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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 21, 2000

21 November 2000, Volume 2, Number 43
MYSTERIOUS TELECOMMUNICATIONS CABLE CROSSES POLAND. "Gazeta Wyborcza" reported on 17 November that a state-of-the art information highway cable has been laid along the Polish stretch of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline. The 680-kilometer cable consists of 24 optic fibers and, according to an expert quoted by the newspaper, can transmit 2.4 trillion bits of information per second (this capability is equivalent to carrying 38 million telephone calls simultaneously or transmitting all data from a 70-volume encyclopedia in a second). Reporters Andrzej Kublik and Marcin Bosacki conducted a time-consuming and detailed investigation into the cable and came to the conclusion that until quite recently the Polish government was unaware that such an information highway, linking Russia and Germany, runs through the country. "We are confused. We learned only two months ago how big this [telecommunications cable] investment is. Possibly, some individual officials in the Communications Ministry or the Economy Ministry knew about it, but they have not raised the alarm," "Gazeta Wyborcza" quoted a high-ranking government official as saying.

The reporters began their investigations several months ago, when Italy's Pirelli disclosed that it is supplying modern optical fibers to JSC Telecom, Gazprom's telecommunications company, to build a 1,600-kilometer information highway linking Russia with Germany via Belarus and Poland. Pirelli added that Gazprom is planning to build a similar high-speed transmission line from Russia to Turkey. "When both high-speed links are completed, Gazprom will have a pan-European telecommunications network stretching between Russia and northern and southern Europe," Pirelli said. The reporters also found out that in 1998 Gazprom signed contracts related to the same information highway with Germany's Debis and France's Alcatel.

Under Polish legislation, the construction of telecommunications networks on Polish territory requires the authorization of the Communications Ministry. The Communications Ministry told the newspaper that it has not authorized the company involved in the construction of the Yamal-Europe oil pipeline to build any information highway along the pipeline.

The Polish stretch of the Yamal-Europe pipeline was built and is owned by the EuRoPol Gaz company, in which Russia's Gazprom and Poland's state-owned PGNG each have a 48 percent stake. The remaining 4 percent stake belongs to the private-owned company Gaz Trading (linked to Polish businessman Aleksander Gudzowaty). An EuRoPol Gaz representative told "Gazeta Wyborcza" that the telecommunications line along the gas pipeline was built as part of the pipeline project. According to that representative, the information line is necessary to provide for the "technical servicing" of the gas pipeline and, as such, does not require authorization from the Communications Ministry in addition to that already received from the government for the pipeline project as a whole.

"Gazeta Wyborcza" said the Polish government, which does not have a controlling stake in EuRoPol Gaz, is poised to lose millions of dollars in information transit fees. Today, Poland earns 52 million zlotys ($11.4 million) a year from telephone calls from Russia to the West via its territory.

MOSCOW SPARS BEFORE KNOCKING OUT LUKASHENKA? Several unpleasant surprises have befallen Alyaksandr Lukashenka from the east in the past two weeks. Some Belarusian observers assert that those surprises reflect the Kremlin's changed attitude toward its closest ally and the nominal head of the Union of Russia and Belarus.

On 8 November, Russian Public Television (ORT) broadcast a documentary, made by ORT Minsk correspondent Pavel Sheremet, devoted to the disappearance of Sheremet's colleague, Dzmitry Zavadski, in the Belarusian capital earlier this year. Sheremet voiced what many in Belarus believe to be true but are afraid to say in public--namely, that Zavadski was kidnapped by presidential security service agents. According to the documentary, members of the Interior Ministry's special task force, "Almaz," assisted the presidential bodyguards in that kidnapping. Sheremet, who had earlier accused Lukashenka of complicity in Zavadski's disappearance, told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that some of the kidnappers were arrested but that Belarusian prosecutors are keeping silent about the case.

Lukashenka responded on 14 November by saying it was Sheremet who had something to do with Zavadski's disappearance. He added that the film was politically motivated. That opinion is shared by some Belarusian commentators who say that ORT--which now supports Russian President Vladimir Putin--would have not dared broadcast such a message to the Russian and Belarusian public if it had not received the prior approval of the Kremlin.

Another unexpected occurrence that same week was Lukashenka's appointment of former Interior Minister Yury Sivakou as deputy head of the presidential administration. Sivakou had been dismissed by Lukashenka in apparent disgrace in April, after the former's clumsy handling of an opposition rally in Minsk, at which hundreds of people, including foreign parliamentary deputies and journalists, were arrested. Sivakou's comeback is seen by some observers of the Belarusian political scene as one of Lukashenka's precautionary measures ahead of next year's presidential elections. Moreover, those observers point out that it was during Sivakou's term as interior minister when Lukashenka's fierce opponents, former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka and former Constitutional Court head Viktar Hanchar, disappeared. Sivakou, according to the same observers, knows more about their disappearances than does the general public, and Lukashenka simply wants to secure Sivakou's silence by offering him a high post in the administration.

One more unexpected blow to Lukashenka came on 15 November, the penultimate day of the trial of Tamara Rokhlina, the widow of State Duma Defense Committee Chairman Lev Rokhlin. Rokhlina reportedly told the court that her husband had been preparing "a mass peaceful demonstration of Russia's power ministry employees" against President Boris Yeltsin in 1998 because he believed that the Yeltsin regime was responsible for Russia's disintegration. She added that Lukashenka knew about the intended demonstration and helped Rokhlin financially with the preparations to stage it.

