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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 28, 1999

28 September 1999, Volume 1, Number 18
Premier Pledges To Make Life Easier And Safer. At a 22 September meeting of the ruling coalition, composed of Solidarity Electoral Action and the Freedom Union, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek presented the government's work plan for 2000-2001. That plan foresees no "large-scale changes" and stresses the need to complete and "sort out" the reforms that have been launched by his cabinet. Those reforms are in the administration, health care, pensions, and education sectors.

To fight Poland's 12 percent unemployment, the government pledges the creation of 280,000 jobs by 2002. To achieve that goal, it intends to stimulate the development of entrepreneurship as well as reduce corporate and personal income taxes. Employment opportunities are to be improved by using EU funds and implementing a special credit policy for those farmers who choose to seek jobs outside the agricultural sector.

Buzek promised to enhance public security by reforming the police force and tightening the Criminal Code. The government will set up a national center for criminal information and a central register of motor vehicles. It will also create the post of a financial inspector-general to combat illegal money transactions and money laundering.

Buzek's plan also repeated the government's intention to ensure that Poland joins the EU by 2002. The cabinet expects to obtain some 1.8 billion euro ($1.9 billion) from various EU funds to support Poland's preparation for union membership.

The document also envisages the introduction of various amendments to the health care and pension system reforms. And it is also expected that in the near future there will be changes in the cabinet lineup as well as a restructuring of ministries.

Buzek's plan for the next two years is in response to the growing public criticism of and disappointment with the government's performance. According to a recent poll by Center for the Study of Public Opinion (OPOB), 61 percent of respondents think that the situation in the country has taken a turn for the worse, while only 30 percent believe the situation is good.

"The problem is that this government is perceived as full of good ideas but is extremely deficient in putting them into practice," Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, head of the Public Affairs Institute, commented to Reuters.

Priest Decides Not To Join Post-Communist Party. Father Jaroslaw Wolski from Sosnowiec, a coal mining city in southern Poland, has withdrawn his application to join the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), a party of reformed Communists that has links to the Communist-era Polish United Workers Party. Father Wolski said the decision was his own personal one, Polish Radio reported on 20 September .

"I wanted to initiate the construction of something across the [political] divide. Ideologization does not do any good. The Church should be open. As one can see, the time has not yet come for such decisions," Father Wolski commented, referring to the withdrawal of his party membership application.

Sosnowiec Diocese Bishop Adam Smigielski on 21 September issued a "fatherly-pastoral reprimand" to Father Wolski, who, according to the Sosnowiec Bishop's Office, said "he does not belong to the SLD and regrets what has happened." Additionally, Smigielski said, Father Wolski will publicly apologize to Zaglebie (ed.: the name for the coal mining basin in which Sosnowiec is located) priests for saying to the "Super Express" nationwide daily that "many other priests in Zaglebie think like me, but they don't want to make their views public."

Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, former secretary-general of the Polish Episcopate, commented that it is out of the question for priests to belong to a political party since "it is a clear departure from the mission they are meant to fulfill."

Lukashenka Prefers Monologue. The OSCE-mediated talks between the authorities and the opposition in Belarus seem to be nearing an end even without having really begun. That, at least, is the perception of commentators in Belarus's independent press, based on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's 16 September meeting with the leaders of power ministries and law enforcement bodies and subsequent developments.

At that meeting, Lukashenka took advantage of the public anxiety that followed the blasts in Moscow and Volgodonsk, in southern Russia, by ordering his subordinates to take tough security measures to prevent terrorist attacks in Belarus. According to Lukashenka, Belarus faced a threat not from elements in Russia but from domestic "extremists" and "nationalists" who intend "to destabilize" the situation in Belarus.

In particular, Lukashenka ordered the border guards and customs officers to monitor the border so that "a mouse could not creep through it." He demanded that the authorities of Minsk and other cities identify venues where "all kinds of oppositionists and other scum" can hold demonstrations; protests in all other locations were to be banned.

Lukashenka demanded that within the next three days, the state-controlled media inform the public both at home and abroad where "Belarusian nationalists" find money "to destabilize" the situation in Belarus. And he also ordered his administration to close down those newspapers that "assail state officials" without good reason, pointing to an allegedly libelous article about State Security Secretary Viktar Sheyman in the opposition newspaper "Naviny."

The disappearance of opposition politician Viktar Hanchar several hours after the 16 September meeting is seen as an ominous indication of how the situation may develop in Belarus as a result of Lukashenka's instructions. As deputy chairman of the opposition Supreme Soviet and organizer of the alternative presidential elections in May, Hanchar fell into the category of domestic "extremists." The opposition regard Hanchar's disappearance as a kidnapping organized by the authorities to intimidate political opponents of the current regime. Hanchar was to have presided over a Supreme Soviet session on 19 September at which the opposition delegation to the talks with the authorities was to have been approved.

