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Skepticism -- or even cynicism -- has been a common reaction in Russia to the recent Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine, and the pensioners' protests that have shut down streets in dozens of Russian cities over the past month are eliciting much the same reaction -- at least within Russian officialdom.
During the Kyiv protests, many Russian policymakers and pundits voiced the belief that the West, specifically the CIA and/or the Soros Foundation, orchestrated the appearance of thousands of people on the streets of the Ukrainian capital. Now, the pensioners' protests are likewise seen not as a spontaneous expression of dissatisfaction but rather as a series of "provocations" organized by political opportunists.
In an interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 17 January, Moscow Oblast First Deputy Governor Aleksei Panteleev voiced exactly this idea. "Forces -- for whom the main concern is not the protection of their fellow citizens' interests but their own political [public relations] -- often exploit the mood of protestors, or sometimes [their motivation] is even worse: a provocative desire 'to rock the boat' in a city or raion," Panteleev said. He added that he has held meetings with a number of political organizations active in the oblast and that "extremists" were "warned not to indulge in provocations or they would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
According to Panteleev, who was filling in for vacationing Moscow Oblast Governor Boris Gromov, "[The] law enforcement organs have videotapes of all those people younger than pension age who are traveling back and forth from city to city, inciting the population to block streets and engage in other violations of the law. They have been detained in accordance with the law." Earlier, Gromov declared that it is not "the pensioners who are guilty, but the provocateurs."
In St. Petersburg, Governor Valentina Matvienko appeared to have been given the same set of talking points. She told reporters on 17 January that "St Petersburg's law and order agencies will take strict measures against people who provoke pensioners to carry out illegal actions," ITAR-TASS reported. "I want to give assurances that no force will be used against people attending rallies," Matvienko told reporters. "However, there are those who are making use of this situation to reap false political dividends."
According to gazeta.ru on 18 January and "Kommersant-Daily" on 19 January, Matvienko ordered local police to arrest only young people and to ignore elderly demonstrators. Representatives of the city prosecutor's office quoted by lenta.ru on 19 January appeared to follow that distinction between youthful organizers and old participants, saying that administrative cases are being brought only "against the organizers of the actions, not the participants, the majority of whom are pensioners."
Police in St. Petersburg detained eight people on 18 January for organizing unsanctioned meetings. In a program aired on 20 January, Maksim Reznik, chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko, told RFE/RL's St. Petersburg bureau that police targeted not only young people but also older citizens, and not only individuals known to have connections with existing political organizations but also people who assumed any kind of organizational role in the protests. For example, the police picked up 67-year-old pensioner Galina Tolmacheva, who was not associated with any political structure but had telephoned some 600 people asking them to participate in an unauthorized protest in front of St. Petersburg's city administration offices. She has alleged that she was beaten by police officers at the police station until she lost consciousness.
On 19 January, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin jumped on the provocateur-theory bandwagon, telling reporters in Moscow that the protesting pensioners "have organizers, and highly skilled ones at that," ITAR-TASS reported. According to Kudrin, the Communist Party (KPRF) and National Bolshevik Party created schedules for blocking roads that were posted on the Internet. In Samara Oblast, oblast prosecutor Aleksandr Yefremov claimed that his office had information that the National Bolshevik Party was among the main organizers of rallies in the oblast capital of Samara, Ekho Moskvy reported on 12 January. Later that day National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov told the station that this was news to him, although he would be delighted if it turned out to be the case. Oleg Kulikov, secretary of the KPRF's Central Committee, did take credit for the protests in Samara in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 January. He said the KPRF encouraged hundreds of protestors to block the streets of Samara and that it also played a role in organizing large protests in Ufa.
Despite Kulikov's claims, some news reports suggest that the Communist Party is responding to events rather than leading them. After all, the party failed last July in its bid to launch a national protest against the benefits reform. "Moskovskii komsomolets" charged on 18 January that the KPRF Central Committee appears to "have been caught off-guard by events." According to the daily, in some regions, pensioners are carrying Communist Party banners, but this is due only to the initiative of the local KPRF organizers. The daily reported that when Communists from Izhevsk in Udmurtia telephoned the Central Committee with questions regarding organizing a protest in Udmurtia, they received no clear instructions.
