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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: March 14, 2000

14 March 2000, Volume 2, Number 10
Warsaw Touchy About EU Accession Delay. The current Solidarity-led government has pledged to prepare Poland for EU entry by 1 January 2003. Any skeptical voices in Brussels about Warsaw's ability to be ready to join the EU by that date tend to provoke irate reactions from Polish coalition politicians. The most recent example of such a skeptical voice was European Commission Chairman Romano Prodi's remark in an interview with the 3 March "Financial Times."

Prodi told the newspaper that the EU will take a tough stance with applicant countries from Eastern and Central Europe after Austria's Freedom Party, which campaigned largely on an anti-EU enlargement ticket, joined the Austrian government coalition. "We must tranquilize our public opinion and the public opinion of applicant countries. Otherwise, there will be hundreds of Austrian situations," Prodi noted. According to the EU official, since the Freedom Party joined Austria's cabinet, the EU is "completely at risk" of having its operations blocked by a hostile government among its members and this risk will grow with enlargement.

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek commented on 6 March that to give in to pressure from populists by delaying EU enlargement would be a "paradox." Geremek added: "The union has always been built on the basis of courage. If fear were to become its building material now, I would be very skeptical about its future."

Jan Kulakowski, Poland's chief negotiator with the EU, told "Gazeta Wyborcza" on 8 March that Warsaw should not pay the price for developments in Austria, which he called "somebody else's problem." According to Kulakowski, in accepting new members, the EU should be guided by those countries' "merits" rather than reactions from member countries.

Kulakowski admitted that Warsaw is responsible for "delays" in the accession talks with the EU, but simultaneously accused Brussels of "lacking the good political will" to wrap up negotiations on the customs union, financial control, and joint foreign and security policies.

Apparently bearing in mind such arguments expressed in Poland, Prodi backed down somewhat from his original remark when 9 March he said there will be no slowdown in the EU enlargement, despite concerns raised by the Freedom Party in Austria. "It is our commitment to everybody in Europe that enlargement will take place according to the criteria that have been laid down and, in line with that, we have been carrying out this process," he said, adding that Poland's criticism is "completely unjustified."

As for Poland, it faces the difficult task of passing some 200 bills to adapt its legislation to EU standards. It must also persuade a growing number of domestic malcontents that EU entry will benefit the country in the long run, despite sacrifices now.

The opposition post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) shares the belief of the ruling Solidarity Electoral Action and the Freedom Union that EU entry is Poland's strategic goal and "raison d'etre." However, Poland's post-Communists are cautious about naming any concrete date when Poland will be ready to join the EU. The reason, perhaps, is in the left wing's anticipated victory in the 2001 parliamentary elections. Some even predict that the SLD may gain a majority of seats in the parliament and form a one-party cabinet. If that is the case, the SLD would be held fully responsible for any possible failure to observe the 2003 deadline for EU entry.

Meanwhile, the strongest opposition to the EU within Poland comes from Poland's radical farmers' union Self-Defense, whose populist leader, Andrzej Lepper, once compared the EU to a "kolkhoz" administered by Brussels. Lepper's well-publicized argument that the EU does not treat Poland like a partner but like a market for EU products has been noted by Polish farmers. Lepper has announced his intention to run in this year's presidential elections and build a parliamentary "third force" based on his Self-Defense. Some even fear that Lepper may become Poland's Haider.

In comparison with the EU, Poland's agricultural sector is overmanned, underinvested, and unable to compete on international markets. Radical and painful changes are needed to meet at least minimal EU requirements in the agricultural sphere. So far, however, the Solidarity-led government has avoided any tough decisions in the sector and essentially complied with farmers' demands for more subsidies.

Another barrier on Poland's path to the EU is the lack of a consistent and conspicuous government information policy explaining and promoting European integration goals among the general public. The recently announced plan to hold a referendum on EU entry in Swidnica, a town of 65,000 in southwestern Poland, in June is a good, albeit belated, opportunity to conduct such a campaign. A poll late last year found that only 46 percent of Poles support joining the EU, a disappointing decline from 64 percent in early 1998.

Belarusian Minority Worried About 'Civilizational Degradation.' Eugeniusz Wappa, chairman of the Belarusian Union, an organization of Polish Belarusians, has issued a statement expressing his concern over the state authorities' decisions regarding areas inhabited by the Belarusian national minority in the Podlasie region. (Podlasie is the historical name for the region that extends along Poland's eastern border and is currently divided between Podlasie and Lublin Provinces. An estimated 200,000 ethnic Belarusians live in Podlasie Province and its capital city, Bialystok.)

Wappa notes that a recent decision by Environmental Minister Antoni Tokarchuk to expand the Bialowieza National Reserve to the whole area of the Bialowieza Forest will strip local Belarusians (employed largely in businesses exploiting forest resources) of their basic livelihood. Wappa adds that government-proposed social cushions to those expected to lose their jobs are insufficient.

Wappa also mentions state-run Polish Railroads' recent decision to do away with the Siedlce-Czeremcha-Hajnowka-Cisowka train connections because they are not profitable. He says this decision, along with the previous closure of the Bialowieza-Hajnowka-Bielsk Podlaski-Bialystok railroad, leads "not only to lower employment but also to the civilizational degradation" of the area. And he points that Polish Railroads, while stopping unprofitable train connections in Podlasie's Belarusian ethnic area, pledge they will continue to maintain the unprofitable connection Lapy-Ostroleka (which is an ethnically Polish area).

