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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 10, 2003

10 September 2003, Volume 5, Number 33
POLISH ROLE IN IRAQ RELIEVES SOME OF U.S. BURDEN. Officials in the United States are welcoming Poland's takeover of the command of a multinational division in south central Iraq last week as a significant step in Washington's search to share the security burden in post-Hussein Iraq.

Thousands of troops in the so-called Multinational Division Central South gathered for a handover ceremony conducted on 3 September at Babylon in the ruins of an amphitheater built by Alexander the Great.

U.S. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the overall commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq, praised the work of the U.S. troops who have been providing security in the area since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March.

"The environment you [in the U.S. military] have worked so hard to establish, you will now hand off to Multinational Division Central South," Sanchez said. "You have definitely set the conditions for them to succeed in whatever endeavors and challenges may lie ahead for them."

Sanchez also welcomed the 9,500 soldiers of the new multinational division -- including their immediate commander, Polish Major General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz.

"The Multinational Division Central South -- led by Polish Major General Tyszkiewicz -- is ready to assume its role," he said. "I have absolute faith and confidence in the 21 nations that will assume their responsibilities today."

Eventually, the Polish-led force is to be in charge of a region between Baghdad and Al-Basrah with troops from Bulgaria, Spain, Ukraine, and other countries. Spanish troops were to play a key role in the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf, with Polish forces operating from their headquarters in Karbala.

But the United States has delayed its plans to transfer command within Al-Najaf following a bombing at the Imam Ali Mosque last week that killed at least 83 people -- including the prominent Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

The bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad last month also has raised concerns in countries that had been hesitating to deploy forces under the leadership of the United States.

A handover in Al-Najaf -- initially scheduled to take place on 3 September -- has been pushed back to 21 September.

A spokesman for the Polish-led multinational division, Andrzej Wiatrowski, told RFE/RL that security concerns have made it impossible to conduct the handover simultaneously across southern and central Iraq: "We must deal with everything in a very careful way. We cannot take responsibility in all areas at the same time. That is why some provinces must be handed over earlier and some of them later."

Speaking to journalists in Baghdad today, Sanchez admitted that he needs additional international forces to deal with many potential threats to Iraq's security -- including Al-Qaeda terrorists, Iranian fighters and clashes between ethnic and religious militia.

Sanchez said the coalition force he leads does not have sufficient troops to handle major internal conflicts that may erupt in Iraq. But he said he expects the problem to be resolved with time. He also insisted that additional U.S. troops are not needed in Iraq.

For his part, General Tyszkiewicz is linking Poland's leadership role in five Iraqi provinces to the global war on terrorism.

"As a result of the events of 11 September we have become soldiers in the war on terrorism," he said. "Our countries decided to join in the effort to ensure basic human values and solidarity in the struggle for the right to live without fear and hunger."

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that 30 countries have now sent troops to Iraq to join the U.S.-led coalition.

But analysts are keen to point out that most of those countries have sent no more than a few hundred soldiers. Some have even estimated that as many as 100,000 additional troops may be needed in Iraq.

The United States still has some 140,000 troops in Iraq. Britain has about 11,000 troops in the country. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw reportedly has proposed the deployment of another 5,000.

But Washington and London are finding it difficult to get large troop contributions from countries like Russia, India, and Turkey without a new UN Security Council resolution or some other international mandate authorizing their presence as a "peacekeeping force."

The existing UN Security Council Resolution 1483, which was passed in May, recognizes the United States and Britain as "occupying powers" in Iraq and restricts the United Nations to a limited role in reconstruction and humanitarian assistance.

At a news conference in Washington on 3 September, Powell signaled that the administration of President George W. Bush may be ready to grant the UN greater powers in Iraq, a move that would represent a significant shift in American policy.

Powell said the U.S. is circulating a resolution at the UN Security Council that would put the coalition forces in Iraq and any others who join them under a UN mandate with command remaining in American hands.

Bulgaria is among the countries that have contributed several hundred troops to the Polish-led division. Wiatrowski, the Polish spokesman for the multinational division, told RFE/RL about the role the Bulgarians will play.

"Bulgarian forces will be responsible for everything that is connected with the creation of good conditions -- to stabilize this area, to provide humanitarian aid and, of course, to mitigate human suffering," he said. "[The] Bulgarian battalion group is subordinated directly to the First Brigade Combat Team -- a brigade [from the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division] which is responsible for Karbala and Babel provinces. So our Bulgarian friends will be in a big system connected with our Multinational Division Central South tasks."

Spain currently has 1,300 troops serving in Iraq's central regions of Al-Najaf and Al-Qasidiyah alongside a 1,200-strong Central American force from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and El Salvador.

One issue those soldiers could face is the re-emergence of an Iranian-backed militant Shi'a group called the Badr Brigade -- the armed wing of SCIRI, which U.S. forces have ordered to disarm.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the brother of slain SCIRI head Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, says Shi'a will not take up arms against coalition troops.

But he suggested on 3 September that the Badr Brigade has been rearmed -- in defiance of U.S. orders -- in order to defend Iraq's Shi'a community.

