Friday, March 31, 2006

Tymoshenko Goes For The Kill

KIEV, Ukraine -- The recent parliamentary elections have redefined the future political arena of Ukraine, as Yulia Tymoshenko’s Byut bloc surprised many, muscling its way into second place and establishing itself as a national force to be reckoned with.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s Byut bloc surprised many

Defying pre-election polls, which showed it trailing the Viktor Yanukovych-led Regions party and the pro-presidential Our Ukraine, Byut flexed its way into second place, collecting more than 20 percent voter support.

Tymoshenko’s bloc accomplished this by wrestling votes away from Our Ukraine in the western and central regions of Ukraine. Exit polls also indicate that Byut managed to pick up an impressive 6-13 percent voter support in the Yanukovych-dominated eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, a feat deemed impossible for Our Ukraine, loyal to President Viktor Yushchenko.

As Byut spread its wings across the country, it stripped votes from other major political blocs. Yanukovych’s Regions won just over 30 percent voter support across the nation, losing some 15 percent of the electorate that supported it in previous polls. Our Ukraine lost at least 10 percent of the electorate.

“Tymoshenko has the best position today,” political analyst Vadym Karasiov said, adding that Byut is growing more popular across the country, while Regions and Our Ukraine have regional support only.

“In these elections Tymoshenko established an electorate that is more evenly distributed across the country. This is crucial for future elections.”

“A lot can change in three to four years, but she will be rising on this wave for at least two years, and will be a major competitor for Yushchenko for the presidential post,” Karasiov added.

All the right moves

While Our Ukraine and Regions blasted voters with expensive television campaigns ahead of the March 26 vote, Tymoshenko won votes the old-fashioned way – meeting with voters through rallies across the country. She also successfully set the agenda, raising issues of concern to many voters, such as ongoing corruption, which she pledged to fight with no mercy.

“She rose so successfully precisely cause she didn’t bet on a big television campaign, but traveled the country instead,” Karasiov said, adding that many of the near 20 percent undecided voters cast ballots for Tymoshenko at the last minute in protest against Ukraine’s current administration.

“Support for Our Ukraine fell quite a bit after news spread that they were holding coalition negotiations with Regions. Tymoshenko played her cards beautifully, warning Orange voters of the threat that Our Ukraine could unite with Regions,” Karasiov said.

“Our Ukraine made a big mistake in this regard,” he added.

For now, however, doors are opening up for Tymoshenko, as both Yushchenko and Yanukovych find themselves with deep political challenges.

“Yushchenko has not, for now, been able to consolidate any [nationwide] political force around him,” said political analyst Andriy Yermolaev.

His only chance to do this would be an attempt to establish a base that would include Our Ukraine and Regions, according to Yermolaev. But doing so opens a Pandora’s Box, which threatens to diminish voter support for Yushchenko altogether.

Coalition Talks

On March 28, Our Ukraine, Byut and the Socialists announced plans to recreate an Orange coalition that would have a majority in parliament and would form the nation’s next government. While Tymoshenko said the coalition could be established within a week, Our Ukraine officials said it could take weeks, adding that Regions could join if they drop controversial points in their agenda, such as calls for closer integration with Russia.

Meanwhile, some political analysts continue to insist that a more likely coalition would be based on Our Ukraine and Regions, in which case Tymoshenko would slip into the opposition. It remains unclear whether Tymoshenko will return as premier through formation of an Orange coalition or move into the opposition, which she pledged to do if Our Ukraine forms a coalition with Regions. Either scenario would be acceptable for Tymoshenko, who analysts say currently finds herself in a win-win situation.

“I think she wants power now, not opposition. She will make every effort not to go into the opposition … but to return as prime minister,” Karasiov said, adding that Our Ukraine will try to prevent her from moving into the opposition, while also trying to get Regions into a coalition to muster more than 300 votes in the 450 seat legislature – the majority necessary to pass constitutional changes.

“But Tymoshenko will not risk losing face by going into a coalition with Regions,” Karasiov said, adding that Tymoshenko could also gain popularity in the opposition by criticizing the government’s performance in the next several years of painful reforms.

“If Tymoshenko moves into the opposition, Our Ukraine would lose more of their electorate - the so-called Maidan votes. There is also a risk that Our Ukraine could split if Our Ukraine and Regions form a coalition. Many members of Our Ukraine would fear losing their electorate in western Ukraine and would reposition themselves behind Tymoshenko, recognizing her chances of becoming the dominant political force in the country,” Karasiov said.

Yermolaev said such a split would be painful and possibly end Yushchenko’s political career. The best way for Yushchenko to combat Tymoshenko would be to fight fire with fire, Yermolaev said, adding that Yushchenko should stop whining and become a stronger cutthroat politician.

Dmytro Potekhin, who heads Znayu, a non-profit democracy watchdog, said Tymoshenko finds herself in a win-win situation. She can either return as prime minister, accept a compromise post as parliament speaker or go into the opposition to criticize the mistakes of the new government.

Either move would be a “good start for her presidential campaign.”

Given Tymoshenko’s ability as an effective communicator, she will be able to gain more popularity either as premier, parliament speaker or opposition leader, Potekhin said.

Yushchenko faces a tough choice between blocking with Tymoshenko or Yanukovych.

“This is a lose-lose situation for the president,” Potekhin said. “A coalition between Our Ukraine and Regions will not be acceptable for most of their electorate.”

If Regions remains in the opposition, they could destabilize the situation in the country by calling for Russian to be recognized as an official language and by sabotaging Ukraine’s western integration plans.

Having Byut in the opposition can be even more dangerous for Yushchenko, according to Yermolaev, as she will try to discredit every step the president takes.

Source: Kyiv Post

Orange Forces May Not Support Yushchenko

KIEV, Ukraine -- Political parties that propelled Viktor Yushchenko into the presidency in the 2004 Orange Revolution have won a majority of seats in parliament but may not support his agenda, lawmakers said Friday.

President Viktor Yushchenko

Final election results released late Thursday showed the Party of Regions led by Yushchenko's Orange Revolution foe Viktor Yanukovych won the most votes with more than 32 percent, giving it 186 seats in the 450-member parliament, officials said.

The three parties that supported Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution received 243 seats _ a numerical majority _ but deep divisions between the former allies have made it uncertain whether they can work together.

Yushchenko has come under pressure to reunite with his estranged Orange Revolution partner Yulia Tymoshenko, rather than reach out to Yanukovych, whose fraud-marred attempt to gain the presidency in 2004 triggered massive street demonstrations.

The president's party has said there would be no decision until key members meet April 7.

In a sign the president was leaning toward a reunion of Orange forces, his office issued unusual praise for Tymoshenko on Friday.

Yushchenko "really appreciates Tymoshenko's authority in society, her capacity for work," said Anatoliy Matvienko, deputy head of the presidential administration.

"The most important thing is to turn that in the right direction. Then everything will be good, and the president is interested in this," he said.

The praise came just 10 days after Yushchenko lashed out at Tymoshenko, blaming the former prime minister for all the ills that befell Ukraine since the Orange Revolution. The turnaround reflects the strong position that Tymoshenko is in after her party came in second in the election with 22 percent of the vote, tripling its seats from 42 to 129. Yushchenko's party had 14 percent, winning 81 seats.

Mikhaylo Volynets, a Tymoshenko party member, said that the party's support in parliament would depend on the president's actions. "We will not support the president's slogans if they are just slogans," he said.

Yushchenko ally Yuriy Klyuchkovsky expressed confidence that the president's reformist and pro-European course would be continued, but noted that much depended on support from Tymoshenko.

Yushchenko ran into trouble getting measures through the last parliament, seeing them blocked by a strong Communist faction and smaller, anti-government parties that would unite on key issues.

The Communists had their worst showing ever in Sunday's race, winning only one-sixth of the vote they received in the 2002 elections. Many of the smaller, anti-government parties failed to make it over the 3 percent barrier to enter parliament.

Sports Minister Yuriy Pavlenko, a Yushchenko ally, called the election a big success for the Orange forces.

"Today we have a pro-presidential parliament, which mainly consists of people who despite some differences and difficulties share the same ideology," he said.

Source: AP

Election Politics In Belarus And Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- Voters in Belarus went to the polls last month and re-elected President Alexander Lukashenko, whom critics call the “last dictator in Europe.” The EU and the United States have denounced the elections as a fraud and have pledged to increase sanctions against members of the Lukashenko regime.

President Lukashenko (L) and President Yushchenko

And, in a setback for Ukraine’s reform movement, the pro-Russian “Regions Party” of former Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, garnered more of the vote in recent parliamentary elections, than his rivals, both leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Notwithstanding President Lukashenko’s lopsided re-election victory in what are widely seen as fraudulent elections, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she thinks a lasting democratic opposition might still emerge in Belarus. And she said the reform movement in Ukraine remains strong despite mixed election results there.

Russian journalist Masha Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, mocked official election results in Belarus – showing that President Lukashenko won 83 percent of the vote. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Lipman said independent polls gave the president no more than 50 percent, which would still have catapulted him to victory.

Ms. Lipman praised the courage of members of the opposition, many of them young people who were arrested for protesting the election results. Ms. Lipman noted that they have pledged to continue their struggle.

But Dmitri Siderov, Washington bureau chief of Kommersant, a business and political daily in Moscow, was not so impressed by Belarus’ nascent political opposition. Furthermore, he questioned whether European and U.S. sanctions against the government in Minsk would be effective, given the country’s heavy economic dependence on Russia.

