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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: January 25, 2000

25 January 2000, Volume 2, Number 4
Spy War Breaks Out Between Poland And Russia. The Polish Foreign Ministry on 20 January handed the Russian ambassador to Warsaw a note that declared nine Russian diplomats persona non grata in Poland. The government press center said the State Protection Office has found that the group engaged in "intelligence activities aimed against the vital interests of the Polish Republic in 1999." Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek commented that Poland has detailed proof of Russian spying. Jozef Gruszka, the chairman of the parliamentary Security Services Committee, told PAP that the alleged spying activities dealt "mainly with political and economic matters." The same day the Russian Foreign Ministry called the expulsion an "openly unfriendly and provocative step," adding that it is "unfounded."

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on 21 January said Moscow will take the "most ruthless adequate measures" in response to Poland's move, which he called "an unprovoked provocation," according to Interfax. And he added: "It is hard to say now whether the decision was adopted immediately in Warsaw or at anyone's prompting. But whatever they were, the step injects an additional complexity in our relations with Poland." Ivanov also hinted that the retaliation may not only be restricted to the expulsion of Polish diplomats, but will also affect political contacts between both countries.

Later that day, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared nine diplomats from the Polish embassy in Moscow as persona non grata and instructed them to leave the Russian Federation by 28 January. The ministry's statement pointed out that the decision concerning the Polish diplomats was taken in connection with activities incompatible with the status of diplomats and the provisions of the Vienna Convention.

Simultaneously, Russia's Federal Security Service said it has evidence confirming the grounds for declaring the nine Polish diplomats as persona non grata. As for the Polish move, the Federal Security Service said Warsaw "in fact provided no evidence" to support its charges of spying, according to ITAR-TASS.

The Polish Foreign Ministry on 22 January stated "with regret that Russia's retaliatory measure is devoid of justification."

The Russian news agency RIA commented the same day that the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Poland was "another outburst of the anti-Russian espionage hysteria plotted in the West." RIA added that "the recent scandal in Warsaw had been apparently manufactured as evidence of Russia's 'aggressive aspirations.'"

On 22 January, Russia's Independent Television aired another supposition regarding motives behind Warsaw's decision. According to the station, the Russian diplomats fell victims to "internal political struggles" in Poland, which are reportedly connected with the approaching presidential campaign there. Moreover, the station suggested that the expulsion may also have something to do with the lustration process in Poland. "It so happens that the foreign minister is about to undergo this [lustration] procedure and some observers here say it will be quite hard for him to undergo this lustration, so the time is now ripe indeed to take action against Moscow's long arm," the station's Warsaw correspondent commented.

Minister Survives No-Confidence Vote, But Will Cabinet Survive? Treasury Minister Emil Wasacz on 22 January narrowly escaped dismissal when 229 parliamentary deputies supported a no-confidence motion in him. Apart from opposition deputies, the motion was supported by 21 of Wasacz's colleagues from the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS). More than 40 AWS deputies were absent from the voting. The required majority to pass the motion was 231 votes.

The motion to oust Wasacz was filed in December by 74 AWS deputies, who accused him of preferring foreign capital in privatization processes and of allowing too much foreign capital in the banking sector. Last year, Wasacz supervised the sale of a 51 percent stake in Poland's largest bank Pekao SA to Italy's UniCredito for $1.1 billion and of regional Bank Zachodni SA to Irish AIB Group for $580 million. This year the minister plans to sell a 25-35 percent stake in Poland's telecommunications giant TPSA to a strategic investor for what could amount to more than $3 billion.

Wasacz's critics, moreover, demand the creation of a domestically controlled holding company in the sugar industry to protect jobs there. They also want to implement a so-called "mass enfranchisement" program, envisaging that every Pole would receive a share of state assets. Such policies, however, are firmly opposed by the AWS's coalition partner--the liberal Freedom Union (UW).

