to organize a grandiose show for the 60th anniversary?" asked commentator Vasilii Georgiev in the "Vechernie vesti" newspaper. "Are we a rich country that can afford this? Or do people need bread and circuses?"
"Kuchma has ruined the army to its core, just as with almost everything good that remained after the collapse of the Soviet Union," Georgiev went on. "Now he has found the little men [responsible] and has made a show of punishing them. Only the main, albeit indirect, guilty party in this terrible tragedy is he himself -- Leonid Kuchma. Incompetence long ago replaced real professionalism in the Kuchma system of power. And this has cost the lives of innocent people."
Not surprisingly, one prominent opposition politician, Yuliya Tymoshenko, said Kuchma should resign over the tragedy.
Taras Voznyak, a political commentator from Lviv, said the mood in the city is somber rather than angry, adding that people have no stomach to bring politics into it. "Today at the airport I saw someone trying to turn the talk into a political debate, but people just didn't accept it," Voznyak told RFE/RL on 29 July. "They pushed it away. Yesterday there was an incident with our opposition politician Yuliya Tymoshenko. She arrived here, and her whole talk was about how in principle the authorities were responsible for this or something like that. But she didn't find much understanding [for this position] here."
Voznyak said people in the city want to get on with the business of tending to the injured and paying their respects to the dead. "There's a lot of work going on, starting with medical help for those who still need it, and ending with the sad business of funerals," Voznyak said. "There are clerics from various confessions here, leading funeral services. Today, there was a kind of spontaneous memorial service at the place where the airplane crashed. People were let in and they prayed, some crying. Politics isn't entering into it, and thank God for that."
One expert on military affairs, Leonid Polyakov, told RFE/RL that the tragedy showed the extent of the crisis in the country's national security, as well as its army. Another told Ukrainian television that there is little, if any, actual air training for pilots due to a lack of fuel.
Marchuk's commission is due to present its findings on the cause of the crash on 7 August.
(RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox wrote this report with contributions from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.)
"RFE/RL Poland, 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.
AIDS THREATENS RUSSIAN ECONOMY (26 JULY) The World Bank warned in May that AIDS is threatening not only the health of Russians, but also the health of the country's economy, RosBusinessConsulting reported on 16 May. Since that bleak warning was issued, the situation has continued to deteriorate and the chorus of alarming reports have multiplied concern. According to a World Bank report, AIDS's cost to Russia's national wealth and the country's "physical capital," could reduce the gross domestic product (GDP) by 4.15 percent in 2010 and 10.5 percent by 2020. This catastrophic impact will multiply as the death rate rises and combines with a myriad of other related problems from alcoholism to communicable diseases. Regrettably the response from the Russian government continues to lag behind.
On 25 July, Vadim Pokrovskii, head of the federal scientific center on the prevention of AIDS, described the program to combat AIDS in Russia as funded at only 10 percent. "Some 190 million-200 million rubles ($6.03 million-$6.35 million) are spent annually in Russia for this purpose. However it is necessary to allocate 10 times as much to make the campaign against AIDS effective," he told a conference on the subject according to RosBusinessConsulting on 25 July.
"If Russia fails to take urgent steps to stem the rampant spread of HIV, Russian President Vladimir Putin could see his hopes for strong annual growth over the next decade evaporate into thin air, according to a World Bank model to forecast the economic impact of the infection," reported Intercon's "Daily Report On Russia" on 17 May. Christof Ruhl, the chief economist of the World Bank's Moscow office, said in an interview, as HIV spreads through society, the economy suffers from a decline in the workforce, while enormous health-care costs eat up money that is desperately needed for investment in industry and infrastructure.
In May, when the World Bank report was released, Federal AIDS Center head Pokrovskii commented that 194,033 Russians were registered as HIV-positive, but the actual number is probably closer to 1 million. On 25 July, First Deputy Health Minister Gennadii Onishchenko announced at a HIV-AIDS conference that there are now 203,300 HIV carriers in Russia, reported RosBusinessConsulting. According to comments by Labor Minister Aleksandr Pochinok on 16 May in "Moskovskii komsomolets," Russia's "present demographic situation is almost irreversible." He also warned that if trends continue at a moderate rate by 2034, the number of pensioners will equal the number of workers.
