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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: November 25, 2003

25 November 2003, Volume 5, Number 44
POLISH ORTHODOX CHURCH CHALLENGES STATE IN HUMAN RIGHTS COURT. Archbishop Sawa, head of the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church (PAKP), has filed a suit against the Polish state in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, charging that a 1991 law on the regulation of the relationship between the state and the PAKP violates the constitutional principles of the equality of all churches and religious organizations before the law (Article 25 and Article 32 of the Polish Constitution) and of the legal protection of ownership on an equal basis for everyone (Article 64), PAP reported on 19 November and "Rzeczpospolita" on 22 November. According to Archbishop Sawa, legal regulations pertaining to ownership rights in the 1991 law are essentially different from those in a 1989 law on relations between the state and the Polish Roman Catholic Church.

The 1989 law stipulated that all immovable properties administered by the Polish Roman Catholic Church on the day the law came into force automatically became its lawful possessions. This stipulation gave the Polish Roman Catholic Church ownership rights to a number of churches that formerly were used by the Orthodox Church. On the other hand, the 1991 law specified that the PAKP and the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church in Poland might jointly use 23 churches that in the past belonged to the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church but were administered by the PAKP on the day the law came into force. The 1991 law envisaged that all possible ownership controversies between the Orthodox and Uniate churches in Poland would be regulated by a separate law. Such a bill, however, has never been drafted. Archbishop Sawa argues that the state did not treat the Roman Catholic Orthodox Church and the PAKP equally, because the latter has not been granted the same ownership rights as the former.

At the heart of the ongoing dispute between Orthodox and Greek-Catholic believers are 23 churches in south-eastern Poland, which were administratively ceded to the PAKP after World War II, when the Uniate Church was outlawed by Josef Stalin in the USSR in 1946 and the communist authorities in Poland followed suit. After the Uniate Church resumed its operation in Poland in 1989, its hierarchs have sought to reclaim its churches from the PAKP. According to the Catholic Information Agency, the PAKP is ready to discuss the joint use of these 23 churches only after acquiring full ownership rights to them. On the other hand, the Uniates reportedly propose a deal: four of the 23 disputed churches are to be transferred to their ownership, while the remaining 19 may remain in the hands of the PAKP. Talks on the issue came to a standstill in January 2003.

Before turning to Strasbourg, Archbishop Sawa challenged the constitutionality of the 1991 law in Poland's Constitutional Tribunal. The Constitutional Tribunal ruled in April, however, that the law does not contradict the country's constitution. The tribunal said the 1991 law did not deprive the PAKP of equal legal protection of its ownership rights, since the 23 disputed churches have never been in its legal ownership. According to the tribunal, the different ownership regulations regarding the Polish Roman Catholic Church and the PAKP were triggered by "these churches' different real and legal situations, which resulted from their different history" (see

There is no precise data on the number of believers of different churches in Poland. The 2002 national census -- the first one in postcommunist Poland -- included a question about the ethnicity of inhabitants (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 25 June 2003), but did not inquire about their religious faith. Most estimates put the number of Orthodox Church believers in Poland between 500,000-700,000, which makes the PAKP the second-largest religious organization in the predominantly Roman-Catholic Poland. (Jan Maksymiuk)

PERFORMANCE ANXIETY: LUKASHENKA DEMANDS 10 PERCENT GROWTH. Belarus's economic performance is perhaps what Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka likes to boast of before domestic and foreign audiences most of all. According to the official version, eight consecutive years of economic growth since 1996 have allowed not only to make up for the downfall of the first years of independence, but also to boost output above the Soviet-era level and to double real incomes compared to those existing when Lukashenka was first elected president in 1994. Even though there are plenty of ways to questioning this rosy picture, it is undeniable that a stable economy and relatively acceptable living standards were keys to Lukashenka's political success and his to ability to accumulate absolute authority to the applause of his electorate. Lukashenka's 'economic miracle,' however, began to fizzle out several years ago, and by 2001, the Belarusian economy grew at the slowest rate in the former Soviet Union. But his re-election was secured just before the disappointing figures began to arrive and, even more importantly, before living standards took a drastic slump in the first few months of Lukashenka's second term.

An official economic forecast for 2004 prepared by the Economy Ministry was already too optimistic and raised questions about how some economic targets could be achieved even inside the regime-controlled legislature. The ministry increased the gross domestic product (GDP) forecast figures to 7.5 percent from 6.5 percent planned for the year in the General Guidelines for Socioeconomic Development -- a five-year plan adopted by a Soviet-style All-Belarusian Popular Congress in 2001. Deputies belonging to the parliamentary group called Assistance to Economic Development (consisting of regime loyalists who nevertheless advocate some market reforms) warned that without a huge inflow of foreign investment such a growth can only be reached through printing money. And if this is ruled out, the government as well as companies will have no choice but to report false data, engaging in the Soviet-era practice of "pripiski" (reporting of false data).

