Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999
C E N T R A L E U R O P E A
N N E W S:
Last Week in Poland
News from Poland since 25 September 1999
Compiled by Joanna Rohozinska and Donosy-English
All's well that ends well... so far at least. All the noise during the run-up to the demonstration that was held in Warsaw last Friday seemed rather premature, as the government ended up calling the demonstration a fiasco. Andrzej Lepper, head of Samoobrona (the farmers' union), had predicted that 100,000 protesters would descend on Warsaw calling for the resignation of the unpopular AWS-UW (Solidarity Election Action - Freedom Union) coalition government - and maybe even the head of Prime Minister Jerzy Burzek. Organisers were hoping that the demonstration would be the largest one to take place in post-Communist Poland. But, in the end, according to police reports, 30,000 people showed up. Despite the lower than anticipated turnout, Lepper told the press: "We demand the government change its policies, and if it refuses, we will paralyse the country with a nation-wide strike and force new elections." The summer saw numerous protests, demonstrations and even hunger strikes by a number of different labour organisations. The Friday march was the resumption of protest activities and brought nurses, arms industry workers, farmers and miners to the capital. All these sectors have been strongly affected by the reforms which the Burzek government has (misguidedly - according to these groups) introduced.
In all fairness, any mistakes that the government may have committed in the introduction of radical social reforms have certainly been magnified by the effects of a slowing economy and falling incomes in the countryside. The tight fiscal policies of Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz have done little to win the affections of farmers in poor farming communities or of the thousands of industrial workers forced out of work by the restructuring of heavy industries. For agricultural workers, still a solid 25 per cent of the labour force in Poland, there is the added dimension of accession to the European Union; many of them oppose the move on terms currently proposed. Brussels does not want to offer Polish farmers the subsidies EU farms currently receive.
The Gdansk Conference of Central European Conservatives (some have described them as right-wing) adopted an agreement on "common challenges and experiences" of right and centre-right parties. The two-day conference established a Secretariat of the Centre-Right Parties of Central Europe, to be seated in Warsaw, which is to co-operate closely with the American International Republican Institute, thus allowing these parties to distance themselves from the EU right-wing parties. The conference also laid the groundwork for a potential international coalition of conservative organisations. The conference participants also called for the establishment of a tribunal to judge crimes committed under the Communist regime - suggesting something akin to the Nuremberg trials which followed the Second World War.
Are Poles learning to be more tolerant? In a survey carried out on 4 to 10 August by CBOS polling centre on a representative sample of 1,030 adults, Poles were asked to describe their feelings toward Polish citizens of non-Polish origin. While the majority, ranging between 42 and 50 per cent, noted that they felt indifferent about the Czech, Slovak, Lithuanian, Russian, German, Belarusan, Jewish and Roma minorities in their midst, the poll found that they felt the most, 43 per cent, kinship with Czechs and the least, at 16 per cent, with both Jews and Roma. In terms of outright intolerance, the Russian (26 per cent), Ukrainian (33 per cent, Jewish (35 per cent) and Roma (39 per cent) communities ranked highest.
Prof Krzysztof Kwasniewski, a sociologist from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan and the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), stated that statements of indifference were normal and rational and indicated that people are beginning to understand the fallacy of stereotyping according to ethnic or nation affiliation. He went on to assert that nonetheless, "nationality may still be one of the most important factors in not just assessing, but rather defining co-citizens and people in general."
The Jagellonian University in Krakow announced the unfortunate theft of some rare and valuable manuscripts this week. The full scale of the theft will not be determined until the end of the year, as more than 130,000 manuscripts and maps have to be sifted through. It is thought that the missing items came from a collection of books and maps called Prussian State Library. University rector Franciszek Ziejka told a news conference: "we have not confirmed that any items are missing from that collection, but we cannot rule it out." This is not the first theft the university has suffered; last year, a rare first edition of a book by 16th-century astronomer Nicholas Copernicus was stolen.
If it wasn't obvious before, then the CBOS (Public Opinion Polling Centre) poll taken 8 to 14 September revealed that 64 per cent of respondents were critical of Burzek's administration and of Burzek himself. Though it has been the unpopularity of social reforms that has consistently made headlines, the two main reasons cited for this latest downturn were the dismissal of Deputy Premier Janusz Tomaszewski and the ongoing problems and uncertainty over ZUS (Social Insurance Board). Additionally, over two-thirds polled expressed pessimism about Poland's future economic growth.
State-owned PZU, the country's largest insurance company, breathed a sigh of relief this week as a Chicago court dismissed a compensation suit brought against it by Holocaust survivors and relatives of victims. PZU and Warta, another large Polish insurance company, were monopoly insurers under Communism, and thus inherited all the assets and policy liabilities of pre-war insurance companies. Those suing were seeking compensation for property lost as a result of Nazi and Communist seizures. Polish government spokesman Krzysztof Luft said the decision was both welcomed and expected. "The problem of property restitution has to be resolved through proper national legislation," said Luft. US lawyer Witold Danilowicz, who represented the Polish government and PZU in the US, said that the claimants failed to prove that a US court had the authority to hear a case against a sovereign government. This ruling sets a potentially important precedent, as a class action suit was brought against the Polish government by 11 American Jews who are seeking the return of family property in Poland in a New York court. On account of these lawsuits, the Polish government has sped up the process of establishing a national compensation scheme for those citizens (Poles and Jews alike) who had property confiscated under the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Poland is one of the few formerly Communist countries which has not yet passed legislation on returning property or compensating owners for illegally seized assets.
Unemployment figures for Poland have reached 11.9 per cent and are expected to hit 12 per cent by the end of the year. Women, typically young with little more than primary education and some professional training, constitute over half of the figure. Despite the majority of women having better education than their male counterparts, they tend to remain unemployed longer - as long as 12 months. Grazyna Zielinska of KUP (the National Labour Office) believes that the situation will improve thanks to numerous special aid projects. The increase in unemployment rates has been attributed to the aforementioned reforms to the health care system and industrial sector, with have caused lay-offs.
Jerzy Plewa, the Deputy Agriculture Minister, announced this week that Poland raised custom duties on farm goods in order to strengthen its positions in the WTO (World Trade Organisation) talks on trade liberalisation which are coming up. The increases are also meant to protect Poland from the impact of subsidised EU exports. Plewa told Reuters that "the government has no plans to isolate the domestic market from the world market." He also reiterated that Poland would insist that it receive all benefits from the EU farm aid system at future EU accession talks.
Compiled by Joanna Rohozinska and Donosy-English, 1 October 1999
Donosy's Week in Poland appears in Central Europe Review with
the kind permission of Donosy-English:
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