Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 6, 2002

6 August 2002, Volume 4, Number 29
WARSAW OBLIGES ITSELF TO BUILD EU'S 'BERLIN WALL.' Last week, Poland concluded the Administration of Justice and Internal Affairs Chapter in its European Union accession talks in Brussels. Warsaw pledged to beef up control of its 1,200-kilometer-long border with Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast, Belarus, and Ukraine to prevent illegal migration, as well as smuggling of goods and trafficking of drugs and arms, after Poland joins the EU. Some Western media commented that Poland's obligations under this negotiation chapter -- the 26th closed chapter out of a total of 30 -- are tantamount to erecting a new "Berlin Wall" on the country's eastern and northern frontiers, which are expected to become the EU's external frontiers as early as 1 January 2004.

Poland's obligations under this chapter involve a serious overhaul of its border guards and, understandably, mean making sizeable expenditures from the state budget. Interior Minister Krzysztof Janik said in a recent press interview that in order to qualify for joining the Schengen agreements, which may take place around 2007, Poland needs $250 million euros ($245 million) to refurbish its border-guard force and infrastructure. Janik hopes that up to 75 percent of this sum may be covered by various EU funds and programs.

Last week, Poland committed itself to increasing its current border-guard force of some 12,000 servicemen and civilians to 18,000. By 2006, the country will increase the force by 3,200, hiring 5,300 professional frontier guards and 1,000 more civil servants while phasing out 3,100 army conscripts who are currently deployed.

The government plans to buy and equip seven helicopters and two light aircraft for the border guards, as well as night-vision surveillance devices and other necessary equipment. The number of frontier watchtowers will be increased in order to space them at a distance not exceeding 20 kilometers.

Poland's accession to the EU will, of course, mean tougher restrictions on travelers from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Warsaw will introduce visa requirements for them as of 1 July 2003. At present, nobody is able to imagine the scale of technical difficulties or the political and socioeconomic consequences of this upcoming operation.

Chief EU negotiator Jan Truszczynski said last year in Brussels that in 2000, Poland was visited by 5.9 million Belarusians, 2.8 million Russians, and 6.1 million Ukrainians. The same year, Truszczynski added, Polish consulates all over the world issued only 185,000 visas.

But Truszczynski's estimates of eastern visitors to Poland may be much lower than the real figures. According to the Warsaw-based government-sponsored Center for Eastern Studies, in 2000, Poland was visited by 4.4 million Russians from Kaliningrad Oblast alone (it should be noted here that Russia's Kaliningrad exclave is inhabited by some 1 million people). Some 90 percent of these visits, the center asserts, were made by people engaged in petty cross-border trade, which primarily means smuggling of alcohol, cigarettes, and other goods.

Such cross-border business is the main source of livelihood for hundreds of thousands, if not for millions, of people in both Poland and the three above-mentioned post-Soviet countries. When Poland tightens its eastern and northern borders, there will unavoidably occur "local economic disasters" in the borderland regions of the four countries. As for Poland's eastern and northern regions, they still may hope for some assistance from Brussels under various development and restructuring programs. But who will help people living under the penury of the Lukashenka and Kuchma economies? And what about the Kaliningrad region with its highest rates of criminality and HIV infection in all of Russia?

Poland officially advertises its role as a promoter of European integration values on post-Soviet territory -- particularly in Ukraine and Belarus -- but it is hardly believable that it will be able to perform this role seriously after the line of European prosperity and affluence moves some 600 kilometers eastward and becomes a new "Berlin Wall" for Belarusians and Ukrainians for a decade or longer. It is clear even today that not only Poland but the entire EU will not be able to influence transformation processes in the "forgotten Europe" -- Belarus and Ukraine -- if Brussels focuses on tightening Poland's frontiers and fails to draw up attractive and comprehensive programs to make Belarusians and Ukrainians maintain their hope that some day they will also find themselves in Europe not only geographically, but also politically and economically. (Jan Maksymiuk)

