Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Image via Flickr
The kind of stilted, media-friendly conversations politicians have when they know they're on camera are pretty awkward. Nobody likes a robotic politician, but ironically, it's the times when they talk like normal human beings who swear, criticize colleagues, and generally shoot the shit that land them in trouble. That's exactly what has been happening in Poland over the last week, as a series of private conversations between top politicians published by Wprost, a weekly news magazine, has wreaked havoc in government circles in Warsaw.
The conversations leaked by Wprost record Polish ministers relaxing over dinner. They were revealed on the June 14, and since then, more recordings have come out. The prize for the best quote goes to the interior minister, Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz. In the first recording to be released, he tells the governor of Poland’s central bank that “the Polish state exists only in theory; in practice it doesn’t exist.” So far, he has kept his job.
The latest revelations concern Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s Oxford-educated foreign minister, who was caught dismissing Poland’s relationship with the United States as “worthless.”
“Complete bullshit. We'll get in conflict with the Germans, Russians, and we'll think that everything is super because we gave the Americans a blow job,” he allegedly says in the recording from January 2014, published in Wprost on June 23. “Losers. Complete losers.”
Obviously describing a key strategic alliance as sucking dick is the kind of thing that could get any politician in trouble, let alone a foreign minister. But it's a particularly bad look for Sikorski, who enjoys a strong international reputation and has been tipped as the EU’s next foreign-policy chief. The recording was released less than three weeks after Barack Obama’s long-awaited trip to Warsaw on June 3 and 4, at a time when Poland has been calling for increased US and Nato presence in the region at this time of uncertainty to its east.
Sikorski has been known to make blunt statements in the past. In February, following the worst days of bloodshed during the Kiev protests, which left over a hundred people dead, he helped broker a deal between Ukraine’s opposition leaders and then president Viktor Yanukovych. Sign it or “you’ll all be dead,” he was caught telling them on video. Not even Yanukovych had threatened them like that; the spokesman of Poland’s main opposition party was quick to point out, apparently jealous of the praise Sikorski was receiving.
Still, swaggering remarks like this—even if they need to be taken with a pinch of salt—aren’t exactly going to help Sikorski’s international career. He has long been tipped as a favourite to replace Catherine Ashton as the EU’s foreign policy chief, with his role in the Ukraine crisis seen as boosting his chances. But this looks increasingly unlikely since the recordings were published. This could be exactly what the people behind the leaked recordings—fearing an assertive EU foreign policy chief and a powerful Polish foreign policy—set out to achieve.
While Sikorski’s remarks may have raised a few eyebrows across the Atlantic, and contrast with Poland’s official attitude towards the US, they didn’t come as a huge surprise to Poles. Despite the fanfare surrounding Obama’s visit to Warsaw earlier this month, Poland is less enamoured in America than it was ten years ago, when Polish troops took part in the war in Iraq. Edward Lucas, an editor at The Economist, compared Polish-American relations to a “companionable marriage where convenient sharing of chores, rather than romantic passion, has become the main bond.”
If anything, Sikorski’s remarks point to genuine concerns about overreliance on the US, which has other worries besides the situation along the EU’s eastern border. As he explains in the recording, Poland’s alliance with America is even “harmful because it creates a false sense of security.” Since it joined the EU in 2004, Poland has focused more on building a strong position in Europe, with Sikorski, who has been foreign minister since 2007, working to improve Poland’s relations with Germany and Russia. (This was, admittedly, before Russia annexed Crimea.)
Both Warsaw and Washington have been quick to try and play down Sikorski’s comments. “The United States is our very important ally and partner,” Poland’s president, Bronisław Komorowski told reporters on Monday. US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she could not comment on the authenticity of the tapes. “But more broadly, the United States and Poland have an incredibly strong relationship,” she said, mentioning their shared values.
Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, has continued to emphasize the illegal nature of the recordings, rather than their embarrassing content. Last week, he did not rule out the possibility of early elections if the crisis is not solved, but has refused to fire any of the ministers caught in the recordings so far. The leaking operation “aims to destabilise and paralyse the government at a key moment,” he said on June 23, specifically mentioning the situation in Ukraine and Poland’s efforts to secure a good post in the European Commission that is being decided on now.
Unsurprisingly, Tusk’s political rivals are trying to make the most of the crisis, especially the conservative Law and Justice party. “Tusk’s corpse is already floating down the Vistula,” Law and Justice’s spokesman Adam Hofman commented triumphantly, a morbid piece of political rhetoric referring to the river that flows through Warsaw.
Meanwhile, the key question remains unanswered: Who made the recordings? The number of recordings of top level figures, made over the course of a year, points to a well-organized operation. Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish newspaper, has started to speak in terms of a waiters’ plot involving the manager of the VIP room at Sowa i Przyjaciele (literally: Owl and Friends), an elegant Warsaw restaurant where some of the conversations took place. The bugging device may have been hidden in the remote control used for summoning waiters, the newspaper quotes one of the recorded people as saying.
It is also unclear who handed the conversations over to Wprost. The magazine has only said that it was “a businessman.” The latest set of recordings were sent to it in an email mysteriously signed “Patriot”.
But there is a widespread feeling—though so far no proof—that Russia could be behind the whole thing. Causing chaos in Warsaw would be a way to take revenge for Poland’s active support for Kiev throughout the Ukrainian crisis. Recent events in Ukraine aside, it could also be part of a longer-term Russian plan to weaken Poland.
When the first conversations were leaked over a week ago, it looked like senior officials’ heads might roll. The way the situation is developing now suggests that the wounds caused by the recordings may take longer to heal and raises the potentially far more sinister scenario of involvement from abroad.
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