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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 26, 2003

26 August 2003, Volume 5, Number 31
DISCUSSION ABOUT CENTER AGAINST EXPULSIONS REVIVES. The idea of a museum commemorating the fate of millions of Germans who were expelled, or rather forced to resettle, at the end of World War II from Central and Eastern Europe was raised by Erika Steinbach, who leads the League of Expelled Germans (Bund der Vertriebenen). Erika Steinbach and Peter Glotz, who are members of the German parliament, established in 2000 a special foundation aimed at creating the museum.

Debate around the idea started after Social Democratic Party deputy Marcus Meckel said last year that instead of a national museum in Berlin, a European Center Against Expulsions (Zentrum gegen Vertreibung) should be built in Wroclaw, Poland (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 21 May 2002). Meckel pointed out that the city could be a perfect location for the center as its German citizens were deported during World War II and then Wroclaw was repopulated by Poles from Poland's former eastern territories, mainly Lwow (Lviv in today's Ukraine). Consequently, Wroclaw is a living symbol of expulsions.

The debate was put aside during the Polish and Czech referenda on joining the EU. Yet, since last June there has been an increase in the temperature of the now European-wide discussion, with some harsh words being uttered. Generally, there is agreement in Germany about the necessity of establishing the center, yet its nature and location remain subject to argument.

Erika Steinbach claims that apart from the expulsion of Germans, the center will also present the suffering of other nations. Nevertheless, a number of European intellectuals and politicians are afraid that the center will contribute to projecting a relativistic view of the Holocaust, as its museum is already located in Berlin. They underline the contradiction in depicting the Germans as both war criminals and war victims. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that "locating the museum in Berlin might lead to putting emphasis on German sufferings, which will conceal the historical reasons of the forced resettlements and will belittle the torments of other nations." On the other hand, Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber argued that "the place for a museum showing the dreadful fate of expelled Germans is in Berlin."

Some widely known German and Polish intellectuals and politicians, including Guenter Grass, Bronislaw Geremek, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and others, have recently signed an appeal regarding the Center Against Expulsions, Forced Resettlements, and Deportations, in which they stressed that the center should commemorate the peoples expelled during the entire span of the 20th century, not only Germans or Poles. In this shape, they argued, the center will unite rather than divide.

But surprising statements have also been made, such as that by Thomas Schmidt, a journalist with the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung." According to him, the museum should be a place of mourning for the Germans since "just as the Holocaust wiped out Jewish culture from Central-Eastern Europe, with the expulsions of the German population a certain cultural tradition disappeared." Schmidt forgets, though, that this German tradition in Poland resulted in part from German invasions of Poland and from more than 120 years of German occupation of northern and western Polish territories following the partition of Poland at the end of the 18th century. Moreover, the Germans, with their undoubtedly rich culture, arguably would have stayed in Poland had it not been for World War II unleashed by the Third Reich in order to, among other goals pursued by the Nazis, deprive Poland of its own culture.

The editor in chief of the "Die Zeit" weekly commented: "It would be better to locate a European monument to expulsions in Srebrenica or in Moscow. The Czechs and Poles were amateurs in comparison with Stalin, who expelled and exterminated millions of victims." On the other hand, some Polish right-wing Catholic politicians, such as Antoni Macierewicz from the League of Polish Families, claim that the center in Wroclaw would be an "antinational provocation" intended to "start anew the discussion about the Polish ownership rights to the northern and western lands." Such statements definitely will not facilitate the debate. Also, the location for the center proposed by Erika Steinbach and her colleagues is fairly controversial. Namely, she would like to locate the Center Against Expulsions in a wartime air-raid bunker.

The opposition to building the center in Berlin does not reflect a "distrust towards the German nation," as is argued by Herbert Hupka, a veteran activist among the expelled Germans. World War II was a traumatic experience from which most European nations suffered and the Germans were not the only ones to blame. Therefore, the above-mentioned appeal of European intellectuals and politicians over the Center Against Expulsions, Forced Resettlements, and Deportations seems to strike an extremely important note in asserting that "from the beginning the idea of creating the center should be a fruit of European cooperation. The partners should also decide together about the headquarters of the institution and its sources of financing and structure." A museum created in this way, they add, would be an "important sign of European reconciliation and mutual understanding."

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

GOVERNMENT RESHUFFLE REVEALS COMMAND-ECONOMY WOES. It is now commonplace to declare that Belarus has returned to the Soviet era under the rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But which part of the Soviet period would best characterize his rule? As far as the economy is concerned, comparison with the stagnation period (zastoi) of Leonid Brezhnev appears to be at times appropriate for explaining how the economy is run and what consequences this style of management entails.

Thus, the government reshuffle on 9 July (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 29 July 2003) that cost the jobs of Prime Minister Henadz Navitski, his deputy Alyaksandr Papkou, and Agriculture Minister Mikhail Rusy, was caused by a misdeed whose name by now rings a bell only to those deeply interested in the history of the late Soviet era. Lukashenka's ire was provoked by "pripiski" or, in other words, reporting false data (overreporting) on the accomplishment of state-mandated economic plans and orders.

