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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: July 10, 2001

10 July 2001, Volume 3, Number 26
PREMIER FIRES JUSTICE MINISTER. Premier Jerzy Buzek on 4 July sacked Justice Minister Lech Kaczynski following a public row over the role of an officer of the State Protection Office (UOP) in a business fraud probe. Kaczynski, who is also Poland's prosecutor-general, clashed with the UOP last month after prosecutors under his control had arrested a senior UOP official. State prosecutors alleged that the officer had hampered their investigation into suspected fraud at a metals trading company by tipping off its head about his imminent arrest. The UOP and Buzek backed the officer.

Last week, Kaczynski sent a letter to Buzek, accusing the latter of supporting activities that "test the limits of legality," Polish media reported. PAP quoted from Kaczynski's letter: "There were events after the detention of the UOP officer which indicate how very weakly legality continues to be anchored in Poland, how very strong the patterns of the previous system continue to be in their influence. It is with the greatest surprise that I confirm that the prime minister has not only not stopped activities which in an obvious way tests the limits of legality and not drawn the consequences in relation to their perpetrators, but has in great measure supported them."

Buzek expressed "surprise and even outrage" at Kaczynski's allegations. In a formal justification of Kaczynski's ouster, Buzek wrote: "It is with sadness that I acknowledge that despite the successes that have been achieved by the Prosecutor's Office, the activity of Minister Kaczynski has recently become the cause of disturbances in the work of important state bodies and a cause of the justified unease of public opinion. Minister Kaczynski has a faulty understanding of the principle of cooperation between the Prosecutor's Office and the State Protection Office.... Irrespective of all of this, it is absolutely inadmissible for a minister to falsely accuse his prime minister of support for activities testing the limits of legality."

Lech Kaczynski has been credited by both Polish media and his political backers for waging an effective war on organized crime and for arresting a number of bosses of major criminal groups involved in drug trafficking, car theft, alcohol smuggling, and extortion. During his 12 months in office, he became Poland's second most popular politician after President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Along with his brother Jaroslaw, Lech Kaczynski formed the Law and Justice group to take part in the 23 September legislative elections. The Law and Justice committee will run independently of the Solidarity Electoral Action of the Right.

Kaczynski's sacking has antagonized Poland's fragmented right wing even further. Minister of Culture Kazimierz Ujazdowski (Right-Wing Alliance) quit Buzek's cabinet, saying he does not agree with Kaczynski's ouster. Lawmakers from the Right-Wing Alliance quit the Solidarity Electoral Action parliamentary caucus and joined the Law and Justice parliamentary group.

The OBOP polling center found in a poll conducted between 23 and 25 June among 976 adult Poles that the leftist Democratic Left Alliance-Union of Labor coalition is supported by 45 percent of voters, the centrist Civic Platform by 18 percent, the Peasant Party by 11 percent, and the Law and Justice committee by 10 percent. The Solidarity Electoral Action of the Right is backed by 5 percent of voters, the radical Self-Defense farmers' trade union by 4 percent, and the centrist Freedom Union by 3 percent. The poll suggests that the Kaczynski brothers' committee would have been the only right-wing grouping represented in the parliament if general elections had been held in June. The Solidarity Electoral Action of the Right -- as a coalition of several parties and groups -- needs no less than 8 percent backing to win a parliamentary representation.

LUKASHENKA, HIT WITH TOMATO, SHOWS CLEMENCY. Following his proposal two weeks ago to check the physical condition of potential presidential candidates in a sporting event (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 26 July 2001), Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka invited leaders of political parties as well as aspirants seeking to register for the presidential race to take part in a relay race in Minsk on 3 July during festivities to mark the country's Independence Day. Participants in the race were free to choose among competing on foot, roller skates, or roller blades. Lukashenka chose to race with roller blades.

During the race, 45-year-old Syarhey Laptseu, a deputy of the Minsk City Council in 1990-96, hit Lukashenka with a tomato. Laptseu was immediately arrested, and a district court on 4 July sentenced him to seven days in jail for petty hooliganism.

