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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: March 12, 2002

12 March 2002, Volume 4, Number 10
POLISH, BELARUSIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS HOLD 'COURTESY' MEETING. Polish Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz met with his Belarusian counterpart Mikhail Khvastou in Bialystok (northeastern Poland) on 10 March. The opportunity for the meeting was provided by a gala concert of the annual Belarusian folk song festival organized by the Belarusian Social-Cultural Association (BTSK), an organization of Poland's Belarusian minority. The BTSK claims to have organized the festival under the auspices of Cimoszewicz, who has been repeatedly elected a Sejm deputy from the Podlasie Province (of which Bialystok is the capital) since 1989. The Cimoszewicz-Khvastou meeting was apparently linked to a recent Polish-Lithuanian initiative to ask the Council of Europe for a mandate to hold talks with the self-isolated Belarusian regime.

Cimoszewicz said in Bialystok that the meeting was neither an official nor a working one, adding that it was just a "courtesy meeting with a visitor in our country," PAP reported. "We have confirmed the will of both countries for developing those forms and areas of cooperation that are possible in Belarus's current political reality; that is, economy, social contacts, culture, and local-level contacts," Cimoszewicz told journalists during a recess in the concert.

Cimoszewicz stressed that Warsaw's position regarding "some problems existing in Belarus's political practice" has not changed. "We are still worried by such phenomena as disrespect for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the incomprehension of what freedom and democracy are in today's Europe, [the incomprehension that these notions] imply the freedom of opposition activities," Cimoszewicz noted. He recalled that there have been unaccounted-for disappearances of opposition figures in Belarus. "These are the matters that need to be explained, they make it difficult for Belarus to establish normal political relations, not only with Poland," he added.

Khvastou said he is satisfied with his visit to Bialystok. He avoided answering a question about violations of human rights in Belarus, saying only that the isolation of his country is a bad solution and that Belarus does not understand charges against itself from Europe, "Gazeta Wyborcza" reported on 11 March.

WOMEN'S DAY: PROTESTS OVER RIGHT TO ABORTION. Some 300 young feminists from the 8 March Women's Initiative gathered at the monument to Nicolaus Copernicus in Warsaw on 8 March and marched to the Castle Square, demanding the right to abortion, Polish Radio reported. This year's feminist demonstration took place under the slogan: "My life, my choice. Yes, yes, yes. Yes to sex education, yes to birth control, yes to right to abortion."

Opponents of abortion waited for the protesting feminists along the route of the march and close to the monument to Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. They shouted the slogan: "Down with abortion, socialism, and feminism," and traded verbal abuses with the marchers. The feminists passed on to Castle Square, while the abortion opponents remained by the monument to say prayers.

On the eve of Women's Day, the 8 March Women's Initiative publicized a letter signed by 100 Polish women -- including such celebrities as Nobel Prize for Literature winner Wislawa Szymborska and film director Agnieszka Holland -- accusing the Polish leftist government of bowing to the Roman Catholic Church on women's rights issues. The letter says the government has traded its election promise of easing the country's strict anti-abortion law for church support for Poland's bid to join the EU in 2004. "An odd transaction seems to be taking place, where women's rights are bought and sold behind the scenes of Poland's integration with the EU," AP quoted from the letter. Government spokesman Michal Tober denied that there has been any such agreement between the government and the church.

SHUSHKEVICH TO SUE STATE FOR PENSION. Stanislau Shushkevich, the first head of state of independent Belarus, is pressing a lawsuit against the Labor and Social Security Ministry demanding a pension equal to 75 percent of the salary of a parliamentary speaker or head of state, the posts he held in 1991-94. "In 1996, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued an edict granting me a monthly pension equal to $200 but deliberately ignored a provision about inflation. The depreciation of our national currency has turned it into the equivalent of about $2, and I can enter the Guinness Book of [World] Records as the poorest former head of state," Shushkevich, now a prominent member of the anti-Lukashenka opposition, told Belapan on 9 March.

Shushkevich said he used to give lectures at U.S. and Polish universities for a living, but is now facing serious money troubles. "Meanwhile, my colleague Leonid Kravchuk, the former head of Ukraine, to whom I have recently spoken in Moscow, enjoys a pension of $600, a personal car and security protection, and a range of social benefits. I do not even want to mention Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. I have none of that, and I want justice to be restored," Shushkevich stressed, adding that a district court in Minsk will hear his lawsuit on 11 March.

