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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: June 10, 2003

10 June 2003, Volume 5, Number 22
POLES SAY 'YES' TO EU MEMBERSHIP. On 7-8 June, 58.85 percent of some 29.5 million eligible voters in Poland went to the polls to decide on the county's EU accession. The State Election Commission reported on 9 June that 77.45 percent of voters said "yes" to EU membership.

Poland held its breath on the evening of 7 June, after the State Election Commission disclosed that a mere 17.6 percent of voters had come to the polls on the first day of the plebiscite. The announcement on 8 June of partial results showing that Poland safely cleared the 50 percent-turnout threshold for the referendum to be valid brought televised outbreaks of jubilation at the headquarters of President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Premier Leszek Miller.

"We can now say it out loud that we are returning. We are returning to the great European family," Kwasniewski said. "We are returning to a place which rightfully belongs to Poland and Poles, for our 1,000 years of history and the great courage Poles have shown over the past several years, when they changed the image not just of their own land, but the image of the continent of Europe."

The Polish president thanked Pope John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church for support for the government's efforts to motivate Poles to go to the polls. Polish observers almost unanimously agree that had it not been for the pope's words that "Europe needs Poland and Poland needs Europe" (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 May 2003) and for the Roman Catholic Episcopate's letter urging the faithful to vote in the EU plebiscite, the referendum's turnout would have hardly been above 50 percent. "I wish from the bottom of my heart, in the name of Poland and Poles, to thank the Polish pope for everything he has done for us in this matter and perhaps I know about this more than anyone else present here, as I have had occasion to hold dozens of conversations with him," Kwasniewski said.

"We are witnesses to one of the greatest days in our history," Miller said. "I am particularly honored that I represent a government that was the last leg in the relay team heading for Europe. And I am particularly honored that I represent a government that is the first leg in the relay team [racing] in Europe."

Europe was similarly grand in words on the occasion. "Welcome and thank you, Poland!" the European Commission said in a statement on 8 June. "A great and proud nation is in the process of putting a tragic century behind it and taking up what had been its rightful seat since the start of the process of European integration," AFP quoted European Commission President Roman Prodi as saying to Kwasniewski in a telephone conversation on 9 June.

Such grandiloquence should not surprise anybody. Poland with its 39 million people is the largest of the 10 states set to join the EU in May 2004. And Poland is seen by everybody as the initiator of the great tectonic shift in Eastern Europe in 1980s, which subsequently resulted in the collapse of communism in 1989 and led to the EU's big eastward expansion. Thus, the Polish "yes" to EU membership has both considerable practical and symbolic meanings for Europe.

And there are also important consequences of the EU vote for the embattled minority cabinet of Leszek Miller. Immediately after the plebiscite, on 9 June, President Kwasniewski launched consultations with political parties in order to ensure strong parliamentary backing for EU-oriented reforms. Many Polish commentators suggest that Kwasniewski wants Miller to step down and the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) to form once again a majority cabinet with a different premier. The SLD's popularity has nearly halved since the 2001 parliamentary election, while Miller's approval rating shrank even more, falling below 20 percent. A few months ago, Kwasniewski and Miller agreed to hold early parliamentary elections in June 2004, more than a year before the end of the current parliament's regular term.

However, boosted by the assertive "yes" in the EU vote, Miller on 9 June proposed a parliamentary vote of confidence in his cabinet this week. Miller also abandoned his pledge to hold parliamentary elections in June 2004, suggesting that they should be shifted toward spring 2005. And he said he is in favor of introducing a flat-rate income tax, thus effectively throwing into a garbage bin the public-finances-reform plan prepared by Finance Minister Grzegorz Kolodko (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 15 April 2003).

Miller's proposals, which were voiced at a national conference of SLD activists, are clearly oriented toward regaining political initiative in the country by Miller and the SLD. The SLD and its political ally, the Labor Union, control 209 votes in the parliament. The six major parliamentary parties that are likely to vote against Miller -- the Civic Platform, Law and Justice, Self-Defense, the Peasant Party, and the League of Polish Families -- have 205 votes. Thus, the fate of Miller and his cabinet will be decided by six smaller groups and 15 nonaffiliated deputies in the Sejm (these are 46 votes in total). June 2003 is set to be a month of intense political emotions in Poland. (Jan Maksymiuk)

PUBLISHING OR PERISHING. Even President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's Belarus -- a country generally believed to be deeply immersed in the Soviet era in terms of its political regime and socioeconomic environment -- offers its citizens many liberties that were utterly unthinkable in the days of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. To name just a few: people may travel abroad freely (provided they have the finances), opponents of the ruling regime may take their discontent to the streets (provided they are unafraid of spending a dozen days in jail), journalists may write what they choose (provided they work for a nonstate publication and are unafraid of spending a couple of years in an "open-type corrective-labor institution" for "defaming the president"), and individuals may give interviews to RFE/RL correspondents without the risk of losing their jobs in the public sector (especially if they do so on condition of anonymity). And Belarusian writers may publish what they wish, provided they can find a publisher.

