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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 18, 2003

18 February 2003, Volume 5, Number 6
PARLIAMENTARY COMMISSION PROBES 'RYWINGATE.' On 8 February, the ad hoc parliamentary commission to investigate allegations that film producer Lew Rywin tried to solicit a bribe of $17.5 million on behalf of Prime Minister Leszek Miller (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 14 January 2003) began its first public interrogations in the case now known in the Polish media as "Rywingate." The first person questioned by the commission was "Gazeta Wyborcza" Editor in Chief Adam Michnik, who on 27 December 2002 published his secretly taped conversation with Rywin in which the latter, claiming to have support from a "group of people in power," offered to lobby the government for a favorable media law that would allow Agora S.A., the newspaper's publisher, to buy the private Polsat television.

The public interrogation of Michnik, according to Polish commentators, has added little substance to what was already known from the publication of "Gazeta Wyborcza" in December. Michnik offered three hypotheses to the commission as to why he was approached by Rywin with the bribe proposal. First, Rywin could have acted on behalf of a "group in power" that actually wanted to obtain a bribe. Second, Rywin could have acted on behalf of a "group in power," but his true intention was not getting a bribe but compromising "Gazeta Wyborcza" and Agora through involving them in a corruption case. Third, Rywin could have acted completely on his own to get a large sum of money from Agora.

Michnik reaffirmed that he believes Prime Minister Miller to be absolutely innocent in this case. "I have not the slightest doubt...that Mr. Lew Rywin used Premier Leszek Miller's name in a mendacious and criminal way, without being empowered to do this," Michnik stressed. "I don't understand why this case has continued for so long. More and more often, I come to the conclusion that Lew Rywin has mighty defenders and protectors who are doing everything to sink this case," he noted.

Premier Miller said last week that he never told Michnik to hush up Rywin's alleged bribery attempt, which reportedly took place in July and was publicized only in December. "No, never," Miller said in a response to the question of whether he ever pressured Michnik. "After all, I was convinced that a report would be written, because Adam Michnik told me about it, saying that his team would carry out a journalistic investigation and that, after that, the findings would be made public," Miller added. Michnik explained the delay in reporting on Rywingate with his reluctance to stir up a political scandal in the country during the time when Miller was negotiating the final conditions for Poland's entry to the European Union.

Michnik suggested during his interrogation that Polish Television chief Robert Kwiatkowski and Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, a member of the National Radio and Television Council -- who were mentioned by Rywin as the people behind his bribe offer -- had plans to privatize the second channel of the public Polish Television and might have been interested in eliminating Agora as a potential buyer through embroiling it in a bribery scandal.

On 10 February, the parliamentary investigation commission called for the suspension of Kwiatkowski and asked the prosecution for the right to look into Kwiatkowski's phone bills. "In light of certain facts uncovered in the course of the commission's work...and doubts as to the public television station's objectiveness in covering its sittings, as well as Mr. Kwiatkowski's use of public television to disseminate his private views, the commission believes Mr. Kwiatkowski should be suspended from his functions until [the commission] has completed its work," the commission said in a statement. The Polish Television Supervisory Board, which has the authority to suspend or sack Kwiatkowski, voted on 14 February to leave him in his post. (Jan Maksymiuk)

BELAVEZHA FOREST MAY BE DISAPPEARING. The Belavezha Forest, one of the last fragments of the primeval forests that once covered the whole of northern Europe, is under threat. A massive felling of trees is taking place in order, environmentalists say, to earn hard currency. Many areas are being felled completely, including some locations that for decades have been the object of constant ecological and scientific monitoring.

The forest straddles the Polish-Belarusian frontier -- indeed, until 22 years ago, the "frontier" in the forest was purely theoretical. In 1981, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered the building of a barbed-wire barrier, in order, it was said, to keep out possible infiltrators from the Polish Solidarity movement. The laws of Poland and Belarus proclaim their sections of the Belavezha Forest national parks. In addition, in 1992 the forest was placed on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites.