However, Iryna Vidanova, editor of the magazine Student Thought in Belarus, was more optimistic than Mr. Siderov about the opposition’s political future and she called it a “great sign” that people had declared publicly that they want change. She suggested it was only a “question of time” before President Lukashenko would have to step down.

But Ukraine’s parliamentary elections demonstrated that even the forces for political and economic reform are vulnerable if they do not deliver on campaign promises. Voters there dealt a stunning blow to Victor Yuschenko’s pro-Western party, which had won a mandate to govern during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.

According to journalist Yavhen Hlibovytsky of independent Channel 5 television in Kiev, President Yuschanko’s weakened party will probably form a coalition with his former Prime Minister Yulia Timochanko’s bloc. Nonetheless, Mr. Hlibovysky calls last week’s elections an “incredible achievement” in the democratic process.

And comparing the recent elections in Belarus to the situation in Ukraine in 2004, Mr. Hlibovysky suggested that the political shift in Belarus is “definite,” even if for now, Alexander Lukashenko has managed to suppress the opposition.

Source: Voice of America

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kyiv Gets First New Mayor In Decade

KIEV, Ukraine -- Kyiv has got its first new mayor in a decade, following the March 26 upset of 67-year-old incumbent Oleksandr Omelchenko by his longtime rival, Leonid Chernovetsky, a businessman and member of Parliament.

Mayor Elect Leonid Chernovetsky

With over 80 percent of the ballots counted on March 29, Chernovetsky had 32 percent of the vote, well ahead of former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko (23 percent) and Omelchenko (21 percent), despite long-running polls showing a different picture.

A poll conducted by Ukrainian Sociological Service between March 9 and March 16 showed Omelchenko ahead with 26 percent of the vote, followed by Klitschko, who represented a coalition between the center-right Pora-Reforms and Order Party with 17 percent, and Chernovetsky, with only 16 percent.

However, as Ukrainian Sociological Service Director Oleksandr Vyshniak pointed out, 27 percent of the city’s 2 million voters were still undecided at the time.

In January 2006, Omelchenko had enjoyed 37 percent of popular support, while Chernovetsky had only 11 percent.

In the end, according to Vyshniak, only 1.3 million Kyivans voted in the mayoral elections on March 26, which is higher than usual.

“Chernovetsky’s rating grew sharply in the last few days before voting,” said Svetlana Kononchuk, a political analyst at the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research, who headed Klitschko’s press service during the campaign.

According to her, Chernovetsky did well because he represented change and has built up a reputation as a local philanthropist.

“A lot has changed since the Orange Revolution, but Kyiv has stayed the same,” said Kononchuk.

“Omelchenko was associated in the minds of voters with pre-Maidan,” she said referring to the capital’s main square where the 2004 Orange revolution was centered.

Kyiv is considered an Orange city and Omelchenko was supportive of the revolution. Although he ran as an independent, Omelchenko was offered a place on lists of leading national parties, including the bloc of Viktor Yanukovych, who lost the presidency as a result of the Orange Revolution.

Between January and March, the mayor’s office was rocked by a major housing scandal, in which 1,500 apartment buyers were bilked out of around $100 million by a company called Elite-Center. The city is responsible for issuing construction permits.

As for Klitschko, who simultaneously lost a bid for the national parliament and is widely considered a protege of Omelchenko, who often the boxer’s bouts, Kononchuk said he started the race too late.

“The campaign wasn’t long and people hadn’t gotten used to him yet.”

Klitschko, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, launched his political career immediately after giving up his title.

But appearing at a press conference on March 27 days before Chernovetsky’s victory had been confirmed, Klitschko hugged the new mayor elect and congratulated him on his victory.

“You have to know how to win and how to lose,” said Klitschko.

“I think that my victory is a big present for Ukraine, because I don’t want anything for myself personally, and you all will be convinced of this soon,” Chernovetsky was quoted as saying.

During the same press conference, Chernovetsky took a call on his mobile phone, which he announced was from the president’s office, congratulating him on his victory.

The next day, President Viktor Yushchenko’s press service released a statement denying that it contacted Chernovetsky, explaining that it would wait for the final results.

Chernovetsky is 29th on the pro-presidential Our Ukraine’s party list, which means he is guaranteed a seat in parliament as well.

A pious mayor?

Trained as a lawyer, Chernovetsky is also a self proclaimed Christian activist.

“He (Chernovetsky) is very committed to the truth,” said Adelaja Sunday, senior pastor at the Embassy of God, a Kyiv-based evangelical church.

“He’s been a member of our church for the last 10 year,” said Sunday, adding that they work together to feed over a thousand people a day.

“We supply the people and he supplies the money.”

Widely reputed to control Ukraine’s Pravex-Bank, which is ranked 22 in terms of net assets, which total 400m dollars, Chernovetsky would be well placed to do this.

Sunday said that the homeless and alcoholics that his church helps may not have been influential in the March 26 vote, but other city residents who have heard of the charity work were.

According to Sunday, the Embassy of God has 25,000 regular members in Kyiv, but boasts 250,000 “affiliates” altogether.

Chernovetsky is also no stranger to politics. Months before the tumultuous presidential race that brought Yushchenko to power in 2004, Chernovetsky was included on the party list.

Just months before this, he had made headlines both for trying to unseat Omelchenko using the courts – an attempt which proved unsuccessful – and for his links to the deaths of two Kyiv pedestrians near his residence in the upscale Koncha Zaspa region outside Kyiv.

Both of the pedestrians died on separate occasions in incidents on the road leading to Chernovetsky’s mansion in the elite Koncha Zaspa residential neighborhood. They were run over in 2003 at high speeds by cars linked to Chernovetsky, who happens to be a collector of expensive souped-up automobiles.

He was behind the wheel in the second incident; his wife was a passenger in the first. Neither Chernovetsky nor his driver has been found guilty of any wrongdoing in connection with the incidents.

“In my opinion, it wasn’t so much that Chernovetsky won as that Omelchenko lost,” said Yevhen Poberezhny, executive director of the Ukrainian Committee of Voters, which monitored Ukraine’s elections.

Fresh faces

Chernovetsky and his team didn’t just do well in the mayoral race but in the election to the city’s 120 seat city council.

The Yulia Tymoshenko bloc is expected to get the lions share of council seats, around 33 percent, and according to Dmytro Vydrin, an analyst for the bloc, a coalition is being planned.

“He’s a good politician and businessman, and we have worked well with him in parliament … I think that relations with him on the city council will be good,” Vydrin said.

Chernovetsky’s bloc is expected to come in second place, followed by Our Ukraine, Vydrin said adding that Mykhailo Brodsky, a whistle blowing political figure who merged his party’s into Tymoshenko’s last year, would head the city council.

During the 2004 presidential poll, Brodsky showed up at the Central Electoral Commission in a street cleaner to file his candidacy. Brodsky has also been one of the most outspoken critics of Tymoshenko’s political opponents.

Pollsters were more accurate regarding the future composition of the city council, predicting that Tymoshenko’s bloc would take almost 40 of 120 seats, followed by Our Ukraine and the Regions. Chernovetsky, a fierce opponent of Omelchenko, was considered a wild card.

Omelchenko’s Unity Party had only 15 seats on council, which was recently beefed up from 80 seats, but still maintained considerable influence.

Not only do council members have influence in decisions involving issuance of land plots and granting approval to lucrative real estate projects, following controversial legislation that Yushchenko was forced to sign last year, city councilmen are immune from prosecution.

Source: Kyiv Post

Yanukovich Leads In Ukraine With All Votes Counted

KIEV, Ukraine -- Viktor Yanukovich's Russia-backed Regions Party took first place in Ukraine's parliamentary election with 32.12 percent of the vote after all ballots were counted, the Central Election Commission said on Thursday.

Viktor Yanukovich

Pro-Western firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc maintained its strong showing with 22.27 percent, while President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party was third with 13.94 percent.

Two other parties cleared the three percent barrier to enter parliament -- the Socialist party with 5.67 percent and the Communists with 3.66 percent.

None of the five parties will have an outright majority of 226 votes in the 450-seat parliament to be able to govern alone. Under preliminary estimates, the Regions party will have 186 seats, Tymoshenko's bloc will have 129, Our Ukraine will get 81, the Socialists will have 33 and the Communists 21.

Politicians have already launched coalition talks but they are expected to be long and difficult. Parliament has 30 days to form a coalition and another 30 days to appoint the government.

Source: Reuters

Mysterious Gas Deal Roils Politics In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The official residence of the managing director of a company now set to control Ukraine's supply of natural gas is a one-story, clapboard house in a tumbledown village bordering a defunct collective farm outside Moscow. A dirty rug covers the floor, a bare light bulb hangs from the ceiling and scraps of plywood plug gaps in the wall.


Olga Sakharova, 49, lives there with her mother and a German fox terrier called Lyusa, and she has never heard of the director, Oleg Palchikov, who operates a business worth $7 billion a year.

"What boss would want to live here?" Sakharova asked, surprised to learn that she occupied one of the few known addresses of any of the executives of the shadowy gas trading company involved in a controversial deal between Ukraine and Russia that continues to roil politics here in Kiev, nearly 640 kilometers, or 400 miles, away.

