Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Snow plus cheap materials plus botched job?

Snow not the only factor in the roof collapse in Katowice…maybe, but that doesn’t make things any better for the building’s owners.

The death toll went back up again to 65 today after rescuers found three more bodies just before a planned removal of the wreckage.

Professor Marian Giżejowski of Warsaw’s University of Technology, told Radio Polonia today that uncleared snow from the roof of the Katowice exhibition centre may be to blame for the tragedy, but so could a lot of other things:

The collapse of a building’s structures is very rare. There is almost never a single factor behind such events. One of the most common causes is overloading, which may be the result of heavy snowfall.

Snowfall and rainfall are very critical factors for shallow or plain roof structures, especially covered with corrugated metal roofing [as in this case]. Corrugated roofing under the snow layer may be subjected to increasing deformation.
But it’s very difficult at this stage to say about the definite reasons for the collapse. To my knowledge the snow was not the only factor contributing to the disaster.

Steel structures are generally very safe because they show the signs of future collapse. The collapse is never a rapid event [with these types of roof and structure]. The collapse of the roof in Katowice was a sudden event [eyewitnesses say it took about ten seconds from start to finish] and so the event gives me a lot of food for thought. Design and construction faults should not be ruled out, either.

The Minister of the Interior, Ludwig Dorn said today that Katowice was no one off. In the Upper Silesian region alone this year, 13 roofs have collapsed.

Public buildings and particularly supermarkets built with metal, flat roofs are being cleared of snow all over Poland.

Monday, January 30, 2006


Is an international firm of trade expo organizers to blame for the 62 dead, or have they been misunderstood and are taking their 'social responsibilities' seriously?.

The government seems clear as to what happened on Saturday when the roof of the five year old exhibition hall at the Katowice Expocentre complex (large grey structure of the left of the picture) collapsed on hundreds of pigeon fanciers. Transport Minister Jerzy Polacek said Monday that there was more than 45 centimetres of icy snow on the roof at the time, and at a press conference today, held up two large blocks of ice from the site as proof.

The implication is that the managers of the expocentre, Expomedia Group Poland, were criminally negligent in not clearing the snow from, what looks on the television to be, a rather flimsy metal sheeting roof. "The site, clues and relevant documents are being secured," said Katowice police spokesman Grzegorz Wierzbiecki, in case of any future prosecution.

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has announced that the government will be urgently revising the building law. "The changes…will be based on raising penalties, including the closure of buildings whose roofs are not cleared of ice or snow," he said.

But the managing director of Expomedia has denied negligence. Bruce Robinson claims that the roof was regularly cleared and that the causes of the tragedy ‘were not clear.’

One theory says that the foundations of the building in Katowice – a city where six other buildings have had roofs collapse on them recently - have been weakened by all the mining activity in the area.

Expomedia will probably point in their defense to the fact that they are members of the Foundation for Corperate Social Responsibility which recommends Expomedia on their web site, giving them the ‘Gold Seal of Approval as a Socially Responsible Company.’

The Expomedia group has a unique vision of the future of the exhibition, conference and events industry. It was established in 1999 to fill a void in the market. The vision was to create a chain of smart exhibition, conference and event centers in key growth markets worldwide, offering greater choice and flexibility to organizers of all types of events.

The Foundation also says that “Expomedia Group is composed of some really good people. What a delight it has been getting to know and appreciate the spirit and enthusiasm of Managing Director Bruce Robinson.”

How keen they are on Expomedia and Mr. Robinson’s ‘social responsibility’ at the moment is anyone's guess.

Roof falls in on Silesia

The Katowice roof collapse that killed 66 pigeon breeders and racers and injured 141, was the latest, though most dramatic, horror to have hit the region of Silesia in the last few years.

The region did not need any more bad news. Early his month the BBC was running the story of ex-miners robbing trains transporting coal for what is left of the Polish coal industry. Unemployment in some areas is 30%. Many jobless, particularly women, don’t even bother to register as unemployed, so the figure is actually even higher than that. Since the demise of communism the region has lost 250,000 jobs in an area of heavy industry designed for a bygone era. So unemployed miners are risking arrest and fines, robbing coal from the trains or digging for it with their bare hands in the old surface mines.

Things have changed for the once working class elite.

As in the UK, pigeon racing is popular among the industrial working class, particularly coal miners. One of the items on fair's schedule when the roof caved in on Saturday was the 56th meeting of the Polish Pigeon Racing Club. Many of the dead are from ex-mining communities for whom life is already pretty tough.

Polish mourning

Just a note of Poles’ attitude to this kind of tragedy with mass casualties. After the Madrid bombings two years ago a report by someone ‘linked’ to Al-Qaeda surfaced claiming that Poland would not be a target for bombs because, ‘There is political consensus on foreign policy, and the country has a very high tolerance for human casualties’. The idea that central Europeans have a high tolerance to mass death is a common stereotype and I guess they are referring to the millions who died in the Second World War.

It’s a load of bull, of course. Many in the West were impressed with this document, but what it proved to me was that these al-Qaeda types are a bunch of highly alienated cranks and fools. Poles take death very seriously indeed. They act more stoically and with more dignity than is now fashionable in somewhere like Britain, however, where the old silly stiff upper lip has been replaced by the equally ridiculous Princess Diana Syndrome – which means copious public emoting is seen as a jolly good thing.

During the days of national mourning ,which will end Wednesday, all cinemas and sporting events have been cancelled, and TV stations are running black graphics on their logos.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Blood sucking parasites

Warning: alternative medicine can be very bad for your health.

Ozon magazine reports that, every year, an estimated five thousand Poles die from cancer after refusing conventional medical help.

Instead of going to see the doctor, these people put their faith in quacks, frauds and charlatans, who dish out potions and remedies which, of course, don’t work.