Rather than organizing events, the Communist Party might be trying to gain political capital from the protests after the fact. Ekho Moskvy reported from St. Petersburg on 15 January that leaders of the Communist Workers' Party and members of the National Bolshevik Party showed up at the rally that day long after it had already started. In an interview with "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 18 January, 64-year-old Olga Fedorova, who is facing administrative sanctions regarding her role in Khimki protests in Moscow Oblast, said that "all the talk about 'young instigators' is rubbish."
Fedorova said she telephoned some of her acquaintances about the 10 January meeting at the Leningrad Highway and didn't expect more than 20 people to be there. According to police reports, around 2,000 people took part. When she arrived with a megaphone in hand, people approached her asking if she was in charge; but she arrived after the highway was blocked. The police picked her up the next day in the hallway of her apartment building. She denied having been at the demonstration, but the police told her that they had her image on film.
According to the daily, Fedorova supports Viktor Anpilov's Working Russia Party, but her motivation to protest was more personal than political. With a 1,500 ruble ($54) monthly pension, she could no longer afford her daily visits to relatives in the city of Moscow. She commented at the end of her interview with the daily, "It would be strange if people with a 1,500-ruble-a-month pension didn't protest."
KREMLIN WARY OF NEW UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT
Newly inaugurated Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko traveled to Moscow on 24 January to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a gesture designed to allay Moscow's concerns that Kyiv has turned decisively to the West. By keeping a campaign promise that his first official trip abroad would be to Russia, Yushchenko helped Putin save face after a Ukrainian election campaign in which the Kremlin -- and Putin personally -- threw complete support behind former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
The Russian Foreign Ministry played up the significance of Yushchenko's visit, while ignoring the Kremlin's open interference in the election campaign. "Russia and Ukraine live together side by side, our peoples are linked by thousands of bonds, and the economies are interdependent in the good sense of the word," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 19 January, according to ITAR-TASS. "Therefore there is nothing unnatural in the fact that the first visit will be to Russia."
Behind the scenes, however, the Kremlin is indubitably wary of Yushchenko's unabashedly pro-European rhetoric and will likely seek to restrain the new president's enthusiasms. On 23 January, ITAR-TASS quoted Yushchenko as saying that he intended to propose to Putin "a new format of negotiations for the deepening of relations," but many in the Kremlin are more interested in finding ways of compelling Yushchenko to stick to the old formats of relations between the two countries.
Yushchenko's comments on the eve of his Moscow trip touched in general terms on all that the two countries have in common, while dwelling in detail on problems in bilateral relations, including particularly the need to shore up "the strategic interests of Ukraine as the major transit country for oil and natural gas in Europe."
Yushchenko was even more direct in comments published in the 31 December issue of "Der Spiegel." "Our strategy aims to achieve European integration and this is the framework in which we need to resolve all problems together with Russia," he told the German weekly. "We would like to encourage mutual investments, removing trade barriers, and resolving problems associated with the influx of workers. There is, however, one condition: Putin must not block our way into the European Union."
Many in Moscow certainly chafe at hearing Ukrainian officials dictating "conditions" to the Russian president, especially with the Kremlin's setback in Ukraine coming so close on the heels of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution. The nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) on 23 January held a demonstration outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow, with LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii asserting that "Kyiv is a Russian city and the Dnepr is a Russian river," RIA-Novosti reported. "There is no such thing as Ukraine, and a Russian governor should sit in Kyiv, as well as in Minsk. Russia's borders in the west are Warsaw and Helsinki."
While such extremist rhetoric is far out of the mainstream in Moscow, the Russian capital remains a place where establishment politicians and pundits can make such inflammatory claims, which play well with a large segment of the Russian public.
However, Russia's position on Yushchenko is not unambiguous, as many analysts have argued that some key Russian businesspeople quietly supported Yushchenko even as the Kremlin backed Yanukovych. Such businesspeople are purportedly motivated by a desire to use Ukraine as a sort of backdoor for expanding their business connections with the European Union and for getting them beyond the confines of the Kremlin-controlled Single Economic Space.
Vyacheslav Igrunov of Moscow's International Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies told RBK-TV on 27 December that many Russian businesspeople backed Yushchenko precisely because they believe he will "yield to pressure from the United States, Poland, and the EU to move away from the Single Economic Space with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan."
Yushchenko's 24 January visit to Moscow, while of symbolic importance to the Kremlin, is clearly just the beginning of a complicated period in bilateral relations and most likely does not signal that relations between Kyiv and Moscow will continue as they were under former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Russian analysts have not forgotten that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made a trip to Moscow immediately following his inauguration in January 2004 and that he publicly shook hands with Putin and exchanged professions of friendship -- but relations between Tbilisi and Moscow were not made any smoother by these gestures.
