28 December 2005

Would you choose "YAK" for the name of a jet?

I’m flying to Donetsk for the day and wondering if Ukraine and Russia will go to war over gas. Yekhanurov actually said that Ukraine can just siphon off the amount it needs from the pipe that runs through Ukraine and transports 80% of GazProm’s gas. He claims it’s perfectly legal. I spread out in the back rows of the 120 seater Yakovlev Yak-42. The seats are old and small but all is well since I have a row of three to myself. As an added bonus the seats on these Yaks fold fully flat, so I’m able to push the seat in front of me completely out of my way, giving me additional space. It’s really casual flying in Ukraine. I get to go to Donetsk and back in the same day (sames applies for Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, and other cities). There are no lines, no safety instructions, no need to put my tray table in the upright position, no need to store my bag under the seat in front of me. In fact, no one cares if you wear the seat belt or not. People actually smirk when they see me buckle mine. In a way I can see why. The belt presumably isn’t going to do much good when this jet loses its engines and nosedives in the steppe. Cell phones and electronic devices? No worries, you might have spotty network coverage, but use 'em if you got 'em. The Russian language newspaper that's provided, a Donetsk publication (it is DonBassAero after all), has a photo of Yushchenko in military fatigues during his Iraq visit. Also there is an article about how the Artemivsky champagne factory is terminating the brand "Sovietske Shampanske". No more of the green bottles with the simple black label. End of an era. Of course none of it matters if Ukraine goes to war with Russia over gas.

22 December 2005

Milinkevich Update

Belarus dictator Lukashenko has now moved up the Belarus' election from July to March 19th. Milinkevich claims that Lukashenko is scared of the opposition's rising popularity. Details here.

O Khto Khto Poroshenka Lubyt?

In this land of contrasts, after leaving the Pora-Reforms and Order convention, modestly held in the space of one movie theater, I bump into at least six orange Nasha Ukraina tents on Maidan handing out Poroshenko's "Roshen" chocolates to children in honor of Sviatoho Mykolaya. In the Pora meeting Kaskiv mentioned the fact that the media is starting to refer to Pora-Reforms and Order as the "Third Orange Block". Kaskiv said "Make no mistake about it. We are not orange. We are zoloti." Applause filled the room.

21 December 2005

"PORA-Reforms and Order" National Convention

On Sviatoho Mykolaya, December 19th, the political block "PORA-Reforms and Order" had a convention at the Ukraina Cinema on Horodetskoho St. The block consists of PORA (Kaskiv), the Reforms and Order Party (Pynzenyk), and front man, heavy-weight champion of the world: Vitaly Klitschko. I visited the convention for a couple hours as a guest. The speeches were based on the simple premise that the revolution on the stage on maidan, and the revolution among the people standing on maidan were two different revolutions. PORA-RandO are positioning themselves as the harbinger of the ideals of maidan and the only pro-democratic, oligarch clean, party in the parliamentary campaign. Klitschko delivered a measured but inspirational speech about how he chose to align himself with the party because it is the only party free of connections to business and free of oligarchs. In other speeches specific examples of corruption in the Kyiv City Administration were given and it was announced that PORA activists putting up politically charged stickers were detained by police. The stickers have the faces of Kuchma, Yanukovych, and Kivalov with the caption "PORA Spytaty - Chomu vony ne sydiat" (meaning why are they not "sitting" in jail). A guest speaker, the opposition leader from Azerbaijan spoke of the movement of democracy in the post-Soviet space. See my photos from inside the convention. Also the party list has been published here. PORA-Reforms and Order information can be found here.