Wappa concludes that such actions on the part of the authorities will lead to "the depopulation of and change in the ethnic structure of the eastern Podlasie, which contradicts European legal norms." He declares the "full support" of the Belarusian Union to "protests by the local communities that defend [the communities'] economic, social, and ethnic interests."

Ministries To Help Kolkhozes Survive? In what seems to be the latest flourishing of Belarus's command-style economy, the government has charged ministries and other governmental agencies with the task of providing assistance to various collective farms. According to Belapan on 9 March, the ministries are expected to help farms "improve their financial and technical base, employ skilled personnel, and organize the production process, using progressive forms of labor organization and management." The ministries have been authorized to use money from their so-called innovation and maintenance funds to assist kolkhozes under their patronage as well as donate property to them.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been assigned to help the Znamya Pobedy (Banner of Victory) farm in Rechytsa Raion and the Kouchytsy farm in Svyatlahorsk Raion, Homel Oblast. The Ministry of Culture is to assist the Chkalov farm in Kletsk Raion, Minsk Oblast. The Karl Marx farm in Lahoysk Raion, Minsk Oblast, will come under the patronage of the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Defense is to help three farms, the largest number to be assigned to one government agencies. In all, 25 ministries, 14 state committees, 11 concerns, 8 banks, two state production associations, and one executive committee will assist 80 collective farms.

Russia Wants Ukrainian Companies For Gas. Following Russian First Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's visit to Kyiv last month, Moscow has toughened its stance with regard to Ukraine's debt for Russian gas supplies. As a precondition for the possible restructuring of the gas debt, Moscow demands that Kyiv recognize the gas debts of both the state-run company Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Ukrainian commercial firms as a state obligation and immediately start paying for current gas supplies in cash.

According to Moscow, Ukraine owes Russia $1.9 billion for gas deliveries. Kyiv admits to owing only $1.4 billion, saying the rest is the debt of commercial firms, for which the government bears no responsibility.

The 7 March "Kommersant-Daily" reported that Kasyanov has proposed that Kyiv cover its gas debt by transferring to Russia's ownership a number of Ukrainian enterprises, primarily those "closely connected with Russian [companies] in the fuel and energy sector, ferrous and non-ferrous metallurgy, agricultural machine building, and others." According to the Russian newspaper, Moscow has received no official response to its proposal.

UNIAN reported that the Mykolayiv Alumina Plant heads the list of the enterprises that Russia would like to get a hold of and is followed by the LiNOS oil refinery (Lysychansk in Luhansk Oblast), the Oriana chemical company (Kalush in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast), and the Turboatom joint-stock company--the Kharkiv-based producer of nuclear power plant equipment. According to experts from the Texas-based Stratfor Analytical Center, Ukraine might fail to generate the planned $450 million from privatization this year if it starts paying off the debt to Russia with companies slated for privatization. On the other hand, the experts add that the country could face another oil and gas crisis if it refuses to pay.

President Leonid Kuchma commented in the 10 March Kyiv-based "Fakty," that Kyiv will not transfer Ukrainian companies to Russia as repayment of the gas debt. "I think that it is simply inappropriate and rude, if not worse, to raise the issue of gas debts in such a manner, particularly since Russia itself only a few days ago managed to restructure its debts to the West," Kuchma noted. Kuchma said he had agreed with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and current acting President Vladimir Putin on a "mechanism" for repayment of Ukraine's gas debt but did not elaborate. He added that he has instructed the cabinet to determine the state and commercial components of the gas debt in order to clarify "who owes how much to whom and at what deadlines the debts are to be paid off." He added that the debt amount and repayment schedule should be made public. "Today our officials quote different [gas debt] figures. Apparently, this mess is beneficial to somebody," Kuchma noted.

"Women in Poland are treated like machines for making children." -- A feminist at an 8 March rally in Warsaw. Quoted by PAP.

"Throughout centuries the woman was an inexhaustible source of inspiration for poets and artists [as well as rendering] support to family and state. It goes without saying that she is actually a source of inspiration and joy for any man if, of course, that man is normal." -- Lukashenka speaking to a delegation of Belarusian women on the eve of International Women's Day. Quoted by Belarusian Television on 7 March.

"It wouldn't hurt the young girls who have not yet chosen their path after completing school to form [their characters] in the army. First the army, then the choice of a further path." -- A female radio communications officer in the Belarusian army. Quoted by Belarusian Television on 8 March.

"I think that Lukashenka as Russian president could be better than Luzhkov, for example. Lukashenka could be better than Primakov. Lukashenka could be better than Zyuganov. For a very simple reason: he is more modern. Despite everything, he is more modern. Even if, as I know, many in Belarus and Russia say he is a kolkhoz manager. I have met Lukashenka many times and I can say that Lukashenka is a serious politician. Indeed, I do not share his viewpoint on many issues. But this is an objective reality. He is a serious politician not only in Belarus but also in Russia. However, in my opinion, he of course cannot be compared with Russia's current acting president, Putin." -- Russian financial tycoon Boris Berezovskii in a 8 March interview with a New York correspondent of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.