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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 20, 2003

20 May 2003, Volume 5, Number 19
POPE GIVES POLES PRO-EUROPE SIGNAL AHEAD OF EU VOTE. Some 20,000 Poles gathered on St. Peter's Square in Rome on 19 May to celebrate Pope John Paul II's 83rd birthday and the 25th anniversary of his papacy. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his wife, Jolanta Kwasniewska, were in attendance.

"Europe needs Poland [and] Poland needs Europe," the pontiff told the crowd in a clear reference to the upcoming EU referendum in Poland, scheduled for 7-8 June. "I have to emphasize that Poland always was an important part of Europe, and today it cannot stay outside this community, which, to tell the truth, suffers from various crises but [also] constitutes a single family based on the common Christian tradition. Entering the European Union on a par with other states is, for our nation and for fraternal Slavic nations, a mark of some historical justice and, on the other hand, may enrich Europe."

There was a large group of activists from the staunchly anti-EU League of Polish Families among the crowd on St. Peter's Square, Polish Radio reported. They initially unfurled anti-EU banners but quickly took them down after the pope's remarks.

"We really cannot expect anything more from the Holy Father. This statement...was clear enough," President Kwasniewski commented. "We have in Poland no bigger, more unquestionable, or more experienced person of authority. If his words can't convince [those doubting that Poland's place is in Europe], what then can convince [them]?"

A poll conducted by the CBOS polling agency on 9-12 May on a representative sample of 1,264 Poles above 15 years of age was auspicious for Premier Leszek Miller's government. The survey found that 74 percent of respondents support Poland's EU membership and only 15 percent oppose it. As regards adult respondents, 79 percent said they intend to take part in the referendum, including 64 percent who said they are sure they will vote.

However, an alarm bell rang for Poland's EU supporters after last week's EU referendum in Slovakia, where turnout (52.15 percent) barely cleared the validity threshold of 50 percent. Many fear that actual turnout on 7-8 June may be significantly lower that that predicted by optimistic surveys. If turnout falls short of 50 percent, the fate of Poland's EU membership will be in the hands of the parliament, which, according to an amended electoral law, may approve the country's EU entry by a two-thirds majority (providing that a majority of voters taking part in the referendum were in favor of EU membership). Such an endorsement is possible in practice but might require much political horse-trading with opposition parties on the part of the country's left-wing minority government.

However, to make the situation more thrilling, a group of lawmakers opposing the country's EU entry has petitioned the Constitutional Tribunal to rule on whether the election law's provision allowing the parliament to override an abortive referendum is constitutional. They argue, quoting the constitution, that if voters choose to stay at home and turnout fails to exceed 50 percent, this will mean an effective "no" vote that may not be changed by the parliament. Others say, however, that if turnout in a referendum is below the required minimum, the requirements for a binding referendum are not met and the issue returns to the starting point, that is, to the parliament which has the final say. It is anybody's guess what ruling will come from the Constitutional Tribunal, which is expected to decide on the controversy on 27 May. (Jan Maksymiuk)

THE FALL OF THE PATRIARCH? Independent opinion surveys have witnessed yet another slump in popularity of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. A poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPD) conducted in March-April found that 26.2 percent of Belarusians would vote for Lukashenka again had presidential elections been conducted at that time. This number is the all-time low since Lukashenka's coming to power in 1994 with 80 percent of the vote in the runoff. These results are in line with the findings of other independent polling agencies, such as Novak and Zerkalo (the latter put Lukashenka's approval rating in Minsk at 12 percent; the president's popularity in the capital was one-half of his nationwide rating for most of the last nine years).

However, there are no signs that a quick slump in the president's popularity observed one year ago is set to continue. The new figure is only 4.3 percent down from the preceding NISEPD poll in December 2002. But the tendency on the opposite side of the equation is impressive. Thus, when asked about whether they want to have Lukashenka as a president for another term, almost two-thirds of the population (64 percent) answered that it is time for someone else to take the presidential office, and only 23 percent declared their desire to endorse the current leader once again.

These figures may be compared with findings of an NISEPD poll taken before the 2001 presidential elections. At that time, almost equal numbers of voters (36 percent and 41 percent) wanted Lukashenka to stay and to go, respectively. Since then, support for Lukashenka slowly eroded at a rate of approximately half a percentage point per month (the tendency was reversed only once last December with a three percentage-point increase in the rating). But the opponents' camp has been growing with a double speed (about one percentage point per month) since the moment when Belarusian leader declared his "elegant and exquisite" victory in September 2001. It seems that the constituency of the undecided voters (who usually succumbed to the official propaganda at a critical moment and voted for Lukashenka) is resolutely turning their backs on the president. And while now only 13 percent of respondents cannot determine their attitude toward the Belarusian president, restoring popularity may prove to be an impossible task for him in the future.

