- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
Sylwester Latkowski has been a political organizer, an importer of bad hair products, a music executive, a documentary filmmaker, and a talk show host. He’s also a convicted felon, the editor of one of Poland’s most respected magazines, Wprost, and the unlikely man at the center of a political scandal about Warsaw’s relationship with Washington that threatens to bring down the Polish government.
In the last week, Wprost has published recordings of conversations among high-level Polish officials that appear to have been made surreptitiously at two Warsaw restaurants. One recording features the head of Poland’s central bank and the country’s interior minister discussing how the bank might help the government win re-election. (The bank president suggested firing the finance minister, though of course by law the central bank should remain independent.).
The more eye-opening recording, released on Sunday, reveals Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski making some less than diplomatic remarks about what he sees as Warsaw’s subservient relationship with the United States. "You know that the Polish-U.S. alliance isn’t worth anything," Sikorski said. "It is downright harmful, because it creates a false sense of security … 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. Losers. Complete losers."
Moreover, Sikorski used the racially-charged word murzynskosc — which is derived from the word murzyn, a dark-skinned person who does another person’s bidding — to describe what he sees as Poland’s willingness to do the same when it comes to the United States.
The tapes’ release has rocked the Polish government. Prime Minister Donald Tusk has floated the possibility of early elections, and the opposition is up-in-arms, demanding explanations for a scandal that has deeply embarrassed the government. The authorities’ response has only made matters worse. On Wednesday, state prosecutors and officers from the Poland’s domestic security agency barged into Wprost’s offices and in a physical tug-of-war, which was broadcast live on Polish television, they tried to pull the editor-in-chief’s laptop from his grasp, triggering yet another round of outrage.
Prosecutors have launched a wiretapping investigation, and on Monday, Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported that authorities suspect a network of waiters bugged the politicians’ meetings and later sold the recordings to businessmen (some have speculated Russian secret services are behind the wiretapping, as part of an effort to sow discord in Eastern Europe just as Russia is flexing its muscles in Ukraine.) How Wprost journalists obtained the tapes remains unclear.
Latkowski, the editor-in-chief, has endured a hailstorm of criticism for publishing the recordings, dividing the journalism community. While initially a group of journalists came to his defense, protesting state attempts to muzzle the media, many others have come out against using what they describe as material obtained obtained illegally and which pertains to private conversations. At one point, a journalist who initially supported Latkowski, said that it was unfortunate that a man with such a "sketchy past became an icon of journalism."
Indeed, Latkowski’s checkered background has now become a focal point of the talk surrounding the scandal.
Born in the small Polish town of Elblag, Latkowski comes from humble beginnings. In the late 1980s, he was a grassroots organizer for Solidarity, the Polish labor movement instrumental in overthrowing the communist regime. With only a trade school education, he began as a teacher, giving high school courses in Polish and physics. (He would later enroll in a one-year pedagogy course, a point which he likes to emphasize).
During Poland’s economic opening in the early 1990s, Latkowski, like many entrepreneurial Poles, started his own business. He would import empty containers of hair gel and fill them up with a cheaper domestic product, adding a fragrance because "it just didn’t smell nice," as he told the Polish edition of Playboy in 2005.
The accounts of Latkowski’s business career in the mid-1990s are foggy. He did business in Belarus, and then became, in his own words, the CEO of one of the first Polish brokerage firms. In 1998, he served two years and three months for extortion. According to daily Gazeta Wyborcza, he brought hired hands from Lithuania to physically extort a debt.
He does not like to talk about his extortion conviction. In cryptic remarks a decade ago, he said that "he participated in an effort to corrupt Poland, to do business at the expense of the state," all in cahoots with "people who are in power." While he said he deserved to be punished, he claimed he was not guilty of the crimes he was charged with.
While on furlough from prison, Latkowski started his career as a documentary filmmaker, with which he would attract the national spotlight. Critics described his films as "shoddy," with both microphones and the interviewer’s shadow visible in his shots. He dismissed the criticism, pointing to the ad-hoc style of U.S. documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.
"He only tries to shock with the drastic character of his subjects, there is nothing else there," the documentary filmmaker Maria Zmarz Koczanowicz told the Polish magazine Press in 2008. His films documented brutal hooligans, pedophiles, a controversial murder of a Polish police chief, and shenanigans in the Polish music industry. He was repeatedly accused of manipulating his subjects. The singer Justyna Steczkowska says he tricked her into letting paparazzi into her apartment by claiming they were part of the film crew.
Latkowski told Playboy he made most of his money through his work as a PR consultant and music producer. His name rarely appeared on the albums he produced because "he did not want young artists to be forced to deal with his enemies."
In the mid-2000s Latkowski was a talk-show host on state television, where he again caused controversy by hurling accusations at prominent Poles. Among other things, Latkowski’s show claimed that Tusk’s grandfather had served in the the German army, an inflammatory statement in Poland, which suffered immensely because of German actions during the first half of the 20th century.
In 2010, he began working for Wprost, where he became the editor-in-chief last year. Under his watch, the magazine emphasized aggressive investigative journalism, uncovering one politician’s attempt to hide an expensive watch in his tax statement. But as with everything that Latkowski touches, Wprost has been repeatedly accused of sensationalism under his tenure. One undercover female journalist writing for Wprost exposed famed Polish tennis star and businessman Wojciech Fibak as an intermediary setting up his rich male friends with young women. The magazine came under fire for using cheap tactics and provocation to obtain evidence. In another case, the magazine was accused of manipulating the words of Alicja Tysiac in a controversial abortion case.
A colorful character with a tainted past, Latkowski keeps his apartment clinically sterile. When in 2005 two Playboy journalists asked him why was his apartment hospital-white, he described himself in saintly terms.
"Too much sterile white? It’s because I have to cleanse myself from all the dirt of this world."