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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: July 30, 2002

30 July 2002, Volume 4, Number 28
NEW FINANCE MINISTER REVEALS ANTICRISIS PLAN. Newly appointed Finance Minister Grzegorz Kolodko addressed the Sejm on 26 July where he presented an anticrisis package made up of three bills. The package aims to revive economic growth by promoting the restructuring of indebted companies and encouraging the creation of new businesses. Kolodko's anticrisis measures were approved by Leszek Miller's cabinet earlier the same week.

One bill would allow debt-ridden companies to write off their tax, customs, and social-security-fund arrears in exchange for one-time payments and a reliable pledge to restructure. The debt write-off process would take one year. The bill also provides for rewarding firms that duly pay their taxes to the state treasury: They would be allowed to include certain liabilities of their business partners in operation costs and, by virtue of this, to pay lower taxes.

Another bill would allow banks to write off some of their bad loans if they agree to open new credit lines to companies undergoing restructuring.

The last bill intends to stimulate the creation of small firms -- employing from five to 50 people -- by entitling them to tax breaks in the second year of their operation if they maintain the level of their employment during the first year.

Kolodko assured deputies that Poland -- in the event his anticrisis package is passed by the parliament -- will reduce its current 17 percent unemployment rate, prevent an increase in inflation, and see a return to the path of fast economic growth. Kolodko asserted that the implementation of his anticrisis package would prevent 250,000 Poles from losing their jobs by the end of this year, which will be the case if the three bills are not adopted. He also said the country's return to 5-7 percent economic growth is possible by 2005, up from 1 percent forecast for this year. "That's why those who care about the well-being of Poland and Poles have only one option: to endorse this plan," Kolodko said in the Sejm.

According to government estimates, the state budget could gain 3.6 billion zlotys ($900 million) from one-time restructuring payments, while indebted companies would be able to write off 12.4 billion zlotys in tax arrears and 11 billion zlotys in social-security-fund arrears. At the same time, the tax breaks for companies that pay their taxes regularly would amount to 1 billion zlotys. (Jan Maksymiuk)

DO MORE RURAL STUDENTS AT UNIVERSITIES MEAN LESS URBAN TROUBLE? University admissions procedures in Belarus have been altered this year to ensure an unprecedented intake from rural areas. The changes, which with one exception have gone unchallenged by senior academics, would appear to have a political subtext.

At the beginning of June, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka warned the heads of universities and other institutions of higher education that they should be prepared for "surprises" during their forthcoming entrance examinations, and that for the purpose of "order and discipline," the entrance examinations -- for both state and private institutions -- were to be monitored by a special government commission, aided by the KGB (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2002). The tone of his statement -- and the involvement of the KGB -- suggested that the order and discipline would be primarily political, with the exclusion of applicants who had any record of opposition activities. In fact, the surprises go further. Changes in the admission rules have been introduced, which suggests a preemptive strike directed at a whole cohort of young people who are perceived as likely future "oppositionists" -- the city dwellers.

Lukashenka had already tampered with the higher-education process in a number of ways. In particular, he reinstated for a number of disciplines the old -- and much hated -- Soviet process of "distribution" by which new graduates had to work for a number of years in posts allotted them by the state. In Soviet times, the rationale was that they thus repaid the state for their notionally free higher education. Lukashenka's reintroduction of the practice was justified as being necessary to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers, medical professionals, and other essential personnel for the areas of Belarus still suffering from the effects of the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster. (The Chornobyl nuclear-power station lies a few kilometers south of the Belarus-Ukraine frontier, and it is estimated that 70 percent of the fallout came down on Belarusian territory.) Certainly, such posts in the "zone" need to be filled, but it is typical of Lukashenka's regime that this should be done by direction from above, rather than by, say, offering financial or social incentives. At the same time, pedagogical faculties and colleges use a targeted admissions process, with a place in higher education tied to one's future job -- in effect, a means of ensuring that young people from rural areas return there to work, rather than taking more attractive city posts.

Until now, the two schemes have operated separately. This year, however, according to professor Uladzimir Pletsyukou, rector of Brest State University, they have been effectively combined, so that 50 percent of places will be targeted and the remaining 50 percent will be divided equally between applicants from rural areas and applicants from cities. The net result, he told the newspaper "Belorusskaya gazeta," will be that up to 75 percent of places will go to rural applicants, which "could lead to collisions over individual specializations."

The newspaper spells out, albeit in guarded terms, the probable political motivation for the change: "Students are a most active social group that has not experienced feelings of profound gratitude for modest stipends and obligatory 'distribution.' And the scandalous voting histories of urban students during the presidential elections, and their participation in opposition meetings, possibly put it into someone's head that the problem could be solved by 'changing' the students as far as social groups are concerned." The newspaper then goes on to remind its readers -- perhaps as its own political insurance -- that the bases for targeted and distributed places is "to service the shortage of specialists in the Chornobyl zone and the rural economy."

The new rules apply to all state universities and institutions of higher education in Belarus. Only one rector, Pletsyukou, has raised any objection. The silence of the rest is not surprising. Lukashenka has already ensured that the rectors of all major academic institutions are his own nominees. Under the circumstances, it is surprising that anyone spoke out at all. But Pletsyukou, although he was appointed only recently, seems prepared on occasion to step out of line. A few weeks ago, he allowed his university premises to be the venue of a three-day training seminar for the Belarusian chapter of the European Youth Parliament (EYP) -- a pro-democracy organization with headquarters in the U.K., which originally operated in Western Europe only, but which in the last decade has expanded and flourished in virtually all postcommunist countries. In Belarus, however, in spite of the efforts of would-be EYP members and the urgings of various Western diplomats, the Belarusian authorities have consistently refused to register the Belarusian chapter of the EYP, often offering the most trivial excuses for their refusal.

