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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 5, 2002

5 February 2002, Volume 4, Number 5
COUNTRY ROCKED BY 'CASH FOR CORPSES' SCANDAL. A story that began with an investigation by local journalists in central Poland has turned into a national scandal. Ambulance workers in the city of Lodz are suspected of deliberately letting patients die -- or even killing those seriously ill -- in order to sell their bodies to local funeral homes.

The respected Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" and Radio Lodz were the first to report on the so-called "skin hunters" on 23 January.

Marcin Stelmasiak is one of the three journalists who broke the story. In an interview with RFE/RL from the Lodz office of "Gazeta Wyborcza," Stelmasiak spoke of how he and his colleagues started looking into the practice of hospital staff members selling the corpses of recently deceased patients to funeral homes.

"We had been interested in this particular matter for more than half a year," Stelmasiak said. "In the beginning, we started an investigation into 'trading' in bodies between the emergency services and funeral homes. Then we got wind of the possibility of a much more serious matter, of patients being murdered or left to die. There were three ways of doing it. Ambulance crews would travel slowly on purpose in the hope that the patient would be dead by the time they got there. Or they would not intervene to help, or they would consciously inject a drug to asphyxiate the patient. There are very strong chances that the same procedures could take place in different emergency services throughout the country."

Stelmasiak says that for each corpse, hospital staff allegedly received payments of 800 zlotys (almost $200) from funeral homes eager for business. He says he has no idea how many bodies may have been involved, but calls from concerned relatives of the recently deceased have deluged a special police hot line.

Since it broke almost two weeks ago, the story has never left the headlines. Last week, Polish Health Minister Mariusz Lapinski met with the directors of regional ambulance services over the affair and labeled the practice only a "marginal phenomenon."

But Polish Justice Minister Barbara Piwnik says similar "cash for corpses" scams have been operating in three other cities -- Olsztyn, Rzeszow, and Bielsko Podlaska. Last week also brought the first arrests in the case.

Others have been questioned in the scandal. Police have not yet charged anyone with actually killing patients.

Stelmasiak says Poles have been just as shocked by allegations that hospital staff members traded in dead patients' information as they are at claims that patients may have actually been murdered.

"It was a tremendous shock [for people]," Stelmasiak said. "Some people still don't believe that these things were taking place. What is very interesting is how it's being received by the doctors. Some simply do not believe that anything like that could happen. Other doctors are saying, 'Finally, somebody is interested and could clear up this matter.' And there are other doctors still who not only don't believe it, but accuse us of creating artificial sensationalism."

Aleksander Smolar is an analyst at Warsaw's Stefan Batory Foundation, which supports the development of democratic and open societies. He says confidence in Poland's health services was already low but that this affair has shaken it even further.

"It concerns the profession that is one of the foundations of the social order, of the fundamental security people want to have living in society," Smolar said. "In a situation when the country is destabilized by economic processes, [and is in] a quite difficult economic situation [thanks to] all those very profound transformations of the last 10 [years], there are very few points of reference that give a sort of fundamental security to the population."

Smolar says he does not expect any political fallout from the affair, since politicians were quick to confront what one described as the "macabre" practice.

Smolar says one good thing may come of the scandal. With the country's health services at the center of so much attention, improvements might follow. Most of all, Smolar says, the affair is making people reflect on the cost of Poland's economic transformation following the collapse of communism.

"The reflections in general are on the moral level and on the consequences of the economic and social transformation of the beginning of the '90s," Smolar noted. "[The] marketization, the radical transformation of the planned economy into a market economy, was accompanied by a very dangerous tendency in public discourse [that focused on] reducing success to purely financial dimensions. This contributed very much to the corruption that we can observe in the health system. It contributed to the, let's say, decomposition of the moral tissue in some sectors of the health system."

Smolar says there is one risky aspect to the affair: "There is a danger of overgeneralization now. The way many politicians and journalists speak now of what happened in Lodz and probably in other towns can create the impression that this is a general phenomenon, which is certainly not the case."

