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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: January 18, 2000

18 January 2000, Volume 2, Number 3
Slupsk Preferred Vietnamese. The daily "Zycie" reported on 11 January that the Interior Ministry is investigating why there were so many Polish-Vietnamese marriages in the Slupsk region in 1998. There were nearly 200 Polish-Vietnamese marriages registered in Slupsk Province that year (following the introduction of an administrative reform on 1 January 1999, Slupsk lost its provincial city status and found itself in Pomeranian Province with its capital in Gdansk). The Interior Ministry suspects that the Slupsk administration violated the law by granting temporary residence permits for Vietnamese, who subsequently concluded fictitious marriages in the region in order to seek permanent residence permits and Polish citizenship.

According to "Zycie," Vietnamese in Poland are organizing their own Mafia--tonga--which may soon take over some spheres of illegal economic activities. Official data say there are some 5,000 Vietnamese in Poland, while unofficial estimates put their number at 25,000.

An anonymous Slupsk resident told "Zycie": "One could become a husband [of a Vietnamese girl] for 2,000 zlotys (some $600 in 1998). Middlemen paid 1,000 first and gave the rest after the wedding. Often husbands were able to look at their fiancees for only 10-20 minutes. Sometimes, there even were no joint [wedding] dinners. There was high unemployment in the Slupsk region, so it was easy to find people who were ready to get married for money." According to this informant, Polish-Vietnamese marriages in Slupsk ended as soon as the media got wind of them.

The 14 January "Gazeta Wyborcza" said the price for a fictitious Polish-Vietnamese marriage was 6,000-7,000 zlotys.

In 1999, the Slupsk registry office did not register any Polish-Vietnamese marriages. Now, however, the Slupsk district court has more work than before: it has already divorced several Polish-Vietnamese couples. And several Slupsk residents are currently looking for the addresses of their Vietnamese spouses, supposedly to get divorced as well. "Gazeta Wyborcza" reported that there were 56 divorce motions filed in 1999 with the Slupsk registry office by spouses from Polish-Vietnamese marriages. They quote "cultural, religious, culinary, and linguistic differences" as the most common reason for splitting their connubiality.

Do Not Bribe Us! Doctors from the cancer ward of the Provincial Hospital in Zielona Gora (western Poland) put the following notice on their door: "The personnel of this ward do not accept either money or gifts from patients. We will be grateful if you make no attempts at offering them."

"I do not believe in the efficiency of this declaration," a cousin of one patient told the 11 January "Gazeta Wyborcza." "Patients in this ward struggle to avoid death. It is known that under such circumstances they will resort even to a bribe. In order to prolong hope."

Most Poles are convinced that corruption in hospitals is widespread. In a December poll held by the OBOP polling agency, 78 percent or respondents pointed to health service as the most corrupt sphere of life in Poland.

Insured Poles still remain entitled to free-of-charge treatment in hospitals and health centers, basic dental services, and some health examinations. However, the health service is chronically short of money, while doctors and nurses are underpaid. Apart from hospitals, which are financed by the so-called "patient funds," some doctors also work in private clinics (run by themselves or medical cooperatives), which offer paid health care services. But for most medical personnel, hospitals remain the only source of income.

"This notice insults me personally. I think that doctors should settle [the problem of bribing] without letting it out of their ward. Such actions serve no purpose. We need to discuss the reasons for such incidents, that is, money. Doctors must earn [more] money, because they cannot pay for gasoline and bread with their Hippocratic oath alone. The only way to eliminate corruption in health care is to pay good salaries and provide good services," a doctor from a different ward in the Provincial Hospital in Zielona Gora told "Gazeta Wyborcza."

Newspapers And Radio Sets For Poles Abroad. Poland will be sending gratis more than 62,000 copies of the nationwide daily "Rzeczpospolita" as an annual subscription to Polish cultural centers in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Russia in 2000. Those centers will also be presented with 2,000 Polish radio sets. The action, proposed by the Foreign Ministry, will be implemented in cooperation with Polish Radio, the Polish Post Office, and the Presspublica company, PAP reported on 12 January.

Lukashenka To Hold Presidential Elections This Year? The Moscow daily "Segodnya" reported on 11 January that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka may hold presidential elections this year instead of 2001, as stipulated by the constitution adopted in the controversial November 1996 referendum. The results of that referendum were not recognized by either the European democracies or the U.S., and for the Belarusian opposition Lukashenka has been an illegal head of state since 21 July 1999. "Segodnya" argues that Lukashenka may be forced to hold presidential elections earlier than planned because of his failure to create a real Belarusian-Russian union state--which he reportedly wanted to rule--and because of Belarus's increasingly bleak political prospects at home. In 2001, "Segodnya" says, Lukashenka may lose the trust of his electorate because of Belarus's dire economic situation. According to the daily, by the end of January Lukashenka is going to address the nation and announce that he is ready "to meet the desire of the working people halfway [as well as] to lend an ear to the voice of the irreconcilable opposition and European community and hold early [presidential] elections."

