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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: June 18, 2002

18 June 2002, Volume 4, Number 24
LEPPER COMES TO THE FORE AGAIN. In a poll conducted among 1,035 adult Poles for the daily "Rzeczpospolita" by the PBS polling center on 8-9 June, 18 percent of respondents said they would have voted for Andrzej Lepper's Self-Defense party if parliamentary elections had been held at that time. This means that the popularity of the Lepper-led radical and populist farmers union is now second only to the Left Democratic Alliance-Labor Union (SLD-UP) ruling coalition, which, according to the same poll, is backed by 34 percent of voters. It should be recalled that in the parliamentary election on 23 September 2001, Self-Defense finished third -- after the SLD-UP bloc and the Civic Platform -- with 10.2 percent of the vote, winning 53 seats in the 460-member Sejm.

Lepper's parliamentary career started with a huge success that was followed by an equally huge scandal. He was elected Sejm deputy speaker in October 2001 and stripped of his post a month later after making insulting remarks about Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, whom he publicly called a "scoundrel." During the debate on his dismissal, Lepper accused two ministers (including Cimoszewicz) and three other prominent politicians of taking bribes and having contacts with the mafia. In January, lawmakers lifted Lepper's immunity, making it possible for prosecutors to bring Lepper to court in May on charges of slander.

Lepper, who is generally believed to be poorly educated and unrefined (or even boorish), possesses an exceptional ability to turn his political scandals and antics to his advantage, primarily through advertising them in the media and presenting himself as a defender of the dispossessed and the poor. He has made a special point of slamming official policies in the agricultural sector, which is still facing radical transformations to adapt itself to European Union standards and is actually and potentially responsible for generating a considerable portion of public discontent with the government. While advertising his Euroskepticism, Lepper simultaneously seeks to undermine the position of its main rival in the countryside, the Polish Peasant Party led by Deputy Premier and Agriculture Minister Jaroslaw Kalinowski.

On 6 June, in what appeared to be a well-prepared introduction to a new wave of troublemaking, Lepper and 15 other Self-Defense lawmakers (including several females in nice clothes and high heels) dumped grain imported from Germany from four railcars at a junction outside Warsaw. Speaking to a multitude of reporters afterward, Lepper claimed that Polish farmers are being undercut by cheap imported grain while domestic warehouses remain full. Police tried to prevent the spillage but could not do much in view of the perpetrators' legislative immunity. The female members of Self-Defense feigned fainting spells in front of television cameras when police officers tried to establish their identities. Lepper and his company left the railway junction for the Sejm building in elegant Lancias, commenting in a fairly jocular tone that they had returned from an outdoor session of the parliamentary Agriculture Commission.

When the Sejm held a debate on the agriculture situation the next day, Lepper took the rostrum and showed the entire country a bag of grain, saying that, "it is EU trash with rat shit that is made into flour and bread, and we buy it in supermarkets," the "Rzeczpospolita" daily reported. Deputy Sejm speaker Donald Tusk scored a small victory over Lepper by excluding him from the debate (this penalty was recently added to the Sejm regulations in an apparent bid to temper Self-Defense legislators who used to come to the parliamentary building with their own megaphones and would speak through them after the Sejm microphones had been switched off). In addition, Lepper was fined by the Sejm Presidium: He is to lose half of his parliamentary salary in June and July.

However, Lepper also has his own way of dealing with penalties and fines. In January, a court in Gdansk imposed a fine of some $5,000 on Lepper, finding him guilty of insulting the president and two former deputy prime ministers. Last month, after losing an appeal, Lepper announced that he wants to pay the fine in installments. Lepper's lawyer said that if the court rejects the request to pay the fine in installments, Lepper is going to apply to replace the fine with a "socially useful activity." The lawyer elaborated: "For instance, we will propose the presentation of a series of lectures on the subject of the situation of the Polish countryside after the entry of Poland into the EU."

Earlier this month, Self-Defense announced that it will organize nationwide protests and traffic blockades on 25 June. Lepper said he wants the protests to be peaceful. But he added that, "If I tell people to grab stones, they will grab them." Premier Leszek Miller pledged to take a tough stance against the announced blockades, saying that, "police will intervene with full determination." Lepper said he "admires Miller's desperation" but added that "the country will grind to a halt" all the same.

If the announced protests turn out to be violent and the government fails to meet them with decisive measures, much more than public peace may be at stake. Poland, which has still not abandoned hopes of finalizing tricky EU talks by the end of this year in order to be ready for EU membership in 2004, may see an ebb tide of the current Euroenthusiasm and plunge into a sociopolitical turmoil over the EU accession terms (which are generally believed by Poles to be unfair and humiliating, especially on the issue of EU agriculture subsidies). Such a development would put at risk the imminent political future of not only Poland but also a larger chunk of postcommunist Europe.