The vote over Wasacz revealed serious cracks in the coalition regarding its vision of the future course of Premier Jerzy Buzek's cabinet, which saw a nose-dive decline in its popularity last year. The vote also sparked apprehensions that the coalition may in future lack a parliamentary majority on other issues. Some AWS activists gloomily commented after the vote that the AWS parliamentary caucus no longer exists and that Buzek's cabinet has in fact become a minority government. AWS leader Marian Krzaklewski did not share such pessimism, saying that the AWS caucus has overcome its crisis and pledging a debate on the functioning of the AWS--which itself is a coalition of many right-wing parties and groups--by the end of February.

Government Steeply Reduces Poverty--On Paper. "Narodnaya volya" on 20 January carried an article by Natalya Prokofyeva, an economic specialist in Belvneshekonombank, with a gloomy presentation of Belarus's socioeconomic prospects. Prokofyeva argues that Belarus's socioeconomic policy has now reached a "deadlock."

In 1990, when Belarus achieved the best-ever economic indicators, approximately one-third of the country's population lived below the poverty line. The poverty line is defined by the minimum consumption budget (called also the subsistence minimum)--the value of a set of goods and services that are necessary for the existence of a typical family of four (a husband, a wife, a 13-year-old boy, and a 7-year-old girl) per month per head. In 1998, the subsistence minimum in Belarus was 5.7 million Belarusian rubles ($34), and as many as 83 percent of Belarusians lived below this poverty line. According to Prokofyeva, this drastic slide in living standards is directly responsible for the continuing decrease in Belarus's population at a rate of 30,000 people per year since 1995.

Prokofyeva says that in order to blur this depressing picture of expansive pauperization, the Labor Ministry has changed the definition of the subsistence minimum. According to the new approach, the subsistence minimum in Belarus is now equal to two-thirds of the minimum consumption budget, for which the methodology of composition and calculation was not changed. In particular, this approach reduces the percentage of the people deemed poor in 1998 from 83 percent to 27 percent.

Prokofyeva goes on to say that the subsistence minimum in many countries serves as a basic indicator for determining the value of minimum wages, pensions, stipends, and other allowances. Proceeding from this methodology, Belarus's minimum monthly wage should stand at $47. In actual fact, it is equal to $2, while the average monthly wage is $37 (for comparison, the respective figures for Lithuania in June 1998 were $105 and $256).

The only "consolation" for Belarusians lies in the fact that poverty in the country is distributed evenly among all social and professional groups. "There is no distinct differentiation in incomes of different groups of the population, that is, all residents of the country are equal in poverty," Prokofyeva concludes.

Some Color In Gloom. On 18 January, the Minsk-based Russian-language daily "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" appeared with its front and back pages printed in color, thus becoming the first ever Belarusian newspaper with color pages, Belapan reported. "Sovetskaya Belorussiya"--the main mouthpiece of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's administration--is the country's largest daily with a circulation of 459,000. Nonetheless, "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" is unable to live on its sales and advertising and is subsidized from the budget. For the time being, only 50,000 copies, distributed solely in Minsk, will appear in color. According to Deputy Chief Editor Mikhail Lyabedzik, the printing cost of the issue with color pages will go up by 60 percent, but the copy price will not be increased.

Smolensk Wants To Be Russian-Belarusian Capital. The 20 January "Rossiiska gazeta" reported that the Smolensk Oblast leadership has presented Russian acting President Vladimir Putin with a request to set up the Russia-Belarus Union's leading bodies in Smolensk. The authors of the request argue that Smolensk is advantageously located near the border with Belarus, on a major transportation route that links Western Europe with Belarus and Russia, and has all necessary communications and vacant buildings which do not require high outlays on their reconstruction and adaptation for accommodating the Union's bureaucracy. Belarusian President Lukashenka has reportedly voiced his support for the proposal to make Smolensk the Union's capital.