16 December 2005

We are the Champions

It's December 9th, a Saturday night, and I’m taking Maya and Kalyna to Victor Petrenko’s “We are the Champions” figure skating show. They actually stay awake through three hours of skating. I also stay awake. The loud music helps. If there is one thing Ukrainian promoters have down pat it’s audio systems at events. Judging from the info on the ticket I am expecting a lame “has been” show. There is a tendency for over the hill artists to perform in Kyiv. The Scorpions and Joe Cocker visit annually and just last month Judas Priest and Nazareth made an appearance. So here we are at Palace of Sports and the night ends up being full of surprises. Surprise 1: Korona chocolates is sponsoring the event and has placed a chocolate bar and brochure on every seat in the house (not surprising). The surprise is that when we finally navigate to our seats, only seconds before the start of the event (of course), only our seats are empty, in a sea of people, and there in each seat is the chocolate and brochure. No one had swiped them. When I explain this to people at work they say, well zvychayno if you are taking about an event that cost was 96 hryvnia ($19.20) for each seat this is not your average person. This is a person with osvita and kultura. Surprise 2: The place is 90% full even at these prices. Surprise 3: the skating is excellent. Take my opinion with a grain of salt since it is my first time watching figure skating live, but I am impressed and happy that I’m spending money on this and not on that lame Poplavsky concert. You GO, you former world and European champions. I don’t recognize their names when they are announced, although the crowd certainly does. Surprise 4: This is the first Palace of Sports event that has a Ukrainian feel to it since one of the two MC’s speaks only Ukrainian, while the other one speaks Russian. Pliushchenko, the skater from St. Petersburg and an Olympic medal hopeful, came out with a big orange flag. The crowd cheered. He then proceeds to strip down to his sparkling gold Speedo underwear to the tune of “Sex Bomb”. When the show is over I ask Maya and Kalyna who their favorite skater is. Was it Petrenko and the intricate number he skated with his little daughter? Was it the graceful former world champion Yevgenia Hordieva? Nope. The girls are in agreement that it’s definitely the guy in the gold gatsi. For two days after the event it’s all about the crazy gatsi guy.

The amount of police inside was above average. I’ve lived here long enough to not even notice how weird it is that real police are in the arena instead of the rent a cops I am used to at American sporting events. When I hear them announce that Kateryna Yushchenko is in the audience (“let’s hear it for Pani President” they said) with her daughters it’s clear why the extra security is there. Although I’m not sure I’d rely on these crack cops one of which is standing directly in front of us. He looks 18 and has his hand buried in a bag of sunflower seeds tossing them in his mouth and spitting the shells on the ground. Not exactly scanning the rafters for a shooter.

So the girls are leaning forward in their seats and enjoying the skating and the lights which paint snow flakes and other geometric designs on the ice. They are also enjoying their Pringles, popcorn, water (with and without gas) and of course the free Korona chocolates. You think someone tainted them? Let me taste them first. Tato work. As I look at the figure skaters I can’t help but wonder if it would be more entertaining if they had hockey sticks in their hands and launched a slap shot or two once in a while. There could be a mandatory double-axel, a solchow and a slap shot. Nice.
After the show, at Maya’s request we embark on a futile quest to find her friends that are purportedly somewhere in the stands. We find nobody, but somehow we end up on the actual ice rink. It appears the rink is open to all to walk and slide around. The girls tried to keep up with the snowflake light patterns moving across the ice. Five pictures here.

13 December 2005

Security risk in posting Milinkevich Interview?

I received an email from a close family member who was very concerned (an understatement) about my posting the Milinkevich interview on my blog. I respect this person’s opinion so I thought about the e-mail a great deal. I agree that security is an issue not to be taken lightly, especially for an American living outside of the Bush USA. In fact, now that things are so screwed up, security is an issue even living in the USA. Not sure if I would feel that my family is very secure getting on that plane in Miami with a Federal Air Marshal’s .357 SIG P266 blazing away. Yes, the Marshal was decisive, made a tough call, and validated the training dollars spent on him, but the fact remains: metal bullets were airborne.