Freedom of expression in Soviet Belarus posed a similar problem as that faced by authors in other Soviet republics or former communist countries in Eastern Europe. However, in contrast to the situation in Russia or Ukraine, let alone Poland, Belarusian writers of the Soviet era produced only a negligible number of publications that could be designated by the internationalized Russian word "samizdat." The reasons for this were many; but one is of particular interest, as it presents a good angle from which to view Belarus's unique cultural and linguistic situation. For Belarusians writers, writing in their mother tongue was (and still is) not only an outlet for releasing their creative potential and expressing themselves, but also (or, perhaps, first and foremost) a noble mission of saving the Belarusian language and Belarus's indigenous culture from total oblivion. Thus, the political and ideological curbs imposed by Soviet censors on the literary process in Belarus were of much less importance to participants in this process than the very fact of being published in Belarusian.

Naturally, it remains an open issue whether the ideologically tainted Belarusian literature of the Soviet era could actually erect a tangible barrier on the methodical path of the cultural and linguistic Russification of Belarusians pursued by the government in the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, however, the situation in which the government intended to destroy the national identity of its citizens while writers sponsored by the same government intended to save it was nothing more than a typical Orwellian dichotomy. Thus, even writers of younger generations who debuted in post-Soviet Belarus are not eager to assert that their older colleagues were merely conformists when they followed some Communist Party precepts in their works in order to get published. From today's perspective, it seems that financial support for literature in the Belarusian language was the most significant contribution of Belarus's Soviet-era regime to maintaining the Belarusian national identity as distinct from the Russian one.

The 1990s, with its numerous market-economy shocks and surprises for the citizens of postcommunist countries, have radically corrected cultural policies pursued by postcommunist governments. Suddenly, ideological concerns in cultural policies gave way to economic calculation. Writers en masse were denied public money for publication and told to look for nonstate sponsors or to write books that would sell just like any other commodity and bring financial profits for themselves and their publishers. A similar policy was adopted in post-USSR Belarus, although in the pre-Lukashenka period (1991-94) this policy was not as severe as nowadays. The publication of books in Belarusian has fallen dramatically, particularly following the 1995 referendum, which gave Russian the status of an official language alongside Belarusian. That referendum has buried the hope awakened in Belarus in the early 1990s that an appropriate government policy might significantly contribute to preserving the mother tongue of Belarusians and making it a full-fledged means of communication in the independent state.

However, even under Lukashenka's rule, the state continued to finance the publication of a few literary periodicals in Belarusian. Such a situation lasted until mid-2002, when the government established the Office of Literature and Art to manage the publication of four literary monthlies and one weekly, which had been operated until then by the Union of Belarusian Writers (SBP), an organization independent of the government. The Ministry of Information appointed writers loyal to government policies to head those periodicals in what was generally perceived as a step toward the imposition of stricter ideological controls on cultural and literary life in the country. The government subsequently tried and failed to replace the SBP leadership with a more compliant one that could provide a sort of intellectual support to the ruling regime. The union defended its political independence but simultaneously lost any lingering hope of state financing. It seems that it was only in 2002 that Belarusian writers actually became divorced from the idea that it was possible to pursue different national ideals than those followed by the government and publish books for government money at the same time.

All of the above refers primarily to older-generation writers who remember both the harsh ideological controls over their work and lavish royalties paid to them by Soviet-era publishers. The Belarusian writers who reached their creative maturity after the collapse of the Soviet Union harbored few illusions about state sponsorship, and started to publish their books and periodicals outside the SBP publishing system and for money obtained from nonstate sponsors both at home and abroad. From the very start, they preferred creative freedom to self-imposed censorship, which was a sine qua non for gaining state sponsorship. This independent literary process, which somewhat resembles the Soviet-era "samizdat" in its unimpressive circulation figures, now remains the only hope of those Belarusians who have not yet abandoned the dream of one day seeing a revival of the Belarusian language and culture in their country. After all, as exemplified by the plight of the Irish language in Ireland, state sponsorship is insufficient to revive a native language if natives cease to be interested. Judging by the tortuous course of Belarusian literature over the past decade, some Belarusian natives still derive interest and amusement from the artful use of their mother tongue. And this provides the grounds for some historical optimism -- particularly since history has repeatedly taught us that dictators and dictatorships are not immortal. (Jan Maksymiuk)

