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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 23, 2000

23 May 2000, Volume 2, Number 19
MINISTER RESIGNS OVER LETTER TO GAZPROM? Deputy Economics Minister Jan Szlazak resigned last week in what appeared to be a protest against Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz's tough stance with regard to the coal industry. Szlazak was in charge of reforming the loss-making mining sector. Balcerowicz, who has frequently criticized the slow pace of restructuring in the mining sector, has begun legal action to collect outstanding social security and corporate income tax payments for the budget. "Forty-one mining managers are already facing lawsuits," Szlazak told journalists, explaining his decision. Premier Jerzy Buzek accepted Szlazak's resignation.

The daily "Zycie" on 19 May suggested a rather different reason for Szlazak's departure. Quoting a "high-ranking state official," the newspaper wrote that Szlazak had to go because of a letter he sent to Russia's Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev in February. According to "Zycie," Gazprom has proposed building a pipeline to link Poland's already existing gas pipeline with Slovakia. In this way, "Zycie" argued, Gazprom could export gas to the south of Europe while bypassing Ukraine and all political and economic problems connected with gas transit through that country. Szlazak reportedly told Vyakhirev in his letter that "the Economics Ministry generally supports" the new pipeline idea, but he had not consulted or reached an agreement with the government. "If Poland joined this investment project, it would drastically worsen its ties with Ukraine, which is dependent on Russian gas transit," "Zycie" commented.

LUKASHENKA CALLS FOR CITIZENS TO HONOR STATE SYMBOLS. Alyaksandr Lukashenka extended greetings to the nation on the occasion of Day of the State Coat of Arms and Flag, which, according to his decree issued after the 14 May 1995 referendum, is to be observed annually on the second Sunday of May. This year the holiday fell on 14 May itself, the fifth anniversary of Lukashenka's first referendum.

In 1995, some 65 percent of eligible Belarusian voters took part in that referendum and 75 percent of them voted for the replacement of Belarus's historical symbols--the white-red-white flag and the Pahonya (Knight-in-Pursuit) coat of arms--by Soviet-style symbols devised ad hoc shortly before the voting.

The current state flag of the Republic of Belarus is composed of two horizontal stripes--red and green--adorned with a white national ornament along the border. The flag is reminiscent of that of Soviet Belarus from 1951-1991, except that the hammer and sickle emblem has been removed.

Belarus's current coat of arms depicts the outline of Belarus over the globe, with a five-pointed red star at the top. The picture is framed with a wreath of wheat ears intermingled with shamrock (on the left) and flax (on the right). The wreath is entwined with a strip bearing the golden inscription "Republic of Belarus."

In his address to the nation, Lukashenka pointed out that the current state symbols reflect popular traditions and have national roots. He wrote: "Red on our flag is the color of the banners of the Red Army and Belarusian partisans.... Green is the color of our forests and fields, a symbol of spring, hope, and revival. White...reflects the spiritual purity of the Belarusian people."

The historical white-red-white flag became Belarus's state symbol in the period between the breakup of the USSR and the 1995 referendum. Pressing for the replacement of the white-red-white flag in 1995, Lukashenka argued that this flag had been used by Belarusian collaborationists with the Nazis during World War II (see the item below).

After the 1995 referendum, the white-red-white flag became a symbol of opposition to the Lukashenka regime and invariably was seen at street protests. A law on demonstrations in Belarus forbids the use of "unregistered symbols," so police duly confiscate white-red-white flags and courts impose fines to those carrying them in public.

On 14 May, some 500 people took part in the so-called "people's walk" through Minsk--a protest action in which participants stroll along sidewalks. In contrast to marches or rallies, this form of protest does not need formal authorization. The 14 May "walk" was how the opposition decided to mark the anniversary of the 1995 referendum and wrap up its series of protest actions this spring. (Apart from introducing the new state symbols, the referendum approved the official status for the Russian language in Belarus, endorsed the policy of integration with Russia and gave Lukashenka the right to dissolve the parliament.)