Smolar says the case is possibly Poland's most important investigative journalism story in years. But Stelmasiak, one of the journalists who broke the story, is not letting it go to his head.

"First of all, it's such an awful, despicable story that it's difficult for us to say anything about personal satisfaction," Stelmasiak said. "We did what we had to do. We simply discovered the matters and pointed out various possibilities. And now it's up to the law enforcement authorities to look into this matter and bring these people to justice."

(This report was written by RFE/RL correspondents Kathleen Knox and Jan DeWaydenthal.)

WIFE HOLDS OUT HOPE FOR FINDING DISAPPEARED HUSBAND. Zinaida Hanchar, the wife of Belarusian opposition politician Viktar Hanchar, who has been missing since September 1999, has addressed Russian President Vladimir Putin in an open letter urging him to use his influence in order to clarify the circumstances under which her husband disappeared, "Nasha svaboda" reported on 1 February. In particular, Zinaida Hanchar wrote:

"I must address you once again, inasmuch as I, unfortunately, have not received any answer to my previous appeal [to you] of 26 November 2001.

"I regret very much that you find it possible not to react to developments in the [Russia-Belarus] Union. You cannot but know what crimes are being committed on the territory of Belarus, but at the same time you continue to keep silent and support the [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka regime.

"Russia's leading politicians all the time conduct noisy campaigns of criticism of the authorities of Baltic countries for their alleged pressure on Russian citizens living on their territories. They [the politicians] explain this by their concern about the fate of their compatriots. I am Russian as well, my son and I were born in Russia, my mother is a citizen of the Russian Federation. So why is the fate of my family of no concern to the Russian political elite? The silence of Russian politicians [over the disappearances in Belarus] is treated by the Belarusian authorities as encouragement for new crimes.

"You cannot but know that my husband Viktar Hanchar -- a leading politician of Belarus -- at the time he was kidnapped was the acting chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus. Prior to that, he held the post of deputy prime minister of Belarus. He was a leader of the CIS Economic Court, headed the Central Election Commission of Belarus, was appointed by the parliament to head a special commission to provide legal assessment of the violations of the constitution and laws of the Republic of Belarus committed by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"Two and a half years have passed since he was kidnapped, but neither I nor the public have heard anything about his fate. The official investigators are doing nothing and keeping silent. But can it be otherwise given that President Lukashenka entrusted the post of prosecutor-general to Viktar Sheyman whose name is mentioned more frequently than others in materials that shed light on the disappearances of people, and [given that] the authenticity [of those materials] is not denied by leaders of law enforcement bodies?"

WEEKLY POLLS ELECTION BLOC LEADERS ON POLICY PRIORITIES. The Kyiv-based "Zerkalo Nedeli/Dzerkalo Tyzhnya" weekly on 26 January published the results of its poll among Ukraine's leading blocs and parties on their program goals. The weekly posed its questions to presidential administration head Volodymyr Lytvyn, the leader of the For a United Ukraine bloc; former Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who heads a bloc named after herself; former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, who leads the Our Ukraine bloc; Valentyna Dovzhenko of the Women for the Future bloc; the Communist Party leader, Petro Symonenko; Vitaliy Kononov of the Green Party; Viktor Medvedchuk of the United Social Democratic Party (USDP); Mykhaylo Brodskyy of populist Yabluko; and Oleksandr Moroz of the Socialist Party.

According to the poll, the Communists would like Ukraine to become a parliamentary republic without a president. Yabluko, the Greens, and the Socialists believe that Ukraine should be transformed into a parliamentary-presidential republic with a parliament electing the prime minister. For a United Ukraine, Women for the Future, and Tymoshenko support the current semipresidential republic, in which the president appoints the prime minister.

For a United Ukraine and Women for the Future support the idea of a bicameral parliament for Ukraine, but other hopefuls prefer the current unicameral legislature. All of them except For a United Ukraine would like to replace the existing mixed-vote system in parliamentary elections with a proportional system favoring strong parties. This bloc is also the only one that unconditionally supports President Leonid Kuchma. Tymoshenko, Yabluko, the Communists, and the Socialists identified themselves as the opposition.

