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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 14, 2001

14 August 2001, Volume 3, Number 30
WEEKLY DISCOVERS 'SECRET ANNEX' TO PRIVATIZATION OF POLAND'S TELECOMMUNICATIONS GIANT. The respected Warsaw-based weekly "Polityka" on 28 July reported that last year's deal on the sale of a 35 percent stake in Poland's Telekomunikacja Polska S.A. (TPSA) giant was accompanied by a "secret annex" signed by then-Communications Minister Tomasz Szyszko.

In July 2000, a consortium led by France Telecom purchased for $4.34 billion (the sum was equal to 12 percent of Poland's budget revenues in 2000) a 35 percent stake in TPSA in one of the largest privatization purchases in post-communist Eastern Europe. TPSA is Poland's third-largest company and still retains a near monopoly on telephone services in the country. France Telecom obtained a 25 percent stake, while Kulczyk Holding S.A., owned by Polish billionaire Jan Kulczyk, received a 10 percent share. Moreover, the purchase accord gave France Telecom the right to buy an additional 10 percent stake in TPSA in 2000, and another 6 percent until September 2001.

"Polityka" reported that, owing to the "secret annex," France Telecom purchased "virtually the entire telecommunications market" in Poland. The "secret annex" stipulates that the government will not apply any regulations regarding TPSA's "maximum tariffs" for telecommunications services until the end of 2003. The weekly says this stipulation means that TPSA may set telecommunications tariffs at its own discretion, adding that it also explains why Poles pay "one of the highest telecommunications tariffs in the world."

The "secret annex" also stipulates that "the full liberalization" of the market of international telephone calls in Poland will take place as of 1 January 2003, thus securing the monopolist position of TPSA in this most lucrative sphere of telephone services.

The "secret annex" also gives TPSA preferences in developing cellular telephone systems in Poland.

Last month, Premier Jerzy Buzek sacked Communications Minister Szyszko for what was officially termed Szyszko's "inadequate supervision of his ministry." Poland's Supreme Audit Chamber found in an inspection conducted earlier this year that 91.6 percent of concessions awarded by the ministry were conducted without tenders, among other "irregularities pointing to the possibility of the rise of corruption."

"Polityka" suggests that, apart from Szyszko, there are other officials responsible for approving such detrimental conditions of the sale of TPSA to France Telecom.

MINSK NOT EAGER TO INVITE OSCE MONITORS. The most frequent criticism aimed at foreign observers during elections is that they tend to arrive too late, concentrating their energies on the actual voting day, when in fact it is the pre-election campaign that often determines whether a poll ends up being fair.

The OSCE is conscious of this criticism, which is why its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) had planned to dispatch a team of observers to Belarus more than a month ahead of the country's presidential election. The observers were expected to monitor the registration of candidates and the formation of local electoral commissions along with keeping tabs on local media coverage.

An initial team of five ODIHR observers had planned to arrive in Minsk on 1 August, to be followed by some 20 additional staffers over the next few days. Hrair Balian, the head of the ODIHR's election department, told RFE/RL on 31 July, however, that the Belarusian authorities refused them entry at the last minute:

"[On] Friday night [27 July] we received a note verbale, which is a diplomatic letter in essence, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing us that we are not welcome on 1 August, that we should wait for a formal invitation from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. [This] is not correct because according to the OSCE commitments and documents, we have a standing invitation from all OSCE member states to observe their elections and come in and set up our observation missions. We don't need to wait for an invitation."

ODIHR head Gerard Stoudmann on 31 July said the presence of the OSCE experts was intended to enhance the electoral process. He said that preventing or delaying the arrival of the team could erode both domestic and international confidence in the election.

Balian said it is essential that his team be allowed into the country as soon as possible if the observers are to do a proper job:

"That's a critical part of our observation, to see how fair, how transparent, how level the playing field is in terms of registering all the opposition candidates."

Balian says now is the time when flaws in the system -- whether intentional or not -- could be caught, before undemocratic mechanisms are set in place.

"We would be thoroughly analyzing the legal and administrative framework as it is set up now -- because the regional election commissions are now being set up -- to see to what extent the opposition is able to take part in the work of the election administration bodies, the commissions, not only at the central level in Minsk but also in the regions. We would be opening seven regional offices, so our observation would not be limited only to Minsk, the capital," Balian noted.

(Ed. note: RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten wrote the preceding section of this report; the following section was written by RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox.)

Since 7 August, the OSCE's election monitors based in Warsaw have had their bags packed, ready to catch a plane to Minsk at a moment's notice.

The observers are from the ODIHR. They hope to monitor what's left of Belarus' presidential election campaign ahead of the 9 September poll.

In a bid to boost their chances of ousting Lukashenka, four opposition leaders have united behind one candidate, trade union leader Uladzimir Hancharyk. But they say they have little chance of success unless the election is fair.

That's what the OSCE's election monitors were hoping to determine.

They had hoped to be in Belarus at the beginning of August, which would have given them the six weeks or so they say they need. Then they were told they needed new visas and the departure date was shifted to 7 August.

With still no invitation in sight, ODIHR Director Stoudmann warned Belarus on 7 August that the credibility of the election result is now doubtful and that time is running out.

On 8 August, a spokesman from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry told the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti that an invitation will be sent shortly, the latest of many such assurances.

But regardless of whether an invitation does actually come in the near future, the ODIHR says it's too late to monitor some crucial events in the run-up to the elections.

Branimir Radev is deputy head of the ODIHR's election department. He says that it is common practice for countries to invite his office's monitors at least two months before an election.

He said that, while his office has been tussling with the Belarusian authorities, important campaign events have already taken place.

