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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: August 10, 1999

10 August 1999, Volume 1, Number 11
Wording Of Jewish Restitution Claim Sparks Indignation In Press. In late June, 10 American citizens and one British citizen--all of Jewish origin--filed a class action suit against Poland in a New York State district court, demanding that the Polish government restitute to them real estate taken by the Polish state after World War II. The translation of that claim was published by "Gazeta Wyborcza" on 3 and 4 August.

The case of Bella Jungewirth, one of the claimants, is illustrative of the background to this legal action. As presented in the claim, Bella Jungewirth (born Bella Neustadt in Poland in 1920) is a U.S. citizen residing in New York City. During World War II, she lived in the Krakow Jewish ghetto, from where the Nazis sent her to Auschwitz in 1942. She survived the death camp as the only member of her family and returned to Krakow. However, her family home was already inhabited by a Polish woman who said she was paying rent to the state. Faced with death threats while seeking to regain her family home, Bella Jungewirth left Poland. The state treasury, which took over the Neustadt home after the war, sold it in 1957 without informing Bella Jungewirth and without offering compensation, according to the claim.

It is unclear how the Polish government will react to the claim and how the lawsuit will develop. According to "Gazeta Wyborcza," the government considers that it is protected against such claims filed in the U.S. under the so-called Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and under a treaty concluded by Poland and the U.S. in 1960. Thereafter, Poland transferred more than $40 million to Washington in compensation for those U.S. citizens whose property had been taken over by the Polish state treasury. The two sides agreed that from that moment on, any U.S. citizen claiming the restitution of property in Poland should address that claim to Washington. Thus, the Polish Foreign Ministry argues that the current claim should be dismissed. Referring to a well-informed source in the U.S. administration, "Gazeta Wyborcza" reports that the U.S. believes the 1960 treaty applied only to claims by people who were U.S. citizens at the time of the 1944-1945 nationalization in Poland. As for those who became U.S. citizens later, they retain the right to submit such claims to Warsaw.

Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek noted on 3 August that the reprivatization law being drafted by the current government will satisfy the 11 claimants. Such a development, however, seems unlikely. For those owners who are unable to regain their property in kind, the government bill provides for the compensation of only 60 percent of the value of lost properties. The total value of possible property restitution claims is estimated at more than $30 billion, the equivalent of Poland's annual budget revenues. It is unclear if and when the bill will be approved by the parliament and signed by the president.

Apart from its legal and economic implications, the Jewish property restitution claim may also draw a vehement public reaction in Poland because of its wording and line of argument. Lawyers Mel Urbach and Edward Klein, who represent the 11 claimants, wrote that for the past 54 years Poland has followed the Nazi policy of racial and ethnic purges, driving Holocaust survivors out of Poland by violent means, including torture and murder. In pursuing this policy, the Polish state aimed at taking over Jewish properties and making profits from them, the plaintiffs argue. Under Point 8 of the claim, the Polish state is accused of appropriating "substantially all the assets" of Poland's 3 million Jews.

The first public response appeared in the respected Warsaw weekly "Polityka" on 3 July. While admitting that the claim is not groundless, the weekly said the wording of the document is libelous toward Poland.

On 3 August, "Gazeta Wyborcza" published a strongly worded commentary by chief editor Adam Michnik: "The claim--in a lying and despicable manner--touches upon painful and true matters. The problem of wrongs done to [Polish] Jews after the war and to victims of anti-Semitism in Poland is difficult. But the claim does not seek truth or justice. It actually equates Poland--including the sovereign and democratic one--with Hitler's Third Reich. ...Only a scoundrel without any conscience can write that the Polish governments--even including the Communist ones, which I consistently opposed--'have copied the Nazi Judenrein plan'. ...The claim is a priceless gift to anti-Semites in Poland and Jews overpowered by hatred toward Poland. The former and the latter want a Jewish-Polish war; they live on anti-Semitism and anti-Polonism. The former and the latter are in a minority, but this minority is aggressive, noisy, and unscrupulous." In conclusion, Michnik accounts for his harsh words: "For many years I have lived in the shadow of Shoah, which engulfed almost all of my family. More than once I have tasted the bitter taste of anti-Semitism and more than once I have condemned public anti-Semitic phobias. Therefore, without any hesitation today, I call the New York claim a set of brazen lies."

