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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 25, 2003

25 February 2003, Volume 5, Number 7
BELARUSIAN, GERMAN MINORITIES IN POLAND'S POLITICAL LIFE IN 1989-99. A book review by Aleksander Maksymiuk of Alastair Rabagliati's "A Minority Vote. Participation of the German and Belarusian Minorities Within the Polish Political System 1989-1999," Zaklad Wydawniczy Nomos, Krakow 2001, 408 pp.

The Belarusian minority in Poland has produced a variety of publications on its political activities in the period covered in Alastair Rabagliati's book. These publications include even students' textbooks. Unfortunately, all of them are in Belarusian or Polish, so any Western scholar interested in the life of Polish Belarusians would be put to the difficult task of mastering the two languages if he or she wanted to get some insight into the subject of his or her interest. Therefore, the appearance of Rabagliati's insightful and comprehensive study of the political life of Polish Belarusians and of Polish Germans can only be welcomed by Western scholars and the two concerned minorities alike. The book casts a fascinating light on the two little-known minority communities that some 14 months from now will join the larger European Union community of nations and nationalities.

The book consists eight chapters. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 discuss the concepts of national minorities and the political system in Poland, as well as the situation for national minorities in prewar Poland. Chapter 3 deals with the situation in the German and Belarusian national minorities in the communist-era Polish People's Republic. In prewar Poland, national minorities constituted one-third of the country's population, while on the eve of the collapse of communism in 1989, they amounted to only an estimated 3 percent of Polish citizens.

The next two chapters of the book view the emergence and development of the German and Belarusian minorities' political movements from 1989 to 1997. In this period, Poland saw four parliamentary elections (1989, 1991, 1993, 1997) and two local elections (1990, 1994).

Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 are devoted to a detailed study of the 1998 local elections in the regions inhabited by both minorities. Rabagliati spent three years (1997-2000) in Poland, mostly in the Opole region of Silesia (the southwestern part of Poland, inhabited by the German minority) and the Bialystok region (the northeastern part of the country, where Belarusians live). In those regions, he met, and spoke with, a large number of national-minority activists, scholars, newspaper journalists (including the author of this review), minority schoolteachers, and politicians.

Chapter 8 summarizes the study by reviewing the reasons for the successes and failures of the two minorities and considering their future as political forces in the Polish political system.

The political movements of the German and Belarusian minorities on the Polish political stage in 1989-99, as Rabagliati shows, developed in different ways. The Germans managed to build strong subregional political structures based on a platform involving the remnants of pro-Germany sentiments and German identity, language, and culture. The general discontent with the Polish state and system among the minority, as well as the social and cultural ties of the community, assisted their political success. Polish Germans won seven seats in the Sejm in the 1991 parliamentary election and four seats in the 1993 elections. The decreasing support for German-minority candidates, Rabagliati observes, was primarily caused by the feeling that voters' interests could be better served by voting for a Polish party, which could represent their interests and be in better position to solve their economic problems.

As regards the Belarusian political movement, Rabagliati argues that, although it initially seemed to possess significant potential for political success, it has effectively failed to build strong social support following its emergence in 1989. In addition, the movement was almost immediately plagued by internecine wars. As early as in the 1991 parliamentary elections, there were already three separate forces vying for the same minority votes: the Belarusian Democratic Union based on a "nationalist" platform, the Polish postcommunists, and a third force based on a broad "Orthodox" platform that tended to promote a religious rather than ethnic identity in the Belarusian minority.

Rabagliati's book is profusely supplied with relevant numerical data (national censuses, election results) and photographs (minority activists, election posters). Moreover, apart from presenting political developments in the two minorities, it also offers a much broader picture of their civic efforts. Rabagliati's study should become standard reading not only for readers interested exclusively in ethnic-minority problems but also for those who want to grasp the full meaning of postcommunist transformation in Eastern and Central Europe. Rabagliati's study makes a powerful point by asserting that the picture of postcommunist transition would be substantially incomplete without taking into account the political activity of ethnic groups in postcommunist countries.

This review was written by Aleksander Maksymiuk, senior editor of the Belarusian-language weekly "Niva" in Bialystok, Poland.

