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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: June 5, 2001

5 June 2001, Volume 3, Number 21
NATIONAL SECURITY BUREAU OFFICIAL CRITICIZES YAD VASHEM. Marek Siwiec, head of the National Security Bureau, told Radio Zet on 30 May that the Yad Vashem Institute had resorted to illegal methods to remove to Israel the frescoes of renowned Polish-Jewish artist and writer Bruno Schulz from Drohobych, western Ukraine. The previous day, Yad Vashem acknowledged that the frescoes had been removed from Drohobych and taken to Israel "at its instruction and with the knowledge of the Ukrainian authorities," Polish Television reported.

The frescoes in question -- discovered by Polish conservators three months ago -- were painted by Schulz in 1942 in the children's rooms of the house of the Gestapo head in Drohobych. Schulz, who was killed by a Gestapo officer in Drohobych's Jewish ghetto, sought to save his life by painting the frescoes.

According to Polish Television, two weeks ago three people entered the house containing Schulz's frescoes. In the local administrative office, they presented themselves as employees of the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute. They spent three days removing the plaster-based frescoes off the walls. On 28 May, one of the elderly couple who owns the apartment showed the local authorities a contract, in accordance with which the couple had donated the wall paintings to the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel. The frescoes were on a list of national monuments of Ukraine.

"I am embarrassed by this situation, since more than anything else this recalls the situations in which the Israeli authorities kidnapped war criminals, when the world, in the name of a higher historical settling of accounts, turned a blind eye. Here, there was no reason to use extra-legal methods, since the authorities of one country and of another -- of Israel and of Poland -- had declared their assistance [in preserving the work]. They wanted to protect this place," Siwiec told Radio Zet. In Siwiec's view, the Polish authorities cannot do anything in this case, since Poland has no role in this conflict.

"It would never enter my head that the universally highly regarded Yad Vashem Institute would allow itself such a criminal act," Jerzy Ficowski, Schulz's biographer, told Radio Zet. "The perpetrators of this theft thus also carried out the destruction of the whole work, and this work is above all a historical and biographical document dating from the last, most tragic period of the murdered artist's life. This is a single work. It has been hacked about, and in the form of something like carnage it has been shipped in parts to Jerusalem," Ficowski added.

Interfax reported on 1 June that the Lviv Oblast administration is going to ask prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation into the removal of Schulz's frescoes from Ukraine to Israel. According to the administration, the shipping of the frescos out of Ukraine was an act of smuggling.

BLAST AT RUSSIAN EMBASSY. The CIS summit in Minsk on 31 May and 1 June was preceded by a grenade explosion at the Russian Embassy on 30 May just before midnight. According to official reports broadcast on Belarusian Television, an RPG-5 hand grenade was tossed over the fence of the Russian Embassy and exploded on the lawn, causing only minor damage to the fence. According to an ITAR-TASS report not confirmed by the Belarusian authorities, there were two explosions at the embassy.

KGB spokesman Fyodar Kotau told Belapan that the explosion could be a "political provocation," but he did not elaborate.

"Nobody has claimed responsibility [for the blast], but we are following several leads. The most suspicious fact is that it happened on the eve of the CIS summit," Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau told Belarusian Television. Navumau called the blast "a deliberate provocation aimed at destabilizing the situation during the summit and, obviously, to show that there are still people in our society who resent the Belarusian-Russian Union."

Presidential Administration Deputy Chief Uladzimir Zamyatalin suggested that the "right-wing radical opposition" was responsible for the blast. "This is an absolutely desperate action by those people -- politicians -- who cannot stop the consistently developing process of integration between Belarus and Russia. Hence their rashness. Throwing a grenade in a place and at a time where nobody would be found except the guards and a policeman points to the political motives of the action by, possibly, psychiatric patients that abound in opposition circles," Interfax quoted Zamyatalin as saying.

Belarusian Television's main newscast "Panorama" suggested that the opposition Youth Front might have had an interest in the explosion. "Panarama" broadcast an interview of Youth Front leader Pavel Sevyarynets with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service, in which Sevyarynets announced protest actions in Minsk -- throwing leaflets and hoisting white-red-white flags -- during the CIS summit. "We will give a smoke to the regime," Sevyarynets said in the interview. "Possibly, these threatening promises are an answer to the question for whom the explosion at the Russian Embassy was beneficial," Belarusian Television commented.

