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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: December 18, 2001

18 December 2001, Volume 3, Number 48

The next issue of "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" will appear on 8 January 2002.
TWENTY YEARS AFTER. Twenty years ago, on the morning of 13 December 1981, all of Poland was shocked by the sight of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and police and military units armed with Kalashnikov machine guns patrolling the streets. And quite suddenly, there were no radio or television programs on the air. Instead, television broadcast images every half hour of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who told the country that "our fatherland has found itself on the edge of an abyss" and announced the introduction of martial law.

The highest authority body in the country turned out to be the Jaruzelski-led Military Council of National Salvation (WRON), which was set up shortly after midnight on 13 December. The WRON ordered some 10,000 Solidarity activists interned until the council was dissolved in July 1983; more than 3,000 were arrested in the wee hours of the first day of martial law. The acronym WRON -- which was only one letter short of "wrona" (crow in Polish) -- immediately inspired a popular anticommunist slogan of that period: "orla wrona nie pokona" ("the crow won't beat the eagle" -- by which the eagle stood for both Poland's national emblem and, figuratively, Poland's strivings for independence).

The WRON introduced the censorship of correspondence and telephone calls as well as curfews. Major Polish plants and factories received new managers -- military commissars. All the Polish periodicals -- apart from the party's two countrywide dailies ("Trybuna Ludu" and "Zolnierz Wolnosci"), and 16 regional dailies -- were suspended. All the universities were closed and all the students, including this author, were told to go home and watch television for an official announcement on when to return to their studies.

The general atmosphere in the first days of martial law was surreal and absurd. Whom did the commies want to fight? But then came terse official reports -- read by television news presenters in military uniforms -- about the bloody pacification of strikes in the Wujek and Manifest Lipcowy mines, and it was suddenly chillingly clear for everyone that the communist regime would do anything imaginable to remain true to former Polish communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka's pledge: "We won't give up the power we once won."

The 1981 martial law was called off in mid-1983, but the general perception is that it lasted until 1989, when Solidarity took over in a peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy. Jaruzelski's rule in the 1980s was a bleak period in Poland, both because of economic hardships and the general feeling of hopelessness among younger generations: three-quarters of a million Poles emigrated during that time, most of them young, which led to a brain drain from which the country has yet to recover.

Twenty years later, Poles remain bitterly divided as regards political and moral assessments of the 1981 martial law. Solidarity first leader Lech Walesa has recently commented that Jaruzelski's crackdown on Solidarity in 1981 "destroyed Poland's hope, and that was an unpardonable mistake." According to Walesa, if it were not for martial law, Poland would already be part of the EU.

Jaruzelski's self-advocacy boils down to the tenet that his crackdown on Solidarity saved Poland from Soviet invasion and a much bloodier scenario, resembling that of Hungary's anticommunist uprising in 1956. Polish historians have yet to find documentary evidence that Poland was threatened in 1981 by an imminent intervention of Soviet forces. However, Jaruzelski seems to have won over the public in Poland to his reasons for imposing martial law. Poland's three polling centers have concurrently found that some 50 percent of respondents now believe that the imposition of martial law was justified, and only some 20 percent think otherwise.

It is also notable that some 30 percent of Poles have no clear opinion about 13 December 1981. Ironically, this group primarily is made up of a "martial-law baby boom" -- young people who were born during the martial-law years when annual births topped 700,000 -- nearly double the current levels. One is almost compelled to say that Poles "made love not war" at that time in the literal sense. For these baby boomers -- among whom unemployment currently reaches 40 percent -- the historical disputes of their parents about the Solidarity-Communists standoff in the 1980s seem to have no urgency or even to be completely irrelevant to their lives.

Adam Michnik, who was arrested and interned on 13 December 1981, wrote in his "Gazeta Wyborcza" on 12 December 2001 that "after 20 years, Poland deserves peace and reconciliation." Michnik appealed to President Aleksander Kwasniewski and the parliament to find a "legal formula" in order to free General Jaruzelski from all court trials he is currently undergoing. According to Michnik, Jaruzelski deserves the Poles' gratitude in no lesser degree than Walesa for "paving the way toward freedom without blood and barricades, without executions and scaffolds" in 1989.

While it is not ruled out that Kwasniewski and the current leftist-dominated parliament may lend an ear to Michnik's appeal, it is hardly conceivable that the postulated "peace and reconciliation" over Poland's contemporary history will reign supreme any time soon. But Michnik's appeal, as well as the above-mentioned polls on martial law, reflect an evident shift in historical thinking of the Poles from traditionally romantic and emotional, to more temperate and detached assessments. This may also be a sign of Poland's ongoing transformation, in which collective myths of both the anticommunist tradition and the communist historiography are gradually replaced by more individualist visions of history and life in general.