Parliament Fortifying Language Against Foreign Intrusions? On 22 July, the last day before its summer recess, the Sejm voted by 200 to 179 with 15 abstentions to pass a bill intended to shield the Polish language against the influx of foreign words and obscenities. The bill stipulates that Polish is the obligatory language in the country's public and economic life. Companies selling or advertising foreign goods and services must provide Polish-language translations of all leaflets, instructions, or commercials. Also, the brand names of foreign products for which there are Polish equivalents should be translated into Polish.

This last provision provoked a heated discussion among deputies, who cited many witty examples of how some products would be named in Polish if the law were to be rigorously implemented. In particular, Johnny Walker could be translated into Polish as Janek Wedrowniczek (hero of a pre-school children classic in Poland).

Another provision of the bill--one that envisages fines of up to 100,000 zlotys ($25,000) for those who use foul language in public--also provoked some droll remarks. Some deputies argued that after the bill becomes law, Poland's popular action movie "Psy" (Dogs) will have to be shown in theaters without the soundtrack in order to avoid heavy fines for the host of swear words it employs. Also, some Polish media seized this opportunity to needle parliamentary deputy Stefan Niesiolowski, a staunch proponent of the language bill, who called his colleague Adam Slomka a "dickhead" at a recent parliamentary session.

On 5 August, the Senat introduced more than 40 amendments to the language bill. The most important of these says that foreign proper names need not be translated into Polish. Senators argued that translating foreign proper names would distort their meaning. However, translations remain obligatory for all other foreign names currently in use. It is to be expected that many linguists and journalists in Poland will soon begin pondering how to find Polish equivalents for "hot dog," mini-market," "snack bar," "auto shop," and many other words.

Another Senat amendment did away with the provision on fines for using obscenities in public. "If someone uses four-letter words, it is not an offense against the law but a sign of someone's low cultural standards," Senator Anna Bogucka-Skowronska commented to "Gazeta Wyborcza." Following a senator's remark that the bill might imply a ban on Church services in Latin or on the use of ethnic minority languages in Poland, the upper house included a provision that the bill in no way violates the rights of Churches and ethnic minorities guaranteed by international conventions and agreements.

Despite those aspects of the bill that clearly lend themselves to humor, the Polish media generally responded positively to the draft law's adoption. Some journalists noted that language protection laws have been adopted by countries such as France, Belgium, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, and Ireland. Others had some reservations. The weekly "Polityka" wrote on 31 July: "The language bill points out that the Polish language is one of the [country's] greatest assets. In this sense, the bill is more an ideological manifesto than a legal document. It will be hard to use this act in everyday life." And the weekly "Wprost" commented on 1 August: "The Polish problem of borrowed words lies not in the fact that our language is 'littered' with them but in the fact that the bulk of the not-so-well educated society is unable to [grasp the meaning of] borrowed words, which are usually inevitable."

To become law, the amended language bill must be debated once again by both the lower and upper houses and signed by the president.

Belarusian-Language Radio To Start Broadcasting This Fall? On 2 August, Juliusz Braun, chairman of the National Radio and Television Committee (KKRiTV), formally approved issuing a license to Radio Racja, which will broadcast on shortwave and ultra-shortwave bands in Belarusian to the Belarusian minority in Poland. The shortwave signal will reach Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

Radio Racja ("racja" in Polish may mean "argument," "reason," or "right") will be a "cultural-informative" radio station managed by a company bearing the same name. A majority stake will be held by the Belarusian Union, an organization created by Polish Belarusians in 1990.

The KRRiTV agreed to put Radio Racja on the air as early as March, but it took four months for the Ministry of Communications to approve broadcasting frequencies. The station will air its programs from a transmitter in Bialystok, Podlasie Province, on 105.5 MHz, and from another at Leszczynki near Warsaw, on 61.75 kHz, 61.65 kHz, and 60.35 kHz. The first programs can be aired three months after the formal approval of the license, that is, on 3 November.

