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FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER'S BLOC DRAFTS PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION LIST. The eponymous political bloc of former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko held a congress on 7 December, at which it approved the top 10 names on the bloc's list of candidates for the March 2006 parliamentary elections, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The list is topped by Tymoshenko, former Security Service chief and her closest aide Oleksandr Turchynov, former Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko, journalist Andriy Shevchenko, and parliamentary deputies Vasil Onopenko, Levko Lukyanenko, and Hryhoriy Omelchenko. The list is to be completed at a congress next week. Tymoshenko said on 7 December that if her bloc comes to power after the 2006 elections, she will give the opposition important prerogatives in forming the executive branch, including the right to nominate the prosecutor-general. At present the prosecutor-general is nominated by the president and appointed by the parliament. "We will build our legislation so that referendums will become such an everyday occurrence as breathing in fresh air," Tymoshenko pledged at the congress. Independent Ukraine held two nationwide referendums -- on 1 December 1991 and 16 April 2000. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which was in a coalition with Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine during last year's Orange Revolution, will run independently from the Our Ukraine Yushchenko Bloc in the 2006 elections. JM
KYIV SEES 'NO PROBLEMS' IN RUSSIAN GAS SHIPMENTS VIA UKRAINE IN 2006. Ukrainian First Deputy Foreign Minister Anton Buteyko told the Ekho Moskvy radio station on 7 December that he sees no obstacles to the transit of Russian gas to Europe through Ukrainian territory in 2006, Interfax reported. "Ukraine and Russia have agreements on the gas transportation mechanism and payments up to 2013," Buteyko said. "If we do not come to an agreement with Russia in the near future, the prices we have coordinated for this year will stay in effect. This is why I can see no problems that could lead to dramatic consequences for the EU and Ukraine." Russia's Gazprom reportedly wants Ukraine to pay $160 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2006, up from the $50 per 1,000 cubic meters paid under a current barter scheme involving Russian gas transit. The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian controversy over the 2006 gas price has spawned concerns that Russian gas transit to Europe via Ukraine may be disrupted in 2006. "Europeans are interested in receiving gas that flows freely [from Russia into the EU] via Ukraine. I hope this very convincing argument of the Europeans will get through to our Ukrainian friends and they will ensure such transit," Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told journalists in Brussels on 7 December. JM
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
SECURITY BILL TO CRIMINALIZE RANGE OF POLITICAL ACTIVITIES. The lower house of the Belarusian National Assembly, the Chamber of Representatives, on 2 December passed in its second reading a tough new security bill that, among other things, would make it a criminal offense both to discredit Belarus's standing abroad and to train people to take part in street demonstrations. Deputies approved the bill by a majority of 97 to four. Human rights activists say the amendments to the criminal law contained in the bill are politically motivated and aimed at undermining the opposition in the run-up to next year's presidential elections.
Human rights activists say they are in no doubt: The draconian new legislation approved so overwhelmingly by the Belarusian National Assembly is intended to stifle what little is left of free and open debate in Belarus.
A former judge of the Constitutional Court, Mikhail Pastukhou, was withering in his criticism. He told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service: "The adoption of such amendments means the de facto declaration of a state of emergency in Belarus. It forbids making all kinds of statements and inhibits the right to public assembly. There's not been a law like it anywhere else in the world."
This week, Aleh Hulak, Valyantsin Stefanovich, Hary Pahanyayla, and Dzmitry Markusheuski appealed to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to withdraw what they called his "politically motivated and repressive" bill.
Hulak tied the bill to next year's presidential election in Belarus. "We see no basis for the introduction of such harsh restrictions on public activities, or on the preparation of mass demonstrations," he said. "Our government does not even try to conceal that this is a response to the upcoming presidential election, and that these legislative amendments are being introduced in order to gain control over the situation."
Few doubt that they are pursuing a lost cause. The bill was submitted by the president and, observers say, will sail undisturbed through both houses of the National Assembly.
What worries human rights activists and opposition politicians in particular are two key points in the bill. The first is a sweeping catch-all amendment to the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, which would make it a punishable offense to discredit Belarus's standing abroad. The offense would be punishable by a prison sentence of up to six months.
Critics of the bill point out that its loose wording means it could be used to encompass virtually anything -- any criticism of the president, for instance, or of the political, economic, and social state of the country.
The second makes it a criminal offense to train people to take part in street protests, a clause that appears intended to crack down on the sort of youth movements that were so prominent in the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Kmara in Georgia and Pora in Ukraine played key roles in mobilizing youth activism.
