Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 25, 1999

25 May 1999, Volume 1, Number 1

The "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" seeks to draw the attention of its readers to three countries that are in three different stages of the post-communist transformation.

Poland, a new NATO member, is also on the "fast track" for integration with the European Union. It enjoys the highest growth rate among the former communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe. However, even though successful on most counts, the country faces a host of specific problems in adapting itself to EU legislative, economic, and social standards. It may therefore serve as an excellent example of a European nation struggling to break with its socialist past and embrace a free-market system.

Developments in Belarus are in many ways the reverse of what is taking place in Poland. Of all the former Soviet republics, Belarus is on the "fastest track" for reintegration with Russia into a union state that some consider the seed of a 21st-century version of the USSR. Belarus's Soviet-style economy remains virtually unreformed, while in terms of its management it has become even more state-controlled than it was in the Soviet Union. With the strongly anti-Western and popular authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus is a classic case of a country beset by an overpowering "back-to-the-USSR" nostalgia.

Ukraine has been described as "two nations in one," with its eastern "socialist" part leaning toward Russia and its western "nationalist" part oriented toward the West. Its performance since the collapse of communism falls somewhere in between the Polish and Belarusian models. For nine years it has thus been a country in "unstable equilibrium," seeming to defy any more precise definition.

Since the three countries share not only borders but also much history, they unavoidably have a lot of common and/or conflicting interests. One of the major goals of this newsletter is to highlight these interests within a general picture of developments in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.
EU Demands Abolition Of Special Economic Zones... The EU demands that Poland abolish its special economic zones by 2002, PAP reported on 18 May. According to EU officials, the creation of the zones violates Poland's association treaty with the EU. The demand comes in response to Poland's request to be allowed a transition period in which the zones would be allowed to exist until 2017. According to the EU, tax breaks offered by Polish special economic zones "exceed all norms" admissible in the union.

...While Belarus Invites Poles To Its Tax-Free Zones. Entrepreneurs from Poland's northeastern Podlasie province have been invited to conduct business in Belarus's tax-free zones. Managers operating in such zones in the Minsk and Brest oblasts encouraged Polish businessmen in Bialystok on 17 May to invest in the special economic areas, PAP reported. Under Belarusian legislation, companies operating in special economic zones are exempt from paying income tax for five years. Goods entering such zones are tax- and duty-free. Poland is currently Belarus's fourth-largest trade partner. According to figures quoted by the Belarusian consul general in Bialystok, Mikalay Krechka, Belarus imported $238 million worth of goods from Poland last year, while Belarusian exports to Poland amounted to $184 million.

CIA Spy To Be Sued? According to the right-wing daily "Zycie," the State Protection Office in 1996 unmasked and detained a CIA spy, Colonel Zbigniew Wlodzimierz Sz., who held an important post in the Military Intelligence Service. Although he confessed to being guilty, Colonel Sz. Did not appear in court. The daily says the Polish authorities hushed up the case--in order not to damage relations between Warsaw and Washington--and agreed to transfer Sz. to the U.S., where he is still living. According to "Zycie," it was President Aleksander Kwasniewski who decided that the spy would not be put on trial.

The Supreme Military Prosecutor's Office, responding to questions posed by "Zycie" journalists several weeks ago, admitted that it did not conduct an investigation into the Sz. spy case in 1996. The 21 May "Rzeczpospolita" reported that a military prosecutor pointed out to the "Zycie" journalists that anybody who knew about a crime was obliged to inform the authorities or face punishment. "Rzeczpospolita" wrote that the "Zycie" journalists interpreted that comment as a "warning" and subsequently notified the Warsaw District Military Prosecutor's Office about Sz.'s crime.

It is unclear what kind of action--if any--will be taken by the Military Prosecutor's Office. Meanwhile, Marek Siwiec, head of the presidential National Security Bureau, has denied that the president instructed anyone suspected of spying to be released. Moreover, Kwasniewski's lawyer, Ryszard Kalisz, has notified the military prosecutor that "Zycie" committed a crime by reporting the Sz. case and thus disclosing official secrets.

"We do not regard the case of the American spy in the Polish army as a superficial sensation or scandal," "Zycie" chief editor Tomasz Wolek wrote on 22 May, "but as a matter worthy of deeper, balanced consideration. For the good of democracy and also for the sake of greater openness and transparency in public life, we feel that this case should not be swept under the carpet in embarrassment. It is precisely in the best interests of Poland and of its loyal obligations toward allies that efforts should be made to defuse this explosive charge."

