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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 19, 2003

19 August 2003, Volume 5, Number 30
CABINET'S POPULARITY REMAINS LOW, DESPITE SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT. A poll released by the CBOS polling agency on 12 August found that 70 percent of Poles assess the government led by the Prime Minister Leszek Miller negatively and only 16 percent positively. Support for the government grew by one percentage point from July, while the number of opponents fell by two percentage points. The poll also found that 19 percent of respondents are pleased with Miller as prime minister, which is four percentage points higher than in July. Simultaneously, 62 percent are displeased with the prime minister, which is six percentage points lower than in July. Thus, one can see a slight improvement in the generally poor ratings of Miller.

Surprisingly, the government's popularity did not improve much after the 7-8 June referendum in which 77 percent voted in favor of joining the EU, which purportedly testified to a big government success. However, some observers believe the outcome was largely due to an NGO campaign and to the pope's support of Poland's EU membership, and only secondarily to the government campaign. Miller's popularity remains low even after he won the vote of confidence for his government in the Sejm on 13 June and then was re-elected as leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) for a second term on a platform promising relentless struggle against corruption and a reform of the tax system.

There are several reasons for the low popularity of the prime minister. Prior to the October 2001 parliamentary election, the SLD conducted an exhausting three-year campaign of opposing all the actions of the then-ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS). This not only resulted in disappointing some voters about politicians in general, but also created huge expectations for newly elected Prime Minister Miller. Yet, the ensuing mistakes and scandals within the ruling coalition turned off much of the SLD electorate.

The first major scandal was the so-called Rywingate affair, in which a well-known film producer, Lew Rywin, tried to solicit a bribe of $17.5 million in July 2002, supposedly on behalf of Miller (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 14 January, 18 February, and 29 April 2003). The Sejm subsequently set up a special commission to investigate the allegations. Probably the most disastrous thing for the government was not the allegations themselves, but the public hearings of dozens of people connected with Miller. It revealed how business and politics are dependent on each other in Poland, and how cronyism is widespread. Parliamentary speaker Marek Borowski said during the SLD congress in June, "A lot of people have joined the party [SLD] treating it as a kind of starting point for making a career, money, and surrounding themselves with cronies."

The second scandal which shook Poland took place in the Health Ministry and the National Health Fund. Health Minister Mariusz Lapinski, his deputy Waldemar Deszczynski, and the head of the fund, Aleksander Nauman, were said to be favoring certain pharmaceutical companies through drug-reimbursement schemes. This led to their dismissal and exclusion from the SLD.

Another scandal involving the SLD occurred in Starachowice, where local government officials were warned by SLD lawmaker Andrzej Jagiello of an action against them by Poland's Central Bureau of Investigation. Moreover, Jagiello was informed about the impending action by Deputy Interior Minister Zbigniew Sobotka. The local officials in Starachowice are suspected by the bureau of participating in organized crime.

Most recently, according to Supreme Control Chamber deputy chief Krzysztof Szwedowski, the Ministry of Treasury hid or destroyed balance sheets of five state-owned companies. Those documents were used by the Miller administration to prepare a critical opening report on the condition of all the state-owned companies after the 2001 parliamentary election. The case is being investigated.

Another popularity "killer" is the continuing poor economic situation in Poland. During the 22 months following the 2001 election, there have been three different finance ministers and no major reforms in the country were conducted. The unemployment rate has stuck at some 18 percent, the tax burden is one of the biggest in Europe, and the pension system is inefficient. The result is a lack of funds for pensioners, health care, education, etc., which spawns social unrest and street protests. This also serves as an encouragement for such populist parties as Self-Defense and the League of Polish Families (LPR), which tend to siphon off some of the SLD's electorate.

"Always when there were internal frictions [in the government], the support for the government dropped, it happened so during the first coalition of SLD and the Peasant Party [PSL] and earlier, during the term of the AWS," the weekly "Wprost" commented. On 1 March, Miller threw the PSL out of the government due to such disputes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003). What's more, he also had to face "internal frictions" between Finance Minister Grzegorz Kolodko and Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner on how to generate economic recovery. Those frictions resulted in Kolodko's dismissal.