With presidential elections due next year, President Lukashenka appears intent on stifling any home-grown youth movements before they can become a threat. The proposed legislation would impose a prison sentence of up to two years for training people to take part in street protests and other "group activities that flagrantly violate the public peace."
Stepan Sukhorenko, head of the KGB, as the Belarusian security service is still known, this week accused two youth groups, the Youth Front and Zubr of using foreign help to form their organizational core and prepare the ground for mass protests among the young.
Belarus, he said, had to defend itself against unprecedented pressure from abroad -- in particular the United States. The bill would make it easier to crack down on crimes against the state and its ruling bodies, which created the preconditions for foreign pressure. The security services would, he said, take tough but legal action to prevent any disruption of next year's elections. The new legislation moving its way through parliament will undoubtedly facilitate the KGB's task.
Deputy Justice Minister Alyaksandr Petrash joined Sukhorenko in defense of the bill. "I don't have any worries concerning the adoption of this law," he said. "You don't say bad things about your family in public, do you, so don't say bad things about your republic, when it's not really true."
Journalists too find themselves in Lukashenka's firing line. The legislation would make it an offense to call on foreign states or organizations to take measures detrimental to Belarus -- and to disseminate information publicizing such appeals.
The bill now goes to the upper house, the Council of the Republic, for final approval. (Robert Parsons -- RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)
REGIONAL LEADERS SET UP COMMUNITY OF DEMOCRATIC CHOICE. A two-day forum aimed at promoting democracy and human rights in a region that spent decades under totalitarian rule concluded on 2 December in Kyiv with the official birth of the Community of Democratic Choice. In spite of assurances from founding members, the new grouping -- which comprises nine countries from the Balkan, Baltic, and Black Sea regions -- is perceived as an attempt to limit Russia’s influence on the post-Soviet area.
Participants in the forum included the presidents of Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, and Macedonia.
Government delegations from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland also attended the gathering, along with observers from the United States, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Addressing the forum , Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told the 120 participants that the Community of Democratic Choice would focus on three main objectives -- the promotion of democratic values, regional stability, and economic prosperity.
"I'm convinced that the discussion at our forum today is about something more than democracy," said Yushchenko. "In fact, real rapprochement is taking place between our nations in their common desire to strengthen democracy, stability, and economic development.
He continued: "I'm convinced that it is these basic values that are to become a foundation for our partnership, both between states and between peoples, in the 21st century."
Yushchenko paid tribute to his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, for "inspiring" the two-day forum.
The basic principles of the Community of Democratic Choice are contained in a joint statement signed by Saakashvili and Yushchenko last August in the Georgian resort town of Borjomi.
The Borjomi Declaration, as the joint statement is known, envisions the Community of Democratic Choice as a "powerful instrument for removing the remaining divisions in the [Baltic-Black Sea] region, human rights violations, and any type of confrontation, or frozen conflict."
Participants in the Kyiv forum adopted a final declaration in which they vowed to work closely together "with a view to strengthening peace, democracy, and prosperity on the European continent."
Of the nine founding members of the Community of Democratic Choice, two -- Georgia and Moldova -- are confronted with unresolved separatist conflicts, which started during the period of turmoil that preceded the Soviet collapse.Both Moldova and Georgia accuse Russia of secretly supporting their breakaway regions of Transdniester, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.
Yushchenko today hinted Ukraine and Georgia might use the new grouping to attempt to internationalize their respective sovereignty disputes. He said the Community of Democratic Choice would put a particular emphasis on conflict resolution.
"The achievement of stability -- in particular through the regulation of existing conflicts -- will create prerequisites for opening up the significant economic potential of our region," said Yushchenko. "In this way, we will foster political, security, and economic rapprochement between the Western and Eastern part of the European continent, and the development of each nation."
Some political commentators -- especially in Russia -- believe the Community of Democratic Choice aims primarily at weakening Moscow's influence in the Black Sea region.
Others, like former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovskii, see the new grouping as overtly pro-American.
In comments made to Russia's "strana.ru" information website on 1 December, Pavlovskii said he believed the Community of Democratic Choice would "serve as an antechamber for Ukraine to join NATO."
Yushchenko said the new grouping should not be seen as directed against either Moscow or the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.
"Our initiative is not directed against any third countries or institutions," he said. "On the contrary, I see the Community of Democratic Choice as open dialogue between friends, adherents of ideas for promoting democracy and the supremacy of law."
