Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 16, 2005

16 August 2005, Volume 7, Number 29
WARSAW SEEMS TO BE LOSING DUEL WITH MINSK OVER ETHNIC ORGANIZATION. After two rounds of reciprocal diplomatic expulsions and the recalling of Polish Ambassador to Belarus Tadeusz Pawlak last month, the conflict between Warsaw and Minsk over the Union of Poles in Belarus (SPB) appears to be entering a calmer stage. Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Alyaksandr Mikhnevitch said last week that Minsk is ready to start talks with Warsaw on solving the present crisis in bilateral relations. Polish Sejm speaker and leading presidential candidate Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who earlier did not rule out closing the Polish Embassy in Minsk, responded immediately that Poland should not reject the possibility of discussing the ongoing standoff.

The conflict erupted in May after the Belarusian Justice Ministry refused to recognize the SPB's new leadership elected at a congress in March. The ministry quoted irregularities in both the nomination of delegates and the congress itself and demanded a repeat convention to hold a more "democratic" vote. However, the new SPB leadership headed by 32-year-old Andzhelika Borys asserts that the true motive behind the ministry's decision is to reinstall Tadeusz Kruczkowski, SPB head in 2000-05, as a more compliant leader from the authorities' viewpoint.

This view is shared by most Polish and Belarusian commentators who see the conflict as primarily an attempt by autocratic Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to get full control of the country's largest NGO before the 2006 presidential election. The SPB claims an official membership of some 25,000 out of the 400,000-strong Polish minority in Belarus, but SPB leaders admit that the organization's active membership is much lower.

In May and June the authorities prevented the SPB's new leadership from printing their weekly "Glos znad Niemna" (Voice From Over the Niemen) and even produced several fake issues of the publication with the collaboration of Kruczkowski. And on 27 July, Belarusian police drove Borys and a dozen of her supporters out of the SPB headquarters in Hrodna and reinstalled Kruczkowski there. In the meantime, Kruczkowski managed to gather a part of the SPB's old board and, with the blessing of the authorities, scheduled a new SPB congress for 27 August.

Warsaw's official position in the conflict was formulated by Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld in June and boils down to the requirement that Borys and her adherents be installed as a democratically elected SPB leadership. Does this mean that Warsaw will refuse to recognize the decisions made by the upcoming SPB congress, which is obviously being orchestrated by the Lukashenka regime? Borys said earlier this week in an online interview moderated by RFE/RL's Belarus Service that she and her followers are not going to participate in the SPB congress later this month. She also asserted that the Polish government, which finances the SPB, will not recognize the results of this convention, whatever they may be.

However, Warsaw now appears to be looking at the situation from a much more practical point of view. Warsaw seems to realize that Lukashenka has actually won the battle over the SPB and by the end of August he will have a politically submissive SPB leadership that won't make any trouble in the 2006 election campaign. Borys would hardly be allowed to register a competing organization of ethnic Poles in Belarus, and this could certainly be a serious setback for Warsaw, which needs to have a legally recognized receiver of its assistance to the Polish minority in Belarus. For Warsaw, cutting financial aid to the SPB would mean losing too much in Belarus.

The Polish minority in Belarus receives funds through the Polish upper house, the Senate, and its specialized body for contacts with the Polish diaspora, Stowarzyszenie Wspolnota Polska (Polish Community Association). Borys recently told Polish media that the annual costs of running the SPB amount to some $200,000. She also said that the SPB has non-state sponsors but did not disclose their contributions. In the past, the Polish government financed the construction of 16 Polish cultural centers and two Polish-language schools in Belarus -- most of these facilities were built during Lukashenka's rule. Some 22,000 children in Belarus study Polish. It is hardly conceivable that Warsaw could now decide to put all this educational and cultural infrastructure of the Belarusian Poles at risk only because the SPB is run by people not palatable to Poland.

There is also one important aspect of the conflict over the SPB that either escapes the attention of media in Poland and the West or is intentionally omitted by them. The point is that the bulk of the Polish ethnic community in Belarus is located in rural areas in Hrodna Oblast. Collective-farm Poles in Belarus, just like collective-farm Belarusians, are highly supportive of Lukashenka and his policies. Besides, a majority of Belarus's Poles are either unaware of what is actually going on with the SPB leadership, or indifferent to the conflict, or take the authorities' side in the spat. Thus, what in Warsaw or elsewhere in Europe may be seen as a conflict between democracy and dictatorship, for those concerned most closely it is just a quarrel within their elites. And this means that Borys cannot expect that any significant number of fellow Poles in Belarus will stand to support her cause. She is decidedly not in a winning position.

