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Russian High-Tech Cable Irks Poles

December 15, 2000

TLUCHOWO, Poland (AP) _ The black cable snaking out of freshly turned Polish soil hardly looks like the missing link in one of central Europe’s biggest high-tech schemes.

But the best-laid plans of a giant Russian conglomerate have come to an embarrassing halt in Andrzej Skowronski’s muddy strawberry field in rural Poland.

``We have capitalism now,″ said Skowronski, 28, who has skirmished with courts and riot police to keep the cable off his family’s farm. ``If someone wants to make a profit using my private property, I must make money on it, too. That’s what capitalism says.″

The Polish government is deeply embarrassed. It issued permits for the cable believing it was meant only to monitor the Yamal pipeline carrying gas from Siberia to Germany. Now it discovers it could have held out for a bigger share of the profits, had it only known that the cable is also carrying enough fiber optics to handle most of Russia’s telephone traffic with the West.

The scandal has also revived nasty memories of communist times, when Poland was a Soviet satellite. Some Polish media say the affair shows that the Kremlin is as arrogant as ever toward Poles.

Meanwhile, the Skowronskis and their neighbors in the central Polish farming town of Tluchowo have held up the project for 18 months while demanding their due.

That leaves a six-mile gap in the transmission line’s 420-mile Polish segment, and EuRoPol Gaz, the Russian-Polish venture that built and operates the pipeline, is furious.

Gazprom, the Russian natural-gas monopoly that owns 48 percent of EuRoPol, already has signed telecommunications accords with operators in western Europe, assuming the line would be laid by year’s end.

It is unclear what the Polish state gas company, which also owns 48 percent of the pipeline venture, knew about Gazprom’s intentions. A EuRoPol Gaz spokeswoman in Warsaw, Danuta Tarkowska, acknowledged that EuRoPol was ``thinking about putting the cable to commercial use,″ but said there were no binding contracts.

As for the Tluchowo farmers, she said EuRoPol Gaz intends to enforce court orders giving it right-of-way.

That may be difficult. Police who escorted workers to the cable route in March 1999 found it blocked by farm machinery and scythe-wielding farmers, including two generations of Skowronskis.

The authorities won round 1: Skowronski says one of his four brothers was kicked in the spine and hospitalized, and another was detained for 48 hours.

The cable crews went to work, but the brothers were back within days. The workers, apparently lacking the appetite for round 2, coiled up the cable and left.

Skowronski says EuRoPol Gaz initially offered $480 for use of a 600-foot strip of land, pledging an unspecified sum later. He demanded more, and after the 1999 standoff was offered $17,000. Skowronski wants double. EuRoPol Gaz says that’s exorbitant.

Polish authorities are bound, eventually, to uphold the court orders, but they may be in no rush.

Stung by a newspaper expose last month about cable’s fiber-optics capability, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek pledged to investigate and make sure Polish interests are protected.

Moreover, no one wants to look soft on the Russians. The telecommunications ministry has warned that the cable will pose ``a serious threat to the state’s security″ if it is linked to Poland’s telephone network.

Skowronski, a graduate of the Warsaw Agriculture Academy whose smooth-spoken demeanor belies his stubborn peasant roots, isn’t concerned about international diplomacy.

``I don’t care about the country’s sovereignty,″ he said. ``I want to do business over this cable.

``Sooner or later, we will win.″

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