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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: February 8, 2000

8 February 2000, Volume 2, Number 6
Premier Perceived As Too Weak. In the 3 February "Zycie," Aleksander Hall--deputy chairman of the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and a leader of the Conservative-Peasant Party, which is a component of the AWS--analyzed the current crisis in the AWS and made a suggestion about how to overcome it. Hall's main conclusion is that the AWS must radically change its style of government, including changing the prime minister.

Hall recalls that the AWS was created by Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski in 1996 under the "absolute diktat" of the Solidarity trade union. According to him, Krzaklewski made "serious mistakes" both in selecting political partners for the AWS and in drawing up its program. "In the first phase of the AWS activities, the consistently rightist parties--which had been formed on the principles of rightist ideology and programs--were generally treated with distrust, while preference was given to far-right parties, known by their adventurous style of pursuing politics," Hall noted. In his opinion, the AWS's electoral program was not clearly defined before the 1997 parliamentary ballot, and the AWS election ticket included supporters and opponents of Poland's accession to the EU--those who supported privatization and foreign capital in Poland as well as those who opposed international companies' involvement in Poland and opted for a large state-run sector in the Polish economy.

"The AWS program was formulated in such a general way that [all AWS components] could count on the implementation of their ideas. The coalition agreement signed after the election with the Freedom Union was much more specific, and it was immediately after that agreement that the AWS heard first voices calling for a betrayal of its program," Hall said.

Another false move by the AWS, according to Hall, was designating Jerzy Buzek, a less well-known Solidarity activist, as prime minister. "Unfortunately, Jerzy Buzek became premier, but the real power has remained with Marian Krzaklewski," Hall noted, adding that Buzek accepted the role of an executive subservient to both Krzaklewski and the AWS parliamentary caucus. "Decisions of the Council of Ministers were the sum result of Marian Krzaklewski's will, the Freedom Union's concepts, as well as pressure and blackmail by the other parties that make up the AWS. In such a situation, the authority of the government was doomed to quickly decline," Hall concluded.

In order to improve the situation in the coalition, Hall proposed appointing a "stronger" premier--one "who will be willing to make use of his constitutional powers"--and make the cabinet less dependent on its political basis within the AWS. He argued that if these steps are not taken, Poland's right-wing parties will face defeat by the post-Communist opposition in both presidential and parliamentary elections. And he added that the decision rests in the hands of Marian Krzaklewski, who could either reduce his personal control over the cabinet or head it himself.

Vinnikava Reveals More, Sparks Doubts. Tamara Vinnikava, former Belarusian National Bank chairwoman, who is thought to be in exile and has already contacted the media on two occasions (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 21 and 28 December 1999), has once again shared some of her inside information with the public. This time she spoke with Alyaksandr Fyaduta, a Belarusian journalist and commentator. The interview was published in the Minsk-based "Narodnaya volya" on 1 February.

Vinnikava told Fyaduta that the collapse of the Belarusian ruble in 1998 was primarily caused by a shady financial deal approved by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who subsequently blamed the August 1998 financial meltdown in Russia for the nosedive of the domestic currency. In her opinion, the deal was undertaken because of the utter incompetence of Lukashenka's economic and financial advisers.

"When Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power, he had no team of professionals who could quickly replace that of his predecessors. A matter of paramount importance for him was not professional skills but personal loyalty. He filled his team with people from the same village, school, kolkhoz, and so forth," Vinnikava noted.

Lukashenka's idiosyncratic personnel policy became known to economic and financial experts from Moscow, who were offering "projects" and "programs"--like market commodities--to new governments in the post-Soviet area through different lobbyists. On the surface credible and validated in theory, those projects had inherent flaws and were aimed at benefiting their authors and fooling their executors. According to Vinnikava, the Lukashenka regime has fallen prey to at least six such projects.

The deal that had the most far-reaching consequences involved the Belarusian government's purchasing $1 billion using Belarusian rubles. The offer came from a U.S. firm that wanted to sell the dollars at an exchange rate "significantly higher" than that determined by the government for Belarusian exporters' obligatory sales of hard-currency proceeds. One billion dollars was an enormous sum for Belarus, which had some $350 million as the National Bank reserve at that time.

The U.S. firm requested that the Belarusian rubles be deposited in a Russian bank that had a correspondent account in Belarus. The transaction was to be made through the Belarusian National Bank, which had to authorize the printing of the required amount of Belarusian rubles. Vinnikava, who headed the central bank, opposed the deal, saying it would have negative consequences for the economy. But Pyotr Prakapovich, a construction engineer who worked in the presidential administration and had no knowledge of economics or finances, was lobbying for the deal. He argued that it essentially boiled down to "printing U.S. dollars instead of Belarusian rubles." He did not give up even after it had become known that the U.S. firm offering the deal was set up by an immigrant married couple with a founding capital of $100 ("it was clear that the [offered] money was dirty," Vinnikava commented).