If so, why has Warsaw miscalculated so gravely and taken such a stiff stance in the conflict? Did the Polish government -- as suggested by official Belarusian media -- really believe that it could influence the political situation in Belarus through the ethnic Polish organization and thus contribute to the export of a "colored revolution" to "Europe's last dictatorship"? These questions have no easy or unambiguous answers.

Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovskii told RFE/RL's Belarus Service earlier this month that the Warsaw-Minsk conflict reflects Poland's increasingly assertive drive to regain its historical influence in the east -- on the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, that is, primarily in Belarus and Ukraine -- after Russia lost its global superpower status, while Poland secured its rear in the EU from encroachments of its another historical rival, Germany.

In accordance with this line of argument, Warsaw, encouraged by its role in brokering a political compromise in the Orange Revolution in Kyiv last year, is now trying to influence developments in Belarus by using the organization of ethnic Poles. In other words, the conflict over the SPB is no less than part of a geopolitical game (involving Washington and Brussels) over supremacy in the former Soviet republics. An ongoing diplomatic spat between Russia and Poland over the beating of Russian diplomats' kids in Warsaw and of Polish diplomats in Moscow seems to confirm the theory that the Russian and Belarusian presidents work hand-in-hand to ward off the Polish political offensive to the east.

But others, including this author, look for the main reason behind the conflict over the SPB in much more mundane circumstances. Warsaw, which did not object to Kruczkowski's chairmanship of the SPB in previous years, might have simply become fed up with him by the end of 2004, when it emerged in Belarus that Kruczkowski was possibly a target for brazen manipulation by the KGB. "Kruczkowski does not belong to himself any longer -- he is simply an object of manipulation," Tadeusz Gawin, SPB's founder and chairman from 1988-2000, commented on the conflict to a Polish regional newspaper in June. Gawin explained that the authorities "have a hold" on Kruczkowski because of his supposed involvement in bribery, fraud, and rape. "He had a great chance to become a major figure in the Polish renaissance movement in Belarus but he has lost everything," Gawin concluded.

Consequently, when the SPB congress in March replaced Kruczkowski with Borys, an intellectually unassuming but apparently free-from-manipulation schoolteacher, Warsaw decided to stand behind her to make its democratic credentials in Belarus look stronger. Because Kruczkowski is known in Belarus not only as a loyalist of the Lukashenka regime and a potential object of KGB manipulation, but also as a staunch opponent of the democratic opposition and a hater of the Belarusian language and non-Sovietized Belarusian culture. Which, incidentally, explains why Lukashenka had taken so much trouble to reinstall him in the SPB leadership.

Now it seems that the Polish government has decided not to aggravate its relations with Lukashenka any longer and is looking for a compromise solution. Such a solution, as suggested by Belarusian Ambassador to Poland Pavel Latushka, could be found in denying any major role in the SPB to Kruczkowski and Borys and electing someone else to lead the organization. Cimoszewicz told journalists this week that Poland should formulate "clear-cut conditions" for talks with Minsk on the SPB, adding that these conditions should include "cessation of all unfriendly actions towards Polish diplomats [and] cessation of illegal interference in the internal affairs of the SPB." Compared to what Polish politicians and media said about the conflict over the past few months, these words sound like a coded acceptance of surrender. (Jan Maksymiuk)

RFE/RL INTERVIEWS PRIME MINISTER YULIYA TYMOSHENKO. This week marks six months since the government of Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko came to power following the Orange Revolution that marked the end of long-time President Leonid Kuchma's tenure and brought Viktor Yushchenko to power. RFE/RL Kyiv correspondent Maryna Pyrozhuk recently spoke with Tymoshenko about post-Orange Revolution power grabs, the "difficult and dirty battle" ahead of next year's parliamentary elections, and her cooperation with President Yushchenko.

RFE/RL: Have you had an opportunity for a holiday this summer, or are your government responsibilities too numerous to allow that?

Tymoshenko: I don't plan to take a holiday this year because I simply have too much work, and to steal some time for a vacation is too great a luxury for me.

RFE/RL: The government marked six months in office this week. The first 100 days of the government were scrupulously pored over and analyzed by the press and by analysts. There seems to have been less interest in the six-month mark. What achievements are you most proud of -- what is most important for the country and what for the people?