The European Union is struggling to find its feet in the aftermath of the Ukrainian electoral crisis.
The success of Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's presidential elections, coming just a year after the similar triumph of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, has caught the bloc off guard. The EU finds itself ill prepared for requests for closer ties coming from both leaders and fears a confrontation with Russia.
These tensions were abundantly in evidence on 25 January as the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, addressed the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in Brussels. Much of her discussion with the European deputies revolved around Russia and Ukraine.
Ferrero-Waldner said Russia must not view the EU's evolving neighborhood policy -- targeting, among others, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus -- as something that is designed to reduce Moscow's influence.
"We have witnessed the emergence of a more assertive and generally also well-articulated Russian foreign policy vis-a-vis the new independent states," Ferrero-Waldner said. "Our challenge now is to try to reverse Russia's drift to a bloc mentality. I think our priority must be to find ways to overcome Russia's very defensive behavior and especially the idea that this is a zero-sum attitude to cooperation with the European Union in [its] New Neighborhood countries. And also to be able to realize our ambitions in the European Neighborhood Policy, which, of course, go out also to Moldova and go out also to Belarus [as well as Ukraine]."
Ferrero-Waldner said Russia remains an important "strategic political partner" for the EU, as well as a key market. But, she warned, the EU must send Russia "solid messages," with the whole bloc standing by jointly agreed positions. This is a reference to recurring differences among EU member states over how to treat Russia.
Ferrero-Waldner said on 25 January that the EU must cooperate especially closely within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which so far has been the leading forum for discussing issues related to Russia and its neighbors.
She said the EU has in the past "tried very hard" to negotiate solutions to conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Moldova. But, she noted, there was "not enough political will." She said the EU "must do its best to speak with one voice."
Speaking before the same parliamentary committee on 24 January, the EU's foreign-policy coordinator, Javier Solana, appeared to rule out a direct EU role in the region's conflicts.
Ferrero-Waldner said she will visit Moscow in early March. She said a "lot of patience" will be needed to enlist Russia's cooperation, but that the EU expects to overcome Moscow's resistance and will continue to pursue its neighborhood policy.
"We know that it is not easy for Russia, as there is a feeling that we encroach too strongly upon their 'sphere,'" Ferrero-Waldner said. "But on the other hand, it is extremely important to lead these countries again toward us. And this is actually the very idea behind the neighborhood policy. I hope that we can make headway here, even if slowly."
Meanwhile, the EU is continuing to fight off pressure to agree that countries such as Ukraine have an eventual right to membership of the bloc.
Ferrero-Waldner called on 25 January for a "pragmatic and realistic" approach, saying the EU is still struggling to digest last year's 10 entrants. She said many possibilities other than membership are open to Ukraine, adding the EU is not prepared to go beyond the action plan presently being offered to Kyiv.
Although Ukraine's new leadership has not directly raised the issue of EU membership, President Yushchenko has made it clear he sees his country's future in full integration with Euro-Atlantic structures.
The EU's basic treaty says that every European country can apply for membership. Ferrero-Waldner repeated this on 25 January on several occasions, but refrained from describing Ukraine as a European state. A European Commission spokeswoman said later that the commission has "no opinion" at the present time on whether Ukraine is a European country.
Privately, officials speak of a "triangular" relationship with Ukraine, acknowledging an important role for Moscow. Yushchenko -- who addressed the European Parliament in Brussels on 26 January -- is being praised by EU officials for having paid his first visit abroad to Moscow on 24 January.
Solana indicated that the EU is unwilling to address the issue of formally upgrading its relations with Ukraine until 2008.