But Belarusian opposition figures were of a different opinion about the reasons for the blast. Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, said on 31 May that the grenade blast was "advantageous" to the authorities. "I have repeatedly said that we should expect events like house bombings or attempts on Lukashenka's life in the run-up to the [presidential] elections. So this explosion is not the last one," Belapan quoted Lyabedzka as saying.

Alyaksandr Pakhlopka of the Belarusian Party of Communists commented on the blast: "I do not believe there exists a Belarusian terrorist group who timed the explosion to [coincide with Russian President Vladimir] Putin's visit. Perhaps, the blast was staged by the secret services... It may trigger tough [repressive] measures in the run-up to the elections."

Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka expressed doubt that there was an explosion at all. "I have not seen any footage of broken windows or shattered walls.... Personally, I have little trust in what officials say.... [This blast case] is much like the [alleged] assassination attempt on [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka near Lyozna in the 1994 [presidential campaign]. It is a way of whipping up hysteria to make the regime tougher. Neither the opposition nor the West need such acts of terrorism," Vyachorka told Belapan.

The United Civic Party led by Anatol Lyabedzka said in a statement on 1 June that the explosion incident was the regime's attempt to make the Kremlin back Lukashenka in Belarus' 2001 presidential election, Belapan reported. "The Belarusian regime has openly placed a wager on the use of any methods and means to retain power. The explosion on the embassy's territory is a sequel to the frenzied and belligerent slander campaign by the state media, and the kidnappings and elimination of opponents of the regime," the party noted.

LUKASHENKA NOT UNBEATABLE, POLL SUGGESTS. The Independent Institute of Sociological, Economic, and Political Studies (NISEPI) conducted a poll among 1,461 adult Belarusians in April in order to learn their preferences in the upcoming presidential elections. The poll found that President Lukashenka's popularity rating remains relatively stable but the declared support is not sufficient for him to win in the first round.

If presidential elections had been held in April, Lukashenka would have been backed by 37.2 percent of voters (the respondents were not provided with a list of possible candidates but asked to write the name of their favorite candidate). Lukashenka's possible challengers would have obtained the following support: Mikhail Chyhir -- 6.6 percent; Syarhey Domash -- 2.7 percent; Zyanon Paznyak -- 2.4 percent; Stanislau Shushkevich -- 1.4 percent; Uladzimir Hancharyk -- 1.3 percent; and Pavel Kozlouski -- 1.0 percent. The margin of error in the poll was 3 percent.

In previous surveys by NISEPI, voters' support for Lukashenka was as follows: April 2000 -- 38.4 percent; September 2000 -- 36.3 percent; November 2000 -- 38.2 percent; and February 2001 -- 41.4 percent.

The disappointment with Lukashenka among Belarusians is illustrated by answers to the question: "Whom would you like to see in the post of Belarus's president?" There were six options provided by NISEPI to which respondents answered as follows: Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- 33.6 percent; an independent candidate -- 26.5 percent; a candidate from a broad democratic opposition -- 10.2 percent; a candidate of opposition parties -- 3.0 percent; other candidate -- 4.6 percent; and unable to say/no answer -- 22.1 percent.

KUCHMA MANEUVERS. Last week's appointments made by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to the new cabinet of Premier Anatoliy Kinakh seemed to fully confirm the opinions of those observers of the Ukrainian political scene who have asserted that the ousting of Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko was orchestrated by Kuchma solely to defuse the president's own political problems. Kuchma made Kinakh's cabinet almost a copy of Yushchenko's by reappointing 11 cabinet members who served under Yushchenko. "Only the premier was changed, while the government remained [the same]," Kuchma commented on the recent government reshuffle in Ukraine, speaking to journalists at the CIS summit in Minsk.

The issue of Yushchenko's ouster emerged when the Ukrainian opposition -- most notably the National Salvation Forum and the For the Truth groups -- were staging regular and vigorous demonstrations in Kyiv, demanding the ouster of Kuchma and top state officials over their alleged role in the murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. The allegation seemed to be confirmed by secret audio recordings made by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko in Kuchma's office and subsequently made public in Ukraine by Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz. Even though not impressively large, those anti-Kuchma protests placed Ukraine's "tape scandal" in the spotlight of Ukrainian and world public opinion and did much damage to Kuchma's political stature.