PUTIN POURS COLD WATER ON LUKASHENKA'S MERGER PLANS. Following his meeting with Alyaksandr Lukashenka in St. Petersburg two days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin on 13 June voiced some of the harshest criticism ever of plans for the creation of a Russia-Belarus union, an idea promoted by the Belarusian leader throughout his eight years in power. Speaking at the Bakulev Cardiological Surgery Center in Moscow, Putin accused the Belarusian leadership of wanting to make the union a form of the defunct Soviet Union, and flatly refused to follow such a path. "You cannot try to resurrect the USSR at the expense of the Russia's economic interests, since this will strengthen centrifugal forces within the country and weaken Russia economically," Russian media quoted Putin as saying.

According to both Russian and Belarusian media reports, the Lukashenka-Putin meeting on 11 June went rather smoothly in terms of economic issues. In particular, both sides signed a plan for joint actions to introduce a union currency, a move that enabled the Russian Central Bank to disburse a $50 million portion of its $150 million stabilization loan to Belarus. But not all economic controversies were worked out. Lukashenka reportedly handed Putin a letter outlining a number of problems the that require the Russian leader's personal intervention. These problems, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," chiefly concern the collection of value-added tax on Russian exports to Belarus, supplies of Russian rough diamonds to Belarus, Belarusian exports of sugar to Russia, and the creation of a common market for transport services that would allow the lifting of restrictions on Belarusian shippers.

However, the strategic issue of the meeting -- the creation of a legal basis for the union and, in particular, the drafting of a constitutional act -- seems not to have found any positive resolution. "The good, or bad, luck of answering the question of what our union is to be like in the future has fallen to us," Lukashenka was quoted as saying. Russia reportedly proposed an option that Lukashenka called an "interesting suggestion" but added that, "Belarus has a somewhat different ideology on this matter." Lukashenka is reportedly to present on 25 June his official point of view about "when to elect a [union] parliament, how it is to be structured, and on the basis of what document it is to act," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported.

Putin was not so evasive in his 13 June remarks about what Minsk had proposed as "the legislative basis" for any future union. Russia television quoted Putin as saying: "Our partners should make up their minds and decide what they want. We often hear that something along the lines of the Soviet Union would be desirable. But if it is to be along the lines of the Soviet Union, then why write in the draft constitutional act that the states will be sovereign, have territorial integrity, and the right of veto on all decisions? Let us not forget that the Belarusian economy amounts to 3 percent of the Russian economy. O.K., there could be the right of veto, if that is what the public wants and what the leadership has decided. O.K., then no other solution can be forced upon them. But in that case we should also have the right of veto. What is inadmissible is that one side should have the right of veto for everything and also make all the demands. We too should have the right of veto in that case. But then it is not something along the lines of the Soviet Union but something quite different. We have to understand what we want and what our partners want."

Putin stressed that he is against any "supranational body with unclear functions" in the union and added, in an apparent reference to the former Soviet Union, that, "we had this in our history already." In what seemed be his strongest term of censure, Putin called the Belarusian proposal of a constitutional act "legalistic nonsense."

Putin's acerbic remarks seemingly took Minsk by surprise. Lukashenka has thus far not reacted to them. Instead, deputy presidential administration chief Anatol Kozik, who is responsible for drafting the Belarusian version of a constitutional act, appeared on Belarusian television on 13 June to comment on Putin's pronouncements. "I was utterly surprised to hear Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin's comments about Belarusian proposals concerning the prospects for further integration between our sister nations," Kozik said. He asserted that during the Lukashenka-Putin meeting "nothing like a new Soviet Union was discussed." According to Kozik, some "insider analyst" must have provided Putin with "false information" regarding Minsk's integration intentions after the meeting of the Russian and Belarusian leaders.

Commenting on Putin's remarks, Belarusian Social Democratic Party leader Mikalay Statkevich told Belapan that Putin will not agree to the creation of supranational power structures in the union or the introduction of the post of union vice president that Lukashenka reportedly is seeking. "Lukashenka has exploited Russia's help according to the pattern: '[Russian] oil for [Belarusian] kisses.' But now comes the end to [Lukashenka's] economic bluff," Statkevich predicted. Another Belarusian opposition figure, former Supreme Soviet speaker Stanislau Shushkevich, was of a similar opinion. "Putin has most likely had enough of pandering to the Belarusian president's fancies," Shushkevich said. According to United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, Putin's pronouncements should not be treated as a surprise. "Putin has made a strategic choice in favor of democracy and a market economy...while Lukashenka, as before, is in favor of the Soviet Union and against the market and democracy," Lyabedzka added.