When Belarus gained independence, those concerned with the conservation of the forest saw it as one of the main assets and treasures of the new state. Money for necessary conservation work was in short supply, but in general the future seemed auspicious. In 1998, however, a sawmill was set up at Kamenyuki, a settlement in the Belarusian section of the forest, under the auspices of the Belarusian Presidential Administrative Department. The then-director of the park, Yauhen Smaktunovich, protested but was told that only diseased or damaged trees would be felled. In 2001, however, Smaktunovich and his deputy were dismissed, and a new director was appointed, Mikalay Bambiza. The latter -- seemingly the personal choice of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- was described in the official media as a skilled administrator. Ecologists, however, were alarmed, since, in his previous post as director of the Prypyats National Park, he had given orders for the felling of a number of ancient oak trees.

Soon after Bambiza took office, the sawmill began working full speed. However, its operations come directly under the presidential administration and are covered by official secrecy. No outsiders are quite sure what goes on there or where the timber goes. What is clear, however, is that hundreds of trees have been felled to feed the mill.

In 2002, the environmental pressure group Terra-Kanventsiya was set up to try to force the Belarusian government to fulfill its international environmental commitments. Many leading environmentalists, ecologists, and public figures joined or expressed sympathy with the group, and an independent environmental newspaper, "Belavezhskaya Pushcha," was launched under the editorship of Valery Dranchuk.

To counter the protests, the Belarusian authorities invited at the end of January a select group of journalists to tour the forest. Dranchuk was not allowed to participate; former park director Smaktutnovich and his deputy were likewise kept away!

The journalists were allowed to see large areas from which all the trees had disappeared. Representatives of the Presidential Administrative Department assured them, however, that the trees had all been blown down by a gale or else that they had become infested by beetles and had to be felled. The former director, they said, had endangered the health of the forest by trying to block the prophylactic felling of diseased and infested trees.

One forestry worker, who gave his name as Valery Puchinski, tried to tell the journalists a different story. The reports about the felling of the forest were all true, he said, and as a worker there, he was "ashamed" of what was happening. But the authorities quickly countered his intervention by explaining that he was "sick."

Barred from the official tour, Dranchuk held his own news conference in Kamenyuki. The forest, he said, has been taken over by an "industrial lobby." Many local people, whose families have worked in the forest for generations, are refusing to take part in the felling or to work at the sawmill, Dranchuk said, adding that large numbers of "outsiders" have been brought in to fill their jobs.

Terra-Kanventsiya is now planning an appeal to the Council of Europe and other international bodies. Bambiza, meanwhile, maintains that no illegal felling is taking place. In the eyes of the administration, this may well be so. For the Lukashenka regime seems to operate according to the syllogism: "The constitution defines Belarus as a presidential republic; Lukashenka is president; therefore, anything he orders or sanctions must be constitutional!"

The establishment of a sawmill and large-scale felling to earn foreign currency is not new to the forest. In the 1920s, when the whole forest was under Polish jurisdiction, part of the forest was leased out to a British company, which established a mill and began clearing tracts of forest in the vicinity of Hajnowka, doing damage from which, local foresters say, the forest has still not fully recovered. In 1990, "Niva," the Belarusian-language newspaper of the Belarusian minority in Poland, claimed that, once again, excessive cutting was taking place. The administrators of the Polish section of the forest, however, denied this, saying that the large loads of timber currently leaving the forest by rail were, in fact, coming from the Soviet Union.

This report was written by Vera Rich, a London-based freelance researcher.

MOSCOW MAY SOON ACQUIRE BELARUSIAN GAS NETWORK. After months of friction, Belarus is moving to let Russia take over its gas network even sooner than Moscow originally demanded. Earlier this month, unidentified Belarusian officials told the Interfax news agency that the government will turn the state gas firm Beltranshaz into an open joint-stock company before 1 April. The privatization next month could effectively allow neighboring Russia's natural-gas monopoly Gazprom to gain control even earlier than the 1 July target date agreed to in December.

The speedup seems to be part of a remarkable recovery in relations, which fell apart in a fury last August after President Lukashenka blasted President Vladimir Putin's proposal to unify the countries' currencies at the start of next year. The union treaty calls for the monetary merger to take place in January 2004, which has now been reaffirmed as the date for adopting the Russian ruble in Belarus.

