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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: March 21, 2000

21 March 2000, Volume 2, Number 11
Where Wood Is Cut, Chips Will Fly? A string of disturbing incidents in Poland last week has focused public attention on security issues and the performance of law enforcement bodies.

Shootings took place on 13 March in a courtroom in Jelenia Gora, southern Poland, during the trial of eight gang members charged with theft, extortion, and manslaughter. Officers from an anti-terrorist squad opened fire when the gangsters detonated two grenades in a corridor. The officers shot dead two defendants, while three policemen were injured by grenade splinters. Police spokesman Pawel Biedziak said a preliminary investigation indicated that the anti-terrorist squad acted properly and fired only when no other people could be hit. Noting that the defendants repeatedly left the courtroom to use a toilet, Polish media speculated that the grenades might have been hidden there. "Crime is becoming increasingly brutal today and the courts have to be prepared for it. It is a sad thing that two persons died in the melee but it was the criminals who started shooting. The police reacted correctly," Interior Minister Marek Biernacki commented.

On 14 March, a 43-year-old veterinary doctor was shot in the head by police while he was trying to tranquilize a tiger that had escaped from a circus in Warsaw's suburb of Tarchomin. The veterinarian died from the wound in hospital. The shot was intended for the animal, which had attacked the veterinarian in a suburb park. The whole accident was filmed and shown repeatedly on national television. "It was a tragic accident," Interior Minister Marek Biernacki said. vOn 14 March in Szczecin, northwestern Poland, an anti-terrorist unit demolished an apartment, damaged walls in an adjacent apartment, destroyed a staircase, and smashed many windows in the apartment building as well as in neighboring blocks. It was a miracle than nobody was hurt, residents told Polish Television. The policemen used an explosive charge to blast down the door of the apartment in order to arrest dangerous criminals inside. Allegedly, the explosives were too strong for that purpose. The material damage, which is estimated at 300,000 zlotys ($73,000), will be covered by the State Treasury, as stipulated by a law on anti-terrorist troops.

While commenting on the shooting of the veterinarian, Biernacki admitted that Poland's security forces are unprepared to act in emergencies. Biernacki, however, criticized courtroom safety measures in Poland in connection with the incident in Jelenia Gora. President Aleksander Kwasniewski urged the government to tighten security in Polish courts. "Until now we thought that such things could happen only in foreign movies," Kwasniewski noted. According to PAP, the Ministry of Justice has decided to install metal-detector gates in larger courthouses in Poland.

Catholic Family Television To Start Up In One Year. The management of Family Television (Telewizja Familijna) has announced that the station will probably start operating in a year's time, PAP reported on 15 March. The shareholders in the Family Television company were officially presented at a news conference on 15 March. The province of the Order of Franciscan Friars is already in possession of a television franchise and will retain 46 percent of the shares in the new company. The remaining 54 percent of shares have been divided among the Polish Copper group, the Polish Oil Company, the Polish Power Grid, the Prokom group, and the Life State Insurance Company. The shares are valued at 120 million zlotys ($29 million).

"We have 12 months from the start of the investment, that is, from when the money comes in, to build the station. In six to seven months' time, we will give precise details about the start of the television promotion campaign,"Family Television's head Waldemar Gasper told PAP.

Family TV will be a commercial undertaking. "The concept 'commercial' does not have to have a negative association," Gasper said. "It has been agreed with the investors that we will not advertise contraceptives, but we won't refuse to advertise diapers, for example." When asked about erotic programs, Gasper said "Family Television is not starting in that competition."

Catholic Television of the Order of the Immaculate Conception, run by the Franciscans, received its franchise in 1995. It started broadcasting in 1996. At present it has six land transmitters and a license to broadcast its programs in six Polish cities, which allows it to reach around 13 percent of the country's inhabitants.

Government Postpones 2001 Census By One Year. Last week Jerzy Buzek's cabinet discussed issues related to a national census planned for mid-2002, PAP reported. The operation is to cost 600 million zlotys ($146 million). According to an earlier decision, the census was scheduled to take place in 2001, but due to high costs the government decided to postpone it by one year. The last census was held in 1988.

Polish Navy Gets U.S. Frigate. At the U.S. naval base in Norfolk on 15 March, Admiral Zbigniew Popek, deputy commander of the Polish Navy, officially took over the guided-missile frigate "Clark," one of the two U.S. Navy vessels offered free of charge to Poland. The 133.5 meter-long "Clark" has been renamed "Pulaski" and will be the Polish Navy's second largest ship. It was transferred to Poland under a scheme aimed at upgrading Poland's naval forces to NATO standards. A second U.S. Navy ship will be transferred to the Polish Navy at a later date.