After Vinnikava was arrested in January 1998, Prakapovich was appointed National Bank chairman. He ordered to print Belarusian rubles and bought the dollars--according to Vinnikava, not the originally offered $1 billion but some $300,000. The printed Belarusian rubles, which were presumably put in circulation in the Belarusian economy right after the transaction, triggered an avalanching inflation. The Russian financial crisis helped the Belarusian authorities to cover the scandalous deal to some extent, but even they were unable to explain to citizens why the 1998 annual inflation rate in Belarus hit 180 percent, while that in Russia was "only" 85 percent.

According to Vinnikava, corruption in Belarus under Lukashenka is "even more widespread than under Communist rule." And there is a version of that phenomenon that is peculiarly Belarusian. In Vinnikava's own words: "Rich people in Belarus contrast starkly with those in Russia, even in their outward appearance. They are allowed to have high incomes and to accumulate large amounts of savings, but they are simultaneously prohibited from actively spending their money. They are prohibited from taking recreation in some secluded nook in Belarus, let alone going on vacation abroad.... The republic is small, it is virtually impossible to spend time [engaging] in leisure activities or enjoying luxury housing and cars [without being noticed]. The only entertainment left is a lot of good eating and drinking. Therefore, rich people from the governing elite in Belarus, as a rule, can be recognized by their old-fashioned and slightly soiled jackets, flabby figures, and ties that stand horizontally [on their bulging stomachs]."

Vinnikava divulged that people from Lukashenka's retinue avoid opening personal accounts in banks and prefer to keep their money in the accounts of various firms, primarily Yugoslav ones. Following the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, a sort of panic broke out in Minsk. "The money owners became very annoyed, because there already was the experience of the first chapter of military operations in Chechnya. Pursuing some fatal pattern of accidentalness, shells hit bank repositories more often than anything else," Vinnikava noted.

When Lukashenka flew to Belgrade to encourage Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, his delegation, according to Vinnikava, was composed almost entirely of the people who wanted their money out of Yugoslavia. The list of the Belarusian delegation to Yugoslavia has never been made public. Vinnikava says that perhaps only Lukashenka and his son had no financial interests during that trip to Belgrade. Vinnikava recalled that the Belarusian authorities strongly condemned the NATO attack on Yugoslavia but did not break the contract under which Belarusian women in the city of Barysau (Minsk Oblast) were laboriously sewing uniforms for NATO soldiers as alliance bombs were hitting Yugoslav targets.

Vinnikava also repeated her former allegation that the Belarusian economy is run by "Russian oligarchs" who supply Belarus with more products than it actually needs (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 28 December 1999). But she added that it is the "Russian oligarchs," not Lukashenka, who are responsible for the lack of any reforms in Belarus. In her opinion, they use the Belarusian antiquated economy as a kind of colonial source of cheap labor and large profits. Now, having depleted Belarus of its hard currency, the Russian oligarchs are pushing for a Belarusian-Russian monetary union in which the Russian ruble is to become a joint currency. Vinnikava argues that they want to have their credits to Belarus repaid in Russian rubles, not in worthless Belarusian ones.

The Moscow-based "Novye izvestiya" published an article by its Minsk correspondent, Alyaksandr Starykevich, on 2 February stating that there are "more and more reasons to believe" that Vinnikava, "Alyaksandr Lukashenka's former favorite, who today makes revealing statements, is actually being controlled by Minsk."

According to Starykevich, Vinnikava had not said anything new in her previous two interviews, while the most recent one "basically includes her general reflections on the plans of Russian oligarchs to capture Belarus."

Quoting a "well-informed source close to the special services," Starykevich said Vinnikava's story is a "well-planned and well-implemented operation for neutralizing Lukashenka's most dangerous opponents." According to this version, Vinnikava was given the option of leaving Belarus "in exchange for loyal behavior and the pledge to appear where and when she is told to." She consented and therefore the authorities did not search for her after she disappeared in April 1999.

In the six months since Vinnikava's alleged "fake escape," two other prominent figures have disappeared: former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka and former Deputy Premier Viktar Hanchar, both of whom were fierce opponents of Lukashenka. These disappearances, Starykevich suggested, were staged by the authorities to eliminate political foes of the regime. The reappearance of Vinnikava is a sort of cover for the regime, which now can claim that both Zakharanka and Hanchar disappeared in the same way as Vinnikava and may reappear in the future, too.

Starykevich concludes that "this version explains many strange events in Tamara Vinnikava's story. It seems to be the most plausible version at the moment. Paying lip service to the other version, we will note that some presume that the female banker is being used by those who want to take Lukashenka under their control: as if to say, if you are not going to behave correctly, she may indeed disclose something sensational. In any case, Vinnikava is not an independent figure, she disappears and reappears following the will of her master. She is, so to say, a puppet on a chain. The hand of the puppeteer is hidden behind the screen, which allows him to remain incognito."