AUTHORITIES DESTROY SHRINE OF 'UNOFFICIAL' ORTHODOX CHURCH. A newly built church and parish house in the Belarusian township of Pahranichny close to the Belarusian frontier was bulldozed last week by order of local officials -- the first Christian shrine in the Commonwealth of Independent States to be so destroyed since the fall of communism. The authorities claimed that the priest, Father Yan Spasyuk, had failed to get the necessary planning permission. He maintains, however, that he had all the necessary permits. The authorities, he said, decided to destroy the buildings out of fear of the "official" Orthodox Church in Belarus -- a Church that enjoys the favor of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who once proclaimed himself an "Orthodox atheist." For the official Belarusian Orthodox Church is simply an exarchate (foreign province) of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Lukashenka sees it as a useful tool for his policies of "integrating" Belarus into Russia.

Spasyuk is also Orthodox, but he belongs to a different administration, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (BAPTs). This was set up during the bid for Belarusian independence after World War I in line with the centuries-old tradition that in states where Orthodoxy is the faith of the majority, the Church should be autonomous (autocephalous). Like all other confessions, BAPTs was suppressed in the early days of Soviet rule. When Stalin permitted a limited measure of religious activity after the Nazi invasion of the USSR during World War II, the Orthodox Church was placed under tight state control, with clerics and candidates for the clergy carefully screened by the security police and subordinate to the patriarch of Moscow in all religious matters. Throughout the Soviet period, BAPTs could exist only in exile, first and foremost among the Belarusian diaspora in North America. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some grassroots efforts were made to re-establish it in Belarus. However, the official Orthodox clerics in Belarus had little interest in fostering a church independent from Russia; BAPTs encountered only hostility from the Moscow-linked Orthodox establishment in Belarus, and, since Lukashenka came to power in 1994, similar hostility from the state authorities. Therefore, BAPTs has never managed to register as a "religious association," and hence, has no corporate rights. The church in Pahranichny was, formally speaking, built and owned by Spasyuk as an individual, not by his parish.

The current hostility of the official Belarusian exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church toward BAPTs is a matter of politics, not an ecclesiastical dispute over doctrine or ritual. The divide reflects Belarus's current dilemma: union with Russia (as Lukashenka wants) or independence and Western-style democracy (as favored by the struggling opposition). The official clerics have little interest in Belarusian independence. The chief official hierarch, Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk, grew up in Estonia, and speaks only Russian. Only a handful of its priests are prepared to use Belarusian in services or sermons. BAPTs, on the other hand, is rooted in the idea of an independent Belarus.

According to Spasyuk, local officials were scared when they realized the purpose of his building. Attempts were made to intimidate the builders and delivery men bringing materials. Nevertheless, it was virtually completed when the district authorities issued an order for its demolition.

Spasyuk and his parishioners then began a vigil at the site, and several members of the pro-democracy opposition joined or attempted to join them. On 26 July, the demolition equipment arrived with an escort of some 20 policemen. However, one bulldozer driver, on learning that the building included a chapel, refused to take part in the operation. Spasyuk and the parishioners continued their sit-in.

On Sunday, 28 July, the police blocked all roads to the town and arrived at the site, along with local officials. The latter began talking with Spasyuk, but he collapsed during the course of their discussion. In the confusion, the police took possession of the building and forced out the defenders. An ambulance was called, and its crew diagnosed Spasyuk as suffering from a "hypertensive stroke." He refused, however, to be taken to the hospital. The site was cordoned off, and guard dogs deployed. Later, busloads of young men in civilian clothes, but with army-style haircuts, were brought in as guards.