The recent CBOS poll shows a slight improvement in Miller's ratings. However, whether this improvement will turn out to be a tendency and not only a statistical registration within the poll's error margin, will largely depend on the country's economic performance and on the results of ongoing investigations into recent corruption and other scandals.

(This report was written by Bartosz Stefanczyk, a student of international relations at the Warsaw School of Economics and of history at Warsaw University.)

ELITE BELARUSIAN-LANGUAGE SCHOOL FIGHTS FOR SURVIVAL. With less than two weeks before the new school year opens on 1 September, the Committee for the Defense of the Belarusian Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum has issued an appeal to all Belarusians, both in Belarus and in the diaspora, for support.

Since May, the lyceum -- teachers, pupils, parents, and sympathizers -- has been locked in a battle with the authorities, who are determined to close it down. The Defense Committee, however, is equally determined that the lyceum will continue to exist, despite the "attempts of certain officials to annihilate this educational institution which brings up true Belarusians, rather than Soviet-minded Russians."

The lyceum was founded shortly after Belarus became independent, as a flagship school for Western-type secondary education taught in Belarusian. It was named after Yakub Kolas (1882-1956), one of the greatest poets of the 20th-century Belarusian national revival (whose epic "The New Land," incidentally, devotes one of its 30 books to educational matters). By a happy coincidence, the founder and first headmaster of the school also has the surname Kolas, though he is no relation.

During the early years of independence, when the regime of Stanislau Shushkevich supported positive action in favor of the Belarusian language, the school enjoyed the respect of the authorities. Under the pro-Russian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, however, the situation changed. The authorities made no secret of their aversion to the school's ideals, and there were a number of cases of petty, and then less petty obstructionism and harassment. Matters eventually came to a head in May of this years, when the Ministry of Education appointed a new head teacher who did not even speak Belarusian.

This clearly ran counter to the whole concept of the school. Pupils, parents, and teachers protested, staging pickets and appealing to the Ministry of Education. The ministry began a kind of cat-and-mouse game. The ousted headmaster, Uladzimir Kolas, was informed privately that he would never be reinstated as headmaster but given the false impression that another, Belarusian-speaking head might be found. The minister agreed to meet with the protesters, told them he understood their point of view, and the next day ordered the school closed -- ostensibly because the building required urgent repairs to render it safe.

And on 25 June, the day of the funeral of Belarusian patriot and eminent novelist Vasil Bykau, the Belarusian Cabinet of Ministers signed an official order closing the lyceum. The pupils were to be dispersed to other secondary schools in Minsk; what would become of the teachers was not made clear by the order. However, a number of the teachers announced that they would quit teaching rather than be assigned to other schools.

The pupils, however, vowed that they would not be split up. If the lyceum building is barred to them, then on 1 September they will all turn up at the same school, demanding to be taught together. And if, as they expect, they will not be admitted, then, they said, they will simply return home and study alone there.

Convinced that the need for refurbishment was only a pretext, the parents tried to find the money to get the repairs done during the summer vacation. This, of course, did not suit the authorities. On 7 August, repairs to the building began, carried out by construction gangs sent in by the authorities. When pro-lyceum demonstrators tried to block them, the police intervened, and eventually an OMON special-task unit was called in. Meanwhile plans were announced for a Minsk City Lyceum to be established, which will, of course, be firmly under the control of the authorities.

The protests and pickets have continued, and have been routinely broken up by the police. The latest appeal to Belarusians worldwide takes the fight to a new stage. It names various officials, including President Lukashenka himself, as being guilty of complicity in the closure of the lyceum, and describes the decision as discrimination in education, contrary to the international conventions on human rights (to which Belarus is a signatory). And, although plans for the future are not spelled out in detail, the appeal speaks of seeking possibilities for lyceum students who study at home rather than going to their new assigned schools, eventually being enrolled in foreign universities, if those of Belarus are barred to them.

(This report was written by Vera Rich, a London-based freelance researcher.)

