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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 30, 2000

30 May 2000, Volume 2, Number 20
RULING COALITION ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE. The National Council of the Freedom Union (UW) on 28 May voted almost unanimously to withdraw its ministers from the 30-month-old cabinet coalition with the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS). The next day, UW leader and Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, Defense Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Justice Minister Hanna Suchocka, Transport Minister Tadeusz Syryjczyk, and four deputy ministers submitted their resignations to Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek. In a bid to save the Solidarity-affiliated coalition, Buzek rejected the resignations, urging the AWS and the UW "to start talks immediately." Last week Buzek suggested that he is ready to step down.

The pretext for the UW's pullout from the cabinet was Buzek's appointment of a commissioner to run the Warsaw-Centrum municipality. The UW and the opposition Democratic Left Alliance elected a mayor for Warsaw-Centrum, but the provincial governor canceled the election and asked Buzek to appoint a government administrator, which the latter did. The UW accused Buzek of violating the principles of self-government and of the desire to secure for the AWS control over Poland's wealthiest municipality. However, it seems that the controversy over the Warsaw-Centrum commissioner was only the last item on a long list of uncoordinated actions of the unhappy UW-AWS partnership, in which AWS lawmakers made repeated attempts to slow down the pace of painful reforms that were championed by the liberal UW in a bid to modernize Poland and make it ready for EU membership as soon as possible.

Earlier this month the government lost a parliamentary vote to introduce sales tax on farm products, in line with EU requirements, when about two dozen AWS deputies representing rural constituencies supported an opposition amendment. "Government decisions were blocked in parliament in some essential elements while decisions harmful for the country were forced through," Balcerowicz said, explaining his party's loss of confidence in Buzek and in the way the coalition is run by now. The UW made the survival of the coalition with the AWS dependant on the latter's designation of a new prime minister, cancellation of the decision to appoint the commissioner in Warsaw, and guarantees that the AWS parliamentary caucus will supports agreed coalition positions.

"We participated in this coalition with the conviction that it aimed at putting Poland in its rightful place in Europe, promoting economic development, and strengthening democracy and self-government.... These goals cannot be achieved without ensuring reliable political support in the parliament," the UW National Council said in a resolution ordering their ministers to pull out of Buzek's cabinet. But the council also left open the option of forming a new coalition with the AWS under a new prime minister if the AWS agrees to negotiations.

Last week the AWS suggested Bronislaw Grabowski, an economist without political experience, to head a new cabinet. Balcerowicz commented that Grabowski is a man with "strong, clear economic views, which are in line with Poland's needs" but noted that the AWS first must ensure parliamentary support for a new premier among its own lawmakers.

Polish commentators tend to agree that the total collapse of the current political arrangement and early parliamentary elections are rather unlikely, since the country already faces a presidential ballot this year. But they also point that the construction of a new government and a "renewal" of the AWS-UW coalition is an extremely difficult task. It is not ruled out that the AWS will have to form a minority government (the AWS controls 185 seats in the 450-seat lower house). However, such a turn of events would be very detrimental primarily to the country's rate of adopting EU-related legislation.

Former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa has urged AWS leader Marian Krzaklewski to head the government. On one hand, Krzaklewski seems to be a politician almost certainly capable of uniting the AWS and the UW around a new cabinet and disciplining those AWS deputies who vote against the government. On the other, however, Krzaklewski's possible premiership would surely eliminate him as a contender in the presidential race in which he has a chance to muster more support from the right wing as any other candidate.

Tough decisions in the AWS, however, cannot be avoided. A popularity poll held in mid-May showed that the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance with a 41 percent support rate is far ahead of the AWS (14 percent) and the UW (9 percent). Taking into account that post-communist incumbent President Aleksander Kwasniewski enjoys stable popularity above 60 percent, Poland's Solidarity-affiliated forces may in the coming months lose much more than the opportunity to field a single and relatively strong right-wing candidate in the presidential ballot.

BETTER INDEPENDENCE WITH LUKASHENKA THAN MARKET ECONOMY WITHIN RUSSIA. The Minsk City Court on 19 May sentenced former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir to a three-year prison term suspended for two years for abusing his authority when he was prime minister in 1995. Chyhir was found guilty of granting a company a one-year delay in the payment of customs duties. The court also ruled that the ex-premier cannot serve over the next five years in an administrative position in any organization or company. It also ordered him to pay some $220,000 to compensate the customs authorities for losses.