YET ANOTHER ELECTION WITHOUT MUCH CHOICE. On 2 March, Belarusians will go to the polls to elect 24,012 councilors for oblast, city, raion, and rural councils. There have been virtually no reports on this upcoming event in the Western press that occasionally covers Belarus. Quite understandably, the local elections in Belarus do not attract as much international attention as presidential or parliamentary ones, since, in this country with an authoritarian president in power and a legislature totally subservient to the executive, the role of local authorities in making essential decisions is quite insignificant, if not entirely symbolic. On the other hand, however, local election campaigns in postcommunist countries are usually very sensitive indicators of how their citizens have progressed on the road toward democracy and to what extent they are able and/or willing to take part in new political opportunities opened to them after the collapse of totalitarianism. Judging by the current local election campaign in Belarus, democracy seems to have almost completely failed to take root in this country.

To begin with, the Central Election Commission (TsVK) reported on 5 February that local commissions registered 25,805 candidates of the 26,567 people who sought registration. This figure means that in some 93 percent of constituencies the election will be held without an alternative, i.e., there will be only one candidate to vote for. Furthermore, according to the independent weekly "Nasha Niva," the democratic opposition managed to field candidates only in 3 percent of constituencies.

TsVK Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna told a news conference on 5 February that local commissions rejected 762 applications for registration, which is "only" 2.87 percent of all people who sought registration. But on the other hand, this figure is equal to some 42 percent of all "alternative candidates" in constituencies that offer voters a choice. It also seems that it was not accidental that the percentages of people denied registration were the largest in Minsk (46 percent of those seeking registration) and oblast centers (26 percent) where opposition parties were most active. Indeed, many democratic-opposition parties complained that, on average, one-third of their activists seeking registration were rejected by the local election commission for far-fetched reasons. In particular, Belarusian Popular Front Deputy Chairman Yury Khadyka was denied registration for failing to mention 24,000 rubles ($12) in his income declaration.

Despite the seemingly unfair attitude of local election commissions to the opposition, it should also be stressed that, judging by the opposition's effort to mobilize activists for this year's local election, its current political potential is quite insignificant. Thus, the Liberal Democratic Party managed to propose 329 candidates (184 registered); the Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), 103 (69 registered); the United Civic Party, 130 (54 registered); and the Belarusian National Front Party, 76 (50 registered). These figures graphically testify to the fact that the opposition has almost completely failed to build its structures in raion cities and towns, let alone in rural areas.

Given that local election commissions reportedly do not include members of opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations, it is easy to forecast -- while knowing the experience of former election campaigns organized in Belarus under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- that even those few opposition candidates who are on the ballot will find it very hard to compete with government-favored rivals. The Confederation for Social Change, which unites the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), the Party of Labor, and the Women's Party, has already signaled that the current local election campaign is undemocratic. "The heads of many local election commissions have been set a clear task of ensuring the election of so-called core candidates, i.e., government-favored candidates, by all means available," the four parties said in a statement. They also pointed to some peculiarities in the Election Code that they say create "all the necessary conditions" for a rigged election. In particular, the code does not provide for the right of election monitors to observe the vote-counting process at polling stations or to receive certified copies of precinct commissions' official count reports. The code also provides for five-day early voting, which critics say leaves room for easy fraud.

There is every reason to fear that the 2 March local election in Belarus will be yet another exercise in simulated democracy. However, what is most striking in this situation is not the almost perfect state mechanism for "producing desirable election results" but the fact that Belarusian society appears to treat elections without choice as a norm. In theory, Belarusians could protest such simulated-democracy exercises by refusing to go to the polls. According to the Election Code, no less than 50 percent of eligible voters should take part in voting in the first round in order to make the election valid. But since it is the government that actually counts votes, even such a protest action may be easily concealed by the authorities. (Jan Maksymiuk)

YUSHCHENKO SLAMS 'TOP-ECHELON CRIMINALS' FOR ATTEMPT AT DISCREDITING HIM. Our Ukraine head Viktor Yushchenko on 21 February charged that "criminals in politics who are in the top echelons of power" are responsible for preparing and disseminating a false message to voters that attacks fellow opposition politician Yuliya Tymoshenko, UNIAN reported on 22 February.

