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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: October 7, 2003

7 October 2003, Volume 5, Number 37
TRAFFIC ACROSS POLAND'S EASTERN FRONTIERS DROPS DUE TO NEW VISA REGIME. On 1 October, in preparation for its accession to the European Union, Poland introduced visas for citizens of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. The immediate result was a drop of some 70 percent-90 percent in incoming traffic at Poland's eastern border-crossing points. At one crossing point with Ukraine, which usually had about 8,000 people entering Poland daily, the number on 1 October was less than 800. Railway stations close to the frontier reported a similar drop in numbers: for one train from Belarus to Poland, only seven tickets were sold instead of the usual 500 plus.

However, speaking on Polish Radio, the head of Poland's Border Guards, Major General Jozef Klimowicz, observed that it is too soon to judge the long-term effect: some people may simply not yet have got the visas they require. It will take weeks or even months, he suggested, before the new pattern of traffic flow is established. He stressed, however, that precautions had been taken against illegal crossings: the frontier has been "reinforced' and the Border Guards are "ready."

Certainly, not all the Belarusian citizens wanting visas had yet gotten them. In the run-up to the deadline, Polish consulates in Belarus had been issuing between 300 and 400 visas a day. This, however, proved insufficient, and on 2 October (the second day of the new system) the consulates in Minsk, Brest, and Hrodna still had long queues outside.

Official Polish estimates suggest that some 280,000 Belarusian citizens annually will require Polish visas. However, the vast majority of the visas issued by consulates close to the frontier (Brest and Hrodna) have been multiple entry. This suggests that the need for visas will only prove a temporary "blip" in the cross-border "shuttle" trade that, over the last decade, has provided an important second income to many Belarusian and Ukrainian families close to the frontier. (In the meantime, market traders in eastern Poland are complaining of the lack of "shuttle" customers, who having sold off their own goods will "buy anything on offer" to take home with them.)

The Polish side had, in fact, tried to make the introduction of visas as painless as possible. The date -- originally scheduled for 1 July -- was postponed until after the tourist season. Residents of Kaliningrad will have free visas. For Belarus (which turned down an offer for free visas provided it would reciprocate with a no-visa policy for Poles), there will be free visas for various categories of travelers. including children, students, pensioners, the disabled, and persons visiting family graves.

Nevertheless, for the citizens of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, the visas are a "paper curtain" cutting them off from "Europe" and the world. This feeling is strongest in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave which has already, back in July, had to cope with Lithuania's introduction of transit visas for travel between the exclave and Russia proper.

Now, the Polish Consulate General in Kaliningrad is prepared to deal with a demand of upwards of 10,000 visa applications a month, with applications being processed in two to three working days. However, although the visa application forms are issued free at the consulate, and have even been appended to local newspapers as a special supplement, petty racketeers have been quick to seize the opportunities offered by the new rules. Interviewed on Polish Radio, Jaroslaw Czubinski, the Polish consul general in Kaliningrad, cited cases of "intermediaries" charging five rubles for the forms. Some travel agencies have begun acting as (unauthorized) visa agencies, charging $50-$80 for their services, while outside the consulate itself, "queue organizers" have appeared, also charging for their services.

In July, when Lithuania introduced transit visas, the Russian government countered with cheap flights between Kaliningrad and Moscow, at approximately the same fare as by rail. Demand for these flights is expected to increase now that an alternative visa-free land route (via Belarus and Poland) no longer exists. However, according to Valerii Okulov, general director of Russia's national airline Aeroflot, Kaliningrad's Krabrovo airport is far below minimum safety standards, and under winter conditions it is impossible to guarantee flight safety. "Severe administrative measures" are needed, Okulov said, to improve the situation.

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

WARSAW QUARRELS WITH PARIS OVER MISSILES FOUND IN IRAQ. A diplomatic bomb exploded in Warsaw on 3 October, on the eve of an EU summit in Rome intended to inaugurate the final discussion of a future EU constitution. Polish Defense Ministry spokesman Eugeniusz Mleczak told Reuters and PAP on 3 October that last month Polish soldiers in Iraq found four French-built Roland-type antiaircraft missiles that were built this year. Mleczak's statement effectively meant that the missiles were sent to Iraq this year, shortly before or after the start of the U.S.-led intervention in that country. Implicitly, Warsaw has accused Paris of acting against U.S. interests. The French Foreign Ministry promptly denied the fact that the missiles could have been manufactured in 2003, saying the production of Roland missiles ended for good in 1993.

On 4 October, French President Jacques Chirac met with Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller on the sidelines of the EU conference in Rome. "There could not be any 2003 missiles because those missiles have not been manufactured for 15 years," Chirac told journalists. "I believe the Polish soldiers have created confusion that could have been avoided with thorough verification." Chirac added that he made this point to Miller "in a friendly but frank and firm way."

