The explosion hit last Sunday with the UW (Freedom Union), led by Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, voting to withdraw from the 30-month-old ruling coalition government where they played junior member to the AWS (Solidarity Electoral Action). According to Balcerowicz, UW members voted almost unanimously to withdraw, because the AWS "lost the trust of the UW" and was no longer effective in putting through necessary reforms. He went on to say that the UW "participated in [the] coalition because we believed it would put Poland in its rightful place in Europe and promote economic development. But right now we've reached a situation where we are governing only for governing's sake and not to implement good policies." Subsequent to this announcement, Balcerowicz, Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek, Defence Minister Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Justice Minister Hanna Suchocka, Transport Minister Tadeusz Syryjczyk and four deputy ministers announced their resignations. Prime Minister Jerzy Bużek refused to accept the resignations, calling them "irresponsible" and called to start immediate talks to rebuild the coalition.
Senior AWS leaders responded that they were ready to talk and expressed optimism that a deal could be struck. Of course, they could say little else since the other options are either to go on as a minority government or call early elections (regular elections are not due until 2001). The first option would leave the AWS vulnerable to no-confidence votes that would probably prompt elections anyway. And, if opinion polls are even partially correct, they would surely lose badly to the SLD (Democratic Left Alliance).
However, the immediate focus of the UW's anger is Prime Minister Jerzy Bużek. He has been charged with failing to effectively rein his party in - itself a tenuous coalition – as lately a number of AWS members have taken to voting against proposals made by their own party. Bużek has repeatedly made it clear that he would step down in order to save the coalition; his offer had been refused before but will more than likely be accepted this time. The AWS tried to pass the rather undesirable position on to Bogusław Grabowski, an experienced economist and member of the National Bank's Monetary Policy Council. Grabowski, despite Balcerowicz's praising him as a man with "strong, clear economic views, which are in line with Poland's needs," wanted nothing to do with it and declined the offer. AWS puppet master and presidential candidate Marian Krzaklewski has also been suggested for the role. AWS spokesman Piotr Zak told Reuters "I do not see any reason why Marian Krzaklewski could not be such a candidate." True enough. Krzaklewski has been acknowledged by both sides as being strong enough to pull the AWS in line but has so far remained mute. Surely weighing heavily on Krzaklewski’s mind is the knowledge that accepting this position would mean forfeiting his presidential bid, and the UW has made it clear that they would prefer someone else in the role. The AWS said they would announce Bużek's replacement on Monday (5 June).
This latest political spasm is a rather clever move on the part of the UW. Though they are the junior coalition member and do not have enough support to win an election, they (as a glance at the above list reveals) hold the power positions within the cabinet. This fact, combined with comments coming from anonymous EU officials in Brussels that they were watching the situation in Poland with concern and knowledge that a prolonged crisis would further delay reforms needed for EU accession and could destabilise Central Europe's largest economy, has effectively given the AWS little choice but to play by the UW’s rules.
Jacek Kucharczyk, an analyst at the private Institute for Public Affairs, commented that the "UW wanted to demonstrate it meant what it said when it threatened to quit, but they did not want to completely burn their bridges. Both sides need a deal but it's really far from certain that they can make one. Both parties know it is not in their interests to have early elections. That's the worst-case scenario for both of them."
A timeline of two weeks has been agreed upon to reach an understanding.
A surely gleeful Leszek Miller (leader of the opposition SLD) mentioned that the current crisis "holds Poland up to ridicule" at home and abroad and the best solution would be early parliamentary elections. He added that "it is time to consolidate a system in Poland under which the leader of a victorious party is charged with the task of forming a cabinet and heading it."
Elsewhere in the world President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, on a state visit to Israel, assured the Knesset that Poland is going to do everything possible to speed the process of restituting property lost by Jews during the Second World War. He added that Poland wants "to do everything that can be done by a state that lost half of its territory in the war, suffered great material destruction, and where thousands of Polish citizens were deprived of their property." Knesset speaker Avraham Burg noted that this very issue is a burden on Polish-Israeli relations.
A few days later, President Kwaśniewski met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in Rzeszow at a Polish-Ukrainian economic forum where he re-affirmed Poland’s support for Ukraine's European integration bid. "Europe will be free only if Ukraine becomes a member of the European structures, if it is allowed into European markets," Kwaśniewski stated. The leaders discussed ways to boost bilateral trade and investment as well as joint plans to construct an Odessa-Brody-Gdansk gas pipeline. Kwaśniewski also quashed rumours that Poland was supporting a project to construct the Yamal-Slovakia pipeline via Polish territory and bypassing Ukraine.
Anna Czerwinska, a 50-year-old Polish shopkeeper, has became the oldest woman to reach the top of Mount Everest. Ms Czerwinska, who owns handicraft shops in Warsaw, reached the 8850-metre summit on
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Trade unions threatened to paralyse the country with a strike at Poland's State Railways (PKP) to back demands for guaranteed social benefits during the restructuring of their debt-ridden company. The head of the engine drivers union, Jan Zaborowski, stated that if the union’s talks with the PKP management, scheduled for 5 June, "are unsuccessful we will stage a nationwide strike, possibly including all PKP workers." The PKP employs 190,000 workers and it is expected that approximately 50,000 will be dismissed over the next three years. The unions are demanding that parliament pass an emergency bill that would relieve PKP of part of its PZL 6.3 billion (USD 1.44 billion) debt, guarantee generous social benefits for workers who are laid off and earmark 15 per cent of PKP shares for free distribution among the company's employees. The bill has been stalled since September and in light of the current political situation, may be delayed further.
Joanna Rohozińska, 2 June 2000
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