In a related story, Radio Polonia reports about the rising popularity of using leeches to cure a host of different diseases. 'I do find them incredibly helpful and hope that one day leeches will be accepted as just another medical drug, says Zygmunt Dynowski of Biogen, one of only two leech farms in the whole of Europe.

The practice for using leeches alongside blood letting peaked in Europe, apparently, in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was thought they could cure all sorts of things, from obesity to madness. But a shortage of the parasites led to the decline in the practice, and the belief that they were of any use.

But now leeches, alongside the other pre-scientific remedies, are making a comeback in Poland. Though there does appear to be some uses for the leech in medicine, individuals are also prescribing the use of ‘hirudotherapy’ for themselves, or via 'altervative healers'.

Are we slowly creeping back into the dark ages?

Ozon magazine writes that oncologists blame the media – particularly women’s magazines and tabloid newspapers - for the early deaths of what amounts to millions of cancer sufferers who reject science for the fad of naturopathy, homeopathy, and all the other quack exotica that passes off for ‘alternative’ or ‘complimentary’ ‘medicine’.

But simply blaming the media ignores the fact that people do believe in this stuff, and who hope against hope for some sort of miracle to make them better.

It’s not surprising that this sort of thing goes on in the Polish rural, peasant districts where ‘alternative medicines’ have been part of the culture for generations. What’s stranger is that the quacks are now moving in, and with some success, on the liberal, middle classes.

Alterative medicine has brought together the rural conservative and the hip urbanite, the pre-modern with the post modern.

Which is quite an achievement, when you think about it. So why is it making me feel a little sick?

Related story on the beatroot: Stroking toads

Frank Furedi writes about this stuff and why it is becoming popular here

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

CIA gulag enquiry: no hard evidence of camps in Poland…

…but Marty smells a rat.

Dick Marty - head of the Council of Europe investigating team into allegations including that the largest of the CIA secret prisons in Europe was, up until last October, in Poland - can see the smoke but can’t find the fire.

Marty says that he can find "no formal, irrefutable evidence" of American ‘gulags’ in Poland, or Romania, the other country named in the original Human Rights Watch report.

But though no concrete evidence has turned up, he still thinks that there is something more than a little fishy going on. Marty thinks that there is "a great deal of coherent, convergent evidence pointing to the existence of a system of 'relocation' or 'outsourcing' of torture" by the CIA. And what’s more, "It is highly unlikely that European governments, or at least their intelligence services, were unaware."

The New York Times reports:

Mr. Marty is equally wary of Romanian and Polish denials of the detention center allegations, noting that both countries are part of the American-led coalition fighting in Iraq and "escaped long dictatorships thanks largely to the American intelligence services."

It was actually largely thanks to something the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians did (and their secret services!), but anyhow.

The Polish side wound up two investigations recently but is refusing to say what conclusions they came to.

Which, either way, is not much use.

Blair’s New Labour government (which has been telling some fibs recently about what it knows about all this) has said that Dick Marty’s interim report is "as full of holes as Swiss cheese" and "clouded in myth and motivated by a desire to kick America."

It is true that the Council of Europe is a big toothless pussycat these days. Since the Cold War ended it has been struggling to find a role for itself. What it's turned into - now that democracy has spread to eastern Europe, and everyone is in, or wants to be, in the EU, sort of, - is of yet another human rights watch dog. Worse, the EU is setting up its own Human Rights Agency, so what will there be left for the C of E to do?

Many think that it should do everyone a favour and close down so that everyone who works there can go and get themselves a proper job.

The C of E can find no concrete evidence of anything much at all is because it cannot penetrate secret service networks. It simply cannot get to the facts. It doesn’t have the influence anymore.

Governments such as Poland and the UK probably have been turning a blind eye (and sometimes one eye half open) to comings and goings of CIA transport and its exotic cargo. Outsourcing of prisoners has almost been admitted and justified by Condi Rice with the familiar get out clause, ‘Well, we are at war, you know?’, thereby justifying pretty much anything and everything.

Meanwhile, Dick Marty, super sleuth, is now studying satellite footage in the hope that huge, secret gulags in Poland will reveal themselves under infra red, or something.

The hunt for the United State's Auschwitz goes on…

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry

Why is it that the only people ‘liberals’ think it's OK to laugh at these days are the white working class and Central and Eastern Europeans?

The best-selling spoof travel guide, Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry, has been described by the doyen of comedic travel writing, Bill Bryson, as, “brilliantly original and very, very funny.” But is the book a witty satire on the travel guide genre, or just a re-hash of some outdated stereotypes about Central and Eastern Europe?

Molvania, of course, is a fictional land whose name incorporates many countries in the region. And it certainly is a brilliantly produced book, looking just like one of those titles aimed at the so-called ‘independent traveler’, such as the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide series.

The blurb on the back cover says: “Molvania, birthplace of the polka and whooping cough. But [thanks to this guide] the keen traveler can now enjoy one of central Europe’s best kept secrets.”

It has the usual opening chapter, which includes sections on ‘history’, ‘the people’ ‘traditions and customs’, ‘language’ ‘food and drink’, and so on.

Under the ‘getting there’ section it says, “Most people arrive in Molvania by plane, or by accident.”

In the history section the authors say that Molvania was invaded in the Middle Ages by Goths, Tatars, Lombards, and even at one point by a surprisingly militant band of Spanish nuns.

When visiting a Molvanian’s home, customs include, “not blowing one’s nose in sight of the kitchen, and remember to bring a small gift, such as flowers, fruit, firearms, or in the case of children, cigarettes.”

The national sport of Molvania is ‘plutto’, which is a cross between lacrosse and polo, played on a donkey.

The religion is something called ‘Baltic Orthodox’. Core beliefs include smoking cigarettes in church, and, on Good Friday, believers should refrain from domestic violence.

The language is described as being particularly difficult to learn, with four genders: male, female, neuter and a special collective noun for cheeses.

