Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 10, 2005

10 November 2005, Volume 7, Number 38
NEW POLISH PRESIDENT TALKS TOUGH ON RUSSIA, BELARUS. Pro-American. Anti-Russian. Germany-skeptical. Lech Kaczynski, the conservative Warsaw mayor who stormed to victory in a presidential runoff in Poland on 23 October, seems to fit all three descriptions. Analysts say Poland could be poised to send a policy jolt through both the European Union and Russia by intensifying its support for democracy among its eastern neighbors and its criticism of the emerging energy partnership between Moscow and Berlin. But campaign promises are one thing, and government policies are another.

The day before his election, Kaczynski appeared to give a clear glimpse of his foreign policy priorities for Poland, the biggest and most influential of the EU's new members.

Speaking in Warsaw, Kaczynski listed the first state visits he wants to make as president.

"Every visit requires agreement of both sides. But I would like to visit Washington D.C. first," Kaczynski said. "I hope I will be able to pay a visit to the Vatican. This, of course, is important because Poland is predominantly a Roman Catholic nation. Then Brussels -- our European partners. And Kyiv."

Washington. The Vatican. Brussels. Kyiv. Four very different destinations, they provide a hint of where nationalist Kaczynski seems to want to take Poland.

And he could have unique power to do so. His twin brother Jaroslaw leads the socially conservative Law and Justice party that is set to form a new government. But talks with possible coalition partners have been rocky, and the outcome could undermine Kaczynski's vows to push through bold changes.

Catholic Poland, lodged between Germany and Russia, has long been pro-American for security and other reasons. Under former President Aleksander Kwasniewski, that stance translated into support for the U.S. war in Iraq and strong backing for democracy groups in Belarus and Ukraine.

But if Kaczynski's campaign promises are any indication, Poland's positions on these issues look set to be bolstered, according to Eugeniusz Smolar, president of Warsaw's Center for International Relations think tank.

"They will be strengthened -- I have no doubt about it," Smolar said. "And this government [will have] no inhibitions to raise its voice at the table."

Poland is particularly concerned about energy. In September, without consultation with Warsaw, Russia and Germany agreed to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that will cut off Poland from transit fees. Warsaw also fears being left at the mercy of Moscow with regard to energy.

Analyst Smolar told RFE/RL that Poles are still smarting over the pipeline deal, which came amid what some portray as an emerging German-Russian partnership. He said he is certain the new government will be taking up the issue with Berlin.

"I have no doubt that this will be the case," Smolar said. "I have no doubt that this new government will do absolutely everything possible in order to make the government in Berlin [know] that something which they did one-sidedly is in contravention to the practice of the European Union. It was not consulted. It did hit not only Polish economic interests, but also the feeling of security."

Baltic countries have also expressed concern over the pipeline, which was agreed under outgoing German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Speaking in Vilnius today, future German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she understands Lithuania's concerns over the pipeline and that Russia "could try to use this project as an instrument of political pressure."

Smolar said the Polish government is likely to take the issue to the EU, since energy is a security issue that affects the entire 25-country bloc.

"We should debate it together as partners in the European Union," Smolar said. "This is the feeling, that what happened does not help in the process of the unification of Europe. And I'm sure that this government will be very outspoken in its relations not only with Germany, but also with other countries, and also for example with Scandinavia, countries like Sweden, Finland, Norway, Baltic countries, [who] are as worried about the ecological aspects about this project as Poles are."

Meanwhile, activists said they expect Kaczynksi to live up to his promises to increase Poland's support of democracy in Belarus, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

Pawel Kazanecki is an activist on Belarus with the Eastern European Democracy Center, a Warsaw-based nongovernmental organization.

"That was declared by several politicians from both winning parties, that they believe this kind of program to be very important, and that money that was given to these programs should be at least doubled," Kazanecki said.

But since his election victory, Kaczynksi has toned down his campaign rhetoric toward both Germany and Russia.

He had criticized some Germans for seeking compensation for property lost in what is now Poland after World War II. But in an interview today in Germany's "Bild" daily, the new president stressed he was "partner and friend of the Germans."

