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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 11, 2003

11 November 2003, Volume 5, Number 42
PUBLIC-TELEVISION CHIEF TO BE SELECTED IN COMPETITION. There have so far been no specific decisions in the bribery scandal dubbed Rywingate by Polish media (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 14 January and 18 February 2003). The scandal involves film producer Lew Rywin, who allegedly sought a bribe of $17.5 million in 2002 -- by some accounts on behalf of Prime Minister Leszek Miller -- for lobbying a media law that could prove favorable for Agora, the publisher of the "Gazeta Wyborcza" daily headed by Adam Michnik. A special parliamentary commission is still investigating Rywingate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 23 October 2003), while Rywin is awaiting trial on charges of seeking a bribe. But one recent occurrence -- the announced competition for the post of chairperson of Polish Television -- seems to be directly connected with Rywingate.

Rywin said in a conversation with Michnik in July 2002, which was secretly taped by the latter and publicized in December 2002, that he is acting in concord with a "group of people in power" who are responsible for drafting a new media bill. Those people, Rywin hinted, would make it possible for Agora to buy a private television station, Polsat, the deal Agora was reportedly seeking. (A draft media bill proposed by the government in early 2002 banned the owner of a nationwide newspaper from obtaining a license for nationwide broadcasting.) Some speculation in the Polish media pointed to former Deputy Culture Minister Aleksandra Jakubowska, National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television Secretary Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, and Polish Television Chairman Robert Kwiatkowski as the "group of people in power" that might have been standing behind Rywin's bribery proposal. All three have firmly denied any involvement in Rywingate.

There were many calls in Polish media for Kwiatkowski's resignation or dismissal, but he himself refused to step down, while the Supervisory Council of Polish Television, which has the right to appoint and dismiss the public-television chairperson and board, did not make such a decision despite several attempts to vote Kwiatkowski out of office. Therefore, the Supervisory Council announced an open competition for the five posts on the Polish Television board. According to the weekly "Polityka," as many as 252 people have applied, including 52 for the post of Polish Television chairperson.

The competition for the post of Polish Television chairperson seems to be a rather complicated affair, involving five selection stages.

Stage 1: Each of the nine members of the Polish Television Supervisory Council chooses three candidates from the 52 applicants.

Stage 2: By secret ballot, the Supervisory Council reduces the number of candidates to nine.

Stage 3: Out of the nine candidates selected in Stage 2, the Supervisory Council qualifies for further consideration only those who were chosen by at least two members of the Supervisory Council in Stage 1.

Stage 4: An independent audit firm is to make an assessment of the professional capabilities of the candidates selected in Stage 3. The Supervisory Council selects the three best-suited candidates and makes their names known to the public.

Stage 5: Following a "nationwide debate" over the three candidates selected in Stage 4, the Supervisory Council appoints the chief of Polish Television.

Since Polish Television is the most influential media outlet in the country, the appointment of its chief has always incited strong political emotions. Until now, this appointment was made solely by the nine members of the Polish Television Supervisory Council, who in turn were appointed by the National Council of Radio Broadcasting and Television (KRRiTV), a body obliged by the constitution to "safeguard the public interest regarding radio broadcasting and television." But since the nine-member KRRiTV is a political body itself -- four members are appointed by the Sejm, two by the Senate, and three by the president -- it is no wonder that different political forces have complained at different times that the public Polish Television is politically biased. The current open competition for the post of Polish Television boss is apparently intended to blunt such allegations, if not to do away with them altogether.

But, as the saying goes, in every cause the devil is in the details. This competition has a devilish detail, too. The Supervisory Council decided -- in quite an illogical move -- that the audit firm required in Stage 4 should be selected in a tender organized by the current Polish Television board. Since Polish Television Chairman Robert Kwiatkowski, head of the Polish Television board, is taking part in the competition, many in Poland fear that he will not be impartial in selecting an auditor that may subsequently appraise his qualifications for the top public-television job.

"Polityka" reported last week that of the 12 audit firms that were invited for the tender, none has complied with formal stipulations of the law on public orders, which applies to situations involving the spending of public money (Polish Television is partly financed by obligatory fees collected by the state from viewers). This means that the name of a new Polish Television boss will be known not by the end of this year, as originally expected, but several months later.