Rokhlina's confession was immediately and vehemently denied by Lukashenka's spokesman, Mikalay Barysevich, presidential administration chief Mikhail Myasnikovich, and Lukashenka's adviser Syarhey Posakhau. Those denials are rather curious since all of them were directed toward the Russian public and were not disseminated in Belarus. Some believe that in view of Lukashenka's well-known ambitions to succeed Yeltsin as the leader of a unified Russian-Belarusian state, Rokhlina's charge of Lukashenka's complicity in an anti-Yeltsin plot sounds only too plausible in Belarus and therefore official Minsk decided not to publicize that charge domestically. Lukashenka broke his silence on Rokhlin's case on 17 November, when Belarusian Television quoted him as saying that he could not provide funds to Rokhlin's Movement in Support of the Army because "I didn't have [the amount of] money that would likely have been necessary to finance the movement."

"Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" wrote last week that Moscow has decided to put pressure on Lukashenka to make him behave as befits his real political status, which, according to the newspaper, Moscow sees as that of a regional governor. "The Belarusian leadership's reaction to [Sheremet's documentary] is actually a struggle against Moscow's frontal and powerful pressure on Lukashenka," the newspaper wrote. "In fact, by using ORT, the Kremlin is now showing him his real position--that of governor. Moscow is indicating that if it decides to support Lukashenka in the [presidential] elections, he cannot count on more that the status of governor.... Lukashenka realizes this perfectly well and is mad about the humiliation. He would like to be an equal partner for Putin, but he is being told with disgust: move aside, citizen, and do not stand in the way."

Without doubt, Putin's ascendancy to the Kremlin has significantly reduced Lukashenka's possibilities to promote himself in Russia's regions, where he reportedly wields much influence among local governing elites. During Yeltsin's reign, Lukashenka visited many of those regions, brandishing his Slavic-union idea and advertising himself as the right man to head that union. Putin cut short Lukashenka's Russian trips. Judging from recent signals, the Kremlin has now decided to tell Belarus's authoritarian leader how he should behave at home, too.

KYIV, MOSCOW 'DRAWING CLOSER' OVER GAS DEBT? Following his talks with Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yushchenko on 17 November, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov commented that although no final agreement on Ukraine's gas debt has been reached, both countries positions "are drawing closer," Interfax reported. "I am sure that the Ukrainian side has understood better our view of this issue, our position, and our strategy," Kasyanov added.

Kasyanov told journalists that Russia is ready to grant Ukraine an eight-year delay on paying its debt for gas supplies. According to RIA Novosti, Russia wants the debt, which it considers to total $2 billion, to be paid in equal installments between 2008 and 2010. Yushchenko's reaction to the proposal has not been reported by the media, but judging from his announcement earlier the same day that Ukraine's gas debt to Russia amounts to $1.362 billion, both politicians do not appear to have reached any specific conclusion regarding the debt payment.

Kasyanov also said that the two sides reached an agreement whereby Ukraine will stop illegally siphoning off Russian gas. The relevant document is to be signed by 15 December.

For his part, Yushchenko said the Ukrainian government is not considering giving Gazprom stakes in Ukrainian companies in part payment of the gas debt. He also rejected Moscow's proposal to accept the gas debt as Ukraine's state debt. Strictly speaking, Naftohaz Ukrayiny and other Ukrainian companies owe the controversial gas debt to Russia's Gazprom. (Julie A. Corwin, an RFE/RL regional specialist, contributed to this report)

"Leszek Balcerowicz's declaration shows that political life can be of high ethical standards and does not necessarily have to resemble a shameful elbowing in the struggle for party power. A politician of great merits, a man for the most difficult tasks, the widely acclaimed architect of the Polish economic success, he decided to give up seeking re-election as head of the Freedom Union.... Such a decision deserves respect. It proves that one can make a career without being a careerist. I would give a lot to see other politicians show such class when they begin to consider various candidates to head the National Bank." -- Adam Michnik in the 17 November "Gazeta Wyborcza." Balcerowicz is rumored to be one of the top candidates to head Poland's National Bank as of 1 January 2001.

"I do not doubt that Lukashenka has participated in financing some political parties in Russia. A man interferes in the domestic affairs of a foreign country only if he pursues some goals. In this sense, Lukashenka's activities in Russia somewhat resemble George Soros's activities in Belarus. Soros was investing money in Belarus because he had a goal--to build an open society. Lukashenka is investing money in Russia because he also has a goal of his own--to create a single state and to play the main part in it." -- Sergei Markov, head of Russia's Institute of Political Studies, in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 17 November.

"Look at who works in the presidential administration today: men with military ranks. There is nothing good in this--we are not getting ready for war, we should be getting ready to improve the economic situation. But if that was the aim [of the president], he would employ experts in the national economy: academics, professors, and doctors of economic and juridical sciences." -- Former Belarusian Premier Mikhail Chyhir, quoted by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 14 November.

"Belarus is the only country in the post-Soviet area without any branch of the West's leading banks, without any hotel or shopping center built by foreign investors, and without any office of the world's major companies." -- Belarusian Foreign Minister Ural Latypau; quoted by Interfax on 16 November.