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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: January 22, 2002

22 January 2002, Volume 4, Number 3
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT IN POLAND. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Poland on 16-17 January on the first visit there by a Russian head of state in the past eight years. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on the eve of Putin's trip that he hoped for a "breakthrough" in Polish-Russian relations, but most Polish commentators concur in the opinion that the visit, albeit important and useful, did not result in any significant changes.

Putin started his visit with a face-to-face meeting with Kwasniewski. Prior to the meeting, however, in the attendance of reporters, Putin gave Kwasniewski copies of documents from Russian archives concerning General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Poland's prime minister in 1939-43 who signed an accord with Stalin on re-establishing Polish-Soviet relations.

"The difficult stage [in Polish-Russian relations] in the 1990s is behind us," Kwasniewski told a news conference following his meeting with Putin. Meanwhile, at the same news conference Putin said: "We see the visit as a groundbreaking event in the relations between our countries.... Over the past few years it has been our desire to reach a qualitatively new level in our relations." Putin added that he and Kwasniewski discussed bilateral economic ties, EU expansion, cultural cooperation, the problem of Kaliningrad Oblast, and combating international terrorism. Putin said Poland's entry into the EU "should not have a negative effect on Russian-Polish relations or create any barriers for our citizens."

Answering a question from a Polish journalist about calls for compensation to surviving Poles deported to Siberia after the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939, Putin ruled out financial compensation similar to that being paid out by Germany to Third Reich slave laborers. But he added: "We do not want to close our eyes to the negative sides of the Stalinist regime. As is well-known, in Russia there is a law on the rehabilitation of individuals who were wronged during political repressions. I feel that the opportunities for the implementation of this act may also be used by Polish citizens who were wronged in those days."

On 17 January, Putin and Kwasniewski went to Poznan, where they attended a Polish-Russian economic forum and visited an international trade fair. Putin assured the economic forum that Russia will do everything possible to cut Poland's $3 billion trade deficit with Russia, which is largely the result of Polish dependence on Russian natural gas.

Putin met earlier the same day with Prime Minister Leszek Miller in Warsaw. Miller told Putin that Warsaw wants to verify earlier gas-supply agreements with Russia in order to reduce supply volumes. The sides agreed that representatives of Gazprom and the Polish Oil and Gas Company will meet in mid-February to discuss the issue. Both sides are also expected to decide in February on the construction of a link between the Polish section of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline and Slovakia to enable Russian gas supplies to Western Europe to bypass Ukraine, "Rzeczpospolita" reported on 18 January. ITAR-TASS quoted Polish Deputy Premier Marek Belka as saying two days earlier that Warsaw "fully backs" Moscow's idea of building a gas pipeline to circumvent Ukraine. Belka was in the United States and unavailable for comment, while Economy Minister Jacek Piechota said the Polish government has not made any decision on this issue. It appears, however, that Warsaw -- which during the term of the previous Solidarity-led government vowed not to trade its "strategic partnership" with Ukraine for better relations with Russia -- has now taken a more pragmatic stand and will eventually agree to the gas pipeline bypass demanded by Moscow.

Before leaving for Russia on 17 January, Putin said that any possible apologies by the Russians and the Poles for wrongdoings of the past will not improve the relations between the two countries. Putin was apparently referring to the expectation voiced by some Polish media that during his visit the Russian president would apologize to the Poles for the Katyn massacre. Putin said making apologies for the past could give rise to "a balance sheet of who apologized how many times." And he added: "I think it would be more objective to note that we see the problems of our history and that we shall draw conclusions from this. We have great respect for the Polish people, we see all the problems of our past, and of course we shall draw conclusions for the future."

A similar view was expressed more clearly by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov a day earlier, who answered a question from a Polish journalist as to why the schedule of Putin's visit included neither wreath-laying at the 1944 Warsaw Uprising Monument nor an address to the Sejm as had been proposed by the Polish side. "One can deal with gestures but one can also seriously deal with real politics. We want to deal with serious work, with changing our mutual relations and the approach to international problems," PAP quoted Ivanov as saying. However, Putin made two unscheduled "gestures" that were approvingly noted by the Polish media. On 16 January, he laid flowers at the memorial to Poland's Home Army in Warsaw, while on 17 January in Poznan he unexpectedly halted before the monument to the victims of anticommunist protests in 1956 and paid his respects.

