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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: October 14, 2003

14 October 2003, Volume 5, Number 38
PREMIER MAKES SHORT TRIP TO BELARUS. Prime Minister Leszek Miller on 12 October visited the settlement of Lenino in Mahilyou Oblast, Belarus, to commemorate the first battle fought by the Polish 1st Infantry Division 60 years ago. This division subsequently become the core of the Polish Army formed under Soviet control. For years in communist Poland, the battle of Lenino was at the heart of the official propaganda myth about the Polish-Soviet brotherhood in arms during World War II.

The division, named after Polish and U.S. hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, was made up of Poles on the territory of the Soviet Union -- including many former prisoners of the Gulag -- after Josef Stalin broke diplomatic relations with the Polish emigre government headed by General Wladyslaw Sikorski. The diplomatic rupture was caused by the discovery of the graves of Polish officers in Katyn, who were taken prisoners by the Soviets in 1939 and executed by the NKVD in 1940 (according to Soviet propaganda, they were killed by the Nazis). In 1941, under an agreement between Stalin and Sikorski, a Polish Army formed of Poles from the Soviet Union and commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders left the USSR for the Middle East and took part in the Western allies' military operations against the Nazis in Africa and Italy.

The 1st Infantry Division was set up following a formal request from the Union of Polish Patriots, an organization of Polish communists in the USSR, who subsequently were instrumental in forming a pro-Moscow government in Poland. The battle of Lenino was fought by the division on 12-13 October 1943. The division, which numbered 12,000 troops, suffered heavy losses -- more than 3,000 soldiers were killed and nearly 1,800 were wounded -- and was replaced by Soviet troops on 14 October 1943. The military success of the battle was quite insignificant, since the Germans regained their lost positions a few days later. The Soviet-German front moved westwards only nine months later, in June 1944, when the Soviet armies began Operation Bagration, which led to the liberation of Belarus. But the battle of Lenino had a great emotional and propagandist significance for Polish communists: first, it was fought by troops controlled by them, and second, it was the first battle fought by Polish soldiers against the Germans after Poland's defeat in September 1939.

"All paths led to Poland," Miller said at a cemetery of Polish soldiers at the site of the battle. "The path from Lenino was the shortest, but it was equally difficult or even more difficult [than the others].... The Kosciuszko Division soldiers became a symbol of Polish presence on the eastern front and opened up the way to the homeland for their other compatriots from Kazakhstan, the Siberian taiga, and the Far East."

The ceremony at Lenino was also attended by acting Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, but reportedly no official talks were held between the two heads of government. Warsaw does not maintain high-level contacts with the regime of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. However, according to Belapan, Miller had a short conversation at Lenino with Mikalay Statkevich, leader of the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Popular Assembly). "We assess the decision of Miller [to meet me] as a sign of solidarity with our party and the democratic opposition in Belarus as a whole," Statkevich told Belapan. Sidorski's bodyguards reportedly prevented three other colleagues of Statkevich from meeting Miller. (Jan Maksymiuk)

IS MOSCOW HEADING FOR BORDER CONFLICT WITH KYIV? Earlier this month, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a statement warning the Russian government that the construction of a dam, already underway, between Russia's Taman Peninsula and the islet of Tuzla in the Kerch Strait may violate Ukraine's state border and territorial integrity. According to some reports in the Ukrainian media, after the construction of the dam, the Russian side is going to set a frontier post on the islet, which Ukraine considers to be its own territory. In response, the Ukrainian side has reportedly reinforced the islet with a border guard unit and installed antitank defenses. According to some Russian newspapers, the dam, which is 30 meters wide, is now only 1 kilometer away from the islet.

Kerch Strait is a shallow channel connecting the Azov Sea with the Black Sea and separating Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in the west from Russia's Taman Peninsula in the east. Until 1925, Tuzla was the Tuzla Spit, but a heavy storm that year disconnected it from Russia's Krasnodarskii Krai, which is inhabited in part by the so-called Kuban Cossacks, relatives to the Ukrainian Cossacks of the past. In 1941, Tuzla became an administrative part of Crimea; in 1954, Crimea was ceded to Soviet Ukraine. Thus, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine considered Tuzla to be its own territory. A dozen families of fishermen, Ukrainian citizens, live on the islet, which also hosts several holiday hotels belonging to the port of Kerch on the Crimean Peninsula. The Tuzla islet is some 7 kilometers long and 500 meters wide.

Ukrainian and Russian media seem to be rather confused as to why the construction of the dam was started and who authorized it. Several versions exist. According to one, the decision was made by an unspecified self-government body of the Kuban Cossacks in the Taman Raion of Krasnodarskii Krai, who reportedly want to stop water from the Taman Bay mixing with the much saltier water from the Black Sea. The Kuban Cossacks are supposedly concerned with the salinization of their environment, which makes it impossible for them to breed certain species of fish that are used to fresher waters. By this version, the builders of the dam -- who reportedly include a lot of non-salaried Kuban Cossack activists -- are going to stop their building effort several meters before Ukraine's border.