"Very important events are already going on or have already passed," Radev said. "The gathering of signatures of support for the candidates; the appointment of the electoral commissions. Right now is the period of registration of candidates, which expires 15 August. After that there are three days to appeal to the Supreme Court and three days for the court to decide. I repeat, very important events in this campaign are underway or have already passed. We have not been able to monitor these events. Even if we deploy, let's imagine, tomorrow, there will be some things in this campaign which we have not been able to observe. That will be reflected in our final report."

He said there is no cut-off date beyond which the monitors will decide it's too late to go:

"We don't have such a date. However, in our inner minds, one month before the elections, or that is, later than a month, would be already too late. I'm talking about any election, not just Belarus."

The opposition says it's clear Lukashenka is determined to hang on to power. Anatol Lyabedzka heads the United Civic Party. He too says it's already too late for a monitoring mission:

"To get a full picture of what's going on in Belarus, it's necessary to observe not just polling day but [the period] before the potential candidates are officially registered. The authorities want to limit the period the international observers are here literally to the day of the election."

Lyabedzka says it suits the authorities just fine to drag their feet over inviting the observers, as they will be unable to document such infringements as the squeezing of what little independent media still exists and Lukashenka's use of state media as an electoral platform.

YULIYA TYMOSHENKO FACES CRIMINAL CHARGES FROM RUSSIA. Russian prosecutors on 8 August announced that they gathered evidence in two criminal cases against former Ukrainian Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko -- now the leader of the opposition Fatherland Party and the National Salvation Forum election committee -- and handed those cases over to Ukrainian prosecutors. Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor-General Mykola Obikhod on 9 August said the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office has received both cases and begun an investigation.

Yurii Yakovlev, Russia's interim military prosecutor-general, told Reuters that Tymoshenko is facing charges of "complicity in bribe-giving." He refused to identify whom Tymoshenko might have helped bribe, saying only that it was a Russian official. Yakovlev said the charges against Tymoshenko are part of a larger graft case involving a senior Russian Defense Ministry official suspected of questionable dealings with other Ukrainian officials.

Simultaneously, Russian civilian prosecutors requested that Kyiv pursue criminal proceedings against Tymoshenko and her husband for an alleged attempt to smuggle $100,000 from Russia in 1995. The sum was reportedly found by Russian customs officers in Tymoshenko's hand luggage in Moscow's Vnukovo airport and confiscated.

"[This is] a cheap provocation fabricated under pressure from and to order by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma with the aim of compromising the opposition movement," the Fatherland Party said in a statement on 8 August.

The same day, Tymoshenko held a news conference in Kyiv and denied the Russian charges. She said the charges were orchestrated after a deal between Kuchma and Russian President Vladimir Putin on how to "destroy" the anti-Kuchma opposition in Ukraine.

"There were three meetings of Kuchma and Putin in the past week to map out a single cooperation strategy for a long term, and those talks produced a specific result," Interfax quoted Tymoshenko as saying. "Russia has resolved for the third time to have a stake in Kuchma as Ukraine's leader and to support [his bid] for a third presidential term," Tymoshenko added.

According to Tymoshenko, Ukraine will pay a price for this deal. "There is no doubt how Kuchma will pay for such accords with the Russian Federation. I am convinced that a strategic agreement has been achieved on the surrender by Kuchma of Ukraine's national interests in the political and economic spheres, as well as in the development of joint military programs," she said. And the above-mentioned statement by Tymoshenko's party specified that Kuchma urged Putin "to open a fabricated case against Tymoshenko in exchange for protectionism and preferential access of Russian capital to the Ukrainian market."

Deputy Prosecutor-General Obikhod denied political motivations in the Russian charges against Tymoshenko. "The transfer of the criminal cases doesn't concern any political persecution, while cooperation between Russian and Ukrainian law-enforcement bodies is regulated by international documents," AP quoted Obikhod as saying.

Tymoshenko's lawyer Viktor Shvets told journalists on 9 August that she was hospitalized with heart problems, while Obikhod said Tymoshenko failed to show up for an interrogation the same day because of unspecified health problems.

Meanwhile, Oleksandr Tymoshenko, Yuliya's husband, was freed from jail on 9 August, after a Kyiv district court ruled that he cannot be held in custody any longer while awaiting trial on embezzlement charges. He spent 12 months in jail on suspicion of misappropriating state funds and smuggling Russian gas. At the time of his arrest, Oleksandr Tymoshenko was a director in the gas-trading giant Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine, which was headed by his wife in 1995-97.

In addition to the recent Russian allegations, Yuliya Tymoshenko is facing charges of gas smuggling, document forgery, and tax evasion related to the period during which she headed Unified Energy Systems. Her arrest in February spurred many protest rallies in Kyiv this spring. After her release in March, she became vigorously engaged in organizing the anti-Kuchma opposition into a group named the National Salvation Forum. Polls show, however, that many Ukrainians are skeptical of her wealth and wary of her links to the notoriously corrupt energy sector.

"These presidential elections -- I will win. I'll be with you. I would like to be. Or without you. But I will win. I am not afraid of anybody. I will tell the people even more than I said today in the presence of the media. I think that if people get all this information, and by the way, I won't sit on these documents, I will publish them, about what [OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group head Hans-Georg] Wieck is up to, what the OSCE is up to, what the West is up to here." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka to executive branch representatives on 31 July; quoted by RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.

"We know that the [OSCE's] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights will take the same stance [on the 2001 presidential elections] as on the parliamentary elections [in 2000]. They will most likely come with a document where they will have written down in advance what they want. Not [about] what they will see [during the elections] but about what they want." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka, answering a question from a Belapan journalist as to why Minsk is delaying the invitation of OSCE monitors for the presidential elections; quoted by Belarusian Television on 11 August.