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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 1, 2001

1 May 2001, Volume 3, Number 16
PARLIAMENT DEFENDS CATHOLIC RADIO FROM DISCRIMINATION. The Sejm on 26 April voted by 195 to 183, with five abstentions, to pass a bill concerning discrimination against the Catholic radio station Radio Maryja, PAP reported.

In particular, the bill states that -- according to an audit carried out by the Supreme Audit Chamber between 10 January and 31 March 2000 -- the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) had resorted to "dishonest behavior" in granting concessions to nonpublic broadcasters. The parliament accused the KRRiT of "the opacity of criteria for the granting of [broadcasting] frequencies," of "discrimination against Radio Maryja, and of "the ignoring of the concession-granting procedure in force and the giving of preference to other broadcasters at the expense of Radio Maryja."

The bill calls on the KRRiT "to undertake all measures for the purpose of an immediate removal of the unequal position of Radio Maryja in comparison to the remaining national broadcasters."

According to lawmaker Anna Sobecka, who prepared a draft of the bill, the discrimination against Radio Maryja is reflected in the fact that the station uses 120 short-range transmitters, while two other national broadcasters -- Radio Zet and RMF FM -- have 47 long-range transmitters each. "This makes the maintenance of the Radio Maryja network considerably more expensive and the reception of its signal poorer [than those of other networks]," Sobecka told the parliament.

KRRiT head Juliusz Braun argued that Radio Maryja has obtained all the frequencies it asked for. Braun added that Radio Maryja's stereo signal reaches 75 percent of the populace and its mono signal reaches 94 percent. The figures for the stereo signal of RMF FM and Radio Zet are 85 percent and 84 percent respectively.

The bill was supported by lawmakers from the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and was opposed by the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance and liberal Freedom Union. Both the AWS and the PSL pledge allegiance to "national and Catholic values" in their political programs, therefore their support for the staunchly Catholic (and nationalist) Radio Maryja is no surprise, especially with parliamentary elections coming up later this year. Both parties are faring badly in opinion polls and are gravely concerned about mustering support from any possible social group.

Radio Maryja was started as a local radio station by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk in Torun in 1990; in 1993 the station received a concession for broadcasting nationwide. Today Radio Maryja claims a regular listenership of 14 percent of adult Poles (some 4 million people), and touts itself as the most influential Catholic media outlet in Poland. The weekly "Wprost" called Father Rydzyk -- who remains the head of Radio Maryja -- "the most influential religious fundamentalist in Europe."

LUKASHENKA TO FOLLOW IMF INSTRUCTIONS? The Belarusian government and IMF Managing Director Horst Koehler have approved a six-month reform program that is to be implemented in Belarus from 1 April to 30 September 2001. The program's key goal is to achieve microeconomic stability through tightening monetary policy, building up net foreign exchange reserves, and providing for strict fiscal discipline. An adopted memorandum outlines economic and financial measures that should be taken by the Belarusian government under the program.

The government has committed itself to stop interference in commercial bank activities, such as pressuring banks to lend to the agricultural and other loss-making sectors. To support this commitment, the government is to ensure that any subsidies to agriculture will be channeled through the budget. Cuts are expected in local budget subsidies for housing services and transport. The number of households eligible for preferential utility tariffs will also be reduced. The government is expected to raise VAT on imported and domestic products as well as excises and profit taxes. These measures should allow the government to limit the consolidated budget deficit in 2001 to 1.4 percent of GDP, or 218 billion Belarusian rubles ($164 million).

The IMF program sets the objective to the government to bring inflation down to about 50 percent by the end of the year.

The most important provision of the program commits the government to cancel some 80 percent of its price-control system.

Belarusian National Bank Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich commented that the adoption of the program means an imminent resumption of IMF lending. "In July we expect an [IMF] mission to start talks on a standby loan, but we will need about a half-year to work out an agreement on a standby loan," Prakapovich noted.

However, Mark Horton, IMF resident representative for Belarus and Lithuania, said the IMF would only resume lending if Minsk significantly liberalizes its economic policies. "The most important thing for the Belarusian side is to build credibility. A series of statements at the beginning of the program that do not correspond to the spirit of the program do not help to build much credibility," Horton said, commenting on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent order that the government limit price increases to 0.5-1 percent per month and that commercial banks issue loans to agricultural enterprises. "The statements were made in a certain -- obviously political -- context with elections coming up, with a harvest campaign going on. At least to our understanding, so far they are at the level of declaration. But they are not in the spirit of the agreement," Horton added.