According to Ukrainian media, unidentified persons and/or institutions disseminated on 14 February in western Ukraine (and in some other regions of the country in subsequent days) a bogus letter bearing the logo of Our Ukraine and a portrait of Yushchenko that touches upon Yushchenko's opinion of, and relations with, Yuliya Tymoshenko, the leader of the eponymous opposition bloc. The purported letter begins with Yushchenko's assertion that he once was of a high opinion of Tymoshenko and ends with an unambiguous suggestion that her place now is in prison.

"I have always respected Yuliya Volodymyrovna [Tymoshenko] as an experienced specialist in her branch [the fuel and energy sectors]. I have never refuted the undeniable fact that all the real successes of my government should be fully and completely accredited to Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website quoted from the letter.

Then the letter continues as follows: "It is quite obvious that for me, the recognized symbol and hope of the nation, it would be simply indecent to dig personally into the dirty 'sorting out' between our homespun oligarchs. Besides, it also wouldn't quite be safe. As for Tymoshenko, she was eager to launch a fight. After all the dirty work was done, Ms. Tymoshenko fully exhausted her usefulness [in the government].... What is more, she became a serious problem."

According to the letter, during her last month in Yushchenko's cabinet, Tymoshenko was more concerned with creating her political image than pursuing "modest and quiet management work."

"Everyone to whom our Ukraine is truly dear...will have to admit that for our struggle Yuliya Tymoshenko was far more useful when she was incarcerated in the Lukyanivskiy isolation prison [in Kyiv]," the letter states.

The bogus letter also suggests that Tymoshenko is now a "Trojan horse" among Ukraine's national-democratic forces, adding that her real aim is to prevent Yushchenko from becoming president.

"This is ignoble and primitive," Yushchenko said on 21 February, adding that the message was concocted to sow discord among the leaders of democratic forces. "Our relations have never been, are not, and will never be base. We are political partners," Yushchenko said in reference to Tymoshenko.

Reportedly, 2 million copies of the letter were disseminated primarily by the state postal service, Ukrposhta, following an order from the "Ukrainian Television Agency," a bogus body apparently devised for this action.

On 20 February, the Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution urging the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Security Service, and the Interior Ministry to investigate who was behind the dissemination of this false letter. The next day, unidentified people placed in a number of public places in Lviv posters depicting President Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko in a scene known from Rembrandt's famous painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son." The inscription under the scene reads: "Bless me, father! Yushchenko asks Kuchma for permission to launch an antipresidential revolution."

"The distribution of the posters is a subsequent attempt at discrediting Viktor Yushchenko," UNIAN quoted lawmaker Petro Oliynyk as saying. "Pro-government forces are proving by their actions that they have already begun a presidential race." (Jan Maksymiuk)

UKRAINE BEGINS TO DEAL SERIOUSLY WITH SOVIET PAST. On 12-13 February, Ukraine held for the first time parliamentary hearings on the question of the famine of 1932-33 that led to the deaths of between 3 million and 7 million people. The hearings were held in accordance with a resolution passed by the Verkhovna Rada on 28 November 2002.

President Kuchma first suggested at the annual convention of the Federation of Trade Unions on 21 October 1997 that the annual anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 7 November, be transformed into a day of understanding and reconciliation. Such a step, he suggested, should be undertaken by the Verkhovna Rada. The legislature, then headed by Oleksandr Moroz, with the largest faction being Communist, turned down the draft law establishing 28 November as an annual day of understanding and reconciliation.

Left-wing factions were removed from control of parliament only in early 2000 when the center and national democrats united for the first and only time. At this time, communist symbols on the Verkhovna Rada were finally removed, though a statue of Vladimir Lenin still stands in Kyiv -- one of 500 still standing primarily outside Western Ukraine.

Ukraine has long held an ambivalent attitude toward its Soviet past. Until now, only a small monument to the famine has existed in Kyiv next to the rebuilt Mykhaylyvskyy Sobor. A presidential decree dated 28 November 2002 supported the call by the Ukrainian diaspora to build a far bigger monument to the famine in central Kyiv on the 70th anniversary of the famine this year. The new monument will be part of a Famine Memorial Complex housing a museum and research center.