Subduing The Parliament With Referendum. Russia resolved its parliamentary crisis in 1993 with tanks. Ukraine, in a similar situation, resorted to a referendum. Nonetheless, the parliament fiercely opposes this choice. That's how the pro-presidential Kyiv-based "Segodnya" commented on President Leonid Kuchma's decree to hold a constitutional referendum on 16 April, which may result in an ouster of the current uncooperative legislature. The implication of the comment is obvious: Ukraine is far more moderate than Russia regarding the use of methods for developing democracy, so there is no ground for apprehensions. However, one almost automatically starts having such apprehensions as soon as one recalls the 1996 constitutional referendum held by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Will Kuchma fall in Lukashenka's steps?

Taken at its face value, the constitutional referendum--decreed by the president following some 4 million signatures collected by citizens in its support--is aimed at creating a legislature with a workable majority. The government needs such a majority very urgently. First, the parliament must pass an austerity budget, which is a necessary condition for the IMF and other Western lenders to resume providing credits to Kyiv. Ukraine is obliged to repay more than $3 billion this year and another $3 billion next year, and faces an immediate default without Western money. Second, Kuchma wants to capitalize on his recent election success by introducing as soon as possible the market-oriented reforms he had long pledged to the West. Again, this can be done only with prompt and reliable legislative support.

Ukrainians on 16 April will be asked as many as six questions. Each of those questions, if answered in the affirmative, will entail essential changes in the constitution. The first question will be a vote of no confidence in the current parliament. Ukrainians will also be asked to give the president the right to disband the parliament if it fails to form a majority within a month or adopt a budget in three months; to abolish lawmakers' immunity from criminal prosecution; to reduce the 450-seat parliament to 300 seats; to split the parliament into two chambers; and to provide for the possibility to adopt a constitution via a referendum.

All Ukrainian commentators tend to agree that Kuchma will win the referendum on all points, including the question about a bicameral parliament, which is an almost completely mystifying idea for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians. The government-controlled media, those commentators argue, have already ingrained the conviction in the broad masses that the current Supreme Council is a stronghold of unpunished "thieves and bandits." There will be no difficulties for those media--as last year's presidential elections amply testified--to air more messages favorable to Kuchma and detrimental to his parliamentary foes, notably to speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko and the Communist Party parliamentary caucus led by Kuchma's presidential rival Petro Symonenko.

Anticipating the president's move, more than 300 parliamentary deputies voted to introduce a temporary ban on referendums in Ukraine, but Kuchma paid no attention to it. Then 241 deputies from center and right-wing caucuses and groups formed a majority, claiming that they will support the government. This move sparked a full-scale parliamentary crisis and a split of the legislature into two irreconcilable factions. Some 180 leftist deputies remain loyal to Tkachenko, while the 241-strong majority is lead by former President Leonid Kravchuk. Both factions already held separate session, claiming to be legitimate parliaments, and no immediate resolution of the impasse is in sight. Such a situation benefits primarily the president.

Kuchma told the 15 January "Zerkalo nedeli" that he is not interested in dissolving the parliament if it proves to be "able to function" [deesposobnyi]. However, some Ukrainian political analysts argue that following the referendum, which is expected to overwhelmingly endorse the vote of no confidence in the Supreme Council, the parliament will be doomed. The president will be carried away by the course of events and will have to dissolve the legislature that is not trusted by the people. What is more, some analysts even say that Ukraine's current constitution may be called in question if the decreed referendum provides a yes answer to the question about approving the country's basic law via a referendum. Thus, Ukraine may likely face early parliamentary elections and a referendum on approving a new constitution following the 16 April plebiscite.