The author of the email recommended that I keep my political views to myself.
I try not to have many political views. The media/political spin placed on any set of facts creates such a foggy situation that when conversations go there my brain glazes over and starts thinking about when my driver’s license expires or who won the game last night. To me the Belarus issue is not political it’s a more fundamental human rights issue. Milinkevich confirmed this in our conversation. People are being robbed of their freedom and dignity. When considering security risks related to the posting of the interview on my blog, I think back to why I invested valuable time doing the interview in the first place. It comes down to the way I was raised. Like it or not when someone takes basic freedoms away from others for personal gain it really gets me going. Why? Maybe it started with the fact that my father fought in Vietnam. I was aware of this. He came home in one piece. He also managed to bring war stuff back, some of which he shared with us. Among them were unit colors (flag), a Vietnamese bamboo fishing trap, even the punji stake that went in one side of his calf and out the other. To this day, when I visit him, I pause in his basement for a look at the things from war. In Ukie School and Plast I dreamed of liberating Ukraine, literally with my toy guns and NFL sleeping bag. My American friends had G.I. Joe action figures that were US Army or Marines. My G.I. Joe was a Ukrainian Partisan, with kung-fu grip, singing “Oy Vydno Selo”. When I think back I recall being part of family visits to friends houses on Sundays. The Tatos were yelling at the Redskins on the football field, the Mamas were talking in the kitchen, and my pre-pubescent friends and I were upstairs, with maps, pencils, and model tanks, planning the invasion to liberate Ukraine. As far as the adults were concerned, this was not abnormal. “Very nice dear, would you like a cookie and some milk?”
Somehow we found out, at school maybe, that the American Government didn’t operate quite that way. At least not when Billy Kilmer was quarterback.
When the possibility of meeting Milinkevich came up I jumped on it. I'm making it a mission to be open to unusual opportunities (part of my ongoing mid-life crisis). How can I turn my back on the chance to do my tiny bit, like meeting the guy and getting the word out to my stunning blog traffic of 1.5 readers per day? Not exactly a blip on a radar screen, but something nonetheless.

Do I care about the safety and security of my family?
Of course I do. I also care about the values my children grow up with. It may sound cheesy, but I want them to understand that not all people have the human freedoms that they enjoy. I want them concerned when someone’s freedom of expression or choice is being stepped on. I’m not talking about making them little Jarheads or raising armies to invade countries, I’m talking about peaceful, intelligent awareness and support in their own spheres of influence. Also, let’s be real about the risks here. I live in Ukraine not Belarus. The Ukies have enough problems of their own to notice what Petro's writing about the Belarus regime. The chain of events would have to be pretty complex: someone in the Belarusian Government Regime, who happens to understand English, miraculously comes across my Blog (which even Google can’t find to save it’s life) and appeals to the Ukrainian Government for the removal of Petro via some trumped up violation of the Ukrainian Criminal Code (assuming everyone decides to make Petro the priority for the day). So we pack up and leave while explaining to the kids why we are leaving. These events they will remember. I then take advantage of the current affairs appeal of the story (i.e. Belarus Elections, a Modern Day Dictator, and the Security Implications of Blogging) and market it to a major New York book publisher, cashing royalty checks at Fiji Savings Bank on the beach for the rest of my days.

Am I taking any measures to reduce risk?
1. I’ve changed the email address on the blog to an anonymous Gmail account and removed any appearance of my last name from the whole blog.
2. I’ve started to second guess my desire to go to Minsk to be an official observer of the 2006 Belarus Presidential Election in July.
I do appreciate the concern and wonder if anyone else out there would care to comment? Finally, I’ll rehash an Edmund Burke quote that was tossed about during the Orange Revolution. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing".