NEW BILL IN U.S. SENATE WOULD ISOLATE MINSK. Three months ago, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka celebrated what he called a "shining" landslide win in the ex-Soviet republic's second presidential election since independence in 1991.

Now, a veteran American politician is working on legislation he hopes will eventually be a shining victory over Lukashenka.

Senator Jesse Helms, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its former chairman, has submitted a bill proposing a tough mix of isolation of the Minsk government and robust economic assistance to its democratic opposition in a bid to bring down Lukashenka.

The "Belarus Democracy Act 2001" is unlikely to be enacted into legislation this year. The bill is still seeking sponsorship in the House of Representatives -- the other half of Congress.

But an aide to Helms, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, said the senator would push the bill once Congress kicks off its 2002 session in January. The aide also said some House members have expressed interest in sponsoring a version of the bill and that he was confident the legislation could eventually be passed next year.

In the past, Helms co-sponsored legislation that imposed economic sanctions on Fidel Castro's Cuba.

His latest bill, if approved, would allocate $30 million in aid to Minsk's opposition -- or about three times what its supporters currently receive from Washington. Besides political parties, the money would go to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the independent media, and international exchanges and professional training programs -- all in a bid to build democracy.

Perhaps most significantly, the bill would impose on Minsk a series of sanctions that would contradict explicit recent recommendations by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) not to isolate the country -- despite what the OSCE dubbed neither free nor fair elections in September.

Although the U.S. has maintained a critical position toward Lukashenka, the bill would significantly harden its policy known as "selective engagement," which allows for only limited and generally low-level contact between the two governments.

Still, a State Department official told RFE/RL that the department does not disagree with the substance of the proposed legislation. The official added that Minsk has been one of the few governments in the world not to offer any support to the U.S. following the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Under the bill, the U.S. government would oppose any financial assistance to Belarus from the main international financial institutions; freeze any assets held by the government or senior leaders of Belarus in the United States; prohibit exports of any goods from the U.S. to entities controlled by the Belarus government; and forbid any contracts between Americans and Belarusian government-owned entities.

The sanctions would only be lifted once Minsk released political prisoners from jail, such as businessman Andrey Klimau; stopped harassing opposition media, NGOs, and politicians; and provided a full and complete accounting of the four opposition figures who have disappeared in recent years.

The bill would also deny entry into the U.S. of anyone in a senior post in the Belarusian government or an immediate relation of such a person. And it calls on Russia to cease support of the Lukashenka government and respect Minsk's sovereignty, and urges the U.S. to seek the backing of European allies to apply similar sanctions against Belarus.

Catherine Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the International League for Human Rights, which has consultative status with the United Nations and works closely on Belarus. Fitzpatrick said the bill may be too harsh in some sanctions, and that it could be diplomatically counterproductive as some could wonder why the U.S. is working with other authoritarian regimes, such as Uzbekistan, a key ally in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, yet singling out Minsk.

But generally, Fitzpatrick supports the bill and believes the U.S. must take a harder stance on Lukashenka and urge the European Union to do so as well: "I would like to see it go, but I think that given everybody else's concern about everything from Afghanistan reconstruction to Pakistan to Somalia to North Korea -- this is not on the top of the list. But it is something we support and should be supported."

The OSCE has said isolation would harm the Belarusian people, but Fitzpatrick said the OSCE should stop consulting with Minsk -- something it has never tried as a policy since Lukashenka took over in 1994. She said Minsk should be treated in the same way the West treated the Soviet Union -- with firm, consistent condemnation.

Fitzpatrick added that while she was uncertain about the bill's potential to be approved, she has noticed that a lot of people in the Belarusian government are starting to worry that it might be.

(The report was written by Jeffrey Donovan, RFE/RL's correspondent in Washington.)

OLIGARCHIC SOCIAL DEMOCRATS SUFFER SETBACK. On 13 December, 234 members of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) voted to dismiss Deputy Chairman Viktor Medvedchuk from his position. Medvedchuk is also the chairman of one of Ukraine's most important, but least liked, oligarchic political parties -- the Social Democratic Party (United) (SDPU-O). Medvedchuk achieved notoriety during the Soviet era when he helped send well-known Ukrainian dissident poet Vasyl Stus to the Gulag, where he died in 1986. In the 1990s, Medvedchuk's rise to fame was meteoric, and he recently set his sights on the post-Kuchma presidency.

The factions that gathered the 150 signatures to place the motion of dismissal to a vote came from the two Rukh parties (36 members), Reforms-Congress (14), Yuliya Tymoshenko's Fatherland (25), Solidarity (21), and the newly created Unity (15) led by popular Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko. The remaining votes came from the Socialists and Communists, who together command 130 members. Those two factions blame Medvedchuk for the adoption by the Verkhovna Rada last month of the land reform bill.