...AND FOR ADVERTISING TO USE ONLY BELARUSIAN MODELS. During the discussion of human trafficking, President Lukashenka ordered that billboards in Belarus feature only Belarusian models, because this would help prevent women from accepting dubious jobs abroad, Belapan reported. He noted that he suggested the same thing last year to the Chamber of Representatives but instead of executing his directive they simply removed billboards from the streets. Last year, Lukashenka ordered the mayor of Minsk to remove French models "with grimy faces" on billboards along his route to work and employ Belarusian beauties to advertise domestic watches. "Take photos of our girls to advertise watches of our enterprise [the Luch plant in Minsk]," Lukashenka stressed (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 23 November 2004). JAC
BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVIST SEEKS POLITICAL ASYLUM IN UKRAINE. An activist in Zhodzina, east of Minsk, for the opposition United Civic Party, Alyaksandr Vauchanin, has applied for political asylum in Ukraine, Belapan reported on 27 January. Vauchanin charged that an unnamed secret-service officer told him that the authorities may orchestrate his killing in retaliation for his political and human rights activities. He added that he has faced increased pressure since taking part in protests supporting Viktor Yushchenko in Kyiv in 2004. Vauchanin said that he supported Lukashenka in 1994 and 2001, and helped collect signatures to get him "on the ballot as an opposition candidate," despite government harassment. "Years have passed since then and now Mr. Lukashenka treats his opponents in the same manner," Vauchanin said. "Has he forgotten everything?" JAC
UKRAINIAN COURT STOPS STEEL GIANT'S PRIVATIZATION TO KUCHMA, YANUKOVYCH CRONIES. A district court in Kyiv has blocked the final transfer of a 93.02 percent stake in Kryvorizhstal steelmaker to the Investment-Metallurgical Union (IMS), Interfax and the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) reported. Investment-Metallurgical Union represents the interests of Interpipe corporation, which is owned by former President Leonid Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, and the System Capital Management company, which is controlled by Rynat Akhmetov, a longtime associate of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 15 June 2004). In August, then presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko said that his Our Ukraine bloc considered the Kryvorizhstal privatization illegal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 2004). He said that the company was worth $4 billion-$5 billion but was bought by IMS for only $800 million, despite other bids of up to $1.2 billion. IMS has 15 days to appeal the court decision. Kryvorizhstal employs some 52,000 people and produces roughly one-third of Ukraine's steel, according to dpa. JAC
YUSHCHENKO MEETS WITH EUROPEAN LEADERS AT AUSCHWITZ. During a visit to Krakow, Poland, on 27 January, Ukrainian President Yushchenko met with the leaders of Poland, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and the Czech Republic as well as U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Ukrainian Television and Interfax reported. Yushchenko was in Poland to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Yushchenko recalled that his father, Andriy, was a camp inmate, and he vowed to fight anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine. Following his meeting with Cheney, Yushchenko said that he assured the U.S. vice president that Ukraine "has changed a lot over the past few months" and is "capable of pursuing an effective, responsible policy." According to AP, Cheney, wearing a bright orange tie, declared that "the world has been inspired by the remarkable images from Ukraine in recent months." The meeting between the two men lasted twice as long as scheduled, according to the agency. JAC
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT DISMISSES THREE GOVERNORS. President Yushchenko has accepted the resignations of three regional governors: Luhansk Oblast Governor Oleksandr Yefremov, Poltava Oblast Governor Oleksandr Udovichenko, and Kirovohrad Oblast Governor Vasyl Kompaniets, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 27 January, citing the presidential press service. Udovichenko, 47, had been governor since June 2003, while Kompaniets, 50, spent less than a year in office, according to Ukrayinski novini. JAC
TRANSPORT MINISTER'S DEATH RULED SUICIDE. Law-enforcement officials have decided that the 27 December death of Ukrainian Transport Minister Heorhiy Kirpa, 58, was a suicide, UNIAN reported on 27 January, citing the Kyiv-based daily "Segodnya" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2004). Kirpa fired one shot that killed him instantly. JAC
...AS SMIRNOV THREATENS TO SEND ARMY TO RIVER DNIESTER... In an interview with the Russian daily "Novye izvestiya," separatist leader Igor Smirnov said Transdniester would move its army to the banks of Dniester River if an attempt is made to send an international peacekeeping contingent to the region, Flux reported. Smirnov also said that Chisinau has brought relations between the sides to "the brink of war" and that he does not rule out a final break in negotiations, the Romanian daily "Ziua" reported on 28 January. He said Transdniester opposes any presence of peacekeepers other than the Russian contingent currently stationed there or of Ukrainian troops. Smirnov said that only the presence of Russian troops guarantees that fighting does not resume. He also said he is confident that new Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko would never allow Moldovan customs officials on Ukrainian territory for the purpose of setting up joint Moldovan-Ukrainian customs checkpoints, as advocated by Chisinau. Smirnov said this would encroach on the Ukrainian Constitution and would damage Ukrainian interests "more than our own interests." MS