Friday, March 02, 2007

Polish Farmers Protest Against Former Leader, Threaten Blockade

Hundreds of Polish farmers protested in Warsaw today, threatening blockades across the country unless the government acts to stop the industry sliding into bankruptcy.

Blowing sirens and whistles, farmers challenged their former vanguard, Agriculture Minister Andrzej Lepper, who they now blame for failing to stem a decline in pork prices. Lepper is a former pig farmer who became the firebrand leader of the agrarian-based Self Defense party, now part of Poland's governing coalition.

``It's the worst government we have had since the end of communism in 1989, especially because Lepper used to be one of us and now he is failing to keep his promises,'' said Romuald Brzykcy, a farmer from a small village in eastern Poland, who came to Warsaw to join the demonstration at parliament.

Today's protests coincided with renewed threats from Lepper that he would leave the government if it doesn't step up efforts to stabilize the pork market and lower tax on biofuels. Agriculture accounts for about 16 percent of all Polish employment, though only 4 percent of the country's economy, based on estimates by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Lepper, 52, defended himself by saying his ministry has given 300 million zloty ($101.2 million) to boost state reserves of pork. He said his government colleagues had been slow to purchase the meat and help boost the price.

``Nobody else gave any money,'' Lepper said at a press conference today. ``But the purchases are carried out by an agency supervised by the Economy Ministry and I cannot do anything about the pace at which it acts.''

Economy Minister Piotr Wozniak, appointed to the post by the coalition leader, the Law & Justice party, rebuffed the charges that pork purchases weren't quick enough.

Ready to Join

Lepper, already embroiled in a sex scandal while his party has battled corruption allegations, said yesterday he was ready to lead farmer protests like he did in late 1990s. Back then, his party blocked roads and spilt grain on railways to half freight.

The protesters today in Warsaw waved banners that said ``Lepper must go.'' They mimicked calls by Lepper himself for the ouster of former Finance Minister and central bank Governor Leszek Balcerowicz, whose economic reforms the past 18 years Self Defense said led to hardship in the country.

``We are full to the brim of this talk about his leaving the coalition,'' said Henryk Paszkiewicz, another protesting farmer. ``It's high time the government took steps to improve the situation in agriculture. Pork prices go down dramatically and now the pigs are eating all subsidies I got from the European Union.''

The protesters filed a petition to Parliament Speaker Marek Jurek, threatening road blockades should the government fail to help pork prices rebound to around 3.90 zlotys, or 1 euro, per kilogram from the current 2.90 to 3.10 euros.

They also demanded compensation for losses due to falling prices and the removal of the ban on meat imports from Russia.