Lukashenka never fully explained the reasons for his outburst, although he apparently hopes to have influence over the "emissive center," or, in other words, the central bank that will print the currency. In order to secure a reasonable deal on converting its currency into Russian rubles, Belarus needs more time to bring its annual inflation rate of 34.8 percent into line with Russia's rate of 15.1 percent last year. In dollar terms, the Belarusian ruble is worth about one-sixtieth of its Russian counterpart.

The fight over currency coincided with a conflict over Russia's heavily subsidized gas exports to Belarus, which Gazprom cut by half in October and threatened to stop altogether due to nonpayment of debts. Both problems were resolved during fence-mending meetings in Moscow in November, resulting in very little payment by Belarus but a promise to privatize Beltranshaz by July in response to Russia's demands. The decision was confirmed during Putin's visit to Minsk last month.

The network will be a prize for Gazprom as it seeks to extend its reach beyond Russia and to restore its control over all former Soviet export routes to Europe. A parallel process is occurring in Ukraine, where President Leonid Kuchma has agreed, after much resistance, to set up an international consortium with Russia as an equal partner to manage its transit lines. As with the Belarusian currency issue, the terms of who will control the consortium have been kept ambiguous.

But Lukashenka's decision to convert Beltranshaz into a joint-stock company ahead of schedule may not be unrelated to Gazprom's breakthrough with Kuchma in Ukraine. Interfax quoted a government resolution as saying that the decision to privatize the company "was made in the interests of attracting investments for developing the country's gas-transport system." The consortium in Ukraine is also seeking investment capital to renew the country's aging transit lines.

What began as reluctance may have turned into a race to see which country will allow Gazprom in first. While Ukraine has carried up to 90 percent of Russia's gas traffic to Europe, Belarus could gain a greater share, along with an assurance of subsidized gas for years to come.

Earlier this month, Interfax reported that Russia's new Yamal Peninsula pipeline will open in Belarus in mid-2003, allowing shipments through Poland to Germany. Like Ukraine, Belarus may well seek a face-saving formula to avoid the impression of a Russian takeover of its gas system. Lukashenka has shown little liking for privatizing large state enterprises in the past.

Simultaneously, Belarusian officials denied that the government would trade interest in Beltranshaz for what it claimed was $130 million in gas debts. But the effect may be much the same if Gazprom acquires the firm and eventually pays itself. The government has estimated the company's basic assets at 600 billion Belarusian rubles ($306.6 million), plus 85 billion rubles for distribution and storage facilities.

Beginning this month, Gazprom has demanded that all gas payments from Belarus be made in cash, while the independent gas trader Itera has required 30 percent advance payment for deliveries, RBC News reported. Belarus was said to owe $226 million at the start of the year for imported fuel.

Both Belarus and Ukraine have become more open to Russia's suggestions on gas transit and share ownership since Gazprom pressed plans to build a North European pipeline project across the Baltic Sea. The $5.3 billion underwater line would link Russia directly with Germany, the Netherlands, and eventually Great Britain.

While such a project seemed unlikely when it was first proposed more than a year ago, Russia's experience with the recently opened Blue Stream gas line across the Black Sea to Turkey may make the plan seem more feasible now.

RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld wrote this report.

WILL KUCHMA BE GIVEN 'AMNESTY'? In its 8-14 February edition, "Zerkalo nedeli" reviewed the draft bill "On Social and Legal Guarantees for the President of Ukraine after the Termination of [Presidential] Powers" that was recently registered with the Verkhovna Rada by lawmaker Serhiy Kivalov, whom the daily called a "man from the presidential entourage." Kivalov leads the Sea Party of Ukraine and is the rector of the Odesa State Juridical Academy.

The draft bill, which reportedly consists of nine articles, proposes that the state should provide retired presidents with a dacha, car, bodyguards, the right to medical treatment in governmental health centers, and a monthly pension equal to 80 percent of the president's average monthly salary.

