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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 30, 2002

30 April 2002, Volume 4, Number 17
SOLIDARITY TAKES TO THE STREETS OVER LABOR CHANGES. On 26 April in Warsaw, Solidarity organized an impressive protest march against the government-proposed changes to the Labor Code. According to police, the crowd numbered some 26,000, while trade unionists put the figure at 40,000. Either way, it was the biggest antigovernment demonstration in Poland in recent years. The march took place without major incidents, though some protesters threw firecrackers in front of the parliamentary building and set off smoke bombs in front of the government's headquarters. There were some minor scuffles between demonstrators and riot police, but in general, police did not intervene.

Leszek Miller's leftist cabinet is proposing several liberalizing changes to the country's Labor Code in a bid to invigorate entrepreneurship and encourage job creation. The changes -- a major part of the government's Entrepreneurship Above All legislative package -- are intended to relax rules pertaining to overtime, sick leave, and the hiring and firing of workers. Some changes to the code are supported by the leftist OPZZ trade union, but both the OPZZ and Solidarity oppose a proposal to ease dismissal provisions under collective agreements. The unions fear that once the amendments are passed, employers may resort to mass layoffs. Unemployment in Poland currently exceeds 18 percent.

Some Polish commentators regard the 26 April demonstration as a major success for Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski, who, following his defeat in the 2000 presidential election, has rarely been seen in Poland's political arena.

The demonstration also highlighted the complete role reversal in Polish politics after a decade of postcommunist transformation. Solidarity, once a champion of liberal reforms in Poland's communist economy, is now opposing liberal reforms proposed by the political heirs to the country's former communist rulers.

LUKASHENKA DELIVERS UNINSPIRED SPEECH TO NATIONAL ASSEMBLY. There was not a grain of fresh ideas in Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's annual address to the National Assembly on 23 April. On the whole, the Belarusian leader assured the legislature that, following last year's presidential election, the country has continued to move along a stable path of economic and democratic development and does not need any "sensational turns."

As usual, Lukashenka's actual speech to the National Assembly differed from the written text of the State of the Union address that was subsequently disseminated by Belarus's state-controlled media. This time, however, Lukashenka did not introduce any new motifs in addition to the written text and concentrated exclusively on commenting on some passages in it.

What needs to be stressed in connection with Lukashenka's annual address is its striking incompatibility in terms of the philosophy of governing and state goals with Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual speech to the Russian parliament delivered a week earlier. In fact, Lukashenka -- who is allegedly building a union state with Russia -- voiced political and economic goals that are diametrically opposed to those verbalized by Putin.

In particular, while stressing -- like Putin -- the predominance of liberal-market relations in the global economy, Lukashenka did not signal any advances toward a more liberal economic model in Belarus (unlike Putin with regard to the Russian economy) but, on the contrary, pledged to make administrative control over economic processes in Belarus more rigorous than it has been.

Lukashenka reiterated Minsk's well-publicized position that the top priority in the country's foreign policy is the building of the Russia-Belarus Union (incidentally, Putin did not devote a single line in his message to the prospects of this union).

In loose comments on the written message, Lukashenka stressed that he will insist on reviewing the mandate of the Minsk Advisory and Monitoring Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. On the whole, however, Belarus's foreign relations were not high on the list of Lukashenka's concerns in his annual address -- they were not even singled out as a separate chapter, but were combined in the chapter dealing with state security policies. Some Belarusian commentators noted that this fact alone testifies to Lukashenka' firm intention to focus on domestic policies and deepen Belarus's course toward self-isolation in the international arena.

GOVERNMENT CONSOLIDATES CONTROL OVER LITERARY PERIODICALS. Earlier this month, the Belarusian Ministry of Information announced the establishment of the Office of Literature and Art. The new agency will manage and publish several literary magazines -- "Polymya," "Maladosts," "Krynitsa," and "Neman" -- and the weekly "Litaratura i mastatstva." The Belarusian Union of Writers used to operate these publications. "Polymya," "Maladosts," "Krynitsa," and "Litaratura i mastatstva" are Belarusian-language publications, while "Neman" appears in Russian.

Syarhey Kastsyan, a member of the Belarusian legislature, was appointed to head the new media holding "Litaratura i mastatstva," which includes the above-mentioned publications. Speaking to the Belarusian newspaper "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," Kastsyan introduced himself as a man who has been in touch with art for a long time.

"I used to work in my youth with writers and artists," Kastsyan said. "At that time, I was a Komsomol [the Soviet-era Communist youth league] and Communist Party official."

Kastsyan said his plans are to place the magazines on a sound financial basis and expand readership. Kastsyan also said he believes new writers must appear in the magazines.

Belarusian editors, writers, and opposition figures, however, assert that the move is aimed at stricter control of cultural life in Belarus. They say the authorities in Minsk are trying to prevent contributors critical of the government of President Lukashenka from being published.

