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RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team
PARLIAMENTARY COMMISSION PROBES 'RYWINGATE.' On 8 February, the ad hoc parliamentary commission to investigate allegations that film producer Lew Rywin tried to solicit a bribe of $17.5 million on behalf of Prime Minister Leszek Miller (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 14 January 2003) began its first public interrogations in the case now known in the Polish media as "Rywingate." The first person questioned by the commission was "Gazeta Wyborcza" Editor in Chief Adam Michnik, who on 27 December 2002 published his secretly taped conversation with Rywin in which the latter, claiming to have support from a "group of people in power," offered to lobby the government for a favorable media law that would allow Agora S.A., the newspaper's publisher, to buy the private Polsat television.
The public interrogation of Michnik, according to Polish commentators, has added little substance to what was already known from the publication of "Gazeta Wyborcza" in December. Michnik offered three hypotheses to the commission as to why he was approached by Rywin with the bribe proposal. First, Rywin could have acted on behalf of a "group in power" that actually wanted to obtain a bribe. Second, Rywin could have acted on behalf of a "group in power," but his true intention was not getting a bribe but compromising "Gazeta Wyborcza" and Agora through involving them in a corruption case. Third, Rywin could have acted completely on his own to get a large sum of money from Agora.
Michnik reaffirmed that he believes Prime Minister Miller to be absolutely innocent in this case. "I have not the slightest doubt...that Mr. Lew Rywin used Premier Leszek Miller's name in a mendacious and criminal way, without being empowered to do this," Michnik stressed. "I don't understand why this case has continued for so long. More and more often, I come to the conclusion that Lew Rywin has mighty defenders and protectors who are doing everything to sink this case," he noted.
Premier Miller said last week that he never told Michnik to hush up Rywin's alleged bribery attempt, which reportedly took place in July and was publicized only in December. "No, never," Miller said in a response to the question of whether he ever pressured Michnik. "After all, I was convinced that a report would be written, because Adam Michnik told me about it, saying that his team would carry out a journalistic investigation and that, after that, the findings would be made public," Miller added. Michnik explained the delay in reporting on Rywingate with his reluctance to stir up a political scandal in the country during the time when Miller was negotiating the final conditions for Poland's entry to the European Union.
Michnik suggested during his interrogation that Polish Television chief Robert Kwiatkowski and Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, a member of the National Radio and Television Council -- who were mentioned by Rywin as the people behind his bribe offer -- had plans to privatize the second channel of the public Polish Television and might have been interested in eliminating Agora as a potential buyer through embroiling it in a bribery scandal.
On 10 February, the parliamentary investigation commission called for the suspension of Kwiatkowski and asked the prosecution for the right to look into Kwiatkowski's phone bills. "In light of certain facts uncovered in the course of the commission's work...and doubts as to the public television station's objectiveness in covering its sittings, as well as Mr. Kwiatkowski's use of public television to disseminate his private views, the commission believes Mr. Kwiatkowski should be suspended from his functions until [the commission] has completed its work," the commission said in a statement. The Polish Television Supervisory Board, which has the authority to suspend or sack Kwiatkowski, voted on 14 February to leave him in his post. (Jan Maksymiuk)
MOSCOW MAY SOON ACQUIRE BELARUSIAN GAS NETWORK. After months of friction, Belarus is moving to let Russia take over its gas network even sooner than Moscow originally demanded. Earlier this month, unidentified Belarusian officials told the Interfax news agency that the government will turn the state gas firm Beltranshaz into an open joint-stock company before 1 April. The privatization next month could effectively allow neighboring Russia's natural-gas monopoly Gazprom to gain control even earlier than the 1 July target date agreed to in December.
The speedup seems to be part of a remarkable recovery in relations, which fell apart in a fury last August after President Lukashenka blasted President Vladimir Putin's proposal to unify the countries' currencies at the start of next year. The union treaty calls for the monetary merger to take place in January 2004, which has now been reaffirmed as the date for adopting the Russian ruble in Belarus.
Lukashenka never fully explained the reasons for his outburst, although he apparently hopes to have influence over the "emissive center," or, in other words, the central bank that will print the currency. In order to secure a reasonable deal on converting its currency into Russian rubles, Belarus needs more time to bring its annual inflation rate of 34.8 percent into line with Russia's rate of 15.1 percent last year. In dollar terms, the Belarusian ruble is worth about one-sixtieth of its Russian counterpart.
The fight over currency coincided with a conflict over Russia's heavily subsidized gas exports to Belarus, which Gazprom cut by half in October and threatened to stop altogether due to nonpayment of debts. Both problems were resolved during fence-mending meetings in Moscow in November, resulting in very little payment by Belarus but a promise to privatize Beltranshaz by July in response to Russia's demands. The decision was confirmed during Putin's visit to Minsk last month.
The network will be a prize for Gazprom as it seeks to extend its reach beyond Russia and to restore its control over all former Soviet export routes to Europe. A parallel process is occurring in Ukraine, where President Leonid Kuchma has agreed, after much resistance, to set up an international consortium with Russia as an equal partner to manage its transit lines. As with the Belarusian currency issue, the terms of who will control the consortium have been kept ambiguous.