The company, RosUkrEnergo, became a broker in a deal to resolve a New Year's confrontation between Russia and Ukraine over the price of natural gas - a deal that has prompted accusations of corruption and almost certainly contributed to President Victor Yushchenko's poor showing in parliamentary elections Sunday, when his party finished a distant third.

The mysteries surrounding the company - ranging from the identity of its owners and the circumstances of its selection, to the places where its executives live and work - reflect the post-Soviet combustion of politics and business that still afflicts Ukraine despite the significant progress that Yushchenko and his allies have made in making the country a freer, more democratic society.

Yulia Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's erstwhile ally in the mass protests that swept him to the presidency in 2004, campaigned fiercely against the deal, citing it as an example of the corruption and untrustworthiness of the leadership of Yushchenko's party, Our Ukraine.

With her party having won significantly more votes than Yushchenko's, according to nearly complete results announced Wednesday, she has now claimed the right to lead the coalition in Parliament representing the reformist, Western-leaning forces who took part in what came to be known as the "Orange Revolution."

And she has promised that one of her first acts as prime minister, should she return to the post she held for the first eight months of Yushchenko's presidency, would be, "by all means," to scuttle the deal and RosUkrEnergo's part in it.

"These are the standards preached by Kuchmaism," she said of the deal in an interview on Wednesday, referring to the scandal-tainted presidency of Ukraine's previous leader, Leonid Kuchma.

Tymoshenko's fierce opposition to the deal echoes her zeal in revisiting scandalous privatizations that took place during Kuchma's tenure, and could complicate efforts to reunite the coalition that swept Yushchenko to power.

Already, Yushchenko and his aides have met with his bitter rival, Victor Yanukovich, whose party won the largest bloc of votes, 31 percent, raising speculation that he would seek a parliamentary alliance that would exclude Tymoshenko. Yushchenko's party announced Wednesday that it would not commit to any coalition until at least April 7.

Reopening the deal could provoke a new conflict with Russia over the supply of natural gas, only months after a New Year's showdown that resulted in a disruption of supplies across Europe, deeply rattling countries that rely heavily on Russian and Central Asian gas that passes through Ukraine's pipelines.

"Any agreement that is unstable is one that is undesirable from the point of view of Europe," said Thane Gustafson, a senior analyst at Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

The deal's critics say the instability comes from the murky nature of the arrangement, which granted substantial control over Ukraine's gas market to a little-known company with links to Russia's state energy monopoly, Gazprom, and unknown investors.

Even now, nearly three months after the deal was announced, the ownership and operations of RosUkrEnergo remain murky. Registered in Zug, Switzerland, it is owned half by Gazprom and half by Centragas, an umbrella corporation run by Austria's Raiffeisen Bank for a group of investors whom the bank will not identify, despite pressure from American and European officials.

Officials in Russia and Ukraine have accused one another of having beneficiaries in the company and have provided contradictory accounts of who suggested that RosUkrEnergo be included in the first place.

"This is the Ukrainian part, and you need to ask them," President Vladimir Putin said earlier this month. Yushchenko, by his own accounting, knows no more. "I have personally turned several times to the Russian side to receive this information," he said at a news conference earlier this month. "Unfortunately, as of today, I do not have any information about the founders of this structure."

Executives of the company, some of whom also work for Gazprom itself, declined to discuss the matter in detail. Alexander Medvedev, the director of Gazprom's export arm, Gazexport, and one of eight members of the board of RosUkrEnergo, has denied knowing the unknown investors.

The vacuum of information has led to reports, so far unsubstantiated, that RosUkrEnergo's beneficiaries have links to Yushchenko's top advisers. Yushchenko himself was forced to deny any involvement by his brother, Petro, who has been involved in the gas-trading business.

Although much remains unclear, there is little doubt the deal has weakened Yushchenko politically, tarnishing his reputation as an uncorrupted reformer. Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a professor of sociology at the University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, attributed the electoral failure of Yushchenko - and Tymoshenko's success - to the gas deal.

"Yushchenko came to power on the whole idea of transparency," he said. "And he was pushing a deal that obviously had some corrupt aspect to it."

Source: International Herald Tribune

Tymoshenko Vows Softer Approach To Business

KIEV, Ukraine -- Yulia Tymoshenko, former Ukrainian prime minister, promised a business-friendly agenda yesterday if she succeeded in forming a ruling coalition, following her bloc's strong second-place showing in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Yulia Tymoshenko

Ms Tymoshenko said she would radically lower corporate tax rates to encourage investment.

"A few points won't make a difference. Only a radical lowering of tax rates will bring business out of the shadows," she said.

She also sought to dispel anxiety among investors that she might againchallenge the legality of privatisations by the pro-Moscow administration before the 2004 Orange revolution brought President Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Investors were dismayed last year when Ms Tymoshenko, who served as Mr Yushchenko's prime minister until she was sacked in September, pursued populist economic policies including attempts to reallocate privatised assets and attacks on business oligarchs.

Ms Tymoshenko's latest promises will not in themselves assuage businesspeople's concerns. Thereis considerable worry in Kiev about how she can reconcile her business-friendly remarks with campaign promises to boost social spending and attacks on big business.

Ms Tymoshenko said the government should not try to reverse privatisations. "My name was absolutely artificially connected with reprivatisation in order to discredit me," she said.

"The main task to bring foreign investment is to make all business equal before the law and no business more equal [than others]."

Ms Tymoshenko was speaking as the last votes were counted in an election in which her bloc emerged as the largest of the three pro-west "Orange" parties, ahead of Mr Yushchenko's Our Ukraine and the much smaller Socialist grouping.

Together, the three parties will take about 54 per cent of parliament's seats, ahead of Viktor Yanukovich, the former pro-Russia prime minister, whose Regions party will have about 41 per cent.

Mr Yushchenko, who has hinted he could try to block Ms Tymoshenko's return, has little room to manoeuvre and is playing for time. His statement that he wanted simultaneous talks with Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Yanukovich drew fire yesterday from the Socialists and from Our Ukraine leaders.

Alexander Valchyshen, head of research at ING Bank's branch in Ukraine, said Kiev's financial community was heatedly debating the pros and cons ofMs Tymoshenko's likely return.

He said the pros included her success in fighting tax evasion and closing loopholes, while the cons included the uncertainty that was created by the challenges to past privatisations, sudden changes to tax rules she pushed through at the beginning of her term and the overall higher taxpressure.

"The widespread view of economists is that her pol-icies decreased business confidence and slowed investment," Mr Valchyshen said.

Source: Financial Times

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Communist Electorate Fading Into The Sunset

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), which has long been one of the largest factions in parliament, received a record-low number of votes in the March 26 parliamentary elections.


The future of the party looks bleak, as analysts suggest that the electorate traditionally loyal to the Communists has been persuaded by the populist promises of the election’s bigger players and has simply been dying out.

During Ukraine’s three parliamentary elections since independence in 1991, the CPU regularly took about 20 percent of the vote, predominantly supported by elderly people in eastern and southern Ukraine who were nostalgic for Soviet times. For example, after the parliamentary elections in 1998, the Communists gained the largest share of parliamentary seats, winning nearly 25 percent of the vote.

However, the results of Ukraine’s most recent parliamentary elections on March 26 demonstrated a sharp decline in the number of loyal CPU voters. According to the Central Election Commission, the body in charge of tallying and announcing the country’s official parliamentary and presidential election results, the CPU received only 3.6 percent of the votes in the March 26 election, lagging far behind the leaders – the Viktor Yanukovych-led Regions bloc, and the eponymous Yulia Tymoshenko bloc – which won just over 31 and 22 percent of votes, respectively, based on the latest election returns as the Post went to press.

Political analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky believes that the CPU lost a lot of its votes to Regions, which attracted leftists with its unequivocal pro-Russian declarations and socially-oriented campaign promises.

“I am surprised that the CPU got more than 3 percent [of the votes] at all,” said Pohrebinsky.

In December 2004, Ukraine’s Parliament approved a 3 percent barrier that parties and blocs must pass in order to enter the legislature, lowering the earlier election barrier of 4 percent. For comparison, the European parliamentary election barrier standard is 5 percent. As if the future didn’t already look bad for the CPU, leaders of Ukraine’s larger blocs have pledged to increase the barrier to at least 5 percent for future parliamentary elections.

“Why do they need the Communists, when there is such a nice guy from the working class who already raised pensions once and has promised to raise them more,” Pohrebinsky asked rhetorically, referring ironically to Viktor Yanukovych, Region’s leader and Ukraine’s former prime minister during the last years of the Leonid Kuchma presidency.

Yanukovych’s initiative to increase pensions at the end of 2004 was widely seen as a populist move to garner support ahead of the presidential elections that seems to have paid off in the long-term, given Regions’ first place finish in the recent parliamentary elections, with nearly one-third of the popular vote.

Yanukovych lost the presidential elections in 2004 against then-arch rival and current president, Viktor Yushchenko, in what turned out to be a fraud-filled carnival of ballot-stuffing by pro-Yanukovych forces that set off the Orange Revolution and changed the country’s political landscape to what it is today.

In any case, political analyst Andriy Yermolaev, said Regions is not solely to blame for the CPU’s failure in this year’s parliamentary elections. Other factors have contributed to the party’s gradual decline in popularity in Ukraine over the last couple of years, he said.