A similar view was expressed by Belarusian opposition figure Anatol Lyabedzka in the Minsk-based "Narodnaya volya" on 13 January. Lyabedzka argues that Lukashenka may be forced to legalize his rule through both parliamentary and presidential elections this year by Russia's Vladimir Putin. According to Lyabedzka, Putin--who will likely be a landslide winner in Russia's presidential election in March--will be eager to show himself off as a democrat to the West. He will therefore "recommend" to the Belarusian leader to organize a presidential ballot in 2000. Lyabedzka, however, finds also an argument against the early-election scenario: by implementing this scenario, Lukashenka will publicly admit that the November 1996 referendum was nothing more than a fraud.

As for Lukashenka himself, he told the diplomatic corps in Minsk on 13 January that Belarus will hold elections to the National Assembly this autumn. "I, as the head of state, see my task in holding those elections in accordance with international standards," he said. He noted that "political dialogue with the participation of all political forces of my country should help in creating optimal conditions for the free expression of [popular] will," but did not specify what Belarusian forces he is going to consult before the elections.

A poll held by the independent polling agency "Novak" in late November and early December showed that 45.1 percent of respondents would vote for Lukashenka if the presidential elections were held at that time. The ratings of opposition politicians did not exceed the poll's error margin.

'Gas Princess' Launches 'Gas Attack.' Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko stirred quite a sensation last week when she commented in Kyiv on Ukraine's gas debt to Russia's Gazprom following her 10 January talks with Gazprom head Rem Vyakhirev in Moscow.

On 11 January, Tymoshenko said Ukraine's gas debt to Gazprom--according to Gazprom's accounting books--totaled $2.8 billion, almost three times as much as the estimated $1 billion that was quoted by Russian state officials in November last year. Tymoshenko accused the National Joint Stock Company Naftohaz Ukrayiny of accumulating this huge debt and of siphoning off Russian transit gas from pipelines on Ukrainian territory. It was the first time Kyiv officially admitted stealing Russian transit gas. According to Tymoshenko, Naftohaz Ukrayiny "has established its work with Russia in such a way that every day Ukraine's gas debt to Russia increases by $10 million," Interfax quoted her as saying.

On 12 January, Tymoshenko somewhat corrected herself by saying that Naftohaz Ukrayiny owes Gazprom $2.233 billion: $1.741 billion for gas supplies and $492 million in fines for not paying on time. "Ukraine can in no way disclaim [having] this debt," she noted, adding, however, that she officially did not acknowledge this debt during her trip to Moscow. "I will not assume responsibility to confirm this debt. The debt should be confirmed by Naftohaz Ukrayiny, which created it," she said.

Naftohaz Ukrayiny Deputy Chairman Ihor Didenko on 12 January denied that his company is guilty of increasing the country's gas debt. He added that in the near future, "the position of the deputy prime minister [Tymoshenko] and the company's leadership in the sphere of gas supply policy will be brought closer." According to Didenko, Naftohaz Ukrayiny's debt to Gazprom stands at $911 million. "As regards the sum exceeding $2 billion, it is the debt of all economic entities that worked on the gas market earlier and maintained relations with gas suppliers from Russia, including Ukraine's Unified Energy Systems," Didenko commented.

Tymoshenko's unexpected statements have provoked a lot of speculation as to her motives. Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko said Ukraine is unable to repay the gas debts quoted by Tymoshenko. "This is not only a bomb planted under the budget, this is a liquidation of the state," Vitrenko noted. Vitrenko believes that Tymoshenko wants to dismiss Ihor Bakay from the post of Naftohaz Ukrayiny chairman and take control of the company herself or through her proteges. "This is the declaration of an attack...on Ukraine's energy market," Vitrenko said.

According to Stepan Havrysh from the Revival of Regions parliamentary caucus, Tymoshenko's statements are "an attempt to show that there are domestic enemies in the state and that a new campaign of struggle should be launched against them." According to Havrysh, Tymoshenko's statements "are of a political rather than economic character."

It should be recalled in connection with this haggling about gas debts that Yuliya Tymoshenko for some time headed Ukraine's Unified Energy Systems corporation--a major trader in Russian gas in Ukraine--and was dismissed by President Leonid Kuchma in 1998. Tymoshenko's corporation was openly favored and supported by then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko who, according to some reports, earned "hundreds of millions of dollars" on that support. One British newspaper dubbed Tymoshenko "Ukraine's gas princess" at that time. In the fall 1998, to counteract Lazarenko's people on the gas market, Kuchma created Naftohaz Ukrayiny--another state gas trader--and appointed Ihor Bakay to run it.