All of the leaders except the Communist leader, Symonenko, agreed that Ukraine should remain outside military blocs. The Communists want Ukraine to join a military bloc with Russia.

Opinions on potential EU membership differed significantly. For a United Ukraine and Our Ukraine want EU membership for Ukraine irrespective of relations with Russia. Yabluko and the Greens see Ukraine joining Europe only together with Russia. Tymoshenko dodged a direct answer, saying that national interest is above all, according to "Zerkalo Nedeli/Dzerkalo Tyzhnya." Women for the Future suggested that Ukraine should cooperate with all European countries, especially Russia. The Socialists would like to cooperate equally with Russia and the EU. The Social Democrats view EU membership for Ukraine as a distant prospect only, while the Communists prefer cooperation with the CIS to that of the EU.

Opinions also varied on the language issue. For a United Ukraine, Our Ukraine, and Tymoshenko agreed with the status quo of Ukrainian as the only state language. The leaders of Yabluko, Women for the Future, the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the Socialists believe that Ukrainian should remain the state language, while Russian should be granted a special legal status. The Communists would like Ukraine to have two official languages -- Ukrainian and Russian.

CHORNOVIL'S SONS IN RIVAL CAMPS. The coming parliamentary ballot will see a fratricidal confrontation between Taras Chornovil and Andriy Chornovil, the sons of Rukh charismatic leader Vyacheslav Chornovil, who died in an automobile crash in 1999. Taras Chornovil belongs to the Reforms and Order Party (a component of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine) and is running in a single-seat constituency in Lviv Oblast. Andriy Chornovil is No. 3 on the list of the Popular Movement of Ukraine election bloc. This bloc was established by the Popular Movement of Ukraine for Unity (led by Bohdan Boyko), a splinter group from the previously united and influential Popular Rukh of Ukraine of Vyacheslav Chornovil. The two other Rukh factions -- the Popular Rukh of Ukraine (led by Hennadiy Udovenko) and the Ukrainian Popular Rukh (headed by Yuriy Kostenko) -- are in Our Ukraine.

POLL: VOTERS TRUST YUSHCHENKO BUT PREFER COMMUNISTS. The Fund of Freedom (led by Ihor Dementyev) found in a poll conducted from 17-24 January among 1,200 Ukrainians that if the parliamentary election had been held at that time, 20.3 percent of respondents would have voted for the Communist Party. Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine was backed by 15.1 percent of respondents, Viktor Medvedchuk's Social Democratic Party (United) by 6.5 percent, and Volodymyr Lytvyn's For a United Ukraine by 6.2 percent. According to the poll, the 4 percent voting threshold qualifying for parliamentary representation would also have been overcome by the Yabluko Party and the Women for the Future election bloc. In addition, the poll found that Yushchenko is the most trusted Ukrainian politician (22.9 percent of respondents trust him), while the second most trusted politician is Premier Anatoliy Kinakh (17.6 percent).

ANOTHER POLL: YUSHCHENKO'S BLOC IN THE LEAD. According to a poll conducted jointly by the Ukrainian Institute of Sociological Studies and the Social Monitoring Center from 17-22 January among 2,017 respondents, the voters' support for election blocs and parties is as follows: Our Ukraine -- 14.8 percent; the Communist Party -- 14.0 percent; the Green Party -- 6.3 percent; Women for the Future -- 6.2 percent; For a United Ukraine -- 6.2 percent; and the Social Democratic Party (United) -- 4 percent. The other groupings found themselves below the 4 percent voting threshold.

JOURNALISTS ALLOWED TO CARRY NONLETHAL WEAPONS. The pen may be thought to be mightier than the sword, but in Ukraine the government and some journalists believe that a pistol makes a more powerful point.