“A palpable dispersal of the leftist-oriented electorate took place before and after the Orange Revolution, when both democratic and pseudo-democratic political forces began flirting with leftist ideas,” said Yermolaev, referring in part to former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s populist moves in the social sector.

The Komsomol calling

No less important, Yermolaev added, is that the Communists’ traditional electorate which has remained loyal since Soviet days is aging, and CPU party leaders have offered little to attract the youth vote.

“The [CPU] needs renewal and modernization as of right now, to put it mildly. The party’s apparatus does not respond to contemporary demands at all,” Yermolaev added.

If the party does manage to restructure itself and reshape its program to better suit current societal conditions, then, Yermolaev said, the CPU would be able to compete for the support of at least 10 to 15 percent of the Ukrainian population, which holds strong leftist views.

Mykhailo Shulha, former Communist deputy in the parliament and deputy head of the Institute of Sociology in Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences, admits that drastic changes in the CPU are needed for it to win back its electorate.

“We have not taken into account how society has changed over the years, and it’s true that most of our electorate lives with a nostalgia for the Soviet past instead of looking to the future,” said Shulha.

Shulha said CPU leaders recognized the need to attract “young blood” to the party and developed a pre-election campaign strategy that targeted young people.

The main slogan of the election campaign – “Vote for the Communists – It’s Cool!” – was viewed by experts as one of the most creative in this election.

It did not, however, help the party win back its previous 20 percent of the electorate.

Pohrebinsky said the declining popularity of the Communists is also due to the marginal impact that the party has had in parliament in the last decade. As a result, the party has tended toward cooperation with more influential pro-governmental forces in the Rada.

Nevertheless, Shulha remains optimistic about the CPU’s future. According to a survey conducted by his Institute of Sociology, 25 percent of the Ukrainian population still supports socialist views, and only about 11 percent have capitalist leanings. Moreover, 10,000 new members joined the CPU last year, Shulha said, and the majority of them are people under 40 years old.

“If you take a look at the current Ukrainian political scene, you’ll see that the leaders represent right-wing parties that came to power because of their leftist declarations,” he said.

“Unfortunately, Ukraine does not have parties that are “political” in the classic sense [of the word], and all political forces in Ukraine are just groups defending their own big business interests.”

Yermolaev agrees, adding that in the fight between Ukrainian parties, ideology is of little importance.

“Our elections are not classic – [in the sense of] liberals battling socialists, or something to that effect. It’s a battle of phantoms, such as NATO and the EU working against [Ukraine developing] closer ties with Russia, as well as a battle of personalities, more than anything else,” said Yermolaev.

Pavlo Shcherbakov, deputy head of the CPU, said that he wouldn’t “over-dramatize the [CPU’s] election results.”

“Every sane citizen of Ukraine understands that the country is not choosing between capitalism and social justice today,” Shcherbakov said.

“In 2004, Ukrainians were choosing between the political philosophies of the West and East,” he added.

“In 2006, they chose between the establishment of pro-Western, American-style democracy and the resurgence of opposition to the national interest. But when these stages are passed, the Communists will have their say.”

Source: Kyiv Post

Election Defeat A Cold Shower For Yushchenko

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Our Ukraine (NU) bloc of President Viktor Yushchenko lost the March 26 parliamentary elections not only to the opposition Party of Regions (PRU) of Viktor Yanukovych, whom Yushchenko defeated in the presidential poll in 2004, but also, quite unexpectedly, to its former Orange coalition partner, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYT).

Yulia Tymoshenko communicates with journalists after the meeting with President of Ukraine Viktor Yuschenko

Because of this surprising development, the new parliament may not be viable, as it will be hard to form a ruling coalition. The election, however, was a victory for Yushchenko the democrat and guarantor of the constitution. This was the first Ukrainian election whose results are not disputed by any of the major participants. Western and Russian observers have agreed that the vote was free and fair.

Irregularities did take place, but mostly due to imperfect legislation. There were long queues at polling stations because the parliamentary and local elections were held simultaneously, and people had to tick their choices on four or five extremely long ballot papers.

There were also mistakes in voter rolls, including some due to the translation of Russian names into Ukrainian in the Russian-speaking east and south -- which, the PRU claims, prevented a certain number of their supporters from voting.

According to the national exit poll, conducted jointly by the Razumkov Center, the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the PRU won the election with 31% of the popular ballot. The Tymoshenko Bloc came second with 24%, defying public opinion polls conducted before the election. Our Ukraine, which had been widely expected to surpass the BYT, came third instead, with just 15.5%.

The Central Electoral Commission was still counting the votes as of noon March 29, but the figures after 95% of the ballots have been counted almost coincided with the exit poll's predictions.

Only two more parties -- of the 45 parties that participated in the election -- overcame the 3% election barrier. These are the Socialists with 5.4% and the Communists with 3.3%, according to the exit poll. For the Communists, who were beaten by the PRU in their strongholds, Donetsk Region and Crimea, this is the worst result in history.

The United Social Democrats of former President Leonid Kuchma's administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk -- probably the most influential party of the Kuchma era -- risks sinking into political oblivion with less than 1%.

The NU's dismal performance compared to the BYT has interfered with plans to re-establish the Orange Revolution coalition of the NU, the BYT, and the Socialists. The NU and the BYT initially planned to sign a coalition accord on the evening of March 26. The event has now been postponed several times, as the NU is apparently not ready to accept its crushing defeat at the hands of the BYT.

Before the election, NU campaign manager Roman Bezsmertny said that whichever Orange Coalition party scores more votes than its partners should nominate the candidate for prime minister. The tug of war over the post of prime minister has been arguably the main problem in relations between Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko Bloc.

Tymoshenko herself has staked a claim to take back this post, but the NU believes that Tymoshenko lost the right to claim this position after Yushchenko fired her in September 2005 for poor performance and because of corruption scandals.

If an Orange Coalition reforms and Bezsmertny sticks to his word, the coveted post arguably should go back to Tymoshenko. This is not just humiliating, but also unacceptable for many in Our Ukraine. "President Yushchenko is categorically against having reprivatization continued or speculated on," Yushchenko aide Ivan Vasyunyk told a briefing on March 27.

Tymoshenko's opponents accuse her of scaring investors by unleashing a massive reprivatization campaign when she was prime minister, but Tymoshenko says she only wanted to return to the nation what was "stolen" by the "oligarchs" under Kuchma.

Asked by Inter TV what would happen if Yushchenko refused to accept her conditions, Tymoshenko replied, "Then he will have to accept Yanukovych as prime minister." Yanukovych's PRU would welcome such a turn. Regions of Ukraine argues that an "orange-blue" coalition would unite orange Western Ukraine and blue (the PRU's color) Eastern Ukraine. But the NU would be a junior partner in such a coalition, as it scored less than half the vote of the PRU.

Such an alliance would be hard for most Our Ukraine sympathizers to digest, as the PRU's foreign policy priorities, which PRU campaign manager Yevhen Kushnaryov listed in an interview with UT1, include giving up NATO accession plans and seeking a rapprochement with Moscow.

If no coalition is formed, Yushchenko will be entitled to dismiss the legislature as, under the constitutional amendments in effect from January 1, only a stable majority can come up with a candidate for prime minister. If no majority is in place -- and none of the three main parties will be able to form it without partners -- Yushchenko may have no choice but to call new elections this summer.

Source: Eurasia Daily Monitor

Rice Says Governing Party In Ukraine Victimized By Unmet Expectations

WASHINGTON, DC -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday the governing party in Ukraine did poorly in parliamentary elections because it was unable to meet public expectations engendered by the Orange Revolution.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Rice said the Bush administration will seek friendly relations with whatever coalition government is formed in Ukraine.

She expressed hope that the new government will respect what the Ukrainian people want, including close ties to the West.

Rice noted that the combined vote of the two leading Orange Revolution parties exceeded that of the pro-Moscow party, which had the most support of any single grouping.

"The expectations for what they could deliver were out of line with what they were able to deliver," Rice said, alluding to President Viktor Yushchenko's party, which won only about 15 percent of the votes counted as of Tuesday.

Source: AP

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Trick To Understanding Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has held its first elections after the Orange Revolution. Without any qualification, they were free and fair with a high participation of 67 percent, showing that Ukraine has matured as a democracy.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the "orange revolution" heroine who came in second place in Ukraine's key parliamentary election, listens to journalists' questions in Kiev.

At the same time, Ukraine has become a parliamentary system, which will reinforce democracy in the country. The Communists have been further marginalized, and party consolidation has proceeded well, with only five parties likely to make it into parliament.

The main results of the vote reflect an amazing constancy. In December 2004, Viktor Yushchenko defeated Viktor Yanukovych with a margin of 8 percentage points, which will probably be the balance between the orange and blue, or more accurately western and eastern, coalitions. The geographic dividing line runs exactly where it did in 2004, or where it has gone for most of the last 300 years.

International media have focused on Yanukovych's Party of the Regions becoming the largest single party, but what matters in proportional elections is which parties can form a ruling majority, and that is the Orange coalition.

The surprise is what happened within the Orange coalition, with Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc trouncing Yushchenko's Our Ukraine. It is easy to understand why that happened. Our Ukraine ran an inept campaign and put its least popular representatives, such as discredited businessman Petro Poroshenko, in the spotlight, while the president and his prime minister, Yury Yekhanurov, kept a low profile.