Wolek is believed to be a staunch opponent of the leftist Kwasniewski. In 1995, Wolek--at the time chief editor of "Zycie Warszawy"--actively supported Lech Walesa's presidential bid. When Lech Walesa lost the election, Wolek was fired from "Zycie Warszawy" in what was widely seen as leftist retribution for the journalist's political involvement. Along with most of the "Zycie Warszawy" journalists who quit the Warsaw daily when he did, Wolek successfully launched the nationwide daily "Zycie." In 1997, "Zycie" published a report alleging that Kwasniewski had held meetings with a KGB agent. Kwasniewski sued the daily for libel, but the investigation into that case has not yet been completed.

Muzzling Dissent By Re-registration. In late January, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka issued a decree ordering all political parties, trade unions, and public associations in Belarus to re-register by 1 July. The same decree set up a special commission for (re-)registration of public associations headed by Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Zamyatalin. According to the decree, the Justice Ministry takes a decision on (re-)registering an organization "on the basis of a conclusion" reached by Zamyatalin's commission. In theory, the Justice Ministry can overturn the commission's decision, but in light of legal practices in Belarus under Lukashenka's regime, such a development is highly improbable.

In keeping with Soviet bureaucratic tradition, the decree stipulates that any organization that desires to be registered must supply a host of documents and certificates "typed on A4 paper with one-and-a-half spacing." Any formal or procedural flaws in the registration process on the part of the applicant may be considered a reason for denying official recognition. Registration can also be denied if an organization's charter does not conform with legal requirements or if it has been officially warned within the past year that it has broken the law.

Numerous Belarusian opposition parties and NGOs have protested the decree, pointing out that its real goal is to outlaw all opposition and independent organizations in Belarus. So far, 13 major Belarusian opposition parties and human rights organizations have been "warned" by the Justice Ministry for taking part in the opposition presidential elections. Under Lukashenka's re-registration decree, they are now facing a ban. Belarusian NGOs say the authorities also aim to force organizations undergoing re-registration to pledge allegiance to the 1996 constitution in their charters. That basic law--adopted in the controversial referendum of the same year, which has not been recognized by the Council of Europe or the OSCE--is the main bone of contention between the authorities and the opposition.

Belarusian Television reported on 15 May that only some 130 organizations out of the 2,500 registered in Belarus have filed re-registration requests to date. With only six weeks remaining until the re-registration deadline, it appears that the bulk of Belarusian NGOs have decided to boycott the re-registration decree. A Justice Ministry official seemed to confirm that theory when, speaking on national television, he stressed that the organizations do not have to fully specify the constitution to which they pledge loyalty. "There was a certain overstress in the first stage [of re-registration], when we suggested that everyone should put the full name of the constitution [in the charter]. But now this has sunk into oblivion," he said.

But the participation of Uladzimir Zamyatalin in the re-registration process has led Belarusian NGOs to suspect the worst. Zamyatalin is widely seen as having been behind some of Belarus's harshest restraints on the press and on freedom of expression, including a ban on providing official information to independent media and an order to eliminate those history textbooks that contradict the "state policy that is being implemented by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka."

It is interesting to note that in the 1994 presidential elections Zamyatalin was press secretary to then-Prime Minister Vyachaslau Kebich, Lukashenka's main presidential rival. Zamyatalin was reported to have orchestrated a television feature suggesting Lukashenka was a petty thief and had stolen a hair-dryer from a stewardess while on his flight to China. The electorate, however, did not believe that allegation and overwhelmingly voted for Lukashenka. Instead of punishing Zamyatalin, Lukashenka offered him a job--first as head of the Presidential Information Department and later as deputy chief of the presidential staff. Before his nomination as deputy premier in July 1997, Zamyatalin headed the State Press Committee for more than five months.

Profiteering: Ill-Defined, But Punishable By Law. On 18 May, the Chamber of Representatives, the lower house of the Belarusian legislature, adopted a new Criminal Code. One of the most controversial parts of the code was Article 256, which envisages criminal responsibility for "profiteering" (spekulatsiya). Belarusian media reported that some deputies objected to introducing this article because of the lack of a clear definition of the term "profiteering." Belapan reported on 18 May that one deputy voiced his opposition by pointing out that "profiteering" is punishable only in two countries, namely Cuba and North Korea. Chamber of Representatives speaker Anatol Malafeyeu, for his part, told the legislature that by eliminating this article, deputies "would stab the economy in the back." In the end, supporters of the provision prevailed, and the article on "profiteering" was duly included in the code.

