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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 17, 1999

17 August 1999, Volume 1, Number 12
Farmers Suffer From Abundance Of Crops... Poland's Main Statistical Office (GUS) predicts that the better harvest this year, the bigger the losses for Polish farmers. "Farmers produce more food than the market can absorb, thus causing a drop in prices," GUS Vice President Barbara Kondrat said on 10 August. Last year, the profitability of the Polish agricultural sector--or the real income of an average Polish farm--fell by 6.8 percent compared with 1997 or by nearly 25 percent over the two past years. Kondrat explained that the reason for this are successive good harvests. "While the prices of agricultural products were decreasing, the costs of services for farmers were increasing. If we compare the first six months of 1999 with the first six months of 1998, those costs increased by as much as 11 percent," she said.

Compared with last year, this year's prices decreased by 17.3 percent for wheat, 13 percent for potatoes, 16 percent for poultry, 5.6 percent for milk, and 24.7 percent for pork. According to GUS, the financial situation of Polish farmers will continue to be bad because this year's crops are expected to be as good as in previous years. However, GUS predicts that the disparity between supply and demand on the food market should decrease, pointing to two reasons. First, the government has reduced food imports by introducing higher customs duties on those goods. Second, the Agricultural Market Agency--a state-run organization for intervention procurement of agricultural products--has lower grain reserves than in 1998 and therefore can buy more grain than last year.

This year, the Agricultural Market Agency plans to buy 3 million tons of grain (2.5 million tons of wheat and 500,000 tons of rye) or more than 75 percent of all the grain available on the market. At procurement points, farmers can obtain 450 zlotys ($114) for 1 ton of top-quality wheat and 320 zlotys for 1 ton of rye. The agency pays them an additional 60 zlotys for each ton of wheat sold in August, 70 zlotys in September, and 90 zlotys in October.

Reports from different parts of the country say that state-subsidized grain procurement is taking place at a very slow pace, provoking frustration among peasants who have to wait in lines extending for many kilometers along Poland's roads.

...While Peasant Leaders Seek To Build Election Bloc. Taking advantage of the general discontent with the government's agricultural policy, major peasant leaders are trying to set up a coalition of peasant organizations for next year's presidential elections and the 2001 parliamentary elections. The idea of a large electoral coalition has proved successful twice in post-Communist Poland: the Left Democratic Alliance coalition won the parliamentary elections in 1993, and four years later Poland's right-wing triumphed in the bloc named Solidarity Electoral Action. Now Poland's peasant parties and organizations want to repeat those successes.

It seems that there are at least four possible participants in a future peasant bloc: the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), led by Jaroslaw Kalinowski, the Self-Defense farmers trade union of Andrzej Lepper, the Farmers' Solidarity trade union, headed by Roman Wierzbicki, and the Union of Farmers' Circles and Organizations, whose leader is Wladyslaw Serafin. All those organizations and their leaders are highly critical of what they call the liberal agricultural policies of the current government.

The first call for a peasant bloc came from Lepper, radical leader of the Self-Defense trade union, following the road blockades his group organized last February to protest the low price of pork. Lepper appealed on the Internet for a "peasant-national" bloc to be formed to oppose the "economic Satanism" and the "fifth column" of uncontrolled capitalism that was unleashed by Poland's Solidarity-led governments after 1989. Lepper is the strongest advocate of such a bloc. However, many commentators argue that he is also the biggest barrier to forming a peasant coalition because other agricultural leaders see him as a dangerous rival in the race for power. Besides, Lepper's radicalism and populism make him an unpredictable political partner.

Another barrier to forging a peasant bloc is the lack of a political program that could unite all possible allies. Polish farmers are currently swayed by farmers' trade unions, which are sharply critical of Poland's integration with the EU. The PSL, which, as the only party of the four possible coalition participants, is best suited to drawing up such a program, has become carried away by radical criticism of the trade unions. Currently, it appears reluctant to come up with a more realistic vision of the country's agricultural policy for fear of losing voters' support.

Lukashenka Reinforces Hold On Nation Through Labor Discipline Decree. In late July, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree on "additional measures for improving labor relations and strengthening labor and executive discipline," dubbed a "labor discipline decree" by the Belarusian media.

The decree introduces contract employment (employment for limited duration) as the obligatory form of labor relations. So far in Belarus, contract employment applied only to top managers and government officials. Now, however, contracts are to be extended to all categories of employees.

According to the decree, a contract must be concluded for at least one year. An employer must notify an employee one month in advance before switching the employee to a contract. If an employee refuses to sign a proposed job contract, his/her former employment agreement (of unlimited duration) expires because of what the decree calls "changed employment conditions."

