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By Vera Rich
Note: This article originally appeared on The Index on Censorship Web site, 12 November 1999, but apparently is no longer available there.
In preparation for the session of the OSCE Working Group on Belarus (Istanbul, 17 – 18 November ), the Belarusian authorities have made a few concessions to freedom of speech. However, Belarusian human rights activists say that these are, in the main, cosmetic, and the clampdown in the opposition still continues.
Under pressure from Hans-Georg Wieck, head of the OSCE mission in Minsk, nine representatives of the opposition will be permitted to travel to Istanbul for the Working Group session. These consist of the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces (leaders of the seven parties represented in the democratically elected parliament disbanded by President Lukashenka in December 1996), plus representatives of the two factions of the Belarusian Popular Front, which recently split apart. (Since the BPF was not represented in the dissolved parliament, it has formally only consultative status with the Coordinating Council). The leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party- Hramada(BSDP-H) Mikalay Statkievich, is, however, unlikely to be able to attend since he faces prosecution in connection with the 'Freedom March' in Minsk on 17 October.
In spite of Wieck's appeal to the authorities, to allow Statkievich to go to Istanbul, by the evening of 10 November, no answer had been received. The leadership of the BSDP-H says that, if Statkievich cannot attend, the party will not be represented in Istanbul at all, so that his empty seat will draw the attention of the international community to what is going on in Belarus. The list of delegates does, in fact, include the name of a prominent BSDP-H member, Stanislau Shushkievich, but he will presumably attend in his capacity as former parliament speaker and head of state (1991-93), rather than a representative of his party).
The nine independent newspapers, suspended at the end of September (ostensibly for irregularities in their registration) have been reinstated. According to Mikhail Padhayny, Chairman of the State Committee for the press, the suspensions was the result of inconsistencies in the current legislation on the media. New rules and regulations, he said, would be drawn up within the next month; these, he said, will be 'quite transparent' to the authorities, tax officials and newspaper staff. Once they are in force, he added, the future task of the State Committee would be 'to ensure that newspapers and magazines publish only, so to speak, the truth'!. (Whose truth?)
The state authorities have accepted recommendations drafted by representatives of the government and the (opposition) Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces. The recommendations were drawn up during a series of OSCE-sponsored meetings since the beginning of September, intended by the OSCE to restore some kind of normality to Belarusian political life, and the concessions seem likely to be more cosmetic than real.
According to the Belarusian human rights organization 'Charter-97', it is understood that the opposition will have a TV slot once a week in the daily 'Political dialogues' programme, twice a week in the 'Padzeya' current affairs programme, and prepare material for the daily news programme `Panorama'. On radio they will get a slot once a week in the 'dialogue on reality' programme and five minutes a day in the `Radiofact' and `Post factum' programmes. The government, however, has refused to allow the opposition access to live transmissions on either radio or TV, thereby – according to Charter 97 – rendering the concessions a mere 'imitation of democracy'. The opposition will also be allowed to publish 250 lines twice a week in five leading government-sponsored newspapers; however, says Charter-97 'the conditions of access are analogous to those for the electronic media.
Meanwhile, the ban on the former flagship of the independent press, Naviny,continues. On 8 November, Minsk City court rejected the appeal of the editorial board and journalist Siarhiey Aniska, against the sentences imposed in September for allegedly libelling the chief of the Belarusian Security Council, Viktar Sheyman. Indeed, the judge imposed a further constraint on the paper: it has to publish a refutation of Sheyman's article in the official media at its own expense. (How Navinywill pay has not been explained –its bank accounts have been frozen since September). In spite of this pressure, however, Paviel Zhuk, the editor-in-chief of Navinystated on 1 November, that he was confident that the paper's successor, Nasha Svaboda(Our Freedom) will soon be registered.
The independent Narodnaya Volya(People's Will) has been reprimanded by the State Committee for the Press for having advertised the 'Freedom March' held on 17 October. With the closure of Naviny, Narodnaya Volya is the most outspoken independent paper still in circulation). The announcement of the rendezvous point, on Yakub Kolas Square was, said the State Committee, a call to an illegal action (the 'Law on Peaceful Assemblies' forbids the holding of any demonstration, assembly or open-air meeting near government buildings or metro stations).