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz called Kuchma's referendum decree a "constitutional coup d'etat." It should be noted that a similar view is shared not only by Kuchma's leftist foes, but also by many politicians far from the left. When the opposition is deprived of free access to the media (as was the situation in Belarus's notorious referendum of 1996), the parliament may be easily made the only scapegoat for the failures of socioeconomic policies in Ukraine under Kuchma and, as a consequence, popularly voted out. Consequently, the balance of power in Ukraine may be irreparably spoiled or even eliminated, confirming many pessimists' much-publicized belief that democracy is good for the West, while the East prefers autocracy. Ukraine--after what seemed to be a nine year period of trudging toward Western democratic values--now appears to be taking a step backward.

"The state should not support the deviant economic and financial policy pursued by economically undereducated [Deputy Prime Minister Leszek] Balcerowicz." -- Radical farmers' leader Andrzej Lepper at the 17 January forum to create a Peasant National Bloc, a political alternative to Solidarity and post-communists. Quoted by PAP.

"Now it is necessary not only to hiss [at the government] but also to sweep away the entire [ruling] team from the face of the earth with a ballot." -- "August 80" Free Trade Union leader Daniel Podrzycki at the 17 January forum to create a Peasant National Bloc. Quoted by PAP.

Belarusian Television on 20 January featured a dialogue between President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and an unidentified kolkhoz woman in Mahileu Oblast. According to a presenter, the dialogue reflects the president's "good-humored" easiness in mixing with rural folks:

Lukashenka: So, your [monthly] wage is 30 million ($35)?

Do you receive your pay on time?

Woman: On time. I can say nothing ill against that--we are paid on time.

Lukashenka: So, you say, 30 million, isn't it? I can

check in the accountant's office.

Woman: Do check.

Lukashenka: Is there any reason to feel offended, then? And your husband, what is his job and how much is he paid?

Woman:He is a locksmith and gets 18-20 million.

Lukashenka: Why do you keep such a guy in your household if he is paid less than you?

"Like many other countries in transition, Ukraine is threatened by economic decline, corruption and crime. Lower living standards have undermined respect for government and dampened public morale. Relations between the executive and legislative branches have been strained. Wealthy oligarchs have used their political contacts to expand their empires, and the independent press has been intimidated and harassed." -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 18 January at Johns Hopkins' Paul Nitze School of Advanced and International Studies, Washington, D.C. Quoted by RFE/RL.

"It is in America's national interest that Ukraine succeed. To this end, we will continue to help our partner move down the path to deeper reform, fuller freedom, and sustained growth." -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 18 January at Johns Hopkins' Paul Nitze School of Advanced and International Studies, Washington, D.C. Quoted by RFE/RL.

The 15 January Kyiv-based Russian-language "Zerkalo nedeli" carried an interview with President Leonid Kuchma. Excerpt:

ZN: Do you really believe that today's parliament is able to create a stable and constructive pro-government majority? Kuchma: I would put this in the following way: Ukraine needs a parliamentary majority to implement the program with which the president won the elections. The government is [only] a tool for implementing this program. I believe that such a majority will be stable. True, one condition is necessary for this--a sword hanging permanently over the parliament's heads. ZN: Are you speaking about the referendum? Kuchma:No, I'm speaking about results of the referendum.

"All those majorities are necessary not for the Ukrainian people, but for the president. As for parliamentary deputies, they say 'yes' to his decisions at every opportunity. He proposed Yushchenko [for prime minister]--they stood firm for Yushchenko. It seemed they had satisfied the president, but he has launched a referendum all the same. Deputies are trembling with fear because of such a prospect. First, they will lose their parliamentary seats. Second, if the referendum cancels their immunity, harm will be done primarily to pro-presidential caucuses. Practically all of their members are afraid of tax inspections and criminal investigations. Therefore, I see [the creation of] this majority as a desperate attempt at avoiding the referendum. They are ready to dismiss both [parliamentary speaker Oleksandr] Tkachenko and [his deputy] Martynyuk, and to change the leadership of committees. In short, they will do everything to please Leonid Kuchma. I look at them--this majority and the president--and am very curious about what will happen next." -- Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko, commenting on the newly created center-right parliamentary majority. Quoted by "Khreshchatyk" on 20 January.