A more radical form of marking the 1995 referendum anniversary was adopted by members of the opposition Youth Front in Warsaw, who burned the red-green flag in front of the Belarusian embassy, chanting "this is no flag, this is a vulgar rag," according to PAP.

INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER GETS SECOND WARNING. The Prosecutor-General's Office has issued a warning to the independent Belarusian-language weekly "Nasha Niva" for "abusing freedom of information" in an article published on 10 April. The article was written by Supreme Soviet Chairman Syamyon Sharetski and titled "Infectious Fascism: A. Lukashenka Copies A. Hitler." This is the second warning to "Nasha Niva" this year. The weekly recently lost a suit to revoke a warning issued by the State Press Committee in March "for fomenting interethnic enmity" (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 16 May 2000). These two warnings give the authorities grounds to seek a court ban on "Nasha Niva."

Sharetski wrote in his article that Lukashenka is a dictator and models the development of Belarusian society on that of Germany under Adolf Hitler. Sharetski quoted a notorious interview that Belarusian president gave to Germany's "Handelsblatt" in 1995, in which the Belarusian president said: "The German system was formed over centuries. Under Hitler this formation reached its climax. This is what corresponds to our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of a president in it." (Notably, "Handelsblatt" was appalled by this pronouncement and did not print it. But the interview, which was taped, was broadcast twice by Belarusian Radio.)

Sharetski also wrote that Russia's neo-Nazi organization Russian National Unity is preparing its "combat teams" in Belarus "under the patronage of representatives of [Belarusian] power ministries." He noted: "This is not just a threat of fascism, this is its real coming to our home.... This is a result of the activity of both the dictator and his sidekicks--generals and colonels from Russia, who now head such vitally important spheres in Belarus as culture, science, education, the Interior and Foreign Ministries, defense, and even the Orthodox Church, as well as of those Russian chauvinist circles that helped the dictator in November 1996 to accomplish a state coup and continued to support Belarus's regime in the subsequent years, including financial support."

A representative of the Prosecutor-General's Office told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service that the article includes "a lot of unpleasant and insulting statements with regard to officials of the [Belarusian] state and citizens of the Russian Federation."

REFORMERS TO LEAVE GOVERNMENT? Economics Minister Serhiy Tyhypko intends to take part in a parliamentary by-election scheduled, along with nine others, for 25 June. Tyhypko is expected to run for a parliamentary seat in Pavlohrad, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. He is currently on leave, and his responsibilities in the government have been assumed by Deputy Economics Minister Viktor Kalnyk.

Tyhypko's decision to compete for a parliamentary mandate has generated predictions in the Ukrainian press of the possible collapse of Viktor Yushchenko's government and, as a result, his reform course. Tyhypko is widely seen as a market-oriented politician and a strong supporter of Yushchenko's "Reforms for Prosperity" program. Ukraine's legislation forbids holding both a government post and a parliamentary seat. If Tyhypko wins the seat, Ukrainian commentators argue, he will almost certainly leave the government for the parliament.

According to "Kievskie vedomosti," Tyhypko and Yushchenko differ over assessments of Ukraine's economic situation and prospects for the reform course. While Yushchenko sees the 10 percent industrial growth achieved in January-April 2000 as a sign of Ukraine's stable economic recovery, Tyhypko calls this increase an "inertia effect," spurred by the sharp devaluation of the hryvnya in the last quarter of 1999. "Kievskie vedomosti" also suggests that disagreements between Yushchenko and Tyhypko may have been provoked by Yushchenko's recent accusation that last year, the cabinet misused some 500 million hryvni ($92 million). Tyhypko, who was a deputy premier in the former cabinet, reportedly sensed that this accusation was directed against him and, having decided not to wait for a formal dismissal, prepared an emergency exit for himself.