Tymoshenko is an outstanding campaigner, and she seems to have chosen the right political themes as well. Her main slogan was "justice," reflecting Yushchenko's unfulfilled promise from 2004: "Bandits to prison!" Once again, revenge against the old regime became the dominant line.

Her victory over Our Ukraine elevates moral issues over economic policy, and her rhetoric looks backward to the Orange Revolution, further cementing the east-west divide.

She also defeated Pora-PRP, the new liberal bloc, which tried to offer a decent alternative to Orange voters appalled by both populism and corruption.

Since the campaign became a rehashing of the Orange Revolution, nothing but an Orange coalition appears natural, that is, Tymoshenko's bloc, Our Ukraine and the Socialist Party. The Lytvyn Popular bloc will not enter parliament. Today, nobody but Tymoshenko appears the natural prime minister. The job is hers to lose.

All three potential coalition partners have already started to hold talks on the formation of a new government, and one influential Our Ukraine deputy predicted that an Orange coalition government would be formed within two to three weeks. The uncertainty about the nature of the next government has diminished.

The big question is what policy a Prime Minister Tymoshenko would pursue. As deputy prime minister for energy in 2000, she surprised us positively by going after other oligarchs and cleaning up the energy sector.

As prime minister last year, by contrast, she surprised us negatively by focusing on re-privatization, which had not been part of her government program. Now she has received a greater popular mandate than ever before, so we can only wonder how she will amaze us this time.

The natural starting point is her bloc's pre-election program. Even by the standards of such documents, it is stunningly diffuse. The most substantial part is the section on "just power." It declares that under a Tymoshenko-led government, judicial immunity for politicians would be immediately abolished, regional governors would be elected and local self-government would be strengthened.

Tymoshenko calls her economic credo "solidarism," referring to a century-old socialist creed, but its meaning remains fuzzy. Her section on economic policy is small and empty.

In a populist vein, it states that enterprises as well as people "will pay taxes without any coercion." Just in case, the value-added tax is to be abolished as well. Fortunately, the social section is suitably vague. The time of expensive social benefit promises appears over.

Most important, re-privatization is not mentioned, though nor are property rights guaranteed. After she was ousted as prime minister in September, Tymoshenko declared that she had never advocated re-privatization, which is not necessarily true but definitely helpful.

She is not likely to put herself in the same bind once again. Moreover, Our Ukraine cannot possibly join a coalition with her without her giving credible guarantees not to launch another re-privatization campaign.

One of Tymoshenko's most successful campaign themes was her persistent attacks on the Russian-Ukrainian gas deal of Jan. 4, which will undoubtedly be undone. RosUkrEnergo has never been accepted by the Ukrainian public, and the existence of six attachments to the January agreement, purportedly giving away Ukraine's pipelines and gas reservoirs to RosUkrEnergo, appears unacceptable to just about any Ukrainian.

Early Russian comments have emphasized the relative victory of the Party of the Regions, but the Kremlin leaders will probably be all the more upset when they realize that a new Orange coalition under Tymoshenko is budding.

The Kremlin reaction is likely to be all the greater if Tymoshenko sticks to her election promise to break the gas agreement with Russia and render RosUkrEnergo transparent. Though you never know with Yulia. On Ekho Moskvy last September, she congratulated the Russians upon their "wonderful" president.

Regardless of the exact train of events, Ukraine is a democracy, while Russia is not. Therefore, the Kremlin finds it difficult to understand Ukraine. Whatever the Ukrainian leaders do to satisfy one constituency or another is incomprehensible to authoritarians, and if some Ukrainian action does not suit the Kremlin, it will be perceived as dictated by Washington and criticized accordingly.

Such Russian rhetoric can do nothing but drive Ukraine into the arms of the West, and as the European Union is not open, Ukraine will have to run all the faster toward NATO, not because of Western overtures, but because of Russian intimidation.

Source: The Moscow Times

Klitschko Concedes Defeat In Kiev Mayoral Race

KIEV, Ukraine -- Former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko conceded defeat in his bid to become the Ukrainian capital's next mayor after early results Monday showed him trailing the front runner.

Vitali Klitschko

"I tried to be the leader ... that was my aim," Klitschko said in remarks broadcast on Ukraine's TV5. "But it is important to know how to win and how to lose."

The 34-year-old retired boxer, who was making his first ever bid for public office, turned up at a news conference to publicly offer his congratulations to Leonid Chernovetskiy.

Early results showed Chernovetskiy, a lawmaker, winning with more than 30 percent of the vote, ahead of the two-term Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko and Klitschko, who both hovered around 22 percent, Ukraine's Interfax news agency reported.

Klitschko, a supporter of President Viktor Yushchenko, also appeared to have lost a simultaneous bid to enter parliament as early results suggested his party had failed to make it over the 3 percent barrier.

He retired from boxing in November after hurting his knee in training and pulling out of a defense of his heavyweight title, reports AP.

Source: Pravda

Ukraine President Slows Down Rush To Coalition

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's pro-Western liberals prepared on Monday for coalition talks to keep the Russia-backed winner of Sunday's parliamentary election in opposition, though President Viktor Yushchenko quashed talk of any quick deal.

Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

Thwarting Yulia Tymoshenko, his one-time "Orange Revolution" ally who said a liberal coalition could in principle be decided on Monday, Yushchenko said such talks could be held only when the election vote-count was complete.

"It is logical to start talks on a coalition after the official declaration of the election results. This is the president's position," Ivan Vasyunyk, first deputy head of the president's secretariat, told reporters.

Full results from Sunday's parliamentary poll, in which partial returns show the Russia-backed Regions Party in the lead, are expected on Tuesday.

There was no direct word from Yushchenko, who was humiliated in the poll that appears to have left his Our Ukraine party in a poor third place behind Tymoshenko's bloc.

His aide said Yushchenko had asked Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov to put out feelers for forming a coalition.

But his move to slow the coalition-building process showed he did not want to be bulldozed into an agreement by Tymoshenko, now vying with him for standard-bearer of the "orange" liberals.

"There is a very simple explanation -- Our Ukraine wants to take a break and come to terms with what happened. And there is a good way out for them: there are no complete election results yet," said independent political analyst Oleksander Dergachev.

Tymoshenko has made it clear she sees herself as getting her old job of prime minister back in a three-way liberal coalition bringing together her bloc, Our Ukraine and the Socialists.

That prospect would hardly delight Yushchenko who sacked her from the job last September after infighting among liberals over corruption charges.

The two have been on poor terms since. Her interventionist views do not sit well with Yushchenko's own free market values.

The pro-Western liberals appeared to be preoccupied by maneuvering for position -- just over a year since Yushchenko came to power after the heady street protests which came to be known as the Orange Revolution.

Disillusionment over divisions and an economic slowdown helped Yanukovich's Regions Party to first place in the vote.

Yanukovich, strong in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, seized on his win to urge parties to team up with him. He, too, said formal negotiations should await the final vote count.

Incomplete results showed the liberals, who have set the country of 47 million on a course to join Europe's mainstream, could still control parliament and frustrate his comeback.

With 25.76 percent counted, the Regions Party had 26.53 percent. The Yulia Tymoshenko bloc was in second place with 23.30 percent and Our Ukraine had 16.92 percent.

The election got a clean bill of health from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "These elections can only be described as free and fair," Alcee Hastings, special coordinator of an OSCE observer team, told a news conference.

Before Sunday's poll, political pundits had foreseen the prospect of Yushchenko having to form a coalition with Yanukovich, whom he humiliated in a re-run of a disputed presidential election in 2004.

But Yushchenko now seems destined to have to patch up differences instead with Tymoshenko, just as difficult for him given the bad blood between them.

Tymoshenko's strong showing was the result of relentless campaigning by the 45-year-old, whose tough talking on the stump proved a scourge for Yanukovich and Yushchenko alike.

If they do form a coalition, the Orange Revolution leaders will be under pressure to deliver on reforms after prising Ukraine from centuries of Russian domination.

Ukraine's export-led economic growth has slowed markedly over the last year due to lower world prices for steel and chemicals, its major exports, and a lack of investment.

Foreign investors have expressed concern over uncertainty in privatization policy, frequent rows in the government over major policy issues and failure to simplify an opaque legal system.

Source: Reuters

Former Ukrainian Premier Says Will Meet President On Coalition

KIEV, Ukraine -- Former Ukrainian Premier Yulia Timoshenko said she will meet President Viktor Yushchenko today to discuss creation of a coalition government after parliamentary elections failed to give any party a majority.

Yulia Timoshenko at a press conference

Yushchenko, whose party lay in third place with 15.6 percent, according to official results, may have to turn to Timoshenko to form a government. With 63 percent of the vote counted, Timoshenko's bloc had 23 percent, trailing only the Regions Party of Viktor Yanukovych with 30 percent.

Five of 45 parties represented in the vote will probably enter the 450-seat parliament after March 26 elections, results show. Timoshenko, who was fired by Yushchenko six months ago after the two fell out over policy and allegations of corruption within Timoshenko's team, said she would welcome a coalition with the president's Our Ukraine party.

"I will make every attempt to create a coalition," Timoshenko, 45, said yesterday evening, according an interview broadcast on television station 5. A coalition between Our Ukraine, the Socialists and her alliance would have about 255 seats in the parliament, more than the minimum 226 needed for a majority, Timoshenko said.

There was no announcement about what time or where the two would meet and Yushchenko's office had no comment on her remarks.

