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Russia: Polish Crew Charged With Illegal Fishing

Prague, 19 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian regional authorities in the far-eastern city of Petropavlovsk yesterday issued an indictment against a Polish fishing vessel on charges of illegal fishing.

The vessel was detained three weeks ago by Russian coast guard and environmental officials in the Sea of Okhotsk for beginning to fish a day before the date indicated in its license. It was brought three days ago to Petropavlovsk.

The Polish media have reported that the boat had received permission to start fishing from an inspector of the Russian official organization Rozryba before the license date. But the faxed permission was reported to have reached the boat only a day after the fishing had begun.

The regional environmental agency Goskomprirody and the local prosecutor office maintain that fishing could commence only after the original documents are issued to the ship officers.

The Polish government has despatched representatives to Petropavlovsk to investigate the case. Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz was reported to send a letter to Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin asking for explanations.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexandr Avdeyev told Russian journalists two days ago that the government "needs time to make assessment of what has happened and determine the degree of responsibility of all sides, including Goskomprirody and the coast guards."

Fishing in the Sea of Okhotsk has complicated relations between Poland and Russia for some time. Until 1995, Poles were able to fish in the international waters there without any hindrance. But the sea itself is surrounded by Russian territorial waters and the Russians practically control the entire area. This has been formalized in 1996 through an international environmental agreement, providing the Russians with the right to "assure the protection of fishing in the central part of the Sea of Okhotsk."

In the last two years, Poland and Russia have been signing annual agreements on the amount of fish to be caught by the Poles, and the cost of the license. It appears that the current incident might have been prompted by faulty timing in transferring the necessary documents from one Russian agency to another.

The incident is relatively minor, but it has fueled speculation in Poland about arising tension in Poland-Russia relations. Today, a major Warsaw newspaper, "Rzeczpospolita," said that it provides a reminder about a series of recent incidents between the two countries.

These included an incident in 1994, when the Polish police intervened to prevent a group of Russian gangsters from attacking Russian tourists at a railway station in Warsaw. Moscow complained about the alleged "violence" of the Poles. Another case focused on Russian warnings, expressed in a particularly undiplomatic language by a Russian consular official, about the operation of the Chechen Information Office in the Polish city of Cracow. Finally, the newspaper recalled that the Moscow authorities were very slow in dealing with an illegal seizure of the Polish Catholic Church in the Russian capital by private Russian firms, prompting exchanges of official protests and aggravating bi-lateral relations. Each time, these incidents created strains in relations.

"Rzeczpospolita" wondered whether the current fishing conflict could not be purposefully designed to affect relations at the time of increased tension surrounding Poland's efforts to join NATO. Russia has been opposed to the Western plans for expanding NATO in the East.

Such speculation may be far-fetched, and it perhaps is. But it also illustrates the degree of anxiety experienced by Central European countries in the weeks and months before major international decisions are certain to change their status.

Warsaw correspondent Chris Klimiuk contributed to this feature report.