As for the new university admission rules, if, as "Belorusskaya gazeta" suggests, "someone or other" devised them in order to reduce the presence of the opposition-minded urban youth in the universities, then he may simply have shifted the problem elsewhere. For the young urbanites who cannot get into higher education will, if male, become liable for military service. Hence, as the paper points out, while this year's university intake includes a record number of rural entrants, the draft will contain an unprecedented number from the cities. (Vera Rich)

KUCHMA REACTS SWIFTLY TO AIR-SHOW CATASTROPHE IN LVIV. Ukraine was in mourning on 29 July for the 83 people (including 23 children) killed and 116 injured at an air-show disaster in Lviv on 27 July, when a Sukhoi 27 jet fighter crashed into a crowd of spectators. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma broke off his holiday in Crimea to fly to the scene of the disaster. Following the inspection of the site, the Ukrainian president fired Chief of General Staff Petro Shulyak and air-force commander Viktor Strelnykov. Following Kuchma's instruction, Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko fired Serhiy Onyshchenko, commander of the air corps whose 60th anniversary the air show was celebrating. Shkidchenko himself tendered his resignation over the crash and is reportedly awaiting Kuchma's decision.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun said on 29 July that the two pilots of the Su-27 were given an "incorrect task" by air-force commanders, who had not taken into account necessary safety precautions. "The pilots used a plan given to them by their air commanders," Piskun said. "We believe that plan was wrong. The plan was approved with violations of procedures."

Piskun called the incident the result of "military negligence," adding that there are signs the pilots themselves were responsible for what he said were "criminal acts."

A commission has been set up to investigate the cause of the crash, the worst air-show disaster in history. The panel is headed by National Security and Defense Council Secretary Yevhen Marchuk, who on 28 July praised the two pilots as being "top-class."

Top-class pilots they may be, but Volodymyr Toponar and Yuriy Yehorov -- who managed to eject seconds before the crash -- are now facing a criminal investigation. The Prosecutor-General's Office said it has detained several top officers, including Strelnykov.

The swiftness of the official reaction is a far cry from the obstinate denials that initially followed another air tragedy last October. Then, Ukrainian troops on military exercises accidentally shot down a Russian passenger plane over the Black Sea, killing all 78 on board. It took several days before the authorities accepted responsibility.

Generous commentators have suggested that the authorities have learned from that incident and from another tragedy in Russia: Kuchma's hasty return was contrasted with Russian President Vladimir Putin's widely criticized decision to stay on vacation after the "Kursk" nuclear submarine sank two years ago in the Barents Sea, killing all on board.

But Kuchma was wrong if he thought his swift response would head off criticism.

"Was there really any reason to organize a grandiose show for the 60th anniversary?" asked commentator Vasilii Georgiev in the "Vechernie vesti" newspaper. "Are we a rich country that can afford this? Or do people need bread and circuses?"

"Kuchma has ruined the army to its core, just as with almost everything good that remained after the collapse of the Soviet Union," Georgiev went on. "Now he has found the little men [responsible] and has made a show of punishing them. Only the main, albeit indirect, guilty party in this terrible tragedy is he himself -- Leonid Kuchma. Incompetence long ago replaced real professionalism in the Kuchma system of power. And this has cost the lives of innocent people."

Not surprisingly, one prominent opposition politician, Yuliya Tymoshenko, said Kuchma should resign over the tragedy.

Taras Voznyak, a political commentator from Lviv, said the mood in the city is somber rather than angry, adding that people have no stomach to bring politics into it. "Today at the airport I saw someone trying to turn the talk into a political debate, but people just didn't accept it," Voznyak told RFE/RL on 29 July. "They pushed it away. Yesterday there was an incident with our opposition politician Yuliya Tymoshenko. She arrived here, and her whole talk was about how in principle the authorities were responsible for this or something like that. But she didn't find much understanding [for this position] here."

Voznyak said people in the city want to get on with the business of tending to the injured and paying their respects to the dead. "There's a lot of work going on, starting with medical help for those who still need it, and ending with the sad business of funerals," Voznyak said. "There are clerics from various confessions here, leading funeral services. Today, there was a kind of spontaneous memorial service at the place where the airplane crashed. People were let in and they prayed, some crying. Politics isn't entering into it, and thank God for that."

One expert on military affairs, Leonid Polyakov, told RFE/RL that the tragedy showed the extent of the crisis in the country's national security, as well as its army. Another told Ukrainian television that there is little, if any, actual air training for pilots due to a lack of fuel.

Marchuk's commission is due to present its findings on the cause of the crash on 7 August.

(RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox wrote this report with contributions from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.)

"What I told you to do should be fulfilled irreproachably, without deception. When I told [harvester operators] to stay overnight in the field, it meant that they should spend the night in the field. I have flown 300 kilometers but I have not seen a single harvester in Minsk or Brest oblasts. Only white fields -- what a terrible sight.... The closer I got to the landing place, the more [the picture] resembled harvesting. This is what I call sheer deception and window dressing." -- President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the morning of 26 July, following his inspection flight by helicopter over Belarus to monitor the progress of harvesting; quoted by Belarusian television.

"Russia may not have an interest in supporting Lukashenka given his erratic behavior, but at the same time, Russia in all probability has no special interest in promoting Belarusian independence." -- Zbigniew Brzezinski, national-security adviser to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in an interview with RFE/RL on 25 July.