This common "crime" for a command economy turned out to be flourishing in Belarus, and the reason for pripiski was the government's inability to fulfill the president's order to repay the debts the state owes to collective farms for procured foodstuffs. Earlier this year, Lukashenka ordered the government to pay all the debts in full, but the government and local administrations failed to enforce payment of a relatively small sum of $15 million, preferring instead to inform the president that the problem was being solved. After the bluff was revealed, the responsible officials were punished during a televised conference (a typical move for Lukashenka's style of government), and the campaign of unmasking and sacking those responsible for overreporting at the local level began. Within a month, over 200 local officials were sacked countrywide.

Navitski's replacement is hard to explain if the government statistics that show a rather rosy picture of the national economy are taken seriously. Indeed, with the economy growing at 4 percent-5 percent annually, living standards on the rise, inflation declining, and the exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble showing unusual stability, one has to wonder what was wrong with the government that managed to secure this sort of performance. Perhaps, the reason was that the official statistics themselves were full of pripiski. And yet, evidence of the public-sector deterioration can be found even in the data carefully prepared for public presentation as proof of the success of the Belarusian economic model. Thus, the dramatic growth of the number of loss-making enterprises and the near-bankruptcy of entire economic sectors looms as a legacy of the period when money and profits were not as important from the official viewpoint as the compliance with government-set production targets.

Let's take, for example, the situation in the agricultural sector that put an end to Navitski's premiership. As of May 2003, 70 percent of the total number of "kolkhozes" (collective farms) in Belarus have been loss making, and the profitability of the entire agricultural sector is -4 percent or, in other words, $1 of investment returns only 96 cents in sales. As a whole, the sector is bankrupt, which is partly due to the government's policy of maintaining low prices at which it purchases food products from kolkhozes. But even that money may not reach them, unless state-run food-processing companies sell their products.

But the agricultural sector also operates at a loss due to the fact that its production cannot withstand competition from imports (food-processing companies in Belarus suffer from a lack of investment, and Lukashenka recently declared that he would not welcome foreign buyers). And then, food-processing companies cannot be paid by state-run retail stores, many of which also lose money (the state-run retail-trade branch had a ridiculous 1 percent profit level last year). As a result, on 1 July, retail stores owed food-processing companies about 40 billion Belarusian rubles ($19 million), the latter owed 24 billion rubles to kolkhozes, and collective farms could not pay peasants more than 12 billion rubles in wages. When insolvency reaches such a scale and introduction of bankruptcy procedures is impossible due to political restrictions, it is no wonder that the old/new Soviet-style trick has been used to scale down the magnitude of the problem in the eyes of the top authority.

If the insolvency problem develops further to include other sectors, the revamped cabinet of Syarhey Sidorski (who still has to be confirmed in office by the Chamber of Representatives) will face even greater challenges and risks of more presidential reprisals. But what can it do if privatization and bankruptcy are unavailable policy options? The only lesson learned by the new cabinet from the previous experience of command economy seems to be negotiating favorable oil and gas prices with Russia that would give the Belarusian economy a respite when Lukashenka is approaching the moment of decision on whether and how to extend his term in office.

It is widely believed by independent analysts in Belarus that the need for a stronger negotiator in bargaining with Russian natural monopolies at this critical political point was the primary reason why Lukashenka decided to sack loyal but otherwise colorless Navitski and replace him with a new prime minister who has earned the reputation of a relatively efficient and well-connected bureaucrat and industrialist. But if this is true, Sidorski's efforts have already suffered a blow, as the first round of gas talks with Gazprom in August ended in failure. It should be remembered that Minsk's relations with Gazprom have already soured as Belarus refused to proceed with the previously agreed plans to create a joint venture on the basis of Beltranshaz, the national gas-distribution and -transportation network.

Meanwhile, the choice of other cabinet members reveals stagnation in the ruling elite, as Lukashenka routinely appoints provincial bureaucrats, many of whom he got to know during his career as a deputy of the Supreme Soviet in the early 1990s. Such nomenklatura-style cadres promise little change for the future. And while the continuation of the present course promises little improvement for the Belarusian economy, one can only wonder whether Lukashenka's regime will reach the stage when bad news is simply ignored, just as it was in Brezhnev's Soviet Union.

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

KUCHMA OFFERS NEW POLITICAL-REFORM PLAN. Speaking to the nation on 23 August, the eve of Ukraine's Independence Day, President Leonid Kuchma said he is ready to support a new constitutional-reform plan that was agreed upon with the opposition during consultations earlier this month. "Despite certain drawbacks, I believe this draft law has to be approved by the Verkhovna Rada, as I think it will almost certainly be supported by a constitutional majority [300 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada]". The previous day, Ukrainian media reported that Kuchma withdrew the political-reform draft bill he submitted to the parliament in June (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 25 June 2003).