Last month "The Wall Street Journal Europe" suggested that Lukashenka may be unwilling to alienate voters in the upcoming presidential elections with austerity measures and that the program may fail in an early stage of its implementation. Moreover, the newspaper recalled that the U.S. -- which has a decisive vote on the IMF Board of Directors, which approves loans -- may vote against any lending to Belarus unless the country changes its arms-dealing practices. U.S. law requires U.S. representatives to vote against any international financial institution lending to countries that lack transparent civilian audits of all military revenues and expenditures, and Belarus is currently listed in that category.

HUMOR IS OPPOSITION'S NEW WEAPON. President Lukashenka figures large in the lives of Belarus' citizens, with state media portraying him as the wise leader of a grateful nation.

Which is why Minsk residents out for a walk in the park on 22 April might be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into a scene from "Alice in Wonderland" -- where everything, as the story goes, becomes "curiouser and curiouser."

Strollers, greeted by men in white medical coats, were welcomed to a zone declared "Free of Lukashism." A few steps away, scores of people wearing masks of Lukashenka squared off for a game of street hockey -- the president's favorite sport. Some passed out buttons saying: "I know who the main fool in the country is."

Pavel Sevyarynets -- leader of the opposition Youth Front -- was one of the brains behind the show in the park. The Youth Front, which claims around 2,000 active supporters, is the country's largest independent political youth movement. It says it wants to do its part to change the political landscape in Belarus, and defeating Lukashenka at the ballot box this autumn is the group's top priority. Sevyarynets believes young people can be an untapped force for the democracy movement.

"Our aim is to get 1.5 million young people to the polls, aged 18 to 30, and afterward to get tens of thousands of young people onto the streets and squares to defend the victory we are going to achieve," Sevyarynets told RFE/RL.

Over the past two months, Youth Front has staged more than 40 performances in the capital Minsk and other smaller cities and towns. Conventional demonstrations always attract a small group of stalwarts, but mobilizing young people requires some creativity. According to Sevyarynets, the element of surprise and entertainment works well, especially in a society as regulated as Belarus.

"This show, the element of performance and spectacle, has a huge influence, especially on young people. Because young people today like going to the movies, they like going to discos, to concerts, and we offer political shows, political concerts, political performances wrapped in a colorful wrapper -- which attracts the attention of young people," Sevyarynets said.

Youth Front activists stage their shows in public areas in a bid to reach people who wouldn't ordinarily take an interest in politics. Sevyarynets explains:

"This is what interests us most of all, because young people who are already interested in politics, who read the papers and come to our performances will go to vote. But those who sit at soccer stadiums -- we distributed leaflets and floated a red and white balloon at one recently -- or those who are at the market or at other hangout spots for young people -- these are the people we need. Because, according to all sociological surveys, they don't go to vote."

So far, says Sevyarynets, the response has been positive:

"The response is very, very noticeable, both in the influx of new volunteers we get after such performances and in the newspapers, where not only journalists write articles about us, but also readers write in," Sevyarynets noted.

Since the authorities almost never grant permits for opposition demonstrations and regularly arrest those participating in unsanctioned rallies, Youth Front's unorthodox performances offer another advantage. So far, Sevyarynets says, they have succeeded in confusing the police.

"They don't know how to categorize these actions. During the past three weeks, they detained me four times and not once could they charge me according to a specific article in the civil or criminal code. Only once, for a standard demonstration in Minsk, did I receive 10 days' detention. All the other times they let me go three hours after they detained me because they just couldn't figure out what to charge me with," he said.

On 28 April, the ice hockey world championship began in Germany. As noted, the sport is a favorite of Lukashenka's -- so much so that he has ordered the building of ice-hockey arenas in many Belarusian towns. Youth Front will not let the occasion go unnoticed. Capitalizing on a play on words in Russian and Belarusian -- in which the words 'hockey' and 'okay' sound almost alike, Sevyarynets details what his group has planned:

"Among the upcoming actions we have planned, for example, is the following. On Saturday [28 April], the World Ice Hockey Championship opens and hockey is a very popular topic in Belarus since it's a particular passion of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's. We will stage an event entitled: 'Everything's Going To Be Hockey: Is it possible for the Belarus Team to Win Without Lukashenka?' There will be costumed performances and a public opinion survey on this topic."