The decree offers some benefits for good workers: they may be given a five additional vacation days and their wages may be raised by up to 50 percent. However, there are also sticks in addition to carrots. The employer may cut the worker's vacation for "deliberate non-fulfillment of labor duties for more than three hours within a workday." The employer may also reduce the worker's professional rank or position for "violating the internal discipline rules of the enterprise."

The decree also lists a number of violations of labor discipline that can result in the early termination of the employment contract.

Trade unions are mentioned in the decree only once. Point 10 says that law enforcement bodies and courts are to cooperate with the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions in enhancing the "legal culture of the population." In this way, the decree adds, the trade unions will contribute to "streamlining labor relations and strengthening labor and executive discipline."

In their analysis, published by Belapan on 10 August, Mikhail Pastukhou, a former Constitutional Court judge, and Viktar Kryvy, an expert in labor issues, argue that the labor discipline decree aims at reinforcing Lukashenka's personal authority over workers by introducing the same rigorous system of subordination as he did in the government. Pastukhou and Kryvy believe that by the time of the 2001 presidential elections, short-term employment contracts will be concluded with all employees. This will thus give managers a powerful instrument to control their employees--workers will live under permanent threat of not having their job contracts extended. In turn, employers will become fully dependent on the state, which will be able to control them by virtue of the same decree.

Needless to say, both the official Federation of Trade Unions and the independent Belarusian Congress of Trade Unions have condemned the labor discipline decree. The federation said the decree "is discriminatory in regard to contract workers" and "strengthens administrative and arbitrary principles in labor relations," according to Belapan. The congress appealed to all workers employed under open-ended contracts to refuse to sign the agreements stipulated in the decree. "If the decree is enforced, the workers will be transformed into slaves," Henadz Bykau, an independent trade union activist, commented.

Ukrainian Presidential Campaign: Seeking A Distinctive Image. By the 1 August deadline, Ukraine's Central Electoral Commission had registered nine candidates for the 31 October presidential elections: President Leonid Kuchma, parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, Progressive Socialist Party chairwoman Natalya Vitrenko, former Premier Yevhen Marchuk, Cherkasy Mayor Volodymyr Oliynyk, as well as Hennadiy Udovenko and Yuriy Kostenko, leaders of the two splinter groups of the Popular Rukh.

Following complaints by six other aspirants, the Supreme Court ordered the commission also to register Social Democratic Party leader Vasyl Onopenko, Mykola Haber of the Patriotic Party, Oleksandr Rzhavskyy of the Single Fatherland party, Oleksandr Bazylyuk of the Slavic Party, and Vitaliy Kononov of the Green Party. The Supreme Court is still considering the appeal of the only remaining presidential hopeful: Yuriy Karmazin of the Party of the Fatherland's Defenders.

The sheer number of presidential hopefuls makes an analysis of their election prospects a complicated task. Moreover, virtually all of the incumbent president's main rivals come from the left of the political spectrum, as a result of which their election programs are frequently similar, if not identical, on a variety of issues. But this state of affairs is problematic not only for analysts. The candidates themselves are experiencing difficulties forging their own distinctive political identity among the dozen or so competitors. For this reason, the main candidates are not only presenting their political platforms but are also seeking to project a "mythologized" image. Such images are usually limited to a handful of slogans, but it seems that such devices may be at least as important as official programs in mustering votes on 31 October.

Incumbent President Kuchma is constantly present in the Ukrainian media and therefore has no need to seek to project his image in any special way. His re-election bid is handicapped, however, by Ukraine's disastrous economic situation. While keeping silent on economic issues, Kuchma's image-makers advertise him as a world statesman and the only Ukrainian politician who has some clout in the West. According to them, Kuchma is the only guarantor of Ukraine's transformation, and his re-election would mean the continuation of current reforms.

Communist Party leader Symonenko lacks luster as a politician, but his assets include the unwavering support of the largest caucus in the parliament as well as that of disillusioned pensioners and the unemployed, who are openly nostalgic for the Soviet era. Symonenko promotes himself as the defender of the "ordinary people," an enemy of international financial organizations, and a proponent of Ukraine's integration with Russia and Belarus.

Progressive Socialist Party chairwoman Vitrenko is the most radical and populist presidential candidate among those on the left wing. While earlier she had vehemently promoted herself as the only "true Marxist" in Ukraine, she now prefers to underscore her economic education and doctorate. Her "reform" program advocates reintroducing a command economy, halting privatization, and breaking all relations with the IMF and the World Bank. She sharply criticizes both Communist Symonenko and Socialist Moroz as "opportunists" and "betrayers" of the socialist idea.