LUKASHENKA UNLEASHES WAVE OF ARRESTS. Two months ago, fresh from his autumn re-election victory, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka pledged to imprison at least 15 prominent business leaders, accusing them of sabotaging the country's economy. Lukashenka is well on the way toward keeping his promise.

The first executive to be arrested was Leanid Kaluhin, the director of the country's largest refrigerator factory. He was charged with abuse of office, illegal business practices, forgery, and embezzlement. Several more factory directors were detained soon afterward, including the head of Belarusian Railways and the former head of the Belavtomaz heavy construction equipment giant.

Two weeks ago, Mikhail Lyavonau, the head of Belarus's largest manufacturing plant -- the Minsk Tractor Factory, which employs 19,000 people -- was detained on suspicion of abuse of power and negligence. The authorities accuse Lyavonau of causing at least $4 million in financial damages to the state budget.

What is driving this wave of arrests, and why has Lukashenka targeted the once-coddled managers of the country's largest state enterprises?

Theories abound, but there seems to be agreement among opposition politicians and independent commentators that with these latest arrests, Lukashenka may be trying to kill two birds with one stone -- deflecting blame for the worsening economic situation while ridding himself of potential political opponents.

Alyaksandr Yakauleu, the former deputy director of the Minsk Automobile Factory, fled to Poland 1 1/2 years ago, where he is seeking political asylum. The Belarusian authorities are demanding his extradition on economic crime charges. Warsaw is currently considering whether to honor the request.

Yakauleu tells RFE/RL that Lukashenka is using industry managers as scapegoats for his citizens' declining living standards: "How are you going to explain to people that their lives haven't improved? It's very simple. You say, 'You're not getting a good salary because your factory director or the deputy director is stealing. He's a thief and has stolen your money and that's why you, the worker, are not getting your salary.' And this is understandable to a worker because the system we lived in under socialism taught people that everyone was stealing and people accepted this as normal. A factory director? Well, God himself gave him free rein to steal!"

Alyaksandr Patupa, the president of the Belarus Union of Businessmen, says the real reason for falling living standards is the fact that Belarus's factories do not produce any goods that can compete on world markets. Most production is shipped to Russia, often at prices that are below cost. As a result, no new money is received that can be invested in upgrading machinery and equipment. As the government prints more money, inflation grows, and the economy sinks deeper into crisis.

Patupa says that, under these circumstances, Lukashenka is keen to head off any public protests and that his goal, above all, is "the mass frightening of political and social activists and economic leaders."

Vasil Lyavonau, a former Belarusian agriculture minister, says that because opposition parties have shown themselves to be ineffectual and unable to threaten Lukashenka's position, it is the directors of the country's large Soviet-era enterprises who could pose a future political challenge. Lyavonau says many of these directors realize the dire shape the economy is in.

"This is today the main opposition for the government. Directors see where things are going. They see the catastrophe. Directors have to think. They live and work here, and they have children and relatives to think of."

As with almost all political and economic issues in Belarus, there is also a Russian angle. Some observers point to government privatization efforts and say the removal of key factory directors is a way to ensure those privatizations proceed according to plan.

Viktar Ivashkevich, a deputy chairman of the opposition Belarus Popular Front, says: "I believe Lukashenka is planning a soft privatization of industrial enterprises and it's necessary to put these directors in their place so they don't think of taking any measures to influence this privatization."

Russian businesses could be important players in any major privatizations. As Patupa notes, with state coffers nearly empty, Lukashenka is once again turning to Moscow: "There is no money, so we have to pay with our sovereignty. This is strongly determining the whole political and economic course of the country."

Lukashenka is taking no chances. Next on the agenda is a new drive to shape public opinion. Last week, Belarus's president ordered the creation of "information and advisory groups" for what he terms "mass propaganda work among the population."

According to the presidential directive, group members will be tasked with appearing at factories, military installations, and educational institutions to lecture on political, social, and economic issues.