After the verdict, Laptseu explained to journalists that he followed the old tradition of hurling tomatoes at bad actors: "The decision [to throw a tomato] came spontaneously, a few minutes before I did it. The purpose of my act was to attract public attention to the system existing in our country, where the media are monopolized, prominent [opposition] figures disappear, the economy crumbles, and the nation dies out. In addition to Chornobyl, we have another disaster in the person of the president and his decrees."

The next day, Lukashenka ordered Laptseu released from prison. According to what Laptseu was told by police officers, the president showed clemency in view of the fact that Laptseu's offense did not entail any adverse consequences. "I feel as if I have contributed to enhancing Lukashenka's electoral image," Laptseu commented, adding that his release was illegal, since the president cannot change court rulings.

As regards the 3 July relay race, only two aspirants out of the 20 gathering signatures in the presidential election campaign accepted Lukashenka's invitation and took part in it. "They are normal guys," Lukashenka commented on their sporting effort. Belarusian Television, which misses no opportunity to discredit Lukashenka's opponents, noted on 7 July that most presidential hopefuls are oldish people and suggested that they are suffering from heart and blood pressure problems as well as from "obesity."

STUDENTS SEEK REVIVAL OF LANGUAGE, NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS. There was a time when no one questioned the status of Belarusian and its linguistic antecedent, Ruthenian. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania -- one of Europe's most influential regional powers from the 14th to the 17th century -- most inhabitants spoke Ruthenian. The language that was to later develop into modern Belarusian was used in the chancery.

Documents of historical significance, including the 1588 Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, medieval Europe's most thorough legal code since Roman times, were written in Ruthenian.

But since those glory days, the language has been in decline, a victim of neglect and assimilation policies by rulers who sought to Polonize or Russify parts of the country.

In Soviet times, Russification policies continued, and for the past seven years, under the rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the same attitudes have prevailed. Aksyuta Kashkevich, a university student in Minsk, is press secretary for the Union of Belarusian Students. She recalls her high school days: "In school, they taught us some Belarusian, but it was awful. All the time they inculcated the idea that Belarusian is a peasant language and only uneducated people speak it."

Kashkevich says her history studies led her to the opposite conclusion, spurring her to study Belarusian more thoroughly. Initially, she says, she did not find much understanding. "I tried to speak to people in Belarusian, but I wasn't very successful. There was no support -- there was nowhere where could you speak Belarusian all the time. It was only when I met people from the Union of Belarusian Students, when I discovered that there were people who spoke all the time in Belarusian and who weren't afraid to do so, that I came here," she said.

Kashkevich says mastering Belarusian took her several years of effort. But now, she speaks it full-time. "Of course, at the beginning it was tough, because you're used to speaking Russian all the time and Russian words would slip in all the time. Now it's the opposite: when I speak Russian, Belarusian words mix in. Because I practically no longer use Russian -- only when people don't understand me," Kashkevich said.

Kashkevich says her Russian-speaking parents still don't express much understanding -- even though her father is capable of speaking Belarusian: "To this day, my mother reproaches me. She says: 'We taught you to speak Russian and now you're distancing yourself from us and speaking Belarusian.' She laughs and makes fun of me when I use words that aren't similar to Russian words. They are Belarusian words -- but old. Few people know them. My father can speak Belarusian, but he doesn't always try. But my younger brother is also trying to speak Belarusian."

How representative is Kashkevich of her fellow-citizens and her age group? Is she part of a trend or just a nationalist exception? Professor Aleh Manayeu, head of Belarus's leading independent think tank, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research (NISEPI), has researched the issue.

Manayeu says that in terms of language use, Belarusian national identity remains dormant for the majority of the population: "National identity in Belarus is far more weakly expressed than in any of the other post-Soviet countries -- any -- even in Moldova or Central Asia, not to mention Russia and the Baltic states."

