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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.
PARTIES GET DOWN TO CRUCIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN. Ukraine has started its campaign for next year's parliamentary elections. They will be the country's first under a fully proportional, party-list system. And with a constitutional reform taking effect on 1 January 2006, they are expected to produce a legislature with much heavier political clout than all the previous ones.
Earlier this month, Ukraine's three most important political forces held conventions to approve their lists of candidates for the 26 March 2006 ballot.
The Party of Regions, led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and President Viktor Yushchenko's main rival in the 2004 presidential election, approved its list on 3 December.
The Party of Regions now leads in public opinion polls, enjoying support of around 25 percent of the electorate. A recent simulation by the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiative Fund (FDI) pollster suggests that Yanukovych's party could count on 165 mandates in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada.
The pro-presidential Our Ukraine People's Union (NSNU) also put together its election list on 3 December.
The NSNU is planning to form an election coalition called the Our Ukraine Yushchenko Bloc with five other parties. It reportedly wants its coalition partners to provide 35 percent of the candidates to be included on a joint election list.
According to opinion polls, the NSNU is currently supported by some 13 percent of voters. That, the FDI says, could translate into 93 parliamentary mandates.
Ukraine's third major political force, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, was able to determine just the 10 top names on its election list at a congress on 7 December, pledging to supply the remainder the following week.
The Tymoshenko bloc, which supported Viktor Yushchenko's presidential bid in 2004, will run independently from the Our Ukraine Yushchenko Bloc in 2006, following the sacking of Tymoshenko's cabinet by Yushchenko in September. According to the FDI, with support of around 12 percent, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc could win 88 seats in the Verkhovna Rada.
The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko split may have a huge impact on both the progress of the election campaign, the results of the parliamentary elections, and the shape of a future ruling coalition. At present, it is unlikely that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko will join forces.
Ukrainian political scientist Kost Bondarenko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that it is difficult to predict who will run the government in Ukraine after the elections.
"There may be the most unbelievable [postelection] alliances. Today's political opponents may become political allies, while erstwhile allies may become political foes," Bondarenko said. "We have often seen such diverse ups and downs in affinities between political parties."
According to Bondarenko, Yanukovych's Party of Regions now seems to be the most likely center for a future parliamentary coalition, either with Yushchenko or Tymoshenko.
But the confusion among voters after the split of the Orange Revolution coalition has other grave consequences.
FDI Director Iryna Bekeshkina told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that, less than four months before election day, Ukrainians continue to lose faith in their political leaders.
"[Public] trust in all political leaders continues to decline. At present none of [Ukraine's] political leaders enjoys a positive trust-distrust balance. Distrust in all politicians exceeds trust in them, and it does quite significantly. That's the first thing," Bekeshkina said. "Second, what disturbs us is that the belief that the elections will be unfair is now the same as it was on the eve of the past elections. I personally don't want to assert that the elections will be such, but voters are convinced in advance that the elections will not be fair."
Ukrainian voters may also find more reasons for intensifying their distrust in the political establishment after they look more closely at some party election lists.
The Party of Regions' election list includes not only the richest man in Ukraine, dollar billionaire Rynat Akhmetov, but also 12 managers of companies united in Akhmetov's corporation, Capital System Management. In addition, the list also names four former or present managers of the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club owned by Akhmetov.
All of Akhmetov's people are positioned high enough on the list to practically guarantee their election to the Verkhovna Rada. One Ukrainian commentator remarked sarcastically that they will be able to form a full-fledged faction within the Party of Regions' parliamentary representation. A faction in the Verkhovna Rada may be formed by at least 14 deputies.
Moreover, the Party of Regions' election list includes -- apart from its leader, Viktor Yanukovych -- Yanukovych's son, lawyer, and press secretary.
The pro-Yushchenko NSNU also has some interesting candidates on its list.
A month ago, during an NSNU convention, Yushchenko reportedly urged delegates to kick out of the party those of his Orange Revolution comrades who had been accused of corruption and then fired from government posts.
A subsequent investigation has not confirmed the corruption allegations but Yushchenko apparently felt such candidates could be liabilities in the election campaign.
However, delegates at the NSNU convention in November did not heed Yushchenko's advice. Those politicians, mostly with murky links to big business, stayed in the party ranks. And on 3 December some of these individuals were placed on the NSNU election list in positions guaranteeing their election.