As Kaczynski has also softened his tone toward Moscow, Kazanecki said there is some concern the president might renege on increasing support for democracy abroad.

"We should also understand and remember that at least in the context of Belarus and Ukraine, Poland has a big problem with the relationship with Russia," Kazanecki said. "And in this geopolitical situation, the newly elected president has just declared that the main issue for Poland is to make a better relationship with Russia. So in the context in politics toward Belarus and Ukraine, it's difficult to say now what it means."

It is also, for now, difficult to say just what Poland's new government will look like. (Jeffrey Donovan)

EU THREATENS SANCTIONS, URGES FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS. The European Union is threatening fresh sanctions against Minsk as it steps up pressure for democratic reforms ahead of Belarus's presidential election in 2006. EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday did not specify the measures they might take against the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, but some EU officials say they could include visa bans and asset freezes.

The EU appears to be getting serious about Belarus.

After an unprecedented, hour-long debate among the EU's 25 foreign ministers, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw delivered a tough, unanimous EU message to Lukashenka.

"[There was] profound concern at the democratic state -- or at the flaws to the democratic state in Belarus, and in particular, we want to see free and fair presidential elections," Straw said. "And in the event of failure to uphold international standards, the draft conclusions make it clear that measures such as asset freezes or visa bans could be taken against those responsible."

However, the formal EU declaration adopted later omitted any indication of the types of sanction the EU would apply. References to visa bans and asset freezes had been present in drafts initially examined by the meeting and seen by RFE/RL.

Their omission suggests that Poland was unable to achieve all it had sought.

Poland has been at the forefront of new EU states that have argued vociferously for a harder line from Brussels toward to the regime in Minsk. But the European Commission, among others, has argued that the Lukashenka government must not be pushed too hard before it is given the chance to respond to EU calls.

The EU in general wants to see greater openness to democracy in Belarus. But the measures threatened yesterday specifically target the conduct of the 2006 presidential election, whose exact date has yet to be released.

Lukashenka is set to run for a third term in office. Voters in Belarus passed a referendum in 2004 to change the constitution to allow him to seek reelection. The EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States condemned the plebiscite as not meeting democratic standards.

The EU wants next year's election to be fair and free and open for all eligible candidates. Yesterday's EU declaration also called for the election to be monitored by international observers, preferably under the aegis of the OSCE.

The EU is already refusing entry to six senior Belarusian officials. Four of them stand accused of involvement in the disappearances of opposition politicians in 2000, while the EU has penalized the other two for their roles in a violent crackdown on protests in 2004.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said yesterday that any further visa bans would not extend to top politicians such as Lukashenka, as the EU wants to keep open some channels for political dialogue.

EU officials are keen to emphasize that any new sanctions will only target officials and not the Belarusian people at large.

The EU's assessment of the conditions in Belarus is sufficiently bleak to have provoked some measures already. Ferrero-Waldner said after yesterday's meeting that the European Commission has begun reorienting its aid to Belarus.

"We have [the] greatest concerns on Belarus and on the pressure that is there on the democratic forces, on the civil society and also on the independent media," Ferrero-Waldner said. "For that reason, we in the [European] Commission have said we would like to focus our aid specifically to civil society and to media. And this is what we have started to do."

The type of EU money for which Belarus is eligible -- known as TACIS funds -- requires the prior approval of the recipient country's government before it can be spent. The EU is now re- channeling increasing amounts of aid to minimize the need to consult the Minsk regime on how it is spent.

The commission is also pushing for a large-scale reassessment of how the EU spends future aid in its immediate neighborhood.

The 2007-13 budget, yet to be adopted, is expected to make provisions for a new European Neighborhood Policy Instrument. This new fund would have a freer hand in directly financing nongovernmental and civil society institutions in countries such as Belarus. (Ahto Lobjakas)

KYIV, MOSCOW VIE FOR WTO ENTRY. Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on 1 November, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov reiterated Kyiv's official hope that Ukraine will become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the end of this year. Ukraine's potential access to the WTO could be approved by the Sixth WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong on 13-18 December. However, it does not seem very likely that prior to this forum Kyiv will manage to receive endorsement for its bid from all interested WTO members.

