Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 19, 2000

19 September 2000, Volume 2, Number 34
THE BITTER TASTE OF AN HISTORIC VICTORY. Over the past few months, all opinion polls conducted in Poland suggest that President Aleksander Kwasniewski enjoys the support of between 60 percent and 70 percent of Polish voters, meaning that he will easily gain re-election in the first round of the presidential elections scheduled for 8 October. The election victory of the post-communist incumbent will simultaneously mean a potentially humiliating defeat for Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski, whom the same polls give only some 10 percent backing.

Solidarity's recent 20th birthday celebrations have triggered many discussions in the Polish media about why Poles--who in 1989 formed a 10-million-strong trade union and overturned communism in Poland--now overwhelmingly prefer the post-communist incumbent over Solidarity's Marian Krzaklewski and Lech Walesa.

There have been many well-argued answers to the above question, but one of them has been voiced much more frequently than the others: namely, Solidarity has failed to deliver what it promised in the socioeconomic sphere for Polish workers. Of the famous 21 provisions of the August 1980 agreement between the striking workers in the Gdansk shipyard and the then communist government, only three could be considered strictly political demands: the legalization of free and independent trade unions, the right to strike, and freedom of speech, all of which have been established since the fall of communism.

As for the other 18 provisions, these were socioeconomic demands, characteristic of the workers' plight in a strictly controlled but in general socially-oriented communist economy. The August 1980 provisions thus show the real balance between the political and the economic expectations of Polish workers connected with Solidarity. Unfortunately, Solidarity's governments have failed to meet what many commentators call the "utopian" economic demands of the social revolution in Poland in the 1980s.

"Solidarity did away with the Communists by promising to realize their utopia. It succeeded [in deposing communism] because the Communist blockheads had never treated their utopia seriously and had not even checked what the results might be of the implementation [of their utopia]," prominent Polish journalist and dissident Stefan Kisielewski sarcastically commented in 1989. Today, many observers of the Polish political scene seem to share that view.

People in Poland primarily expected that Solidarity would replenish empty shop shelves and grant wage increases that allowed every Polish family to fully provide for its basic needs. Solidarity has achieved the former but failed to ensure the latter. A government survey in June found that 33 percent of Poles live below the poverty line, which is defined in Poland as the monthly per capita income of 378 zlotys ($84), while another 12 percent said they "are balancing on the poverty line." Unemployment in Poland amounts to some 3 million people, and it is unlikely that there will be any improvement in the labor market any time soon.

While other suggested reasons for the massive disappointment with Solidarity seem less significant than that mentioned above, they, too, may have played some role. According to sociological surveys, Poles tend to believe that Solidarity has been and continues to be used by its activists as a springboard for their political careers, while rank-and-file trade unionists see the trade union itself as being more involved in dealing with social discontent among workers than standing up for their rights. This could explain Krzaklewski's unimpressive support among the electorate. It is notable that the Solidarity Electoral Action--the trade union's political arm, consisting of sundry right-wing parties and groups--enjoys 19 percent backing, that is, twice the level of Krzaklewski's backing. This, in turn, suggests that voters differentiate between the Solidarity movement and its ambitious leader, who is aspiring to the post of president.

Political analysts say Solidarity must urgently redefine its role in Poland by drawing a fine line between its trade union goals and those of its activists, who, they note, are using the organization as a vehicle to promote their political ambitions. Otherwise, those analysts argue, the trade union credited by the world for paving the way toward dismantling communism in Eastern Europe will soon find itself on the sidelines of Poland's public life. The union's historic victory 10 years ago has since acquired a bitter taste for many of those who contributed to it. But what is much more distressing for Solidarity veterans, the union is currently finding little to offer to new generations of voters who are living off that victory's fruits.

BETRAYAL OR PRAGMATISM? Tensions are increasing among the Belarusian opposition as the 15 October legislative elections draw near. On 10 September, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service broadcast a discussion on the upcoming ballot between two prominent opponents of the Alyaksandr Lukashenka regime: former speaker of the Supreme Soviet Stanislau Shushkevich, now chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly, and Uladzimir Nistsyuk, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Popular Assembly). Shushkevich's party is boycotting the 15 October elections, while Nistsyuk's party have taken an ambivalent stand on the ballot: officially, it is not fielding any candidates but has allowed its leader Mikalay Statkevich and a dozen activists to run in the elections on an independent ticket. The discussion was moderated by Yury Drakakhrust of RFE/RL's Belarusian Service. Following are excerpts from that discussion:

Moderator: The discussions currently under way in Belarus about the participation in or boycott of the elections pertain to the status of a future parliament. In your opinion, will this body become a [mere] appendage to the presidential administration or a counterbalance to the presidential authority?