There are rumors that Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko is also preparing to run for a parliamentary seat. She was proposed as a candidate in Kirovohrad by the local branch of her Fatherland party but has not yet taken a decision. Tymoshenko's attempts to reform Ukraine's energy market have provoked a lot of criticism both at home and abroad, and her departure from Yushchenko's cabinet, according to "Kievskie vedomosti," would come as no surprise. However, Tymoshenko on 19 May said she is not going to resign from the cabinet on her own. "If someone believes that Ukraine does not need those positive changes taking place in the fuel and energy complex, let him sign my dismissal," Interfax quoted her as saying.

LAWMAKERS FIGHT OVER CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES. Last week parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch submitted to the Constitutional Court two draft laws proposing the introduction of constitutional amendments in line with the 16 April referendum. One bill was submitted by President Leonid Kuchma, the other by 152 Supreme Council deputies.

Kuchma proposed to amend the constitution in line with three questions approved in the referendum: giving the president the right to dissolve the legislature if it fails to pass a budget within one month or form a majority within three months; abolishing lawmakers' immunity from criminal prosecution; and reducing the parliament from 450 to 300 deputies. Kuchma sidestepped the approved question about the introduction of a bicameral parliament, pledging to set up a team of experts that will draft a special bill on Ukraine's upper house.

The Supreme Council reportedly proposed a bill of amendments reflecting all the four questions approved in the referendum. At the same time, however, the lawmakers introduced a number of provisions that substantially reduce the president's powers in a bid to counterbalance the reduction of their constitutional rights. Press reports said the lawmakers proposed to elect the upper house (the Senate, a legislative representation composed of regional leaders) by secret and direct ballot for a six-year term. Under current legislation, the president appoints regional governors. The lawmakers also proposed granting the parliament the right to appoint the prime minister, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, and the prosecutor-general. In addition, an amendment stipulates that if the president does not sign a bill within 15 days, it can become law following its signing by the Senate head.

Another unpleasant surprise for Kuchma was the vote on sending the draft laws to the Constitutional Court: Kuchma's bill was supported by 173 votes, while that of the Supreme Council received 304 votes. Some commentators even suggested that the pro-presidential parliamentary majority has already fallen apart.

The Constitutional Court is expected to announce its assessment of the two competing bills by mid-June.

LVIV OBLAST PRESENTS CARS TO NATIONALIST AND SOVIET VETERANS. The Lviv Oblast Administration on 21 May presented 60 Tavriya cars to veterans of World War II from both the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the Red Army. The cars were handed over on Hero's Day, a holiday established by the regional authorities two years ago. Yaroslav Klymovych, head of the internal policy department in the Lviv Oblast Administration, told "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" that Hero's Day was established to honor all those who fought totalitarianism, whether Stalinist or Nazi.

The UPA, which Ukrainian emigre historians estimate was 40,000-strong, was set up by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists during the Nazi occupation in Ukraine and fought German occupation troops as well as Soviet and Polish guerrillas--primarily in Galicia, Volynia, and Polissia--in a bid to establish an independent Ukrainian state. UPA veterans have not been officially recognized by the government and do not have the right to social benefits, unlike their Soviet counterparts. There were rumors during the 1999 presidential campaign that Kuchma was considering giving veteran status to UPA combatants, but no action has been taken following his re-election. In fact, it seems that the rumors were a campaign trick to muster more support for the incumbent in Western Ukraine. Kuchma's best results were namely in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil Oblasts, where he received more than 90 percent of the vote.

"You remember how certain circles in Russia have until quite recently smeared Lukashenka as a dictator in all the media for the fact that he created vertical power, that he subordinated everything and everyone to himself. And what are you doing today in Russia? You are thinking today how to create efficient vertical power to control the state so as not to ruin it." -- Lukashenka on 18 May to the Belarus-Russia Union Parliamentary Assembly; quoted by Belarusian Television.