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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 6, 2001

6 February 2001, Volume 3, Number 4
PARLIAMENT PASSES BUDGET, PROLONGS CABINET. The Sejm on 3 February voted by 247 to 202 with one abstention to pass a 2001 budget bill. The budget sets revenues at 161.1 billion zlotys ($39.7 billion) and spending at 181.6 billion. Average annual inflation is to fall to 7 percent from 10.1 percent last year, while the unemployment rate is expected at 15.4 percent, compared with 15 percent by the end of 2000. The bill projects GDP rise at 4.5 percent from last year's 4.1 percent.

"This budget allows for further stable economic growth in Poland. Responsibility for the state took priority over politics," Finance Minister Jaroslaw Bauc told journalists after the vote. Bauc was visibly satisfied, since it was the first budget bill prepared under his supervision (Bauc, formerly a deputy finance minister, took over the Finance Ministry in June 2000 after Leszek Balcerowicz had withdrawn from the ruling coalition along with his party, the Freedom Union).

Jerzy Buzek's entire cabinet should be satisfied, too. If the budget bill had been rejected, President Aleksander Kwasniewski would have most likely dissolved the parliament, bringing forward parliamentary elections by several months. The opposition Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which enjoys some 45 percent backing among the electorate, mobilized all its lawmakers for the session in order to block the budget. However, this time the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) was able to ensure rigorous voting discipline among its lawmakers (all of them were present at the session). This fact, together with the support of the Freedom Union parliamentary caucus and those lawmakers who joined the recently created Citizens' Platform, helped the AWS pass the document without much difficulty and send it to the AWS-dominated Senate. The president should obtain the budget bill for signing by 15 March.

The Sejm on 3 February voted on some 160 amendments and 35 minority motions. Most of them concerned shifting of funds within sectors. The most important amendments included giving 230 million additional zlotys for education subsidies, 100 million for the military (including 60 million for a new multi-role aircraft), and an additional 50 million for fighting unemployment. Tensions emerged when it came to fuel subsidies for farmers. "Do you, Mr. Premier, consider yourself to be a man and can you answer the question on your own [why there is no fuel subsidies in the draft]"? -- Krystyna Lybacka [ed. note: woman] from the SLD asked Jerzy Buzek from the parliamentary rostrum. Buzek did not react to the question. Contrary to the government's wishes, the amendment allocating 150 million for fuel subsidies was passed by a margin of one vote. Also contrary to the government's position, the Sejm approved 95 million for the construction of the Warsaw subway.

"This is good news first and foremost for the people who live in Poland. It means Poland's political and economic stability. We will now be able to lower interest rates and have cheaper borrowing costs. Inflation will be falling and we can count on economic growth," Buzek commented after the vote.

" Those who lose most are the Poles, since the coalition of the AWS, the Freedom Union, and the Citizens' Platform has adopted a budget of huge unemployment, slower economic growth, and shortage of resources for many social goals, SLD leader Leszek Miller said.

TRADING APARTMENTS FOR INTELLECT. Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 1 February addressed a nationwide conference in Minsk of "workers of culture and activists of the arts." He told that forum that he does not interfere in the sphere of culture as regards "trifles," but remains very attentive to general cultural and intellectual trends in the country. According to Lukashenka, Belarusian intellectuals should "defend the cultural heritage and spiritual wealth of the entire Slavic civilization from the aggressive impact of globalization or, more precisely, Americanization." Lukashenka promised to support such efforts with improved housing conditions for intellectuals: two blocks of apartments are to be built in Minsk, one in each oblast center, and several apartments in each raion center.

Since this is an election year in Belarus, Lukashenka could not miss the opportunity to touch upon electoral issues ,as well. He said $70.8 million out of a planned $108 million has already been sent to Belarus from abroad to finance this year's presidential campaign. He did not identify the sponsors, noting only that the money is not intended for him. He suggested to the intellectuals that they may obtain part of that money and urged them to accept it. In what was apparently intended as a joke but came over as a pronouncement of utter disrespect for his listeners, Lukashenka said: "Why should you accept [that money]? Because they will pay for your talent. It is not important whether you will sing [the praises of] Lukashenka or another candidate -- the people will be listening to you. This I call a good investment in our culture."

