Accessibility links

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 13, 2003

13 May 2003, Volume 5, Number 18
WARSAW PREPARES TO COMMAND MILITARY ZONE IN IRAQ. Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski announced on 12 May that the Polish stabilization force in Iraq will be deployed in a sector between Baghdad and Basra, that is, between a British-administered sector in the south and a U.S.-administered sector in the north. "We have made a decision, and as a result the Polish division is to operate in the upper southern zone; we have just begun negotiating with our potential partners in this zone," Szmajdzinski said. He added that the negotiations on which countries are to participate in the Polish sector will continue until 22-23 May, when a conference on the issue is to be held in Warsaw.

Szmajdzinski said that Warsaw has requested NATO to provide support for its mission in Iraq, recalling that the trans-Atlantic alliance had got involved in the 4,500-strong International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. "It is a normal and a natural thing for Poland to request the allied countries to have informal talks about the possibility of making use of instruments that the alliance has -- to provide help with the shaping of the operational plans for setting up communications systems and sharing the intelligence of the allied states.... Should these instruments be made available to us, this would mean the acceptance by the 19 states of such actions," Szmajdzinski said.

The Polish military sector in Iraq will encompass an area of some 80,000 square kilometers with 3 million inhabitants. The precise borders of the Polish zone are yet to be defined by a U.S. command center in Florida. Poland is reportedly planning to send 1,500-2,000 servicemen to Iraq. General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, Poland's former envoy to NATO, has been named as the commander of a multinational division in the Polish sector in Iraq. The division is to encompass 6,000-7,000 servicemen; it has not been revealed what other countries could contribute to this force. Szmajdzinski's proposal last week that the stabilization force in the Polish sector in Iraq be based on NATO's Polish-German-Danish corps stationed in Szczecin has been rejected by both Germany and Denmark (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 6 May 2003).

Szmajdzinski said it would be better if Poland had a UN Security Council mandate for its mission in Iraq but added that the mission must be continued even without a UN resolution. "We cannot liberate the Iraqi people and then say: 'There is no resolution so we leave things as they are and pull out.' The point is to make it possible for the Iraqi people to take responsibility for their country in a democratic and sovereign way," Szmajdzinski explained.

While many Poles feel pride in their country's unexpected role as a major international player following the Iraq war, some Polish (and international) commentators warn that the Washington-fuelled "global ambitions" of Warsaw may backfire with unpleasant surprises in the European Union, which Poland is expected to join in a year.

First of all, since Poland's staunch backing of the United States so irritates the EU's heavyweights, Germany and France, these two countries may prove less keen in doling out EU aid to Poland. Such commentators point that in 2006 the EU is scheduled to renegotiate its regional-subsidies policy to accommodate new members. They claim that Poland may find it very hard to remain a net recipient of EU subsidies, particularly since Germany is the principal net contributor to the EU budget.

Polish commentators argue that, while Poland made a right strategic decision to side with the U.S. in the Iraq war and should justly expect political and economic benefits from this, Warsaw should not necessarily associate itself with all U.S. global interests. In particular, some analysts point that Washington's purported intention to erode the German-French anti-U.S. stance on Iraq with the help of Warsaw will prove unsuccessful and bring Poland only troubles in Europe. The daily "Rzeczpospolita" wrote on 12 May that Poland's European choice requires that the country become unambiguously involved in the building of the EU's common foreign policy and security, which in turn implies that Warsaw must seek rapprochement with Berlin and Paris.

A step in this direction was made last week by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who met with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac in Wroclaw, within the so-called Weimar Triangle format. The summit did not produce much substance, but one thing did not pass unnoticed in Poland. Both Schroeder and Chirac declared that they want to see Poland as an equal partner in the EU. And it was also noticed that neither Berlin nor Paris wants Warsaw to be a broker in dealings between Europe and the U.S. "I do not get the impression that we need a bridge between the EU and the United States," Chirac told journalists in Wroclaw.