Article 7 of the draft, titled "The Right for Tax Amnesty," reportedly reads: "The president of Ukraine has the right to tax amnesty that will result in freeing the taxpayer from financial, administrative, and criminal responsibility for evading the payment of taxes and failing to declare incomes and hard-currency funds [, as well as] movable and immovable property located both in Ukraine and outside its borders. The president of Ukraine...shall submit a declaration to the State Tax Administration of Ukraine with information about funds and objects of tax amnesty that will be taken as a taxation basis for calculating tax obligations for future periods. The information contained in the declaration of incomes subject to amnesty is state property [sic!] and may not be made public." This article also stipulates that the right to tax amnesty does not extend to assets defined as illegal by the 1997 international convention on money laundering and that such a right may be granted to the president only once.

"Zerkalo nedeli" commented that giving immunity to President Kuchma and his capital is not a bad idea, since Kuchma might have abandoned his purported plans to install a successor that could provide him with such immunity in the future. Thus, the weekly concluded, Ukraine would have a chance of holding a free and democratic presidential election. However, the weekly also quoted the results of a recent poll by the Oleksandr Razumkov Center for Political and Economic Studies, according to which more than 81 percent of respondents are against passing a law that would give Kuchma immunity from criminal prosecution after the conclusion of his presidential tenure.

It is noteworthy that Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, who visited Washington in early February and met with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a number of U.S. congressmen, commented last week that the question of guarantees for Kuchma after his departure from the presidential post "cannot be sidestepped," according to the Our Ukraine press service. Yushchenko said the goal of such guarantees would be to "return Ukraine to a path of democratic development."

"Most likely, it is necessary to make a political decision on guarantees for the president in order to prevent the past from obscuring [our] attention to the future," Yushchenko said. "I agree that this topic is becoming more and more urgent. The general background on the eve of the presidential election [in 2004] is certainly comprehensible -- everybody is tired on both sides and waiting for changes."

The weekly "Grani," which is linked to the Socialist Party of Oleksandr Moroz, made more far-reaching conclusions on 17 February by suggesting that the issue of "amnesty" for Kuchma upon his departure -- not only with regard to his purportedly undeclared capital but also to other issues, including the Kolchuga scandal and the killing of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze -- might have been raised initially by Washington, which is reportedly interested in drawing Ukraine into an anti-Iraq coalition, especially in view of the current opposition of Germany, France, and Russia to U.S. military action against Baghdad.

To support its conclusions, "Grani" pointed to the recent change of Kuchma's tone with regard to the Iraq problem. The weekly stressed that in a joint statement after last week's meeting between Kuchma and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2003) both politicians said they are going "to take specific measures to resolve the Iraq crisis." The weekly quoted Kuchma's statement last week about Ukraine's readiness to provide a chemical-protection battalion for a possible United Nations-sanctioned mission "on the territory of countries neighboring Iraq."

"Grani" also noted that U.S. officials have recently fallen silent on the two issues that not so long ago seemed to be of utmost importance for Washington in its relations with the official Kyiv: the Kolchuga sale allegations and the investigation into the death of Gongadze. According to the weekly, the new geopolitical expediency has forced Washington to put these issues in a box and seek "amnesty" for Kuchma for any unseemly deeds that he may have done or authorized.

It is also strange, "Grani" opined, that the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) withdrew its call for international financial sanctions against Ukraine just two months after it was officially voiced. "Grani" said no serious measures could be taken by international financial institutions within this time to discover whether Ukrainian banks and individuals were actually involved in money-laundering operations, let alone to prevent them. According to the Ukrainian weekly, the FATF withdrew its recommendation of sanctions against Ukraine under pressure from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which is reportedly seeking to repair relations with Kuchma in the face of the Iraq crisis.

"Grani" concluded its article on "amnesty" for Kuchma with a half-mocking and half-serious assertion that now, given this new turn in U.S. policies vis-a-vis Kuchma, the Ukrainian president will not need any legislative "amnesties" and guarantees of immunity because he can easily provide for such guarantees himself by arranging his re-election for a third term. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"The president should remember all the time -- during the morning, day, evening, and night, and no matter where he is -- that he is doing his job.... Tomorrow, we will have the Minsk Ski Run at which I hope to see you all. You will come to relax there, won't you? Yes, you will. But what will it be for me: working or resting? It will be terrible work, terrible, since when you show up somewhere, you automatically become the center of attention." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka during a meeting with students in Minsk on 14 February; quoted by Belarusian Television.