Alla Kanapelka is the editor in chief of "Krynitsa," which has a circulation of about 750. Kanapelka told RFE/RL that, until now, "Krynitsa" had been formally supported by the state. She said, however, that the magazine has not received any money from the authorities this year. She added that the staff has been working without pay but has managed to publish three issues this year. She noted that "Krynitsa" is not interested in politics and that its content concentrates mainly on literature and culture.

Kanapelka said representatives from the new Office of Literature and Art visited "Krynitsa's" offices recently and that she is afraid she may lose her job. Kanapelka was asked what kind of criticisms were voiced by the new managers.

"No reproaches were made," she commented. "They only said that our magazine is losing money, has a small circulation, and that the financial situation is difficult. This is an absolute truth."

Kanapelka said the authorities are promising more subsidies and new equipment to "Krynitsa" as part of the Office of Literature and Art. She noted, however, that "Krynitsa" and the other magazines will not be separate legal entities and will not belong to the Union of Belarusian Writers.

Uladzimir Nyaklyayeu is a Belarusian poet, former chairman of the Belarusian Union of Writers, and a former editor of "Krynitsa." Nyaklyayeu, who recently emigrated to Finland, is one of those who have been critical of the Office of Literature and Art. He told RFE/RL that the creation of the new entity is a punishment to literary magazines for publishing the works of such independent authors as Vasil Bykau, Alyaksey Dudarau, and Nyaklyayeu himself.

Nyaklyayeu said there are no prominent literary figures in Belarus who support the authorities and added that that the government is, in effect, trying to create some of its own.

"One of the ideas that pushed forward the creation of the [Office of Literature and Art] is to change the literary hierarchy [in Belarus] and to create some new names in literature [that are loyal to the authorities] out of nothing," he observed.

Nyaklyayeu said he had tried to privatize "Krynitsa" while he was its editor, but was refused because of what he called legal reasons, but which he believes simply hid the real motives of Belarusian authorities.

"The authorities cannot let a literary magazine, which they think is an ideological enterprise, fall into private hands," he said.

Writer Vasil Bykau -- best known for his novels "A Sign of Disaster" and "The Dead Do Not Feel Pain" -- has also been critical of the Belarusian authorities. Bykau -- who is living in exile in Germany -- told RFE/RL he is certain that the creation of the Office of Literature and Art means the editors of the magazines will be expected to be loyal to the authorities in Minsk and that there will be fewer opportunities for Belarusian writers to be published in their own country.

He said the main problem is the negative attitude in the upper echelons of government to Belarusian culture. According to Bykau, the authorities in Minsk seek greater integration with Russia and are hostile to the spread of Belarusian culture. He believes the takeover of the magazines is only the first of many discriminatory measures to come.

"The authorities took away the property of the Union of Writers, namely the Writers Palace, which was built using the money of the Writers Union, and so the writers lost part of their income. Now the time has come for the literary magazines, which were also published by the Union of Writers," Bykau commented.

Kastsyan, the new head of the Office of Literature and Art, said he considers Bykau's work to be old-fashioned and predicts he will eventually have to return from exile.

"Nobody needs him there," Kastsyan said. "He has also lost his stature [in Belarus]. Nobody wants to read him, even in schools. We must accept that the books written in the Belarusian language are not successful in the country. They are practically not published."

Bykau said books in the Belarusian language are not popular simply because they are not available and that it is state policy not to support Belarusian culture.

(RFE/RL journalist Valentinas Mite wrote this report.)

TRAVEL AGENT PROMISES VACATION WITH A DIFFERENCE. Sixteen years ago today, the world's worst civilian nuclear accident turned Chornobyl into a byword for disaster. The images broadcast on television appeared like scenes from a terrible war against an invisible enemy. The world watched the hissing Geiger counters, the firefighters trying to plug the gaping hole in the reactor, and the evacuations of thousands from what became known as "the zone" with a mixture of fascination and horror. For years, the zone remained closed to all outsiders. But now, in a surprising move, the Ukrainian government has begun to promote limited tourism to the area. It's not for everyone, but those who prefer to experience things firsthand can now sign up for a daytrip to Chornobyl, and it even comes with lunch included.

This is ecotourism with a difference -- no tents, mosquito repellent, or scuba gear needed. Instead, standard equipment includes a Geiger counter, protective clothing, and a disposable respirator. Contact with the surrounding environment is limited to a few hours and most of the sights are, sadly, all too man-made. Welcome to the "Chornobyl Tour" currently being offered by the Kyiv-based SAM travel agency.

Thanks to an exclusive contract with the Ukrainian government, SAM has actually been organizing visits to Chornobyl for journalists, scientists, and environmental activists since the end of 1998. But starting last year, trips were expanded to include ordinary tourists.