Even if Poland's involvement in the Iraq war has contributed to a significant rise in the country's international posture, it has simultaneously brought a host of additional problems -- of a diplomatic, financial, military, administrative, and other nature -- with which Warsaw must immediately and successfully cope if it wants to build on its surprising political elevation. It should not be forgotten that Poland still remains a nation in transition, which is plagued by nearly 20 percent unemployment and ruled by a minority government with approval ratings barely over 10 percent. There seems to be no immediate solution how to translate the country's bold and successful international policy into an equally bold and successful domestic one to uplift the mood of disappointed citizens. At the same time, any failure on the part of the government to live up to its present international challenge may not only turn deadly for the government itself but also bring about still wider disillusionment in the sense of the country's postcommunist transformation. (Jan Maksymiuk)

ARTICLE 19 DOCUMENTS RECENT ABUSES OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Article 19, the London-based watchdog organization that monitors violations of freedom of speech worldwide, has just issued its report on Belarus for the period February-April 2003. The report is a grim one -- the all-too-familiar chronicle of media outlets closed or suspended, and journalists and editors arrested or subjected to other forms of harassment.

The lead story, however, is the draft law on the media, which was scheduled to be made public in March, and to be discussed by the National Assembly on 2 April. Neither of these events occurred; the bill is "still being discussed by the Belarusian authorities," says Article 19, concluding: "Despite efforts by civil society to learn about developments in the compiling of the draft law, the authorities have refrained from releasing conclusive information on the subject. Judging from previous drafts, the new piece of legislation is likely to compound the problems already existing in the current regulations."

The report then analyses the resolution on setting up the Commission of TV and Radio Broadcasting, adopted by the Information Ministry in January. A number of defects are pinpointed, notably that since the chairman of the commission is the minister of information, the commission "will have virtually no independence of government in the making of its decisions" and, in practice, may under the legislation "be completely controlled by the Ministry of Information." The report further says that "there are no clear regulations as to the appointment of the other members" and notes that to date it has proved "problematic even to obtain information on the identity of the commission members."

Next, Article 19 reports, and expresses its full support for, the campaign of the Belarusian Association of Journalists for the review of Articles 367, 368, and 369 of the Criminal Code, which currently provides the president of Belarus with special protection against defamation. It stresses that "according to international standards, public officials should tolerate a higher level of criticism than ordinary citizens" and that "as the European Court of Human Rights held: 'In the democratic system the actions or omissions of the government must be subject to the close scrutiny...of the press and public opinion.'"

It likewise quotes the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the cases of Mikola Markevich, Pavel Mazheyka, and Viktar Ivashkevich, who received prison sentences for defaming the president: "It is....unacceptable in a democracy that journalists should be sent to prison for their work."

Next comes an analysis of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's "Ongoing Seminar for the Leaders of the Republican and the Local Public Bodies" on 29 March, the participants of which (according to "Sovetskaya Belorussiya") took the view that "each Belarusian family lives according to the state ideology, and that the media is the most effective means to popularize it"; and that the work of the media, both state-run and private, "should consolidate Belarusian society." Already "ideological meetings" have been introduced instructing journalists of the state media "what and how to write." Article 19 is "very disturbed" at this news, says the report, and wishes to remind the Belarusian authorities that the "imposition of requirements for the dissemination of ideological or other messages on behalf of the authorities runs counter to international standards of freedom of expression."

The report then proceeds to chronicle the various violations: of the right to peaceful assembly, prosecution, harassment, and suppression of newspapers and individual journalists. Finally, it notes the "suspension" of the investigation of the "disappearance" of ORT cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski in July 2000, observing that "cases of 'disappearances' of journalists exert a very powerful 'chilling effect' on the work of the media. It is therefore of paramount importance that a thorough and impartial investigation is carried out to shed light on what happened to Zavadski."

Throughout the report, point by point, Article 19 makes recommendations of how the situation should be rectified in the light of international standards.

Under the present circumstances, however, it seems unlikely that the Belarusian authorities will heed such calls as "All forms of interference in the work of the State and independent media should be discontinued and the editorial independence of these media should be respected by the authorities" or "Measures should be taken to ensure that people in Belarus are free to take part in peaceful demonstrations."

Yet without such measures, Belarus seems likely to remain an information "black hole" in which even a pro-Western student, who considers himself (unlike the "ordinary people") immune to the regime's propaganda, can -- as a letter in the possession of the current author shows -- be himself so subconsciously influenced by President Lukashenka's interpretation of world affairs, that he fears the inevitable outcome of the U.S. Belarus Democracy Act will be a Baghdad-style attack on Minsk.