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim is a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and is his brother's successor as the leader of SCIRI.

When asked to confirm whether or not the Badr Brigade is back in service, Al-Hakim said the militia group has become "more and more organized." He also said the Badr Brigade will defend Iraqi interests if U.S. troops are unable to do so.

(RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz wrote this report.)

EUROPEAN CONSTITUTION DRAFT SPARKS CONTROVERSY. E pluribus unum -- out of many, one. Unity is the goal of the European Union which might be easier fulfilled once the currently drafted European constitution is passed during an Intergovernmental Conference in Rome on 4 October. A draft of the constitution was prepared by a 105-member European Convention -- led by a former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing -- which started working on 28 February 2002 and presented the document on 13 June 2003. During a meeting in Riva del Garda, Italy, last week, representatives of the EU member and candidate countries agreed to pass the constitution by 13 December when there will be an EU summit in Brussels.

The draft aroused some controversy in Poland and among other, mainly small, countries -- both EU members and candidates to membership. These countries would like to introduce changes to the draft concerning the preservation of the political system shaped by the Nice Treaty and the inclusion of a statement about Christian values and culture in the preamble to the constitution. Last week in Prague, an informal conference gathered deputy ministers of foreign affairs representing the so called "like-minded" countries, which have some objections to the draft of the constitution. There were ministers from seven EU member countries (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Austria, and Greece) and from eight candidate countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), while the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg were not represented. The ministers in Prague stated that the draft "is a good basis for a further discussion" and decided that they will opt for each country to be represented by one commissioner in the European Commission, while the draft states that 10 countries would not have their representatives.

Poland will also strive for the support of the "like-minded" regarding the preservation of the number of votes in the European Council, as determined by the Nice Treaty. Poland, like Spain, will have 27 votes in the council, only two less than France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy. It means that Poland and Spain would join the biggest countries in the EU. The draft of the constitution provides that the Nice Treaty will last until 2009, even though it has not been tried yet (the Nice Treaty comes into force on May 2004). From 2009, bills will pass with the support of at least half of the EU members countries that are inhabited by 60 percent of the EU's citizens. Thus, the four biggest countries might have a significant influence on the EU (i.e. on the remaining 21 states), as they boast having about 260 million citizens of the 450 million in the entire enlarged EU.

Another potentially controversial issue included in the draft is the possibility of creating a military alliance by a group of EU countries within the so-called enhanced cooperation. This, however, may lead to a weakening of the role of NATO. Poland is also a strong supporter of the right of veto for EU members in the three crucial areas: social, fiscal, and defense policies. Thus, keeping the Nice Treaty in force with its division of votes in the European Council is of utmost importance for Poland. Spain is a natural partner for Poland in the upcoming negotiations as it also may lose its 27 votes, yet it did not take part in the meeting in Prague. But no matter what, how, and with whom Poland will talk during the Intergovernmental Conference in Rome, it will influence both its position in Europe and relations with Germany for a long time, says Robert Soltyk in "Gazeta Wyborcza."

One more issue to be negotiated is the Christian values in the preamble. The current draft states that its authors draw their inspiration from "the cultural, religious and humanistic heritage of Europe." The Polish government, 60 percent of Poles, and the pope are in favor of emphasizing the Christian values in the constitution. Pope John Paul II underlined on 24 August in Castel Gandolfo that "pointing out in the constitution the Christian roots of Europe is the basic guarantee of the future of the continent." Poland might be supported in the tough negotiations over this issue by Italy, Ireland, Europe's Christian Democratic parties, and some of the candidate countries, like Slovakia. Yet it will be very difficult to convince such opponents as France, Great Britain or Denmark, since the EU from its very beginning tries to avoid religious topics. Polish delegates to the European Convention, Senator Edmund Wittbrodt and Marta Fogler, proposed that the preamble might be similar to the Polish Constitution, which speaks of the "God who is the origin of truth, justice, good and beauty for the believers" and about other origins of these basic values for those who "do not share this faith."

It is true that Christian values are one of the foundation stones of the European identity. However, one also should not forget about the Jewish, Muslim, and layman input into it. Furthermore, Europe experienced dozens of religious conflicts and thus including the phrase "religious heritage" in the preamble might not be the best possible compromise. As well-known Polish historian and politician Bronislaw Geremek wrote in "Tygodnik Powszechny," a "dialogue about the spiritual dimension of Europe, which has not yet accompanied the process of integration, is more important than the text of the constitution." It seems that the current debate over the European constitution reveals an urgent necessity of answering the question "who are the Europeans?"

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

KREMLIN TRIES GAS LEVER ON LUKASHENKA. There is but a step from love to hate, as an old saying asserts. A recent twist in the history of Belarusian-Russian integration seems to amply confirm this maxim.

Last week, Gazprom head Aleksei Miller appealed to the Russian government to end talks about the creation of a joint-stock gas transportation company based on Russia's Gazprom and Belarus's Beltranshaz. Simultaneously, Miller requested that the government terminate the Russian-Belarusian intergovernmental accord that allowed Belarus to obtain Russian gas at prices set for Russian domestic consumers in regions neighboring Belarus. Miller also sent a relevant notification to Beltranshaz head Pyotr Pyotukh. According to Russian media, Miller wrote to Pyotukh: "The controversies [between Gazprom and Beltranshaz] are insurmountable, and the work on the creation of a joint [gas transportation] company cannot be concluded."