Chyhir resigned as prime minister in November 1996 in protest against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's policies and, above all, the methods Lukashenka had employed to hold that month's constitutional referendum. Chyhir challenged the regime last year, when he ran in the presidential election organized by the opposition. He was arrested on 30 March, in the middle of the campaign. His criminal prosecution is widely believed to be politically motivated. Belarusian commentators argue that in prosecuting Chyhir, the regime intends to eliminate him as Lukashenka's rival in next year's presidential elections. Chyhir has appealed the verdict in the Supreme Court, pledging to participate in political life and run in the 2001 presidential ballot.

The independent weekly "Nasha Niva" on 22 May published an interview with Chyhir titled "Better Independence With Lukashenka Than Market Economy Within Russia." Following are excerpts from this interview:

"NASHA NIVA": There is an opinion that, given today's Russification rate, our independence is based solely on Lukashenka's illegitimacy--Russia does not want to harm its own image and legitimacy through the unification [with Belarus]. As for Belarus, it is politically, economically, and morally ready to become part of the Russian Federation. Therefore, as soon as any legitimate authority appears in Belarus, Belarus will immediately become part of Russia....

CHYHIR: Recent polls show that a majority of the population does not want unification. They want cooperation, not unification. I think that the process of integration will slow down because Lukashenka had been dreaming that the unification would give him a chance to run for Russian president. This has not happened, the power has been taken by Putin. Lukashenka will not accelerate this process. As for Putin, he understands that unification with a country run by an illegitimate president is impossible. The international community would react appropriately to such [a merger]. There will be further talks on integration, there will be some steps in the economic, military, and, possibly, political sphere, but as regards the unification of the states, first, Lukashenka will not risk it, and second, Russia realizes that the international community will not back the merger of the two states. I would like to recall the [3 May] resolution by the U.S. Congress' lower house: they made a sharp pronouncement on Belarus and emphasized for the first time that the regime in Belarus is being supported by repression and Russian financing. The U.S. warns Russia: you look for credits in the West but at the same time you give Belarus--the resolution mentions specific figures--$1.5-$2 billion annually. This is a new phenomenon in relations between the U.S. and Belarus [and between] the U.S. and Russia. It will deter some steps toward unification....

"NASHA NIVA": Have we already crossed the historical line behind which we cannot lose our independence?

CHYHIR: Such an unpleasant turn of events is likely, but I think this will not happen. Lukashenka may be pushed [to surrender Belarus's independence] only by a very difficult economic situation.

"NASHA NIVA": What is better: independence with Lukashenka or democratization and market reforms at the cost of losing our independence?

CHYHIR: Independence is the main thing. It is easy to unite, it will be more difficult to disunite and built statehood.

"NASHA NIVA": Are you personally ready to support Lukashenka if he changes his political and economic course?

CHYHIR: I will tell you more. In the summer of 1998, Lukashenka's people proposed to me that I return and work in the government. If he had changed his course, started to build relations with the West and international financial organizations on a different basis, started to develop the economy in a different direction and to build the state on a basis of private ownership, I would have consented to work [with him], but I have so far seen nothing of this. It would be good if he changed his course, but I do not believe in his ability to change [Belarus's] direction of development.... He seems to be a young man, perhaps even too young for a president, but he is incapable of correcting his mistakes. This is very bad.

"NASHA NIVA": What in your opinion must different political forces do today for the benefit of the country?

CHYHIR: It is good that the Belarusian political [opposition] forces have finally united and adopted a joint platform. The united opposition can influence the political situation to a no small degree in the future. For the time being, however, the opposition can do little, because the initiative in today's conditions belongs to the authorities. The main thing is to organize open, fair, democratic elections this fall. There would be no closed issues after such elections. But holding democratic elections is not dependent on the opposition, only on the authorities. The West is pushing the authorities to hold honest negotiations and honest elections, but for the time being, I must say that Lukashenka does not agree to that and there is a danger that he will not agree at all....

"NASHA NIVA": What do you expect from [exiled speaker of the Supreme Soviet, Syamyon] Sharetski and [exiled leader of one wing of the Belarusian Popular Front, Zyanon] Paznyak?

CHYHIR: It seems that Paznyak has no influence on the situation. He has been isolated and lost his earlier support. In the past he did a lot to revive the national awareness [of Belarusians], but lately he has lost his political influence. As regards Sharetski, if democratic elections fail to take place [in Belarus], the international community will support the Supreme Soviet of the 13th convocation and then Sharetski's political influence will increase sharply....

"NASHA NIVA": Do you really think one can pin some hopes on the Supreme Soviet?

CHYHIR: If the elections are not recognized and if the West gives its backing to the Supreme Soviet of the 13th convocation, including financial support, [the Supreme Soviet] will receive fresh impetus."