08 December 2005

Rice and Rukavychka

Yesterday, Condoleeza Rice was in Kyiv meeting with Yushchenko while my daughter Maya was a mole in the 5 year-olds’ production of Rukavychka. Maya had her lines well memorized and delivered them with a big smile: “I’m freezing…I need someplace to get warm...”. I have it all on video. So do ten other parents. Rice had her lines well memorized too: “you guys are doing ok but you need to work a little harder on making good on the promises of the Orange Revolution”. I don't think those were her exact words. After the play, Maya’s class sang a few christmas songs. After meeting Yushchenko, Rice met with Timoshenko on the way to the airport. America departed. In the multi-purpose room it was the mouse, not the bear, that exploded the Rukavychka in the end.

07 December 2005

Interview with Belarus Opposition Leader Alexander Milinkevich

Last week, I had the unusual opportunity (thanks to Damyan) to meet with and interview Alexander Milinkevich who, in a recent congress of opposition parties, was elected to lead the unified opposition against President Lukashenko in the 2006 Belarus Presidential Election. Belarus, dubbed by Condoleeza Rice as “the last dictatorship in Europe” is suffering from a total human freedom clampdown by reigning dictator Lukashenko. With total control of all government institutions, including the Central Election Commission, the legislature, the judiciary and mass media, Lukashenko is attempting to prevent an “Orange Revolution” in Belarus. Recently, the Belarus Verkhovna Rada passed changes in legislation, ordered by Lukashenko, in order to further take away liberties from the citizens of Belarus with the goal of complicating matters for the opposition. These modifications bump many current misdemeanors to felony offense level. For example, public gatherings not authorized by the government will get you 3-5 years in prison. Definition of a public gathering? Five or more people. Distributing brochures and leaflets not sanctioned by the government? 3-5 years in prison. Not to mention the constant threat of losing one’s job or place at a University if one is suspected of being involved with the opposition. The “Orange Revolution” however, has given the Belarus people hope that change is possible. Low-key Milinkevich might just be the candidate that is capable of bringing together disparate opposition parties into a unified front. He and his team have placed their lives on the line in pursuit of freedom. Will enough people hit the streets in protest? This and other questions were part of our conversation:

P: In your estimation is it fair to say that Alexander Milinkevich 2006 is Victor Yushchenko 2004?
AM: When we achieve victory then the comparison is absolutely fair. You have to understand I am only a “candidate of candidates” in a congress of democratic forces I was selected to represent the unified opposition. In the sense that I represent a broad civil and political coalition, perhaps I am close to being a Yushchenko.

P: Were all opposition forces represented at this congress, all democratic forces?
AM: Practically all, there were 10 political parties, only the Social Democrats did not attend, and approximately 200 civic organizations were represented. This was a large gathering in which all regions of Belarus were represented.

P: Are the Social Democrats the party of Professor Kazulin?
AM: Yes Professor Kazulin who believes that we should approach like this [gestures with his hand, palm down fingers spread indicating a multiple pronged approach]. We believe the opposite. There are so many small forces that have their own ideas that we must unite since we are not participating in fair elections here, we are fighting a dictatorship.

P: I am interested in understanding what your goal is. What have you established as a target for your movement? Lukashenko himself will decide what the election results will be…
AM: Yes he’ll write in for himself 75%

P: So is your goal an immediate regime change? Or is there a more long-term goal here?
AM: Our goal is to live in a different Belarus. Our goal is not to change Lukashenko for another president. That’s just a step in the process. We do not want to live in the kind of Belarus that he built. He built Belarus by brute force, he built Belarus on fear. We do not want to live in this type of Belarus, nor do the majority of our people. Therefore, we wish to take advantage of the election campaign to get information to the people. And the main method we will use is the campaign “Door to Door”. Lukashenka has, for many, many years, specifically denied us access to television that has been monopolized by the authorities. At the beginning of the year there were 18 independent newspapers where four years ago there were 60. Starting next year, he will only allow the publication of three independent newspapers. So there are less and less media outlets for real information. There is still the Internet and a few tiny newspapers that are published underground. The main method is to literally go to the people. We will win when we are able to get to the people’s minds. First, we must convey that we are the majority, there is no need to fear, we must fight and behind us are the truth and the future.

