Overheard in Warsaw

Warsaw's elite thought they were off the record. What happened next threatens Poland's politics and international relations.  

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

WARSAW, Poland — The Polish capital is a city of 1.7 million people, but the country’s elite is tiny — a few hundred people at most — and the places that politicians, senior bureaucrats, and top executives like to meet are clubby restaurants like the Amber Room, a discreet dining room in a neo-Renaissance 19th-century palace, where the exclusive business club is a perfect setting for boozy, late-night off-the-record conversations.

At least that’s what Warsaw’s elites thought. It turns out that the Amber Room, and other chic and very private dining rooms in a handful of the city’s best restaurants, were far less discreet and off-the-record than they could have ever imagined.

Waiters were apparently bugging some of those hushed conversations over expensive bottles of wine and the results have been splashed all over Wprost, one of Poland’s leading newsweeklies. The stories, picked up around the world, are shaking the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, denting the reputation of the central bank governor and the foreign minister, and wounding Poland’s relations with its closest allies, the United States and Great Britain.

Warsaw is now worried that Poland’s age-old enemy, Russia, may have had a hand in what is turning into Tusk’s most serious scandal since he came to power in 2007.

Speaking to parliament on Wednesday, June 25, before a vote of confidence in his government, Tusk said the leaks could be tied to the import of coal from Russia and to people interested in gas pipeline links between Poland and Russia, which avoid sending Europe-bound gas through Ukraine.

And even bigger geopolitical dynamics may also be at play, according to the prime minister. "In the background there is also the situation in Ukraine and in Europe," Tusk said. Poland has been a leading EU hawk on Ukraine, pushing for a tough response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for armed insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

"I don’t know in which alphabet this scenario was written, but I know very well who could be the beneficiary of political chaos or the lowering of the reputation of the Polish state," Tusk continued. So far the evidence of any foreign link to the bugging scandal is a little sketchy, but if true it would allow Tusk to cover the humiliation of the leaks in the cloth of national security.

Wprost has published a series of illegally obtained recordings over the last two weeks, the latest coming from a January dinner between Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and former Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski. Although comparisons are being made with the impact of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. spying, at least in Warsaw there is no precedent for so many senior officials having private, and often embarrassing, conversations become international news.

In a chatty dinner marked by a lot of salty language and a few off-color jokes, Sikorski, a noted anti-Russia hawk and strong advocate of NATO, also weighed in on what he thought of Poland’s "worthless" alliance with the United States. "Complete bullshit. We’ll get into a conflict with the Germans and the Russians and we’ll think that everything is super because we gave the Americans a blowjob," Poland’s top diplomat said.

Sikorski, who was educated at Oxford University and belonged to the same exclusive social club that was the fiefdom of upper-class toffs including current U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, then took a skewer to the British leader. He complained that Cameron had "fucked up" his policy towards the EU in a clumsy attempt to satisfy euroskeptics in his Conservative Party, and Sikorski fretted that the end result could be Britain leaving the European Union. Sikorski, foreign minister of the most pro-EU country in the union, has little patience with the U.K.’s ambivalence about staying in the club.

The former finance minister agreed. "That won’t be good for us, because we want Great Britain to stay," responded Rostowski, who was brought up in the United Kingdom and still speaks Polish with a slight English accent.

The conversation has been blasted over the pages of the British press, damaging Cameron’s reputation at home by being subjected to a blistering critique from someone who had been a friend. This comes at a time when he already faces fallout over his attempt to halt the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg who envisions a stronger role for Brussels, as the new head of the European Commission.

The leaked conversation put in public — and in crude terms — what was an open secret in recent years as Poland has tightened relations with Germany and the EU at the expense of historically close ties with Britain and the United States.

Poland’s fraying links with Britain were made apparent at the beginning of this year, when Cameron tried to bolster his domestic popularity by hammering Polish migrants for supposedly abusing social benefits. 

Tusk immediately called Cameron and "fucked him over" for targeting the hundreds of thousands of Poles now living in the United Kingdom, said Pawel Gras, a former government spokesman, in another leaked conversation.

Sikorski appears to have also drifted away from his earlier robust pro-Americanism, disenchanted by U.S. reluctance to build part of its anti-missile defense shield in central Europe and by the bungled war in Iraq, in which Poland was a significant participant, and dismayed at the U.S. pivot away from Europe towards Asia.