Ukraine's ambivalent attitude toward the Soviet past rests upon its three-way division of political forces in Ukraine. National democrats have long held negative views of the Soviet past and what they call its crimes against humanity, such as the famine and Stalinist terror. National democrats, whose primary base is in western-central Ukraine, hold analogous views to their counterparts in the Baltic states that Soviet rule was an occupation by foreign, i.e., Russian, forces. According to the national democrats, Russia, as the successor state to the Soviet Union, is therefore guilty of Soviet crimes. During Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Ukraine in January to attend the CIS summit and to begin the Year of Russia in Ukraine, he and Russian Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin were asked by journalists if Russia would pay compensation to the famine victims along the lines undertaken by Germany after World War II. They refused to consider the matter.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Communist Party (KPU) acknowledged only as late as 1990 that a famine had even taken place. At that time, Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) parliamentary faction leader and former President Leonid Kravchuk was in charge of communist ideology and propaganda. Many of today's "political scientists," such as Deputy Prime Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, lectured on Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet era and wrote articles condemning the diaspora for raising events such as the 1932-33 famine.

The KPU was banned in August 1991 and then a new KPU was allowed to register in October 1993. During the Verkhovna Rada hearings on the famine, KPU leader Petro Symonenko denied that the famine was artificial and blamed it on disastrous weather conditions, low harvests in 1931-32, the pre-Soviet agricultural heritage, and local mismanagement.

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz argued that Soviet Ukraine reunited Ukrainian territories and, in contrast to the tsarist regime, it at least recognized Ukrainians as a separate ethnic group. The Socialists blame Stalinism for crimes committed in Ukraine, not Soviet rule as such. Such a view is similar to that espoused by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

What has held up Ukraine's investigation of Soviet crimes against humanity the most has been the centrist camp, which hails from the top levels of the pre-1991 KPU. In 1990-1991, the KPU began to split into "sovereign-national communists" and "imperial communists." In the 1990s, sovereign-national communists evolved into centrist oligarchs who first appeared as political parties in the 1998 elections.

The attitude of centrists is the most confusing, as they, unlike national democrats, refuse to condemn the Soviet regime as a whole, perhaps understandably, as they are themselves a product of that very same regime. Since Kuchma faced Symonenko in the 1999 presidential elections and used the "Red Scare" to encourage Ukrainians to vote for him to thwart a Communist comeback, centrists have been comfortable attacking Soviet crimes against humanity. In this, they hold similar views as the national democrats that the famine was a "genocide" on a par with the Nazi Holocaust. During the Verkhovna Rada hearings, centrist and former parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch blamed the "cruel and godless Bolshevik regime" for the famine.

At the same time, the center disagrees with the national democrats over whom to blame for Soviet crimes. Centrists blame Marxist-Leninist ideology and Stalinism for crimes, including the famine, not Russians. Both centrists and national democrats see the famine as directed against Ukrainians.

The timing of the Verkhovna Rada hearings remains suspicious. On the one hand, Kuchma undoubtedly wanted to deal with the issue early in the year, as it may cause difficulties with the Year of Russia in Ukraine. National democrats have already complained that the Year of Russia in Ukraine should not be held in the same year as the 70th anniversary of the famine.

The hearings also took place a month before planned opposition protests. In his November decree, Kuchma sought to inflame the already difficult relations between Our Ukraine and the KPU by putting them to yet another test. Our Ukraine has refused to join any joint opposition platform with the KPU and has only agreed to cooperate with the Socialists and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc.

A final factor is next year's presidential elections. With stable popularity ratings over the last three years of 25-30 percent, Yushchenko will inevitably advance to a second round. If he faces Symonenko, Ukraine would have a rerun of the 1999 elections, but this time pro-Kuchma centrists would be forced to rally behind national democrat Yushchenko. If Yushchenko faces a pro-Kuchma centrist, the KPU will back the centrist oligarch and thereby repeat their tactics in April 2001 when they voted with the centrists to remove the Yushchenko government.

This report was written by Dr. Taras Kuzio, resident fellow, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.

"I'm very glad that all parties have decided to take part in the local election [on 2 March]. Everything has become clear thanks to this move, not only to me but also to Europeans. It would have been better for those parties to keep silent and stay away [from the election] -- I mean the political forces that formerly boycotted elections [in Belarus]. Now they were able to field only a laughable number of candidates.... And these parties some time ago called themselves fundamental [in the opposition]." -- Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party leader Syarhey Haydukevich in an interview in the 24 February issue of "Belorusskaya gazeta."