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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 5, No. 12, 1 April 2003

A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team

A BOTTOMLESS WINDBAG? One of the most curious traits of public life in Belarus is the fact that the country's authoritarian system of power is fully reflected in the public political discourse. One has an irresistible impression that there is only one politician who speaks in Belarus, just as there is only one politician who rules and commands. This man is, of course, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who in the past eight years of his presidency has demonstrated a boundless verbal ingenuity in his addresses, speeches, lectures, interviews, and other public oratories. As testified by many independent sources, Lukashenka has an almost hypnotizing grip on his audiences. In an account that is both apocryphal and typical, a village babushka watching Lukashenka's address on television was asked what the president was talking about. "I don't know, but I would listen to him without end," she promptly replied.

Belarusian political observers unanimously agree that Lukashenka knows the mind of a (post-)Soviet man perfectly well and tells people exactly what they want to hear and in the idiom they consider to be their own. Lukashenka's command of the Russian language is far from being perfect, his phrases -- when he does not read from a prepared statement -- are usually very convoluted and grammatically defective, but he uses the words and verbal imagery that people have been used to hearing for years. And his verbal appeal is usually very emotional and linguistically lively, as well as littered with colloquialisms that favorably distinguish his speeches against the general background of uninspired speech making by other government officials (most of them are intellectual nonentities) or by well-educated but colorless opposition activists.

Lukashenka developed his taste for making speeches in the Supreme Soviet of the Belarusian SSR, to which he was elected in 1990 and where he reportedly fervently discussed all possible topics, including insemination of cows, exploration of space, national defense, and the spiritual revival of the nation. At that time, he was only a collective-farm manager but already had a great deal of experience in various low-key posts, including as an instructor in the Communist Youth League at a school, a political-propaganda officer in the Border Troops, and party secretary at a collective farm. It should be noted that Lukashenka graduated from the Pedagogical Institute in Mahileu (where he specialized in history) in 1975 and the Belarusian Agricultural Academy in 1985, after taking a three-year extramural course. His university education, however, does not show too much in his public speeches. Lukashenka gives the impression of being a poorly educated plebeian; his real strength seems to lie in his deep knowledge of the psychology of common people -- collective-farm and industrial-plant workers -- who form the backbone of his supporters in Belarus.

Lukashenka doubtless belongs to the most frequently quoted politicians in the media in the post-Soviet area. It is primarily because of his extravagant way of expressing himself, not because of the importance of what he says. His expressions are memorable owing almost exclusively to their funny and even bizarre character, not because of their intellectual quality. "I will not lead my nation after the civilized world," Lukashenka declared in one of his endless oratories. This phrase will hardly be included in the treasury of human wisdom, but it has already became a part of political folklore in the post-Soviet area. Some of Lukashenka's spontaneous verbal spurts are really hilarious: "In my childhood, I grew up among animals and plants," he confessed in one interview. Or take this: "I was born in this land, and I will die here, no matter how much this will cost me."

One of his descriptions of Belarus's democracy seems to be almost unrivalled: "We do not need democracy with hullabaloo. We do need the type of democracy where people get paid, even if not much but enough to buy bread, milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, and sometimes meat in order to feed their children. Well, as regards meat, let's not eat too much meat in summer." And Lukashenka's pledge to end the nation's economic hardships also seems to be quite precious: "The Belarusians will live poorly, but not for long."

Very often, when Lukashenka refers to the opposition, he likes to insert a word or two in Belarusian into his Russian flow. In this way, the Belarusian president points to the fact that the opposition is pointlessly pushing for a greater role for the Belarusian language in public life (which he and a large chunk of his Sovietized and Russianized electorate dislike so much). However, Lukashenka's Belarusian linguistic heritage and Belarusian accent often betray him and sometimes lead to nasty surprises.

One of Lukashenka's most famous quips -- a must-have in every compilation of Lukashenka's sayings on the Internet -- is connected with his inability (shared by most Belarusians) to pronounce the palatalized "r," which is pretty common in Russian but does not appear in the Belarusian phonetic system. "I regularly shake up all my staff and know exactly who tells lies and who doesn't!" Lukashenka said during one of his public appearances. The problem was, however, that he pronounced the word "peretRYAkhivat" (shake up) in the Belarusian way as "peretRAkhivat" (which in Russian slang means "to have sex"). What is more, he pronounced the word "vrYOt" ("he or she is lying" or "tells lies") as "vROt" (which means "into the mouth" in Russian). Thus, the seemingly innocent, even if emotional, phrase turned into a glaringly obscene one: "I screw all my staff regularly and know exactly who [takes] it in the mouth and who doesn't!"

On another occasion, his fondness for colloquialism resulted into a similarly censurable statement. Lukashenka was explaining how he dealt with the shortage of basic foods in Belarus. "As soon as I came to grips with eggs, butter disappeared," he confessed. But since he utilized the heavily colloquial word "yaitsa" (used primarily for denoting testicles in informal speech), many understood his phrase as: "As soon as I grabbed myself by the balls, butter disappeared."

Lukashenka seems to be almost inexhaustible in concocting funny and bizarre expressions and verbalizing unexpected ideas. ("Why are you kneeling before those crooks from the IMF?" he said in the Russian State Duma in 1999. "Why have you kneeled before them? Today, they got their hooks into you for $600 million. But one S-300 antiaircraft system costs $550 million. Sell two of them! Sell two of them, and you will resolve those problems!") The Belarusian president is a treasure trove for "Quotes of the Week" in "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report." Today, there is no "Quotes of the Week" section in our report, but it is only because a fresh and hefty batch of Lukashenka quotes was moved to the item below. Enjoy! (Jan Maksymiuk)


VAGARIES IN THE VERKHOVNA RADA. UNIAN reported that a group of opposition lawmakers on 6 March registered in the Verkhovna Rada a draft law titled "On Sending Ukraine's Peacekeeping Battalion to the Region of Military Operations in Iraq Under the Command of the Supreme Commander, Captain in the Reserves Leonid Kuchma." This legislative initiative apparently was in response to the then-discussed offer by President Leonid Kuchma to send a Ukrainian anti-nuclear, -bacteriological, and -chemical protection battalion to the Persian Gulf region (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 26 March 2003).

