Accessibility links

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 15, 2001

15 May 2001, Volume 3, Number 18
POLES, CZECHS DISCUSS MUTUAL STEREOTYPES. Last week the Czech Center in Warsaw organized a seminar to discuss the ways that stereotypes negatively influence opinions of Czechs about Poles and vice versa, CTK reported on 11 May.

Current Czech-Polish bilateral relations are officially recognized as being the best in history. Both countries were admitted to NATO in 1999, and both strive to join the EU in the first wave of enlargement. Closer contacts between the two countries are also inspired by their cooperation within the Visegrad Four, which also includes Hungary and Slovakia.

However, Barbara Sierszul-Pilous -- a Prague correspondent for the Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" -- told the agency in her comments on the Warsaw seminar that a number of stereotypes in bilateral relations have resurfaced in connection with the two countries' efforts to join the EU. She said this happened when the European Commission released its assessment of EU candidates' progress last year, in which the Czech Republic was ranked behind Poland. One of the Czech stereotypes regarding Poland is the conviction that Poles still live in poverty and are a backward nation. Another Czech stereotype discussed at the seminar asserts that Poles are nonsensically heroic. On the other hand, Poles generally see Czechs as cowards.

The seminar also noted a mutual "irrational language allergy": Poles say Czech sounds strange to the Polish ear, while Czechs have the same opinion about the Polish language. "However, everybody who comes in contact with both languages agree that [such feelings] disappear in two to three months," Sierszul-Pilous noted.

LUKASHENKA'S CHALLENGERS PLAN COOPERATION. Earlier this month, five Belarusian politicians -- Uladzimir Hancharyk, Syamyon Domash, Syarhey Kalyakin, Pavel Kazlouski, and Mikhail Chyhir -- issued a statement pledging to pool their efforts in order to defeat Alyaksandr Lukashenka in this year's presidential elections. They explained at a news conference that they are going to register as presidential candidates (each of them needs to collect 100,000 signatures from registered voters for this purpose) and then select a single contender from among them. "We will have enough common sense after the registration to sit at a roundtable and agree on a single candidate," Hancharyk told journalists.

The five issued a joint appeal saying that "[Our victory over Lukashenka] is necessary for:

-- leading the country out of the protracted crisis and developing the national economy on the basis of our joint program, which envisages the efficient use of Belarus's geopolitical location, the creation of favorable conditions for production, investment, and the development of all forms of ownership;

-- increasing the well-being of the working people; overcoming [their] poverty and destitution; ensuring reliable social protection for pensioners, disabled people, Chornobyl-affected people, students; and helping [poorly provided for] families;

-- developing the mutually advantageous cooperation with Russia in a union of sovereign states [as well as] friendly relations with European countries and those further afield; overcoming the international isolation of Belarus;

-- returning power to the people; strengthening the local councils and self-government bodies."

"We appeal to the workers, peasants, teachers, doctors, activists of culture and science; entrepreneurs, servicemen, students, pensioners, youth, women's, veteran, and other public organizations; political parties; and everybody who wants to live in peace and prosperity and have confidence in the future -- to unite for the future of our Fatherland."

The alliance of Lukashenka's five challengers and their joint appeal have so far failed to excite the opposition Youth Front. In a statement published on 7 May, that group criticized the five for failing to appoint a single candidate for whom democratic forces in Belarus could launch a promotion campaign without waiting for an official announcement of the presidential elections. But more notably, the Youth Front said it does not agree with the five's declared intention to build a union with Russia: "Belarusian young people do not want to live in either the Russian empire or the USSR. They see their country as free, democratic, and European," Belapan quoted from the Youth Front's statement.

MINSK CUTS OFF RUSSIAN TV CHANNELS -- FOR SHORT TIME. Television viewers throughout Belarus could not watch Russia's major channels -- ORT, RTR, and NTV -- from 9 p.m. local time on 8 May to nearly 10 a.m. the next day. During that time, the Russian channels' programs were replaced by Belarusian Television's Panarama newscast, an address by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to a Victory Day gathering of World War II veterans in Minsk, and a concert that followed that speech. The next morning Belarusians were offered Belarusian Television's cartoons instead of a live broadcast on the three Russian channels of a Victory Day military parade on Moscow's Red Square.