But the much-respected "Zerkalo nedeli" weekly in Kyiv suggests a slightly different version: the dam project is secretly supported by local businessmen from Crimea and Krasnodarskii Krai, who allegedly want to urge both Moscow and Kyiv to build a more solid connection between Crimea and Russia -- a bridge between Tuzla and Kerch. The dam project is reportedly supported by the leader of the Crimean communists, Ukrainian parliamentary deputy Leonid Hrach, who is known for his various ideas to make trade and other contacts between Crimea and Russia more intense. These ideas include not only building a bridge over the Kerch Strait, but also, surprisingly, laying a water pipeline along this bridge. "Zerkalo nedeli" suggests that Hrach may be interested in piping cheap alcohol from Ossetia into Crimea.

But the Tuzla controversy may also have more serious consequences, both political, economic, and military. First, Ukraine and Russia for many years have been at loggerheads regarding the delimitation of the border in the Azov Sea in general and Kerch Strait in particular. More than 100 oil and natural gas deposits have been discovered in the Azov Sea. Their exploitation by Russia or Ukraine, with no delimitated border between them, carries the potential risk of a full-scale international row over their sea frontier.

Second, Kerch Strait is fairly shallow; big ships can only navigate the strait through an artificially made fairway that is administered and controlled by Crimea's port of Kerch. It is estimated that the Kerch administration earns up to $180 million annually for letting Russian and other ships enter the Azov Sea.

Moreover, the Tuzla islet has a strategic military importance -- as long as Kyiv controls it, it also controls the traffic between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, including that of naval vessels.

Some Ukrainian politicians and journalists have speculated that the Kremlin has decided to reconnect Tuzla with the Russian mainland and take the islet under its administration, thus gaining more control over the navigation in Kerch Strait. "The Russian action on Tuzla is primarily a test of Ukraine's capability to defend its territorial integrity and an illustration of [Moscow's intent] to swallow Ukraine as a whole -- through the Single Economic Space -- or in parts, [by taking] Tuzla and Sevastopol," Borys Bespalyy, a deputy from the opposition Our Ukraine bloc, told UNIAN.

Some are more cautious in their assessment of the dam controversy, but no less far-sighted. Their view of the controversy derives from a statement by the Krasnodarskii Krai governor earlier this month, who said on a Russian television channel that the construction of the dam is being carried out following an accord reached between Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during their meeting in September. According to this theory, when the dam is only a few meters from the islet, Kuchma will personally arrive at Tuzla and "order" that the construction is stopped, thus quashing the potential border conflict between the two countries and securing the country's territorial integrity. This version implies a conspiracy between Kuchma and Putin -- allegedly oriented toward boosting Kuchma's rating in Ukraine and making a third presidential term possible for him.

Kuchma said on 6 October that the construction of the dam involves a "misunderstanding" rather than "politics." Asked whether this situation may provoke a border conflict with Russia, Kuchma said he refused to believe such a development would occur. Last week in Moscow, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on the dam controversy. No details of the talks have been released.

The Verkhovna Rada is planning on holding a special hearing devoted to the construction of the dam. (Jan Maksymiuk)

DEFECTIONS REFLECT GROWING DIVISIONS IN RULING ELITE. The defection late last month of Ivan Plyushch from the pro-presidential Democratic Initiatives faction to former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine is a reflection of the growing disunity within the ranks of the ruling elite in the last year of Leonid Kuchma's presidency. Plyushch was twice parliamentary speaker during the Leonid Kravchuk presidency (1991-1994) and from 2000 to 2002, when the non-left parliamentary factions took control of the Verkhovna Rada.

Earlier in the summer, first deputy speaker Oleksandr Zinchenko also fell out of favor with the leadership of the Kyiv clan's Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o). Zinchenko had attempted to reform the Inter television channel, headed by him but controlled by the SDPU-o, ahead of the 2004 presidential elections. He failed in the face of obstacles put forward by SDPU-o Chairman Viktor Medvedchuk, who wished to continue to use Inter as a politically biased television station hostile to the opposition and working on behalf of the presidential administration he heads.

In September, Zinchenko was expelled from the SDPU-o for opposing Ukraine's membership of the Single Economic Space with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Plyushch has said his opposition to the agreement was one of his two reasons for defecting to Our Ukraine. Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych, Economy and European Integration Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovskyy, and Foreign Affairs Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko also opposed the Single Economic Space on the eve of its signing at the Yalta CIS summit.

The second reason for Plyushch's defection is his disgust at Democratic Initiatives faction leader Stepan Havrysh's agreement to be coordinator and de facto head of the pro-Kuchma parliamentary majority. Plyushch has said he always believed that the role of Democratic Initiatives was to act as a bridge between the pro-Kuchma majority and Our Ukraine.