P: Yes, people will not know if their neighbor is for the opposition, or not. If information is controlled, it’s really difficult…
AM: It’s ironic, the TV continuously feeds information that support for Lukashenko is 90% in some cities, 60% in others. He is simply not telling the truth. The situation, in reality, is quite the opposite.

P: What mechanisms will the “Door to Door” campaign use?
AM: Clearly it will involve people literally walking with information. It’s winning with people. It’s conversations and then leaving behind information. Also we ask what problems people have and engage in further conversation. Of course in normal times we would immediately be arrested by the police for this type of activity. However, during the period of the election campaign we at least have a chance that we do not have a right to waste, although we know that our voices are not heard by the authorities for many, many years already. In strict terms, we demand fair elections. If he again makes the elections dishonest and not according to the constitution, we will call the people to the streets.

P: These new laws Lukashenko recently pushed through don’t help matters.
AM: It goes without saying. The actions I just described are punishable by three years in jail.

P: Do these laws apply during the election campaign?
AM: These law changes are directly about the campaign. He is limiting our access to mass media more and more and as if that’s not enough, he is now forcing us to be silent, not to talk. He is afraid that we will come to people with this type of campaign (“Door to Door”) and convince them with our words, we won’t need the newspapers. The government is correct to be afraid. Legally it is impossible for Lukashenko to win.

P: The Orange Revolution: is information about it distributed? Do people know about it?
AM: Unfortunately, only those people who read independent newspapers. There was also some TV, satellite TV, but the government continuously squashes this information. They were delighted when Timoshenko left, they see that there are rifts. They are also delighted when they see there are not immediate improvements in the economy. They interview those people that say “We’re disillusioned”. Propaganda is working continuously. Like in Europe, when the EU did not pass its constitution, the government immediately made a big issue out of it.

P: In a recent poll 45% of the population responded that a regime change is due. At the same time the economic situation of the average citizen is higher than that of the average Ukrainian. Pensions are paid on time and there is some sense of order. Will people remain passive, or do you believe they are ready to come out and risk the sense of order even though it’s at the cost of repressions of freedom? Will people go to the streets?
AM: The numbers, for example, are as follows. 25% are loyal Lukashenko supporters. 25% are supporters of democratic forces. Then there remains 50% undecided. People who are not sure if it’s better this way or that way. There are many that want change but are afraid. It is true that in Belarus people live, on average, better than in Ukraine or Russia. It is true that there is relative so-called order, but this is order based on use of force, on instilling fear in people.

P: Order based on a large club…
AM: Absolutely right. In the time of Stalin there was also order, and when Hitler was in power there was also order and the streets were clean. But order without freedom and choice has no future. Our foundation is not built on those people that want more bread and salo, but on those people who want freedom, on those people that want to live with their dignity and not be trampled upon. These are educated people. These are young people.

P: During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, internal government dissension was one of the critical success factors. For example the Minister of Transportation ignored a direct order from the Prime Minister to stop all trains from Western Ukraine to Kyiv. What is the probability of internal government dissension in Belarus?
AM: This will be very difficult for us. In Ukraine, there is still, to some degree, regional self-government (samo-vriaduvaniya). Mayors are elected by the people. The Mayor might not have cared what Yanukovych wanted, he was more concerned about his constituency. They are the ones that keep him in place. We have nothing like that. All positions from the top to the bottom are appointed by Lukashenka. They depend on him absolutely. Of course there is some dissent, but I think in our case government officials will begin to come over to our side only when we begin winning. Or the rating of a candidate becomes significantly high relative to Lukashenko’s. Or our campaign will be so successful that that they will see our power. Or if there is a victory in the election of a candidate of the democratic forces. Until we demonstrate power, they will wait.