The Moscow-based "Kommersant-Daily" opined that Putin's statement on integration with Belarus had finally cleared up the Kremlin's stance on its relations with the Lukashenka regime. According to the newspaper, the Kremlin's top priority is maintaining good relations with the West. Pursuing integration with Belarus is also a priority, "Kommersant-Daily" noted, but only on Moscow's terms.

What these terms actually mean for Lukashenka is unclear for the time being, but Russian State Duma deputy speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii was quick to offer a hint. Speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio on 14 June, Zhirinovskii said Putin has ceased to be satisfied with pursuing the "Yeltsin-type" integration with Belarus, which allegedly implied the restoration of a "pink version" of the Soviet Union. According to Zhirinovskii, there is no need to create any more unions in the post-Soviet space, since there is already a union called the Russian Federation. In his opinion, Belarus could be divided into two "gubernias," (governorates) Minsk and Mahileu, each comprising some 5 million people, and join the Russia Federation as two new subjects.

KUCHMA APPOINTS MEDVEDCHUK AS CHIEF OF PRESIDENTIAL STAFF. The appointment on 12 June of oligarch and Social Democratic Party United (SDPU-o) leader Viktor Medvedchuk as the head of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's presidential administration, a position vacant since 29 April, means that Kuchma has finalized his post-election chess game by checkmating both the Verkhovna Rada and the opposition. Kuchma's latest move highlights the failure of Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko's policy of attempting to maintain good relations with Kuchma by not joining the opposition camp.

In mid-December, Medvedchuk was removed by a vote of no confidence from his position as first deputy Verkhovna Rada speaker. Having named his former head of the presidential administration, Volodymyr Lytvyn, to be the Verkhovna Rada speaker, Kuchma has now handed Lytvyn's old position over to Medvedchuk.

Medvedchuk has never hidden his presidential ambitions -- unlike Lytvyn, who has never mentioned such a role for himself and feels uncomfortable in the limelight. In the summer of 2000, just after Kuchma was re-elected to his second and final term, Medvedchuk proposed to Kuchma that, as a show of gratitude for the SDPU-o's assistance in securing Kuchma's re-election in 1999, the president should openly opt for the "Boris Yeltsin-Vladimir Putin" transfer-of-power mode. Kuchma refused, having at that time no inkling of the immunity he would soon desperately need when the "Kuchmagate" scandal erupted four months later.

The "Yeltsin-Putin" model is no longer completely out of the question following Medvedchuk's appointment. As no other personality from the oligarchic and pro-presidential factions can rival Medvedchuk, Kuchma may see him as his only chance to thwart a presidential election victory by Ukraine's most popular political figure, Our Ukraine's Yushchenko.

Kuchma still faces an uphill struggle, but not an impossible one. An opinion poll by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies in May that asked respondents if they supported certain politicians gave Yushchenko 27.6 percent support and Medvedchuk 11.2 percent. Although Yushchenko's lead is substantial, Medvedchuk is already in a threatening position, especially considering his new access to the president's "administrative resources." For comparison, it should be recalled that Kuchma himself had less public support at the beginning of the 1999 presidential elections than Medvedchuk has now.

Certainly, Russia would not complain about Kuchma's choice of Medvedchuk. Gleb Pavlovskii's Effective Policy Foundation, which has close ties to Putin, worked for the SDPU-o during the March elections. Pavlovskii and other Russian leaders have applauded Medvedchuk's promotion. Russia's leaders tend to see Ukraine's political groups in black-and-white terms: "pro-Russian" (United Ukraine, SDPU-o, and the Communists) and "anti-Russian" (Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and even the Socialists). This division into pro- and anti-Russian forces is also the same fault line dividing the pro- and antipresidential forces, with the exception of the Communists.

Although Medvedchuk has a reputation for aloofness, Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh and Lytvyn are little better. Indeed, this aloofness from the average Ukrainian is typical of the former high-ranking Soviet Ukrainian elite, something that might work against them in the 2004 presidential elections. By contrast, one of Yushchenko's biggest assets is his ability to connect with the Ukrainian public.

The final move in Kuchma's endgame will be to allow United Ukraine to divide into five or more factions and to give each one separate access to resources, such as staff, vehicles, and offices. This division will not necessarily harm their cohesiveness. During times of crisis, they can be pulled back together.