In spite of Yushchenko's remarks, the Kyiv gathering has not been warmly welcomed by Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly declined an invitation to attend the forum, sending an embassy official in his place.
A headline on Russia's "gazeta.ru" information website today referred to the new grouping as "The Unfriendly Community."
"Gazeta.ru" commentator Ilya Zhegulyev wrote: "Hiding behind democratic slogans," all of the members of the Community of Democratic Choice will use the forum to "voice their grievances toward Moscow."
Some Ukrainian commentators also believe the new forum challenges Russia's leadership in the region.
"Yushchenko and his friends have set up a new CIS," wrote the "Ukrayinska Pravda" electronic newspaper after the forum ended.
Talking to reporters in Kyiv on 1 December, Georgia's State Minister Giorgi Baramidze -- who is in charge of his country's European integration -- readily admitted the new alliance was being formed, if not to confront Russia, then at least to counterbalance its influence.
"We're talking here of political interests and ties that are still in the making," said Baramidze. "It is extremely important that we should know who’s going where, because, democracy-wise, Russia is in a very difficult situation today -- to put it mildly. In nearly all domains, we can often see alarming signs of authoritarianism [there]."
Eastern European participants to the Kyiv gathering vowed to help Georgia and Ukraine continue their rapprochement with the West.
Addressing the forum, Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek said that Europe "cannot afford" to remain divided between prosperous and safe countries on the one hand, and nations "with low quality of life and no security" on the other.
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin in turn called for the Community of Democratic Choice to develop its own institutions.
"I believe that our community, representing as it does a possibility for integrating those countries that have chosen a European orientation, should [consider] creating its own parliamentary assembly and synchronizing its markets and human resources," said Voronin.
"That would help our countries to adapt in the event they later join the European Union. If [EU membership] does not happen [quickly], that would still give those countries whose entry remains a longer-term objective the possibility to develop with dignity."
In their final declaration, the Democratic Choice Community country members said they would meet again in Bucharest in March 2006. Vilnius and Tbilisi will host two other regional forums later that year. (Jean-Christophe Peuch -- RFE/RL correspondent Viktor Minyaylo contributed to this report from Kyiv.)
STATE OF EMERGENCY DECLARED OVER BIRD-FLU OUTBREAK. Ukraine's parliament on 6 December approved President Viktor Yushchenko's proposal to declare a state of emergency in three districts of the Crimean Peninsula following an outbreak of bird flu. Yushchenko has toured the affected region and said the outbreak was the result of a "miscalculation" by veterinary authorities. The president promised to take all possible measures to stop the spread of the deadly virus. More than 2,000 domestic birds are estimated to have been killed by the virus, and authorities have killed an additional 22,000 domestic birds following searches of houses in the area. However, no human infections have been recorded in the country.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said that "radical measures" are being taken to contain the bird-flu outbreak in the country.
Ukraine officially recorded its first case of bird flu on 3 December. Six villages -- home to some 6,969 people -- located in the marshlands near the country's southeastern Syvash Bay have been affected.
The reaction since the official announcement was swift. Nineteen medical teams were dispatched to the villages, and some 901 people -- including 150 children --who may have handled sick birds are under medical observation.
However, local residents say that birds began dying in September and that much more could have been done to prevent an outbreak. Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that in October they began recording large numbers of dead birds near Sivash Bay -- a popular stopover for birds migrating between Russia and Africa or the Middle East.
The government has promised to compensate for losses, but farmers whose poultry have died say it is too little. Oleg Putrin, a resident of the village of Nekrasovka, told Reuters news agency that the money ($2 per chicken and $4 per goose) would not cover his losses.
"What they are paying us [for the birds] is a joke. I can't buy any bird for that money. Not even talking about the bird feed I wasted," Putrin said. "They had to do it a month ago. But they [veterinarians] first came and said that birds were dying because they had eaten something bad. Then they suggested something else. If they had just started to take this measures in time, it would have helped."
Yushchenko apparently addressed concerns over the response of the regional veterinary services by firing the country's chief veterinary inspector, Petro Verbytskyy.
The president also sought to reassure the Ukrainian population yesterday by outlining the steps the country has taken to stem the outbreak.
"Today, the issue is absolutely under control," Yushchenko said. "The birds are being destroyed and by 12 December all residents, first of all children, will be vaccinated. Therefore, we can say that Ukraine has dealt with this problem in a very organized way."
Yuriy Yakymenko, director of political and legal programs at the Oleksandr Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies in Kyiv, says the immediate response to the outbreak has been satisfactory.