P: What can people that are not in Belarus: Ukrainians, Americans, Canadians, what can they do to help in the fight for freedom and dignity?
AM: There are two big problems that our partners, people that are not indifferent to what happens in Belarus, people for whom it is important for Belarus to become a free country, can help with. Information support is important, and help in fighting fear is important. We have to support the independent newspapers that Lukashenko is trying to shut down. They are published in Russia and need financial help. All 18 independent newspapers need help because in the end they will have to be distributed for free. It’s also very important to publish small newspapers locally. We have a great deal of experience in this. This is a big weapon for us. First, there is no censoring. Second we can distribute these throughout the country. These are the ways we need help with information. When I speak about fear it’s very important for Belarus that in democratic countries a fund has been established for victims of repression. When a person has legal expenses, they are covered, when there is fine, the fine is covered. When a student is expelled from a University for free-thinking, for participating in a political protest… when a student understands that there is a place reserved for him, at no charge, at a University in Prague or Warsaw he will be more self-confident and he will not be afraid to come out and fight for freedom.

P: Speaking of youth, is there a youth organization, a strong one?
AM: We do not have such a movement in Belarus, although we do have some development of youth organizations not only in Minsk, but in other cities. Organizations like ZUBR, Youth Front, and Rights Alliance, the good thing is that they have formed a type of coalition. They’ve united and together they are implementing a mobilization campaign.

P: The composition of your “Maidan” is comprised of what? Is it 50% young, 50% old, what is it?
AM: First of all it will be the youth, but small proprietors and business people should come out as well. They are almost all dissidents that understand that in the current regime there is not future for them.

P: You have two sons right? What ages are they?
AM: One is 31 years old, he’s a lawyer, finished law school and is now doing business law, and the other is still a student he’s 16.

P: And they live in Belarus?
AM: They live in Belarus, in the same city as I do.

P: Do you find any time for family?
AM: It makes me very sad; I also have a grand-daughter, that I see my family so rarely. There are times when a month goes by and I do not see them. They believe in me and support me, although they are afraid something might happen to me.

P: Do you find any current or historical world-renown figures inspirational? Why?
AM: In the history of Belarus there are famous people that are examples for me. First of all is one of the rulers of Grand Duchy Of Lithuania in which there were Lithuanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. He was Vytautas the Great who, in fact, started his political career in the town where I am from. He was able to unite a great number of nationalities, and there was a great deal of tolerance towards people. And there was also Kastus Kalinowski our national hero that in the year 1863 created an uprising in Belarus against Russia. In fact, my ancestors were part of that uprising. My grand father and great-grandfather were victims of repression. And regarding contemporary figures, Belarus is proud of its creative elite and these individuals support me and that is of great significance. They are a cultural elite that do not wish to live in Belarus the way it is now.

P: Is there an underground cultural, art movement?
AM: Yes there is an underground culture. Their writings are not published because of government censorship. We have successful rock groups that are famous in other countries and in our country they are prohibited from performing. They are not liked by the authorities. Yes there is much art and we want all art to develop freely and we will make it so.

P: To recap, maybe you could say something as if you were addressing the people of Belarus.
AM: I will say that uprising that I mentioned in 1863 the circumstances were very difficult. A small kernel of people called upon simple peasants, upon the nobles, regardless of the huge machine of the Czars Empire, the Army, they still rose up. They rose up because they believed that they would raise the spirit of the people. So I believe that when our revolution happens, like in Ukraine, the same as in Ukraine the goal will be the spirit. This will not be a revolution for financial gain. This uprising will happen with the slogan: “For your and our freedom”. It’s impossible for there to be freedom in one country, when in a neighboring country there is tyranny. We are fully expecting that when Belarus joins the family of democratic countries it will not only be our victory. It will be a victory for the entire democratic world. So I would say it like this: “For your and our freedom”. It’s good that in America, Canada, and Europe there are people that are not indifferent to this. Thank you for this. The issue of victory, however, is our issue. But your support of us is exceptionally important.

P: We are with you and wish you success!
AM: Thank you. Thank you for your interest towards us.