Shortly after Hanchar's disappearance, law officers seized property belonging to "Naviny" and the author of the allegedly defamatory article about Sheyman, without waiting for a court order. Sheyman duly filed suit against "Naviny," demanding exorbitant damages (under Belarusian economic conditions) totaling 15 billion Belarusian rubles ($52,000).Two days later, a Minsk court ruled in Sheyman's favor. "Naviny", which turns a monthly profit of some $2,700, now faces closure.

Western ambassadors to Minsk who expressed their concern over Hanchar's disappearance met with Lukashenka's response that they should look for Hanchar in the West before alluding to any sinister goings-on in Belarus. Echoing a high-ranking official in the presidential administration, official media said Hanchar staged his disappearance in order to gain more publicity. But as protests have increased around the globe, Minsk has launched an investigation into both Hanchar's disappearance and that of former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka in May.

The latest developments in Belarus highlight some unanswered questions about Lukashenka's regime and the attitude of Western democracies toward it.

First, was Lukashenka's declaration to enter into a dialogue with the opposition really sincere? Or was he perhaps acting on a political calculation--as some Belarusian commentators suggest--to "simulate" negotiations in order to gain legitimacy for himself and his government in the West? "I have few illusions that we will be able to conduct talks with Lukashenka. He prefers to give endless monologues," Stanislau Bahdankevich, head of the opposition United Civic Party, noted in mid-August. Judging from developments since then, Bahdankevich was right.

Second, has the OSCE--the proponent of political dialogue in Belarus--any leverage to make that dialogue happen? The answer again appears to be "no." Lukashenka's regime has not created any conditions for a "favorable political climate," as requested by the Belarusian opposition ahead of the OSCE-mediated talks. Those conditions included access to the state-run media for the opposition and the release of former Premier Mikhail Chyhir and other political prisoners. In fact, the political climate in Belarus has become even more oppressive than was the case before the preparations for the dialogue began.

Third, what should be done by the West to promote democracy in Belarus, which is overtly defying Western political and moral values? Belarus offers embarrassing and puzzling proof of a regime in Europe that suppresses political opponents and tramples on human rights while enjoying a substantial measure of popular support and remaining virtually unpunished in the international arena.

In this context, any Western response to Lukashenka's latest challenge will reflect not only the measure of his credibility in the international arena. It will also attest to the West's commitment to promoting democracy where it is so sadly lacking and so desperately needed.

Parliament Versus Government: Nobody Wants To Back Down. The Supreme Council on 22-23 September devoted its plenary sitting to mulling relations between the parliament and the government. Two resolutions and one statement were approved. One of the resolutions calls on the Central Electoral Commission to ban Leonid Kuchma from seeking re-election as president because of his alleged violations of the presidential election law. The other resolution postponed the so-called "government's day" at the parliament--initially planned for 22 September--until 12 October. And the statement accused Kuchma of seeking to install a dictatorship and claimed the government is transforming itself into Kuchma's "campaign headquarters." All these moves testify to the continuing war between the legislature and the executive. And it appears that the state-run media is playing a dominant role in that battle.

Lawmakers postponed the "government's day" because public radio and television refused to broadcast the session live. The government has rejected live coverage of any parliamentary sittings during the presidential campaign, arguing that those deputies who are participating in the presidential race as hopefuls (there are 13 in all) will use such coverage to promote their election programs instead of dealing with legislative matters. According to that argument, every candidate has an equal chance of conducting his/her election campaign in the state-run media in accordance with the quotas determined by the Central Electoral Commission.

The parliament argued that a live relay is necessary in order to inform the people what the government is doing to take care of them: cabinet ministers were to have reported on how wage and pensions arrears will be paid. It is unclear who personally took the decision not to broadcast the parliamentary session this time. According to "Den," which supports former Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk's presidential bid, National Television and Radio Company President Vadym Dolhanov blamed Oleksandr Savenko, head of the State Committee for Radio and Television, for the decision. Savenko, for his part, pointed to Premier Valeriy Pustovoytenko. And Pustovoytenko said that parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko has remarked "he is not the first person [in Ukraine], but neither he is the second, so let him resolve this problem."

Commenting on the lack of live relays from the parliament, Hryhoriy Omelchenko, an independent deputy, told "Den" that the "mafia and clans that are in power today are afraid of the people, they are afraid of telling the truth to the people. They are guided by an animal instinct of self-protection. The Ukrainian state is sliding toward a dictatorship of criminal clans. The authoritarian regime has begun an assault on the last islet of the freedom of expression--the parliament."

Regardless of whether Omelchenko is right, such strong-worded statements by individual deputies and by the legislature as a whole reflect the growing frustration of lawmakers as election day looms and Kuchma appears to be leading in the presidential race.