Lukashenka told journalists on 9 May that the Belarusians were not able to watch the Moscow parade for "technical reasons." But Presidential Administration First Deputy Chief Uladzimir Zamyatalin explained the gap in the retransmission of the Russian channels in a different way. "It was the implementation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus, within a certain period of time. In other words, we have shown the capabilities of our country," Moscow's "Novye Izvestiya" newspaper quoted Zamyatalin as saying when he believed he was speaking off the air.

Many Russian newspapers speculated that Lukashenka, by cutting off the Russian TV channels even for such a brief time, was demonstrating to Moscow that he might do the same in the future should those channels become involved in promoting his opponents in this year's presidential elections.

PUTIN NOMINATES CHERNOMYRDIN AS AMBASSADOR TO KYIV. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprising move last week by appointing Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russia's ambassador to Kyiv in place of Ivan Aboimov. Chernomyrdin belongs to the heavyweights of the Russian political scene: he was a long-term prime minister (1992-98) under Russian President Boris Yeltsin and before that post he headed Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom.

"The time has come for us to take a serious approach to the development of the relationship with one of our essential partners, Ukraine, and it is essential to create the indispensable preconditions for that, including staff changes.... It would hardly be possible to find a person who knows so well the weak and the strong sides of the Russian economy and all of this about Ukraine as well," Putin commented on his decision regarding Chernomyrdin. Simultaneously, Putin made Chernomyrdin the Russian president's "special representative for the development of Russian-Ukrainian trade and economic ties."

Chernomyrdin said the proposal to become Russia's envoy in Ukraine was "unexpected" by him but added that he is "not afraid" to move from Moscow to Kyiv. "It is not the first time I am to leave Moscow. The main thing [for me] is my job, not the place of residence. I love Russia and respect Ukraine," Interfax quoted him as saying. Many Russian and Ukrainian media noted that Chernomyrdin's wife is a native Ukrainian.

Many commentators in Russia and Ukraine see Chernomyrdin's appointment as an openly political move by President Putin, who is allegedly seeking to increase Russia's political influence in Ukraine and to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian disputes over Russian gas transit across Ukraine and the payment for Russian gas supplies (according to different estimates, Ukraine owes Russia from $1.4 billion to $2 billion).

"Of course, this appointment has to do with the [future] ownership of the gas transport system of Ukraine, and with the fight between Gazprom and Shell for control of this system. [Chernomyrdin] is the former head of Gazprom and has always defended the interests of this corporation. His appointment means that Gazprom is very serious in its intention to defend its positions," Kirill Frolov of Russia's CIS Institute told RFE/RL.

Ukrainian political analyst Anatoliy Hrytsenko told RFE/RL that Chernomyrdin's behind-the-scenes experience qualifies him for finding a pragmatic solution to the gas dispute: "He's a man who knows all the legal and shadowy schemes that allowed Russian and Ukrainian businessmen to build their capital in the early 1990s. He's a man who knows the economic interests of all the [players] involved on the Ukrainian side. He's a man who will have direct contact with the administration and president in the Kremlin -- and not only through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think he will add pragmatism and a practical approach to solving economic problems."

But some Ukrainian politicians and observers see Chernomyrdin's appointment as a threat to Ukraine's economic and even political independence. "This is an attempt to establish an even stronger diktat of the Russian economy over the Ukrainian one," Popular Rukh of Ukraine leader Yuriy Kostenko said. And Kyiv-based political scientists noted that "Chernomyrdin's appointment [means] that Ukraine has lost some part of its sovereignty. All weak countries are loosing their sovereignty in the context of globalization, but we are doing it rapidly and in an Eurasian direction.... Now the Russian Embassy [in Ukraine] will become a center of power, one of the centers of government in Ukraine that will influence Ukrainian political decisions."

(RFE/RL correspondents Sophie Lambroschini and Askold Krushelnycky contributed to this report.)


By Paul Goble

Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to appoint former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as ambassador to Ukraine appears to open the door to more such political appointments.

That possibility was explicitly raised by the Russian media on 10 May. Citing "an informed source," the Interfax news agency said Chernomyrdin's appointment reflects a Kremlin interest in making use of former officials who have broad political and economic experience and who have "not lost their political weight and personal connections."

Such reports in turn seem certain to spark speculation about who might be the next such nominee. Among the most obvious candidates is former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who recently visited Washington and who has assumed a new and much higher profile in Moscow since the departure of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

In one sense, Putin's appointment of Chernomyrdin effectively brings Russia in line with the pattern in many Western countries whereby leaders often name as ambassadors to especially important countries their personal friends, major campaign contributors, or senior politicians at the end of their careers -- leaving other positions for professional diplomats.