On food, Molvanians are said to be very fond of eating out – preferably in Germany or France! The people are said to have a particularly sweet tooth – which is often the only tooth left in their heads.

And so the book goes on.

Europe's 'white trash'

The authors – three Australians – have not only invented a history and culture for Molvania, but they also include some very confusing maps and some grainy old photos; one of which looks suspiciously like Krakow.

The humor of the book – which, as you can see, is sometimes funny in a kind of sniggering, schoolboy type way - is mostly pretty harmless stuff. But they do, on occasion, go a little too far.

In the section ‘Advice for Women Travellers’ they advise that woman who are traveling on their own can expect few problems, “aside from the usual assault, armed robbery and stalking that one usually sees in most eastern European countries.”

Now wait a minute! That is not the experience of women travelers in this part of the world, at all. In fact, many feel much safer here than they do in most western-European or American cities.

Although, that said, one woman from Britain I know once had a nasty experience with some very unpleasant men when she was traveling in the Balkans with a female friend. I asked her, when was it, exactly, that she went there? She said it was, “in the early 1990’s.” Of course, as I am sure you know, the early 90’s was a period when Yugoslavia was breaking up after the demise of communism. Civil war was just about to break out and law and order was breaking down. Packs of aggressive males roamed many of the cities making life very uncomfortable for the locals in general and foreign travelers in particular.

The moral of that story is pretty obvious – don’t go on holiday in a civil war zone.

Thankfully, much of the region is now welcoming visitors in the hospitable way that it always used to. If you don’t believe me then ask one of the many thousands of holidaymakers – particularly Italians – who visit Croatia every summer. (Although I wouldn’t advise a weekend break in Kosovo at the moment, which, sadly, is just about as bad as it was before Nato started bombing the place a few years ago.)

Molvania: a land untouched by modern dentistry was brought to my attention by a Polish female friend of mine who had read the book and found it unfunny and ‘offensive’. She said the real butt of the joke was “Slavs in general’.

And she is right. The book is both a satire on Slavs and a satire on the sometimes toe-curlingly earnest travel writing so common to the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet.

But mostly it just uses central and eastern Europeans as the butt end of some pretty nasty little jokes.

Basically, on the receiving end of these jokes are the poor. For instance, the only people who I have seen around here with only one tooth in their heads are poor people from rural areas, who are untouched by modern dentistry because they simply can’t afford it.

There is something a bit strange happening in the West. If this sort of book had been written about, say, African people, then, quite rightly, there would have been uproar and outrage. Words like ‘racism’ would have been used by lefty-liberal reviewers. But it seems that Political Correctness extends to all groups these days except poor whites from urban, rural or semi-rural areas in America and Europe. Central Europeans are being presented as the Chavs of the continent.

And that is just not funny at all.

Update, Monday: Kurczeblader.pl develops his argument (see comment 1) about ignorance of this part of the world, and Poland in particular, with his point about "Polish death camps' and the New York Times. In fact, if you google 'Polish death camps' you get 362 results. A common mistake, obviously. In the UK last year a poll showed that 40% of school kids had never heard of Auschwitz, let alone a 'Polish death camp'.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Polish plumber gets the sack

Hat tip to kurczeblader.pl for this one: the brains behind Poland’s most successful PR stunt ever has been dismissed.

The daily Nowy Dzien reported that Andrzej Kozłowski, director of the Polish Tourist Board, has been given the opportunity to have some more free time for a holiday himself, by the new conservative Law and Justice government.

It was Kozlowski's idea to launch the ‘Polish Plumber’ campaign, after the negative image of Poland expressed during the French referendum on the EU constitution.

What Kozlowski did brilliantly was turn a negative – Poles and other central Europeans will flood labour and service markets, and work longer for less – into a positive, with a tongue in cheek advertising campaign that showed that Poles could laugh at themselves, even though the French were not in the mood to do the same.

And the campaign worked. A journalist colleague of mine has been to Paris twice since last summer. She says that the Polish Embassy in the French capital has been delighted by the response. French media loved it. The hunky Polish Plumber in the poster, Piotr Adamski, got fan mail from French females (and the occasional French guy - it ia a rather camp Polish Plumber!)

French tourism to Poland has increased measurably since the campaign started.

The whole thing was a work of minor genius.

And then the guy gets the sack. His critics in the government say that although the Polish Plumber was a success, Kozlowski has done little before or since.

Other campaigns have not been so successful. The follow up to the ‘Polish Plumber, the ‘Polish Nurse’, was not a great success. The caption behind the model dressed as a sexy nurse – actually a second year student at Warsaw University – which reads, ‘ I’m waiting for you’, made it appear that the country was trying to lure the foreign visitor with a very liberal idea of what could be considered ‘having a good time’.

And I don't think this government would like that very much.

Maybe it’s the political context that counts: the new government is kicking out the old guard – it’s like Year Zero. And the father of the slightly camp Polish Plumber has just gone down the plug hole.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Blind justice

Many in the PiS government are proponents of capital punishment. I wonder what they think of this case.

In California, a 76 year old blind man (above) in a wheelchair, who was also almost deaf, has just been sentenced to death. Clarence Ray Allen’s crimes were pretty nasty, not to say bizarre.

The UK Guardian:

Clarence Ray Allen was sentenced to death in 1982 for ordering the murder of a witness to his murder of his son's 17-year-old girlfriend, who he had killed to stop her telling police about his robbery of a grocery store.

Allen was in jail for her murder when the subsequent killings took place. The hit-man killed the witness and two bystanders.

Er…right. Twenty three years later, late last year on Death Row, he got ill and his heart stopped. He was dead. But after a while they managed to revive him, just so they could go through with the execution as planned in his conviction.

Who will blink first?

The minority government and the opposition are playing a game of poker – and it’s the government who have the ace up their sleeve. No wonder President Kaczynski is looking happy.