Harbingers Of Agricultural Doom? Severe and unusual cold spells--in which temperatures dropped to 12 degrees Centigrade below zero-- have destroyed grain covering some 20,000 hectares in Belarus this month, Belapan reported on 18 May. According to Mikhail Kadyrau, an agricultural expert, because of these cold spells, the expected average yield of potatoes in 1999 will be 25 percent down on last year's level.

In late April, Belarusian media reported that huge swarms of gnats were attacking people and animals in 66 of Belarus's 120 raions, mainly in the southern part of the country. Some 20,000 livestock became sick after being bitten by insects. According to the Agricultural Ministry, 400 animals died and another 1,000 had to be slaughtered.

More than 23 raions, mainly in the Brest and Homel oblasts, suffered from spring floods in March: 204 settlements and 100,000 hectares of land were covered in water, and more than 2,100 people had to be resettled.

Crimean Tatars Commemorate The Dead, Speak Out For The Living. Some 35,000 Crimean Tatars converged on Simferopol on 18 May to hold a rally commemorating the 55th anniversary of the deportation of Crimean Tatars to the east of the Urals, mainly to Uzbekistan. Joseph Stalin's regime accused the Tatars of collaboration during the Nazi occupation of the Crimean peninsula in World War II. According to official data, some 180,000 Crimean Tatars were deported. Some Tatar sources, however, put the number of deported at 500,000. Some 45 percent of the Crimean Tatar population perished as a result of the deportations. A 1967 Soviet government decree exonerated the Crimean Tatars of any wrongdoing during World War II. However, the mass return of Tatars from Central Asia to their ancestral homeland was not possible until the Gorbachev era. It is estimated that today some 275,000 Tatars are living on the peninsula, while at least as many remain in exile.

The marches on Simferopol and the 18 May rally were in protest against what Crimean Tatars perceive as their political repression and discrimination by both the Ukrainian and Crimean autonomous governments. Participants in the Simferopol rally made several demands vis-a-vis both Kyiv and Simferopol. Those demands included providing housing and employment programs for Crimean Tatars; simplifying procedures whereby Tatars can acquire Ukrainian citizenship (some 90,000 have been prevented from doing so owing to bureaucratic obstacles in Uzbekistan and Ukraine); granting plots of land to Tatars returning to Crimea; recognizing the Mejlis and the Kurultay as Tatar representative bodies endowed with some self-governing functions; granting the Tatar language an official status equal to that of Russian and Ukrainian; establishing representative quotas of Tatars in the Crimean parliament, government, and local authorities as well as in the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma responded to the Tatar demands by creating a presidential advisory body--the Council of Representatives of Crimean Tatars, headed by Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev. Another Tatar leader, Refat Chubarov, said that with the establishment of that body the work to resolve the political and legal problems of Crimean Tatars has begun.

Ukrainian media reported that no deputy from the Communist-dominated Crimean parliament attended the 18 May rally. According to Ukrainian sources, those addressing the demonstrators mostly signaled out Crimean parliamentary speaker Leonid Hrach and his colleagues from the Communist Party as responsible for the problems faced by Crimean Tatars. Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Kunitsyn, according to "Ukrayina moloda," proposed a meeting with Tatar representatives to discuss "possible candidacies for some posts in the executive branch of the peninsula."

After the rally, Tatars set up a tent camp outside the Crimean government building. Dzhemilev said some 250 people will remain in the camp until the government makes progress on meeting the Tatars' demands.

"Why do we need foreign troops on our territory? Something is foul here." -- A Peasant Party deputy during the 20 May parliamentary debate on a bill regulating the deployment of foreign troops in Poland.

"Foreign troops helped us a little in the Battle of Grunwald." -- Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek's retort in the same debate, referring to the defeat of the Teutonic Knights by the united armies of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.

"If I discover today that someone has taken an irresponsible stance toward fulfilling my [previous] instructions, [he] can go at once, taking [his] portfolio with [him] or leaving it in [his] offices.... We have a controllable state, we have a strong authority, and we are able to resolve any problem in pricing policy." -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordering his ministers on 19 May to put an end to price hikes by 1 June.

"Today's lines [of vehicles waiting] to enter Poland--given the virtually empty border checkpoints and quick checks on our side--most likely reflect NATO's political directive to its [Polish] member: to erect a barrier at the border as long as the hawks in the sky are destroying [our] Slavic allies." -- Belarusian Television on 19 May, commenting on recent traffic jams at Belarusian-Polish border checkpoints.

"Even if a majority of people back Lukashenka, it means only that they will get what they deserve, not what they want." -- Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau, before his voluntary exile to Finland one year ago.