The real reason for Zinchenko's removal was his attempt at reforming the SDPU-o and Inter into a normal political party and television station ready for the post-Kuchma era. Zinchenko remains an independent deputy and has not yet moved to the opposition camp. The SDPU-o have not yet attempted to recall him from his position as first deputy speaker, a position he obtained as part of the SDPU-o "quota." This is because of two factors. Firstly, such a step would require a re-opening of the vote on all the top Verkhovna Rada positions. Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn was only elected into his position by one vote. Secondly, Zinchenko must know a lot of inner SDPU-o details, which he might release if he was removed.

Another casualty for the authorities was Anton Buteyko, Ukraine's ambassador to Romania, who resigned in protest at the signing of the Single Economic Space accord. Buteyko is a seasoned Ukrainian diplomat who has already fallen foul of Kuchma. In 1999, he was removed as ambassador to the United States after failing to "organize a sufficiently high vote for Kuchma in the 1999 elections within Ukrainian diplomatic missions in the U.S."

Buteyko was a centrist member of the 1994-1998 Verkhovna Rada. Our Ukraine is assiduously courting him as another recruit if he manages to enter the Verkhovna Rada in any forthcoming by-election. Yushchenko reportedly said, "That what Buteyko has done should be undertaken by every minister, if his opposition is not influential or it is received in a negative manner."

These three defections are only the beginning of what is likely to be a growing number closer to the elections. Up to 10 deputies do not formally belong to Our Ukraine but they attend faction meetings and give their voting cards to Our Ukraine deputies when they are absent. That practice is illegal. One of them, Serhiy Ratushnyak, formally joined Our Ukraine last week. Professor Oleksiy Haran, director of the School for Policy Analysis at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, points out that, "Plyushch is a very careful and experienced politician. The fact that he has decided to criticize Kuchma and his allies shows he believes that Yushchenko has a serious possibility of being elected president."

By the end of 2002, the executive had forcibly created a parliamentary majority without Our Ukraine which, in Plyushch's eyes, had won the election and therefore should have been given the right to create the government. Plyushch began to then declare himself in various interviews as being in opposition to "the president's line."

Already prior to the signing of the Single Economic Space accord, Plyushch told "Ukrayinska pravda" on 26 March that Ukraine needs "Ukrainian authorities." Coming from his "centrist statist" position, Plyushch already described the Verkhovna Rada majority in an interview in "Ukrayinska pravda on 3 February as "non-Ukrainian." What he has in mind on both occasions is the lack of patriotism within their ranks and Kuchma himself and its hostility to the patriotic Our Ukraine bloc. This view of an "un-Ukrainian" (i.e., unpatriotic) Kuchma has grown after the signing of the Single Economic Space.

Like Yushchenko, Plyushch blames Medvedchuk for breaking up the non-left alliance that existed in 2000-2001 during the Yushchenko government. In Plyushch's view, the real aim of the tapes made in Kuchma's office that led to the Kuchmagate scandal in November 2000 was to remove the Yushchenko government.

Plyushch himself claimed in December 2002 that there were up to 20 deputies who would join him if he went ahead and created a faction. Although Plyushch does not bring any financial resources to Our Ukraine, his action is, Haran believes, "symbolically important for different regional leaders in the Verkhovna Rada. It shows that elements in the current ruling elite are ready to support Yushchenko."

Rumors have circulated in Kyiv for over a year that Donetsk oligarch Renat Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest, is unofficially approaching Yushchenko to work out a deal for the post-Kuchma era if he is elected president. As president, Yushchenko would inherit a government led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Akhmetov's when he was Donetsk governor between 1997-2002.

Members of Our Ukraine, such as Petro Poroshenko, have long-standing ties to Donetsk figures like First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. Our Ukraine and Yushchenko are weak in the Donbas, Ukraine's coal-mining region, where the bloc failed to cross the 4 percent threshold in the 2002 elections. A deal between both sides could amount to neutrality by the Donbas clan during the elections in return for noninterference in their region after the elections by a newly elected President Yushchenko.

The growing disunity within pro-Kuchma ranks and their inability to come forward with a united candidate is deeply worrying to the executive. Yanukovych-Akhmetov and Yushchenko both detest Medvedchuk, the oligarch who will lose most in the event of a Yushchenko victory.

These recent defections, and the ones that are likely to follow them, will make it impossible for the pro-presidential majority to adopt constitutional changes. Even with 60 Communist deputies, who may still pull out over their failure to obtain a fully proportional election law, 300 plus votes will be impossible to achieve, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn admitted on a recent visit to Washington. Kuchma is increasingly caught in a conundrum of his own making.

(This report was written by Dr. Taras Kuzio, a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, and adjunct professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.)

"Are you a citizen of the Republic of Belarus? How would you react if a day of mourning was declared for 30 mentally abnormal people?" -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's press secretary Natalya Pyatkevich speaking on 13 October with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service by phone from Minsk. Pyatkevich was answering a question whether a national day of mourning will be declared in memory of 30 psychiatric hospital patients who died in a fire in Belarus on 12 October.