This evening President Kaczynski finally met with the two leaders from the opposition Civic Platform. Donald Tusk and Jan Rokita had publicly hoped that the president would mediate in the political crisis in parliament, which could result in the budget bill not becoming law. This would mean parliament’s dissolution, and new elections would have to be called.

Privately Civic Platform are trying to make sure that Kaczynski gets dragged into the mess, and shatter any illusion that he is acting independently.

The meeting was to have taken place 24 hours before, but Kaczynski cancelled at the last minute, pointing to statements made by PO which ‘were not within the dignity of the presidential office’. Presumably these included statements by PO that the government was acting in parliament in way that was ‘a danger to democracy’.

In the last few\days blood has been spilled on the parliament floor. The budget bill has brought out the weaknesses of both the government and the opposition. The opposition, split and impotent, has accused Law and Justice of delaying votes in the Lower House to make sure the bill fails and new elections can be held quickly.

Polish roulette

PiS have gained popularity in the polls since last September’s election and could win a majority of seats, and so rule alone. All possible coalitions seem unworkable or unreliable and they smell a possible outright victory.

Civic Platform also claim that Kaczynski stood Tusk and Rokita up yesterday to get more time with his lawyers. The budget must be passed within four months of it first being introduced to parliament. The problem is, when was it first put to parliament? Was it in September, when the old, SLD administration introduced it, or was it in October when the new PiS government re-introduced it?

But time is running out. Whichever date is finally decided upon, the bill still has to be passed in the Lower House, then sent to the Senate, get voted through, or amended, there, sent back to the Lower House again, and then finally given to the president to sign.

Opinion polls have been putting PiS ahead by over ten points – enough for a majority in parliament. One poll today, however, had the gap narrowed to only two points (although this might well be a ‘rogue’ poll, which are common in Poland).

The election threat is PiS’s ace up its sleeve. By threatening to cut and run to the electorate, at a time when opposition parties’ ratings are falling, could force some sort of coalition on the government’s terms.

Most people seem to be expecting an election in April. But if PiS can, (or want) to get the budget through in time, form a temporary coalition with smaller opposition parties, and struggle on till the autumn, then they can fix a general election to coincide with the already scheduled local elections.

But that would give them more time to make mistakes and have the polls turn against them. If PiS are going to cut and run, then they will cut and run soon.

Get ready – unless a miracle coalition is formed - for an election in April.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Onward Christian soldiers

US religious advocacy groups think that Poland is ‘Europe’s Last Best Hope In The Battle For The Family’.

That’s the title of a press release issued last December by the US based Howard Centre for Family, Religion and Society (HCFRS), announcing that the World Congress of Families IV will be taking place in Warsaw, 2007.

But why Poland? Groups in America such as HCFRS and Focus on the Family consider Poland a place of faith in the middle of a secular, heathen Europe. The press release says:

“Europe is almost lost; to the demographic winter and to the secularists. If Europe goes, much of the world will go with it. Almost alone, Poland has maintained strong faith and strong families, though even Poland comes under severe pressure to change. Poland has saved Europe before. It is likely she will save Europe again. On family and population questions, Europe is the battleground in the early years of the 21st Century, and Poland is the pivot point. It makes abundant sense that The World Congress of Families IV meet among the brave people of Poland.”
The vast majority of organizations that make up the World Congress of Families are American, but one of the affiliated groups is the Polish Federation of Pro-Life Movements. On the administration board of PFLM are members from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), like MEP Konrad Symanski.

According to World Congress of Families President Dr. Allan Carlson, Warsaw was chosen for its central location and potential to turn back the tide. “Western Europe is plagued by de-population,” Carlson said. “Western European governments (including the European Union) have adopted policies inimical to the natural family. We look to the new EU members in Eastern Europe – first and foremost Poland – to help turn the tide of family decline.”

But what can he mean? Poland has the 18th lowest birthrate in the world, so babies are not really filling up the cots in the maternity wards here, either.

The World Congress of Families will no doubt be talking in Warsaw about the new government’s initiative to beat the de-population. They are giving a massive 1000 zlotys (about 330 dollars!) to the mother for every baby born. That’s a one off payment, not a regular allowance.

Well, that’s going to solve everything, isn’t it? I can see it now: families turning themselves into cottage industry baby factories, churning out nappy-wearers. Perhaps they can get an entrepreneurial grant from the EU? Maybe if she took the right hormones, they can produce multiple births, and pocket the multiple cash orders?

To get rich that way, however, the poor woman is going to have to be constantly pregnant. To buy a small one bedroom flat in Warsaw she is going to have to produce about 120,000 of them.

And that’s a lot of diapers to wash.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Drunk tractor driving nun and the corrupt policeman

She was drunk at the wheel - twice: he offered to save her reputation...at the right price, of course.

Everyone knows that if you get stopped by the cops on the roads in Poland then you might get away with a clean license if you offer the officer a few hundred zloty. Sometimes the cops will even offer to spare you a day in court if you indulge in a little redistrubution of wealth.

Anti-corruption campaigners will be happy, however, that one Polish policeman picked the wrong gal to ask for a bung recently. Backpage reports:

The Benedictine nun caused two accidents, the first in 2004, when [drunk] driving a tractor towing a snowplough, she hit a car parked at the entrance of her convent in the southwestern town of Krzeszow.

A year later, her car ended up in a ditch after she drove at high speed. Anxious to avoid scandal and particularly worried that her convent would find out, the nun went for help to a friend who was a police officer.

The policeman promised her he would make sure no one found out - in return for a payment of 3 000 zlotys ($960)....

"When the policeman demanded another payment of 3 000 zlotys to keep the second accident under wraps, she decided to inform on him."

Sisters are doing it for themselves!

Check out the latest posts on our new(ish) p3 blog....and my latest post Let's talk about sex...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

A coalition, or an election

It’s now or never for the Polish minority government (photo: Speaker of Parliament, Marek Jurek – but for how much longer?)