The Russian State Statistics Committee released figures on 16 May showing that Russia's population in 2016 may decline by 10.4 million and constitute slightly over 134 million people. Olga Samarina, of the department for socio-demographic policy at the Labor and Social Development Ministry, said that the population in the extreme north of the country might be reduced by 12 percent, the "Daily Report on Russia" reported on 17 May. Samarina noted that the life expectancy of Russian women now ranks 100th in the world, while Russian men rank 134th, RIA-Novosti reported 17 May. In March, the Russian State Statistics Committee released figures that by 2016 only 11 out of 89 federation subjects will have a satisfactory demographic situation. The highest growth rates are expected in Chechnya, Daghestan, Ingushetia, and Tuva. The biggest population drops are expected in the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as in the Ivanovo, Smolensk, Ryazan, Kaluga, and Novgorod oblasts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 March 2002).
At the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, on 9 July, it was announced that the AIDS epidemic is spreading faster in the former Soviet Union than anywhere else in the world, "The Guardian" reported on 10 July. This spread is likely to reach other parts of Europe. Speaking at the conference, Director of International Harm Reduction Development Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch said: "As a native of Poland, not only am I terrified at the prospect of the rapidly growing HIV epidemic, but I'm frustrated and angry as well.... The world celebrated with us when the Berlin Wall fell, and then left us alone to deal with the consequences." HIV infection has been doubling yearly in former Eastern-bloc countries for the past three years. In Ukraine, 1 percent of the country's 48 million population is believed to be infected with HIV (see Intercon's "Daily Report On Russia," 11 July 2002). Transmission of the disease is particularly high among drug users where one in four have contacted the disease. Dr. Malinowska-Sempruch said, "Economic despair, social dislocation, and easy access to heroin and other opiates have all contributed to an explosion of drug use." She added, "If the world is unable or unwilling to turn its attention to this region and offer help in dealing with this looming disaster, the consequences will be horrific," "The Guardian" reported.
The skyrocketing statistics of HIV infection in Russia, leave many researchers in near panic over future prospects. According to an 11 July article in "The Wall Street Journal," U.S. researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) working with their Russian counterparts conducted a survey among 400 homeless women in Moscow. While results of HIV infection among those studied were low, around 3 percent, their risky behavior and high rates of sexually transmitted disease are not a good harbinger. Since HIV can be transmitted sexually with risky behavior, the chance of the rapid spread of HIV remains high. According to the survey, 45 percent of women under 18 and 54 percent of adult women exchanged drugs or money for sex. Of those women, 38 percent tested positive for syphilis. Many of the women who sell themselves for sex in Moscow ply their trade near the train stations. "If you think about how central Moscow is and how the trains go everywhere," then it is easy to see how the virus could spread, Sevgi Aral, a CDC researcher involved in the study, told "The Wall Street Journal."
U.S. Ambassador to Russian Alexander Vershbow, in remarks titled "Russia, the United States and the Challenges of the 21st Century" made at the Moscow School of Political Studies on 22 July, asked a number of pressing questions related to the troubling statistics and trends. "It's precisely here, on the level of society, that Russia poses the greatest number of question marks. Some of the questions relate to the physical ravages of the Soviet past. Will Russia be able to cope with rising drug addiction, alcoholism, and the accelerating spread of HIV/AIDS? Will Russia be able to reverse the decline in life expectancy and low birth rates that threaten to reduce Russia's population from 140 to 100 million people by the middle of this century?"
These are questions that require a societal response in Russia. However the safe space for citizen discussions is continually restricted due to media restrictions and lack of development in civil society. Russia will also need international support and cooperation. All of this is linked to Russia's international standing and its perception as a cooperative member of the world community. Strides have been made in this positive image with the fight against terrorism, but Chechnya and construction of the Bushehr nuclear-power plant in Iran cloud that positive perception. Failure to reverse these trends threatens not only the economic life of the Russian state, but also its very existence. (PMJ)