(This report was written by RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten, with contributions from Bohdan Andrusyshyn and Vital Taras of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service)

OUR UKRAINE APPROVES ELECTION LIST. A congress of former Premier Viktor Yushchenko's election bloc Our Ukraine approved its election list on 16 January, Ukrainian media reported. The first five on the list are: Yushchenko; lawmaker Oleksandr Stoyan, the head of the Trade Union Federation of Ukraine; lawmaker Hennadiy Udovenko, the leader of the Popular Rukh of Ukraine; lawmaker Yuriy Kostenko, the leader of the Ukrainian Popular Rukh; and lawmaker Viktor Pynzenyk, the leader of the Reforms and Order Party.

Additional names on the list are: lawmaker Liliya Hryhorovich, the head of the Union of Ukrainian Women; lawmaker Oleksandr Slobodyan; Ivan Zayets, the deputy head of the Ukrainian Popular Rukh; former Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk; former Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Zhulynskyy; Slava Stetsko, the head of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists; Les Tanyuk, the deputy head of the Popular Rukh of Ukraine; Our Ukraine political coordinator Roman Bezsmertnyy; Vyacheslav Koval from the Popular Rukh of Ukraine; Serhiy Sobolev from the Reforms and Order Party.

The congress also approved a list of Our Ukraine candidates running in single-seat constituencies. This list included Taras Chornovil, a son of charismatic Rukh leader Vyacheslav Chornovil, as well as lawmakers Roman Zvarych and Oleksandr Zhyr.

"Ukrainian politics lacks decency. We are for honesty in politics, for honesty in matters connected with the governing of the state," Yushchenko said during the congress while adding, "we should do everything to restore the people's trust in the authorities."

Yushchenko also told the congress that Our Ukraine pledges "to free the country from everything that hampers its development," and said his bloc seeks to change Ukraine's "ruthless, bureaucratic, and corrupt" executive power system. Asked by journalists about possible allies in the future parliament, Yushchenko named the Unity bloc led by Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko and the pro-presidential For a United Ukraine led by Volodymyr Lytvyn.

BEAUTY PLANS TO TOUR UKRAINE. The fiercely antipresidential Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc on 18 January approved its election list, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported. Former Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko and Sobor Party leader Anatoliy Matviyenko top the list. The third name on the list is Hryhoriy Omelchenko, which "Ukrayinska pravda" referred to as a "sensational" development. Lawmaker Omelchenko, who is known for his relentless fight against corruption in Ukraine, has in the past written a slew of letters to Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko and President Leonid Kuchma asking them to instigate criminal proceedings against Tymoshenko and former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko.

The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc election list also includes lawmaker Vasyl Onopenko, famous Soviet dissident Levko Lukyanenko, lawmaker and former Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oleh Bilorus, and Oleksandr Turchynov, Tymoshenko's comrade from the Fatherland Party.

Some Ukrainian independent media deliberately refer to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc by using its specially adapted Ukrainian acronym BYuTy, which sounds similar to the English word "beauty." This interlingual play on words, of course, underscores the fact that the bloc is led by the politician who is famous not only for her moral fortitude but also for her attractiveness and sex appeal.

Tymoshenko told the 19 January "Dzerkalo tyzhnya" that this week she begins election trips across Ukraine. Asked by the weekly how she can travel after she gave a written pledge to the Prosecutor-General's Office not to leave Kyiv, Tymoshenko said that she has recently filed a lawsuit questioning the legality of the procedure that stripped her of her parliamentary immunity. A court has accepted her lawsuit and this, according to Tymoshenko, means that she will retain her parliamentary immunity until the court's final verdict. This also means, Tymoshenko argued, that the Prosecutor-General's Office had no right to demand from her a written pledge that she will not leave Kyiv.

Last week, Tymoshenko publicly invited the leader of the Social Democrat Party (United) (SDPU-O), Viktor Medvedchuk, to participate in a televised debate with her, STB Television reported. Tymoshenko pointed out that Medvedchuk has been recently portrayed as a real man in his television commercials. "If you are a man, come and join me in a televised duel," Tymoshenko challenged. She added that the debate could be broadcast on the private Inter Television. Medvedchuk reacted almost immediately with an open letter saying that he does not accept the ideology of the Tymoshenko-led bloc, which is against President Kuchma. Medvedchuk added that he would like to speak on television to communists and representatives of the Our Ukraine and For a United Ukraine election blocs.