But Lukashenka's decision to convert Beltranshaz into a joint-stock company ahead of schedule may not be unrelated to Gazprom's breakthrough with Kuchma in Ukraine. Interfax quoted a government resolution as saying that the decision to privatize the company "was made in the interests of attracting investments for developing the country's gas-transport system." The consortium in Ukraine is also seeking investment capital to renew the country's aging transit lines.
What began as reluctance may have turned into a race to see which country will allow Gazprom in first. While Ukraine has carried up to 90 percent of Russia's gas traffic to Europe, Belarus could gain a greater share, along with an assurance of subsidized gas for years to come.
Earlier this month, Interfax reported that Russia's new Yamal Peninsula pipeline will open in Belarus in mid-2003, allowing shipments through Poland to Germany. Like Ukraine, Belarus may well seek a face-saving formula to avoid the impression of a Russian takeover of its gas system. Lukashenka has shown little liking for privatizing large state enterprises in the past.
Simultaneously, Belarusian officials denied that the government would trade interest in Beltranshaz for what it claimed was $130 million in gas debts. But the effect may be much the same if Gazprom acquires the firm and eventually pays itself. The government has estimated the company's basic assets at 600 billion Belarusian rubles ($306.6 million), plus 85 billion rubles for distribution and storage facilities.
Beginning this month, Gazprom has demanded that all gas payments from Belarus be made in cash, while the independent gas trader Itera has required 30 percent advance payment for deliveries, RBC News reported. Belarus was said to owe $226 million at the start of the year for imported fuel.
Both Belarus and Ukraine have become more open to Russia's suggestions on gas transit and share ownership since Gazprom pressed plans to build a North European pipeline project across the Baltic Sea. The $5.3 billion underwater line would link Russia directly with Germany, the Netherlands, and eventually Great Britain.
While such a project seemed unlikely when it was first proposed more than a year ago, Russia's experience with the recently opened Blue Stream gas line across the Black Sea to Turkey may make the plan seem more feasible now.
WILL KUCHMA BE GIVEN 'AMNESTY'? In its 8-14 February edition, "Zerkalo nedeli" reviewed the draft bill "On Social and Legal Guarantees for the President of Ukraine after the Termination of [Presidential] Powers" that was recently registered with the Verkhovna Rada by lawmaker Serhiy Kivalov, whom the daily called a "man from the presidential entourage." Kivalov leads the Sea Party of Ukraine and is the rector of the Odesa State Juridical Academy.
The draft bill, which reportedly consists of nine articles, proposes that the state should provide retired presidents with a dacha, car, bodyguards, the right to medical treatment in governmental health centers, and a monthly pension equal to 80 percent of the president's average monthly salary.
Article 7 of the draft, titled "The Right for Tax Amnesty," reportedly reads: "The president of Ukraine has the right to tax amnesty that will result in freeing the taxpayer from financial, administrative, and criminal responsibility for evading the payment of taxes and failing to declare incomes and hard-currency funds [, as well as] movable and immovable property located both in Ukraine and outside its borders. The president of Ukraine...shall submit a declaration to the State Tax Administration of Ukraine with information about funds and objects of tax amnesty that will be taken as a taxation basis for calculating tax obligations for future periods. The information contained in the declaration of incomes subject to amnesty is state property [sic!] and may not be made public." This article also stipulates that the right to tax amnesty does not extend to assets defined as illegal by the 1997 international convention on money laundering and that such a right may be granted to the president only once.
"Zerkalo nedeli" commented that giving immunity to President Kuchma and his capital is not a bad idea, since Kuchma might have abandoned his purported plans to install a successor that could provide him with such immunity in the future. Thus, the weekly concluded, Ukraine would have a chance of holding a free and democratic presidential election. However, the weekly also quoted the results of a recent poll by the Oleksandr Razumkov Center for Political and Economic Studies, according to which more than 81 percent of respondents are against passing a law that would give Kuchma immunity from criminal prosecution after the conclusion of his presidential tenure.
It is noteworthy that Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, who visited Washington in early February and met with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a number of U.S. congressmen, commented last week that the question of guarantees for Kuchma after his departure from the presidential post "cannot be sidestepped," according to the Our Ukraine press service. Yushchenko said the goal of such guarantees would be to "return Ukraine to a path of democratic development."
"Most likely, it is necessary to make a political decision on guarantees for the president in order to prevent the past from obscuring [our] attention to the future," Yushchenko said. "I agree that this topic is becoming more and more urgent. The general background on the eve of the presidential election [in 2004] is certainly comprehensible -- everybody is tired on both sides and waiting for changes."
The weekly "Grani," which is linked to the Socialist Party of Oleksandr Moroz, made more far-reaching conclusions on 17 February by suggesting that the issue of "amnesty" for Kuchma upon his departure -- not only with regard to his purportedly undeclared capital but also to other issues, including the Kolchuga scandal and the killing of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze -- might have been raised initially by Washington, which is reportedly interested in drawing Ukraine into an anti-Iraq coalition, especially in view of the current opposition of Germany, France, and Russia to U.S. military action against Baghdad.