It has been increasingly evident that both the SDPU-O and Oleksandr Volkov's Democratic Union have been out of favor with President Leonid Kuchma. Volkov, a businessman who is reputed to have ties to organized crime and is wanted by Belgian police on money-laundering charges, was presented with a medal by President Kuchma in February in honor of his "selfless work and personal merits in promoting Ukraine's socioeconomic development." But since then his star has also waned.

A new party of power, Regions of Ukraine, was created by the head of the State Tax Administration, Mykola Azarov, earlier this year in the Donbas, and many deputies from Volkov's parliament faction joined it. The final indication that Volkov had fallen out of favor with Kuchma and was no longer needed as an "adviser" was his replacement as head of the Democratic Union by Kuchma's long-time personal friend, Volodymyr Horbulin, who was Yevhen Marchuk's predecessor as secretary of the National Security and Defense Council.

Four factors have led to Medvedchuk's decline. First, Omelchenko's Unity faction dislikes the SDPU-O because of its control of many of Kyiv's prize assets, including the Dynamo Kyiv soccer team. Azarov's rival Regions of Ukraine has supported recent draft legislation to tax payments made on the transfers of soccer players from which the USDPU inordinately gained. Omelchenko also dislikes Hryhoriy Surkis, Medvedchuk's ally and president of Kyiv Dynamo and the Football Federation of Ukraine, who was his rival in the bitterly contested 2000 Kyiv mayoral elections. Omelchenko is the president of the Hockey Federation of Ukraine.

Second, the SDPU-O feared that as in the 1998 elections, they would again fail to garner the minimum 4 percent of the vote to secure seats for the candidates on its party list. The SDPU-O needed therefore to gain votes in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine because its main base of support in western and central Ukraine was less reliable. The party sought to capitalize on the language question by collecting 140,000 signatures demanding that a new Law on Languages be adopted to replace the 1989 law. The new law would elevate Russian to the status of an "official language" while keeping Ukrainian as the "state" language. It is unclear to all concerned what the difference between "official" and "state" languages is, a distinction first introduced by Kuchma during his 1994 election campaign but then shelved after his election. On 30 November, the Verkhovna Rada began to debate the replacement of the 1989 law, which ensured that the national democrats would target Medvedchuk as the person behind this move to place it on the Verkhovna Rada agenda only three months before the elections. Verkhovna Rada Chairman Ivan Plyushch has spoken out against discussing the language question on the eve of the elections.

Third, the SDPU-O is suspected of being one of the most likely culprits behind security service officer Mykola Melnychenko, whose bugging of Kuchma's office led to the "Kuchmagate" scandal. There are rumors that in mid-2000, the SDPU-O made a proposal to Kuchma that he hand over power to Medvedchuk in a manner similar to the transfer by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. But Kuchma refused to do so. The SDPU-O was also angry that Kuchma tolerated Tymoshenko's presence in Yushchenko's government. The SDPU-O argued that Tymoshenko and former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko made a lot of money from insider energy deals and therefore knew how to undercut this source of corrupt funds to the oligarchs. Melnychenko has always spoken highly of Marchuk, his former boss as chairman of the Security Service, and the Melnychenko tapes include no conversations between Kuchma and either Medvedchuk, Surkis, or Marchuk.

Finally, the other oligarchic parties could not have abstained in the vote of no confidence to dismiss Medvedchuk without a nod of approval from the presidential administration. Kuchma's blessing for Medvedchuk's fall from grace allows For a United Ukraine to become the main pro-Kuchma election bloc. Led by presidential administration head Volodymyr Lytvyn, a trusted friend and the only surviving member of Kuchma's 1994 election team, it includes five parties of power -- Regions of Ukraine (Donbas), Labor Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk), People's Democrats (Kharkiv and southern Ukraine), Agrarians (Galicia and Volhynia), and Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Each of these can draw upon "administrative resources" in the election campaign in the regions and institutions they control.

The rise and fall of the SDPU-O is characteristic of Ukrainian politics insofar as oligarchic parties lack any ideology and exist only at the whim of the executive. Although the oligarchs and the executive need each other, neither side trusts the other.

(The report was written by Taras Kuzio, a research associate at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.)

"In the 1980s it was not socialism that was collapsing, but capitalism, and the West was choking on its production surpluses and needed new markets for sales." -- Self-Defense leader Andrzej Lepper on reasons for the collapse of communism, as presented in his recently released book "Every Stick Has Two Ends" on Poland's post-1989 transformation; quoted by PAP on 14 December.

"I learned yesterday that Ukraine's GDP rose by 11 percent in the past 11 months." -- Vladimir Putin at a Ukrainian-Russian economic forum in Kharkiv on 15 December. "I learned about that only today." -- Leonid Kuchma at the same forum, in response to Putin's remark; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.