The minority Law and Justice (PiS) government and the opposition have come to a compromise over the budget draft, which must become law by mid-February. But can they lure someone into a coalition?

Speaker of the Lower House, the controversial Marek Jurek (PiS), wanted to delay the vote on the budget by a couple of weeks. The opposition insisted that it should go ahead as originally timetabled, this Saturday. The compromise solution involves a reading to parliament of the budget draft on Saturday, and then a vote on it on January 24.

To get the budget through parliament, PiS needs the support of opposition parties, either the free market orientated Civic Platform (PO), or two smaller populist parties, Self defense (Sb) and League of Polish Families (LPR).

As parliamentarians argued over procedure and shouted ‘scandal’ at each other, PO’s Donald Tusk met with leader of PiS, Jarolsaw Kaczynski, and re-opened talks on forming a government. The surprise offer came from PO Wednesday, days after the government announced that they were installing a prominent ex-member of Donald Tusk’s party as new finance minister, in an attempt to placate markets and possibly tempt PO back to the negotiating table.

The Economist sums up hownthe government's critics see its performance so far:

It depends on the votes of cranky populist parties; it is short of talent; and it is run by the slightly weird Kaczynski brothers (Lech is president of Poland; his identical twin, Jaroslaw, leads the ruling Law and Justice party). Its provincial outlook seemed likely to cripple Poland on the world stage.…

To get the budget through parliament and be able to run an effective government, PiS needs help from somewhere. Leader of Self defense, Andzej Lepper, put it succinctly last week when he said: “Either the government forms a coalition with Self defense [and LPR] or with PO, or we have a new election in April.”

And he’s right. So what scenario would the government prefer?

Coalition with Sb and LPR
This is the worst possible scenario for PiS. Both parties are demanding places in the government, but are not seen as reliable partners, having already voted twice against the two month old administration. The markets, both foreign and domestic, would not like it either.

Coalition with PO
This was what many voters thought they were getting when they voted in the election last September. Though both parties have roots in the old Solidarity movement, the differences in policy between them is large, maybe too large.

An election?
Many in the opposition think that this is what PiS would prefer. The opinion polls are looking good for the Kaczynski twins, and in the latest poll taken by GfK , the government would have enough seats in parliament to rule alone, gaining 243 of the 460 seats.

The meting today between Tusk and Kaczynskii seemed to go well. “Mr. Kaczynski and I treat this as an opening, not a conclusion," said Tusk after the meeting.

But all the cards must now be with the Kaczynski camp – they know that they have growing support in the country, while support for PO is going the other way.

Friday update: I have just been talking to a PiS supporting journalist. He thinks that the most likely outcome is a coalition between Samoobrona, LPR and the Government. But it will not be an alliance that will last very long, and that elections will be called, perhaps later this year, or early next.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Gazeta Wyborcza rips off the beatroot!

Although, I am sure they didn't mean to. In an article on Polish migration in Europe, December 23 last year, historian Maciej Zaremba wrote in the mass circulation daily Gazeta Wyborca: “Widmo krąży po Europie - widmo polskiego hydraulika - A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of the Polish plumber.”

"150 years after the 'Communist Manifesto', the worker has once more become a haunting spectre. This time he is not waving a flag, nor does he want to topple systems – he just wants to work. And that's the scary thing."

Of course, using the words ‘spectre’ ‘haunting’ and ‘Europe’ in that way, he is alluding to the Marx and Engels, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism.’

I hope he was being ironic.

Anyway, look what I wrote on May 31, seven months before the gentleman from Gazeta Wyborcza:

A new spectre is haunting Europe. He’s called the Polish plumber. He’s not necessarily Polish, and he isn’t even necessarily a plumber. But, if some commentators are to be believed, he has been endowed with almost supernatural powers.

If you thought that a plumber was just someone who, at enormous cost, comes to your home and bleeds your radiator and fiddles with your ball-cock, then think again. The Polish plumber will fix your tap, for sure, but then he charges you less than the normal price!....

In fact, if you google ‘spectre’, ‘Polish’ and ‘plumber’ – and sadly I just did – then you get lots of results, all of which come after my article.

Case proven.

Why would the words 'Polish', 'plumber' and 'spectre' be in the same sentence? It's silly.

How can a Pole be a ‘spectre’? I was being ironic. Some western European countries just get spooked, period.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Polish friendly fellows

Strange web site dedicated to connecting you with your perfect Polish plumber - or nurse....

Just a curio: Polishstaff.co.uk – they’re friendly fellows! (great title!) connects potential employers with Poles looking for work in Britain.

It also has a ‘blog’, and they have taken an article of mine about Poles in Ireland and have not sourced it! And I have no idea where it came from as I wrote so many articles about the Irish trip (well, why not milk it?) that I have forgotten which was an article and which was a blog post.

The blog has different sections, with posts and articles on 'shopfitter' or 'carpenter', or even 'plumber'!

But bloggers who do not show the original source should be castrated. I want that put in any re-write of the EU Constitution.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Wanted: Polish halal butcher!

Due to a shortage of Muslim halal butchers in the UK an advert has been placed in the local press in Bialystok, northeast Poland, to fill the gap.

But what qualifications do Polish Muslims need to follow in the footsteps of around 250,000 Poles who have made their way to Britain since the expansion of the EU a year and a half ago? The ad calls for “Muslims... who pray five times a day and adhere to the principles of halal cuisine, with no pork or alcoholic beverage."

There are about 25,000 Muslims in Poland, many have been here for centuries. News24,com reports, “Around one-quarter of Polish Muslims are descendants of Tatars who fled the Mongol warrior Genghis Kahn over 600 years ago, many settling in Poland's Bialystok region, near the border with Belarus.”

Wojtek Kość at the Central European Review writes that during Communism, Polish Muslims were not allowed to organize civil associations. But today they are recognized as an official religious minority.