Regions Party

Regions Party lawmaker Ihor Shkyria said in an interview with channel 5 his party is prepared to told talks "with everybody." He estimated Regions will have more than 200 seats and would accept a coalition with Yushchenko's party. Any cabinet that doesn't include Regions won't be stable, he said.

Yushchenko, who swept to power 15 months ago in the Orange revolution along with Timoshenko, lost the confidence of many voters who say he failed to match promises to root out corruption and boost living standards.

With parliament being given the power for the first time to name a premier and cabinet, Yushchenko must make a deal with one of the opposition parties if he wants to retain a strong voice in government, said Katya Malofeeva, analyst at Renaissance Capital in Moscow, in an interview yesterday.

"This is wrong to delay signing a coalition, even by an hour, because that increases chances for a grand coalition between Our Ukraine and the Regions Party," Timoshenko said. "I understand that Our Ukraine is in deep shock after the results were released. And still I would like to warn the powers not to play with such things."

Timoshenko wants to join the European Union and the World Trade Organization and reverse some former state-asset sales conducted by former President Leonid Kuchma. She has said today she wants to work with Yushchenko and not Yanukovych, who favors closer ties with neighboring Russia.

Given Timoshenko's problems with Yushchenko, 52, and her proposals to regulate some consumer prices, some economists said it would be better if the president looked past his former ally and reached out instead to the 55-year-old Yanukovich.

Yushchenko beat Yanukovich in a re-run of disputed presidential elections in December 2004 that sparked massive street protests.

Source: Bloomberg

Monday, March 27, 2006

Yushchenko And Moroz To Form Coalition

KIEV, Ukraine -- President Viktor Yushchenko who lost the elections in Ukraine has established the principles for forming coalition in the new parliament with the Socialist Party of Alexander Moroz.

Socialist Party leader Alexander Moroz

Moroz told a press conference that the negotiating teams of the two parties have established the principles of memorandum about forming the coalition. He added that possibility of involving other participants in the coalition was not discussed.

He noted however that negotiations with Julia Tymoshenko's block have been planned.

The former Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yanukovich, who took an early lead in Ukrainian parliamentary elections, is described by the Western media as a pro-Russian man.

According to exit polls, Tymoshenko could get a prime minister post in any combination.

Last night, Tymoshenko said that upon taking power, she would reject the contract that increased the price of Russian gas imports.

Source: MakFax

Ukraine Poll Pushes 'Orange' Rivals Into Each Others' Arms

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's parliamentary elections have dealt a humiliating personal blow to President Viktor Yushchenko but are likely to push his splintered "Orange Revolution" team back together, analysts said Monday.

Can Yushchenko (L) and Tymoshenko put their egos aside and become a team, again?

Yushchenko was beaten in a national election both by the man he defeated in the "Orange Revolution" contest a little over a year ago, and by the woman he fired as premier six months ago, according to the exit polls.

The president's Our Ukraine bloc received just 16 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for Viktor Yanukovich's Regions Party and 24 percent for Yulia Timoshenko's bloc, the pollsters estimated.

The first official results were expected at about 0600 GMT Monday, but the national election commission had only tallied results from just over 8 percent of Ukraine's 34,041 polling stations by then.

"We will work all day Monday and maybe even a bit on Tuesday," Yaroslav Davydovych, the head of Ukraine's central election commission, told reporters.

The Regions Party, headed by Russia-friendly ex-premier Viktor Yanukovich, led with 24.58 percent, "orange revolution" heroine Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc had 24.08 percent, and President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc was in third with 17.01 percent, the preliminary results showed.

Exit polls released after the close of voting Sunday suggested Regions would get 31 percent of the overall vote, Timoshenko's bloc 24 percent, and Our Ukraine would be third with 16 percent.

The polls showed that two other parties were likely to get more than the 3 percent of the general vote required to get into parliament -- the Socialists with 5 percent and the Communists with 3 percent.

Mandate for opponents

"The results are the Ukrainian population's evaluation of... (Yushchenko's) first year in office. They have given their mandate to his opponents," said Kost Bondarenko, a political analyst in Kiev.

Yushchenko was swept into power after the 2004 "orange revolution" street protests over a contested presidential ballot, amid which the nation's supreme court threw out the results that initially handed victory to Yanukovich.

The then-opposition leader easily won a rerun ballot but his popularity has plummeted as the economy slumped and the "orange" team splintered amid infighting.

The president's apparent poor showing in Sunday's poll will push him towards a coalition with Tymoshenko, analysts agreed early Monday, while officials from the two parties suggested an agreement could be signed later in the day.

"The most probable coalition will be orange... the Region Party's victory is only a formal one," said Volodymyr Fesenko, an independent analyst.

"This is a blow for Yushchenko, but not defeat," said Bondarenko.

Timoshenko or Yanukovich as premier?

Tymoshenko, too, downplayed the Regions victory, saying an "orange" coalition would relegate Yanukovich's party to an opposition role in the new parliament.

"This is absolutely okay. The country needs a strong opposition," Timoshenko said in early morning televised remarks.

Tymoshenko looks set to regain the premiership in a coalition with Our Ukraine.

"Our Ukraine has agreed on the position that the force that gets the most votes... will propose its candidacy for the prime minister's post," said Roman Bezsmertnyi, campaign chief for Our Ukraine.

When asked what would happen if Yushchenko refused her candidacy for the premiership, Tymoshenko said in televised comments: "He would have to agree to the premiership of (Viktor) Yanukovich."

Such a coalition would allow Yushchenko to continue reforms aimed at driving Ukraine toward membership in the European Union and the NATO, analysts said.

But an alliance between the president and his erstwhile "orange" partner is likely to be a tense one, as the ambitious Tymoshenko and measured Yushchenko are likely to spar on several issues, analysts say.

These include a recent gas deal with Russia, which Tymoshenko has demanded be scrapped; reviewing questionable privatizations, which she has vowed to pursue despite investor unease; and intervention in the economy, which free market-oriented Yushchenko opposes.

Source: Deutsche Welle

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Yushchenko Scorned As Ukraine Turns Its Back On The Orange Revolution

KIEV, Ukraine -- Fifteen months ago, Natasha Diman, then 24, looked every inch the orange revolutionary, camping out in sub-zero temperatures on Kiev's main square in a display of people power that redrew the geopolitical map of Europe.

A young woman, named Alyona, prepares to cast her ballot in a polling center in Kiev.

But as Ukraine went to the polls yesterday, Natasha, like many of her compatriots, said she was deeply disillusioned with the orange revolution to the point where she felt unable to vote for Viktor Yushchenko, the man she helped become the president.

It is such apathy and disenchantment that yesterday saw Mr Yushchenko's party humiliatingly beaten into third place according to two nationwide exit polls which suggested he had won little more than 15 percent of the vote.

If confirmed, the results would be a crushing blow to the pro-Western leader.

By contrast, the polls showed that "the man who lost the orange revolution" ­ the pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych ­ was on course to capture some 30 per cent of the vote in a startling comeback that will delight Moscow and disturb Washington.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the strong performance of Yulia Tymoshenko, known as "the Ukrainian Joan of Arc" during the revolution. Now estranged from her one-time ally Mr Yushchenko, her political bloc appeared to have won more than a fifth of the vote, putting her in a strong position to demand a place in a new government.

Mr Yushchenko will keep his job as president since the elections are parliamentary, not presidential, but the results will again redraw the political map of Ukraine, possibly tipping it towards the country it so dramatically turned its back on in 2004: Russia.

If a week is a long time in politics, in Ukraine's case 15 months has turned out to be an age.

Before the victory of the revolution was assured, a shivering Natasha Diman told The Independent that she felt highly politicised and hopeful.

An unemployed law graduate, she threw her lot in with Mr Yushchenko to shake off what she described as miserable living standards and an authoritarian, Soviet-style regime that danced to Russia's tune.

Fifteen months later, she doesn't regret her actions but wonders what it was all for. "We still hope for the best but nothing has really changed," she says.

"Yushchenko is a decent man, but too soft. He says good things but then does nothing when people around him do the opposite. He has forgotten that unlike the people politicians come and go."

Mr Yushchenko's image was damaged by a scandal around his son Andrei who was revealed to be leading a lavish lifestyle on income he allegedly derived from cashing in on the merchandising boom which followed the orange revolution.

It was hard for ordinary Ukrainians to accept since, crucially, revolutionary fervour has not brought improved living standards for most.

People scrape by on an average monthly wage of $150 (£86), prices fluctuate wildly, and unemployment is rife, while gas prices have risen sharply after a dispute with Russia that saw the country's supplies temporarily cut off in a pricing row.

Natasha is a case in point ­ she may have been one of its most loyal foot soldiers but she feels the revolution has not rewarded her idealism.

She is doing unpaid work experience in a bank in Kiev, the capital, has no income apart from savings and contributions from relatives, and says she has little prospect of anything better despite being well qualified.

Indeed many Ukrainians who have become disenchanted with the orange revolution are now looking for pragmatic as opposed to idealistic solutions to their problems.

That yesterday's elections do not carry the same weight as the orange revolution is indisputable, but they are highly significant.

Their outcome will dictate the make-up of a new, more powerful, parliament as well as the composition of a new government that will emerge from possibly weeks of horse-trading and backroom deals.

