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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: October 5, 1999

5 October 1999, Volume 1, Number 19
Cabinet Reshuffle Still In The Offing. In response to the declining popularity of the ruling coalition, composed of the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and the Freedom Union (UW), Premier Jerzy Buzek promised to announce personnel and structural changes in his cabinet by 3 October. But apart from nominating AWS parliamentary deputy Marek Biernacki as interior minister, Buzek failed to carry out those promised changes.

The UW National Council on 3 October adopted a resolution urging UW leader Leszek Balcerowicz to meet with AWS leader Marian Krzaklewski to discuss a "radical change in the method of governing up to now, not ruling out the appointment of a new cabinet." Originally, the resolution had demanded talks about forming a new cabinet, but a final version was toned down by UW former leader Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who suggested that Buzek should be given one more week to mull a cabinet reshuffle. Some UW activists even proposed that the UW designate Leszek Balcerowicz as prime minister in exchange for the UW supporting an AWS candidate in next year's presidential elections.

The UW is demanding that Jerzy Kropiwnicki, head of the Government Center for Strategic Studies, and Stanislaw Allot, head of the Social Insurance Agency, be sacked. It also objects to appointing Kropiwnicki and Allot as minister and deputy minister, respectively, of a planned Ministry for Regional Policy and Housing. Moreover, Buzek reportedly wants to dismiss Defense Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz and Justice Minister Hanna Suchocka, both members of the UW.

Misinforming And Compromising. The whereabouts of Viktar Hanchar, a prominent, if controversial, Belarusian oppositionist who disappeared on 16 September (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 21 and 28 September 1999), are still unknown. The state-controlled newspaper "Belorusskaya niva" reported on 25 September that Hanchar was seen walking with Supreme Soviet Chairman Syamyon Sharetski in Vilnius, Lithuania. Hanchar reportedly told someone quoted by "Belorusskaya niva" that he came to Vilnius by train. Sharetski told RFE/RL Belarusian Service on 29 September that the report was a "shameless lie."

Meanwhile, a transcript of an alleged 12 September telephone call between Viktar Hanchar and Heorhiy Astrouski, a Belarusian businessman in Canada, has appeared on the Internet at According to that transcript, the two discussed the financing of the opposition Supreme Soviet's activities. Hanchar asks Astrouski to provide Sharetski with "two thousand" and Astrouski agrees to that request. Astrouski tells Hanchar that he has already sent "twenty thousand" to Minsk to support Supreme Soviet deputies. "Depending on the volume and quality of work, you will pay them not only insurance but also salaries.... Those who do not work will get insurance, whereas those who work will get a salary, not 250 each, as we thought, but 1,250 each, if necessary," Astrouski tells Hanchar in the alleged transcription.

The author of the transcript concludes that "H. Astrouski--a man with a shady past and a criminal future--is actually the real owner of the commercial enterprise--a joint venture or a closed joint-stock company with limited liability--that is called 'the Supreme Soviet of the 13th convocation.'"

The first mention of the alleged transcript and its web address appeared in President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's main mouthpiece, the daily "Sovetskaya Belorussiya." This fact, along with some stylistic peculiarities and factual inconsistencies of the alleged transcript, has prompted some Belarusian independent commentators to argue that the text is a forgery. They suggest that it appeared on the Internet in response to Lukashenka's 16 September order to inform the public at home and abroad where the Belarusian opposition finds money to "destabilize" the situation in Belarus.

Lukashenka's Beatification? Eight construction workers from Mahileu, a city in eastern Belarus, have made an "unusual" request to Belarus's Metropolitan Filaret, the head of the Belarusian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Belapan reported on 1 October. The workers wrote that, as can be concluded from President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent public statements, all Belarusians, including "ordinary citizens and [still] living pensioners," have become "bad people, to put it mildly." It can also be inferred, they continue, that the only decent and honest man in Belarus is "the ex-president of the Republic of Belarus, citizen Lukashenka."

The workers request Metropolitan Filaret to propose that his superior, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II, "beatify that great man [Lukashenka] while he is alive and to include him in the number of saints." The workers conclude: "We also request that, after God's servant Alyaksandr has ended his life's course, his relics be buried on the border of Russia and Belarus and a cast-iron Orthodox cross be erected at the place where the ex-president and former Russian Premier [Viktor] Chernomyrdin removed the border post" in 1995.

Genie Out Of The Bottle? At about 8 p.m. on 2 October, two assailants threw two hand grenades into a crowd surrounding presidential hopeful Natalya Vitrenko following a campaign meeting in Inhuletsk, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. The blast reportedly injured more than 30 people, including Vitrenko and her aide Volodymyr Marchenko. The motives for the attempt on 48-year-old Vitrenko's life remain unknown. Meanwhile, the incident may have an impact on the election campaign as a whole as well as voters' preferences in the 31 October ballot, given that the public tends to sympathize with the assailed rather than the assailants.

Vitrenko, the only woman candidate in the 31 October elections, heads the Progressive Socialist Party. In 1996, she quit Oleksandr Moroz's Socialist Party, accusing Moroz of "bourgeois views." She went on to launch her own party and win 14 parliamentary seats in the March 1998 elections.

Vitrenko's platform for the presidential elections combines fierce populism, nostalgia for the Soviet era, and strong anti-Western sentiments. Polls in Ukraine, which many believe to be unreliable and biased, consistently put her in second or third place, after President Leonid Kuchma and Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko. In the mock presidential elections held among more than 100,000 Ukrainian students on 28 September, Vitrenko won 12.57 percent backing to come in second after Kuchma.