During the confrontation, several journalists were arrested at the site, and one, Valery Shchukin, was stopped by a police roadblock before he had even reached Pahranichny. Shchukin was dragged from his car and handcuffed. The next day, Shchukin was sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment for resisting arrest, while Syarhey Malchyk, a Hrodna-based opposition activist, and Uladzimir Khilmanovich, head of the Hrodna branch of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, were charged with unauthorized entry into the frontier zone, and each fined 50,000 Belarusian rubles (approximately $27 -- a seemingly small sum until one realizes that Lukashenka's election promise last year to raise the average monthly salary to the equivalent of $100 has still not been fulfilled).

The district authorities, apparently alarmed by the fuss, appealed to their provincial superiors to endorse the demolition order. This was done, and demolition began on the night of 1 August. It was completed by the following evening.

In a statement of protest against Shchukin's arrest, the Belarusian PEN Center said that, "his entire guilt comes down to merely trying to cover the scandalous attempt undertaken by local authorities to destroy the building of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church." The authorities' behavior, said PEN, was in breach of Belarusian and international law, violated the journalist's right to carry out his professional duties, and discredited the Belarusian state in the eyes of the international community. (Vera Rich)

UKRAINE APPOINTS NEW PROSECUTOR-GENERAL AS KUCHMA TARGETS OPPOSITION. The Ukrainian parliament on 4 July approved by 347 votes President Leonid Kuchma's candidate for prosecutor-general, Svyatoslav Pyskun. Less than a month into his new position, Pyskun's first major move was to reopen the case against anti-Kuchma oppositionist Yuliya Tymoshenko, accusing her of violating eight articles of the Criminal Code. This follows the arrest of four of her former colleagues from Unified Energy Systems, which she headed in the mid-1990s, in Turkey on 1 June. The Ukrainian authorities are demanding their extradition to Ukraine.

Pyskun is a former lieutenant general in the State Tax Administration (DPA) and served since May as that organization's deputy head. Pyskun's appointment consolidates the growing power of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine-united (SDPU-o), whose leader, Viktor Medvedchuk, is now head of the presidential administration. Pyskun and Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh have close ties to Medvedchuk's SDPU-o clan.

The Prosecutor-General's Office had long been discredited under its previous head, Mykhaylo Potebenko, who was elected to parliament on the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) list, because of his failure to reduce the extent of oligarchic and executive corruption. He had also failed to make any progress in solving the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

Pyskun promised shortly after his appointment to rid Ukraine of corruption and solve the case of Gongadze's murder. But as a Kuchma appointee, Pyskun is unlikely to succeed in eradicating corruption, which has always been targeted in a highly selective manner. Corrupt oligarchs who have supported Kuchma financially or politically have never been investigated.

Yuliya Tymoshenko and, after he was allowed to flee Ukraine, former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko were only accused of corruption charges after they went into political opposition to Kuchma. A Kyiv court ruled on 30 April that criminal charges against Tymoshenko and her husband, Oleksandr Tymoshenko, who was arrested in August 2000, were "groundless."

In reopening the case against Tymoshenko, Pyskun is continuing his predecessor's policy of only accusing of "corruption" individuals who are in opposition to the executive. As the newspaper "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnya" noted in its 6-13 July edition, "People from the world of big money have become the major driving force behind Pyskun's success." Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz accused Kuchma of being directly behind Pyskun's new move against Tymoshenko, which, according to Moroz, is an attempt to intimidate the opposition ahead of an announced protest action in September. Pyskun is further discrediting the Prosecutor-General's Office, Moroz believes, by refusing to investigate the oligarchs' involvement in corruption. But opening any cases against oligarchs would be impossible now that Medvedchuk is head of the presidential administration.

As for the Gongadze case, President Kuchma said in a BBC documentary aired in April, "Killing the Story," that he is interested above all in solving the murder case. The most contentious issue will be whether Pyskun utilizes the tapes made illicitly by security guard Mykola Melnychenko in Kuchma's office, the FBI expert reports on the tapes, and the testimony Melnychenko has offered to give in the United States in the investigation. Pyskun has created a new investigative group on Gongadze and has hinted at undertaking a fifth autopsy on the headless corpse found in November 2000.