But even these unrealistic figures presented by the Economy Ministry were not sufficient for Lukashenka. At a seminar for top state officials on 20 November he ordered a revision of the economic forecast for 2004-2005 and insisted that GDP growth figures should reach 10 percent annually in these two years. Moreover, Lukashenka ordered that real incomes be doubled by the end of 2005 compared with 2001. The reason for this revision was the government's failure to comply with the General Guidelines in the two previous years. "No one has the right to ignore the program approved by the people," Lukashenka declared to his government, referring to the fact that the General Guidelines adopted in 2001 were incorporated into his platform in the 2001 presidential election. He further warned that those officials who fail to deliver the required targets will be immediately sacked. Lukashenka's recipe for the forthcoming economic miracle was not convincing, though. He called for "hard work and mobilization of all available managerial resources" plus full involvement of the scientific potential of the country, avoiding discussion of any macro- or microeconomic specifics.

There is little doubt about what is behind Lukashenka's growth push. He will most certainly run for presidency for the third time in 2006 (even though he is currently barred from doing this by the constitution), and he needs to give some legitimacy to this plan in the eyes of the public. As the economic deterioration has considerably diminished his popularity since his re-election in 2001, it is no surprise that Lukashenka turns growth figures into an ideological issue.

In 1997-98, when Lukashenka's first 'economic miracle' occurred, Belarus witnessed a 8 percent-11 percent economic growth. But this was made possible by a combination of factors that can hardly be reproduced today. The first factor was extremely cheap oil and gas that Belarus bought from Russia. Nowadays, prices for Russian oil and gas are steadily reaching world-market levels, and there is no guarantee that yet another hike would not occur next year in another round of the "gas attack" by Russia. The second factor was an abundance of bartering schemes through which Belarusian industries could find a market in Russia. However, today in Belarus barter is discouraged, as it was found out that cashless transactions represent a relatively easy way of tax evasion. The third factor was Russia's consent to buy Belarusian goods at a price higher than what could be found in a free market. The fourth and final factor was printing money, which allowed to invigorate, at least temporarily, economic activity and keep loss-making companies alive. But printing money represents a political problem in itself if Lukashenka wants to win hearts and minds of his electorate to get his third term in office. Inflation (and low nominal wages) were easily tolerated by the population several years ago, when utility bills amounted to little more than $1 per month and foodstuff prices were heavily subsidized. Today, however, the same bill will need $30-$60 to be paid and food can cost even more than it does in neighboring countries.

By ordering that such ambitious economic targets be met, Lukashenka is ignoring the fact that his economy is very open to foreign trade and economic growth can be generated by increasing competitiveness of the country's exports. However, Belarus currently runs a huge trade deficit (nearly 10 percent of GDP), and given the growing gas bill, this number may even increase in 2004. Moreover, the current inflow of foreign direct investments is too low to boost the competitiveness of Belarusian industry and to activate its export sector in so short period of time.

Another fact Lukashenka ignores is that economic growth achieved in a command economy like that in Belarus does not necessarily bring forth an increase in living standards. Stocks of unsold goods represent a loss of -- not an increase in -- income for the population. So does the inflationary spending to activate the real sector, if the government decides to engage in it against the political risks. And if enterprises are forced to meet production plans by reducing investment and amortization payments, they may find themselves unable to maintain competitiveness even at very low wage rates within a very short period of time, and will have to run into even deeper wage cuts.

Hence, the government bureaucracy has a limited range of choices to fulfill Lukashenka's demands. None of them, however, is likely to please the president, since they are limited to wage cuts, inflation, or pripiski. And Lukashenka may need to think in advance who will be appointed a scapegoat for failure to deliver the people-approved plans, or for delivering them in the way that did more harm than good to the people.

This report was written by Vital Silitski, a Minsk-based freelance researcher.

CRITICS SAY DRAFT LAW POSES THREAT TO FREEDOM OF THE INTERNET. A majority in the Ukrainian parliament on 18 November passed the first reading of a draft law that some fear is aimed at muzzling independent news available on the Internet.

The law forbids the publication, including on the Internet, of anything that promotes terrorism, the overthrow of the state, or pornography, or that discriminates against or damages an individual's reputation.

The draft law comes the month after a court ruled that control of the Internet in Ukraine should be taken from a private company, Hostmaster, and handed to an agency formed jointly by the Ukrainian Security services (SBU) and the state Communications Committee.

The Internet is one of the last remaining sources of independent information in Ukraine and has published some of the most damaging allegations against the government of President Leonid Kuchma over the past three years.