They are organized in six religious communities: Warsaw, Białystok, Bohoniki, Kruszyniany, Gdańsk, and Gorzów Wielkopolski. They have three mosques: an 18th century one in Kruszyniany, a mid-19th century one in Bohoniki and a new mosque built in Gdańsk in 1990. There are also prayer houses in Warsaw and Białystok.

Abdulwahab Bouali, 31, takes care of the Białystok prayer house. He is a member of the Muslim Students Association in Poland, a union of followers of Islam from Muslim countries in the East who have come to Poland to study. Born in Algeria, he has lived in Poland for 14 years now and is a pilot who graduated of the Dęblin Aviation School.

"The prayer house I'm taking care of—and live in—will only serve its purpose until the mosque is built here in Białystok," he says. "What we're doing here is ensuring local Muslims get a chance to practice their faith. We also organize lectures for people of other creeds, because the picture of Islam they get from TV is distorted. It is associated with terrorism and a lack of rights for women, but the truth is that Islam is the only creed that does assure women true rights."

Yeah, right. But get ready Brits - you have learnt to love the Polish plumber, now get ready for the Polish Muslim butcher!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Polish e-democracy

Will the internet give the kiss of life to Poland’s moribund body politic?

Every night, about 10 or 11 O’clock, I take the dog out for a walk in the park that my flat overlooks in Warsaw. Usually Morski Oko park is well lit by lamps that line the paths, so I feel perfectly safe.

But in the last three weeks the lamps have gone out, leaving much of the park in almost total darkness. This is bad news if you have a young male dog like mine, who, just recently, has been driven mad by several female dogs ‘on heat’ in the park. Not a very well behaved dog as it is, Chagall (for that is his name) has been taking off on his own at 11 ‘Clock at night in search of doggy love, a good sniff, and much more besides.

With the lights out in the park, he often simply disappears, only to return to his distressed owner, a little later, when his passions are spent.

The lights in the park went out, coincidently, when the Warsaw mayor, Lech Kaczynski, gave up the post to take up his new job as President of Poland last December. Had he forgotten to leave instructions to his staff that, in no circumstances, should the lights be left to go out in Morski Oko Park?

Kaczynski had got elected as mayor, and as president, on promises of fighting corruption and crime in the capital and in Poland. So my girlfriend and I shot off a complaint to the email address the town hall uses specifically for the purpose of registering complaints to the local council. We reminded him that bad lighting in parks makes people feel unsafe, increases opportunities of crimes such as muggings, and it doesn’t help much when you want to find your love-crazed mutt, either.

In complaining to the local authority in this way we were taking part in what could be called e-democracy – the new hope of some e-activists and many governments to reengage the public with politics.

e-citizenship – antidote to the apathetic voter?

The political class in the West, in Warsaw and in Brussels has been scratching their collective head recently, wondering why citizens are increasingly abandoning them. Voter participation is falling. Suspicion of the political class in increasing and cynicism in the political process is widespread.

One of the countries where this disengagement from politics is at its most pronounced is Poland.

Voter turnout in general elections struggles to get over 50 percent. Politicians are collectively despised as being corrupt and a bunch of self-seeking liars and cheats.

For the proponents of e-democracy the solution to this political malaise lies in making the political process more ‘accessible’ and ‘inclusive’, to use two current buzz-words. If only we made getting involved in politics easier, then those lazy, apathetic voters would suddenly transform into active citizens, taking back politics from the corrupt and isolated politicians.

So, from above, the political class has been designing experiments to make it easier for citizens to register their complaints about local services, and make it easier to vote, by allowing e-voting from home or putting voting booths in supermarkets (in church maybe they could use the confessional boxes?), libraries, etc.

From below, e-activists have been pushing this agenda too. The new vanguard of politics is at the end of a broadband link, apparently. Clickers of the world unite...

While I am all for trying to reenergize politics by any means possible, e-democracy advocates – a motley crew made up of techies, geeks, nerds, plus the isolated political class – are being both naive and patronizing. Making politics more ‘accessible’ will not bring back politics with a capital P.

Firstly, and most obviously, in a country like Poland, e-democracy will remain an irrelevance to most people simply because they do not have access to the internet – only 1 in 4 are net users. The digital divide in Poland is not just a yawning gap, it’s a yawning chasm.

The problem gets worse when you look at who has access to ‘e-democracy’ and who does not. The middle class in Poland are mostly connected up to the web these days, whereas the working class and peasantry (the vast majority of the population) are not. And which group is most likely to stay home on polling day in Poland? It’s the very same people who do not have access to the internet. Emails to local authorities about rubbish bags littering the streets, or drunks littering the streets, are coming from those who vote in the normal way at the polling station, and are 'connected' anyway.

E-democracy is a good way of letting off steam for the middle class. But it won’t bring back participatory politics to Poland, I am afraid.

In the general election in the UK this summer they tried to reverse the falling turnout rate by making it easier to post your vote, and there was some experimentation with e-voting. A report by the electoral commission found later that these measures had no significant difference to voting habits, however.

The patronizing remedy put forward by politicians who think the main reason for falling turnout is ‘voter apathy’ and laziness is to make it easier to vote and participate. This notion is self-serving for politicians as it takes away the blame from them and throws it back on those lazy citizens.

Politics, and people’s disengagement from it, has sociological, historical and cultural roots, and cannot be reduced to 'access'.

People don’t vote because they don’t think it will make much difference. Since the end of the Cold-War, politicians have given up giving people real alternatives. The old left/right thing has all but gone, and nothing has yet replaced it. Ideology has dropped out of politics, leaving politicians in the position of managers of a system nobody questions anymore.

People in Poland, and elsewhere, don’t feel themselves to be the subjects of politics, but the objects of a process they feel is out of their control.

And in a country like Poland, where political parties have never had any roots in communities, politics is seen as an irrelevance, a waste of time.

