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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: January 23, 2001

23 January 2001, Volume 3, Number 2
CITIZENS' PLATFORM TO SQUEEZE FREEDOM UNION OUT? Last week, Sejm speaker Maciej Plazynski, Senate deputy speaker Donald Tusk, and independent politician Andrzej Olechowski said their new political initiative they announced earlier this month will be called the Citizens' Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) and will hold its national convention in Gdansk on 24 January.

Olechowski, who came second in last year's presidential ballot with 17 percent backing, announced immediately after the election campaign that he was going to utilize his election support for creating a new "political platform." Olechowski's alliance with Plazynski came into being after the latter had expressed his dissatisfaction with the internal reform in the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), which intended to transform itself into a federation of parties, slacken its ties with the Solidarity trade union, and weaken the personal clout of Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski in the ruling coalition. Even though formally all those moves were made and Krzaklewski was replaced by Premier Jerzy Buzek in the post of AWS leader, Plazynski said the changes were too weak and have not freed the AWS from the sway of the trade unionists led by Krzaklewski. Plazynski ignored the offer of the post of AWS deputy head and joined Olechowski and Tusk.

Tusk, a prominent figure in the centrist Freedom Union (UW), said goodbye to his party following its national congress in December. Tusk lost the election for the post of UW chairman to former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek in a fairly close vote, but what made him particularly resentful of his party colleagues was the election of the UW's 100-strong national council, where his supporters won only several seats. It seems that the UW, which emerged in the mid-1990s by uniting the Democratic Union (UD) -- led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki -- with the Liberal Democratic Congress (KLD) of Donald Tusk, has not blended the two political ingredients completely.

"It is our goal to release the energy dormant in Poles, in every one of us," Olechowski told journalists, noting that the platform's goal is to introduce a new, strong representation in the parliament. According to Olechowski, the PO's main program tasks are to promote education, boost economic growth, introduce a flat-rate income tax and free people with the lowest incomes from paying this tax, combat corruption, and restructure the agricultural sector. The politicians are also proposing the reduction of the numbers of local government councilors, direct elections for town and city mayors, and the abolition of the national party lists in elections to the Sejm.

The announcement of the Plazynski-Tusk-Olechowski initiative has provoked numerous defections from the UW, revealing that the split in the party runs deep and not only along the old UD-KLD seam. As expected, Tusk was followed by a number of his colleagues from the former KLD, including Jacek Merkel and former Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki. On 18 January, several hundred members of the UW's Economic Forum declared their intention to join the Plazynski-Tusk-Olechowski initiative. Defections to the new initiative were also reported in the UW's regional branches in Malopolska and Silesia (southern Poland). On 21 January, a split occurred in the UW's youth branch --the Young Democrats Association. The association's leading body voted by 30 to 16 to renounce a cooperation accord with the UW and forge ties with the Citizens' Platform.

To prevent further defections, the UW held a gathering of its territorial activists in Warsaw on 20 January. Geremek told the forum that, according to his estimates, only several hundred people will leave the party, which has some 23,000 members. "The report of my death was an exaggeration," Geremek paraphrased author Mark Twain, in commenting on the UW's current situation. He admitted, however, that the creation of the PO took the UW by surprise. "I appeal to colleagues from the UD, the KLD, and the UW, to those who have left the union -- come back to the union, you are needed in it. I declare to voters...that we will do everything we can to win your trust and not to betray it," Geremek added.

Many participants in the UW forum called Tusk's exit an "ordinary betrayal," but some said the UW itself is to blame for current defections. According to those critics, the UW leadership made mistakes by not proposing a candidate in last year's presidential elections, turning down Olechowski's offer to cooperate in those elections, and blocking the way for the promotion of young activists in the party.

Meanwhile, first polls suggest that the PO may be highly successful in its bid to create a centrist alternative to the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the right-wing AWS. The Pentor polling agency said 38 percent of respondents "view positively" the creation of the new political initiative, while the PBS center found that 23 percent want to vote for the PO in parliamentary elections. If these predictions are true, the PO may emerge as Poland's major parliamentary force, second only to the SLD, which is generally tipped to win the parliamentary elections with no less thasn 40 percent backing. Both the UW and the AWS will obviously find themselves among the losers if they fail to agree with the PO triumvirate on some sort of electoral cooperation.

LUKASHENKA CURRIES FAVOR WITH MOSCOW AHEAD OF ELECTIONS. Last week, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka paid a two-day visit to Moscow, meeting with top Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Central Bank chief Viktor Gerashchenko. Lukashenka said he and Putin discussed military and economic issues as well as the ways to unite both countries' legal systems, but he did not elaborate.

Many Russian and Belarusian commentators maintain, however, that Lukashenka's primary goal in his current contacts with the Kremlin is to secure its support in Belarus's presidential elections due later this year. And that support means, among other matters, Moscow's release of the promised loans of $100 million and 4.5 billion Russian rubles to stabilize the Belarusian currency and help Lukashenka fulfill his promise to raise the average monthly wage in Belarus to $100 by this fall. According to official reports, the current average monthly wage stands at some $65.