Belarus' opposition parties hope the definitive public opinion survey will come in a few months at the ballot box -- if Lukashenka permits a fair poll. In the meantime, Belarusians can look forward to a little levity.

(Jeremy Bransten, an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague, and Bohdan Andrusyshyn of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this feature.)

WHAT'S NEXT AFTER YUSHCHENKO? One answer to this question suggests itself almost automatically: another political turmoil in Ukraine. Irrespective of what form it may take, it will surely not benefit the country's economy.

The best scenario for the country would be to obtain a "technical premier" with no political ambitions; an administrator who would only look after the economy and prevent it from sliding into chaos until next year's parliamentary elections, which are generally expected to structure both the parliament and society to a far greater degree than they are structured now. One of the bleakest scenarios would be to install a Communist (or someone like Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko) in the post of prime minister and to subject Ukraine to a situation similar to that of Belarus's malady -- self-isolation from the West and reintegration with Russia. But for some reason, Ukrainian commentators and analysts exclude such a development from their speculations on the future of their country.

When 263 lawmakers voted on 26 April to oust Yushchenko for what they say was the government's unsatisfactory performance in 2000, there were few commentators in Ukraine or abroad who took this official explanation at face value. Indeed, under Yushchenko's cabinet Ukraine posted its first post-Soviet economic growth, restructured a total of $2.6 billion of commercial debt, stabilized the hryvnya, launched the privatization of collective farms, increased pensions by 40 percent, and -- according to official reports -- increased real incomes by some 6 percent. It should be noted that all of this was achieved without resorting to external loans. Even if some parameters of the "Reforms for Prosperity" programs were not met by Yushchenko's cabinet, its term was in no way a complete failure.

As regards the ulterior motives for Yushchenko's dismissal, many commentators say Ukraine's oligarchic parties -- the Social Democratic Party (United), the Democratic Union, and the Labor Ukraine bloc -- want to take over the helm of power jointly with the Communist Party in order to better position themselves for next year's parliamentary elections. Some also believe Yushchenko's ouster was orchestrated by President Leonid Kuchma, who resented the premier's growing popularity among Ukrainians and, additionally, had long wanted to divert the public attention he attracted from the tape scandal implicating him in the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. If this second supposition is true, then Kuchma may have seriously miscalculated the situation.

On the day Yushchenko was dismissed, another important vote took place in the Ukrainian parliament: 209 lawmakers voted to put Kuchma's impeachment on the parliamentary agenda (only 19 votes short of the required majority to launch a debate on the issue). The measure was supported by the Communist Party, the Fatherland Party, Rukh, and Solidarity groups (the "oligarchic parties" did not back that measure). But it was certainly a clear warning to Kuchma: Should he try to significantly impede the "Communist-oligarchic" takeover in Ukraine, it will be no problem to muster the 226 votes needed to put the impeachment issue on the agenda. Such a development, coupled with former Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko's powerful push to organize an anti-Kuchma referendum, would made Kuchma's position extremely shaky. His earlier exit would suddenly cease to be just a theoretical issue in the country.

If Kuchma understood the hint that lay in the impeachment debate vote, then he should propose a candidate to head the government who will be accepted primarily by oligarchs. But even such a move will not secure his future. If the Communists accept the leadership of the parliament as their reward for helping the oligarchs oust Yushchenko, then an oligarchic cabinet may try to get rid of Kuchma with more powerful levers than a parliamentary vote.

Yushchenko's future seems unclear as well. Many admit that by sticking to his political principles and refusing to bargain with oligarchic parties over his dismissal, Yushchenko has acquired a sort of political personality and now has a good chance to remain in the spotlight of Ukrainian politics for a long time -- and even to run for president. But as of now, he has neither clear political allies nor leverage in media (the state-controlled media work for Kuchma, while private ones for various oligarchs). Yushchenko has announced that he wants to build a broad, nationwide coalition of reformist forces -- a prudent statement by someone who aspires to become the president of all Ukrainians. But in actual fact, for the time being he can count only on support of the opposition groups united in the Forum of National Salvation and the For the Truth civic initiative. And these groups have so far been successfully marginalized by the state media and administration.