Sikorski’s frank assessment might have benefits in Europe. "Paradoxically, Sikorski’s comments could actually help him in some European capitals because they show that in view of U.S. withdrawal from Europe, he views the relationship with the U.S. in more realistic ways," said Eugeniusz Smolar, a Warsaw-based foreign-policy expert.

But conditions have changed since the January recording was made.

Russia’s policy towards Ukraine has forced Warsaw to reassess its foreign policy. Led by Tusk and Sikorski, Poland is again one of the most pro-U.S. countries in Europe. In recent weeks, Poland has promised to increase its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, one of the highest levels in NATO. And back in Washington, the United States has insisted that ties with Poland are "very strong," while the State Department has refused to comment directly on the recorded conversation. In April, several hundred U.S. troops were dispatched to Poland to allay worries over a possible threat from Russia. 

But if Moscow has thus far shown reluctance to prod Europe’s boundaries militarily, it’s been less reticent to employ other measures.

When the recordings surfaced, there was immediate suspicion in Polish political and media circles of a Russian link. That was not without reason: Moscow has delighted in embarrassing its enemies. Russia has been blamed for the February release of a conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, when Nuland apparently said, "Fuck the EU."  

As Tusk unleashed Polish law enforcement to dig up who was behind the leaks, a Russian tie looked at least possible.  < /p>

Wprost has said only that the recordings were supplied by a "businessman" who signed his name as "Patriot." In recent days, Polish authorities have arrested two waiters working in restaurants where the recordings were made. Police have also detained Marek Falenta, a 39-year-old businessman worth about $145 million who invested in a coal-distribution company, reportedly on suspicion that he may have been the person who fed the recordings to Wprost. The company in question, Sklady Wegla, imports cheap coal from Russia and had been the subject of an investigation into tax fraud and other offences. Falenta’s lawyer has denied his client’s involvement in the bugging affair.

The Sikorski recording may have made the biggest splash internationally, but other embarrassing transcripts have been showing up on the pages of Wprost over the last two weeks, shaking up domestic politics. Others caught on tape include Treasury Minister Wlodzimierz Karpinski; Jacek Krawiec, the head of state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen; and Pawel Gras, Tusk’s former spokesman.

Aside from the Sikorski-Rostowski chat, the most damaging was a conversation between Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and Central Bank Governor Marek Belka. The conversation, which included jokes about the penis size of a key member of the interest-rate-setting Monetary Policy Council, have damaged Belka’s ties with that body and tarnished his reputation, which until now had been sterling. 

More worrying for Poles, if not markets, was the talk of political horse-trading over monetary policy. In the conversation, recorded last July, Sienkiewicz sounded out Belka on whether the Central Bank would be willing to intervene to prop up the economy in the hypothetical event of a slowdown, worrying that a sluggish economy could hurt the ruling Civic Platform party’s chances for a third term in parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

Remarkably for an apolitical appointee, Belka agreed, breaking a taboo for a central banker. "My condition is, excuse me, the dismissal of the finance minister," Belka said, referring to the minister as "Count von Rostowski."

Rostowski was removed as minister in a cabinet reshuffle last November, although both he and Tusk insist there was no pressure on him to go. Another of Belka’s conditions, a change in central bank regulations, is working its way through parliament.

However, Belka is not quitting. Tusk has said that he did nothing illegal, and Belka has tried to patch up relations with the Monetary Policy Council — although, if a lukewarm statement from the council is anything to go by, he still has some work to do to return to its good graces.

Tusk is also standing firm in the face of the firestorm over the leaked tapes. Instead of resigning, as demanded by the opposition, he has attempted to shift the debate from the content of the leaks to who made the recordings and why — turning the issue of support for his government into one of patriotism by bringing the focus onto an issue nearly all Poles seem able to agree on: distrust of Russia.

"There can be no place for a scenario where criminals who record and make public recordings from bugs are going to dictate the actions of the parliament or the government," he told parliament on Wednesday.

Tusk’s gamble is to calm the atmosphere by showing he still commands a majority in parliament and by trying to deflect questions over the embarrassing behavior of his ministers and the incompetence of the security services, which should have ensured that their bosses weren’t being bugged. The danger for him is that there are still many recordings out there, according to Wprost, and the Polish media smell a wounded government vulnerable to more scandal.

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