YUSHCHENKO INTERVIEWED BY RFE/RL. Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the Our Ukraine political bloc, visited the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on 6 June, where he was a keynote speaker at Radio Liberty's 50th anniversary commemorations. Later the same day, Yushchenko was interviewed by Vasyl Zilhalov and Iryna Khalupa from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. The entire interview can be found at Below is a translation of selected excerpts, where Yushchenko touched upon the freedom of expression, political situation, and upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine, as well as upon his relations with President Leonid Kuchma.

RFE/RL: Is there any alternative to Radio Liberty in Ukraine? In other words, have we already reached the situation that Ukraine has many media outlets such as Radio Liberty?

Yushchenko: Unfortunately, no. [While speaking at the 50th anniversary commemorations earlier today], I wanted to conclude my speech with a wish that I or my children could live as long as to see the time when services of Radio Liberty are no longer needed in Ukraine, because stable democracy has been established in the country. Unfortunately, this has not been the case yet.

For the time being, Ukraine is proceeding in the opposite direction. It's a time of disappointments as regards the freedom of speech. I think there are some independent media outlets operating in Ukraine, both domestic and foreign, but as regards the foreign ones, I would put Radio Liberty in the first place.

RFE/RL: There are presidential elections approaching in Ukraine. Do you think that the Ukrainian media are ready for objective coverage of the presidential elections?

Yushchenko: I will start by quoting a distressing figure: 56 percent of Ukrainians think that democratic elections in Ukraine are impossible. This is a challenge to both politicians who are seeking to change the government and citizens. This is also a challenge to common sense. This is a problem not only for Ukraine but also for Europe.

[To have objective coverage of the elections], one needs, first of all, to have these elections actually staged, in accordance with the Ukrainian Constitution. Second, I'd like to stress that Ukrainian democratic forces do not need any assistance apart from ensuring that these elections are honest, transparent, and democratic. We think that this alone will be enough to introduce changes in Ukraine, to install democratic forces in power.

RFE/RL: Excuse me, Mr. Yushchenko, for interrupting you. But do [preconditions] for honest, transparent, and democratic elections exist in Ukraine?

Yushchenko: Regarding the [freedom] of the media, which is absolutely necessary for progress in Ukrainian society, we need both domestic and international support. The [state] monopoly in the media sphere in Ukraine has deprived thousands of journalists of the possibility to work professionally and honestly. It is a problem to obtain truthful information in Ukraine. It is a problem to obtain full information in Ukraine. People are continually treated with large doses of falsified information. It is very difficult for people to make correct choices, including political ones. Any issue, including those connected with Ukrainian history, the Ukrainian language, and integration, may be subject to political bargaining. This is being done to keep Ukrainian society fragmented like a flock of sheep.

RFE/RL: Regarding your bloc, Our Ukraine, anonymous publishers spread massive disinformation in propaganda publications that reach millions of copies. What would you advise average Ukrainians -- how are they to sort out this [disinformation]?

Yushchenko: The best reaction [to this disinformation campaign] would be to install democracy, but this is possible only at some later time. You know, I have already seen a dozen falsified publications bearing my signature. Now we are witnessing an avalanche of mendacious interviews that I have never given. What is more, they are being published under the mastheads of publications that do not exist. But all of them pursue one goal -- to stuff people's minds with nonsense so they may later wonder: Is Our Ukraine a pathologically stupid organization? Is it a fascist organization? Does it consist of idiots and people devoid of elementary human values as regards morality or religion?

We are trying to react but our efforts are insufficient. I emphasize -- this is not [only] my personal problem or my bloc's problem. This is a problem of 48 million Ukrainians.

We are working on a project of cooperation with regional print media, with newspapers, and I hope this project will be successful. We are in touch with two newspapers, we are opening up a number of possibilities on television but I would not like to speak about them right now in order to avoid closing these possibilities before they are actually opened up.

RFE/RL: Many of our listeners are interested in the behavior of the opposition as a whole in the [upcoming presidential] elections. As you know, [Communist Party leader Petro] Symonenko has already declared that he is ready to put his name on the ballot. Yuliya Tymoshenko has recently made several very critical statements, in which she criticized both Our Ukraine and you, and threatened to propose herself as a presidential candidate if the situation remains as it is. What is your vision of the consolidation of opposition forces in these elections?