UKRAINIAN SOCIAL DEMOCRATS (UNITED) APPROVE ELECTION LIST... At a congress on 15 January, the SDPU-O approved its election list and manifesto, Interfax reported. The top five on the list are SDPU-O leader Medvedchuk; Tamara Proshkuratova, a teacher from Cherkasy Oblast; SDPU-O deputy head Oleksandr Zinchenko; Volodymyr Ryabika, the head of the National Committee of Youth Organizations; and Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine. Medvedchuk told the congress that an SDPU-O caucus in the future parliament will seek to create a centrist majority, including with the For a United Ukraine bloc, the Green Party, the Democratic Union, and the Yabluko Party.

...AS DO OTHER SOCIAL DEMOCRATS. The Social Democratic Party on 19 January approved its election lists. The first five on the list are: party leader Yuriy Buzduhan, Viktor Antonov, Svitlana Harmasheva, Svitlana Hodovana, and Oleksandr Zayets.

DEMOCRATIC PARTY-DEMOCRATIC UNION BLOC APPROVES ELECTION LIST. The Democratic Party-Democratic Union election bloc approved its election lists on 19 January. The top five are: Democratic Union leader Volodymyr Horbulin, Democratic Party leader Bohdan Shyba, Ukrainian Cossacks leader Ivan Bilas, television news moderator Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, and businessman Volodymyr Severnyuk. The founder of the Democratic Union, Oleksandr Volkov, will seek a parliamentary mandate in a single-seat constituency.

PEASANT PARTY OF UKRAINE APPROVES ELECTION LIST. The Peasant Party of Ukraine approved its election list on 17 January. The first five on the list are: Peasant Party leader Serhiy Dovhan, Illya Tsaberyabyy, Ivan Dotsenko, Andriy Sklarenko, and Anatoliy Drobotov. The party canceled its earlier resolution to cooperate with the Communist Party of Ukraine in the election campaign.

TEAM OF THE WINTER-CROP GENERATION APPROVES ELECTION LIST. The election bloc under the fancy name of the Team of the Winter-Crop Generation (Komanda ozymoho pokolinnya) approved its election list on 17 January. The fop five on the list are: Valeriy Khoroshkovskyy, Inna Bohoslovska, Mykola Veresen, Valeriy Voshchevskyy, and Ostap Protsyk. The "winter-croppers" declare in their manifesto that they are going into politics "with Ukraine in their hearts" in order to "provide inspiration through their own example as to how to conduct honest politics."

NEW GENERATION OF UKRAINE APPROVES ELECTION LIST. The New Generation of Ukraine party approved its election list on 16 January, Interfax reported. The first five on the list are: New Generation of Ukraine leader Yuriy Mroshnychenko, Vyacheslav Kredisov, Olena Romina, Oleh Hliy, and Volodymyr Barabash. The party, which was established in 1999, claims to have 3,500 members.

SOCIALISTS CRITICIZE RYABETS FOR STANCE ON MELNYCHENKO. The Socialist Party has said it disagrees with the statement of Central Election Commission head Mykhaylo Ryabets to the effect that former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, who has been residing in the United States for more than a year, cannot be registered as a candidate running on the Socialist Party election list, Interfax reported on 17 January. Ryabets said on 15 January that the election law stipulates that only those Ukrainian citizens who have been living in Ukraine for the past five years may be elected to the Ukrainian parliament. The Socialists retorted that, according to the same law, residence in Ukraine means also "staying outside Ukraine's borders in accordance with Ukraine's appropriate international agreements." The Socialists believe that Melnychenko's U.S. visa is a document envisioned by such "appropriate international agreements." The Socialist Party said Ryabets' stance on Melnychenko is "preconceived."

TAX POLICE CHIEF HALTS AUDITS OF MEDIA. Last week, State Tax Administration (STA) head Mykola Azarov ordered a ban on government tax audits of media companies during the election campaign, Interfax reported. Critics of the Azarov-led agency have often complained in the past that the STA is used as an efficient tool to harass media critical of the government. Moreover, Azarov announced that he will not run for parliament, as "the jobs of STA chief and of a parliamentary deputy are incompatible."

"Generally, we pay too much attention to Lukashenka. The more we criticize him, the more we think about him, the more we appeal to him; the stronger his grip over our thoughts. That's why he wins elections and other things. A void should remain a void." -- Belarusian writer Lyavon Vashko in an interview with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 18 January.