Socialist Party leader Moroz trails far behind Symonenko and Vitrenko in the polls, but this has not stopped him from asserting that he is the only leftist candidate able to defeat Kuchma. (It is expected that no candidate will win the first round of elections on 31 October and that Kuchma will face a left-wing rival two weeks later.) Moroz claims to be a moderate leftist who can attract communist, socialist, and social democratic votes. His party's newspaper, "Tovarysh" (Comrade), promotes him as an "intelligent" and "decent" man.

Former Premier Marchuk is presented--especially by the newspaper "Den," which he sponsors--as a "strongman," a kind of Ukrainian General de Gaulle, whom the country urgently needs as it sinks into socio-economic chaos and is plagued by widespread corruption. Marchuk's campaigners make much of his former capacity as Ukraine's Security Service chairman--with the rank of general, no less--as proof that he is able to do away with corruption. (By the same token, they fail to mention his Soviet KGB activities). His main election slogan affirms that Ukraine can overcome the current crisis "on its own." He also tries to pose as a centrist equally suited to representing both the western and eastern parts of Ukraine.

While Tkachenko emphasizes his grass-roots origins and political career (he was born into a peasant family and ascended all steps of the Soviet state and party hierarchy, from raion head to first deputy prime minister), he projects the image of the people's savior (who has a program of economic revival until 2015) and of a statesman equal in rank and importance to the incumbent president. "I am not the first person in Ukraine, but neither am I the second" is his well-publicized self-appraisal. Tkachenko is also a staunch supporter of Ukrainian integration with Russia and Belarus.

Other candidates appear less outspoken than the six "heavyweights" listed above. However, their role in the overall distribution of votes on 31 October should not be underestimated. While lacking significant electoral support and/or distinctive media images, they may nonetheless have an influence on the final tallies of those leading the polls. And by voicing their preferences for the anticipated second round, they may tip the election balance in favor of one of the two final candidates.

"[Polish President Aleksander] Kwasniewski is doing nothing. This is what he can do best, and for this he has the best public rating." -- Andrzej Lepper, commenting on 9 August on Kwasniewski's lack of response to Polish farmers' woes.

"Lukashenka has announced that he will rule the country for a minimum of seven more years. [Under the current] systemic crisis, this announcement sounds like a threat. The previous five years were apparently not enough to squeeze the 10 million-strong country into the format of a collective farm. But there have been no other objectives [for Lukashenka]. From time to time, public opinion and realities in neighboring countries impeded the advance of the creator of an 'effective control model.' But he was pursuing his objective--to make a collective farm--with unwavering stubbornness.... However, he has failed to take into account one thing: When a country is being reduced to a collective farm level, it starts to give no better results in any area than those of a collective farm." -- Belarusian independent weekly "Nasha niva" of 9 August.

"Falsehood, fear, and lawlessness are the three pillars supporting your power. They helped you to enter the presidential palace. I repent that I, too, gave way to what seemed to be sincere words about your desire to make the Belarusian people happy. I was deluded, I fell under your magic influence, believing in the sincerity of your words. You were committing outrages before my eyes, but I thought that you had nothing to do with them. You trampled on the symbols that were dear to the nationally-aware Belarusians, on the language spoken by my parents, you beat the deputies who were protected by parliamentary immunity, but I was silent! I remained loyal to my word to keep myself away from politics, not to seek publicity for myself. I repent! I repent and ask all who have suffered from that to forgive me. My family was subject to secret surveillance. But again, I refused to believe that you had something to do with that." -- Mikhail Chyhir, prime minister under Lukashenka from 1994-1996 and currently in jail on charges of financial machinations, in an open letter to Lukashenka. In that letter, Chyhir rejects accusations against him and shows "public repentance" for collaborating with the president.

"In Belarus's current situation, we cannot resort to pure market methods. First, there is no market. Second, we have the Chornobyl [aftermath]." -- Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Linh to a World Bank representative on 10 August.

"Do register yourselves. If you do not want to be, for example, a friendship association of dog breeders, register another one--an association for friendship with rabbits. This is your right. Create any organization you like. Since 1992, we have registered 2,500 public organizations, and this process is constantly expanding." -- Belarusian Justice Minister Henadz Varantsou on 11 August, commenting on freedom of association in Belarus.

"As regards the number of foreign visits and the number of man-days spent on foreign trips, Leonid Kuchma and 'other officials' accompanying him can definitely claim a prominent place in the Guinness Book of Records. The education in diplomacy of the president and his team at the expense of taxpayers has acquired a total character in space and time. Every foreign trip of Leonid Kuchma not only brings new geographical discoveries but also makes [us] familiar with various overseas 'economic wonders.' Those trips are followed by the construction of new strategic triangles and geopolitical axes as well as the mapping out of new 'silk routes' and the laying of new pipelines that lead, as a principle, to nowhere. Naturally, Ukraine, as the geographical center of Europe, is given a priority in all those presidential constructions." -- "Komunist" on 12 August.