The authorities, however, are not above breaching their own rules, On 7 November, the anniversary of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution (restored to the official calendar of festivals by Lukashenka), a 10,000-strong march took place through Minsk, along the main boulevard of the city, Skaryna Prospect (which has metro stations all along its route) and to Independence Square, in the heart of the 'official' area. The march was organised by the Minsk City Council and left-wing parties, and the majority of the participants seemed – from their expressions – to have been coerced into taking part. (Some workers from state-run enterprises reported that they had been promised 2 million Belarusian roubles (two-thirds of the official 'minimum salary') providing they took part.
The Minsk police totally ignored the illegality of this official march; the only reports of police action that day concerned a small group of opposition activists from Homiel who joined the official demonstration, carrying banners reading 'Freedom for political prisoners', 'Bring back freedom of expression' and' No Russia-Belarus Union'. Two members of this group were arrested by plain-clothes police, but released later that day. An anarchist, carrying a banner 'Long live revolution! Death to capitalists!' was also arrested, in spite of the fact that these slogans would have been wholeheartedly approved by the Bolsheviks whose victory was, allegedly, being commemorated.
The proposed 'Union' of Belarus and Russia, which is a lynch-pin of Lukashenka's policy, is due to be signed shortly. According to Lukashenka, this 'integration' of the two states according to Lukashenka involves no loss of Belarusian 'sovereignty'. However, his public statements concerning public support for it are strangely inconsistent. During his visit to Moscow at the end of October, he told the Russian media that no vote or referendum on the Union was necessary since the Russian and Belarusian peoples had already decided long ago that they should live together.
The anti-union rallies and clashes with the police in Belarus shown on (Russian) TV were simply 'falsification by the opponents of Union' of whom, he claimed, there are 'no more than 1,000'. Nevertheless, in the same news conference, he admitted that there had been a 'sharp slowdown' in the rate of convergence of the two states and that there was 'pressure from some people in the entourage' of Russian President Boris Yeltsin against it. During the same visit, however, he told the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of Parliament), he said that 'the Belarusian side' (i.e. himself) was insisting on the rapid signing of the treaty because 'we are running out of time' and that if it is not signed soon 'the people could lose faith in the very idea of a union state and the possibility of achieving it.'
According to an official public opinion survey in Belarus, the president's fears of popular disillusion in the treaty are not well-founded, According to Deputy Premier Leonid Kozik, who presented the results of the poll in a Belarusian TV interview on 1 November, only 0.5 % of those surveyed opposed the treaty, and they were mainly influenced by the current conflict in Chechnia. An independent survey carried out in September-October gave somewhat different results: 35.8 % of respondents nationwide and 28.9 % in the capital Minsk said that in a referendum they would vote in favour of unification of Russia and Belarus, while 37,1 5 nationwide and 46.3 % in Minsk said they would vote against it. Asked which 'variant' of unification they would prefer 38.4% (34,2% in Minsk) said the two countries should preserve their sovereignty but achieve greater cooperation in economy and defence, 30.5% (41.1% in Minsk) were 'against unification', 12.9 % (11.6 % Minsk) favoured a confederation with decision-making on the principle of 'one country one vote', and only 4.0% (4.2% in Minsk) thought Belarus should become part of the Russian Federation,
Lukashenka, however, sees no need to keep his main constituency of supporters – war veterans and the elderly – happy, or indeed, alive and well! Among the oldest generations there is a fear of change and a wistful nostalgia for the Soviet system under which they were brought up. (They do not realize that union with today's non-Communist Russia would be a very different thing, and that the days of cheap energy and subsidised food have gone forever). Back in July, Lukashenka urged all concerned to hurry ahead with the 'Union' of Russia and Belarus, since the older generations are dying off and the young do not favour the idea. Yet, on 1 November, as an economy measure, district heating in Minsk was turned off. Most state-built housing in the city has no other form of heating. How the elderly and sick are to manage until the heating is restored is an open question.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities are trying to defuse international concern over 'disappeared' persons: Tamara Vinnikava – the former head of the National Bank of Belarus, Yuri Zakharenka, a former Minister of the Interior, and Viktar Hanchar, Deputy Speaker of the elected parliament, disbanded by Lukashenka in December 1996. Addressing the Russian State Duma on 27 October, Lukashenka claimed that Vinnikava had been observed 'travelling between London and Israel'. He did not say who had 'observed' her and, according to Interpol, the next day she was still listed as a missing person. In a meeting with an OSCE official, Adrian Severin on 30 October, Lukashenka was less specific: he stated that Vinnikava 'might' be living in the West, Hanchar in Russia, and Zakharenka in Ukraine.
Vera Rich is a London-based freelance researcher.
This article originally appeared on The Index on Censorship Web site, 12 November 1999, but apparently is no longer available there.
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