On 8 September, Russian Premier Mikhail Kasyanov said the 2002 package of agreements between Russia and Belarus on cooperation in the gas sector, including on a unified gas-pricing policy, may be reconsidered "in the nearest future," Russian media reported. Kasyanov added that he instructed relevant ministries and departments to analyze the situation in connection with the Gazprom request and prepare appropriate proposals.

On 12 April 2002, Moscow and Minsk signed two accords on extending Russia's domestic prices for its energy resources (natural gas and electricity) to Belarus as of 1 May 2002, and Russia's domestic railway tariffs on shipments of Belarusian goods as of 1 June 2002. The accords allowed Belarus to obtain Russian gas at a price set for Russian consumers in Smolensk Oblast, that is, currently at some $29 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas. At the same time, the accords committed Minsk to creating a joint-stock gas transportation corporation with Gazprom as of 1 July 2003 and selling a share in Beltranshaz to Gazprom (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 16 and 23 April 2002).

Subsequent talks between Minsk and Gazprom on the sale of Beltranshaz have produced no results, and no joint-stock gas transportation company has been created. Reportedly, Minsk estimated that Beltranshaz is worth $5 billion, while Gazprom was ready to pay only $600 million for a 50 percent stake in the Belarusian operator of gas pipelines.

But Belarusian and Russian commentators say that this "insurmountable controversy" regarding the privatization of Beltranshaz is only one reason for Gazprom's call to increase the price of Russian gas supplied to Belarus. The other reason, they assert, is Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent backpedaling on the introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus as of January 2005. Lukashenka said he wants the introduction of the Russian ruble to be the last stage in the process of creating a common economic space with Russia.

According to the Belarusian president, the common economic area means unimpeded movement of people, commodities, services, and capital across the Belarusian-Russian border; the same prices for gas, oil, and electricity for consumers in both countries; compensation for losses incurred by Belarus because of Russia's collection of value-added tax on its exports to Belarus as of 2000; and coverage by Russia of expenses connected with the introduction of the Russian ruble in Belarus. Lukashenka also wants Russia and Belarus to adopt a constitutional act of the Russia-Belarus Union before pursuing monetary and economic unification.

Talks on the price of Russian gas supplies to Belarus in 2004 are due to start in October. Will Lukashenka bend to this economic pressure from the Kremlin and become more malleable as regards both the sale of Beltranshaz and the currency union with Russia? Former Belarusian Premier Mikhail Chyhir, who resigned in 1996 in protest against Lukashenka's policies, believes that "Gazprom will win the dispute in the end" and Minsk will be forced to sell a controlling stake in Beltranshaz for a more acceptable price than it is demanding now.

Meanwhile, Leanid Zaika, head of the Minsk-based think tank Stratehiya, says an increase in the Gazprom price for gas supplied to Belarus could become a favorable factor for the Belarusian economy and spur economic reforms in Belarus. Cheap Russian gas, Zaika argues, is like a narcotic to which the uncompetitive Belarusian economy is addicted. Zaika also points out that higher prices for Russian gas will hurt Belarusian companies rather than households, since individual consumers in Belarus already pay $70 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas. The difference ($70 -- $29 = $41) is taken by the government to subsidize loss-making enterprises.

Minsk is expected to exhaust its 2003 quota of cheap Russian gas from Gazprom -- 10.2 billion cubic meters -- by the end of October. Will Belarusians be confronted with a cold winter this year? Not necessarily. Belarus has already begun to diversify its gas supplies. Itera is due to supply 6.3 billion cubic meters of gas to Belarus in 2003 at a price of $42 for 1,000 cubic meters. And Russia's TNK began to sell gas to Belarus last month at $37 for 1,000 cubic meters.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will begin tough talks with Lukashenka on gas prices in particular and integration in general prior to Russia's parliamentary elections in December or presidential elections in March. After all, for many "national-patriotic" forces in Russia the integration with "fraternal Belarus" will be a political trump card in the upcoming electoral campaigns, and the Kremlin will hardly resort to outright economic blackmail with regard to its closest ally in the post-Soviet area during this vulnerable electoral period. Thus, for the time being, Lukashenka has some room for presenting himself in the media as a tough defender of Belarusian sovereignty and Putin as a callous insulter of his "younger brother." (Jan Maksymiuk)

"Multivectoral exercises of the head of the Ukrainian state [Leonid Kuchma], as it could be expected, have ended in deadlock. In the near future, he may be stripped of the lion's share of the powers he received from the people, and the people themselves may lose a considerable chunk of sovereignty that they have acquired through so much effort." -- Socialist Party lawmaker Mykola Rudkovskyy, commenting on the constitutional reform sponsored by the presidential administration and Kyiv's intention to sign an accord later this month on the creation of a single economic space made up of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 2 September 2003); quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 8 September.