Eminent Belarusian cultural figures avoided the forum. Belarus's four prominent writers are currently living abroad: Vasil Bykau and Ales Razanau in Germany, Uladzimir Nyaklyayev in Finland, and Svyatlyana Aleksiyevich (the country's best Russian-language author) in Italy. Apparently because of this situation, Belarusian Television could not find anyone of importance to praise Lukashenka's contribution to national culture, and was forced to take advantage of the presence of Nikolai Gubenko, a celebrated Russian actor of the Soviet-era and post-Soviet Russia's first culture minister. Gubenko said what he was expected to say:

"You, the Belarusians, are not begging for handouts from the West. The state continues to secure medical care, education, and, as I heard today, the development of national culture. You apologized, Alyaksandr Ryhoravich [Lukashenka], to your creative intelligentsia for the fact that your budget expenses for culture increased from 0.8 percent to [only] 2 percent in past years. But what can be said by us, the Russians, whose budget [for culture] decreased from 0.87 percent in 1994 to 0.49 percent in 2001?"

Henadz Davydzka, director of the Yanka Kupala Academic Theater in Minsk, apparently tried to explain to Gubenko the most essential difference between the Belarusian and Russian ways of financing culture when he said that his actors have already exhausted their physical capabilities to perform because of meager salaries. But Davydzka was not quoted by Belarusian Television, only the independent news agency Belapan.

WHAT DID THE PROSECUTOR-GENERAL'S OFFICE SAY? Last week the Prosecutor-General's Office issued quite an enigmatic statement on the most resonant political scandal in independent Ukraine's history -- the alleged complicity of President Leonid Kuchma and high-ranking state officials in the disappearance of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. In December, Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko told the parliament that the audiotapes provided by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko -- allegedly including Kuchma's words that urge state official to get rid of Gongadze -- were doctored, since it was impossible to eavesdrop on the president's office. The 2 February statement modifies that official stance on the Gongadze case to some extent, although it remains to be seen to what extent exactly.

The Prosecutor-General's Office says the Gongadze criminal case (which includes both his disappearance and the identification of a corpse that is believed to be his) is being conducted at "an appropriate professional level in accordance with the requirements of national legislation, thoroughly and objectively." The office simultaneously protests the pressure on prosecutors from "interested political forces."

The office says the Melnychenko audio recordings were "compiled from separate words and fragments, which is essentially a falsification." According to experts involved in the investigation, it is impossible to identify whether the taped voices belong to high-ranking state officials.

Now comes the most interesting part of the statement. The office admits that the above-mentioned "words and fragments" were actually taken from "conversations of the president of Ukraine," including those taped in secret when Kuchma was briefed by law enforcement officials on the crime situation in the country.

Then come a number of obscure suppositions about the ulterior motives behind the tape scandal.

"Individual political forces, including some lawmakers, while pursuing their own interests, are trying to make the public accept illusion instead of the reality. For this goal, they use primarily 'Tovarysh,' the Socialist Party's newspaper, which continues to publish materials that do not conform to reality.

"In order to achieve their goal, those individuals use international organizations, including the Council of Europe. Fearing that Melnychenko may give true testimony of his and their inadmissible actions, which entail responsibility under the legislation in force, they use all possible and impossible [sic] means to prevent his extradition to Ukraine.

"Cynically taking advantage of the situation, which has been artificially created around Gongadze's disappearance, they are seeking to make a kind of hero of a man who committed a crime [ed. note: Melnychenko]. They even go as far as to dictate to the investigators how and what investigative actions should be conducted, thus intentionally pushing the prosecutor's office to violate the law."

The statement ends with an appeal to the president to take urgent measures to extradite Melnychenko "who should be made accountable on the territory of Ukraine" where he committed his crime. (The Prosecutor-General's Office opened a libel case against Melnychenko.)

The Internet newsletter "Ukrayinska pravda" commented that the statement actually confirms, first, that the president's office was bugged, and second, that the voices on the audiotapes are authentic. "Prior to this [statement], international experts concluded that there was no doctoring within separate episodes [of Melnychenko's tapes]. In actual fact, the Prosecutor-General's Office, against its own will, put an end to the problem of the authenticity of Melnychenko's tapes," "Ukrayinska pravda" concluded. Other Ukrainian sources have so far remained silent on this matter.



By Paul Goble

In addition to all the other issues dividing Russia and Ukraine, scholars in those two countries are now debating which country should have the right to claim to be the homeland of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom the psychological condition of masochism is named.

