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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 10, 2004

10 February 2004, Volume 6, Number 5
POLAND'S MINORITY EYES FELLOW BELARUSIANS ACROSS 'CIVILIZATIONAL' FRONTIER. The following is an interview with Eugeniusz Wappa (Yauhen Vapa), 38, editor in chief of the Belarusian weekly "Niva" (Field) (see, which is published in Bialystok, northeastern Poland. Wappa, a historian by education, is a leading figure in the Belarusian ethnic community in Poland. During his university years, he co-edited the Belarusian-language student magazine "Sustrechy" (Encounters) and was the first chairman of the Belarusian Union of Students, which he and his university colleagues succeeded in registering in 1988 as the first independent ethnic Belarusian organization in communist-era Poland (the Belarusian Social and Cultural Association in Poland, founded during the post-Stalin "thaw" in 1956, was rigorously controlled by the Interior Ministry until the collapse of communism).

Since 1995, Wappa has been chairing the Belarusian Union, a roof organization for several other ethnic Belarusian organizations in Poland that were set up in the postcommunist period. In 1997, he became a member of the board and program director of the Civic Education Center Poland-Belarus -- a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that implements a lot of joint projects with NGOs, human rights groups, and opposition democratic forces in the Republic of Belarus. He was also a co-organizer and chairman of the board of the Belarusian-language Radio Racja, which broadcast in Poland's Bialystok region and into Belarus from Poland in 1999-2002. He took the job of "Niva" editor in chief on 1 January 2004.

RFE/RL: What are the primary goals pursued by "Niva"?

Eugeniusz Wappa: "Niva," which is identified as "The Weekly of Belarusians in Poland" in its masthead, has been appearing since 1956. We will turn 50 in two years. The weekly is well-known among ethnic Belarusians and academic circles that are interested in Belarusian affairs in many countries. The main task of the weekly remains the same as before -- to cover all aspects of life of the Belarusian minority in Poland. Today, however, when the sphere of influence of independent Belarusian newspapers in Belarus is constantly shrinking, we have begun to re-orient our editorial policy toward covering political and cultural events in the Republic of Belarus as well as writing about ethnic Belarusians in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia in a wider, Euro-Atlantic context.

RFE/RL: What is your opinion about the ethnic awareness of Poland's Belarusians? Are Polish Belarusians different from those in the Republic of Belarus?

Wappa: According to the last census in Poland in 2002, the Belarusian ethnicity was officially declared by some 50,000 people, including 47,000 in the Bialystok region neighboring on Belarus. According to sociologists, the real number of ethnic Belarusians in Poland is around 100,000. Belarusians are the third-largest ethnic minority in Poland, after Silesians and Germans. In contrast to multireligious Belarus, Belarusians in the Bialystok region are predominantly of the Orthodox creed; there is also a small number of Protestants, but almost no Catholics among them.

Even though the number of Polish Belarusians is not impressive, their ethnic awareness is strong enough to enable them to participate in local and parliamentary elections as a separate political force. I can say that for Polish Belarusians the struggle for democratic representation in Poland's political institutions has already become a must that is directly linked to their need to preserve their ethnic identity. The intellectual potential of Polish Belarusians is utilized in many educational, cultural, and literary events in the Bialystok region. Actually, Belarusians are the only ethnic group in Poland that has organized a more or less regular literary life, with a dozen local authors writing and publishing original works as well as translations into Belarusian. Some 4,000 children are taught Belarusian at schools in the Bialystok region.

Beginning from the late 1980s, we have made a point of involving citizens of the Republic of Belarus in our cultural activities, primarily in order to familiarize them with the mentality and opinions of those Belarusians who have been spared the "benefits" of living in the Soviet Union. Beyond question, we are somewhat different from our fellow Belarusians across the frontier. But we, as they, are also different from Poles living side by side with us in Bialystok. The Bialystok region, if one may use Samuel Huntington's expression, is a place where a "clash of civilizations" can be seen and analyzed on a daily basis.

RFE/RL: Are Polish Belarusians capable of encouraging the process of democratization in Belarus?

Wappa: The democratization of Belarus should be first and foremost a choice of its citizens. Therefore, I don't like the attitudes of those Belarusian politicians and journalists who repeatedly ponder Polish, Serbian, Slovak, or Georgian scenarios for Belarus. Belarus should finds its own scenario of democratization -- only proceeding from the realities of life in this country it is possible to lay a foundation of civic disobedience to the undemocratic state.