WILL KUCHMA PROPOSE 'PARLIAMENTARY REPUBLIC?' Earlier this month, political scientist Volodymyr Polokhalo, editor in chief of the Kyiv-based magazine "Politychna dumka," held a news conference at which he expressed his opinion about the reform of Ukraine's political system proposed this year by President Leonid Kuchma (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 25 June 2003), the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported on 7 August. According to Polokhalo, the political-reform proposal is a "shadow political technique" intended primarily to secure Kuchma's immunity from prosecution after the end of his presidential tenure and to retain the socioeconomic and political status quo of oligarchic clans in Ukraine.

Polokhalo believes that Kuchma may considerably modify his original reform plan -- switching from a "presidential-parliamentary" to "parliamentary-presidential" system -- by shifting the power balance to the parliament and reducing the prerogatives of the president to those of a figurehead. Polokhalo predicts that Kuchma may voice such a proposal as soon as on 24 August, Ukraine's independence anniversary. Polokhalo thinks that such a proposal could be accepted by both the Communist Party of Petro Symonenko and the Socialist Party of Oleksandr Moroz, since both politicians eagerly opt for more powers to the parliament. Thus, the modified parliamentary-reform proposal would readily obtain the required 300 votes (Communists+Socialists+pro-presidential majority) in the Verkhovna Rada for its approval. "And [Our Ukraine leader Viktor] Yushchenko might become the president without problem, since the importance of this post would be diminished, the post would become a decorative one, it would lose its political sense," Polokhalo summed up.

According to this line of argument, the president could be elected by the Verkhovna Rada, while the Verkhovna Rada in its turn, if elected according to the current election law (which mixes a proportional system with a first-past-the post system), could be easily controlled by oligarchs, as it is now. "I feel that the president may agree to making the parliament the basic center of power," Polokhalo told "Ukrayinska pravda" on 15 August. "Because [speaker Volodymyr] Lytvyn is loyal [to Kuchma], the parliament is being controlled by [presidential administration chief Viktor] Medvedchuk."

Lawmaker Serhiy Holovatyy from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 14 August that Kuchma now "has no other way" than proposing a parliament-centered model of government in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Oleksandr Moroz commented to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that if Kuchma makes such a proposal, the opposition will propose "conducting parliamentary and local elections under a fully proportional system." "Then we can speak about electing the president among those proposed by newly elected lawmakers," Moroz added. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"Psychologists assert that residents of the countries lying between Russia and Western Europe have one particular psychological trait in common -- the so-called 'existential fear' of a real or imaginary threat of their national extinction. The extinction may result from the loss of state independence, assimilation, deportation, or genocide. Hungarian historian Istvan Bibo writes that this psychological trait has affected and continues to affect the destiny and politics of Eastern European states. Their 'existential fear' was historically connected with Turkey, the Crimean Khanate. A similar fear of the Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Lithuanians -- as to whether they could exist as nations or not -- was connected with Poland. Later, it was spawned by Austro-Hungary, Germany, the Russian empire, the USSR. Germany ceased to be perceived as a threat following World War II. This attitude, bred by the centuries of woes, following the collapse of [Nazi-era] Germany focused on the USSR, and after 1991, was shifted onto the new Russia, much to its surprise. Such a perception of Russia provokes its irritation, feeling of affront, and something worse -- Russia does not understand either our or someone else's 'existential fear,' since the Russians have never faced a threat of becoming an ethnic victim, of being transformed into non-Russians. If the Russians ever felt themselves to be victims of repression, it was within the borders of their own state and, what is more, from the side of their own state, not because of their ethnic origin. For Western Europeans, this phenomenon, too, is remote and, therefore, difficult to understand.... If the Russians understood very well the fears of their neighbors, this would contribute to improving the political climate in our part of the globe. Our anxiety about our national existence could explain the Russians a lot, including the persistent aspiration of a number of postcommunist countries to place themselves under NATO's wings (Ukraine, too, is officially aspiring to place itself there). -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in his book "Ukraine Is Not Russia," which appeared in Ukraine earlier this month in Russian; quoted by the Moscow-based "Vremya novostei" on 18 August.