No Resolution In Sight For Ukraine. By choosing Ivan Plyushch as new parliamentary speaker on 1 February, the center-right majority made the current standoff in the Ukrainian parliament even worse. A compromise between the two warring factions seems very unlikely since the leftist minority--composed of the Communist Party, Socialist Party, Progressive Socialist Party, and the Peasant Party caucus--is demanding that the majority revoke all former decisions and submit them to a repeat vote by the entire house. As for the majority, it wants its opponents to accept a fait accompli.

President Leonid Kuchma on 4 February pushed the standoff even further down an irreversible path by signing into law two bills passed by the majority on 1 February--one abolishing the holiday commemorating the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the other on renumbering independent Ukraine's legislatures to make the current Supreme Council the third one rather than the 14th. The latter bill is believed to be a ruse on the part of the majority to avoid the dissolution of the parliament should the 16 April constitutional referendum result in a popular vote of no confidence in the Supreme Council. In such a situation, some commentators suggest, the vote will affect only the "old" legislature, that is, the leftist minority.

However, the current parliamentary crisis seems in danger of going far beyond the immediate need to create a docile legislature that could approve a 2000 budget and vote for a number of reforms. Many analyst argue that not the only the current parliament but also the future of parliamentarism in Ukraine may be doomed if the constitutional referendum gives Kuchma the go-ahead to amend the constitution. What is more, collateral damage in the standoff and the referendum may be evident in the growth of public distrust in independent Ukraine's constitutional system. That system may be subject to significant reconstruction without having had a chance to secure its foundations.

Even some majority deputies feel that the resolutions adopted by their faction, including those on the parliamentary leadership, are unconstitutional and unlawful because they were adopted without consent of the legally elected speaker and outside the parliamentary building. If those decisions are enforced by the president in practice, they may spark a crisis of the executive power's legitimacy similar to that in neighboring Belarus. The only difference will be that whereas Belarus has removed its center-rightist opposition from the political process, Ukraine will seek to do the same with its leftist forces.

If Kuchma decides to disband the parliament and call for new elections, the country--which is under the immediate threat of financial bankruptcy and social upheaval--will become engaged in yet another turbulent political campaign, meaning that the resolution of urgent socioeconomic problems will once again be pushed back to some later date, if not dropped altogether. In such a case, it will become highly probable that a presidential dictatorship will be introduced in Ukraine. The idea that it is possible to go toward a market economy with the help of a dictatorship is not new, but it has so far not been put to the test in the post-Soviet area. Indeed, the example of Belarus suggests that a post-Soviet dictatorship would serve to push the country as far backward as possible.

On the other hand, many in Ukraine, including both political elites and ordinary citizens, may be longing for the rule of a "strongman," especially as Ukraine's "experiments with democracy" over the past nine years have proved so inefficient in the economic sphere. But with Kuchma in Kyiv running the country (like Lukashenka in Minsk) by means of decrees and edicts, Ukraine will put itself at risk of losing the West's material and moral support. Some cynics may argue that Kuchma's policy of seeking rapprochement with the West is not Lukashenka's "back-to-the-USSR" drive, therefore the West will not abandon Kyiv as quickly as it did official Minsk. Therefore, in the short run, autocracy for Ukraine might not prove as bad as some fear. Unfortunately, the country's problems cannot be resolved in a year or two. And this means that autocracy in Ukraine could become not only an emergency measure but a preferred way of ruling for many years.

"The population, in comparing the output of those channels operating today on our territory, justly notes the low quality level of our Belarusian Television. This has annoyed and continues to annoy me most of all. The primary reason for those problems is the complete lack of competition. Many say that we have no cadres, that the nation has become pauperized, and so on. We have everything. We have wise, beautiful, sensible, talented Belarusian boys and girls, and elderly people, scientists who can comment on any topic in a way comprehensible to the people." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka, suggesting the creation of a second television channel in Belarus. Quoted by Belarusian Television on 5 February.

"The [parliamentary] 'wandering majority,' which holds its sessions in the Ukrainian House, and the minority on hunger strike, which blocks the session hall of the Supreme Council around the clock in the company of warrant officers from the house guard--both constitute a very interesting model of legislative power. Cloning the parliament is the unique idea of our domestic political operators.... The four minority caucuses...are now only [a form of] opposition 'appendicitis' in the body of the very constructive but sad majority. Surgery for removing the 'foreign body' has already begun. It is being assisted by some special service officers who try to record on video tape all that is taking place in the 'old' parliament's building, as well as by young warrant officers from the parliamentary guard who are already learning how to separate good majority deputies from bad minority oppositionists. -- "Zerkalo nedeli" on 5 February.