On the other hand, the activities of Polish Belarusians in the political and economic spheres as well as in NGOs are perceived by many citizens of the Republic of Belarus -- I mean those who are aware of such activities, of course -- in a very positive light. In the first place, it is the overall effort of Polish Belarusians to preserve their indigenous linguistic and cultural heritage that wins them respect and appreciation in the Republic of Belarus. We have observed hundreds of examples when visitors from Belarus to the Bialystok region changed their attitudes to the Belarusian language and culture as well as to the Belarusian independence in general after familiarizing themselves with what has been done by Polish Belarusians to build and consolidate their ethnic identity. Therefore, the answer to your question is decidedly "yes."

The Bialystok region seems to be an ideal place for sharing democratization experience with Belarusians in the Republic of Belarus, and Poland's Belarusian community appear to be a natural medium for such an exchange of ideas, primarily because of its spiritual kinship with Belarusians in the Republic of Belarus. The same can be said about our weekly. It may sound funny, but the fact is that for many people in the Republic of Belarus "Niva" is the only "Western" periodical that they can get hold of and read without difficulty, thus getting firsthand reports on how people behave and what they think while living in a Western political system and a Western military bloc.

RFE/RL: How is "Niva" perceived in Belarus?

Wappa: In Soviet Belarus "Niva" was treated as a voice from behind the Iron Curtain, even though this curtain was actually drawn some 800 kilometers to the west from the place where the weekly was published. However, the Polish political regime was not so rigorous regarding publishing policies as the Soviet one, and "Niva" in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s could write about some themes that were prohibited in the Soviet Belarusian press. I mean primarily some topics touching upon Belarusian history, as well as reports on the life of Belarusian diaspora in the West. Thus, in the communist-era "Niva" had something of an aura of a dissident publication among those Soviet Belarusian readers who were able (and allowed) to read it. Such an aura was lost by "Niva" in the 1990s, when it became possible for Belarusian independent periodicals to write virtually on all topics. But even today "Niva" is seen in Belarus as an important symbol of the fidelity of Belarusians to their mother tongue. And, after being published for almost half a century, it is one of the best-known Belarusian-language newspapers in general.

RFE/RL: Can "Niva" find readers in Belarus today? And if so, is it possible to organize its distribution there?

Wappa: The demand for such a Belarusian-language newspaper as "Niva" existed in Belarus in the past, and it exists today. Until the end of the 1980s, according to what I was told by former editors in chief of "Niva," there were up to 2,000 regular subscribers to our weekly in Belarus. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, subscription prices for foreign newspapers in Belarus have immensely increased, compared with those for domestic periodicals. Besides, "Niva" has been excluded from the subscription catalogue of Belsayuzdruk, the Belarusian national press's retail-sales network. Today, it is possible for people in Belarus to obtain "Niva" after subscribing to it in Warsaw, or directly from our editorial office in Bialystok. In the past two years the editors managed to get grants to finance sending several hundred copies of "Niva" to readers in Belarus. Presently we do not have such possibilities, while demand for "Niva" has notably grown. I estimate that if we could find money, we would be able to distribute from 2,000-4,000 copies of the weekly in Belarus. There is a large interest in obtaining "Niva" among raion, oblast, and city libraries in Belarus. The libraries of higher educational institutions in Belarus keep on asking us to send them "Niva" free of charge, because they do not have money for subscription. And NGO activists in Belarus are our potential avid readers as well. Intellectually, we are ready to satisfy this growing demand for Belarusian information from behind the "civilizational" border line, but we lack money to make it happen technically.

OUR UKRAINE SEEMS TO BE LOSING SWAY OVER CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM. The Verkhovna Rada voted on 3 February to excise the clause allowing the election of an "interim" president by direct election in 2004 and the subsequent parliamentary selection of a head of state in 2006 from a contentious bill on political reform that was preliminarily approved on 24 December (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 January 2004). The amendments to the bill were passed by 304 deputies, that is, by four votes more than are necessary for the final adoption of the constitutional reform in the second reading. This became possible due to the opposition Socialist Party, whose lawmakers threw their support behind the bill, arguing that it is now generally in accord with their own intent to transform the political system in Ukraine into a more democratic one. Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, by destroying microphones in the session hall and unleashing turmoil, unsuccessfully tried to prevent the Verkhovna Rada from voting.

The 3 February vote took place during a short, "extraordinary" parliamentary session preceding the opening of a regular session later the same day. The pro-presidential majority in the Verkhovna Rada apparently resorted to this stratagem in order to meet the constitutional requirement for passage of constitutional amendments in two regular plenary sessions, thus making it possible for them to become law before the presidential ballot that is expected in October 2004. If the bill is passed by the Verkhovna Rada in the second reading before 1 May, when the presidential election campaign is expected to begin, then a new president elected this coming fall will have significantly fewer prerogatives that Leonid Kuchma is enjoying now (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 23 December 2003). The center of power in Ukraine will be shifted from the presidency to the prime minister and parliament. Many in Ukraine as well as abroad see the constitutional reform in Ukraine as Kuchma's and his aides' ploy to strip Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, a leading presidential candidate, of real executive power in the event he is elected president.

