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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 19, 2002

19 February 2002, Volume 4, Number 7
STIR OVER EU FARMING SUBSIDIES. At the end of January, the European Commission made public its proposals for agricultural aid in an enlarged EU, including subsidies from the EU's structural funds and the so-called "direct payments" to farmers under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). According to these proposals, the EU newcomers would qualify for 25 percent of the level of subsidies given to Western farmers in 2004, 30 percent in 2005, 35 percent in 2006, and would achieve 100 percent of the Western level in as yet unspecified stages by 2013.

The proposals have provoked a loud outcry of disappointment and indignation in Poland, especially among farmers' parties and organizations as well as Euroskeptics. "If we accept these conditions, a lot of our farmers would be worse off than they are now," Deputy Premier and Agricultural Minister Jaroslaw Kalinowski commented. According to Kalinowski, the proposals violate two basic EU principles: fair competition in a common market and support for poorer regions. Kalinowski is the leader of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) -- a coalition partner of the ruling Democratic Left Alliance of Premier Leszek Miller -- which vies for votes in the countryside with the blatantly populist and Euroskeptical Self-Defense led by Andrzej Lepper.

"If there is no equal membership, we will do everything to persuade the people to say say 'no' to the EU in a referendum," Lepper warned, adding that Poland's negotiations with the EU should be headed by him personally or some other Self-Defense lawmaker.

The pro-Catholic, conservative League of Polish Families (LPR) has appealed to Miller's cabinet to introduce an antidumping tax on imports of subsidized EU food products in response to the EU farming aid proposals. "The proposals, if implemented, would put Polish farmers not even in the second category in the EU but in the third," LPR leader Marek Kotlinowski said.

The government's official reaction to the issue of EU farming subsidies was more cautious, but Miller's cabinet nevertheless said the proposals are "highly unsatisfactory" and "unacceptable" in their current form. Last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Tadeusz Iwinski suggested some lines along which Warsaw would like to renegotiate the EU farming aid offer. "We are saying that there are three options to bring about a more beneficial situation. First, at the starting point in 2004 it should be more than 25 percent. Second, if it is possible to significantly cut the period of waiting for the full subsidy from 10 years to, let's say three or five years; and third, if we were able to shift some of the money earmarked for Poland -- some 20 billion euros ($17.4 billion) [in 2004-2006] -- from a fund, for example, of rural development to the fund of direct subsidies, or even a combination of these three elements," Iwinski told Polish Radio.

However, Brussels makes it adamantly clear that it cannot offer more to EU newcomers. As of now, the CAP absorbs nearly half of the EU's budget of 90 billion euros. The European Commission argues that 100 percent direct payments to farmers in Central European countries would only discourage modernization of their agricultural sectors.

EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenther Verheugen told "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" earlier this month that the EU expansion may be delayed if new member countries fail to accept the current farming aid offer. According to Verheugen, Kalinowski's complaints about Brussels' unfair treatment of EU newcomers are unfounded given the diverse purchasing power of the euro in different parts of Europe. "One euro in Bialystok [northeastern Poland] has a different value than one euro in Straubing [Bavaria].... We cannot accept the situation where a [Polish] peasant with 30 hectares of land, while doing nothing at all, earns more than a [Polish] university professor," Verheugen noted, in an apparent reference to the CAP's bizarre provisions allowing farmers to be financially rewarded for growing nothing.

For Warsaw, the agricultural chapter in EU membership talks is undoubtedly the most difficult. Some 27 percent of Poland's workforce remains employed in the agricultural sector, while its share in the country's GDP amounted to only 3.6 percent in 2000. With the national unemployment rate now standing at 17 percent and expert predictions stating that it will continue to increase for at least two more years, it is hard to expect that the Polish countryside will see any radical restructuring of its workforce in the upcoming years.

There are several important factors accounting for the high inefficiency of Poland's agricultural sector when compared with those in the West. Some 35 percent of agricultural land in Poland is of very poor quality and can be used only for growing rye or potatoes (incidentally, the CAP does not provide for direct subsidies for growing these crops). Statistically, one average Polish farm possesses only 8.7 hectares of land (for comparison, this figure for Germany is 52 hectares and for France 63 hectares).

Due to Poland's geological past, when its territory was repeatedly invaded by creeping glaciers, it is now quite difficult to find a relatively large chunk of homogenous soil in the country. Moreover, most Polish farms consist of numerous broken plots -- one statistical farm is "dispersed" among 12 disconnected parcels of land. According to economic experts quoted by the weekly "Polityka" in December, to make farming a modestly profitable business, one Polish family needs to have no less than 15 hectares of land and, preferably, in one unbroken plot. As of now, there are more than 2 million farms in Poland, but only some 40 percent of them produce for the market.