Serhiy Lyschenko is the deputy editor of "Ukrayinska pravda," the country's foremost opposition Internet newspaper. Lyschenko believes the government wants to neutralize hostile Internet information sites ahead of next year's presidential elections.

Commenting on whether the draft law has a purpose other than to combat crime and terrorism, Lyschenko says: "That is probably only known to those who submitted this draft law but, from another point of view, it can undoubtedly be used against Internet publications."

He believes the clause about damaging someone's reputation can be interpreted very broadly: "The phrasing of this draft law is very unspecific. Therefore, if someone wants to, they can, for example, say that an article by [Kuchma's former bodyguard Mykola] Melnychenko harms the reputation of President Kuchma and therefore sanctions incorporated in the law can be invoked [against us]."

Ivan Lozovyy is the director of an independent think tank based in Ukraine, the Institute for Statehood and Democracy. Lozovyy is convinced the government wants to control the Internet in Ukraine to silence its critics: "Without a doubt, it's a threat to freedom of speech and to democracy in Ukraine because, firstly, it's necessary to observe that Ukraine's intelligence services do not adhere to the law. Therefore, opening the door just a little way to allow the SBU to deal with the Internet will lead to them doing whatever they want."

Lozovyy says there is no need for further state control of the Internet in Ukraine. He notes present legislation allows the SBU to get permission from courts to monitor Internet or phone communications if they show there are grounds for suspecting that criminals or terrorists are using them.

He says the official explanation that the law is necessary to combat organized crime and terrorism is just a pretext: "Although the text of the law doesn't sound very dangerous, unfortunately, in Ukraine, the best laws are transformed into the worst possible thing in practice."

He also believes the real reason for the law will become clear as the presidential campaign picks up pace: "Those Internet publications which publish opposition points of view will be closed or will be difficult to access."

The Internet holds the promise that people all over the world can communicate freely and receive information without fear of censorship. But as RFE/RL's Internet expert, Rich Malak, says, many governments do not share that ideal and put a lot of effort into trying to control the Internet: "It's quite easy for a government, if they're willing to put a lot of resources into it, to control access to the Internet within the country."

Malak says the most common way to attack free Internet traffic is to use technical means. Many of these were originally developed to protect computer systems from damaging digital viruses but are now exploited by censors. Controls using electronic filters can be applied to Internet "providers" within the country -- the setups that facilitate communication between a computer user and the websites.

"Countries -- for example, like China or Belarus -- they restrict the Internet service providers who set up connections to the Internet in the countries and so therefore they effectively control everything about the Internet because everybody has to get Internet through those providers. So, for example, in China there are 30,000 people employed by the government who just work on finding websites which are against the government and work on putting them into filtering systems so people cannot get to those websites within the country. And when they try to go to those websites, they are given a simple webpage that tells them they were trying to access an illegal site and if they continue to try to do it they can be prosecuted," Malak says.

Information providers play a cat-and-mouse game with censorship authorities. Malak says the fate of the Internet in Ukraine depends on how much effort that country's government puts into trying to control it: "The easiest way to keep your Internet site working in a country that is only moderately dedicated to blocking is to move it out of the country."

Ukrainian Internet journalist Lyschenko says his publication, "Ukrayinska pravda," has contingency plans in case the government tries to hamper its work: "'Ukrayinska pravda' is a mirror that exists beyond Ukraine's frontiers, so that if there is a danger, we can work in the West. That [does] mean that the website address will be moved. In case of serious attempts to hinder us, there is danger, but there are ways to circumvent this."

The Ukrainian measure will become law if a majority approves it on the second reading -- normally held within three months.

Lyschenko says Internet journalists are certain that many lawmakers who voted in favor of the draft law at its first reading were not aware of its implications. They plan to lobby legislators to eliminate portions of the law potentially harmful to the freedom of the Internet before the next reading.

RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky wrote this report.

"Everything should be simple and clear, and there is no need to wag the tail before the people. Half the population are alcoholics. But we close our eyes and pretend that nothing is happening. It is happening! It has become even worse that it was in the Soviet era." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 18 November, instructing officials from the Health and Interior ministries to rehabilitate alcoholics in detoxification centers "through labor," quoted by Belarusian Television.

"The radical right-wing forces, which were gradually losing their influence, have taken a new breath thanks to the populist phenomenon of [Viktor] Yushchenko.... The danger is being increased by the fact that this extremism has always had, and continues to have, influential foreign sponsors. They operate in both the United States and some countries of Western and Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, requirements of confidentiality do not allow me to go into details." -- Presidential administration head and Social Democratic Party-united (SDP-o) leader Viktor Medvedchuk at an SDP-o conference last week; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 21 November.