Those who suspect Kuchma and his administration of political plots assert that Kuchma ordered the arrest of former Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko and orchestrated the dismissal of Yushchenko in an attempt to gradually change the direction of opposition protest actions. And indeed, following Tymoshenko's arrest and the inauguration of Yushchenko's dismissal process in the parliament, opposition groups became involved in organizing actions in defense of these two politicians. The opposition's drive to oust Kuchma, though not dropped altogether, had already become less energetic before 26 April, when Yushchenko was voted out of his post. That drive subsided almost completely in May, when different opposition factions engaged in disputes over the expediency of holding an anti-Kuchma referendum.

Apparently, the Communists and the so-called oligarchic parties helped Kuchma get rid of Yushchenko in exchange for some promised concessions. Many Ukrainian commentators maintained that Kuchma had agreed to introduce some "oligarchic" ministers in the new government. If this theory holds water, then Kuchma must have immensely disappointed the oligarchs. There are only several vacancies left in Kinakh's cabinet, and all of them are in relatively less important ministries. It is also not clear what the Communists have gained by contributing to Yushchenko's ouster. Neither Kuchma nor Kinakh have promised to make an about-face change in Ukraine's economic or political course, as postulated in the Communist Party's program.

Kuchma has managed to tighten his grip on the government following the "tape scandal" and Yushchenko's dismissal. Last week the Ukrainian president issued a decree introducing the posts of state secretaries and deputy state secretaries for the Cabinet of Ministers and individual ministries. The state secretaries are to be appointed for five-year terms. Kuchma's spokesman, Volodymyr Lytvyn, explained that the decree was necessitated by frequent cabinet reshuffles which, he argued, threaten to "disorganize the executive branch" in the country's "period of transition and political restructuring." The state secretaries, not subordinated to the prime minister, are to deal with day-to-day running of the government and provide continuity between consecutive cabinets.

Many opposition politicians have voiced fears that Kuchma's move indicates a further assault on democracy on his part. Tymoshenko said the introduction of state secretaries is "the logical transformation of the authoritarian [power] system into dictatorship." Reforms and Order Party leader Viktor Pynzenyk said the decree is politically tantamount to "the liquidation of the institute of the Cabinet of Ministers which is now becoming a window-dressing [body] since the entire power has been focused on the president." And Kyiv-based political scientist Mykola Tomenko commented that many ministers from the previous cabinet of Yushchenko retained their posts in that of Kinakh, but "significantly lost their powers" to state secretaries. "Kinakh is becoming a sort of presidential representative or adviser to deal only with managing the regional system of power, some economic branches, and individual enterprises," Tomenko added.

With summer vacations close at hand, the Ukrainian opposition may face additional difficulties in mobilizing its adherents for anti-Kuchma protests on the scale they did in February and March. And when a new period of political activity starts in September, most politicians and parties will probably be much more interested in ensuring their own political future in next year's legislative elections than in trying to threaten that of the president. Thus, even if morally damaged, Kuchma seems to be politically secure at least until a new legislature is formed.

Perhaps the most bitter pill for the National Salvation Forum in its anti-Kuchma campaign was how Yushchenko behaved following his ouster. Yushchenko declined offers to join or even head the anti-Kuchma opposition and announced that he is going to form a "broad democratic coalition" to win in next year's parliamentary elections. But the first persons he consulted on the creation of such a coalition were parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch and -- Leonid Kuchma. Some Ukrainian commentators are convinced that only one move by the opposition -- a political alliance of Yushchenko (as candidate for the post of president), Tymoshenko (would-be premier), and Moroz (would-be parliamentary speaker) -- could radically revamp the Ukrainian political scene and give democrats a fair chance to defeat both "the party of power" grouped around Kuchma and several oligarchic parties. But at present, such an alliance seems to be the least likely political development of all.

"When the CIS was being created as an organization, many thought that it was to replace the former Soviet Union. Those expectations, of course, have not come true. And I must tell you that it was impossible [to meet those expectations]." -- Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference in Minsk on 1 June, assessing the 10-year history of the Commonwealth of Independent States; quoted by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.