It is theoretically possible that the Supervisory Council may not appoint a new television chief in Stage 5 of the competition -- according to the council's statute, at least six of its nine members must support the appointment. But some Polish observers assert that the council will try to avoid such a situation, after having initiated such an ostentatious and complicated appointment process. But many of them predict that, as before, bargaining and compromise between various political forces will be needed to select the main operator of Poland's most powerful political-propaganda machine. (Jan Maksymiuk)

MAJOR SUSPECT IN GONGADZE CASE RELEASED FROM DETENTION. Last week, the Kyiv Appellate Court released from custody Oleksiy Pukach, former head of the intelligence unit of the Interior Ministry, who was arrested last month on charges of involvement in the case of the murder of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, Interfax and the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported. (Gongadze disappeared on 16 September 2000, and in early November 2000 his headless body was found near Kyiv.) Pukach's release occurred a week after President Leonid Kuchma sacked Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun, who earlier claimed that the arrest of Pukach was a major advance in the investigation of the Gongadze case.

The reason for Pukach's arrest became known only during a court hearing on 5 November, after which Pukach was immediately released from the courtroom on a pledge that he will appear for interrogation every time the investigation needs it. It turned out that investigators suspect Pukach of ordering his subordinates in the Interior Ministry to destroy documents pertaining to the surveillance of Gongadze by police. "These were the only documents containing information about specific individuals who shadowed Gongadze," investigator Ihor Dehtyarov said during the hearing. Dehtyarov added that Pukach also pressed his subordinates in the Interior Ministry into not telling the truth during their interrogations by investigators.

Based on the secret tapes made by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko in Kuchma's office, some opposition activists have accused Kuchma and other top-ranking officials of involvement in the Gongadze murder. (Jan Maksymiuk)

CONFLICT GROWS BETWEEN OUR UKRAINE AND SOCIAL DEMOCRATS. Anders Aslund, of Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, compares Viktor Medvedchuk's behind-the-scenes role in Ukrainian politics to that of oligarch Boris Berezovskii, who fled Russia in late 2000. Since Medvedchuk, chairman of the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o), became head of the presidential administration in May 2002, dirty tactics of one sort or another have escalated against Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine. Two factors account for this.

First, Aslund believes that the SDPU-o are the only large oligarchic clan in Ukraine who have not established themselves in industrial production. This means, he believes, that in the event of a cleanup of Ukraine's economy and energy sector, including making the budgetary process more transparent, Medvedchuk and the SDPU-o would lose out most. In contrast, the Party of Regions and the Dnipropetrovsk-based Labor Ukraine clans have established themselves in Ukraine's privatized industrial sector.

As the end of the Leonid Kuchma era approaches, the Party of Regions and Labor Ukraine are attempting to evolve from oligarchs, who gained from robber-baron capitalism in the 1990s, to businessmen. Viktor Pinchuk, who dominates Ukraine's pipe manufacturing, is an example of this gentrification. Pinchuk is therefore not concerned about a potential Yushchenko victory in the 2004 elections.

When the last cleanup of Ukraine's economy and government finances took place during the Yushchenko government of December 1999-April 2001, the SDPU-o were thought to have suffered most. Aslund calculated that approximately $2 billion was returned to the Ukrainian budget by the Yushchenko government.

Medvedchuk played a leading role in organizing a combined oligarch-communist vote of no confidence on 26 April 2001 that led to Yushchenko's dismissal. This was seen as revenge for Yushchenko successfully organizing the removal of Medvedchuk as first deputy speaker of parliament in December 2000.

Second, the low-intensity conflict between Our Ukraine and the SDPU-o is a consequence of two political forces campaigning for dominance in the same region of western and central Ukraine. The SDPU-o is the only oligarchic clan unable to secure for itself a dominant place in its home base of Kyiv.