Yushchenko: To start with, everybody should avoid resorting to adventurous politics or petty blackmail. We should be guided by one [will] -- to consolidate ourselves and come out as a single force. This is an important test for everybody. And we realize that the authorities are working day by day to prevent us from doing this. Therefore, we proposed last year, and reiterated our proposal this year, that the consolidation should give each political force a conviction that it is one of the authors of this consolidation process. We want to avoid the situation where a navel, or a bright sun, is placed in the center, and everybody else will have to join it. If we follow such a pattern, we will make a great deal of opponents among political forces objecting to such serfdom.

RFE/RL: But many would say it is you who is this navel, this bright sun, which attracts a great deal of people, including many of dubious backgrounds.

Yushchenko: Therefore I'd like them to hear me now. Esteemed political forces, no matter whether you are today in parliament or outside it, no matter even whether you are a political force or just an efficient social force, let me say one thing. Let us hold public roundtables throughout Ukraine and discuss one question: With what is Ukraine ill today? How has it happened that the authorities are such as they are? [Let us also discuss] how -- following regional roundtables with a broad range of opposition, democratic, and other forces -- to begin forming this fall a forum of democratic forces, in which all participants could feel themselves as co-authors of this forum, in which no differences between those from the first and the second rank would exist. [Let us discuss how to make] all of them sign a fundamental document on forming such a coalition in order to achieve political consolidation, form a common outlook regarding Ukraine's reconstruction, and, of course, field a single [presidential] candidate.

RFE/RL: You have repeatedly said that there should be no impassable wall between the opposition and the authorities, that there should be some contacts between the former and the latter. You regularly meet the president. But there have recently been a lot of insinuations around this. Some even say that in the very last moment Leonid Kuchma may appoint you as his successor in the elections. What can you say about the purpose of your contacts with the authorities and the president, in response to such rumors?

Yushchenko: I am convinced that Ukraine is not an Asiatic khanate in which political succession is passed [by one ruler to another]. Therefore, I don't care too much about such gossip, even if I realize than many politicians are dying to know to whom [Kuchma's] finger will be pointed.

On the other hand, I would not be sincere if I said that it does not matter to me what position is taken by the Ukrainian president today or will be taken tomorrow. Beyond question, the president remains a key political player in Ukraine, who is constantly torn between the two dilemmas -- either to work for the country's good or to yield to the clans even further, thus preparing a very difficult future for Ukraine.

I am convinced that one needs to communicate with the president. What is the language of this communication, what is the topic of these conversations? Of course, these are difficult conversations. Believe me, it is not easy for me to step in to talk with the president, and these talks are emotionally and morally exhausting. But if you are guided by Ukrainian interests, you have to stand up, go, and talk. Such talks do not belong to the pleasant or easy hours of your life, but you have to hold them.

RFE/RL: There is a lot of information, including from Uzhhorod, Lviv, Rivne, and other regions, that the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) and its functionaries resort to methods bordering on violence as regards employing people in regional administrations. They put the question in the following way: If you want to work in the administration, join the SDPU-o; if not, goodbye. And this has become a mass-scale occurrence. What is your assessment of this?

Yushchenko: The SDPU-o-ization of the entire country is under way, this is a fact, I have already spoken about it in parliament.

RFE/RL: How does the SDPU-o manage to multiply in such a magical way so quickly? In the [2002] elections it was the party that obtained the least votes [among those parties that cleared the 4 percent voting threshold], but has got hold of strong positions in the government, is now running three oblast administrations, and continues to mushroom.

Yushchenko: I think there is nothing phenomenal. There is only [the party's] proximity to the president [ed.: SDPU-o leader Viktor Medvedchuk is head of the presidential administration]. This is possible because of only one reason -- [Ukraine's political] system does not work. If it did work, it would have prevented such pathologies from occurring in the Ukrainian government.

The president ignores public opinion, he is in possession of such political levers that allow him to appoint a person whose name has been whispered into his ear by those from his entourage.

"Russia and Belarus have eventually agreed on parameters of their switch to a common currency. Beginning from 2005, the Russian ruble will become Belarus's national currency, and it will be printed exclusively by the Russian Central Bank. For this surrender of Belarus's sovereign monetary policy, Russia will pay Minsk a modest sum -- [Moscow] will open a credit line of 20 billion rubles [$655 million] intended to 'ensure the stability of indicators of the Belarusian economy.' This is how Belarus ended its hopeless fight for equal terms in a union with Russia." -- The Moscow-based "Vedomosti" on 10 June.