Why is Pyskun in such a hurry to deal with this case, which is not the only example of political repression or intimidation of journalists? And why is Pyskun in such a hurry to establish his credentials as an "anticorruption" fighter? Two factors may have a bearing on this urgency.

The first is the presidential elections scheduled for October 2004. The Gongadze scandal is one of the main reasons why Kuchma is so discredited domestically. The "Kuchmagate" affair that erupted after November 2000 led to the creation of Ukraine's largest protest movements and the defeat of the pro-Kuchma For a United Ukraine (ZYU) in the March elections. Any candidate proposed by Kuchma to replace him as his chosen successor would stand little chance of being elected, unless Kuchma succeeds in salvaging his image.

Ukraine's political spectrum is now evenly divided into two camps. Four ideologically driven opposition groups on the left and right (Socialists, Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Bloc, and the Communists) are pitted against an ideologically amorphous, pro-Kuchma, oligarchic center that has grown out of ZYU and the SDPU-o. The latter is working with Kuchma to ensure stage-managed presidential elections that would lead to a victory by Kuchma's hand-picked successor and thus, Kuchma's immunity from prosecution. The former seeks to push for early elections, and most want Kuchma impeached. Each side has 218 deputies in parliament, a factor that may make it difficult for Pyskun to obtain the required 226 votes to remove Tymoshenko's immunity unless the Communists switch sides and back the move.

Second, Pyskun was heavily involved in launching a trumped-up criminal case of "corruption" against Borys Feldman's Slovyanskyy bank and Tymoshenko (which is why her bloc voted against Pyskun's appointment). The executive tried every method possible to prevent the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc from entering parliament but failed. In a May poll conducted by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies, the Tymoshenko Bloc was seen by Ukrainians as the most radical of the four opposition groups. The poll found that her popularity had increased from 5.7 percent in December to 14.2 percent, just 13 percent less than Yushchenko.

She is ready to replace Yushchenko as opposition presidential candidate if he fails to rise to the challenge. Interviewed in "Moloda Ukrayina" on July 25, Tymoshenko warned that, "If we see that Mr. Yushchenko's team is not able to protect Ukraine, then we will strive to attain power independently. A potential candidate should prove his right to lay claim to this post through consistent and decisive actions and through responsibility before the people."

Pyskun's new case against Tymoshenko is Kuchma's response to Tymoshenko's prioritization of impeachment proceedings in the newly elected Verkhovna Rada, the creation of the Tymoshenko-backed Citizens Defense Committee Against Tyranny, and the threat felt by Kuchma from the uniting of four opposition groups for the first time. The opposition plans to launch mass protests calling for early presidential elections on 16 September, the second anniversary of Gongadze's abduction. During the Kuchmagate scandal of 2000-01, the Communists did not back the opposition, while Yushchenko was forced to be neutral as he was then prime minister and had not yet united Ukraine's national democrats into the Our Ukraine Bloc.

Pyskun's appointment to the position of prosecutor-general is not a sign of progress in the rule of law in Ukraine, as the executive has now combined two state institutions, the State Tax Administration and the Prosecutor-General's Office, into one office that is already being used to pursue political repression ahead of the presidential elections.

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

"The state, because of its strength, is able to give journalists more freedom [than nonstate media]. And this needs to be done." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka to journalists on 31 July; quoted by Belarusian television.

"My work may have been good or bad, but I haven't spared my health in the post of president. Sometimes I think: God forbid me to leave my post for whatever reasons. Where will I go to? I have neither house nor home. I don't even have an apartment of my own." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka to journalists on 31 July; quoted by Belarusian television.

"Why strengthen the NATO bloc today when Russia is ruined in terms of military power? You see that the situation in Russia is worse than in Belarus. [And the situation in] Ukraine? God forbid! And Belarus today is unable either to defend [Russia] or prevent [NATO expansion]." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka to journalists on 31 July; quoted by Belarusian television.