According to Polish media, Polish politicians in Rome -- including Prime Minister Miller and Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz -- were bewildered by Mleczak's revelation and the repercussions it had. The same day, Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski apologized to Paris, saying the report was released without his authorization and suggesting that Polish soldiers might have drawn wrong conclusions regarding the production date of the discovered missiles. The year 2003 written on the missiles, Szmajdzinski hinted, could refer to the end of their shelf life.

But if the revelation about the French missiles in Iraq was not an intentional move on the part of the Polish government, Polish media speculate, then it was a very thoughtless blunder, indeed. The four Roland-type missiles were reportedly found at an ammunition depot on 29 September. On 1 October they were destroyed with other discovered ammunition, following an order from the command of the Polish-led division in Iraq. On 1 and 2 October Polish television stations showed the missiles before their destruction with comments saying that they were shipped into Iraq -- despite the international embargo -- either shortly before the war or shortly after it started. On 3 October, hours before Mleczak's statement for Reuters and PAP, National Security Bureau chief Marek Siwiec told journalists that "it is likely" that the discovered Roland missiles were produced in 2003. Thus, the Polish government had more than enough time to ponder what these pronouncements may actually mean for Paris.

Some commentators suggest that the revelation was leaked by Warsaw intentionally, to take a sort of revenge on Paris, which is openly displeased with Warsaw's support of Washington's policies. Many in Poland remember Chirac's remark earlier this year that Poland and other EU-aspiring countries "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet" when they signed an open letter in support of the U.S. policy with regard to Iraq. But some say that it was a very stupid move if it was made deliberately, arguing that in the short term it can weaken Poland's hand in negotiations on the EU constitution and in the long term can harm Poland's position in the expanded EU. "At a delicate moment in negotiations [in Rome], on which Poland's position in the EU depends, some in Europe again started to regard us as mischief makers with an anti-French obsession, who are incompetent at the same time," "Gazeta Wyborcza" wrote on 3 October.

Poland's stand at the Rome conference on the EU constitution is not strong anyway. It is supported only by Spain -- both countries want to retain the 2000 Nice Treaty system of voting in the EU's Council of Ministers, which gave them 27 votes each, only two votes less than Germany, France, and Great Britain. Germany and other EU heavyweights want the decision in the council to be made by "qualified majority" -- more than 50 percent of member states representing at least 60 percent of the population of the EU. EU diplomats are now reportedly seeking a compromise that could keep in place the concentrated system of making decisions included in the draft EU Constitutional Treaty and make some visible concessions to Poland and Spain. One such solution -- suggested by Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz on 3 October -- is to put off the implementation of the new voting system until 2008 and decide on it only then. (Jan Maksymiuk)

MINSK WANTS COMPENSATION FROM MOSCOW FOR ABANDONING NATIONAL CURRENCY. Last week in Moscow, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and Belarusian acting Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski talked with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to overcome a stalemate in the Russian-Belarusian plans to introduce the Russian ruble in Belarus as the sole currency as of 1 January 2003 (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 2 September 2003). Reports on the Lukashenka-Putin meeting on 30 September were scarce and without any details, while the Sidorski-Kasyanov talks on 1 October were widely covered and commented on in the Russian press. The general conclusion of Russian commentators was that these talks ended in a "scandal" and put a big question mark over the future of the Russia-Belarus currency union.

Sidorski reportedly told Kasyanov that Minsk will not sign any agreement on the currency merger if Moscow fails to compensate Belarus for the "costs" of the adoption of the Russian ruble. Sidorski estimated this compensation at $2.1 billion: $1 billion for the unification of Belarus's tax legislation with that of Russia (lowering Belarusian taxes), $500 million-$540 million for the losses connected with the fact that Russian exporters to Belarus pay value-added tax (VAT) into the Russian budget, $190 million for increasing the capital of Belarusian banks, $180 million for unemployment allowances in connection with an anticipated increase in unemployment in Belarus following the currency merger, and $200 million in a zero-interest credit from the Russian government. Kasyanov reportedly agreed only to the compensation for the losses connected with the collection of VAT, but put the sum at $100 million-$120 million annually and said Russia will pay this compensation only starting from 2003. "The Council of Ministers [of the Russia-Belarus Union] has not agreed the text of an accord on the introduction of the Russian ruble as the sole currency in Belarus as of 1 January 2005," Kasyanov told journalists after his talks with Sidorski. "If the accord on a single currency is not signed by the end of this year and not ratified within three months, we may forget about the date of its introduction -- 1 January 2005," he said.

"The accord needs to be signed only in a package with agreements on the compensation to the Belarusian side," "Kommersant" quoted Sidorski as saying. This remark was met with an angry rebuke by Kasyanov: "I don't know what compensation we should pay for the introduction of our currency! The introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus is an advantage to the Belarusian economy. We are not going to pay extra for this!"

And on 3 October Belarusian National Bank Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich said how much Belarus will need for replacing Belarusian rubles with Russian ones in 2005. According to Prakapovich, Moscow will have to transfer from 120 billion-160 billion Russian rubles ($3.9 billion-$5.3 billion). Prakapovich added that the amount is equivalent to 20 percent of Belarus's estimated GDP in 2005. "If we make the decision to adopt the Russian ruble in Belarus...the Russian ruble should ensure Belarus's economic development," he said.