Harassment Of Independent Television Deplored. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending press freedom around the world, has sent a letter urging Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to stop state officials from engaging in politically motivated abuse of press laws and, in particular, from interfering in the work of the independent STB Television. Unlike state-owned television, the letter noted, STB has granted air time to Kuchma's political opponents.

According to the committee, STB has endured repeated "hostile inspections" by nine government agencies. On 26 August, tax officials froze STB's bank accounts, claiming the station had failed to submit tax documents on time. STB argued that it could not comply with the request because many of the required documents had been seized by the State Radio and Television Committee, which is also investigating STB.

As a result, STB has been forced to suspend production of a new program on Ukraine's parliament, which serves as a forum for 13 presidential candidates. It also may be forced to lay off some or all of its 3,000 employees and stop broadcasting if it is unable to pay for transmission services in September.

"Media that provide favorable coverage of your excellency's activities are not subjected to the hostile bureaucratic scrutiny suffered by media that do not," the committee says in a letter to President Kuchma signed by CPJ Executive Director Ann K. Cooper.

"We did not race to Moscow with declarations of loyalty and of serving the then Soviet interests here in Poland. So today, too, we Peasant Party people will not race and are not racing with declarations of loyalty and of serving the interests of either Brussels or Washington." -- 97-year-old General Franciszek Kaminski, the commander of Poland's Peasant Battalions during the Nazi occupation, now honorary chairman of the Polish Peasant Party. Quoted by Polish Radio on 21 September.

"I want to give you my opinion in connection with the fact that there have been some vacillations, some intellectual ferment not only among the intelligentsia but also among state officials--who say, 'Oh!, it is necessary to change our course, Oh!, it is necessary to immediately return to shock therapy and privatization.' No, and once again--no! To rush about from side to side means to lose face, to ruin what we have today. We have already experienced that, we do not need to return to that, we must not lose heart--we need to see reality. We cannot introduce 100 percent paid health care, we cannot introduce paid education. Just think: Who today will be able to pay to visit clinics and hospitals, attend schools and higher educational institutions? Only 5 percent of the population. What about the others? Will the situation return to that in western Belarus under [pre-1939] Poland? There will be no departure from the determined policy, which has been implemented during the past five years." -- Lukashenka on 18 September, quoted by Belarusian Television.

"Unfortunately, in all the hysteria prompted by both the Russian and U.S. press, little attention was paid--for an understandable reason--to the main reason behind [the eviction of U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Daniel Speckhard from the Drazdy housing compound in June 1998]. In essence, it was a rather banal spying scandal, connected with eavesdropping on Alyaksandr Lukashenka's residence, which was located several dozen meters away from the U.S. ambassador's dacha. That this was exactly the case, one could see from all the maneuvers of the U.S. ambassador and the State Department, which were characterized by an evident unwillingness to leave that inconspicuous compound. However, as testified by practice, all spying scandals end when both sides deem it necessary for them to end.... Judging by all appearances, the long-awaited return [of Speckhard to Minsk] also has its purely practical side. The point is that this fall Belarus is short of a large amount of grain--it harvested approximately one-third of the necessary amount. According to preliminary estimates, around 3 million tons should be purchased abroad. Russia cannot help, we have had a bad harvest, too. Kazakhstan, Belarus's traditional partner, cannot help, either: there was an unprecedented invasion of locusts on [Kazakhstan's] steppe lands, so there is no surplus grain. The only countries left are the U.S. and Canada. Naturally, in order to strike this [grain] deal, the presence of the ambassador is simply essential." -- "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 21 September.

"On 16 September in Minsk, someone kidnapped my husband, Viktar Hanchar--a prominent Belarusian opposition leader and acting chairman of the Supreme Soviet--and his friend Anatol Krasouski.... It is no secret to anybody that the criminal regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka is behind this kidnapping. I address you with a request to intervene and help stop terror in Belarus, as well as to help reveal what happened to my husband. Today, when Russia is negotiating with Lukashenka, you must remember--the hands of the Belarusian dictator are [covered] in blood." -- Zinaida Hanchar in a letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin; quoted by Belapan on 23 September.

"Someone once said: 'Everything is within our power if all people in power are ours!' This is about Leonid Kuchma's presidential team! For instance, on a single day in Ukraine, the president bestowed the rank of general on 137 people by virtue of his edict. You know, even during the world wars, following brilliant strategic victories, satraps of totalitarian states did not take such liberties! The invasion of dilettantes in the entire executive branch is a serious threat to Ukrainian democracy and statehood." -- General Yevhen Marchuk, former prime minister and a presidential hopeful. Quoted in the 21 September "Nezavisimaya gazeta."