Tour operator Taras Horkun told RFE/RL that everyone who takes part in the one-day tour returns to Kyiv deeply moved. "They are struck most not by individual sites but by the whole experience. You know the saying, 'Better to see something with your own eyes once than to hear about it a hundred times.' To see with their own eyes what they have read about in the press or seen on television is much more impressive to them. It's clear they won't come back for a second visit, but the reactions are very enthusiastic," Horkun said.

So what do tourists see on the Chornobyl Tour and how is the day spent? For participants, the tour begins at 8 a.m. in Kyiv, when a minibus arrives at their hotel to pick them up. Two hours later, the bus reaches the so-called "exclusion zone." After the 1986 explosion, some 135,000 people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the crippled reactor -- including all 47,000 inhabitants of the city of Prypyat -- were permanently evacuated due to high radiation levels. The zone was colored red on maps and military checkpoints were established around its perimeter that guard the area to this day.

At the perimeter checkpoint, tour participants are met by scientists working within the zone. They switch buses and don protective overalls. They also receive a Geiger counter and a disposable respirator. Horkun described the rest of the journey.

"They follow a specific route in the zone. They see such sites as the so-called Red Forest, which suffered radiation contamination from the explosion. They see lakes. From an observation platform they can see the reactor -- it's located about 100 meters from the reactor. On the platform there is a model of the sarcophagus [which encloses the destroyed reactor]. They are shown a video. They can also meet with specialists working in the zone. They visit the dead city of Prypyat. They enter the apartment buildings, climb up on the roofs. Everything depends on the visitors' wishes," Horkun said.

Lunch is included -- and as Horkun was quick to stress, the produce is tested for safety. "All the food is brought up from Kyiv. We do not buy produce that is grown there [in the zone] and sold in the surrounding villages and markets. You can say we provide ecologically clean food."

After a visit to a junkyard where thousands of vehicles too radioactive to be taken out of the zone lie in a scrap heap, tour participants can also meet some of the handful of locals who have chosen to remain in the zone -- despite warnings about health hazards and government efforts to move them out.

At 4 p.m., Geiger counters and protective suits are returned, the checkpoint is crossed and the tour leaves the eerie quiet of the zone for the bustle of Kyiv.

So what kind of people sign up for the tour? Horkun said most are just curious foreigners. "They are just regular tourists. They are all foreigners -- either people working in Ukraine on short-term contracts or visitors on tour. Last year, we had about 40 tourists. Since the start of this year, we've taken 10 people up there."

Clearly, Chornobyl tourism is a niche market. Horkun described it as "eco-extreme tourism." But should the tours be taking place at all?

Tobias Muenchmeyer, an activist with the environmental group Greenpeace, said "no." Muenchmeyer, who has himself spent time in the zone and studied the effects of the Chornobyl catastrophe on local people and the environment, told RFE/RL that taking tourists near the reactor is irresponsible.

Muenchmeyer confirmed that visiting the zone, with its entombed reactor and the nearby deserted city of Prypyat, is an unforgettable experience. But even a day spent in the area, with its patches of high ambient radiation, could pose a health risk, especially to young women of childbearing age. The problem, says Muenchmeyer, is that highly contaminated radiation hot spots occur in patches throughout the zone and can shift unpredictably when brush fires or rain occur. "This is not like a day trip to the Grand Canyon," said Muenchmeyer. There are dangers, he stressed, and he personally deplores the idea of commercializing this modern human tragedy.

Samuel Lepicard, a scientist at the French-based Study Center on the Evaluation of Nuclear Protection (Centre D'Etude Sur L'Evaluation de la Protection dans le Domaine Nucleaire), does not necessarily share this view. Lepicard told RFE/RL that fellow scientists from his institute have mapped areas of the exclusion zone where ambient radiation levels are no higher than in any European city. But he does agree that in some spots, radiation levels can spike to levels 500 times higher than normal.

In any event, caution is advised. Now that the option of a trip to the zone is open, it will be up to prospective travelers to make up their own minds whether a day touring Chornobyl is vacation time well spent.

(RFE/RL journalist Jeremy Bransten wrote this report.)

"[Compared with] some countries that already are associate [EU] members -- I won't name them so as not to offend anyone -- in terms of economy and democracy, Ukraine is standing higher than some of these countries. Let us face it -- it is only Ukraine that has in fact been pushed out of this process, and I don't think that would be too strong a statement." -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on 27 April, after a meeting with his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski; quoted by 1+1 Television.

"Now we have a deaf and dumb democracy. We have no political system that will build and strengthen democracy. Our key problem today is a crisis of power." -- Our Ukraine bloc leader Viktor Yushchenko; quoted by Reuters on 26 April.