Ukraine, Belarus Pursue Different Political Paths

A top official of Ukrainian President Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party (left) and former prime minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko exchange folders with signed documents — an agreement to reunite the estranged allies of the Orange Revolution in a coalition following parliamentary elections. (Photo: Sergei Supinsky / AFP-Getty Images)

Former Soviet neighbors, Ukraine and Belarus, are pursuing opposite political paths. While Ukraine moves toward forming a representative government following parliamentary elections, Belarus finds itself more isolated than ever in the wake of a controversial presidential poll.

Representatives from three Ukrainian political parties agreed earlier this month to form a pro-Europe ruling coalition in parliament, but have yet to decide on a common platform. The participants include Yulia V. Tymoshenko's bloc, which secured 22 percent of the vote in the March 26 elections, Our Ukraine (13 percent), and the Socialists (5.5 percent). The parties generally support closer ties to the West and market reforms, but in the past have differed on economic issues. Despite continued disagreements between the partners, the alliance, known as an "Orange bloc," still has a chance to control the country's parliament.

Last September, Ukrainian President Viktor A. Yushchenko, who was swept to power in January 2005, dismissed Tymoshenko, his former partner and prime minister, following a split between members of the Orange Revolution amid mutual accusations of graft. Tymoshenko hit back by depicting Yushchenko as an oligarch puppet.

Under pressure last month following the elections win by the pro-Moscow Party of Regions, Yushchenko offered to form a new coalition with Tymoshenko. The Party of Regions won the most votes in the election (32.14 percent), but failed to win an overall majority in the 450-seat parliament, forcing the country's top lawmakers into difficult coalition talks.

If formed, the ruling coalition would leave in the opposition the country's largest party. Viktor F. Yanukovich, the leader of the Party of Regions, warned Thursday against the "orange" coalition in the country's new parliament. "The revival of the 'orange' team is a repeat of the mistakes of 2005 in the worst possible way," Yanukovich said. Yanukovich, a former prime minister, lost to Yushchenko in a re-run of the second round of presidential elections in late December 2004.

Under the Ukrainian Constitution, a coalition majority must be formed within 30 days of the new parliament starting work, and a new government appointed in the next 30 days. If a ruling coalition is not formed by the end of the period, the president may call for new elections.

Ukraine's new parliament had planned to convene on May 10. However, recent lawsuits by parties unhappy with the way votes were counted could delay the newly elected lawmakers from taking office.

In the meantime, Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, also known as "Europe's last dictator," has been increasingly isolated internationally. Lukashenko was officially declared the winner of the March 19 presidential election, securing a third term in office. Opposition supporters started rallies in downtown Minsk, refusing to accept the election results and demanding a rerun, but were soon overwhelmed by Belarus police.

Foreign ministers in the European Union met in Luxembourg last week and agreed to ban the Belarusian "dictator" from entering Union countries. Three ministers, the parliamentary speaker, assembly members, local officials, election commission authorities and prosecutors — 30 officials in all — also appear on the Union's banned list. The Union had earlier announced that the elections did not meet international electoral standards and said it would take measures against those authorities responsible for employing pressure and force against the opposition.

Belarus responded with a vow to reciprocate with similar restrictions. "The republic of Belarus is put in a position where it is necessary to take adequate measures in reply to the E.U. and the U.S.," the foreign ministry said. The foreign ministry described European and U.S. pressure on Belarus as "uncivilized."

"Such actions are short-sighted and without perspective," it said. "Today's decision showed the inability of Washington and Brussels to deal respectfully with the clear will of an independent people."

President Lukashenko took the oath of office earlier this month and told the West, which accuses him of rigging his reelection, that Belarus will not fall to the "revolutionary virus." He accused his neighbors — Poland, Lithuania and Latvia — of provoking unrest in his country. Voters, he said, wanted no part of the "colored" revolutions that brought pro-Western leaders to power in Georgia and Ukraine.

"Unfortunately this crusade against our country is spearheaded by our neighbors, new E.U. recruits," Lukashenko said at the ceremony, which was broadcast live from the imposing Palace of the Republic. "Your awkward attempts to induce a revolutionary virus had the opposite effect and became an antidote to this 'colored malaise,'" he told the West.

The inauguration had been due to take place on March 31 but was postponed without explanation, prompting speculation that Lukashenko was unwell. Lukashenko, 51, has been in power since 1994. He won his third term with 83 percent of the vote, according to official results. His nearest rival was credited with 6 percent.

In contrast to vocal Western criticism, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin sent Lukashenko a congratulatory telegram and observers from the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States said the vote was free and fair.

However, Moscow also had a bitter surprise for its ally. Russian natural gas giant Gazprom indicated that it planned to charge Belarus market rates for natural gas when new contracts are negotiated in 2007. Gas prices for Belarus "should be at least three times higher," the deputy C.E.O. of Gazprom announced earlier this month. At current prices, such a move would entail about $150 per thousand cubic meters, a serious blow to the Belarus economy.

Not surprisingly, Belarus officials were upset by Russian gas plans. The prime minister insisted that the government "would adhere to the existing agreements on energy prices," in other words, that it would not accept a price hike.

Despite Gazprom's rhetoric, Russia is expected to keep its gas subsidies to Belarus in some reduced form in exchange for control of its gas pipeline network. As a result, Lukashenko will be able to consolidate his grip on power and ignore increased international pressure.

From OhmyNews International.