In a country still struggling to develop a free press, Ukrainian journalists have long been a target of politically and financially motivated violence. Now, some of them say they are planning to take advantage of a government regulation passed earlier this month allowing them to carry a gun for protection.

According to official statistics, at least seven journalists have been murdered since Ukraine gained independence 10 years ago. But journalists say the actual figure is much larger and that in addition hundreds of news workers have been shot or severely beaten in connection with their work.

Last year, mass demonstrations were held in Ukraine against President Kuchma for his alleged involvement in the September 2000 death of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was well-known for his work investigating government corruption and organized crime. And last July, television journalist Ihor Aleksandrov was beaten to death by assailants wielding baseball bats in the eastern city of Slavyansk.

Such incidents prompted the Ukrainian Interior Ministry to pass a new regulation last month allowing journalists to carry handguns. The weapon recommended by the ministry is a modified version of the Makarov nine-millimeter pistol widely used by the Soviet army. The new pistol fires rubber bullets that are intended to deliver an attacker a disabling but nonlethal blow. Guns that fire a cloud of tear gas are also allowed under the new regulation.

One journalist who is taking advantage of the new rule is Andriy, a radio station employee in the capital Kyiv who preferred that his full name not be used. Andriy told RFE/RL that many of his fellow journalists have been threatened and beaten, and that one friend in particular was abducted several years ago and never seen again.

"I'm not sure that a gun is going to help me against a person or a group really determined to kill me," Andriy says. "But at least this way I feel I have a chance of defending myself. My weapon can't kill someone attacking me, but it might cause enough surprise and chaos to allow me to escape."

Guns shooting rubber bullets and tear gas are no competition for the weapons being used by Ukraine's criminal groups, who have everything from machine guns to rocket-propelled grenades at their disposal. The short-term solution, Andriy says, is to allow all Ukrainians to carry weapons in self-defense.

But other Ukrainian journalists, like television reporter Pavlo Khristopyan from the western Ukrainian city of Ivano Frankivsk, are skeptical about the new regulations.

"I think it is wrong to make a distinction between journalists and other civilians as a separate social group. For instance, I was attacked by thugs several months ago, but it had nothing to do with my work. The crime situation is such in Ukraine that all sections of society are at risk, not just journalists."

Khristopyan said that many Ukrainian journalists will not be able to afford a weapon, which at around $100 is more than a month's pay for many reporters.

In addition to the cost, journalists must also apply for gun permits and get certificates showing they have no major mental problems or drug additions. According to Interior Ministry guidelines, their editors must also submit information illustrating why the employee is at particular risk of attack. The ministry declined to say how many journalists have applied for permits so far.

U.S. lawyer and journalist Mary Mycio heads the legal defense and education program of the U.S.-funded IREX ProMedia group, which seeks to raise the professional standards of Ukrainian journalism. She says she has doubts about the government's motivation in passing the new regulation.

"I treat the Ministry of Interior statement largely as a public relations move. I think this is an unfortunate admission on the part of law enforcement officials that they are either unwilling or unable to protect journalists who are fulfilling their professional duties."

Furthermore, Mycio says she believes that unless journalists are trained to use their weapons, they may end up injuring more innocent civilians than armed assailants. Western journalism organizations denounce the use of weapons in their profession. They say such a move makes news workers -- even in war zones like Afghanistan, where eight journalists have been killed -- more vulnerable to being attacked as "legitimate" targets.

(This report was written by RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky.)

"We are not going to collect trade union dues any longer. This is a firm and resolute position that I support. The dues should be personally paid by each member of a trade union or any other organization. Pay or don't pay, as you wish. This is your right. And this is democracy. They [trade union bosses] are democrats but make Lukashenka beat money out of workers. And I know where this money goes. They conducted the election campaign for the West's money and workers' dues, and now they are complaining that they have no money. Some of our workers are not able to feed themselves -- are they to feed this army of idlers as well?" -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka on the government's decision to abolish the check-off system for collecting trade union dues; quoted by Belarusian Television on 1 February.