Yushchenko, who was given the first place on the list, failed to appear at this gathering and later said he was withdrawing his name from the list.
It is perhaps easy to understand why. Apart from having been accused of corruption and running a
"parallel government" in Ukraine, some of these undesirable parliamentary candidates have also been charged of using money of exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovskii to fund Yushchenko's presidential campaign. Those allegations won't go down well with Ukrainian voters.
In theory, the fully proportional, party-list system was devised to structure the traditionally volatile Ukrainian parliament more distinctly and produce a lasting ruling majority. The 2006 parliamentary elections may well achieve these objectives.
But will Ukrainians be more happy with a new parliament, for which some crucial choices were already made by party bosses and their sponsors behind closed doors, without asking the permission of ordinary voters? (Jan Maksymiuk)
WORLD SHUNS ELECTIONS IN TRANSDNIESTER. Voters in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester go to the polls on 11 December to elect a new local parliament. The election is being shunned by foreign governments and international watchdogs including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who said it deems the poll illegitimate. Moldova, which fought a short war with Transdniester in 1992, has also called on the international community to ignore the vote. The poll comes amid tensions between the OSCE and Moscow over Russia's refusal to withdraw its troops from Transdniester.
It is the fourth time in the past 15 years that Moldova's separatist Transdniester region is staging parliamentary elections. For as many times, the poll has been largely ignored by the international community.
No country recognizes the self-styled Transdniester Republic, which declared independence in 1990 over fears Moldova would seek reunification with Romania. The region receives strong albeit unofficial support from Russia, and many of its 660,000 citizens hold Russian passports.
Moldova and pro-Russian Transdniester engaged in a short but bloody conflict in the summer of 1992. The fighting left some 1,000 people dead and was halted by Russian troops stationed in the Transdniester.
Mediation attempts by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE over the years have failed to reconcile the two sides and an uneasy truce has been enforced by some 1,500 Russian troops still deployed in Transdniester.
The international community and Moldova's neighbors have reiterated that they do not recognize the 11 December elections and therefore will not send observers to the region's 278 polling stations.
The poll is taking place amid renewed international tensions after Russia last week overtly refused to withdraw its troops from Transdniester despite a pledge to do so under a 1999 agreement with the OSCE.
William Hill, the OSCE envoy to Moldova, said on 9 December that the organization will ignore the elections.
"These elections are going ahead," he said. "But we will not take part, we're not observing them, and in this sense we don't recognize them. In accordance with our mandate we work in the Transdniester region and we will continue this work, but we will do nothing concerning the events of December 11 on the left bank [of the river Dniester] in the Transdniester region."
A total of 179 candidates are vying for the 43-seat unicameral Supreme Soviet under a first-past-the-post system, with a minimum of 25 percent turnout necessary for the election in each constituency to be validated.
The region's eligible population of some 418,000 voters has been electing a local parliament, or Supreme Soviet -- every five years in December since 1990. The last such election took place on 10 December 2000.
Transdniester is a narrow strip of land on the left bank of the Dniester River sandwiched between Moldova proper and Ukraine. Moldova says its complete lack of control over Transdniester's border with Ukraine has turned the region into a haven for arms and drugs smuggling as well as trafficking in human beings.
Transdniester's president, Igor Smirnov, has ruled the region rigidly for the past 15 years. Critics say his family and cronies control the region's most lucrative businesses -- smuggling and arms manufacturing -- which some Moldovan officials say reap a billion-dollar profit annually.
Analysts say that political opposition in the region is too feeble to pose any threat to Smirnov's grip on power. They say the Supreme Soviet, currently led by Smirnov's close friend and associate Grigoriy Marakutsa, will remain a mere rubber stamp for the president after the election.
One of the region's few opposition leaders, Andrei Safonov, editor of "Novaya Gazeta," told RFE/RL that although Transdniester is in need of a change, the players remain the same.
"The problem is that, after 15 years of virtual independence, it has become obvious that the direction of both Transdniester's domestic and foreign policy must be either modernized or changed. [But] out of a whole number of causes which should be discussed separately, several political groups are fighting for parliamentary mandates -- most influential among being the pro-presidential movement Respublika, which supports [separatist leader] Igor Smirnov, as well as the Obnovlenyie [Renewal] movement, which is backed by the Sherif company [which is reportedly affiliated with Smirnov's son]."