Tymoshenko: The government has a lot to be proud of. We have 12 main indicators of which we can honestly be proud before the people and before the world. This, first of all, is the GDP, which has grown by 4 percent. If we compare the growth of the GDP for this period with last year's: Last year, we had GDP of 143.7 billion [hryvnyas] for the first six-month period, this year we have 173 billion [hryvnyas] -- that is, the GDP has grown by 20.3 percent. This very difficult six-month period, where we had to deal with the fallout from the elections, various political conflicts, restructuring the government, thousands of new civil servants -- despite all this, we have worked very effectively. Our industrial output rose by 5 percent; the wood industry, for example, grew by 20 percent, the food industry by 14 percent, paper cellulose production by 13 percent, the chemical and petroleum branch by 13 percent -- all of these manufacturing sectors show growth and dynamism. The retail sector, which is always a barometer of economic dynamics, has grown by 19.8 percent. For the first time in many years, we show a growth of 26 percent in actual income, and this with inflation remaining within the forecast boundaries.

RFE/RL: What marks would you give yourself for this period?

Tymoshenko: I can say: That which is wonderful knows no boundaries. I think the government has done a very good job. We've talked a lot about legalization and the shadow economy -- that entire economic sectors are illegal. We have settled several social issues by removing 19.3 billion hryvnyas from the shadow economy -- this is 1 1/2 times more than last year.

RFE/RL: Have there been any serious mistakes in the workings of the government, and can you name those?

Tymoshenko: I wouldn't call those mistakes; they are team problems, people aren't used to working together. In the last 10 years, we've never had this type of situation -- where the entire government changes at once, where new governors are appointed. New people have come to power and they simply need time to understand each other's way of working, understand the concepts underlying concrete actions. I think this was simply a period of organization overhauling, and as a result of this we had certain impulsive actions on the part of individual ministries...

RFE/RL: But what is stopping the government from working together, from being one team?

Tymoshenko: The majority of people who came to power are public politicians. They are ambitious, each of them cares about his image, each one tries to show his best side; and these clashes of ambition are what stands in the way of working together.

RFE/RL: Can this be resolved?

Tymoshenko: Absolutely.

RFE/RL: The working of the government was also marred by internal conflicts. What is the reason -- the nature -- of these conflicts and scandals? What were government officials protecting in these conflicts -- national interests or perhaps their own personal business interests?

Tymoshenko: I think there are two fundamental reasons for these disagreements. The first is that this team is a political coalition -- that is, different political forces with different ratings and different ways of seeing things. We have Socialists; we have the People's Party headed by [Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr] Lytvyn, who takes part in government decisions; we have Our Ukraine, and the bloc that I lead. Our political relations are not yet formalized for the next parliamentary elections. There is no document that tells us who will be with whom, in what coalition for these elections.

RFE/RL: This interferes with the government's business?

Tymoshenko: Of course it does. For example, if the Socialists go separately into these elections, as they are declaring, then they are competitors. The parliamentary elections will be a competition with the Socialists; and in a competitive situation, we need to keep our competitors battle ready. As far as I am concerned, the team that I am heading -- and as far as the president [Viktor Yushchenko] is concerned, my position is very steadfast -- I am convinced that we will go to the parliamentary elections together. The other aspect of the conflict is, and here you are absolutely right, that we have people in power who have different goals despite being part of the same team. Some of them have come to power with very clear business interests. And power, as always, is seen as a trampoline to do big business, to straddle sources of finance. The other part of the team, the other half of the government, is there to build Ukraine -- that Ukraine which was entrusted to us during the elections, those very difficult presidential elections.

RFE/RL: Can you identify those people, those who are there for their business interests and those who have Ukrainian interests at heart?

Tymoshenko: All of these names are known perfectly well in political circles.... But I have a high responsibility for each word that I utter, and therefore it would be incorrect for me to play prosecutor, or SBU [Ukrainian Security Service], or the investigator, and name people here who instead of being involved in politics are involved in business. This is not my business.

RFE/RL: During your last news conference, you said that in the hullabaloo concerning sugar, it was in the interest of certain circles to portray the government as weak. You have in part answered that question, but nevertheless would you please be more specific: Who is interested in seeing the government appear weak?

Tymoshenko: The only ones who will today criticize the government over sugar prices are those who blocked the law governing the sugar market. This is quite clear. Who attacks the government -- those people who see us as competitors, people who believe that the worse things are, the better they are. Their goal is not to give people results but to show the government's weakness, the government's inability to formulate policy and achieve results.

RFE/RL: Do you mean the Socialist Party, which has its share of government posts?

Tymoshenko: I have heard some very harsh criticism of the government -- that the government is trying to take care of the sugar deficit by importing. We're talking about raw sugar here. But I want to go back to voting in parliament, when almost the entire Socialist faction voted for sugar imports in 2003 [and] 2004.