Instead of viewing this as a slight, most of the countries to whom such ambassadors are dispatched tend to view it as a special sign of interest and respect. Thus, for example, the Japanese have been pleased that the American ambassador there had earlier served as senior U.S. senator.

Often these political ambassadors, precisely because they have a direct line to the chief of state at home, are able to accomplish more than professional but less well-connected diplomats. And because they are so perceived, they may in fact be able to do so. Chernomyrdin's ties to Putin and even more to the powerful Russian gas monopoly Gazprom may allow him to accomplish more than any emissary from the Russian Foreign Ministry could.

But in another sense, Putin's action may represent a step toward the restoration of the Soviet-era pattern in the assignment of ambassadors. From the death of Stalin to the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow regularly named Communist Party officials to head its missions to satellite countries, dispatched some defeated political opponents into diplomatic exile in smaller states abroad, and generally sent professional diplomats to most other states.

From the establishment of the Soviet bloc after World War II until the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet government generally sent Communist Party functionaries, sometimes with brief training at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow and sometimes without, to serve as its pro-consuls in Eastern European capitals. And these ambassadors more often reported to the CPSU Central Committee than to the Soviet Foreign Ministry.

Moscow also used ambassadors as a form of political exile for those who had lost out in power struggles in the Soviet capital. Former Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was perhaps the most famous: He was ultimately dispatched to Outer Mongolia. But others also were sent into a similar kind of exile often in a succession of increasingly dim positions.

Elsewhere, the Soviet government generally used professional diplomats, except when -- as in Afghanistan -- Moscow had a broader political agenda that required the assignment not of a diplomat but of a Communist Party official.

The immediate reaction to Chernomyrdin's appointment suggests that many Russian politicians and commentators are drawing from both the Western and the Soviet model. Thus, some have suggested that Chernomyrdin will do especially well precisely because of his ties to the leader in the Kremlin, a kind of analysis familiar to students of Western diplomatic appointments.

But others in their remarks have drawn implicitly on the earlier Soviet pattern, speculating that this may be a form of political exile or an effort to promote a special Russian zone of influence in what many in Moscow continue to call "the near abroad," the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Because Chernomyrdin is the first of this kind of Russian ambassador under Putin, it is impossible to say which of these models of the politics of diplomacy is the more appropriate or even whether Putin is seeking to create a new and entirely different model from either of the two.

"Take the five-year plans, the struggle for peace, the mad armaments race, or the space [exploration] -- everything in our history was a bluff, if not a crime. The only good achievement of the [Soviet-era] older generations in the 20th century was the victory over the German Nazism. But one has doubts about that victory, too. First of all, about its imperative unambiguousness. We know what that victory has staved off for mankind. And that, perhaps, is beyond doubt. But what have we achieved with that victory? Every victory should not only take but also give something. The defeated countries -- Germany, Italy, Japan -- came to terms with their defeat and because of this defeat they were given the possibility to flourish economically and develop freedom and democracy. While we, the victors, have so far not been able to achieve basic freedoms and to feed ourselves." -- Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau in a comment to RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 9 May. Bykau, born in 1924, fought as a Red Army junior officer in World War II in Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, and Austria. Bykau has been living abroad for several years (currently in Germany), saying that life under the Lukashenka regime in Belarus is unbearable for him.

"Today attempts are being made to impose a Yugoslavia-type war [on Belarus]. A huge amount of money has been allocated for this [purpose]. [Belarus is experiencing] fierce, unprecedented pressure from abroad. Five Belarusian traitors have been selected inside the country [ed. note: apparently, Lukashenka's five challengers in the presidential election campaign -- see above item] to achieve these goals. A particular fifth column is being formed to promote the interests not of our country, but of foreign organizations and structures that are far from being friendly. Their concern is not Belarus's economic development or an increase in the well-being of the entire nation, but the enrichment of a narrow group of privatization operators. Exactly for this purpose they want to take power in our state." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in an address to war veterans on 8 May; quoted by Belarusian Television.

"Today the post [of prime minister] should be assumed by a horse that is able to pull a plow. And I will try to hold the handles of that plow."-- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on 8 May; quoted by Interfax.