In March, the then chairman of KRRiTV, Boleslaw Sulik, told "Rzeczpospolita" that denying a license to Radio Racja would be a "political act." Asked whether the station will seek to inculcate democratic ideas into its listeners in Belarus, Sulik said: "I hope that this station will promote democracy in Belarus. However, regardless of this, granting this license should not be treated as a political act."

Popular Front Faces Split Over Leadership. The congress of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) on 31 July-1 August failed to elect a leader for the next two years. The delegates will reconvene this fall to tackle the issue of leadership once again.

Zyanon Paznyak, the charismatic BNF leader who was granted political asylum in the U.S. and has headed the BNF from abroad since then, was supported by 156 votes and opposed by an equal number of delegates. Vintsuk Vyachorka, one of the BNF's six deputy chairmen, was supported by 152 votes and opposed by 160. BNF Acting Chairman Lyavon Barshcheuski told the congress that no leader was elected because none of the candidates won a majority of votes required for the election. The next day, Paznyak told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service the ambiguous wording "majority of votes" in the BNF election regulations means that he won the ballot because he received more votes than Vyachorka. Therefore, he concluded, he is the legally elected BNF chairman. However, no one from the BNF has rushed to support that interpretation.

Most Belarusian commentators tend to agree that the "scoreless draw" actually means Paznyak's defeat. And while no BNF body or activist has made any statement on the issue, many commentators believe that the BNF has actually split into two factions: one supporting Paznyak and the other Vyachorka. A formal split, according to such speculation, will take place in the near future or at the reconvened congress at the latest. The following are responses to that split:

Commentator Alyaksandr Fyaduta in "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta": "Paznyak's defeat was reflected primarily in the fact that he has not been able to propose a specific and realistic action program. Moreover, by making public a future BNF Board list without the names of Khadyka, Vyachorka, Byalatski, Siuchyk, and Ivashkevich [ed.: all opponents of Paznyak], he has split the BNF with his own hands. ...He has actually placed himself in opposition to the intellectual elite of the BNF."

Commentator Yury Drakakhrust in "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta": "The split has already taken place; differences between the rival groups are so significant that their leaders are not even sorry for their 'divorce.' Zyanon Paznyak openly announced on the eve of the congress that those who disagree with him should go. ...Now the struggle is focusing only on [who will inherit] the BNF 'trademark' and organizational structures. ...In this regard, the scoreless result of the congress means Zyanon Paznyak's indisputable defeat."

Stanislau Shushkevich, chairman of the Social Democratic Party and former chairman of the Supreme Soviet: "The movement is facing a split, Zyanon Paznyak has actually stopped being the BNF chairman. Still, I am shocked that they did not have enough come to a face-saving decision. They could make Vyachorka the BNF leader and Paznyak a honorary chairman, who from abroad would send his recommendations regarding the organization's activities."

Stanislau Bahdankevich, chairman of the United Civic Party and a former National Bank head: "I suspect that they have drawn a division line between the orthodox nationalists and that part of the BNF that realizes that once they lack sufficient support from the electorate, they need to look for a broad coalition to win future elections."

The split over the leadership of the BNF suggests two differing visions for the movement's future activities. Vyachorka is seen as a political technocrat who is open to dialogue with other opposition parties and the Lukashenka regime. "We should win in real elections, not in virtual reality," he told the congress, referring to the shadow presidential elections held by the opposition in May. During the congress, Vyachorka proposed to broaden the social base of the BNF by developing close cooperation with Belarusian NGOs, independent trade unions, and human rights organizations.

Paznyak, meanwhile, appears to be more of a prophet who is primarily concerned about the ideological purity of his followers. His comment during the May shadow elections that his rival, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir, is a fake oppositionist sponsored by Moscow caused embarrassment and indignation among many BNF activists. Shortly after, Paznyak's deputy, Yury Khadyka, publicly apologized to Chyhir.

