In the final installment of the pornography bill saga the Sejm, as expected, failed to rustle-up the 254 votes needed to overturn President Aleksander Kwaśniewski's veto on a law that intended to ban the sale and distribution of all pornography in Poland. Most of the 214 deputies who opposed the presidential veto came from ruling coalition partner AWS (Solidarity Electoral Action), the opposition PPL (Polish Peasant Party) and assorted right-wing groups. Supporting the veto were 202 deputies from the opposition SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) and junior coalition member UW (Freedom Union).
However, at least AWS deputy Stefan Niesiolowski feels that he will sleep the sound sleep of the just and pure as he told Gazeta Wyborcza that "We have won morally. The wretchedness, baseness, meanness, and hypocrisy of the [presidential chief lawyer] Kalisz-Kwaśniewski duo has been exposed in its entirety... [Kalisz] is a pornominister who is ideally suited to the pornopresident... We have an alliance of two pornographic gluttons."
The split over the pornography bill was not the only sign of the increasing distance and tensions within the AWS-UW coalition this week. The Lower House of Parliament approved zero rated VAT (value-added tax) on agricultural products instead of the three per cent tax the coalitions had proposed. But the clincher was that 26 deputies from the AWS voted with the opposition against their own party to change the cabinet bill. Agricultural produce was not previously subject to VAT and the zero-percent rate will now allow farmers to reclaim VAT on articles used for production. Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz told journalists that the result of the voting "clearly makes Polish tax laws worse.
It sets us back in terms of European Union standards and will weaken public finances if it eventually passes the upper house." The Finance Ministry has determined that the zero-percent VAT rate on is going to cost the state budget PLZ 1.3 billion (USD 289 million) next year. The ministry further warned that "this outcome will invite abuse, goes against European Union regulations and the position taken by Poland in EU entry talks and will significantly cut budget revenues." AWS spokesman Piotr Zak said the party would persist with their three per cent rate proposal once the Senate is asked to review it. Zak said: "this law with a three-percent VAT will pass through the Senate, but we have to make some minimal gesture of good will towards the peasants." The gestures could include substantial fuel subsidies for farmers and possibly concessions for the sugar-producers' lobby during the upcoming privatisation of sugar refineries.
In a further comment Balcerowicz, who made the three-percent VAT on agriculture a condition of introducing tax breaks for families with many children - a promise that had been made by the AWS under its pro-family election slogans - said there was "No way" the breaks would go through if Senate passed the VAT as is. The zero-rate VAT will also, according to analysts, make it more difficult for Balcerowicz to put together the tight 2001 budget which Poland needs to avoid a currency crisis amid a fast growing current account deficit. He warned that unless unpopular changes continued unemployment, which rose to a three-year high of 13.9 per cent in February, would remain high.
Fiscal policy has to be tightened and labour laws liberalised rather than increasing state spending as the opposition is demanding. "We can not simply turn on the printing press and increase deficit spending... It has not worked anywhere else in the world and will not do so in Poland," Balcerowicz told the Sejm. "We need a different direction, one which is meeting barriers here in this chamber. We need to make public finances healthy... speed up, not slow down, privatisation," he said. In an unusually emotional tone he went on to tell the deputies: "It seems we are idealising Communism, when loss-making industries were the backbone of our economy. By God, how can they modernise when they continue to be in the red? To do so they need profits... We hear a loud chorus criticising the separation of the economy from politics. Have we learned nothing from the past?... Do you want to have honest, straightforward discussions, or to increase your own popularity through black propaganda against your own country?" Ouch.
UW spokesman, Andrzej Potocki, was apparently not impressed with the results of the tax voting either, when he stormed that "the zero-rate tax completely ruins fiscal policy. We will somehow have to put the budget together, but we realise that we can no longer count on Prime Minister Jerzy Bużek or the AWS." And senior AWS politician Stefan Niesiolowski, also obviously unimpressed, was quoted by PAP as saying that those deputies who broke party ranks "are brawlers, whom we cannot throw out of our parliamentary caucus, because we would lose our majority." And the fun will continue as the ruling coalition limps toward the elections next year, elections that might finally put it out of its misery if it doesn't manage to implode in the interim.
Inevitably, more on the European Union and the trudging accession talks this week as President Kwaśniewski reiterated that Poland would be ready to join the EU in 2003. He told the French daily Le Figaro that: "Poland will be ready to join the EU at the end of 2002. We hope the Union will be ready too so that 2003 can be the year of enlargement... Poland is very conscious that it has clear obligations in the framework of [the] Schengen [agreement]," he said. "We want to fulfil them, but we can't create a new curtain on the eastern border of our country." On his part French President Jacques Chirac assured Kwaśniewski of France's "unreserved support" for Poland's goal to attain EU membership in 2003. According to Chirac, it is a "perfectly realistic" date for Poland's EU accession. "The determination with which President Chirac spoke about France's tasks in reforming the EU makes me believe that the best time for enlargement would be 2003, when France will be chairing the union," Perhaps Poland's francophile streak is finally going to pay off.
In a rare bright moment of harmony and concord the Sejm voted 379 to eight, with 17 abstentions, to approve Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek's annual report on foreign policy. Geremek, who had presented his report the preceding day, told the deputies that the basic goal of Poland's foreign policy over the next few years is to gain full EU membership. Though this hardly comes as a surprise a little consensus is nice to see. He stated that "the horizon determining our actions is the date of 1 January 2003 as the day [on which we will be ready] for [EU] membership, and we hope to get that membership."