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

DECLASSIFIED KGB FILES SHOW AUTHORITIES KNEW OF CHORNOBYL'S FATAL FLAWS. The Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU, has released a large number of previously secret documents that reveal the Chornobyl nuclear-power plant suffered from serious design and building flaws.

The documents show that the authorities ignored KGB warnings that the materials used in the plant's construction were substandard and that the technicians operating the plant often did not comply with safety regulations.

The SBU is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB of the Ukrainian SSR. Around 120 files composed of information sent at the time to Moscow KGB headquarters by its Ukrainian branch have been published by the SBU on the Internet (

The documents reveal there had been previous accidents at Chornobyl that released radioactive pollution into the atmosphere and that the KGB had warned the plant should be shut down only months before one of its reactors exploded on 26 April 1986. That explosion resulted in the world's worst civilian nuclear accident and spewed radiation across vast sections of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Western Europe.

But now the agency wants to set the record straight. "For a long time, a section of the documents concerning Chornobyl was inaccessible to historians and, therefore, much of the published work that aimed at analyzing the causes of the catastrophe or to shed light on government actions [at the time] are based essentially on the memoirs and observations of the participants. Because of that, many are tendentious and obstruct an objective examination of the reasons and circumstances for the accident, especially in analyzing its consequences and the effectiveness of government bodies," Maryna Ostapenko, a spokeswoman for the SBU, told RFE/RL.

The bulk of the documents cover the 1986 accident and the cleanup efforts running through 1988. Ostapenko said the files also show that the plant, built in the 1970s, suffered 29 accidents between 1977 and 1981 and that the Ukrainian KGB had warned of the dangers posed by its continuing operation.

One KGB report, written in January 1979, said: "According to operational data, there were deviations from design and violations of technology procedures during building and assembling works. It may lead to accidents."

"This release [of KGB files] contains only documents," Ostapenko said, "and it speaks in the language of documents -- that is to say, a person who has these before him sees what actions were taken by the Ukrainian secret services to warn the country's ruling circles about the dangers of an accident and what actions were taken by the security services after the accident. These [documents] reveal a true picture of events at the time."

In September 1982, an accident at Chornobyl released what are described in the files as "significant quantities of radiation" into the atmosphere. Most accidents occurred through equipment failures. Chornobyl technicians warned about the high risk of accidents at the power station. One document deals with an inspection of the plant in early 1986 by engineers who urged that it be shut down.

"We hope to restore the historic truth by publishing documents about the station, its construction and the disaster itself," Ostapenko said.

The documents, Ostapenko said, point a finger of blame at the authorities in Moscow for failing to heed warnings about Chornobyl.

"You can find here letters written by the heads of the Ukrainian security services to the top leaders of the Soviet Union about the shortcomings in the construction and operation of the Chornobyl power station," she said.

Ostapenko added that one reason Soviet leaders failed to take action may have been because the information coming from Ukraine was just a small proportion of the intelligence coming from the KGB's offices throughout the Soviet Union.

"When this accident happened in 1986, the Ukrainian KGB was part of a big machine. Ukraine was one of 15 Soviet republics. Therefore, the reaction of the USSR leadership was not very attentive. The very way that documents were transmitted, the lapse of time and the conviction that such [an accident] could never happen played a big role," she said.

The release of the documents comes shortly after Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev said a new shelter should be built over the exploded reactor at Chornobyl. Russia is concerned it could be affected if the present, hastily built sarcophagus over the damaged reactor develops leaks or collapses, allowing contaminants to escape.

The Ukrainian government says there is no immediate danger at Chornobyl but is calling for more money from Western nations to erect a new shield around the damaged reactor. It also wants funds to complete construction of two new nuclear units to replace the Chornobyl plant, which finally closed at the urging of Western countries in 2000.

This report was written by RFE/RL correspondents Askold Krushelnycky and Yulia Zhmakina.

"During the past 13 years in Poland, all ruling teams without exception have spoken so often and so much that there cannot be a strong, independent Poland without a strong, independent Ukraine, that all the Poles, including children, have become convinced about this." -- Jacek Cichocki, director of the Warsaw-based, government-sponsored Center for Eastern Studies, during a meeting with Ukrainian opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko in Warsaw last week; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 9 May.