After blocking Yushchenko's moves to replace Kinakh as prime minister and then placing Lytvyn and Medvedchuk into checkmate positions, Kuchma was in a position to demonstrate his magnanimity in the division of Verkhovna Rada committees among factions. That division was consummated on 11 June by a vote in the Verkhovna Rada of 348 in favor.

Our Ukraine came away with the largest number of committees (10). Of these 10, the three most significant are Budget, Law Enforcement, and Freedom of Speech and Information. Our Ukraine also heads the Industrial Policies and Entrepreneurship, Combating Crime and Corruption, and Law Enforcement committees. National Democrats control two of their favorites: Culture, Spirituality, and Human Rights; and Ethnic Minorities and Inter-Ethnic Relations.

The number of deputies on each committee is a reflection of how deputies calculate their usefulness to themselves and, in some cases, to their vision of Ukraine. The most popular committees are also, not surprisingly, the most lucrative: Budget (39), Finances and Banking Activity (34), Fuel and Energy Industries (32), and Transport and Communications (23). Of these four, the last three are controlled by the pro-Kuchma and oligarchic United Ukraine. Three of the smallest are Science and Education (11); Health, Motherhood, and Childhood (8); and Social Policies and Labor (8), in which United Ukraine has no interest.

Former Foreign Minister and Our Ukraine member Borys Tarasyuk failed to obtain the Foreign Affairs Committee after Kuchma adamantly opposed his candidature. It was handed instead to a former head of the presidential administration, Dmytro Tabachnyk, who has long coveted the post of foreign minister. His committee has 21 members, compared to just 11 on the Committee on European Integration that was created especially as a sop for Tarasyuk. The Communists continue to control Defense and National Security.

This division of committee heads does not bode well for an integrated policy toward future NATO membership, something the Communists oppose and that they could easily block in the military sphere. More important, the Verkhovna Rada will have two committees with competing ideologies on European integration. Tarasyuk's committee will support integration in word and deed, dealing with Brussels directly. Tabachnyk's, on the other hand, will continue to pay lip service to the need for integration into Europe, but will proceed via Moscow while continuing to support domestic policies that hinder integration. Tabachnyk was a leading member of the "To Europe With Russia!" deputies group that existed in the 1998-2002 Verkhovna Rada.

Ihor Zhdanov, an expert at the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies, believes that all these moves by Kuchma signal the beginning of the 2004 presidential election campaign. Nevertheless, the positions of Verkhovna Rada speaker or head of the presidential administration are poor launching pads for the presidency. As in Russia, the most useful launching pad is generally believed to be the post of prime minister, especially during a period of economic growth and declining wage and pension arrears.

If Medvedchuk is to be anointed as Kuchma's replacement, he needs to become prime minister at least a year prior to the election. Replacing Kinakh with Medvedchuk would not be difficult, as Kinakh's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs is close to the SDPU-o. But such a move might displease rival oligarchic clans who would oppose such SDPU-o favoritism.

Kuchma will not be able to launch a nationalist campaign to elect his successor, as did Putin, and Kuchma is far more discredited than Yeltsin ever was. These negative factors could be overcome if Kuchma uses another trump card he mastered in the 1994 elections and that Pavlovskii's foundation worked on in the March elections: the promotion of the "pro-Russian" Medvedchuk to counter the "nationalist" Yushchenko. The more densely populated eastern Ukraine might not like Kuchma or Medvedchuk, but they might prefer him to Yushchenko, for whom they did not vote in large numbers in March.

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

"Regarding [Belarus's State Economic University], I'd like it very much to produce specialists who are convinced that what we have done and are doing is necessary for the state and optimal. Perhaps [what we have done and are doing] is not always of top quality and is sometimes untimely, but it is necessary. In other words, we need so-called ideological economists who are confident in the course that we embarked upon some time ago and who have been directly involved in it." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to newly appointed State Economic University Rector Uladzimir Shymau, former economy minister; quoted by Belarusian television on 14 June.

"Yesterday I talked with Syrian Economy Minister [Ghassan al-Rifai], and I'll tell you that he is a decent, clever, and intelligent man. It was very important for me to hear the following from a man who had left a job with the IMF: 'Mr. president, what you are doing in Belarus is correct.' And I say: 'You did not say so in the IMF or the World Bank where you were in charge of [our part of the world].' 'Well,' he says, 'I did not say so due to political considerations, but you have made a correct choice, a correct policy.'" -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka; quoted by Belarusian television on 14 June.