U.S. sailors who were part of the crew of "Clark" have been working with Polish sailors since early January to prepare for the transfer. According to Marian Ambroziak, the ship's new commander, the Polish sailors adjusted quickly because U.S. and Polish navy customs are similar. The Polish crew is now 97-strong, about half the size of a full crew on a guided-missile frigate. The Polish sailors first attended U.S. naval training centers around the country to learn how to run the ship, then moved on board for hands-on training. Ambroziak told AP that about half his crew speaks at least some English, so communication was not a major problem. Translators were available, and sailors used computer software to translate English into Polish.

Demonizing the Opposition. The Freedom March-2, staged by the Belarusian opposition in Minsk on 15 March, attracted an estimated 20,000 protesters and, as unanimously agreed by its organizers, was a success. Compared with the Freedom March-1 on 17 October 1999, the protest ended peacefully. There were no clashes with riot police. Police troops, though heavily present in the city on that day, were not present along the march route. The marchers, having adopted a resolution calling for political talks between the regime and the opposition, went home peacefully, while the younger ones stayed for an open air rock concert. Thus, it seems that the opposition scored a considerable propaganda victory in its fight against the government's extremely biased electronic media.

Minsk City Deputy Mayor Viktar Chykin--who is also leader of one of Belarus's two Communist Parties--commented that the march was staged with virtually no breach of the law. According to Chykin, the march organizers fulfilled all promises made to the city authorities regarding the conduct of the event. However, in an overtly Orwellian twist of reasoning, Chykin the next day accused the march organizers of blocking traffic, interfering with public transportation, and preventing people from getting home on time. And he announced that the authorities will no longer grant permission to hold marches in the city. Belarusian Television ensured that its 16 March main newscast included opinions of Minsk residents who were unhappy about the march.

According to Belarusian opposition parties, the Minsk authorities imposed a ban on marches under pressure from the presidential administration and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who, they argue, was annoyed by the success of the opposition event. Lukashenka told Belarusian Television that the Freedom March-2 brought together a maximum of 7,500 people. A majority of the protesters, he said, were rich people in "mink coats" who are "offended" by his "unpopular" economic decisions that have diminished their wealth.

It is hard to say how many Belarusians believed this statement. On the other hand, the regime has remained consistent in presenting Belarus's political opposition as a group of people devoid of broader popular support. Lukashenka himself has spared no opportunity to portray his political foes as the country's "scum," "dregs," or "drop-outs." "Political analysts" in Belarusian Television's main newscast readily transmit such designations to the entire country.

It seems that this time, however, the regime has sensed it is in danger of losing control over the opposition's media image. The Freedom March-1, which ended in violent clashes between young protesters and riot police, provided a good opportunity for the state-controlled media to portray the opposition as a destructive and demoniac force that wants destabilization and bloodshed. Some commentators also noted that the October march, where protesters burned a draft copy of the Russia-Belarus Union, has offended many in Russia and diminished the readiness of Russian television channels to objectively cover the regime-opposition standoff. The Freedom-2 March has done much to counter the opposition's negative media image, as has the confession by a defector from the Belarusian Interior Ministry saying that last year's clashes were deliberately provoked by the police.

Some Belarusian commentators say the ban on marches in downtown Minsk is aimed at provoking more clashes during the various protest actions that the Belarusian opposition is planning for this spring. In this way, they argue, the authorities will sustain the popular portrayal of Belarusian oppositionists as trouble-makers and social outcasts. To support this argument, the commentators say there would be no problem for the regime to arrest several dozen protest organizers and do away with the opposition problem for a long time. The regime, however, will not do this because it allegedly needs a bugbear to frighten the population and persuade Belarusians that there are people in Belarus more unpredictable and harmful than Lukashenka.

Whatever the true reason for the ban on marches, it is clear that Lukashenka is not going to comply with the international community's appeal to sit at the negotiation table with the opposition and resolve Belarus's political standoff in a peaceful way. It seems that permanent and controlled confrontation in Belarus suits Lukashenka's authoritarian rule as the country and its people sink deeper and deeper into economic poverty and political isolation.

No one should expect that opposition protests will change the political climate in Belarus any time soon. Indeed, as last year's massive protests in Serbia showed, they may not change anything at all. The Belarusian opposition still faces the task of finding how to merge its political demands with some economic proposals that could elicit a broader public response and build a real social force to confront the regime. For the time being, the opposition parties seem to be unable to find any significant sympathy among Belarus' industrial workers or peasants.