Thus, it seems that Warsaw has no real choice left and will have to agree, more or less grudgingly, to Brussels' farming aid conditions which are seen by many -- not only in Poland but also in Hungary and the Czech Republic -- as quite unfair and humiliating. The point is, however, that with its own means alone Poland is in no way capable of restructuring its agricultural sector, while the EU offer of phased-in farming subsidies translates into some 20 billion euros to be pumped into the Polish countryside over a span of three years. Such a sum is equal to half the country's annual budget spending. "After all, it is a lot of money," Polish Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek commented on what the EU is offering Polish farmers. This observation seems to touch upon the crux of the matter.

LUKASHENKA TRIUMPHANT. For many admirers, adversaries, or simply observers of the political exploits of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, last week finally signaled the return of Belarus's loquacious leader to his usual ways of pursuing politics. Following the 9 September 2001 presidential elections -- which Lukashenka called his "shining" victory, while the OSCE branded them as gravely failing to meet European democratic standards -- the Belarusian president noticeably toned down his flamboyantly populist rhetoric. During the past several months, he almost ceased to pour scorn on the West and hurl abusive diatribes against domestic opponents. But on 12 February, he suddenly appeared to be back in his saddle, and in good shape as well.

For starters, Lukashenka slammed the government for failing to meet five parameters of Belarus's socioeconomic development that he decreed for 2001, as well as for its failure to keep the monthly inflation rate below 2.5 percent. Before television cameras, Lukashenka vowed to stop the government's practice of "pulling the wool over people's eyes" and pledged to make life for his ministers much more difficult than it was before. Such a public whipping of cabinet members was repeatedly staged by Lukashenka in the past seven years to show the electorate who is actually responsible for the country's hardships and simultaneously remind the people that the president is unrelentingly working toward their good. Judging by all appearances, the trick still works in Belarus.

Lukashenka also commented on how he sees the process of liberalization and privatization he pledged to launch following last year's presidential elections. Recently, Baltika, Russia's leading beer producer, has moved to get back some $10 million it invested in the modernization of the Krynitsa brewery in Minsk. Baltika was reportedly promised a controlling stake in Krynitsa by Lukashenka. Russia's NTV has recently broadcast a feature criticizing Lukashenka for breaking the promise given to Baltika. "If I see any more commissioned material on NTV or any other crooked media, there will be no Baltika or any other Russian firm here [in Belarus]. If Russian businessmen want to participate in the liberalization and privatization of [Belarusian] enterprises, they will have to do that in the Belarusian way. Blackmail in Belarus will not stand," Lukashenka explained his stance on privatization.

Touching upon prospects of the Belarus-Russia Union and a future common currency, Lukashenka said he will never accept the situation in which only the Kremlin will be controlling the union's money printing machine. It seems that those Belarusian national-democratic forces that fear the loss of Belarusian political and economic sovereignty under Lukashenka are totally wrong. Lukashenka might have been ready to surrender Belarus's sovereignty to Russia five years ago, when there were some chances for him to succeed former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin. Now, with Vladimir Putin at the helm in the Kremlin, Lukashenka's primary concern is to remain in full control in Belarus. And this concern is completely at variance with Russian intentions to print money for Belarus or obtain controlling stakes in Belarusian enterprises. In other words, the best defender of Belarus from integration advances by Russia is Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself, the greatest integrationist in the post-Soviet area.

Answering a journalist's question about prospects for Belarus's cooperation with the OSCE, Lukashenka suggested he is not concerned about whether the OSCE will continue contacts with Minsk or not. "If they [OSCE] do not want to cooperate with us, so be it. We are not particularly palpitating over this. We know where we are and what we are worth for Europe," Lukashenka said. He also dismissed as unacceptable the four demands by the OSCE to democratize life in Belarus: expanding the powers of the legislature, granting the opposition access to the state-controlled media, releasing political prisoners, and stopping political persecution. "Nobody will be allowed to break [the Belarusian state system] and put forward the opposition's demands as conditions for cooperation [between Belarus and Europe].... Such a move would require a referendum, a change of the constitution with all ensuing consequences. Today I do not want this. Today we have other concerns. Is it really necessary to break what has not yet been put in operation and used to its full capacities?" Lukashenka argued. It is a remarkable example of political logic, too: There is no need to change the dictatorial system because it has not yet demonstrated its full capacities.

This week the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Permanent Committee is expected to tackle once again the issue of whether to recommend to the assembly to restore a guest status to Belarus and invite a delegation from Lukashenka's National Assembly (the 110-member Chamber of Representatives and the 64-member Council of the Republic). This issue, although apparently of paramount importance for the Belarusian opposition, is quite marginal for a majority of Belarusians and, as testified by Lukashenka's pronouncements last week, even for the regime itself. Lukashenka will continue his antidemocratic policies irrespective of whether his people will be attending OSCE Parliamentary Assembly sessions in Strasbourg or not.