One of these interested members is the United States, which has so far not signed a protocol with Ukraine on mutual access to commodity and service markets in both countries. The signing of the protocol is tantamount to Washington's approval of Ukraine's WTO entry. Ukraine has already signed similar bilateral protocols with 38 countries represented in the WTO Working Party that deals with its membership application. Australia is another important country that has so far been reluctant to sign such a document with Ukraine.

Both bilateral and multilateral negotiations regarding WTO accession are confidential and all documents involved in the negotiation process are restricted until its completion. What prevents Washington from giving a go-ahead to Ukraine's WTO membership can be inferred from what Yekhanurov said in Washington. In general, Yekhanurov said that Ukraine "has considerably advanced" in WTO talks with the United States. But he signaled some substantial problems as well.

First, Yekhanurov admitted on 1 November that Ukraine has not yet brought all of its customs duties in line with WTO standards and requirements. According to him, this task has been fulfilled up to 80 percent by now. Speaking the same day in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko estimated that Ukraine's legislation is just 65 percent in line with WTO requirements.

The same day, in an apparent effort to strengthen Yekhanurov's position during the Washington talks, the Verkhovna Rada passed two bills required for WTO entry pertaining to imports and protection of domestic producers. However, the process of adjusting Ukraine's legislation to WTO standards is not easy, and it is not clear when it is likely to be completed. In July, Communist Party deputies blared sirens and provoked scuffles in the Verkhovna Rada in order to prevent the adoption of a package of WTO-oriented bills. The Communist Party and other Ukrainian leftist groups see Ukraine's WTO membership as a catastrophe for the Ukrainian economy, which in their opinion cannot compete with more developed production capacities in the West.

Second, Yekhanurov said in Washington that Ukraine hopes "to find mutual understanding" with the United States on Ukraine's tariffs on exports of scrap steel and ban on exports of nonferrous metals. Earlier this year U.S. steel manufacturers called for trade sanctions against Ukraine (as well as Russia) in response to the barrier taxes and tariffs imposed by these two countries on export of scraps. According to U.S. steel mills, these moves by Ukraine and Russia, which reportedly resulted in doubling the composite-steel price in 2003-2004, were trade-distorting practices. Scrap metal is the raw material for nearly two-thirds of the U.S. steel industry. It seems that Washington has made its backing for Ukraine's WTO bid.

Yekhanurov made a very grim prediction as to what would happen if Ukraine failed to join the WTO ahead of Russia, which is slated to do so in 2006. "If Russia joins [the WTO] earlier than we do, it will be practically impossible for Ukraine to become a WTO member," Yekhanurov told journalists in Washington on 2 November. He did not elaborate. But it is telling that Russian media have already signaled similar apprehensions from the Russian side. Russian political commentators and analysts fear that if Kyiv joins the WTO ahead of Moscow, Ukraine will surely enter bilateral negotiations with Russia on the latter's WTO-accession conditions and will try to make these conditions very hard for the Russians.

There are both economic and political reasons for expecting a potential Russian-Ukrainian dispute over WTO membership. Russia and Ukraine currently have serious disagreements over trade -- Kyiv, for example, is very displeased with Russian restrictions imposed on Ukrainian exports of steel pipes and sugar. Therefore, Moscow fears that Kyiv could make these restrictions a bargaining chip in bilateral WTO talks. Moreover, Moscow is concerned that Kyiv's accession to the WTO this year could complicate bilateral trade regarding those commodities on which both countries do not impose any customs duties. Some politicians in Moscow have suggested that Ukraine could start reexporting some of the Western commodities that are taxed by Russia in its trade with the West but not with Ukraine.

On the other hand, Kyiv is apparently afraid that if Russia joins the WTO first, the Kremlin will try to tie Ukraine more closely to Russia not only economically but also politically. Russia has not abandoned its plan for creating a Single Economic Space along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Ukraine has subscribed to the idea of establishing a free economic zone within such a space, but spoken resolutely against forming a customs union of the four countries or supranational executive bodies. It is possible that Russia could use its WTO membership as leverage to make Ukraine more compliant in accepting the Single Economic Space as a more rigid political and economic formation. (Jan Maksymiuk)