"I think the reaction of the Ukrainian president and the Ukrainian government to the situation on the whole was adequate to its gravity," Yakymenko said. "It also includes the declaration of a state of emergency, which still needs to be approved by the parliament. However it should be said that the president's decision to remove the head of the [State] Veterinary Service indicates that the measures taken were not enough."
Many things remain unknown. A special adviser to the head of the World Organization for Animal Health, Alex Theirmann, told RFE/RL that tests are being conducted on to determine the exact strain of virus that is killing the birds in Ukraine.
"It [a sample of the flu strain found in Ukraine] has been sent to the research laboratory just to confirm and make sure that we're dealing with the virus that we thought we had in the neighboring countries, meaning H5N1," Theirmann said. "The additional tests are being conducted and then it will be confirmed. It is very likely that it is H5N1 because it has been found in neighboring countries, but we have to characterize every isolate [isolated strain] and make sure we know what we are dealing with and also make sure that we know whether the virus is changing or not."
H5N1 is a type of bird flu that has mutated and has killed at least 68 people since it emerged in Asia in 2003. The deadly H5N1 strain has been recorded in birds in Romania, Turkey, Croatia, and Russia.
Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Oleksandr Baranivskyy has described the virus found in the Crimea as "highly pathogenic." He said birds were dying after being exposed to the flu for no more than two to eight hours.
Researchers in Britain and Italy are expected to announce the results of the tests by 8 December. (Valentinas Mite)
"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.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT SATISFIED AFTER TALKS ON GAS PRICES WITH UKRAINIAN COUNTERPART. After a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on 7 December, Vladimir Putin said he is pleased with Kyiv's readiness to liberalize prices on Russian natural gas supplies and transit fees, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported the same day, citing the Kremlin press service. The Kremlin press service said experts will continue discussing the technicalities of issue. The details of the conversation between Yushchenko and Putin are unclear. Gazprom has been supplying natural gas to Ukraine under a barter agreement for $50 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom is seeking to raise the price to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is roughly the market price in Europe. Ukraine said it would agree to the price hike if Gazprom agreed to pay transit fees of $3.50 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers to transport gas across Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has said that it would agree to gradual price increases on some gas items (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2005). In a press release on the previous day, Gazprom sharply criticized Ukraine. "Another round of talks between Gazprom and the Ukrainian delegation brought no result, despite the Ukrainian leadership's assertions [of its readiness] to resolve shortly the issues of gas supplies and transit on the basis of market principles," the company said in a news release cited by RIA-Novosti. BW
AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION LEADERS MEET WITH U.S. AMBASSADOR. The leaders of the opposition Azadlyq election bloc -- including AHCP progressive wing Chairman Kerimli -- and of the National Unity movement met on 7 December with U.S. Ambassador Reno Harnish to discuss the political situation after the 6 November parliamentary ballot, echo-az.com and zerkalo.az reported on 8 December. In the course of what Kerimli subsequently implied was a heated discussion, the opposition leaders again accused the United States of double standards in officially endorsing Azerbaijani election returns that the opposition insists were falsified, after having supported opposition protests against similar falsification in Georgia in November 2003 and Ukraine last year. Democratic Party of Azerbaijan First Deputy Chairman Sardar Djalalologlu told day.az on 7 December that Harnish was unable to respond to their questions regarding the rationale for Washington's actions. Kerimli told journalists after the meeting that Harnish expressed the hope that those few opposition candidates elected will participate in the work of the new parliament, but that he responded that doing so is "utterly meaningless" as the election results were manipulated to deprive so many winning opposition candidates of their mandates, zerkalo.az reported. LF
What Kazakhstan's 4 December presidential election lacked in suspense, it recouped in symbolic significance. The unsurprising result effectively changed nothing -- President Nursultan Nazarbaev, a hale and hearty 65, augmented a decade and a half in power with another seven-year term. But for all its predictability, the election neatly symbolized where Kazakhstan stands today under Nazarbaev, just as it signaled the problems that may arise over the next seven years.
Preliminary official results, announced by the Central Election Commission on 5 December, gave the incumbent president 91 percent of the vote. His leading challenger, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan, garnered a mere 6.6 percent. The commission put turnout at 6.7 million, or 75 percent of those registered.
The OSCE's preliminary assessment, made available on the organization's website (http://www.osce.org) on 5 December, stated, "Despite some improvements in the administration of this election in the pre-election period, the presidential election did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections."