Tymoshenko broke off her ties with Lazarenko well before his well-publicized arrest in Switzerland, the charges of money laundering brought against him by Ukrainian and Swiss authorities, and his appeal for refugee status in the U.S. She left Lazarenko's Hromada party, created the Fatherland group in the parliament, was elected head of the Budgetary Committee, and started to build her political career. In December 1999, in a move that surprised many, she was appointed deputy prime minister for the fuel and energy sector in Viktor Yushchenko's new cabinet. Thus, as some observers suggest, Tymoshenko obtained real leverage to settle accounts with her gas market rival, Ihor Bakay. Her attack on Naftohaz Ukrayiny is supposedly the first sign of what some Ukrainian observers think to be a "new re-division" of Ukraine's gas market, which is not only a source of huge debts but of huge profits as well. The point is, however, that debts are usually listed as the state's liabilities, while profits usually evaporate unaccounted for.

Some Ukrainian media reported that the country's deputy prosecutor-general, Olha Kolynko, resigned in protest against the cabinet appointment of Tymoshenko. The Prosecutor General's Office previously suspected the Unified Energy Systems of financial machinations, but no formal charges were filed. According to "Kievskie vedomosti," the corporation failed to pay 1.4 billion hryvni to the budget (some $400 million in 1998).

Apart from the definitely bad news from her trip to Moscow on 10 January, Tymoshenko also brought some good: she claimed to have struck a preliminary deal with Gazprom for the supply of 30 billion cubic meters of Russian gas in 2000 at $40 per 1,000 cubic meters (so far, Gazprom wanted $80 per 1,000 cubic meters). However, Gazprom made its agreement conditional on Ukraine's payment for those supplies in cash. Given Ukraine's long-standing inability to repay its gas debt to Russia, and the chronic shortage of money in the budget, Tymoshenko's deal seems to be only a self-congratulatory statement with no substance.

Ukraine consumes some 73 billion cubic meters of gas every year; 55 billion cubic meters is imported from Russia (including 30 billion cubic meters as payment for Russian gas transit via Ukraine). This means that payments for Russian gas will remain a major economic and political issue in Ukraine for the foreseeable future. And for Moscow, gas and oil supplies to Ukraine will remain the most important tool for exerting strong leverage on Kyiv.

"Combating corruption should begin with the establishment of procedures that could make the possibility of bribing as minimal as possible. However, we need a shock--the disclosure of a big (corruption) case, its mechanisms, and those giving and accepting a bribe. Taking advantage of my prerogatives, I will pardon the first person who will confess (to involvement in such a case)." -- Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Quoted by PAP on 11 January.

"Not in years but in months Russia will feel shame for what it is doing in Chechnya." -- Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau, while receiving the literary prize "Triumph" in Moscow on 9 January. Quoted by Russian Independent Television.

"It is known that Slavs are slow-witted people, including both Russians and Belarusians. It takes some time for them to comprehend (things), to transfer (signals) from the spinal cord to the brain. But I think (Russia will feel shame for the Chechen war). Sooner than some people think." -- Vasil Bykau in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 10 January.

"Putin, who was given on New Year's eve a gift in the form of Yeltsin's testament and Patriarch Aleksii's blessing, was in a state of nirvana. It is not difficult to guess that, in contrast to him, Lukashenka on that day was the most unhappy man in the whole post-Soviet region. It seems to me that the ambitious, global plans of the small Bonaparte from the Shklou area [ed.: Shklou is Lukashenka's hometown in Belarus's Mahileu Oblast] suffered the final collapse. He was stripped of hope to acquire a tsardom of real power with all of its attributes: a suitcase with nuclear weapon codes, a graphically muscular military-industrial complex, a wounded pride of a country of many millions, and an age-long imperial spirit of that country. On that day, the dream of the Varangian [ed.: a Scandinavian founder of a dynasty in 9th century Rus], of the unifier of Slavic lands, was done for. For five years, (Lukashenka) has been touring Russian regions and doing his damnedest to make himself likable to local vassal princes--the governors. Instead of attracting potential investors to Belarus, he was brandishing a shoe, according to the Khrushchev method, and threatening to recreate a preserve of economic stagnation. All around him were moving forward, while he was pulling back into the irreversible past." -- Anatol Lyabedzka, deputy chairman of the opposition United Civic Party, in the 13 January "Narodnaya volya."

"If the president's decree (on holding a constitutional referendum) appears under circumstances of the (current) legal chaos, this will mean that the referendum itself will also take place in the situation of legal chaos, and this will be the beginning of a serious political destruction [process] in Ukraine." -- Ukrainian political analyst Mykola Tomenko, commenting on the possibility of a constitutional referendum to oust Ukraine's present legislature. Quoted by Interfax on 14 January.

"Ukraine is witnessing the application of a formula typical of non-democratic transition societies: the will of the oligarchs is the will of the people. This will of the oligarchs, reinforced by the president's support for the idea of a referendum, means that referendum's results can be predicted beforehand." -- Political analyst Mykola Tomenko, quoted by Interfax on 14 January.