To Kuchma, therefore, the SDPU-o does not play the role in Ukrainian politics that a clan is supposed to; that is, to control an area on behalf of the executive. This role is best undertaken by Regions of Ukraine who blocked Our Ukraine from crossing the 4 percent threshold in the 2002 elections in the Donbas region and ensured the ultimate victory for the pro-Kuchma For a United Ukraine bloc.

In Kyiv itself, the SDPU-o is disliked by the public and opposed by popular Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko. During the 2002 elections one would be hard-pressed to find a single SDPU-o poster in Kyiv. Omelchenko cooperated with Yushchenko in removing Medvedchuk from the post of first deputy speaker, and in return Medvedchuk is widely believed to be behind attempts to force Omelchenko to retire from office on grounds of his age. In 1999 Hryhoriy Surkis, Medvedchuk's close ally, lost disastrously to Omelchenko in the Kyiv mayoral race.

In July-August this conflict between Our Ukraine and SDPU-o became unpleasant in mayoral elections in Mukachevo. Mukachevo is an important town in Transcarpathia which was the only western Ukrainian oblast controlled by the SDPU-o. Vasyl Petyovka, the Our Ukraine candidate, defeated SDPU-o candidate Ernest Nuser in a hotly contested election. Our Ukraine accused the SDPU-o of being behind the arson attack on the home of Pavlo Shcherban, the head of the city court, which rejected a Lviv district court ruling to nullify voting results in 15 of the city's 36 polling precincts.

In Lviv the conflict between Our Ukraine and the SDPU-o has surrounded persistent complaints that the local tax administration, headed by Medvedchuk's brother Serhiy, is deliberately targeting businesses which support Our Ukraine. The editors of "Lvivska hazeta" complained that they had been targeted because their newspaper had exposed widespread corruption in the ranks of the Lviv tax administration.

On 1 October the Lviv City Council, headed by Our Ukraine member Mykhaylo Sendak, passed a vote of no confidence in the city's tax administration. The presidential administration responded by removing the Lviv Oblast governor and the heads of four raion administrations in the oblast who were accused of allowing Our Ukraine to organize civil unrest. A 15,000-strong demonstration in Lviv took place on 26 September in protest against the tax administration and the formation of the CIS Single Economic Space.

The tactic used in Donetsk of portraying Our Ukraine as "Nashist" was devised in Lviv by the SDPU-o. "Nashism" is a play on the Ukrainian word "our" in Our Ukraine and meant to resemble "Nazism." A 6 October SDPU-o statement on events in Lviv used Soviet language to describe Our Ukraine as an "openly extremist and dirty political force" with an "extremist and ultranationalistic wing."

This is ironic coming from the SDPU-o, which has incorporated former members of the extreme-right Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA), such as Andriy Shkil, into leading positions in the party in western Ukraine. Dmytro Korchynskyy, UNA's former leading ideologue in the 1990s, regularly assails Yushchenko on the 1+1 television channel controlled by the SDPU-o.

Medvedchuk has boxed himself to a corner by tying his fate so closely to Kuchma, in the same way Berezovskii did with Boris Yeltsin. Medvedchuk's tactics, and that of his SDPU-o, have led to two outcomes. First, he has made himself unelectable as president. Second, the Socialist International has turned down the SDPU-o, which it had been assiduously courting for membership, preferring instead to give it to the Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party. Keeping his capital abroad may be a shrewd tactic for Medvedchuk as it is difficult to see how he could stay in Ukraine in the event of a Yushchenko victory.

This report was written by Dr. Taras Kuzio, a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.

"The basic idea of [the Hollywood film] 'Matrix' was built on the comparison of two parallel realities. The first reality, purportedly the only possible one, was actually a total fraud. The second reality, the human one, required a tough struggle in order to be reached. Thus, the main quest in the first 'Matrix' movie was to unblock one's own consciousness. This is very topical for the Belarusian situation, because we are in actual fact living in a virtual Soviet Belarus that for most of us appears to be the only possible one. What we really need is to unblock our consciousness in order to realize that there are alternatives and that there is a real Belarus that we have not yet reached." -- Belarusian philosopher Maksim Zhbankou commenting on the global premiere of "Matrix Revolutions" last week; quoted by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 5 November.