Shushkevich: ... Now we have the so-called constitution approved in the 1996 referendum. This constitution defines the functions of the parliament--the so-called parliament, the Chamber [of Representatives]. These functions are insignificant in terms of lawmaking. According to the constitution, the leader of the executive, our president, has more legislative powers than the whole parliament. Therefore, [the newly elected legislature] will be an appendage to the presidential administration. However, in order to avoid some further problems, [the authorities] are taking pains to have there such folks who will show no interest other than the desire to obtain state handouts.

Nistsyuk: I fully agree with Stanislau Stanislavavich regarding his assessment of the pseudo-elections to the Chamber of Representatives.... We are well aware that the chamber, if it continues to lean on the 1996 constitution, will remain powerless. But this is not the point. The point is that this chamber can be blocked in two ways. The first way is to boycott the elections, to prevent the chamber from being elected--but it will be very difficult to do this under current conditions. The second way is to take part in the elections and try to blow up [the chamber] from within.... One should take advantage of all opportunities. We realize that the October elections are only a trial of strength...the last test before the presidential elections.... If we fail to create a significant foothold [for the opposition] before the presidential elections, there will be no use participating in them.

Shushkevich: I don't agree with this justification of those who have betrayed the common stance of the united opposition. In order to clarify who was striving for what, the opposition convened the Congress of Democratic Forces [in July]. The congress said: One should not participate in this farce, it is not a ballot. Those who did not obey that resolution have betrayed the forces united by the congress, have betrayed the union of opposition parties. Now, about whether it is possible to blow up [the Chamber of Representative] from within. It is impossible to blow up a garbage heap from within because it contains only garbage. Even if a gram of flammable material is put there, it is impossible to light it in such manure....

For what purpose are the so-called elections--this farce--being organized [by the authorities]? In order to stage a rehearsal for the sweeping falsification of the presidential elections. It is no secret to anybody that Lukashenka has no support. The state is collapsing, all indicators are going down. [Lukashenka needs] to test a huge repressive mechanism of falsification....

The honest opposition will not be in the Chamber of Representatives because it has not fielded a single candidate.... There may be only those who betrayed the common position of the opposition parties, which was approved by the Congress of Democratic Forces. Eight hundred votes were in favor of this position and only 16 votes against, mainly from those who are now participating in the elections, from the so-called oppositionists.

Nistsyuk: I think some political parties are becoming hysterical.... It's not very becoming for a politician with such huge experience as Stanislau Stanislavavich to use such words as "betrayers" or "dishonest [oppositionists]." It is necessary to treat one another with respect insofar as [our stance on the elections] was adopted by the party's congress. And our party is no smaller than the others, or less influential in the country and the world than the others. I think it is necessary to tolerate one another's opinions. Otherwise, we will hardly be different from Lukashenka, who does not tolerate any dissenters. I think it is necessary to take advantage of all possibilities because the boycott means fighting, confrontation. During the five-year confrontation, we [repeatedly] tried to get 100,000 people on to the streets in Minsk but succeeded in bringing together no more than 40,000.

One can also say [this] about the presidential elections: Whoever chooses to participate in them will be a betrayer. They will also be held in accordance with the 1996 constitution, under the same circumstances in which the country is now. But everybody intends to participate in them. Why, then, are we to ignore this year's elections?

Shushkevich: The 13 people [from Nistsyuk's party], even if all of them are elected, will have no influence over the parliament. They will be sitting in the so-called parliament, they will be crowing [like roosters] there, but nobody will know anything about them....

Moderator: In the Supreme Soviet of the 12th convocation, which was headed by you [Shushkevich], the opposition numbered [only] 40 among the nearly 400 deputies, that is, 10 percent. The Supreme Soviet of the 13th convocation also had some 10 percent of oppositionists. However, those opposition groups, to use your expression, Stanislau Stanislavavich, crowed over [the successful passage of the opposition-proposed bills] declaring Belarus's independence and banning the Communist Party, and they nearly impeached Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Shushkevich: Excuse me. There was one big difference. The Supreme Soviet was a full-fledged [legislative] body. According to the constitution of the Belarusian SSR, [the Supreme Soviet] could consider any problem and its resolution on that problem was final. The Supreme Soviet also resolved to broadcast its debates live on television. Everybody could view them. Therefore, it was not possible [for the then executive] to ignore public opinion. As for this parliament, it sits in some oval hall and nobody knows what they talk about there. [The deputies] have no access to the media. There's no comparison [between the Supreme Soviet and the Chamber of Representatives].

LUKASHENKA MAKES PARTIES HAPPY, EVEN AGAINST THEIR WILL. Last week President Lukashenka decreed that the Central Electoral Commission be expanded to include consultative representatives from the nine political parties that are fielding candidates in the 15 October elections to the Chamber of Representatives. These parties are the Belarusian Social Sports Party, the Belarusian Patriotic Party, the Belarusian Communist Party, the Republican Party, the Agrarian Party, the Republican Party of Labor and Justice, the Communist Party of Belarus, the Social Democratic Party of Popular Accord, and the Liberal Democratic Party. (Apart from the Belarusian Communist Party--which claims to be in opposition to the Lukashenka regime--and, possibly, the pro-regime Agrarian Party, none of the groups listed above wields any significant political influence among the electorate.) The nine appointed consultants have no voting rights on the commission and may only submit proposals and ask questions during the commission's sittings.