In a message read at the congress, Paznyak proposed that the BNF launch two campaigns: one for electing a Civic Parliament (a kind of "virtual" legislature in Belarus), another for collecting signatures in support of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's dismissal. His opponents argued that there is no need for yet another opposition legislature--one that would be in addition to the already existing Supreme Soviet. They also stressed that the BNF should focus its efforts on the parliamentary elections next year. With regard to this effort, which will require negotiations with the ruling regime, Paznyak remained silent.

'Street Television' Starts At Dusk. "Fakty" reported on 6 August that Ukraine has recently seen the advent of a new form of information technology--street television. Below is how the newspaper describes the new phenomenon:

"On a busy street, in a courtyard, or simply on a city square, [technicians] unfold a screen measuring two by three meters and install a television camera to project its 'picture' onto the screen. There are also loudspeakers nearby, allowing [people] (including those in neighboring buildings) to listen to what is said by participants in an open discussion. A man with the microphone essentially speaks to everybody standing nearby and, at the same time, can see himself on the screen. Naturally, there is also a moderator on an improvised rostrum. He asks questions and often speaks on his own behalf. However, all this does not resemble an ordinary interview or a well-directed show. On street television everything takes place in real time, the moderator provides impromptu answers to all questions and makes comments on participants' statements. As a rule, such meetings continue for three to four hours; they begin at dusk in order to make the footage visible on the screen. ...Sundry topics are discussed: Why is there no gasoline? What will our peacekeepers do in Kosova? Does Ukraine need health care reform? Will Kuchma be re-elected?"

"Fakty" described the phenomenon of street television as a "people's Internet," noting that movable rostrums with cameras and screens have been seen on the streets of Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipropetrovsk, and in Crimea. People pursuing the street television initiative told "Fakty" that they are going to become a "full-fledged business structure on the political and information market." Currently, they are taking advantage of the presidential election campaign for the purpose of self-publicity as well as to promote "direct democracy." They have not disclosed the source of their funding. "Fakty" suggested that the street television has a "pro-presidential orientation," but it did not elaborate on the issue.

"The shifty characters and swindlers who rule Poland ran after the Pope like mongrel dogs kissing his ring and tripped over themselves to see who could kiss it more times." -- Andrzej Lepper, leader of the radical farmers union Self-Defense, commenting on Pope John Paul II's June visit to the Polish parliament. Quoted by PAP on 8 August.

"I invite you to come [to Belarus] next year. You will see what democracy is, you will look at how we will conduct parliamentary elections." -- Alyaksandr Lukashenka speaking to Russian journalists on 4 August.

"Nobody wants to see a new geopolitical formation that will be a center of a new [political] force. It will be a center for countering both the Americans and Western Europe." -- Lukashenka addressing the issue of Belarusian-Russian Union quoted by Belarusian Television on 4 August.

"We have a large number of private enterprises. You know how they work and you also know that there are many unlawful relations [at such enterprises]. This is a fact. And what makes me particularly angry, [those relations concern] girls. He establishes such relations so that she simply becomes his slave. That won't work. I have signed a decree under which he, that private businessman, should conclude a contract with his employee and act in accordance with the law and our moral norms, our morality, our Christian values. If this does not happen, we will simply break his neck." -- Lukashenka on Belarusian Television on 5 August, commenting on his recent decree on discipline at the work place.

"Recently you [President Leonid Kuchma] have repeatedly underscored in your addresses that Ukraine has finally embarked on the path of stabilization. And that there has been a growth trend in [Ukraine's] GDP. In particular, you stated this proudly on 13 July, at an [annual] meeting of Ukrainian officers. However, one day later, at a session of the Cabinet of Ministers, you had to agree with Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tyhypko, who announced exactly on 13 July that Ukraine is on the verge of economic collapse. So, in your opinion, has the country seen a trend toward stabilization or economic collapse? Or, perhaps, toward both phenomena simultaneously?" -- Parliamentary deputy Anatoliy Matviyenko, head of the All-Ukrainian Association "Open Politics," in the 4 August "Den."

"When one group of poor people joins another group of poor people, they do not become richer together." -- Leonid Kuchma on the Belarusian-Russian Union in the 4 August "Argumenty i fakty."