Bringing back real politics involves challenging the idea that there are no alternatives to the status quo.

And that’s a tough call.

And do consumerist-type complaints to local councils constitute politics anyway? Isn’t politics about something a little more important than that?

Proponents of e-democracy mistake the medium in which politics is carried out and though for content. People will only become reengaged with politics when politics rediscovers its ideological content, gives people alternatives, and reminds them that they, could be, in control of their own lives.

Oh, and by the way, the Town Hall never did give us a reply to our email, and I still can’t find my dog in the dark. And even if the lights do come back on in the park, politics will still be in the dark in Poland.

Read more about this, maybe, here: Frank Furedi, Politics of fear - beyond left and right

Two Polish ministers bite the dust

It’s only a couple of months old but already the minority Law and Justice (PiS) government has lost two members of its cabinet.

Teresa Lubinska will be a very small footnote in the political history of Poland.

She 'resigned' today as Minister of Finance and will now slip back into the obscurity from which she only recently came. She is to be replaced by Zyta Gilowska (pictured above), once a prominent member of the opposition and free market orientated Civic Platform: she will also take the title of Deputy Prime Minister.

It must be one of the shortest periods in the office of a finance minister in the history of finance ministers. Only days into the job she scared the life out of foreign investors when she declared that she never shopped at Tesco’s, or any other foreign supermarket for that matter, and these retail giant were not making ‘productive investments in Poland’.

She had told a magazine that she had ‘waited her whole life to be Finance Minister’. Shame then that her life’s ambition came and went in just a couple of months.

Lubinska’s resignation comes only days after Treasury Minister, Andrzej Mikosz, announced that he 'wanted to spend more time with his wife' and resigned after Rzeczpospolita daily exposed a 300,000 zloty loan Mrs. Mikosz made to someone who is currently on trial for insider dealing at the Warsaw Stock Exchange.

PiS had campaigned in last autumn’s election on a ticket of fighting corruption, and honesty and transparency in public life.

The government – which has to rely on votes from the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) and left wing populist, radical farmer’s union Samoobrona (SO) to get their proposed budget through parliament next week - is desperately trying to appear stable, in control and with a sense of direction.

But it has already lost crucial votes in the Sejm (parliament). Last week it had to bend to the will of LPR and SO when trying to get its rather bizarre plan to increase the birth rate in Poland – its ‘cash for babies’ legislation - through parliament. PiS wanted to give a one-off payment of 1000 zloty (not much more than 350 dollars) to mothers in low and middle income brackets who manage to produce a baby. SO and LPR demanded that every mother, regardless of income, get the 350 dollars per baby – and they won.

The price of getting the budget through parliament could be high and ultimately self destructive for PiS. Andrzej Lepper, leader of Sammobrona, is demanding a place in the cabinet, and Roman Giertych, leader of the catholic-nationalist LPR wants the important position of Speaker of the House.

Lepper said on Wednesday that the government has three choices: a coalition that includes Samoobrona; a coalition with the opposition Civic Platform; or a general election in April.

The next few days in Warsaw will be accompanied by the sound of much arm twisting and the licking of various politicians' backsides (in Poland they call this process 'applying the vaseline').

Friday, January 06, 2006

Would Poland support US bombs on Tehran?

Foreign Office says not, but there are neo-cons lurking where it counts in the Polish cabinet - apparently. (photo: nuclear site at Bushhehr,Iran)

Pawel Dobrowolski, the busy spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, has brushed off claims that Warsaw would support Washington if it took military action against Iran.

It had been alleged that at a recent meeting in Washington between the Polish defense minister Radek Sikorski, foreign minister Stefan Meller and Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, the two sides agreed that if Iran persisted in its nuclear program, Poland would give the OK for dropping bombs on Tehran and nuclear sites.

Pawek Dobrowolski has dismissed the claims saying that Iran was not even on the agenda of the talks a couple of weeks ago.

The journalist who broke the story, ex-US navy Intelligence Officer, Wayne Madson, says his sources were the same as those who confirmed secret CIA prisons in Poland, holding al-Qaeda suspects. (and the government has concluded its report, but will not be publishing its findings – so we don’t know how good those sources were.)

Madson also seems to think that the new Polish government has a US neo-con lurking within its ranks – so why be surprised if Poland did agree to military strikes?

Before he became defense Secretary Radek Sikorski was at the neo-con American Enterprise Institute, where he worked alongside pro-bombing Iran advocates such as Richard Pearle. Madson goes on:

Sikorski's entire career has been as a propagandist for the neo-cons, having worked as a roving corespondent for the neo-con National Review from 1988- to 1998 and working as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. representative in Warsaw from 1989 to 1992.

The journalist then writes that Sikorski is a good friend of neo-con Paula Dobriansky, a supporter of the “theme revolutions in Moldova, Belarus, Lebanon, and Russia, itself, as well as a participant in [the aggressively neo-con] Project for a New American Century (PNAC) activities.”

And Sikorski, according to the report, is a United Nations basher on the scale of John Bolton.

But let's forget the guilt by association. Let’s get real.

Question: Would Poland support the US if it decided to shock and awe the Iranians?

Another question: When did a Polish government – any Polish government – not support US military action?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Poles find Satan offensive, apparently…

…but Satanist Norwegian black metal rockers are innocent!

A case has been dropped in the Krakow courts against the band Gorgoroth. They were charged with causing ‘religious offense’ after coming to Krakow two years ago to play a gig covered live on television by the public broadcaster, TVP.

The producer of the TV program, however, still faces charges that could result in up to 2 years in prison. And the police are keeping a file open on possible charges of cruelty against animals.

On stage with the Norwegian rockers were numerous sheep’s’ heads on the end of sticks, and other gory things which many a god-fearing Polish granny might well consider to be a little bit on the devilish side.