Safonov said such groups have no real political platform -- only economic interests. He added that Smirnov's group has been seeking help from radical Russian political groups, who are driven also by the promise of economic profits in the region.
A potential threat to such profits, reportedly fuelled by rampant smuggling over Transdniester's border with Ukraine, is the newly inaugurated European Union operation to monitor the Ukrainian-Moldovan border.
The EU operation, inaugurated on 30 November, was initiated in response to calls from Moldova's President Vladimir Voronin.
Voronin, who had been seen in the past as close to Moscow, made a U-turn in 2004 when he called for Russian troops to leave Trasndniester and be replaced by Western peacekeepers.
Although a communist, Voronin and his party won reelection this year on a pro-Western, pro-reform ticket and has since tightened its links with its western and eastern neighbors -- EU candidate Romania and post-Orange Revolution Ukraine.
The three countries -- Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania -- are founding members of a newly launched regional grouping aimed at promoting democracy, called the Community of Democratic Choice, which also includes Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Georgia.
Analysts say that, with both Moldova and Ukraine getting closer to the West, pressure is mounting on the Transdniester, which find itself increasingly isolated despite its close ties with Moscow.
Usually, elections in Trandniester are only recognized by other separatist ex-Soviet regions such as Abkhazia or South Ossetia in Georgia.
Moldovan political analyst Igor Munteanu told RFE/RL that the separatists are in desperate need of recognition: "Without legitimacy, this [Transdniestrian] administration has no value. These are continued attempts to create the appearances of a quasilegitimacy through obscure institutions."
Munteanu says that in the presence of foreign troops and amid a frozen conflict with Moldova, these elections in Transdniester can be considered neither free, nor fair, let alone democratic.
(Eugen Tomiuc -- RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova 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.
RUSSIAN AND BELARUSIAN PRESIDENTS DISCUSS ENERGY, TRADE. Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenka met for three hours in Sochi on 15 December to discuss energy cooperation and the harmonization of customs regulations, Russian and international news agencies reported the same day. The meeting came days after Gazprom announced that it will continue supplying natural gas to Belarus at discounted prices. It also came as negotiations resumed over setting up a joint venture between Gazprom and Belarus' pipeline operator Beltransgaz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and December 2005). "I want to thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, because your government and your energy companies have carried out your order and we have practically finalized our contract for gas and oil supplies to Belarus," Lukashenka said. Putin stressed that the two countries needed to harmonize tax and customs policies to facilitate trade. "As far as I understand Russian and Belarusian partners sometimes have to do business through the markets of third countries, including Ukraine," Putin said. BW
UKRAINE OFFERS RUSSIA GRADUAL SWITCH TO MARKET RELATIONS IN GAS SPHERE. Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov told journalists in Kyiv on 15 December that Ukraine has proposed to Russia a "stage-by-stage" move toward market relations during 2006-2009 in the sphere of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and Russian gas transit across Ukraine to Europe, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Plachkov also revealed that in order to compensate for Ukraine's reluctance to immediately switch to higher prices for Russian gas and cash payments instead of a barter scheme, Kyiv has proposed to Moscow to set up a joint enterprise for supplying Russian and Central Asian gas to the Ukrainian market. Moreover, Plachkov seemed to suggest that Ukraine may pilfer Russian transit gas in 2006 if Gazprom reduces its gas flow into Ukraine in 2006 only to the gas volumes pumped in transit to Europe. "Ukraine guarantees the transport of the [Russian] gas that will be sent via our gas transport system," he said. "But we can guarantee only the transport, we cannot guarantee the volumes." JM
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT FAILS TO TAKE DECISION ON 2006 BUDGET. The Verkhovna Rada on 15 December failed to approve a 2006 budget bill, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The motion was supported by just 122 votes, with at least 226 needed for approval. Another motion to reject the budget bill also failed, mustering 202 votes. Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn on 16 December appealed to the Budgetary Committee and the government to modify the bill and submit it for another vote next week. "Otherwise we will have to think how our country has to live after the end of 2005," Lytvyn added. The 450-seat Verkhovna Rada currently has 427 deputies, including 69 in the pro-presidential Our Ukraine group. JM