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U.S. CONDEMNS UZBEK EXPULSION OF UN REFUGEE ORGANIZATION... The U.S. State Department issued a statement on March 21 condemning the Uzbek government's decision to shut down the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). The State Department urged Uzbekistan to reconsider, saying, "We call on the government of Uzbekistan to rescind this order and allow UNHCR to continue protecting and assisting refugees and asylum seekers in Uzbekistan." The statement also expressed concern about the fate of 18 Uzbek asylum seekers forcibly returned to Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. DK
FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER URGES PRESIDENT TO REVEAL POSTELECTION PLANS. Former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who is also leader of the eponymous political bloc, called on President Viktor Yushchenko on March 21 to give a "clear-cut and unambiguous" answer to the question whether he is going to create a coalition with his presidential rival Viktor Yanukovych after the March 26 parliamentary elections, Ukrainian media reported. According to Tymoshenko, the lack of an answer by March 26 will be seen as Yushchenko's tacit agreement to such a coalition. Tymoshenko also called on all other political forces to reveal their coalition plans in the new parliament. Some Ukrainian analysts have speculated that the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine bloc would prefer Yanukovych's Party of Regions to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc in forming a governing coalition in the new Verkhovna Rada. Meanwhile, Yanukovych said in a television interview on March 21 that he does not see a possibility for creating a postelection coalition with the Orange Revolution camp. "How is it possible to create a coalition with partners who are propagating evil?" Yanukovych asked. JM
THREE POLLSTERS TO CONDUCT EXIT POLL DURING UKRAINIAN VOTE. The Democratic Initiatives Fund, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, and the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies will jointly conduct a nationwide exit poll during the March 26 legislative vote, Interfax-Ukraine reported on March 21. The pollsters are planning to question 18,000 respondents from throughout Ukraine. JM
UKRAINIAN POLICEMAN SHOOTS ELECTION CAMPAIGNER. A police officer on March 21 shot and severely wounded Oleksandr Hlobenko, a 17-year-old student distributing election materials for the Pora civic organization, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) reported. The incident reportedly took place while the officer was trying to handcuff Hlobenko. The youth reportedly lost four liters of blood, underwent surgery, and remains hospitalized. Pora, which is participating in the parliamentary election in a bloc with the Reforms and Order Party, has demanded a thorough investigation of the incident. JM
TRANSDNIESTRIAN LEADER CALLS FOR MORE RUSSIAN TROOPS. Igor Smirnov, the leader of the breakaway region of Transdniester, asked Moscow on March 21 to send more troops to the region due to what he called rising tensions with the Moldovan government, AP reported the same day. "The entire region is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, with growing tensions that could lead to direct confrontations," Smirnov said in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Smirnov asked Russia, which already has 1,500 troops in Transdniester, to reinforce its military presence to prevent what he called a social and economic crisis. Smirnov's appeal to Moscow is the result of new customs regulations requiring goods crossing the Transdniestrian portion of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border to clear Moldovan customs, Moldova and Ukraine instituted the regulations, supported by the EU, in an effort to reduce smuggling. Smirnov and Moscow have called the new regulations an "economic blockade" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, 8, and 16, 2006). BW
Members of the Belarusian opposition rallied for a second consecutive day in downtown Minsk on March 20 to protest President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's election victory. The opposition is claiming that the March 19 presidential poll was flawed and are demanding that a repeat election be held in July. But while the demonstrators' chances of forcing a repeat election are virtually nil, the absence of the expected police crackdown could indicate that they could succeed in altering the country's political climate for the better.
The demonstration that took place shortly after polls closed on March 19 was the largest antigovernment rally in Belarus in nearly 10 years, and united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich was clearly pleased to see a crowd estimated at 20,000 people turn out on Minsk's October Square.
"We have won and it does not matter what they announce, they will announce a ridiculous percentage [for Lukashenka]," Milinkevich said. "We have won because people believe they can stand up for freedom, truth, justice and their own dignity. The authorities were threatening them, saying they were terrorists with plans, but despite this, people have come out. This is a victory over fear."
The next day, during a rally on October Square that attracted approximately 7,000 protestors, Milinkevich made explicit demands for repeat elections.
"We demand a repeat of the election in which the legislation of the country will be respected," Milinkevich said. "We demand that representatives of the [presidential] candidates, by all means, are included in the [election] commissions -- something that didn't exist this time. We demand that there are no arrests of people and that those in power abandon the regime of repression during elections."
Milinkevich called on the demonstrators to remain on the square all night, a tactic that proved to be successful during Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004. "We must remain on this square," Milinkevich said. "This square is ours. It is Belarusian land. We were here last night and we started fighting for truth and freedom. For Truth! For Justice!"
Several hundred demonstrators did remain, and signaled their intention of staying there for the long-term by erecting approximately 20 tents. Police cordoned off the square and controlled the movement of people between the square, preventing them from providing food and warm clothing to the demonstrators, but did not intervene otherwise.
In the days leading up to the election, President Lukashenka had repeatedly promised to crack down on the opposition, but in the end only about 30 activists outside of the downtown protest were arrested in Minsk.
What might have led Lukashenka to not carry out his promise? A huge number of police were reportedly deployed in Minsk for the election period, and they certainly had the opportunity to resort to force when the protestors numbered only in the hundreds overnight on October Square.
There are at least two plausible answers. During his news conference for domestic and foreign media on
March 20, Lukashenka claimed that the Belarusian opposition is "worth nothing," stating, "That's why we gave them the opportunity to show off, even though it [the rally] was illegal."
Perhaps the Belarusian president considered it unfitting to change his mind several hours later, when the opposition organized another illegal rally. The use of force by police would have shown that the opposition was, in fact, "worth something."
Another possibility is that Lukashenka has decided to employ a different tactic to quash the opposition protest on October Square. By confiscating food and clothing supplies intended for the demonstrators, the authorities may be betting on the elements to break the protesters' will.
Whatever the reason for doing so, Lukashenka's decision to not use force plays in his favor. Had a potential police intervention turned violent, it may have served merely to strengthen his opponents by radicalizing opposition sentiments.
As it turned out, Lukashenka was content enough in his victory to boast during his news conference on March 20 that he had managed to contain the "virus of colored revolutions" in Belarus.
"The virus of colored revolutions affects weakened countries in which [those in] power are stuck in corruption and are deaf to people's concerns," Lukashenka said. "Belarus has strong immunity, which is based on effective power, a strong social policy, and a dynamic economy that does not serve individual oligarchs, but [serves] the welfare of all the people."
However, the two days of opposition protests seem to defy Lukashenka's self-congratulatory assertions.
While it is highly improbable that the protests could lead to a repeat presidential vote in Belarus, they may significantly contribute to what Milinkevich described during his election campaign as "getting rid of the humiliating fear" in Belarus.
If the opposition does not splinter and remains united around Milinkevich in the post-election period, President Lukashenka may find it very difficult or even impossible to run the country the way he did during his two previous terms.