WOMEN'S DAY: GETTING GENTLEMEN AND TRACTORS. "We, the guys, should become real gentlemen as of today, even those of us who have never in their life been guilty of [being gentlemen]. A good example will be set, let's say, by Minsk Mayor Paulau. Please send a television [crew] to him tomorrow and show him live all day long how he fulfills this assignment by the president," Belarusian President Lukashenka said on 7 March, pleasing a group of women invited to a presidential party to celebrate Women's Day. Belarusian Television reported that Lukashenka handed "state awards" to some of his guests; the station did not specify what these awards were.

Meanwhile, Minsk Oblast Governor Mikalay Damashkevich announced during a meeting with a group of women from the region on 6 March that every one of the region's female collective farm directors will get a tractor as a Women's Day gift, Belapan reported. There are 16 women running collective farms in Minsk Oblast. The report did not specify whether the tractors will be given for use on directors' homestead plots or on collective farmland.

International Women's Day is a legal holiday in Belarus.

WOMEN'S DAY: GETTING PROMISES AND ELECTION DEBATES. "Women should be represented to a wider extent in all branches of power and participate on a wider scale in resolving state issues," President Leonid Kuchma commented while handing state awards to representatives of the fairer sex on 7 March. Kuchma was echoed on 9 March by Premier Anatoliy Kinakh, who said that a larger number of women in governmental posts "would only improve the quality of government and life in Ukraine." Kinakh's cabinet includes only one woman, Syuzanna Stanik, who heads the Justice Ministry. There are no women either among the state secretaries (people appointed to each ministry by Kuchma) or in the parliamentary leadership.

In terms of popularity, International Women's Day, which is a legal holiday in Ukraine, is second only to New Year's Day. A recent poll by the Freedom Fund group among 1,300 adult Ukrainians found that the country's most popular holidays are: New Year's Day (92 percent of the vote), Women's Day (63 percent), Easter (61 percent), Christmas (59 percent), and Victory Day (51 percent).

Ukraine's private ICTV Television commemorated Women's Day by broadcasting live an 80-minute election campaign discussion between Yuliya Tymoshenko from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Nataliya Vitrenko from the Nataliya Vitrenko Bloc, and Inna Bohoslovska from the Winter Crop Generation election bloc. Each lady was accompanied in the discussion by two more persons from her election team. Somewhat unexpectedly, Bohoslovska (her Winter Crop Generation advertises itself as the only genuine right-wing liberal party in Ukraine) joined ferocious left-wing populist Vitrenko in attacking Tymoshenko. "This is a fairy tale about a princess turning proletarian. Ms Tymoshenko, a few years ago you wore $30,000 on each ear. Now, you are vociferously appealing to those who do not even have enough money to buy bread," Bohoslovska said in an allusion to Tymoshenko's past as the director of the Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine. The "Ukrayinska pravda" website commented that ICTV (which is part-owned by Viktor Pinchuk, the husband of President Leonid Kuchma's daughter) organized a "lynching" of Tymoshenko by taking advantage of hateful attitudes of Vitrenko and Bohoslovska toward Tymoshenko, who is the most consistent and prominent opponent of the Ukrainian president. "It appears that no one has emerged as a victor from this female Bermuda Triangle," deputy parliamentary speaker Stepan Havrysh commented on the discussion, adding that the ICTV Television program has discredited televised debates as a possibility for voters to look into political competence of those vying for seats in the Verkhovna Rada.

"In order to make voters remember me, I'll be showing them my naked breasts and, possibly, my ass." -- 28-year-old Olena Solod, a mother of two and a candidate for a seat in the Verkhovna Rada from Zaporizhzhya (southeastern Ukraine), in a live campaign spot on local television on 7 March. Solod took off her clothes before the camera while reading her election manifesto, which calls for legalizing prostitution and decriminalizing marijuana use in the country.

"If anyone is still pretending that he is ignorant, I'll repeat what I said yesterday -- Kuchma is a killer." -- Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Yelyashkevych to the Verkhovna Rada on 5 March; quoted by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. To which parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch replied: "Thank you. I ask the next deputy to take the floor." However, Ukrainian deputies found it extremely difficult to comply with Plyushch's request, since Yelyashkevych occupied the parliamentary rostrum for two session days.