Vitaliy Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic Languages at Columbia University in New York, argues that both countries have some reason to claim to be "the original masochists." But in a paper presented recently at an academic conference in Washington, D.C., Chernetsky said that, to an outsider, Ukrainians would appear to have a far better case.

Born in the city of Lviv then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now in Ukraine, Sacher-Masoch "always considered himself a Galician Ukrainian," Chernetsky writes. And in all his writings, the 19th-century writer recalled with fondness the Ukrainian people among whom he grew up.

For that reason, Chernetsky writes, there is currently an effort in Sacher-Masoch's native city to name a street after the man whose name has come to be applied by psychoanalysts to those who enjoy being abused or otherwise humiliated.

But Russians are now staking a claim to Sacher-Masoch as well. Chernetsky notes that in 1995, a distinguished Russian psychoanalyst published "a historical sociology of Sacher-Masoch and his Russian readers." That book argues, Chernetsky reports, that "Sacher-Masoch may have learned the pleasures of flagellation from the Russian sect of khlysty," who beat themselves as part of their religious practice.

Moreover, the Russian book notes that the name of the main character in the 1869 Sacher-Masoch novel from which modern psychoanalysis developed the concept of masochism was Severin, a surname that the Moscow author insists is purely Russian and not Ukrainian at all. And the book notes that Ukrainians had been a part of the Russian Empire.

So far, there has been no resolution, and none appears in prospect. But what makes this debate is not its titillating aspects or even the opportunity it may present to some to look down on both Russians and Ukrainians. Rather it is an example of the extreme lengths some nationalists will often go to try to find something that they can point to as theirs alone -- even if most others would not want to do so.

Across the United States, for example, some cities and towns have advertised themselves as the hometown of one or another notorious criminal gang leader. But these efforts seem more intended to cash in on the notoriety of the individual named, to attract tourists who will spend money, rather than as a means toward promoting or cultivating a particular identity.

In the case of many post-Soviet countries, however, such claims play an additional and typically far more important role: They are part of a broader effort to create a unique past, a national narrative in which people can place themselves and, equally important, one from which others are excluded, even if that story includes incidents and individuals many would find offensive.

That defining role is especially important in the case of Russia and Ukraine, two countries whose histories and cultures have been intertwined for so long. And consequently, nationally-minded scholars, just like publicists and politicians, have a deeply vested interest in trying to untie these knots.

Despite the debate over Sacher-Masoch that Chernetsky describes, it is unlikely that very many people in either Russia or Ukraine are aware of these competing claims or would ever be prepared to demonstrate in any way their claims on Sacher-Masoch and his ideas.

But the very fact of this debate does highlight that scholars are no more immune from nationalism than anyone else, that the objects of nationalist discourse can be extremely varied and that insisting on such claims as a way of denying them to others may often go a long way to explain why nationalist histories take the forms they do.

And when the claims go to the extreme as they have in the case over the nationality of the father of masochism, there is at least a chance that some people on both sides will recognize the limits, even absurdity of some aspects of nationalism and thus begin to think in broader categories that could make international cooperation possible.

"I don't know how the situation in Israel is going to develop, but many of our citizens who emigrated there some time ago are now in a dangerous position. God help them to stay alive, but taking into account that the area of military conflicts is still spreading, in the near future Belarus stands a good chance to take over the glory of a promised land from Israel." -- Moderator of the "Panarama" newscast on Belarusian Television on 3 February.

"I remember as I once 'sold myself' to Kuchma. It was on the eve of the second round of the presidential elections in 1994. There was some discussion of the presidential race in the building of the Union of Journalists, while Kuchma's election staff -- in a building across Khreshchatyk -- just publicized a statement of their candidate on how the incumbent president, Leonid Kravchuk, was pressurizing him and limiting his access to the media. I came with that statement to the Union of Journalists and asked what was their opinion about it. I heard from all sides: 'You have sold yourself for money to the red directors.' [Ed. note: Kuchma was a high-ranking party official and the director of a rocket-producing plant.] Members of the Union of Journalists hissed at any 'opposition' because they were assiduously working for the incumbent president. Several days later, those same people greeted me in a humble voice and looked attentively at me, trying to figure out whether I remember who of them was against Kuchma. Because he won." -- Independent Kyiv-based journalist Iryna Pohorelova; quoted by the 1 February issue of the biweekly "Ukrayinskyy rehionalnyy visnyk."