However, in order to ensure a sort of "poetic justice" with regard to both the Belarusian opposition and other European parliaments represented in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, one must strongly advise the OSCE against legitimizing Belarus's National Assembly as a full-fledged legislature. Earlier this month, Chamber of Representatives member Ivan Pashkevich unambiguously told an international conference in Minsk that the National Assembly has transformed its activity into a travesty of parliamentarism. According to Pashkevich, every second bill passed by the legislature contravenes the country's constitution, while his colleagues do not even bother to read some 95 percent of viewed bills and simply rubberstamp them as they are passed from the Presidential Bill Drafting Center. Last year, Belarus's National Assembly passed only two bills that were originated by its lawmakers.

One cannot imagine that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly might draw any useful lesson from the presence of Belarus's National Assembly in Strasbourg. It is also equally inconceivable that the Strasbourg forum might teach Belarusian legislators any useful lesson, for example, to persuade them that they need more legislative powers. In actual fact, they do not even want to use those they have at present. Their political posture appears to be one of the most impressive achievements of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's seven-year rule.

YUSHCHENKO FACES OBSTACLES TO CAMPAIGNING IN REGIONS. Last week Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko set off on a campaigning trip to the provinces. But almost immediately he confronted problems in presenting his election bid. On 13 February, Yushchenko blamed the Poltava Oblast authorities for detaining his election agents and not letting him address voters on regional television. Yushchenko described the regional authorities' behavior as a "humiliation" for the president and the whole country.

Local police detained nine young men from Yushchenko's canvassing group, who had been sticking leaflets. Two of them were immediately released after the police took 20 hryvni ($3.7) from each. The other seven spent four more hours in the district police station. They were charged with infringing Article 152 of the administrative offences code, which prohibits sticking leaflets on architectural monuments. Then local policemen announced that leaflets stuck on posts along the road hamper traffic. "Why did the authorities not say a word to those who started posting advertising boards along all roads long before the election campaign [began]?" Yushchenko asked, referring to the canvassing by the pro-presidential For a United Ukraine bloc.

"The behavior of Poltava authorities surprises me very much. I could not contact regional leaders. The head of the Poltava Oblast state administration ordered that no-one should be put through to him but the presidential administration. I feel sad about it. This looks like the 30s [Stalin times]," Yushchenko commented.

On 16 February, Yushchenko was denied access to local television and radio stations in Kirovohrad. "The authorities want not to unite but, on the contrary, to disunite society in Ukraine," Interfax quoted Yushchenko as saying in Kirovohrad. Yushchenko added, however, that despite all difficulties he faces in the election campaign he will remain "a democratic partner of these authorities."

The same day in Mykolayiv, Yushchenko could not lease a location in the center of the city for a meeting with voters. When he tried to address voters on local television, someone cut off electricity in the studio. He had to call to the oblast state administration in order to have electricity restored and be able to air his election message.

The "Ukrayinska pravda" website, which is quite skeptical about Yushchenko's intention to garner votes of the democratic electorate and please President Leonid Kuchma at the same time, published a scathing comment on Yushchenko's problems in the provinces:

"Last Monday, the leader of Our Ukraine -- who boasts the position of the top politician in popularity polls -- set off to conquer the provinces. However, as soon as the second day [of their trip], the tough boys from Kyiv run into election reality in all its stinking uniqueness. And at the end of the week, the indefatigable Our Ukraine press service began to release some suspicious messages. We particularly like one headline from Saturday: 'Yushchenko Says Actions of Local Authorities Force Him To Take Firmer Political Stand.'

"But emotions are one thing while mentality is another. Despite all this, Yushchenko believes in the existence of a good tsar. According to his press service, he is going to inform Kuchma about his adventures in the provinces. Well, good luck. However, it seems that last week's occurrences are quite sufficient to make him finally understand who is his main foe. But Yushchenko's style [remains unaltered] -- nothing personal against Kuchma."

YULIYA TYMOSHENKO BLOC PROTESTS UNEQUAL ACCESS TO MEDIA. The Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc has sent an open letter to Central Electoral Commission chief Mykhaylo Ryabets asking him to look at the gross violation of provisions of the election law on equal access to the media during campaigning, UNIAN reported on 18 February. The letter says Ukrainian Television, (First Program) as well as the Inter, ICTV, and 1+1 television channels, broadcast daily praise and election advertisements of the election blocs of For a United Ukraine, the United Social Democratic Party, the Green Party, Women for the Future, Democratic Union, and Yabluko. At the same time, the letter continues, requests from representatives of the Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc to the management of the Ukrainian National Television Company, 1+1, Inter TV, ICTV, New Channel, and STB to place election advertisements by the Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc remain unanswered. "This attitude from the management of the above television channels deprives us of our constitutional right, grossly violates election law, and confirms the fact that the Ukrainian presidential administration has banned national television channels from broadcasting any favorable information about our bloc," the letter reads.

"This is Ukrainian know-how -- everything [in the economy] is growing, including poverty." -- Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk; quoted by UNIAN on 13 February.