The Ukrainian president did not reveal any details regarding the new plan for overhauling the constitutional system in the country. He only asserted that "a parliamentary-presidential form of rule is best suited to the political psychology and the political archetype of our people." And he noted that future presidents should "guarantee civil rights and represent the state on the international arena". But some details were supplied last week by Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz and Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, who reportedly held several meetings with presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk in August to discuss the new political-reform draft.

Moroz said the new plan suggests that parliament confirm the prime minister and all cabinet ministers. The prime minister will propose all cabinet members except for the defense minister and the foreign minister, both of whom are to be nominated by the president. The president is to appoint the prosecutor-general, who must subsequently be approved by the Verkhovna Rada. The president and the parliament are to appoint the Constitutional Court and the National Council for Broadcasting on a parity basis. The president is to have the right to veto parliamentary bills.

Moroz also divulged that a key innovation is the presidential administration's proposal that the Verkhovna Rada elect the president. He said he opposes this scheme and opts for a direct presidential ballot. Meanwhile, Symonenko said the Communists want the current election law to apply to the 2004 presidential election, but are in favor of reducing the president's mandate from five to two years. Symonenko added that a new parliament, if elected under a fully proportional system, could elect a new president for a full term in 2006.

What is also important, the new constitutional-reform draft reportedly drops Kuchma's previous proposal that presidential, parliamentary, and local elections be held in the same year. This proposal was widely seen by the opposition and political analysts as a legalistic ruse intended to prolong Kuchma's remaining in power by two or three years.

The new plan seemingly does not provide for any political role for Kuchma after the end of his second presidential term in November 2004. But some Ukrainian analysts suggest that if Kuchma rejects the future of a political pensioner, he can try to seek the post of prime minister, whom the new plan makes the central political figure in the country. And some speculate that he even could seek the post of president in 2006, following a two-year break. The Ukrainian Constitution in its current wording prohibits one person from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms, but it does not restrict the number of presidential terms for the same person.

It is apparent that the new political-reform plan -- at least in the intention of the presidential administration -- aims at preventing Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, the country's most popular politician, from becoming the president in 2004. Jointly, the pro-presidential majority, the Socialists, and the Communists can muster 300 votes required to push the constitutional reform through parliament. If the Verkhovna Rada approves the plan with the stipulation that the president is to be elected by parliament, Yushchenko seems to have no chance of being elected. On the other hand, if the "Symonenko option" -- electing the president in a direct ballot in 2004 for two years -- prevails, Yushchenko might become an "interim" president, but with essentially curtailed prerogatives, if compared with those of Kuchma.

Even if this new plan eventually collapses, as have several former attempts on the part of President Kuchma to revamp the constitutional system, its launching nonetheless seems to be a political master stroke on the part of the authorities. Some Ukrainian commentators suggest that Medvedchuk is the originator of this plan and the main driving force behind it.

First, the plan placed in the same "working team" presidential aide Medvedchuk with Moroz and Symonenko, both of whom not so long ago were involved in a fierce campaign intended to oust Kuchma. The presidential administration seems to have managed to drive a significant wedge between Yushchenko on one side and Moroz and Symonenko on the other, thus creating additional obstacles to any future alliance of these three.

Second, the unexpected alliance of the pro-presidential centrists with the not-so-long-ago antipresidential leftists creates brighter prospects for Kuchma himself to avoid political and/or legal responsibility for his deeds after the end of his political career.

Third, the plan also seems to play into the hands of Medvedchuk, who stands no real chance of being elected president either by direct ballot of by parliament, but may well apply after the end of Kuchma's tenure for other important political jobs -- for instance, as leader of a parliamentary majority or parliamentary speaker.

No doubt, this new plan also presents a serious dilemma to Yushchenko about what to do now. Yushchenko said last week that a presidential model of government for today's Ukraine is more efficient that a parliamentary-presidential one. Which is no surprise, given his presidential ambitions. The real problem, however, is whether he will now be able to convince other important political players that he is right. One such player is Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych who, according to Ukrainian observers, is harboring strong presidential ambitions and, therefore, is not likely to seek the post of a figurehead in 2004.

On top of everything else, Kuchma's latest constitutional-reform proposal is set to dominate the political agenda in Ukraine after the summer vacation, involving both the pro-presidential and opposition forces in the Verkhovna Rada in a predictably ferocious battle over the redistribution of political power. "Almost half of [Ukraine's] GDP is produced in the shadows," Kuchma lamented in his Independence Day speech last week. But his political-reform plan will hardly contribute to changing this lamentable situation. As many times in the past, during the upcoming political season the problem of socioeconomic power in Ukraine will almost certainly be left in the shadows. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"The phenomenon of the uniformed criminal has reached the scale of a national epidemic.... The image of a corrupt law enforcer has become so terribly commonplace that people fear the uniformed criminal more than the bandit who routinely breaks the law." -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in his Independence Day speech on 23 August; quoted by Ukrainian Television.