When the Director of TVP, Andrzej Jeziorek, sat down in front of the tele that night in February 2004 and saw the Norwegian heavy metallers on his station he was outraged.

"On stage there was blood everywhere. About ten decapitated sheep heads and naked people, alive, on large crosses," Jeziorek told the Norwegian newspaper VG. "Everyone was painted with 100 liters of sheep blood. Also there were Satanist symbols everywhere. One of the hanging female models fainted and an ambulance had to be called."

Outraged TVP staff called the cops and handed over the TV pictures for ‘further investigation’. (see video of the gig here)

The case against Gorgoroth (maybe they just have a ‘special’ sense of humour?) has been dropped because the Courts think that the Norwegians were unaware that there is a law in Poland that says that you cannot offend someone’s religious sensibilities.

Satanism is said to have come to Poland via the internet, where web sites such as satan.pl keep devotees up on all the latest developments in devil worship. These sites attract mostly teenage males with spots who want to shock mum and dad.
Having pretend crucifixion on stage is rather an adolescent thing to do, and I can understand why some might find sheep’s blood all over the place offensive, but why is offending someone in Poland against the law?

I don’t think that the lead singer of Gorgoroth, Infernus (real name Roger Tlegs) is particularly bothered about legal proceedings in Krakow at the moment, though, as he is right in the middle of appealing against the three year prison sentence he is currently serving for rape!

Not a very nice bunch of lads for sure, but making things illegal because they might offend someone is bad news for free speech – even if that free speech involves Norwegian black metal ‘musicians’, ten sheep’s heads, and a few liters of blood.

Is this the Polish enemy within?

Government purges diplomatic corp.

The new PiS government has called back to Warsaw 10 ambassadors with alleged links to the old communist regime. Diplomats from Algeria, Argentina, Britain, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Israel, Lithuania and Slovenia have all been recalled in a purge of those “linked to communist-era special services or to the communist party", a Foreign Ministry spokesman told AP today.

One of those who have ‘lost credibility as representatives of Poland’, according to the Foreign Ministry, is the Polish Ambassador in London, Zbigniew Matuszewski (pictured above), who entered the Polish diplomatic service in 1980, the same year as the Solidarity trade union was founded.

But his career decision was not as a consequence of reading Marx and Engels, apparently. He was merely “one of a group of relatively young diplomats who were professionally, not politically, motivated,” he told the Diplomatic Information Group.

The move comes only weeks after the PiS government had a clear out of the top level of the secret services.

PiS stood on a ticket of 'cleansing' Poland of what they see as corrupt ex-communists from public life.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Oily maneuvers and ultimate objectives

Poland is seeking access to Iraqi oil deposits.

Just a week after the Polish government announced that it would be leaving its troops in Iraq for another year, Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has indicated that he expects some payback. Getting his hands on Iraqi oil deposits looks sure to be part of the deal.

'Orlen [Poland’s largest oil refining company] should have oil deposits. And it will have them,' Marcinkiewicz said. Asked if he meant Iraqi oil deposits, he added “Sure, those too.”

Surprised he’s so brazen? You shouldn’t be. Whereas other countries like the UK have always maintained that invading Iraq was about ‘keeping us safe’ and ‘getting rid of a tyrant’, etc (and I believe Blair honestly thinks this way – he’s not a liar, just a bit confused) Poland has always been a little more instrumental in its interest in that part of the world.

In July 2003, the then Foreign Secretary, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, told a meeting with a group of Polish firms after they had signed a deal with a subsidiary of US Vice President Dick Cheney's former oil company, Halliburton:

"We have never hidden our desire for Polish oil companies to finally have access to sources of commodities.” [Access to the oilfields] is our ultimate objective."

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Putin puts the boot in

Polish gas company PGNiG reports that at 11.00am today it detected a drop in gas pressure on the Polish-Ukraine border.

Russia shutting off the taps at 7am local time will affect 14% of Polish supplies, as much of gas imported from Russia passes through Ukraine before it gets to Poland.

Analyst types are saying that, deprived of gas from Russia, Ukraine might be tempted to dip into supplies earmarked for other countries.

More than 80% of European gas supplies come through Ukraine.

Gazprom wants to increase the price of its product four times. Ukraine, unsurprisingly, wants to keep its relatively cheap gas relatively cheap.

You don't have to be a genius to work out that the gas-bullying is the Putin regime's answer to the Orange Revolution.

But once again, Poland finds itself rather too close geographically to the Big Angry Bear.

Poland was already outraged last year when Russia announced that it would be building an underground pipeline straight to Germany, so by-passing Poland and the Baltic states completely.

In his first speech as president last week Lech Kaczynski said that one of Warsaw’s main foreign policy goals was to improve relationships with Moscow, but the gas shutoff has not been a good start to the year.

In a related development, Gazprom has finally wrestled control of a Belarusian pipeline that transports 10% of Russian gas to Europe from the state-run Beltransgaz. In retirn, Belarus will continue to get its gas dirt cheap.

The Herald Tribune reports:

Gazprom said in a statement that it would sell gas to Belarus for $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters, or 35,300 cubic feet, while Belarus will charge Gazprom transit fees of 75 cents per 1,000 cubic meters per 1,000 kilometers, or about 620 miles. Gas sells in Europe for more than $210 per 1,000 cubic meters, and European transit fees are nearly $2.30 per 1,000 cubic meters per 1,000 kilometers. Gazprom has said repeatedly that it is planning to end gas subsidies to former Soviet states.

Alexander Ryazanov, deputy chairman of Gazprom's management committee, said Belarus had been given a special offer "because Russia and Belarus were in the process of establishing a common union state, which implies using common standards when drafting financial and economic parameters of the two countries."

So Ukraine had been warned that it would loose its subsidies and what would happen if it tried to stand up to Putin.

It also shows that Ukraine is going to pay for President Yushchenko’s cuddling up to the West.