The recent siding of the Socialist Party with the presidential majority in pursuing the constitutional reform does not necessarily mean that now the reform bill will be cleared by the Verkhovna Rada without difficulties. Another hurdle is the adoption of a law on fully proportional parliamentary election that is the sine qua non for support of both the Communist Party and the Socialist Party to the constitutional-reform bill in the second reading. Many lawmakers in the pro-presidential majority, who were elected under a first-past-the-post system, are reportedly not particularly happy with this idea, feeling that an all-proportional system would spell defeat for many of them in the next elections. The carrot for them is reportedly the idea currently mulling among pro-presidential forces to lower the threshold for winning parliamentary representation by a party to 1 percent from the current 4 percent. However, such a prospect will hardly satisfy the Communists and the Socialists, who are opting for a fully proportional, party-list system to prevent political small fry from winning parliamentary mandates and thus augment their own parliamentary gains. Some large parties in the pro-Kuchma majority may also be opposed to the lower-threshold idea.

Viktor Yushchenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko filed a complaint against parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn with a Kyiv district court on 5 February, charging that Lytvyn approved an illegitimate vote on a constitutional-reform bill in the Verkhovna Rada on 24 December. According to them, videotape of the 24 December session shows that the bill was supported by just 154 deputies, not the 276 deputies written in the official records. Surprisingly enough, the complaint was also signed by Oleksandr Moroz, whose Socialist Party supported the amendments to this very bill on 3 February. Moreover, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko filed another court complaint, charging that Lytvyn called an illegal extraordinary session on 3 February to vote on amendments to the constitutional-reform bill. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko appear to be seeking to gain time in the constitutional-reform game -- as long as the complaints are considered in court, they argue, the introduction of any constitutional amendments should be halted, according to the Civil Procedure Code. Related petitions regarding the 24 December and 3 February votes have also been filed by Tymoshenko and Yushchenko with the Ukrainian Constitutional Court.

As matters stand now, the court litigation by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko and the potential discord over the parliamentary-election system may now be the only impediments to the adoption of a constitutional reform that evidently does not suit Yushchenko's presidential ambitions. Critics of Yushchenko point out that he has already lost the opportunity when he could side with Moroz -- a staunch supporter of the shift to a parliamentary-presidential republic in Ukraine -- and take the initiative in shaping a constitutional reform with his own hands. Those critics argue that presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, whom many see as the main author of the reform, outwitted Yushchenko by striking a political deal with Moroz. Even if it not clear what immediate gains are expected by Moroz from his situational alliance with the pro-Kuchma camp, it is not difficult to predict that the current lack of political harmony between Yushchenko and Moroz bodes ill for their potential cooperation in the upcoming presidential election campaign. (Jan Maksymiuk)

UKRAINIAN FOREIGN POLICY: PRO-RUSSIAN, PRO-WESTERN OR SIMPLY PRO-KUCHMA? President Kuchma is fond of explaining Ukrainian foreign policy as being neither pro-Russian nor pro-Western, but simply pro-Ukrainian. In reality, the best way to understand Ukraine's confusing and constantly shifting foreign policy is by understanding it as pro-Kuchma.

If we understand the president and his oligarchic allies as being the equivalent of "Ukraine," then President Kuchma could be indeed understood to be following a "pro-Ukrainian" foreign policy. For this to be true though, two assumptions would have to hold.

Firstly, Kuchma and his allies would have to be broad-based ruling elites. In reality, the executive and centrist oligarchs only represent a portion of the elites (e.g., in parliament they control half of the deputies) who have, in the World Bank's terminology, "captured" the Ukrainian state and refuse to share power.

Secondly, to pursue a "pro-Ukrainian" foreign policy would require the elaboration of the country's national interests. As Ukrainian commentators and opposition politicians have pointed out, the executive and its oligarchic allies have been unable to formulate any clear national interests for Ukraine over 13 years of independence.

National interests would require that long-term goals (i.e., EU membership) be backed up by domestic policies. Yet, Ukraine has a radical mismatch between its declared foreign-policy goals and its domestic policies, the former -- advertised as "re-joining Europe" -- are regularly undermined by the latter.

Ukraine has not achieved strategic foreign-policy goals it outlined in the 1990s, such as becoming an associate member of the EU or joining the World Trade Organization (which, according to high-placed International Monetary Fund sources, will not take place this year). If anything, Ukraine is further away from achieving these goals in 2004 than it was in the 1990s. Witness the highly critical Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe (PACE) resolution on 29 January that threatened Ukraine with suspension of its membership in the Council of Europe. PACE's resolution was backed by an EU declaration jointly signed with European Free Trade Association and accession countries, which were, in turn, backed by statements from U.S. officials.