And while Mr Yushchenko will have the right to appoint the foreign and defence ministers, all the other jobs, including the influential portfolio of prime minister, will be decided by the new parliament.

The ballot will inevitably produce a coalition government since no one party won enough votes to govern alone.

And whatever happens, Mr Yushchenko, whose personal popularity rating has crashed from 70 to around 20 per cent, will ultimately be forced to compromise and join forces with unpalatable allies.

For Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow candidate defeated so convincingly in 2004, it is a startling comeback.

With the help of slick American spin-doctors, Mr Yanukovych has come back from the political grave, reinvented himself as a man who can do business with Brussels and Moscow, and has deftly capitalised on the orange government's every stumble.

His Party of the Regions looks like it will have almost half the seats in the 450-member parliament. Conversely, Mr Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party looks like a spent force.

Ironically, Our Ukraine was up against the political bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery photogenic Ukrainian nationalist who stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr Yushchenko during the orange revolution and was one of his closest allies.

The two fell out spectacularly last September when Mr Yushchenko sacked her as prime minister arguing that his government had become paralysed by infighting, personal rivalry and Machiavellian plotting.

Ms Tymoshenko is banking on a spectacular comeback and is likely to push hard for Mr Yushchenko to reinstate her as prime minister.

Mr Yushchenko has promised to start negotiations to form a government as early as today with the forces traditionally associated with the orange revolution including Ms Tymoshenko's party.

But whether he can clinch a deal remains uncertain since relations between Mr Yushchenko and Ms Tymoshenko are said to be glacial.

If that option fails, he may look to form "a grand coalition" with his one-time nemesis Mr Yanukovych. Such a coalition would unite the Ukrainian-speaking West of the country as represented by Mr Yushchenko with the Russian-speaking east as represented by Mr Yanukovych.

Source: The Independent

Russia-Backed Opposition Leads In Ukraine - Exit Polls

KIEV, Ukraine -- The party of Russia-backed Viktor Yanukovich, loser in a presidential poll in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution", held a clear lead in Sunday's parliamentary election, exits polls showed.

A Ukrainian woman reads her ballot at a polling booth in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, March 26, 2006

But an even bigger blow for the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko came from the bloc of his estranged "Orange Revolution" ally Yulia Tymoshenko, who flew past him into second place leaving his Our Ukraine party badly trailing.

The projected outcome, that could mark a step away from the pro-West ideals espoused by the Orange Revolution which turfed out Yanukovich and a pro-Moscow establishment, was also a personal humiliation for Yushchenko at Tymoshenko's hands.

An exit poll conducted by three Ukrainian institutions gave Yanukovich's Regions party 33.3 per cent of the vote, the Tymoshenko bloc 22.7 and the pro-presidential party 13.5.

A second exit poll gave roughly the same picture, putting the Regions Party at 27.5 percent, the Tymoshenko bloc at 21.6 and Our Ukraine on 15.5 percent.

Once close 'orange' comrades in the heady street protests of 2004 that turfed out the pro-Moscow establishment, Yushchenko and his charismatic former premier have been on poor terms since he sacked her as prime minister last September.

Now long weeks of talks will probably be needed to piece together a coalition able to command a majority in parliament which, under new constitutional rules, is empowered to choose the prime minister.

Yushchenko, voting in central Kiev, said earlier that talks would start immediately after the election.

"Tomorrow we start consultations with political forces which made up the coalition which was victorious in the Orange Revolution," he said as he cast his ballot in central Kiev.

But disillusionment over splits in the "orange" team and a economic slowdown had clearly contributed to the big score for Yanukovich, who commands strong support among Russian speakers in industrial eastern Ukraine.

Tymoshenko, 45, a voluble and persuasive performer, has been for months blaming the president and his entourage for splits in the 'orange' ranks and had clearly been heeded by large swathes of the liberal vote.

A DEAL WITH THE OPPOSITION

Though his own job is not at risk, the apparent outcome means Yushchenko will probably have to reach awkward accommodations with either his old rival from the bruising 2004 campaign or Tymoshenko.

At stake is the fate of a country of 47 million, whose "Orange" leaders have been unable to deliver on promises after prising Ukraine loose from centuries of Russian domination and setting it on a course for joining the European mainstream.

Though Ukrainians now enjoy total freedom of expression, monthly wages stand at only $150 (86 pounds). Prices fluctuate erratically.

A maddening bureaucracy remains as does systematic corruption. Western investors are wary of uncertain stability.

Yushchenko is also weakened by constitutional reform that has trimmed his powers and extended those of parliament.

Ties with Russia remain unsteady. A New Year deal pushed gas prices sharply higher, ending a confrontation which briefly cut supplies to Ukraine -- and Moscow's European customers.

Infighting in the Orange camp prompted Yushchenko to sack Tymoshenko as prime minister.

Both a coalition with Yanukovich or one with Tymoshenko would carry dangers for Yushchenko.

A "grand coalition" with Yanukovich's party could mean sacrificing pro-Western advocates like Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk. His power base might also be eroded.

But patching up with Tymoshenko also comes at a high price. She would like her job of premier back, a difficult step given her interventionist views and Yushchenko's free market values.

Source: Reuters

Orange Revolution Goes Through First Tough Election

KIEV, Ukraine -- A judicious test awaits the Orange Revolution as the government in Ukraine will be going through a parliamentary election for the first time today since 2004.

Yushchenko (L), Tymoshenko (C) and Yanukovych (R)

Ukraine is prepared to consider the odds of forming a stand-alone government after the first parliamentary elections. Viktor Yushchenko, the revolutionary President of Ukraine, will face a challenge, whatever the election results happen to be, reporters said.

Ukraine is aiming to gain membership to the European Union as well as to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the medium run. There will be approximately 10,000 foreign monitors for today’s crucial test of democracy.

Pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych could win 25-30 percent of the votes, becoming the winner of the elections. Yushchenko, the mastermind of the Orange Revolution, and Yulya Tymoshenko, the first lady of Revolution, are to have equal proportions of 20 percent of votes to come out second or third in the polls, according to the recent public surveys.

None of the three parties are decorated with enough credentials to rule alone, a sign the a coalition government will be formed.

The limit was set to three percent for Yuschenko’s Our Ukraine Bloc, Tymoshenko’s Byut Bloc, and Yanukovych’s Regions Party, aside from two or three other small-scale parties, to win a place in the 450-seat parliament.

Business circles support “Yushchenko-Yanukovych” coalition

A possible Yushchenko-Yanukovych coalition, will pave the way for presidency for the female politician Tymoshenko in the next elections. President of Kiev Political Evaluations Center, Oles Doniy told big business circles are in favor of a Yushchenko-Yanukovych coalition as they do not want to damage the stability.

On the other side, sociologist Viktor Nebojenko say that the government may go out of Yuschenko’s control, which will be shaken by economic and political turbulences after the elections.

On the contrary to the presidential elections, which resulted in the orange revolution, the public is lacking “enthusiasm and hope”. Yet, the revolution supporters who were disappointed by the orange revolution, seem not to have changed their sides against pro-Russian Yanukovych.

In his last statement before the presidential elections,” This will be an election between the past and future. You must go to the ballots and cast your vote in favor of democratic forces,” told Yushchenko to the public. On the other side, Yanukovych defended that the Yushchenko government deceived the public and caused the country to experience big troubles.

Source: Zaman Daily

Pro-Russian Opposition Set For Gains In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainians cast ballots Sunday in a parliamentary election that could tip this divided ex-Soviet republic back toward Russia just 16 months after the Orange Revolution helped put it on a westward course.

President Viktor Yushchenko (L), and his wife Kateryna, hold their ballots at a polling station in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, March 26, 2006. His daughter Sofia seen in the center.

An opposition party advocating improved ties with Moscow and a halt to Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO is expected to win the most seats in the 450-member parliament. President Viktor Yushchenko’s job is not at stake, but the vote is the first since constitutional reforms trimmed presidential powers and gave broader authority to parliament, including the right to name the prime minister and much of the Cabinet.

The vote could potentially allow Viktor Yanukovych, who lost the contested 2004 presidential elections, to slow the pro-Western course set by Yushchenko and seek improved ties with Moscow.

Amid disillusionment over the sharp slowdown in economic growth, Yushchenko’s party is in the doldrums and Yanukovych’s fortunes have dramatically recovered since he was accused of rigging the presidential vote.

Comeback for Yanukovych

Yanukovych, who enjoys broad support in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking industrialized east and ties to its powerful tycoons, is likely to secure some 30 percent of the vote for his Party of the Regions, according to most opinion polls.

The country’s mainly Ukrainian-speaking western and central provinces are split between Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party and the party of flamboyant Yulia Tymoshenko, the blond-braided heroine of the Orange Revolution’s mass protests over election fraud.

The two had a bitter falling out in September when the president abruptly fired Tymoshenko, accusing her of ruining the economy and betraying the Orange Revolution ideals. Tymoshenko struck back, saying Yushchenko was being manipulated by a clique of self-interested advisers.

But there are signs they may be considering a reconciliation. Yushchenko said Sunday his party will start talks with former Orange Revolution allies on forming a coalition after the election.

“The most important thing is the maximum engagement of democratic forces in forming a coalition,” he said after casting his ballot at a Kiev polling station.