CRIMEA FACING ANOTHER POLITICAL CRISIS? The 100-seat legislature of the Crimean Autonomous Republic on 24 May voted 68 to 20 to dismiss the peninsula's government led by Premier Serhiy Kunitsyn. An adopted resolution says the performance of the Crimean cabinet and its head has been unsatisfactory this year.

Ukraine's First Deputy Premier Yuriy Yekhanurov commented the next day that the ouster of the Crimean cabinet will destabilize the situation on the peninsula. "The economy is improving and positive trends are increasing, so the tension that took place [in Crimea] is quite absurd," Interfax quoted Yekhanurov as saying.

More harsh were comments by presidential administration staff chief Volodymyr Lytvyn who said that President Leonid Kuchma has every reason "to cancel" the ouster of Kunitsyn's cabinet. According to Lytvyn, the best solution would be for the Crimean parliament to revoke its resolution on the cabinet's ouster because of alleged violations of parliamentary procedures during the vote. Lytvyn said: "[If the Crimean parliament] fails to demonstrate its good will and understanding of the situation, Ukraine's president, within the framework of its powers, will do everything to ensure political stability in Crimea [and] to direct the work of the autonomous republic's authority bodies toward resolving economic problems, not political quarrels. The president has already acquired unpleasant experience in resolving such problems," Lytvyn added, in an apparent allusion to the abolition of the Crimean constitution and the introduction of a direct presidential rule in Crimea at the beginning of Kuchma's first term in office.

It seems, however, that it will not be easy for Kuchma "to cancel" the Crimean parliament's decision on Kunitsyn's dismissal. According to the Crimean constitution, the head of the Crimean government is appointed and dismissed with approval of the Ukrainian president. But if the Crimean premier is dismissed by a two-thirds majority (at least 67 votes), the president is obliged to approve such a dismissal unconditionally. Lytvyn argued that the Ukrainian constitution--which in his opinion is superior to all Crimean laws--does not include any provision on the unconditional dismissal of the Crimean premier. Lytvyn, however, had to admit that Ukrainian legislation is "contradictory and imperfect" in this particular case, adding that Kuchma's possible cancellation of Kunitsyn's ouster should be submitted to the Constitutional Court for expertise.

Kunitsyn commented that the legislature dismissed him to protect patrons in the peninsula's energy sector from an anti-corruption drive he had launched. Kunitsyn, however, mentioned no names. He also noted that there "were no economic arguments" against his government, stressing that his cabinet had spurred industrial growth early this year and halved its debt to public sector workers.

The recent cabinet dismissal is seen by some commentators as the culmination of the protracted standoff between parliamentary speaker Leonid Hrach, leader of the Crimean branch of the Communist Party of Ukraine, and Kunitsyn, who is supported by Kyiv and generally regarded as a reformer, even if a half-hearted one. Kuchma's mediation will surely aim at retaining the uneasy balance of power between Hrach's pro-Moscow Communists and those in both the parliament and the government who remain more or less loyal to Kyiv. It has not been clear yet whether Kuchma will surrender Kunitsyn and look for another man to head the Crimean cabinet or seek Kunitsyn's reinstatement.

"We already have a minority government, in a dual sense: first, the level of social support for the current cabinet is disastrously low, and second, a lot of pro-government lawmakers vote against their own government." -- Leszek Miller, leader of the opposition Democratic Left Alliance, commenting on the possibility of a minority government of the Solidarity Electoral Action after the announced pullout of its coalition partner, the Freedom Union; quoted by PAP on 24 May.

"Some looked with unfeigned envy and admiration at our city and at what is being done here. Credit for this can be given not only to administrators of our city, Minsk. They, of course, are fine people, they prepared Minsk [for the CIS Customs Union summit on 23 May]. Credit can also be given to our government and to many others, because we have not slept through all those years. They said: it is simply unbelievable that one can try doing or building something in such a [difficult] time. People saw our country, our republic. And Putin said: I had not realized, even knowing Belarus very well, that the state can be so unified, integral, and efficient." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka on impressions of the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan on seeing Minsk; quoted by Belarusian Television on 25 May.

"Since communism is a threat for the whole world, not just for Ukraine...I was astonished and shocked to see that communist statues and emblems still stand on I don't know what historical or aesthetic pretexts. A Lenin Kiev to me seems as shocking as having a statue of Adolf Hitler in Tel Aviv." -- French extreme nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen at a news conference in Kyiv on 23 May; quoted by Reuters.