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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 14, 2002

14 May 2002, Volume 4, Number 19
PREMIER SEES TWO CAUSES FOR OPTIMISM. Premier Leszek Miller on 8 May addressed the nation on radio and television and said Poles have two causes for optimism about their future. One of them is the beginning of a restructuring process of state-owned companies. The other is the "first signs of an improvement in economic conditions."

Last week's publication of a government report revealed that "almost all" of the 22 examined State Treasury "flagship" companies were badly run and incurred "multimillion"-figure losses during the tenure of the former, Solidarity-led government. Prosecutors have launched an investigation into "incompetent management and corrupt practices" at 14 state-controlled firms. They include KGHM Polska Miedz (metals giant), Poczta Polska (post office), Totalizator Sportowy (state lottery), and PZU (state insurer). The alleged abuses include the signing of unfavorable or fictitious contracts, illicit political sponsoring, fraudulent tenders, and "training" trips to Majorca financed with public funds.

"The state treasury minister has carried out the indispensable personnel changes and has also increased the ownership supervision over the assets that are subordinate to him," Miller assured the nation. "Prosecutors are conducting investigations in relation to those suspected of mismanagement, waste, or straightforward dishonesty."

Some skeptics in Poland note, however, that the situation in state-run companies will not improve as long as company directors continue to be appointed on the basis of political patronage. The opposition defined the launched investigations -- nearly all of which target dismissed managers appointed by the former cabinet of Jerzy Buzek -- as political revenge.

According to official statistics, the State Treasury retains entire or partial control over 1,762 companies, which generate 25 percent of GDP but negligible dividends.

On the second reason for national optimism, Miller was even more enigmatic than on the first.

"I can say that the period of the reduction of the rate of economic growth in Poland and of the drastic worsening of unemployment and the collapse of public finances is finally coming to a close," Miller noted. He cited "an increase in retail sales and an increase in budget revenues" as signs of a forthcoming economic recovery. The premier was prudent, however, to warn television viewers and radio listeners that "we will start to feel an improvement of the situation in our wallets" no sooner than next year.

Unemployment in Poland is now higher than 18 percent. According to the CBOS polling center, support for Miller's cabinet dropped from 50 percent in November 2001, shortly after it took office, to 31 percent last month.

THOUSANDS REPORTEDLY GO ON FORCED VACATION. RFE/RL's Belarusian Service and the Charter-97 website reported last week that "most Belarusian enterprises" -- or "thousands of workers" -- were sent on obligatory vacation from 9 to 15 May, primarily due to the fact that no buyers can be found for the goods they produce.

"There are a lot of problems," Mikhail Votchyts, an independent trade union activist at the compulsorily vacationed Minsk Plant of Automatic Production Lines, told RFE/RL: "We do not pay for electricity, we owe money to the budget and the social security fund. We take credits to pay wages and, in general, have lived on credit for several years. We have no new machine or tool."

Larysa Zhuchko, an independent trade union activist from an engine-manufacturing plant in the town of Stouptsy near Minsk, pointed to another problem: "Our plant will most likely face the third wave of layoffs. Recently we have been made a branch of the Minsk Engine Plant. All issues linked to employment, remuneration, and labor are now resolved in Minsk. Layoffs hit both engineer-technical staff and [ordinary] workers.... People are frightened -- everyone is afraid of losing their job."

Yury Shmanenka from the Belarusian Scientific-Industrial Association told RFE/RL that Belarus's industry has not adapted to contemporary economic conditions. "The type of management is old as well. Besides, Belarusian enterprises are high consumers of energy and materials. As is known, the president has set the task of reducing the production costs by 20-25 percent. I understand this desire but it is unrealistic," Shmanenka said.

Last month, during a nationally televised government conference, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka fired the health minister and four heads of state-run concerns, blaming them along with the remaining cabinet members of the failure to meet socioeconomic targets he set last year. Once again, Lukashenka resorted to a populist move trying to defuse a potential outbreak of popular ire against the president and shift the blame for the deteriorating socioeconomic situation to the government. However, a poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) in April among 1,464 Belarusians found that Lukashenka's approval rating stood at 31 percent, significantly lower than the 45 percent recorded shortly before the 9 September 2001 presidential election.

THE QUESTION OF JUSTICE. This week the newly elected Verkhovna Rada convenes for its first session. The main issue on the agenda is, of course, the election of parliamentary leaders (speaker, first deputy speaker, and deputy speaker) and the heads of two dozen parliamentary committees. A special group of deputies preparing the new parliament's first session has agreed on a great number of procedural matters but failed to adopt a clear stance on how to distribute parliamentary posts among the six blocs represented in the Verkhovna Rada: For a United Ukraine, Our Ukraine, the Communist Party, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and the Social Democratic Party.