The candidates offered their own clashing assessments. President Nazarbaev called the election a vote for stability, unity, and modernization. Echoing the central theme of his campaign, he said, "Kazakhstan has voted for me so I can use this mandate in the next seven years to implement the reforms that I have planned, including the economic modernization of the country to help Kazakhstan become one of the world's 50 most competitive countries," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported.
Tuyakbai, a former Nazarbaev ally who split with the president after the September 2004 parliamentary elections, lambasted the authorities for "unprecedented violations of the constitution," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. His campaign issued a bitterly worded statement warning that "the decision made by the authorities marks a new period in Kazakhstan's history, when the authoritarian system is openly transformed into a totalitarian one." But while Tuyakbai promised to file protests over violations, he seemed to rule out street protests, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. "We can, if necessary, bring thousands into the streets...but we have decided not to do this," he said.
In fact, as the 4 December election demonstrates, Nursultan Nazarbaev bestrides Kazakh politics like a colossus. All views of Nazarbaev, from the most positive to the most negative, confirm his dominant position. In the former, he is simply beloved of 90 percent of Kazakhstan's population. In the latter, he is a malign mastermind capable of bending the electoral system to his will.
A compromise view would note a preelection poll by the U.S.-based survey group Intermedia finding 70 percent support for Nazarbaev, factor in some skepticism on the basis of a residual Soviet tendency toward political conformity, allow for the manipulations of the democratic process described in the OSCE's preliminary report, and conclude that while Nazarbaev would almost certainly have won a fully free and fair election, the political system he has overseen for the past decade 1) rendered an unblemished ballot unlikely, and 2) ensured long before the election began that the president would face scant opposition. In all three cases, Nazarbaev stands alone at center stage.
Among the challenges facing Nazarbaev as he embarks on his new term is managing Kazakhstan's transformation into one of the world's leading oil producers and exporters. As virtually every news report in the lead-up to the election hastened to mention, Kazakhstan aims to triple its oil production to 3 million barrels a day by 2015, securing it a place among the world's top 10 producers.
A number of tasks loom on the energy-sector horizon. The first is the diversification of export routes, with pipelines to China and exports to the West through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline intended to reduce dependency on Russia. Nazarbaev has already proved himself adept at the "multivector" diplomacy required to balance relations with Russia, China, and the West, and while the next stage will surely test his skills, not only is there every reason to believe that he is up to the task, his dominant position in Kazakh politics will likely ease it for him.
The same cannot be said about another energy-sector task -- ensuring that the country's oil potential is used to encourage economic diversification with an eye to including as broad a swath of the population as possible in the windfall. A competitive and representative political arena would create natural pressures for taking such steps. An all-powerful president who faces no competitors of comparable stature, oversees a pliant legislature, and personally controls the appointment of virtually all top officials may certainly take the same steps.
But with benevolence the only guarantee that he will do so, the unquestioned leader may just as easily end up atop a pyramid of patronage, with the issue of succession gradually eclipsing long-promised political reforms as he moves into his twilight years.
The real question raised by Kazakhstan's election and Nazarbaev's 90 percent victory is, of course, that of political reforms. For his part, Nazarbaev has consistently promised gradual reform with an emphasis on economics above politics. Now, a paradox prevails. A basic premise of democracy is that, human nature being what it is, a genuinely competitive political system is the only way to keep politicians honest. The paradox in Kazakhstan today is that Nazarbaev's landslide reelection, however one explains its causes, demonstrates a lack of competitiveness in the political system, which, in turn, underscores that any impetus for reform will have to come from Nazarbaev himself, and not the system he has thus far labored to create.
The broader question concerns the general thrust of post-Soviet democratization. Political upheaval in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05 highlighted the risk of catastrophic failure that comes with "managed democracy," in which ruling elites accept elections as necessary for legitimacy but do everything in their power to predetermine the outcome. But what happens when the system avoids catastrophic failure? Does it tend toward gradual reform? Or does it degenerate, ensuring ever more splendid victories for the status quo even as it undermines competitiveness and thus retains the risk of an eventual catastrophic failure?
Nazarbaev provided a clue to his own vision of the future in remarks he delivered in Astana on 5 December. Addressing his supporters, he said that he harbors no ill will toward the 9 percent of voters who cast their ballots against him, Interfax reported. "I know they have problems," he said, promising to "help them find jobs, supply drinking water, and protect our children and those not able to work." More to the point, Nazarbaev affirmed his faith in the disgruntled 9 percent, as "Kommersant-Daily" reported. "I'm sure that in time these Kazakhstanis will support me as well," he said.