RFE/RL: But they didn't vote that way this time around.

Tymoshenko: This time around, this wasn't even put to a vote. That's why I want to say that the virtuosity of the shadow economy lies in first blocking the taking of correct decisions and then showing how badly it all turns out -- thereby creating double political dividends for yourself. But this can't be done with this government; it can't be done.

RFE/RL: You said the government would never go against the Ukrainian manufacturer, that you would do everything possible to regulate the price of sugar in a market manner and in the very near future. Will the price of sugar come down in the near future?

Tymoshenko: Yes, I think so, in a week or two. I want to address the entire sugar industry here, those who grow sugar beets in Ukraine. I want all of you to know that sugar prices will be market prices and they will give the sugar industry no less than 70 percent profit. I want to compare this to machine production; there we have a maximum of 10 percent profit. Just to compare with other areas of production: The metallurgy sector, when prices on metallurgical production decreased overall in the world -- their maximum profit today is 30-40 percent, the chemical industry likewise, 30-40 percent profit. Sugar production, combined with sugar-beet growth will have a profit of 70 percent. We keep the manufacturer in mind and the government will never take sides -- either the side of the manufacturer or the side of the consumer; we will always seek a harmonious approach. I don't want people to fall for speculative approaches. We will return sugar prices to what they were before sugar speculation began.

RFE/RL: Lately members of the opposition, economists, and even President Yushchenko's adviser, Boris Nemtsov, have begun talking about serious social economic crises, which they predict is bound to erupt this autumn. Is there any basis to such claims?

Tymoshenko: First of all, I want to say that there is absolutely no basis to such claims. I want people who follow politics to understand that in politics everything is structured. Your political opponent hires experts, analysts, those people who shed a negative light on the other side. This is normal practice; this approach is well worked through. I want to differentiate this process from the honest work that journalists, analysts, and politicians do. There are many of them as well. But when you see totally black propaganda, you can be sure that this is politics for hire.

RFE/RL: So you are saying this is all manipulation?

Tymoshenko: Of course it's manipulation of people's awareness. It's an attempt to insult today's new government. But I can tell you that we hope to do our job in such a way that people will feel the positive result of our work, and this is much more important than any maligning speech.

RFE/RL: Mrs. Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian government will be negotiating gas shipments with Russia. You have accented that Ukraine will conduct itself in a worthy manner at these negotiations. What did you have in mind?

Tymoshenko: Ukraine's relations with Russia over the period of the last two to three years -- particularly when it comes to gas -- have been such that Russia has protected its national interests. But Ukraine's leadership, including the president -- I mean former President Leonid Kuchma -- and the chairman of Naftohaz Ukrayina, [Yuriy] Boyko, have simply surrendered Ukraine's national interests. Ukraine today is living with the fruits of these policies, huge amounts of gas which given over for next to nothing for Ukraine's gas debts. As a result of this, we have problems with gas right now -- particularly during critical periods.

RFE/RL: Will Ukraine be buying gas at world prices?

Tymoshenko: We have an agreement with Russia that is valid until 2013, which says that the volume of transit that we provide for Russia through Ukrainian territory is compensated to Ukraine in gas. So, in principle, gas supplies are guaranteed and there are no existing problems. But a huge amount of gas was simply given away. Our government has established a special negotiating team, and this group will be going to Moscow next week to negotiate with the Russians; and I am confident that this can be done.

RFE/RL: During your last press conference, you said that politics in Ukraine has not become any cleaner and that it is difficult to separate politics from the economy. Do you think that these battles will increase during the parliamentary elections?

Tymoshenko: These elections will be very difficult and very fierce. This will be a difficult and dirty battle.

RFE/RL: You have a very high rating today. Will you use this good standing as an argument when considering forming electoral blocs, coalitions, and so forth?

Tymoshenko: I will be personally holding coalition discussion with the president, and I am sure that together we will form a party list -- a central and regional party list -- and we will go to these elections as a team.

RFE/RL: You've made your personal decision as far as this is concerned?

Tymoshenko: Without a doubt. I will be with the president, side by side, and I want to support him in this difficult task of restoring order in Ukraine.

RFE/RL: Some say that certain forces want to take advantage of your high personal ratings and use that popularity to push through to parliament those who are close to the president. What do you make of such thoughts? Are you prepared for this?