It also appears that Lukashenka may face difficulties even with keeping the hard-core base of supporters. Thus, nearly two years after his re-election, the Belarusian president has lost over 60 percent of those who voted for him at that time. And, remarkably, his most loyal constituency, the pensioners, are now deeply split over him. Only half of them still support Lukashenka, down from 88 percent in 1998.

The consolidation of the anti-Lukashenka majority in Belarusian society happened at the moment when it appeared that the Belarusian leader was in position to boost his public support once again. On one hand, the authorities declared a convincing victory in the local elections in March (only few dozen of 24,000 deputy seats were filled by representatives of opposition parties). On the other, official propaganda unleashed yet another hysteria campaign on the occasion of the war in Iraq. Similar tricks in the past (as with the Kosovo bombing in 1999 or the parliamentary and presidential ballots in 2000-01) usually boosted Lukashenka's rating by 7-10 percent in the forthcoming months. For the first time during Lukashenka's rule, the public seems to be unconvinced by the official media.

One explanation of this fact lies in the economy. Living standards of the population were severely hampered this winter due to drastic hikes in housing and public-utility tariffs. Currently, only 22 percent of the population believes that the country is going in the right direction, while more than 60 percent thinks otherwise (the figures roughly correspond to the size of pro-Lukashenka and anti-Lukashenka constituencies).

But even more importantly, it seems that there is a fundamental turn in the basic political orientation of society, which is gradually divorcing itself from the authoritarian populism of the past. This can be confirmed by a change of public attitudes towards the opposition. For example, when asked about opposition protest rallies, 32.7 percent of respondents expressed a favorable opinion and only 16.7 percent a negative one (ironically, the opposition now faces great difficulties in organizing a sizeable street protest; attendance at the most recent ones rarely reached 3,000). Almost the same percentages of voters (33 percent and 15 percent) approved and disapproved, respectively, of the newly founded opposition group in the parliament called Respublika. And while no single opposition party managed to exceed the 5 percent threshold in popularity, the composite rating of the seven largest parties reached 27 percent and thus, for the first time during the Lukashenka rule, the opposition's public support exceeded Lukashenka's. It seems that a sizeable social group is now in search of some political alternative to the current regime, be it in the handpicked legislature, on the streets, or among political parties.

But then, if Lukashenka is becoming unpopular, why is the opposition still unable to take advantage of this? The irony is that the Belarusian leader seems to be at his worst when he is left without competitors and has to deal with society one on one, without scapegoats to blame for the failures of his course. Furthermore, although silent dissatisfaction with the regime has became widespread, it is not accompanied by a widespread sense of desperation that could mobilize the society for any sort of political action. And finally, there is still the lack of a positive unifying idea in society that could bring it together to confront the regime. Thus, while 50 percent of the population would approve Belarus's confederation with Russia, 56 percent are ready to join the European Union.

But a strong opposition to Lukashenka may be sufficient to galvanize public protest if he finally decides to extend his stay in office beyond his constitutional term. At this time, only 17 percent of the population would vote for scrapping the term limits that prevent Lukashenka from seeking the office for a third consecutive term. Lukashenka may be in a position to once again steal the vote, but this move may be met with resistance from outside. This time the Belarusian leader is unsure whether he will take advantage of the two crucial circumstances that helped him to win political battles so far: solid domestic support on one hand, the Kremlin's backing on the other.

Lukashenka's only hope for a problem-free arrangement of a third term in office may lie in a referendum on the approval of a "constitutional act" of the Russia-Belarus Union held simultaneously in both countries. Analysts say Lukashenka could add a question about extending his presidency in such a plebiscite. But since Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Lukashenka himself admitted, still insists that the document does not need to be approved in a referendum, one has to wonder whether the reason for taking this position is not Putin's reluctance to help his Belarusian counterpart stay afloat beyond 2006.

This report was written by Vital Silitski, an associate professor at the Department of Economics at European Humanities University, Minsk.

"From time to time we in Ukraine feel that the West applies double standards [to the Ukrainian government]. This is done in the following way. First, the world declares that the regime in Ukraine is antidemocratic and that the president is being suspected of a number of crimes, including illegal arms supplies to Iraq. But as soon as the Ukrainian presidents makes one more promise (which he is not going to fulfill), he immediately becomes the best leader in the post-Soviet area." -- Ukrainian opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 19 May.