Geremek also noted that putting off entry after that date would be unfavourable for all parties concerned. He said (rather optimistically) "we expect the process of reforming EU institutions, on which its enlargement to include the countries of central Europe depends, to end in December 2000." Commenting on the still-rocky Polish-Russian relations, Geremek stated that removing the historical burden "is a task still to be fulfilled." Adding that "the situation in Belarus is a potential challenge to regional stability." On a more positive note he noted: "we are actively involved in implementing the strategic partnership with Ukraine" and pledged once again that Poland will back Kyiv's transformations and reforms oriented toward creating "a stable, pro-European, and sovereign Ukraine."
The SLD leader had to add to his wet-blanket comments to the festivities and argued that it was the government's "ineptitude, quarrels about competencies, and various ideological phobias" that were slowing down accession talks with the EU. Commenting on relations with Russia he also criticised the government for "mistakes" in its policy. Alluding to the spy fiasco earlier this year which resulted in the expulsion of nine Russian diplomats Miller said that "during the past year we had to ask ourselves who manages Poland's foreign policy-- Minister for Special Services Janusz Palubicki or Minister Geremek." He went on to ask: "Have we tried to expand our contacts [as well as] economic, scientific, cultural, and trade cooperation [with Russia]? No. Positive actions are more and more often replaced by the demonstration of aversion and megalomaniac superiority."
This time they're serious... or at least they've formed a committee to talk about it. Working together with the World Bank, the Polish government set up a task force to develop laws to tackle growing corruption in state institutions. Earlier this year the World Bank concluded that Poland had a serious corruption problem at all levels of public administration, that Polish laws allow manipulation of privatisation deals and irregularities in awarding state contracts, operating licences and tax exemptions and needed to curb such problems in parliament, ministries and local authorities. Balcerowicz asserted that "this task force is an accelerated progress of our previous work... In our fight with corruption, pressure must be put on prevention and on blocking laws that promote corruption... There must be transparency for example in the health funds which deal with large sums of tax payers' money," he said. No doubt the quick pace and urgency of these reforms has been the fall-out from the social reforms introduced last year and pressure to begin large-scale privatisation reforms.
Deputy Economy Minister Jan Szlazak resigned this week in a dispute over reform of the ailing mining industry. He told a news conference that, "among other things, it's about the tax offices' actions against the mining firms. Already 41 mining managers are being prosecuted for breach of the tax law. These are things which make work impossible." Data released by the economy ministry paint a rather grim picture showing that in the first quarter of the year the mining sector paid only 49.2 per cent of the taxes it owed the Social Security Office, 83.9 per cent of income tax and 41.4 per cent VAT. The sector's debts amounted to PLZ 20.6 billion (USD 4.65 billion). High overheads coupled with a falling demand for coal doesn't make managers' jobs very easy and they often have to choose between paying taxes or paying wages.
At least the tax-man doesn't usually carry a pick. Balcerowicz has remained unmoved and vowed that "as long as I am in charge of tax offices, that's the way it's going to be [ie no breaks on non-payment of taxes] We cannot have some people being more equal than others." This didn't wash with the more sensitive Szlazak, who was previously a mining company manager, who said "such an approach hurts me very much. The managers of the companies do what they can and (as deputy economy minister) I was very demanding towards them."
Guilty conscience? Quite. Piotr Bykowski, former government adviser to Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak in the mid-1990s and chief of the now bankrupt Staropolski bank jumped from a court balcony after judges ordered a three-month detention on suspicion of fraud. He sustained non life-threatening injuries in the fall. Bykowki was being investigated for his role in the bank's bankruptcy, which went under in February after about PLZ 500 million (USD 113 million) were quietly transferred abroad. He was also one of Poland's wealthiest businessmen. "The prosecutors' probe concerns exceeding rights and failing to meet obligations on the part of Bank Staropolski's management," said Poznań prosecutor Andrzej Laskowski. The Security Service stopped Bykowski at the border as he was returning from Germany. The Service investigates large-scale fraud and organised crime.
Writer Andrzej Szczypiorski died, in Warsaw, on Tuesday. He was one of Poland's most famous contemporary writers and a vocal advocate of Polish-German reconciliation. Former speaker of the German parliament, Rita Suessmuth said "Szczypiorski was a great personality in the world of spirit and politics. He was a great friend of Germany." His more than 20 volumes of prose, including novels, stories and essays, mainly dealt with the crossroads of morality and politics. He supported the Solidarity movement in the 1980s and was arrested during martial law. After 1989 he held a seat in the Senate but quickly returned to writing essays expounding the values of tolerance and liberalism. No details were released regarding his illness. He was 76.
On a note completely opposite to these values of tolerance and liberalism Kazimierz Switon, who was responsible for erecting crosses next to Auschwitz, announced his presidential candidacy. At his press conference, also held at Oswiecim, Switon said his enlightened campaign slogan will be "Poland must be Poland for Poles." To achieve this noble goal he pledged to eliminate unemployment by expelling all foreign workers and halting privatisation. Gazeta Wyborcza columnist Ernest Skalski expressed his sound opinion at the announcement (one that will hopefully echoed by voters) saying "it's just one crazy, irresponsible person more that takes part in this race."
Joanna Rohozińska, 19 May 2000
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