Judging by Gerashchenko's elusive comment, Lukashenka hardly achieved what he wanted. Russia's main banker said: "We do not always come to a common denominator, because there are certain circumstances taken into account by the national leadership and with which we do not always agree right away. For this reason, traveling and the exchange of experts is a certain plus."

As for Putin, he restrained from any comments on political or economic issues and only complimented Belarus for its cultural achievements. (The inauguration of the Days of Belarusian Culture in Moscow was the official reason for Lukashenka's trip.)

Lukashenka is due to visit Moscow this week, too. This time his decoration by Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Aleksii will serve as the reason for the trip. Travelling, as Gerashchenko said, may finally make a certain plus. However, one is almost forced to note Lukashenka's change of fortunes in his relations with the Kremlin. In 1998, when Russia plunged into a severe financial crisis, Lukashenka and his aides offered Belarus-made "plans" to save Russia's financial (and state) system. Those days, however, seem to be far away from today. For now, Lukashenka's concern is focused solely on how to save his own post.

KUCHMA SACKS 'THE ONLY MAN' IN CABINET. President Leonid Kuchma on 19 January sacked Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko following a request from the Prosecutor-General's Office that indicted her on charges of gas smuggling, document forgery, and tax evasion. The charges relate to the period in 1996-97, when Tymoshenko headed the Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine and was involved in gas and energy deals with Russia. If found guilty, she will face 10 years in prison. Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko argued that Tymoshenko, while remaining in her cabinet post, might influence the investigation of her case. The 20 January "Zerkalo nedeli" scathingly remarked that, following this logic, Kuchma should also fire Potebenko and a number of other officials who are implicated in the disappearance of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and can influence the investigation of Gongadze's case.

Yuliya Tymoshenko commented on her dismissal to "Zerkalo nedeli" as follows:

"Possibly, I should say at this moment that the president brazenly violated the constitution by adopting the resolution [to dismiss me] on his own, without a request from the prime minister. But such a fact is nothing new. With regard to my person, unlawful and illegal methods of struggle have been used since a long time, beginning with the unfounded instigation of criminal proceedings and ending with the reanimation of a five-year-old Zaporizhzhya case, which the Prosecutor's Office already opened and closed twice...

"Another thing is important: My dismissal is the most graphic proof that the president's business entourage if far stronger than the government and those government members who are trying to introduce order in the country. Today it has became ultimately clear that order in the fuel and energy sector is not needed either by the president of the so-called oligarchs. [My dismissal] confirms all what I have said before. Now the operators of shadow businesses may mark 19 January in the calendar with a red pencil as the 'Day of Liberation of Oligarchs.'

"I do not intend to leave the country. Irrespective of where I am -- in prison, or at liberty -- I will now, once and for all, go over to the opposition against the current regime. I hope the Fatherland Party will support me."

Premier Yushchenko has not commented on Tymoshenko's sacking. Kuchma's spokesman, Oleksandr Martynenko, said the prime minister's job was safe and quoted the president as saying Yushchenko will have a say in choosing Tymoshenko's replacement.

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz commented to Interfax that Tymoshenko's sacking is intended to discredit Yushchenko's cabinet and divert the public opinion from the tape scandal implicating the president in Gongadze's disappearance. Moroz added that the charges currently brought against Tymoshenko had been known to the president and law enforcement bodies even before she assumed her cabinet post. Moroz noted that "this circumstance did not embarrass the president when he appointed her as prime minister."

Ukrainian Popular Rukh leader Yuriy Kostenko said Tymoshenko's sacking is a preparatory step for ousting Yushchenko's entire cabinet. Kostenko added that Tymoshenko's dismissal will also destabilize the political situation in Ukraine, since now the parliament will find it extremely difficult to form a "constructive majority" if Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party, which controls 31 seats in the 449-strong legislature, refuses to cooperate with the government.

Tymoshenko's heroic effort to reform Ukraine's crime-ridden fuel and energy sector has led to changing most utility payments in the sector from barter to cash. In doing this, she had to resort to some administrative measures, which provoked criticism not only from the oligarchs, whose interests she allegedly harmed, but also from market-oriented politicians and international experts. But it is beyond doubt that she belonged to the most effective government members in Ukraine. Her personal courage and determination -- she pursued her line despite the arrest of her husband -- has earned her the nickname of "the only man" in Yushchenko's cabinet. And, owing to her extremely handsome and telegenic appearance, she was also called "the world's most beautiful deputy premier." There is no way for Kuchma to find a match for Yuliya Tymoshenko to fill the vacancy after her, even if he wanted to. But obviously, he will not.

"I tell you frankly, I have had a bag packed in my office for several months, so as not to go to jail empty-handed." -- Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko in an interview with the 13 January issue of "Zerkalo nedeli."