It is known that the distribution of parliamentary posts will be made in two separate stages (or, as deputies themselves refer to this process, in two "packages"): first, the voting for the three leading positions; second, the voting for the posts of committee heads. It is also known that the leaders of the six parliamentary blocs -- who met together for the first time on 10 May -- that is, more than a month after the election day -- agreed to share parliamentary posts "justly," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported. But justice seems to mean different things for different parties.

For a United Ukraine and the Social Democrats (the pro-presidential forces) wants the parliamentary positions to be distributed proportionally to the number of deputies in the parliamentary caucuses, as they were formed after the process of recruiting some of those deputies who ran on an independent ticket in single-mandate constituencies. The other four forces want these positions to be distributed proportionally to the number of seats won by individual blocs only in the nationwide constituency. They argue that the authorities resorted to unfair methods in making For a United Ukraine -- which finished third in the nationwide constituency -- the largest parliamentary caucus, therefore its current composition does not reflect the people's will expressed on 31 March.

From a theoretical point of view, since Our Ukraine, the Communist Party, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party control 226 votes, they may distribute all parliamentary posts solely between themselves, without conceding anything to the pro-Kuchma blocs. But it appears that such a development would be too "unjust" when viewed from any side; therefore, as regards the election of the heads of parliamentary committees, a compromise involving some notion of proportional representation will be adopted by the six blocs.

It is quite a puzzle as to who will get the top three posts in the Verkhovna Rada of the fourth convocation. Three alliances seem to be possible for dealing with this "package" of postelection gains: a) For a United Ukraine, the Social Democrats, and the Communist Party; b) Our Ukraine, the Communist Party, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party; c) For a United Ukraine and Our Ukraine. Thus, the election of the Verkhovna Rada speaker and his/her two deputies will be of paramount importance to further political developments in Ukraine, since it will determine to a considerable extent the distribution of political sympathies and antipathies in the parliament. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko signaled on 13 May that his comrades may support a speaker from another party. "We will vote for the package that will create the most advantageous prerequisites for productive work of our caucus in the parliament," Symonenko said in what seems to be an overt bargaining proposal directed to both Volodymyr Lytvyn's For a United Ukraine and Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine.

Many Ukrainian commentators tend to agree that a stable, permanent majority based on consistent ideology is not possible in the current Verkhovna Rada, and that there will be many "situational majorities" depending on issues submitted to voting. But the upcoming election of the parliamentary leadership is widely expected to politically structure the current legislature to a greater extent than the preceding one and show the dividing line between the pro-government forces and the opposition more clearly.

It is also expected by commentators that the issue of the government will not be tackled by the Verkhovna Rada earlier than during the autumn legislative session. Current Premier Anatoliy Kinakh gave up his parliamentary mandate and preferred to remain in the government. Thus, Kinakh has several more months to prepare and submit a government program of actions to the parliament -- the task he has not yet fulfilled because of the parliamentary election. President Leonid Kuchma decided that Volodymyr Lytvyn, the chief of the presidential administration, will continue to lead the For a United Ukraine bloc and oversee the ongoing political maneuvering in the Verkhovna Rada. Kinakh's test will come a bit later after lawmakers take all that is up for grabs in the legislature and ask for more elsewhere.

"Poland is not a solitary island. Poland lies in the unifying Europe. We want to participate in this process. Not for losing independence -- as anti-Europeans frighten us -- but for placing it on stronger foundations than a potential alliance with Belarus. If anybody asserts that the Polish Republic will be more secure single-handedly than within the European Union, it means that he has not done his history homework and should be sent to school rather than to government or parliament." -- "Rzeczpospolita" Editor in Chief Maciej Lukasiewicz and "Gazeta Wyborcza" Editor in Chief Adam Michnik in a joint article published in both dailies on 9 May.

"The European Union is a Union of Socialist European Republics.... [It should be admitted, however, that] European socialism is better than Soviet socialism because they have already ceased to kill and rob, now they only steal and lie." -- Janusz Korwin-Mikke, the leader of the Union of Real Politics, during a "Polish Euroskeptic Conference" in Warsaw on 12 May; quoted by PAP.

"I think that Belarus, which is today one of Europe's leading democracies, should be represented in the Council of Europe." -- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgenii Gusarov; quoted by Belarusian Television on 11 May.