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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
EU FOREIGN MINISTERS MEET WITH MILINKEVICH. Belarusian opposition leader and presidential contender Alyaksandr Milinkevich held a series of high-level meetings in Brussels on 30 January with EU foreign ministers and other EU officials. The ministers welcomed President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's offer to allow OSCE monitors to observe Belarus's presidential elections on 19 March. However, they reiterated their earlier threat of further sanctions should the polls fail to be free and fair, making clear the measures would specifically target officials held responsible.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich's visit to Brussels presented the EU with a dilemma. The bloc is keen to campaign against Lukashenka's autocratic regime, but it also wants to avoid being associated with any individual challengers or parties.
The answer, as it transpired over the course of the day, was to grant Milinkevich almost unprecedented levels of political access -- while keeping it all very quiet.
Milinkevich met with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and European Parliament President Josep Borrell.
Most significantly, Milinkevich spent a half hour with the 25 EU foreign ministers -- a rare honor for any opposition figure. None of the meetings was accompanied by a press opportunity.
Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister of the current EU chair Austria, offered a cursory summary of the 30 January deliberations on Belarus that followed the talks with Milinkevich. She said the EU is very concerned about the situation in Belarus and considers the elections an "important yardstick."
"The OSCE has been invited to monitor the elections and we expect that, correspondingly, the observation mission is allowed to carry out its work in an unhindered manner," Plassnik said.
The EU ministers adopted a statement that repeated a threat made first in November to take "restrictive measures" if the 19 March elections are not free and fair.
The statement, however, added an important detail. The EU now explains that the measures will target "the responsible individuals" in any failure to "uphold international standards in the electoral process, in particular those of the OSCE." This means the treatment of the OSCE observers will be particularly crucial.
The EU has taken such measures before. A travel ban is in place against a number of officials considered culpable for the disappearance of opposition leaders, the obstruction of relevant investigations, or the mistreatment of demonstrators.
The EU statement also stressed that Belarusian authorities must allow all eligible candidates to register, campaign freely, and to enjoy equal access to state-controlled media. Domestic and international media must also be able to report freely on the electoral process.
Milinkevich's role was largely to offer the EU ministers a chance to hear a firsthand account of the situation in Belarus.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told RFE/RL that Milinkevich provided a short overview, took questions, and then summed up his expectations. "His message, briefly, was that where he most sees opportunities for the West to help [Belarus] today is by trying to pass on adequate information via radio and TV channels; and also keep the doors open to nonpolitical groups such as the young, sports people, and cultural representatives," Paet said.
The EU last week awarded a German-led media consortium a 2 million-euro ($2.42 million) contract to broadcast independent radio and television news to Belarus, starting in February. The German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle has offered Russian-language radio programs since November. However, some Belarusian opposition figures have warned the programs will only reach a small minority of the Belarusian public.
Some EU member states, led by Lithuania and Poland, pressed on 30 January for the easing of EU visa restrictions against Belarusian citizens. The EU statement encourages the "facilitation" of contacts with Belarusian civil society, but easing visa rules is politically too sensitive a measure for most member states.
A few dozen members of the Belarusian diaspora in Belgium gathered on 30 January within a stone's throw of the building that hosted the meeting of the 25 EU ministers. They carried placards likening Lukashenka to Stalin and Hitler and condemning Russia's support of his regime.
Zmitser Pimenau, the leader of the association of Belarusian refugees in Belgium, told RFE/RL that Russia's stance is key for the future of his country. "The biggest threat for Belarus today is losing its independence and being occupied by Russia," Pimenau said. "We know that Lukashenka would not survive even for a day without Putin's support. And Russia channels large sums to support the dictatorship [in Belarus]. Putin has begun to terrorize with gas [supplies] not only Belarus but also all of Europe. This could be seen when he turned off the gas for Ukraine. Tomorrow the gas may be turned off for Poland, the Czech Republic, or Germany."
Pimenau said his organization represents about 1,700 Belarusian refugees in Belgium.
Milinkevich is expected to meet with members of the Belarusian diaspora in Belgium on 1 February. (Ahto Lobjakas)
"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.
UKRAINIAN ANTIMONOPOLY BODY APPROVES CREATION OF CONTROVERSIAL GAS JOINT VENTURE. The Antimonopoly Committee of Ukraine (AKU) has given its go-ahead for the creation of UkrgazEnergo, a joint venture between Naftohaz Ukrayiny and the obscure Swiss-based gas trader RosUkrEnergo to sell gas to Ukrainian consumers, UNIAN reported on 31 January. A controversial 4 January deal between Gazprom, Naftohaz Ukrayiny, and RosUkrEnergo made RosUkrEnergo the monopolist of gas supplies to Ukraine and obliged Naftohaz Ukrayiny and RosUkrEnergo to set up a joint venture on a parity basis for selling imported gas in Ukraine. Last month the Ukrainian parliament sacked the cabinet, charging that the 4 January gas deal is disadvantageous to Ukraine. Some Ukrainian opposition politicians and media have demanded the disclosure of information about RosUkrEnergo shareholders. The AKU said on 1 February that it has received sufficient information about RosUkrEnergo for approving the creation of UkrgazEnergo. However, the AKU added that it cannot make this information public since the law obliges it to remain silent on commercial secrets. JM
UKRAINE ACCUSES RUSSIAN NAVY OF ILLEGALLY USING 96 PROPERTIES. The Property Fund of the Crimean Autonomous Republic has charged that the Russian Back Sea Fleet illegally occupies 96 facilities in Crimea, Interfax-Ukraine reported. According to the fund, these properties are not mentioned in a Russian-Ukrainian agreement on the division of belongings of the former Soviet Navy. The fund also charged that the fleet command has sublet 25 properties it leases in Crimea without seeking the approval of the Ukrainian side, as stipulated by the agreement. JM
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT SAYS UKRAINE MUST PAY FOR EXCESS GAS. Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his 31 January news conference in the Kremlin that Ukraine must pay for using more than its agreed quota of Russian gas from the gas flowing in transit across Ukraine to Europe, Russian and international media reported. Putin explained that during the recent cold spell Ukraine has siphoned off up to 70 million cubic meters of gas a day. Putin also noted that by selling gas to Ukraine for $50 per 1,000 cubic meters in the past, Russia effectively subsidized the Ukrainian economy. "Subsidies to the Ukrainian economy alone cost Russian citizens 3.5 billion dollars annually," Putin said. "For comparison, as far as I remember, the U.S. provided [$]174 million worth of aid to Ukraine last year." Putin praised the 4 January deal on a new gas price for Ukraine as "very positive both for our bilateral relations and for world and European energy supplies." JM
PUTIN SAYS NO MORE 'SUBSIDIES' FOR UKRAINE... Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his 31 January news conference broadcast live on RTR state television that "switching to a market-based [gas] price system for our closest neighbors can [not] in any way harm our policy on post-Soviet territory" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006). He added that "on the contrary, I am sure that it will help us achieve our foreign-policy goals.... [Russia has been using] nonmarket pricing methods, or in fact subsidizing the economies of the former Soviet republics, at the expense of Russian consumers, Russian citizens, for 15 years. Subsidies to the Ukrainian economy alone cost Russian citizens $3.5 billion annually. For comparison, as far as I remember, the U.S. provided $174 million worth of aid to Ukraine last year." The president argued that "we have our own economy, our own country, our own citizens, our own pensioners, our own military servicemen, health workers, teachers, and other government-employed workers. And we have been talking about switching to a market-based price system for a long time.... We've been talking to Ukraine about it for several years." PM