The decree seems to be Lukashenka's response to the OSCE's demand that the Central Electoral Commission be expanded with full-fledged members representing a wide political spectrum, including the opposition. However, in appointing a group with no powers, he ignored not only the opinion of the OSCE but also that of the involved political parties. Belarusian Communist Party leader Syarhey Kalyakin said he was totally surprised by the fact that his party will be represented in the Central Electoral Commission by Uladzimir Byadula--the person nominated by Lukashenka's decree. Kalyakin said his party considered a different man for the commission, adding that it has never been consulted about the nomination or even asked if it wants to have its representative on the commission.

Kalyakin also expressed his disgust over how national television covered a 4 September political debate in which he participated. "I can say that I could hardly recognize the debate in the broadcast program [of 11 September]. The program stripped the debate of any sense and substance. Television showed only fragments of the leaders' statements, completely torn out of context," Kalyakin told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service. Kalyakin said television clumsily tried to make an impression that the debate was a live, call-in program. "The calls were orchestrated and selected in advance, in order to discredit some parties and commend others," he added.

WILL YUSHCHENKO SURVIVE THE WINTER? There is no good news in Kyiv nowadays for Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. Winter is looming in Ukraine, and Ukrainian commentators are expecting an acute shortage of energy and fuel. Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko has said there will be no problems heating Ukraine's apartment buildings this winter, but the government has ordered emergency purchases of coal in Poland and Russia, ignoring costlier domestic supplies from Ukrainian coal pits, which have not paid wages for months.

Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the IMF will resume its suspended $2.6 billion loan program to Ukraine this year to help Yushchenko's cabinet finance its most urgent needs. IMF First Deputy Managing Director Stanley Fischer told journalists on 15 September that Ukraine has to do "a lot of work" before the fund will resume its loans. Julian Berengaut, head of an IMF mission currently visiting Kyiv, added that the loan program can begin again only if Ukraine draws up its 2001 budget, intensifies privatization efforts, and maintains a "healthy" banking system.

The government has recently paid all pension arrears, a $100-million installment of Ukraine's enormous debt to the IMF, and $56 million in interests on its Eurobonds--a remarkable achievement, in view of the fact that it has not been given any foreign credits over the last year. However, commentators point out that these payments were made not from budget revenues but from credits from the National Bank, meaning that the government's domestic debt has increased, even if the foreign one has been somewhat reduced.

Thus it is only a question of time before both President Leonid Kuchma and the parliament begin looking for those responsible for another Ukrainian winter of discontent. Kuchma's usual practice to dispel social dissatisfaction was to blame the country's problems on either the parliament or the government, or both at once. This time such a ruse may prove inapplicable. The parliament has a pro-presidential majority and, in both practice and theory, does what the executive wants it to do. As for Yushchenko's possible ouster as a scapegoat, such a move may complicate Kyiv's relations with the IMF, which has repeatedly indicated that it is in favor of Yushchenko's leading the Ukrainian government. It is rather unlikely that Kuchma would risk an open conflict with the institution that, apart from urging market reforms in Ukraine, has sustained the country's financial stability and liquidity throughout Kuchma's presidency.

"Personally I would rather not be president, for I would not have a moment's peace. Constant meetings with ambassadors, patting children on the head, and I couldn't be seen with a good-looking girl. Financially, too, I wouldn't come off at all well, for my present income is comparable to the president's. If the voters don't wish it, I don't have to be president. I survived [communist Poland], I survived socialism, and I'll survive EU entry. I can speak foreign languages and I will benefit from EU entry, contrary to the average Pole, who will lose by it. It is in your interest that I should be president. If you don't want me, that's that, who cares." --Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a right-wing marginal candidate in the presidential race, at a meeting with the Polish Confederation of Private Employers. Quoted by PAP on 11 September.

"There is a firm link between the independence of a country and [the availability of] sausage, which should be explained in simple and understandable language."--Independent journalist Alyaksandr Starykevich on his decision to accept the post of chief editor of "Belorusskii chas," the press organ of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus. Quoted by Belapan on 12 September.

"Many elderly female pensioners have refused to sign lists [in support of candidates seeking registration for the 15 October elections], saying they will vote only for Lukashenka. It was no use explaining to them that the current president is not running for a parliamentary seat."--"Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta" on 14 September.

"I became president by accident--today I can admit that--thanks only to you."--Lukashenka to steel mill workers in Zhodzina. Quoted by Belarusian Television on 15 September.