It appears that Vitrenko's election appeal is not limited to any specific social or professional group. As the support she won among students shows, her rhetoric is appealing to various social strata. And all press reports about her campaign meetings--regardless of whether reporters are favorable or hostile toward her--underscore the fact that those meetings are usually well attended and animated. Vitrenko is not only a populist but also a popular candidate.

Many Ukrainian commentators have suggested that the presidential administration initially supported Vitrenko's political career and her current presidential bid in an attempt to split Ukraine's leftist electorate--especially that of Moroz--and pave the way for Kuchma's re-election. To support that argument, those commentators note that several months ago Vitrenko was seen on Ukrainian state-controlled television almost every day, while other left-wing leaders were granted only rare coverage. They also believe that in exchange for those official favors, Vitrenko's parliamentary caucus has on several occasions blocked anti-Kuchma legislation in the parliament.

It is revealing that Vitrenko has now virtually disappeared from the state-controlled electronic media. In fact, if the Kuchma-Vitrenko collaboration theory holds water, her disappearance from that media may mean she has already fulfilled her mission of splitting the leftist vote. It may also mean, however, that the presidential entourage senses an "electoral danger" to Kuchma from Vitrenko herself. Some observers have already voiced the opinion that by promoting Vitrenko's political career, Kuchma has let the genie out of the bottle and may now face a powerful challenge from the candidate he apparently wanted to use as a mere tool against his political foes.

The case of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus provides an interesting parallel to that of Vitrenko in Ukraine. In 1993, then Prime Minister Vyachaslau Kebich used Lukashenka, an unknown lawmaker at that time, in the power struggle against Supreme Soviet Chairman Stanislau Shushkevich. Kebich gave Lukashenka the go-ahead to deliver a parliamentary report on corruption, which resulted in Shushkevich's ouster. But that report simultaneously placed Lukashenka in the nationwide spotlight and made him a popular hero. In July 1994, Lukashenka won a landslide victory on an extreme populist ticket in the country's first presidential elections. Among the losers were both Shushkevich and Kebich.

Moreover, during the 1994 presidential campaign in Belarus, Lukashenka's election team claimed that someone had made an attempt on Lukashenka's life by shooting at him when he was travelling by car to a campaign meeting. Investigators found neither assailants nor convincing evidence that Lukashenka's life had been threatened, but the incident was widely reported. Some commentators continue to assert that Lukashenka staged the assassination in order to boost his popularity. In any case, Lukashenka garnered almost 80 percent support in the 1994 ballot.

The 2 October grenade attack on Vitrenko will likely reinforce her already relatively strong standing as a presidential hopeful and within the political arena as a whole. Simultaneously, it may weaken the position of the incumbent president and, possibly, some other hopefuls. There have already been many allegations and complaints that during the presidential campaign in Ukraine, the authorities have violated election legislation and harassed Kuchma's rivals. The armed attack against one of the candidates will only add to the general atmosphere of distrust, uncertainty, and dissatisfaction in a country plagued by economic inefficiency and endangered by political authoritarianism.

Gold From Transcarpathia. The Muzhiyiv Gold Mining Factory in Zakarpatska (Transcarpathian) began operations on 28 September by producing a gold bar weighing 5.721 kilograms, Interfax reported. The factory produced the bar from ore that was mined locally. The factory's processing capacity is 120,000 tons of ore or 800-1,000 kilograms of gold annually. The projected capacity is 240,000 tons of ore a year. According to President Leonid Kuchma, who participated in the official opening of the factory, gold production in Ukraine "will add stability to the hryvnya and the economy."

The factory was built by Ukrainian specialists and the U.S. engineering company Interteh Corporation from New Hampshire at a cost of $4.3 million. It is expected to break even within two years.

The factory employs an environmentally safe technology, based on gravitational centrifuges, for extracting gold without any chemical reagents.

"I try to pray for about 15 minutes per day, time permitting. If there is a difficult meeting, [those prayers] may extend to 20 minutes." -- Polish National Bank chairwoman Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, quoted by Reuters on 29 September.

"All trade unions [in Belarus] are the same nowadays. ...All of them are trying to take advantage of difficulties--there will be parliamentary elections soon. Everybody wants to win a deputy seat. Everybody is the people's defender. ...But the main thing is the underlying reason [for trade union protests]. They have got money from the West, put it in their pockets--now it's time to work it off. They have collected trade union membership fees from people, put them in their bank. I have recently checked how that bank operates. [Trade union] functionaries are feeding [on workers]." -- Lukashenka on 28 September, explaining the reason for a 30 September trade union rally. Quoted by Belarusian Television.

"I have received a very interesting document. It is the fruit of the work of our scientists, Russian and Belarusian. [The document states that] the trend to ruin Russia has scared Europe. Europe has become scared: if Russia becomes completely weak and ruined, it will be difficult for Europe to confront the current monopolist that operates in the world today, often aggressively. Therefore, [the Europeans] have come to their senses: Mother Russia should be preserved. Alone, without Russia, Europe will not be able to confront that [monopolist] system. It will be impossible without Russia to create a multipolar world. ...[Russia] cannot be replaced. [It was] an extremely interesting document by scientists and special service officers." -- Lukashenka on 24 September, quoted by Belarusian Television.

If Moscow closes its border with Minsk, "Russia will find itself alone in a dark closet and with a black sack on its head." -- Lukashenka on 30 September, quoted by Interfax.

"I would like to ask the president at whose cost he is shown [on television] 20-30 times every day." -- Oleksandr Moroz, a parliamentary deputy and presidential hopeful, responding to Leonid Kuchma's statement that the state should not spend taxpayers' money on broadcasting parliamentary sessions. Quoted by Interfax on 29 September.

"There is not one bit of honesty and decency in their behavior" -- Leonid Kuchma speaking about his election rivals. Quoted by Interfax on 30 September.