Tymoshenko portrays herself as a victim of ruthless and corrupt clans, which along with her public speaking prowess helped her retain strong public support in the nation of 47 million people, while Yushchenko’s ratings plummeted from 70 percent a year ago to under 20 percentage points in recent opinion polls.

“Yulia is our last hope,” Iryna Petrova, a 64-year old retiree said after voting for Tymoshenko’s bloc at a polling station in downtown Kiev.

Moscow's hand behind the scenes

Russia, still reeling from a humiliating defeat it suffered in the 2004 presidential election when a court annulled Yanukovych’s fraud-tainted victory and ordered a repeat vote, avoided direct meddling in the campaign, but worked actively behind the scenes.

In what was widely interpreted as an attempt to turn the heat on Yushchenko, Russia at the start of the year forced Ukraine to pay double for its gas imports after an acrimonious price dispute that led to a brief shutdown in Russian gas shipments to Ukraine — also affecting transit supplies to Western Europe.

Yushchenko’s foes, including Yanukovych, Tymoshenko and others, denounced the deal as the betrayal of Ukraine’s national interests and voted to fire his Cabinet. While Yushchenko ignored the vote, it underlined the growing challenges he was facing.

Yanukovych promised to mend ties with Moscow, make Russian a second state language and drop plans for Ukraine to join NATO. He supports European Union membership, but said the first priority should be joining a Russian-led economic bloc of former Soviet nations.

His party isn’t expected to win a majority that would make it capable of forming the Cabinet alone, but it is expected to become a key force in any future coalition.

Yushchenko has kept the door open for forming a coalition with Yanukovych, whom he called a criminal just over a year ago — an about-face that analysts say could further erode public support.

Ihor Prikordonny, a 68-year-old pensioner, said he voted for Yushchenko’s party but was against the president striking an alliance with Yanukovych. “Yanukovych has discredited himself and lacks education and culture,” Prikordonny said.

Source: AP

Russia-Backed Opposition Set For Comeback In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine began voting on Sunday in a crucial election that seems certain to see a resurgence of Russia-backed forces and mark a step back from the pro-West ideals that piloted the "Orange Revolution" liberals to power.

Local election commission official prepares a polling station for Sunday's election voting

President Viktor Yushchenko went into the election for a new parliament, well aware that widespread disillusionment over his government's record has left his old Moscow-backed rival, Viktor Yanukovich, poised to bounce back onto the political scene.

Though his own job is not in the balance, Yushchenko knows that, after Sunday's vote, he will have to reach an understanding with the man he humiliated in a presidential poll re-run in December 2004.

The new parliament for whom 37 million electors were voting will, for the first time, have powers to appoint the prime minister, steward of Ukraine's rocky economy.

Pre-poll surveys say Yanukovich's Regions Party is sure to grab the biggest share of the vote. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party lies second with the bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, his one-time ally, in third place.

At stake is the fate of a country of 47 million, whose 'Orange' leaders have been unable to deliver on promises after prizing Ukraine loose from centuries of Russian domination and setting it on a course for joining the European mainstream.

Much of the wild optimism, generated by a revolution that turfed out Yanukovich and the Moscow-backed old guard, has evaporated amid slowing economic growth and infighting in the ranks of the leadership over corruption.

Though now enjoying total freedom of expression, ordinary Ukrainians face unpredictable price hikes in basic foodstuffs.

A maddening bureaucracy, a hangover from Soviet times, frustrates vital parts of daily life such as drawing pensions, securing social care and organizing children's schooling.

Growth slumped to 2.6 percent last year compared with 12.1 percent in 2004. Western investors are anxious not to get their fingers burned in a country whose stability is uncertain.

Forty-five parties are running, but polls show that only from five to seven will clear the 3 percent barrier to win seats in the 450-seat parliament.

Voters stood in long lines in early morning sunshine at some polling stations in Kiev, ready to make their choice on an outsized ballot, nearly one meter in length.

"I came here to vote and I will stand here for as long as it takes to cast my vote," said Anna Petrovna, a 62-year-old pensioner. Gennady, 48, came, saw the massive queue and went away again. "I'll come back later when the crowd has gone down," he said. Polls were due to close at 1900 GMT.

COALITION BARGAINING AHEAD

The only certainty after the vote is that a coalition will be needed. Weeks, and perhaps months, of back-room bargaining lie ahead before the country gets a stable, workable government.

Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov said last week that a new government was likely to be formed only in July.

Not only is Yushchenko threatened by the political comeback of his old nemesis. He is also weakened by constitutional reform that has trimmed his powers and given parliament broader authority including that of appointing the prime minister.

Infighting in the Orange camp over corruption charges that prompted Yushchenko to sack his comrade, Tymoshenko, last September further tarnished the image of the liberal leadership.

Now Yushchenko faces the uncomfortable knowledge that he may either have to team up with his old adversary, Yanukovich, or patch up his quarrel with Tymoshenko.

Either marriage of convenience would carry dangers for Yushchenko.

A 'grand coalition' with Yanukovich's party could require concessions from Yushchenko such as sacrificing more strident pro-Western advocates, like Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk.

Tymoshenko told Yushchenko last week that teaming up with Yanukovich would be "tantamount to al Qaeda joining with the U.S. Republican Party." She warned him such a step could erode his grass-roots power base.

But patching up with the charismatic Tymoshenko also comes at a high price for Yushchenko. She would like her old job of premier back, a difficult step given her interventionist views that clash with Yushchenko's free market values.

Source: Reuters

Ukraine Starts Crucial Parliamentary Elections

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainians began their votes Sunday to elect a new parliament, an election widely regarded as a test for the pro-Western drive promoted by President Viktor Yushchenko since he assumed power in 2004.

Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych the expected winner in Sunday's Ukrainian elections

The election, for the first time, enables the party or party coalition holding a parliamentary majority to appoint a prime minister, a right that had been owned by the president.

The structure was set under an amendment to Ukraine's constitution adopted in December 2004, the president retains the right to set foreign policy and appoint foreign and defense ministers.

About 37 million electors are prepared to cast their ballots. A total of 45 parties and blocs will vie for the 450 seats in the parliament, but polls show only five to seven parties will exceed the 3 percent threshold.

Three parties -- Our Ukraine headed by President Yushchenko, the Party of Regions led by his pro-Russian rival Viktor Yanukovych and Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko -- are leading the race.

The latest opinion polls suggest the Party of Regions would snatch 30 to 34 percent of votes, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine would gain 17 to 20 percent and Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko would have 14 to 20 percent of support.

Yanukovych, who was defeated in the presidential elections in 2004, advocates closer ties with Russia, promises stability and vows to drop plans to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He enjoys broad support in the east part of the country.

The approval ratings of President Yushchenko slid from 70 percent a year ago to less than 20 percent in recent opinion polls. He has pledged to put Ukraine on the way to the European Union (EU) and NATO and gained backing in the western and central areas of the country.

Tymoshenko, who was fired by Yushchenko as prime minister last September, has vowed to fight corruption and entrenched interests.

But with no single party expected to capture a majority, the country might end up with a coalition government. The talks on forming the new government could drag on for months.

Yushchenko said in a Friday televised speech that the parliamentary election is a choice between the past and the future, and called on Ukrainians to vote for democratic forces.

The president also vowed to hold Ukraine's most democratic election ever since.

"Today, society faces a very simple choice: it is a choice between the past and the future," Yushchenko said.

The landmark elections drew massive attention from Russia and western countries. Over 3,500 observers from the United States, Russia, Britain, the EU and the Commonwealth of Independent States will monitor the race which will also decide regional assemblies and municipal heads.

Source: Xinhua

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Belarus Police Attack Crowd, Opposition Leader Arrested

MINSK, Belarus -- Belarusian police using gas grenades and clubs broke up a crowd of anti-government protestors on Saturday and arrested opposition leader Aleksandr Milinkevich, eyewitnesses said.

Belarus riot police beat opposition supporters during clashes in Minsk, Belarus, Saturday, after rows of riot police blocked off a central square where opposition leaders planned a rally over the disputed election in Belarus, pushing crowds away in a massive show of force meant to quash persistent protests against President Lukashenko, but thousands of demonstrators defiantly gathered in a nearby park

The assault took place near the Opera Theatre building in the capital Minsk, where demonstrators had gathered following a failed attempt to reach central October Square.

Police charged the crowd shortly after 1500 GMT and were arresting all demonstration participants they could catch. Eyewitnesses reported "hundreds" of demonstrators lying on the ground, some with injuries.

The violence came after six days of peaceful anti-government demonstrations, which began last Sunday after authoritarian Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko was re-elected to office in a fraud-ridden election.

It was not immediately clear how many of the demonstrators were actually injured, and how many of the demonstrators were prone because of police orders to lie down.

Law enforcers arrested the leader of the Belarusian opposition, Aleksander Milinkevich on the central Kubyshev street shortly after the attack began, pulling Milinkevich from his automobile.

The number two man in the opposition, Aleksander Kazulin, was beaten by police before submitting to detention, and hauled off.

Between 2,000 and 4,000 anti-government protestors had gathered in central Minsk before the police assault. There were no early reports as to numbers escaped, and numbers arrested, either from law enforcers or from opposition spokesmen.

Pedestrians and bystanders at some locations showed support to the demonstrators, shouting "Fascists" as the police made arrests.

There apparently was little physical resistance to the police assault, which according to eyewitnesses was carried out by elite OMON special forces troops, and in overwhelming force.

Source: DPA