These confusing and contradictory signals have led to two repercussions in the West. Firstly, Kuchma's international (i.e. Western) image is so low that it will be impossible to change it before he leaves office. Western government leaders and international organizations no longer believe statements by Kuchma and his allies. An outcome of this is that Ukraine is not treated as a serious country, a factor long pointed out by Ukrainian commentators and opposition politicians.

Secondly, this lack of trust in Kuchma and his allies is reflected in "Ukraine fatigue" in the West. The West perceives Kuchma and his allies as possessing a neo-Soviet political culture. This confirms the already deeply held stereotypes in the EU and elsewhere that Ukraine is culturally not a "European" country (the fact that it is geographically inside Europe, as Ukrainians continually point out, is irrelevant).

The political crisis in Ukraine over proposed constitutional changes is a case in point. Kuchma, presidential administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, and their parliamentary allies have repeatedly claimed that "reforms" are necessary to bring Ukraine into line with "European" standards. This shows the degree to which their neo-Soviet political culture speaks a different language to that of the West.

Western governments and international organizations know the real reason why "reforms" are being undertaken in the presidential election year as being to prevent a Viktor Yushchenko victory or to ensure that if he is elected he inherits few powers. Kuchma's "reforms" therefore reinforce the Western view that Ukraine is not "European," as its elites are again pursuing a policy of deception, are afraid of free and fair elections, and the opposition are denied an authentic role in the "reform" process. Meanwhile, Western criticism is denounced by Kyiv with Soviet-style language as "interference in internal affairs."

This deception shows the degree to which Ukraine's foreign policy is closely tied to Kuchma's personal fate. Kuchma's fear of being out of power, coupled with a Soviet-style reluctance to admit responsibility for one's actions while in power, has led him to initiate "reforms." These have led to Ukraine's crisis with PACE and the West.

The majority of the pro-presidential elite are disinterested in Western integration, and Ukraine's "European choice" is therefore narrowly confined to the center-right and some centrists. Maintaining Russia and the West at a distance, even if this means on occasion isolation, is the price to pay for Kuchma's and his allies' staying in power. Membership in NATO, the EU, or the CIS Single Economic Space are less important than their continued "capture" of the Ukrainian state.

The Davos World Economic Summit in January was not attended by a Ukrainian delegation, the first occasion this has happened. Another example of recent isolationist trends are roundtables organized in Warsaw to facilitate dialogue between the Ukrainian opposition and authorities.

The first roundtable, organized in November 2002 by the Polish Know-How Foundation with backing from the Polish president, was attended by the Ukrainian opposition and presidential camp, including Medvedchuk. In November 2003 only the Ukrainian opposition turned up at the second roundtable in Warsaw, as Polish sources reported that Medvedchuk had blocked the attendance of representatives from the pro-presidential camp. This again gave an impression of disinterest in dialogue with the opposition.

At the same time, this willingness to accept some degree of isolation if that means staying in power is pragmatic, thereby differentiating it from Belarus's ideologically driven isolation. Ukraine, for example, took into account some of PACE's criticism, hoping thereby to avoid suspension from the Council of Europe and the country's full isolation. Full isolation would inevitably drive Ukraine (like Belarus) into a dependent relationship with Russia, a step Kuchma and his allies would oppose.

Ukraine�s "multivector" foreign policy is geared toward fulfilling Kuchma's and his allies' short-term objectives, not because it is responsive to domestic factors. These short-term horizons are an outgrowth of Ukraine's foreign policy being pro-Kuchma, not pro anything else.

This report was written by Dr. Taras Kuzio, a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, and adjunct professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.

"It is very unpleasant that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's one-sided support has actually incited a part of the opposition to irreconcilability, hastily adding fuel to the flame. I want to emphasize: The constitutional reform in Ukraine objectively has no alternative. It will be brought to its logical conclusion without fail." -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, addressing foreign diplomats in Kyiv on 6 February; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"To vote in a nationwide ballot for such a 'president' [as proposed in the constitutional-reform bill preliminarily approved in 24 December and amended on 3 February] actually does not make any sense -- he will not be able to resolve any single problem of state importance and will not carry any responsibility for the situation in the country.... All power in Ukraine will actually be vested in the post of prime minister, which will again be assumed -- following the election of a subservient Verkhovna Rada -- by Leonid Kuchma." -- A statement by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc on 3 February; quoted by "Vechernie vesti" on 8 February.

"I am convinced that we did the right thing. We did answer the question whether the president will be elected by citizens or whether they will be deprived of this right. We did preserve this right.... Therefore, it is necessary to leave all emotions aside and get ready for considering the constitutional changes in the second reading." -- Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, explaining why the Socialists supported the constitutional-reform bill on 3 February; quoted by "Postup" on 4 February.