Prakapovich pointed out that Russia should print the money required by Belarus rather than budget additional expenditures. "It is surprising that it takes the Russian side so long to resolve the compensation and other issues, because it costs Russia nothing," he said, stressing that he will not sign an agreement on the currency union until Russia pledges to supply enough money. There has so far been no official Russian comments on Prakapovich's demand. (Jan Maksymiuk)

THE FINLANDIZATION OF UKRAINE (PART 2). For Finlandization to become a reality, the Russians needed someone in the Ukrainian government who would represent their interests and willingly push the parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers in the needed direction. That person turned out to be Leonid Kuchma, the president of the country.

Shunned by the West for allegations concerning his role in the killing of a journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze, and for his intent to sell an advanced radar system to Iraq, Kuchma was an international pariah. The levels of corruption in his government placed Ukraine near the bottom of every corruption study conducted in the West. Charges of illegal arms sales, shady energy deals, money laundering, theft of intellectual property, a dangerously incompetent military, and lack of a free press had hounded Ukraine ever since he took office. It seems that these were the qualities which made Vladimir Putin look favorably upon him.

The "recruitment" of Kuchma by the former lieutenant colonel of the KGB was done slowly and painlessly. First Putin took the simple step of meeting with him when nobody else cared to and spoke to him as an equal, as the president of Ukraine, a large and proud nation. Next he lobbied to have Kuchma elected the head of the CIS, a meaningless but in this case important psychological step. Then Putin went ahead to promote the idea of a "Year of Russia" in Ukraine where the emphasis was placed on the equality of the two Slavic nations. All references to Ukrainians as "younger brothers," as was commonplace in Soviet days, was condemned and forgotten (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 4 February 2003).

The two leaders kept in touch by frequent meetings and telephone conversations while the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former head of Gazprom, played the role of the heavy, badgering Kuchma's opposition and repeatedly trying to convince Ukrainians to shy away from NATO and the EU and turn their eyes towards Russia -- its only "true and reliable friend" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 October 2002). At one point even the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry had to protest to Moscow about Chernomyrdin's unruly behavior.

It is not clear when exactly Putin came up with the idea of a Single Economic Space (SES). In the preamble to the document forming the SES signed in Yalta on 19 September, it states that "taking into account the statement by the presidents of the Republic of Belarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine from 23 February 2003 in which they agreed with the following...." The text of the agreement then follows. It seems that this was the date the idea first surfaced; at about the same time that Putin first spoke of the need for a "single channel" for gas.

The Ukrainian newspaper "Hlavred" reported on 22 September that according to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, that day, 23 February, the leaders had gathered in Putin's home to celebrate the Day of the Soviet Army when Putin said, "Listen muzhyki [guys], let's go ahead and form something realistic."

At his inauguration as CIS president, Kuchma spoke vaguely of the need for Ukraine to join a free-trade zone with Russia. Then First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov spoke about the need for Ukraine and Russia to have a common currency, the ruble. Neither idea drew much criticism in Kyiv and was seen as ramblings and not balloons being floated in order to judge the level of resistance they might evoke.

By September the groundwork had been done and it was time to act. The basic document which established the SES was a takeoff from the founding document of COMECON, the old Soviet Council for Mutual Economic Assistance formed by the USSR in 1949 to corral Eastern Europe closer to the Soviet Union. At the time of its formation, the Hungarian joke was that the emblem of COMECON should be a red flag with eight lean cows milking each other.

But the 2003 version has two very important differences. In Article 4 the members are required to cede part of their sovereignty to the SES, something which COMECON never required (it was probably understood that its members, apart from the USSR, had little if any sovereignty to hand over). Second, votes in the SES are to reflect the economic potential of each member state. Here again, COMECON was more democratic, and each member state of the council had only one vote, regardless of their economic muscle. This clause automatically gives Russia 80 percent of the votes in the SES.

Finlandization has made a major, although still reversible, step, and Ukraine is now legally bound to abide by the economic decisions made on its behalf by a supranational body.

The USSR was not recreated in Yalta on 19 September 2003, and Vladimir Putin was correct in stating that such a claim was "rubbish." Ukraine will not be forced to abandon its national borders, its yellow-blue flag, the trident as its national symbol, its language, membership in international organizations, or compelled to merge its armed forces with those of Russia and Belarus. It will even be allowed to flirt with NATO and the EU and can continue to symbolically send troops to Iraq and buy gas from Iran -- if it can afford to do so.

But in terms of its economic infrastructure, its vast pipeline system, its steel industry, and agriculture, as well as its banks and sources of budgetary revenue, this is now another matter. In the company SES Inc., Ukraine is a minority shareholder.

(This report was written by Roman Kupchinsky, the editor of "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch." Part 1 was published in "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" on 30 September.)