Tymoshenko: I think that we will have very deep discussions with the president as to the electoral lists. But I am deeply convinced that the president wants to see clean politics, he wants to see a team that truly intends to serve Ukraine. Of course, there are mistakes -- all people make them. Therefore we will try to put together the kind of party list that society will support. Both the president and I already know how to build a team; we have this experience.

RFE/RL: Do you often see the president? What do you talk about?

Tymoshenko: Yes, we see each other quite often. Actually, no matter how much time the president gives me, it's always not enough to answer those questions that require the president's input and his appraisal. But I can say that whatever time we do spend together, we always talk about reforming this or that area. This is very important. We see many things eye to eye, and I know that little by little we will form a team that will be a monolith.

RFE/RL: What are your relations like with National Security and Defense Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko?

Tymoshenko: (laughs) Well, we are actually [in] different branches of government. I work in the executive branch, and our paths cross only during National Security Council meetings, which are chaired by the president.

RFE/RL: Are your relations with him friendly?

Tymoshenko: Well, at least we don't hit each other. (laughs)

RFE/RL: What are your relations like with Roman Zvarych, the justice minister?

Tymoshenko: Actually, we have come to an understanding in all professional questions, and Roman Zvarych helps me an awful lot. This is no exaggeration; he really tries to put all his energies into making government ideas real and applicable. I can honestly say that he as justice minister truly fought for the Nikopol Alloy Plant.

RFE/RL: But there have been reports in the press about wars surrounding the Nikopol plant. According to these reports, Petro Poroshenko is lobbying for former President Leonid Kuchma's son-in-law and for Russian interests -- Russian businessmen who in fact have already bought this plant -- and for this Mr. Poroshenko will purportedly get the Inter television channel. You are also mentioned in these articles, that you support renationalizing this plant and that you will get a bonus for this -- that is, some flattering coverage from the 1+1 television channel. Are these just rumors, gossip, or is there something to this?

Tymoshenko: You know I dream of this unique moment when you get some sort of a bonus for defending your country's interests. Today everyone is fighting for private interests. If the Supreme Court takes a legal decision and then 51 percent of the biggest metal plant -- which today belongs to Leonid Kuchma's son-in-law -- is returned to the state, I doubt that anyone will be paying bonuses for this. Later, this 51 percent immediately will be up for tender. This privatization will be done absolutely honestly and openly. My interest lies in that if this happens this year, the budget will get an additional 2.5 billion hryvnyas, which we can then channel toward reimbursing people for their lost savings, for which people are already waiting for 14 years.

On the other hand, if, for example, the court -- under pressure, under duress, disregarding legal reasons -- gives this plant into [Kuchma son-in-law Viktor] Pinchuk's private hands, then Pinchuk will get half a billion dollars because someone is lobbying his interests at the highest level. I am very sorry that people who stood in the square during the Orange Revolution are working for those who got these properties illegally and are fighting against the state returning what was illegally privatized. This is painful and very unfortunate, that we have these villainous behind-the-scenes games. I hope that our courts are honest and independent, and I believe that the court decision will be grounded in law and the Nikopol plant will be returned to Ukraine. I just want to remind you one more time, I want to reiterate: either half a billion dollars for Viktor Pinchuk which Russian business men will "pay in cash," as they say, or 2.5 billion for the Ukrainian budget. These are the scales on which all this hangs.

RFE/RL: You mentioned Independence Square [and] the revolution. Lately much has been written about how disenchanted people are becoming by the new government's actions. Why is this happening? How do you explain this?

Tymoshenko: I think that the expectations are very, very high. This is correct; it must be this way. There are separate individuals who, regardless of everything, openly, cynically, pragmatically are destroying people's hopes while pursuing their totally corrupt interests. On the other hand, I believe that the president and I, as prime minister, will not lose the people's trust, because I can't reproach myself that I don't do my job as I ought to.

RFE/RL: You are thought of as one of the most influential women in the world; you are thought of as beautiful, both here in Ukraine and in the world. How do you feel about this and, by the way, when was the last time you cried?

Tymoshenko: A very long time ago. I can't cry. It's my character.

RFE/RL: When do you feel like the luckiest woman in the world?

Tymoshenko: I feel like the luckiest woman in the world when I am with my family. But lately this happens so rarely that I more often feel like a well-tuned machine that makes decisions and enforces them. I spend very little time on that which you call a personal life. I want to see results; I have few minutes to waste. I have a few hours to sleep, but no minutes to waste. We will be held to account very, very quickly. No [other] government has had so little time to come up with results and be accountable. In one year -- not in four or five, but in one -- we have to look our people in the eye and tell them what we've done. I want to look into those eyes honestly and answer honestly.