At the same time, they have virtually no option but to practice street democracy. "Demonstrations can be avoided when a country guarantees free access to the media, when it holds free and democratic elections. When all this is non-existent, the authorities should allow street demonstrations," opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich commented. It seems that the Lukashenka regime is bent on denying its opponents even that possibility.

Mass Protests Not Imminent. The Ukrainian Center of Economic and Political Studies has concluded that Ukraine is not threatened by mass protests "in the near future," Interfax reported on 18 March. The conclusion was based on a poll that the center conducted among 2010 respondents in all Ukraine's regions in late January and early February.

Of those polled, 56.2 percent said they "would never participate" in protest actions, even authorized ones, while only 26.6 percent admitted that they are ready to take part in such protests. The participation in unauthorized protest actions is supported by an even lower number of respondents: 9 percent said they are "potentially ready" to protest, while only 1.4 percent admitted they have already participated in such actions. According to the poll, people between 29 and 41 years of age from industrial regions are more inclined than others to attend unauthorized protests.

Some 40 percent of respondents noted that there is no sense in protest actions "since the authorities ignore them"; 34.8 percent said "they have so far had no reason to protest," while 14.2 percent do not protest because they have no leader and 8.2 percent said they are restrained in their desire to protest by "the inertia of those around them."

However, small-scale protests do take place in Ukraine. Some 4,000 demanded President Leonid Kuchma's ouster at a rally organized by the local branch of the Communist Party in Kharkiv on 18 March. The protesters also demanded that the authorities reduce prices for bread and other foodstuffs, stop "their criminal policy in the countryside," raise wages and pensions, and reduce tariffs for utilities. A 1000-strong rally organized by the Union of Workers of Ukraine in Mykolayiv the same day also demanded Kuchma's dismissal and protested the decision to hold the 26 April referendum on the constitution.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a speech to the Chamber of Representatives on 14 March touched upon a wide variety of economic and political issues. The following quotes are taken from a Belarusian Television report:

On economic strategy:

"We must not change the strategy. First, because I continue to consider that the strategic course was chosen correctly."

On foreign investment: "[Belarus's economic strategy does not mean] squandering state property or getting rid of it for a few kopecks in the name of some illusory foreign investment. Many of you have already realized what investment means: those offering a few kopecks want to take our enterprises for nothing."

On conversion of weapons-producing plants: "And what about the military-industrial complex? [The West has advised us:] Produce wash-basins and pans. Last year [Belarus's] military-industrial complex enterprises increased their production by 154-300 percent. Today products of [Belarus's] military-industrial complex sell like hot cakes throughout the whole world."

On the West: "The West always assures us that it wants to see a sovereign and independent Belarus. Please, here you have [Lukashenka's] sovereign, independent policy. Why don't you accept it? This is a question that the West has so far not answered."

On negotiations with the opposition: "Today's demand by the opposition that the authorities should sit at some table, either a round or square one, and negotiate with the opposition is absurd. I have already said that I am not going to create an opposition to myself with my own hands."

On the planned 15 March Freedom March-2: "This march was deliberately scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. They won't be able to gather before 6 p.m., it will take place around 7 p.m. when it's already dark, when it's difficult to monitor everything. In general, I wouldn't like to monitor [the march] and send police troops, but I'll have to, because if they organize some massacre, who will be to blame? They'll say that the president has drawn them into a trap as on 17 October (ed.: during the Freedom March-1; see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 15 February 2000). If you had known that the president was drawing you into a trap, why were you going for it? Why were you going for it, like a rabbit into a boa's mouth?... This was deliberately scheduled for 6 p.m., when people go home from work. Just look at Minsk [at such an hour]--huge masses of people on the sidewalks. One only needs to unfurl banners over those people in order to report to the U.S. State Department on how 8 million (ed.: currency not specified) was spent. But in actual fact, our fighters for democracy and justice received 108 million over the year from various sources. And I am not sure whether we have counted everything.... The Americans are no fools, though. They have warned [our opposition]: If there are no results from your marches, there will not be the money that you obtained this year."

On proportional election system: "Today the West is pushing us to adopt a proportional election system... However, people want to see not party functionaries but people from their constituencies [in the parliament]. Therefore I insist--and we have it written in the constitution--on a majoritarian system. No matter what dialogue we may conduct, this system will remain as long as I am the president. And I am going to ask our parliamentary deputies not to interfere with this issue."