The bill provides for sending a Ukrainian battalion under the command of Kuchma to Iraq "to decontaminate the areas hit during military operations." It proposes to make Deputy Prime Minister for the humanities Dmytro Tabachnyk the battalion's deputy commander for political issues (commissar) and appoint presidential administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, Interior Minister Yuriy Smyrnov, and Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun as commanders of the battalion's companies. The bill ascribes the roles of the battalion's standard-bearer to National Security and Defense Council Secretary Yevhen Marchuk, supply officer to Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko, and intelligence officer to lawmaker Leonid Derkach (former head of Ukraine's Security Service). Lawmaker Oleksandr Volkov is to become responsible for providing the battalion with "dried fruit."

The opposition proposes to man the unit with the entire staff of the Council of National Security and Defense, the Defense Ministry leadership, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the presidential administration.

The document also envisions tasks for other people from the presidential entourage: Serhiy Vasilyev, head of the Information Policy Department in the presidential administration, is to become "the head of a group of drummers and torchbearers"; Ivan Chyzh, head of the State Committee for Broadcasting, is to report on "the heroic exploits" of the unit; lawmaker Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's former president, is to "revive" the Blasko flotilla (Ukraine's bankrupt shipping company) to cover the battalion in the Persian Gulf; lawmaker Oleksandr Kuzmuk is to provide air defense for the battalion; and former Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko is to ensure "international publicity" for the mission of the battalion in Iraq.

The draft legislation was reportedly cosponsored by lawmakers Mykhaylo Kosiv, Mykola Tomenko, Vasyl Chervoniy, and Volodymyr Yavorivskyy from Our Ukraine; Ivan Bokyy and Yuriy Lutsenko from the Socialist Party; Viktor Teren and Stepan Khmara from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc; and some others. Ukrainian media have so far not reported on whether the draft bill was submitted to any legislative debate. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"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.

OFFICIAL DENIES RUSSIA SUPPLIED ANTITANK WEAPONS TO IRAQ. Military strategist Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, who is known for his anti-Western position, has denied U.S. allegations that more than 1,000 Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles were supplied to Iraq via illegal weapons traders from Ukraine and Syria, ORT reported, citing "Newsweek," No. 14. Ivashov, who was responsible for Russian military-technical contacts abroad until 1999, said that during his tenure no Kornets were supplied to Iraq. Kornets were sold to other countries, "but completely legally," Ivashov said. He charged that Western arms producers are disseminating the allegations against Russia in order to hinder Russia's "legitimate arms trading." An unidentified spokesman for the Tula factory that produces the Kornet told ORT that "none of our products are in Iraq; otherwise, coalition losses would be much higher." VY

KYIV DENIES SELLING ANTITANK MISSILES TO IRAQ... Foreign Ministry spokesman Markiyan Lubkivskyy on 1 April denied that Ukraine has supplied antitank Kornet missiles to Iraq, UNIAN reported. "Newsweek" reported on 31 March that Iraq has purchased 1,000 laser-guided Kornet missiles. The magazine cited unidentified Pentagon generals as saying that Ukrainian dealers sold about 500 Kornets to Iraq in January. According to Lubkivskyy, the report is "yet another attempt" to undermine Ukraine's international standing. JM

...AND ALLOWING WASHINGTON TO MENTION UKRAINE AMONG 'COALITION OF THE WILLING.' Lubkivskyy also told journalists that the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has never asked the United States to consider Ukraine a member of the "anti-Iraqi coalition," according to UNIAN. He was apparently referring to a statement made on 29 March by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual, who said Kyiv consented to the U.S. request that Ukraine be mentioned during a speech U.S. President George W. Bush gave last week in Tampa, Florida, as a supporter of the U.S.-led military action against Iraq. JM

POLISH OFFICER GETS SUSPENDED SENTENCE FOR DISOBEYING ORDERS. Ryszard Chwastek, a retired army colonel, was sentenced by the Poznan District Military Court on 31 March to one year in prison suspended for two years, PAP reported. The court also ruled that he be demoted to a lower military rank. Chwastek was charged with organizing an unauthorized news conference on 6 August 2002, during which he accused the defense minister and high-ranking army officials of breaking the law and mismanaging reforms in the Polish armed forces (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 13 August 2002). JM

SLOVAKIA TO MODERNIZE BORDER CONTROLS. Slovakia will receive 48 million euros ($52 million) from the EU to monitor its border with Ukraine and combat illegal immigration, CTK reported on 31 March, citing Interior Minister Vladimir Palko. Slovakia must build a new border-control system equipped with radios and infrared sensors as a condition for accession to the EU, he said. Slovak President Rudolf Schuster visited the border crossing at Vysne Nemecke on 31 March and said he is happy the new controls will be enacted so Slovakia "does not bring shame on ourselves after accession to the European Union." Tibor Mako, head of Slovakia's border police, said some 2,399 illegal immigrants, mostly from Bangladesh and China, were caught trying to cross the Slovak-Ukrainian border in 2002, 450 more than in 2001. In 2000, police caught 6,000 people trying to cross the border illegally. BW