It is highly probable that in the near future we will be witnessing the competition of no less than four significant forces in the political arena in Ukraine: the pro-Kuchma administration, the oligarchs, the anti-Kuchma opposition in an alliance with Yushchenko's "broad reformist coalition," and the Communists (who are unlikely to remain for a long time in the current situational alliance with the oligarchs). Judging by all appearances, the impending political turmoil is set to be far greater than that provoked in the past by several standoffs between Kuchma and the parliament.


By Paul Goble

Fifteen years ago an accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine spread radiation across a broad swath of the USSR and Eastern Europe, which then forced the Soviet leadership to open the way for glasnost and the ultimate demise of communism in Europe.

On 26 April 1986, a test at the Chornobyl nuclear plant went badly wrong, an explosion occurred and massive amounts of radiation were released into the atmosphere. The initial Soviet response was first to deny that there had been any problems at the plant and then to insist that Soviet nuclear engineers were in complete control of the situation.

Had the reactor been located further from the Soviet borders with the West and had the radiation plume not passed over Scandinavia, the Soviet government might have been able to get away with such denials just as Moscow often had succeeded in doing with earlier disasters.

But once Swedish scientists monitored the radiation cloud, radio and television stations in Eastern Europe and Western Europe began to report that an accident had taken place. And Soviet citizens quickly learned what had in fact happened -- some from cross-border Polish television broadcasts and others from international radio broadcasters.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union only 13 months earlier, was faced with a crisis. If he followed the standard Soviet protocol on such matters, he would not only lose face at home and abroad as a reformer, but also risk losing his power base within the Soviet leadership.

Confronted with this choice, Gorbachev first equivocated and then signaled that he was willing to allow the Soviet media to report more accurately on what had happened. Soviet newspapers, radio stations, and television networks began to tell Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians more of the story, and Gorbachev sought to use this new openness, which he eventually labeled "glasnost," as a means to win popular support and defeat his political enemies.

For the first time, Soviet citizens were hearing more or less accurate information about a disaster in their country not just from foreign radio "voices" but also from their own media. That did not lessen their fears about the consequences of the Chornobyl accident, but it did mean that they now looked to their domestic media as a source of news.

Gorbachev's own hesitations and statements then and later make it clear that he did not recognize what he had begun or where it would lead. Once the Soviet media implicitly, and in some cases explicitly, acknowledged that Soviet outlets had not told the truth in the past about Chornobyl and nuclear power, Soviet citizens and a growing number of Soviet journalists began demanding for a fuller accounting on other issues as well.

Over the next five years, this process accelerated, forcing Gorbachev and the Soviet government to confront ever more controversial questions about the rule of the Communist Party and Soviet state policies.

And as Soviet claims were shown to be hollow and false, ever more citizens of the USSR turned away not only from the system as a whole, but from Gorbachev, who had allowed these revelations to occur. That shift contributed to the collapse of communism, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the difficult period of transition away from a totalitarian system toward democracy and freedom.

The Chornobyl accident, in the first instance, called attention to the incredible dangers inherent in the use of atomic power, and many people in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are still suffering from exposure to radiation.

But at the same time, the aftermath of that accident highlighted the incredible power of a more open press to change people's minds and ultimately to change the course of history.

"As a citizen, I am convinced that democracy in Ukraine suffered a serious defeat [today]. We were unable to make our choice. The political elite, represented by a majority of those who voted against the Ukrainian government today, proved to be unready to recognize that a legal economy and public politics are the only possible path to social development. I thank all who supported the government and me during the [past] 18 months, I am convinced that our efforts in this regard were not in vain. I will continue the policy I have proposed with all available instruments and methods that are allowed by democracy and principles of public politics. I'm not going away from politics, I'm going to return." -- Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yushchenko to the parliament on 26 April, after it passed a no-confidence vote on his cabinet; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"As far as I understand, Mr. Yushchenko was following the president's course. The president is remaining, and he has not said anything about his intention to change the course. Therefore I think that a new prime minister will follow this course, too -- that is, the course followed by Yushchenko." -- Ukrainian political scientist Mykhaylo Pohrebynskyy in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 26 April.

"There is a silly opinion that the premier [Yushchenko] was following the president's course. Let us say openly -- our president [Kuchma] has no course. We simply look like clowns on the world's arena while following, so to say, the president's direction. It was Yushchenko who had a course. After his dismissal, we have lost this course and are facing an incomprehensible situation." -- Former Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 26 April.