Manayeu's surveys indicate less than 5 percent of the population use only Belarusian in their professional and personal lives. But a Western diplomat posted in Minsk who has traveled extensively throughout the country tells RFE/RL that statistics can be misleading. He says most people use Russian frequently because there is no other choice, especially in official contexts. All administrative documents are printed in Russian, most schooling is conducted in Russian, and the language is promoted as the most convenient medium of exchange. But, the diplomat says, especially in rural areas, Belarusian remains alive and in use.

The revival of Belarusian among some of the nation's young people, promoted by organizations such as the Union of Belarusian Students, is a newer phenomenon but one that appears to be growing -- despite the odds. Another student, Aksana, discussed her feelings while chatting with a friend in front of her university:

"In general, I am trying to resuscitate this Belarusian identity in myself and my family, especially in my younger sister. It's very hard, because there are no conditions for developing our Belarusian identity. Just imagine, there is almost no subject taught in Belarusian at the university. It's very hard to find Belarusian literature in bookstores. Most of the books are in Russian. It's very hard to get quality language education in Belarusian. It's very hard."

Plans by several professors to set up a national university where courses would be taught in Belarusian have been blocked by government authorities for several years.

In some respects, the Western diplomat says, the situation in today's Belarus can be compared to that in Central Europe 150 years ago, when national revival movements formed in several states dominated by larger empires.

He recalls that in countries like today's Czech Republic, which lived through an analogous period of Germanization, it took the work of a handful of determined intellectuals to gradually revive the use of Czech as a literary language and preferred means of communication in state institutions. They too were swimming against the current. But today, the diplomat notes, "no one questions the fact that one of the world's leading playwrights and statesmen -- Vaclav Havel -- writes in Czech and not in German."

Even in eastern Belarus, in the heavily Russified Mahileu region, where few people speak Belarusian, some people today will tell you they are different from Russians and do not consider themselves part of the same nation. Uladzimir Haydukou, who heads the Mahileu branch of the opposition United Civic Party, sums up the general feeling:

"I consider myself a European. I am closer to Europe. We try to attune our youth to the fact that they are Europeans and don't belong to some sort of Eastern culture. We are at the center of Europe, after all. We must consider ourselves Europeans and we must not consider ourselves Russians. Russia is huge -- it has Eastern and Western influences all mixed up. But we are closer to Europe and have to educate people to this fact -- that they are Europeans."

Regardless of the language they speak, Haydukou says, Belarus's people must come to see themselves as citizens of their own state and not as provincials in a larger empire.

(RFE/RL's correspondent Jeremy Bransten wrote this report.)

'COMMERCIAL' OIL, GAS DEPOSIT DISCOVERED IN THE BLACK SEA. Mykola Ilnytskyy, head of the state-owned Chornomornaftohaz joint stock company (a part of the Naftohaz Ukrayiny monopoly), told Interfax on 3 July that an offshore drilling rig struck a "commercial" amount of oil and gas near Zmiyinyy island (Serpents Island), some 55 kilometers east of the Danube delta. "It is clear for us even today that this region of the Black Sea is primarily oil-bearing," Ilnytskyy added. He did not specify the water depth at which the rig works or at what underground depth drills hit oil. Chornomornaftohaz advertises its maximum offshore operating depth as 86 meters of water, and its maximum drilling depth as 6,000 meters.

The discovery of the oil and gas deposit may add heat to Ukrainian-Romanian talks on the demarcation of the continental shelf around Serpents Island. The island was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1946 and subsequently turned into a military fortress. While not agreeing to return the island to Romania, Ukraine pledged to deploy no "aggressive weapons" on it and agreed to consider it "uninhabited," which, under international maritime legislation, means that Kyiv cannot claim an exclusive economic zone around it.

"If the [2002 parliamentary] elections are relatively democratic, the new parliament's first decision will most likely include one on launching an impeachment procedure and, accordingly, another one on early presidential elections at the end of 2002. But if the elections are undemocratic, one may foresee the adoption of an amended version of the constitution and, as a consequence, the possibility of the election of Leonid Kuchma for a third term lasting until November 2009." -- Ukrainian political scientist Mykola Tomenko, answering a question from U.S. foreign policy experts about the possibility of Kuchma's early departure in 2001; quoted by Interfax on 9 July.