To support its conclusions, "Grani" pointed to the recent change of Kuchma's tone with regard to the Iraq problem. The weekly stressed that in a joint statement after last week's meeting between Kuchma and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2003) both politicians said they are going "to take specific measures to resolve the Iraq crisis." The weekly quoted Kuchma's statement last week about Ukraine's readiness to provide a chemical-protection battalion for a possible United Nations-sanctioned mission "on the territory of countries neighboring Iraq."
"Grani" also noted that U.S. officials have recently fallen silent on the two issues that not so long ago seemed to be of utmost importance for Washington in its relations with the official Kyiv: the Kolchuga sale allegations and the investigation into the death of Gongadze. According to the weekly, the new geopolitical expediency has forced Washington to put these issues in a box and seek "amnesty" for Kuchma for any unseemly deeds that he may have done or authorized.
It is also strange, "Grani" opined, that the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) withdrew its call for international financial sanctions against Ukraine just two months after it was officially voiced. "Grani" said no serious measures could be taken by international financial institutions within this time to discover whether Ukrainian banks and individuals were actually involved in money-laundering operations, let alone to prevent them. According to the Ukrainian weekly, the FATF withdrew its recommendation of sanctions against Ukraine under pressure from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which is reportedly seeking to repair relations with Kuchma in the face of the Iraq crisis.
"Grani" concluded its article on "amnesty" for Kuchma with a half-mocking and half-serious assertion that now, given this new turn in U.S. policies vis-a-vis Kuchma, the Ukrainian president will not need any legislative "amnesties" and guarantees of immunity because he can easily provide for such guarantees himself by arranging his re-election for a third term. (Jan Maksymiuk)
"RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by "RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed every Tuesday.
FATF LIFTS UKRAINE SANCTIONS
The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF) announced in a 14 February press release on the organization's website (http://www1.oecd.org/fatf/) that it has "decided to withdraw the application of additional countermeasures with respect to Ukraine as a result of the recent enactment by Ukraine of comprehensive anti-money-laundering legislation." Although Ukraine will remain on FATF's "blacklist" of noncooperating countries until it has "effectively implemented" the new legislation, the decision lifts onerous sanctions that could have left Ukraine in a state of financial isolation. FATF imposed the additional sanctions on 20 December. On 6 February, the Ukrainian parliament passed a new law to combat money laundering, "Kommersant" reported on 15 February, and imposed strict criminal penalties for attempting to legalize ill-gotten gains. DK
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT WANTS BROAD COOPERATION WITH U.S.. President Leonid Kuchma on 17 February met with U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, UNIAN reported, quoting the presidential press service. The meeting marked the first time that the U.S. ambassador has met with Kuchma since the Kolchuga allegations surfaced (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 April and 10 May 2002). "We are interested in broad cooperation with the United States," Kuchma said. "The program of our cooperation is undergoing changes -- it has become more realistic," he added. "Ukraine is extremely worried about the situation around Iraq. We understand that there are serious reasons to suspect the Iraqi regime of hiding mass-destruction weapons," Kuchma noted. "Ukraine is ready to take part in a UN mission on the territory of countries neighboring Iraq by assigning to the UN authority an antichemical, antibacteriological, and antinuclear battalion," the Ukrainian leader pledged. Some Ukrainian media have suggested that Kuchma recently adopted a more pro-Washington stance with regard to Iraq (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 18 February 2003). JM
UKRAINIAN LEFTISTS PROTEST POSSIBLE U.S. WAR ON IRAQ. Some 1,500 Kyiv residents on 15 February took part in a "March for Peace" organized by the Progressive Social Party of Ukraine, the Communist Party of Ukraine, the Green Party, the Russian Bloc, and other groups to protest a possible U.S. military action in Iraq, Interfax reported. Some 300 people held a similar protest in Simferopol the same day. JM
TRANSDNIESTER LEADER READY TO NEGOTIATE ON NEW MOLDOVAN CONSTITUTION. Separatist leader Igor Smirnov said on 14 February in reaction to Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin's proposal that the two sides work jointly on developing a federal constitution for Moldova that Transdniester is "open to a dialogue among equals," RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau and international news agencies reported. Smirnov also criticized Voronin, accusing him of having broken off the negotiations in 2001 "on invented pretexts," and adding that Voronin had to be forced back to the negotiating table by the efforts of the three mediators -- the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine -- which he said realized that federalization is "the only realistic solution" for a conflict settlement. Smirnov said Voronin's proposal signals that "the Moldovan government is giving up its former ambitions." Reacting to Smirnov's statement, Voronin said on 14 February that Tiraspol's sincerity will be proven if and when it signs the document that would start the process proposed by Voronin. OSCE mission chief to Moldova William Hill, who brought Smirnov's response from Chisinau, said that despite the criticism and the "disputable statements" it included, Tiraspol's reaction was "positive on the whole," Infotag reported. MS