Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bhutto – the Polish connection


The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was the top news item on Polish TV this evening, as it probably was in many countries. Pakistan will get more unstable still as a result. But she was always a controversial figure – mainly due to allegations of corruption. One of her alleged scams involved Polish Ursus tractors...


In 2004, a Swiss court looking into alleged corruption deals by the Bhutto family during the 1990s concluded:

"Mrs Benazir Bhutto, the then prime minister, her husband, Mr Asif Ali Zardari, her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, are suspected of having collected in the course of 90s corruption commissions on several government contracts concluded with foreign companies dealing with arms, agriculture material and merchandise inspection," the court orders said.

[…] The State vs Benazir Bhutto and nine others…suspected that the accused persons in connivance with each other indulged in acts of corruption and corrupt practices by purchasing 5,900 Russian and Polish made URSUS Tractors at a cost Rs150,000 each under the Awami Tractor Scheme (ATS) in violation of law, rules and regulations of the Agriculture Development Bank of Pakistan, presently known as the Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited (ZTBL).

Those kind of deals sound familiar to Poles. This summer the BBC reported that the evidence given by the Polish government contained details of bank transfers, and copies of fax communications between the Polish tractor company and middle-men helping to secure the contract.

Benazir had launched the Awami Tractor Scheme for the welfare of poor farmers in Pakistan and allegedly received 7.15 percent commission in the purchase of tractors through their front men – Jens Schlegelmilch and Didier Plantin of Dargal SA – who received about 1.969 million dollars for supplying the Ursus tractors.

The Bhutto family had their international assets and interests in the UK, US, Belgium, Switzerland, Pakistan and elsewhere - conservative estimate 1.4 billion dollars - frozen in 1997.

The charges by the Pakistan government were dropped to enable her return – the families’ assets were also released, plus interest. With values of property growing massively over the years, the family fortune was spilling over.

The Bhutto family – her father was hung for conspiracy to murder charges in 1979 – has always claimed that the charges were trumpted up and political in nature.

The Bhutto family regards itself as socialist, so the corruption scandals hang over the dynasty and how people will remember her and her father.

I don’t think she was assassinated for anything to do with Polish tractors, however. She was a secular politician in a country where religious extremism is growing – particularly since the region was further destabilized after the invasion of Afghanistan.

She was also a woman. She got away with being a female prime minister twice – but you can’t get away with that anymore, as secular, if not sometimes democratic - governments in Muslim countries tumble – or are overthrown by outside intervention.

The future for Pakistan looks pretty grim. It was only a few months ago the Polish Consulate General in Kurachi was telling an audience:

In Poland we highly appreciate Pakistan's continuity of its economic growth, fast economic development, the structural and comprehensive reforms in various sectors. Pakistan at present stands among the top 4 Asian countries. All economic indicators point to the fact that Pakistan will sustain acceleration in the growth of 6-8% over the next 5 to 10 years. As such investors should look to Pakistan as a potential hub of economic activity in the region.

Pakistan is about to become ‘a hub’, but not for the economy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Polish Christmas is a time for family, not religion


Contrary to the stereotype, an opinion poll reveals that the festive season is a time where family and traditions take precedence over the religious nature of Christmas in Poland.

The poll by CBOS finds that only 5 percent of Poles say that religious rituals give them most joy at Christmas, whereas 71 percent say that family gatherings give them most satisfaction.

Churches do fill up at Christmas time, with midnight mass being an important part of the traditions of this time of year. But the poll shows that the stereotype of Poles as first and foremost a religious people is wide of the mark.

The poll also reveals that there is a small minority for whom Scrooge is a role model. Three percent told the pollsters that they feel no joy or satisfaction at all from the Christmas holidays. Bargh! Humbug!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas and the ultimate gift


One of the most heart warming stories this year has been of Polish boxing and kickboxing champ Przemyslaw Saleta donating one of his kidneys to his sick baby daughter.

It was a no brainer, I suppose. Your daughter needs a new kidney, and you have two of them.

So Saleta went into surgery last week knowing he was doing the right thing.

After the operation the daughter was doing well, though her dad rapidly went into a coma.

Fortunately the boxing champ came through and is now at home with his wife.

The case has highlighted the lack of donors in Poland, though the country has one of the lowest family refusal rates in the EU – where relatives block the removal of organs after death.


Family refusal
46% Greece
42% United Kingdom
30% France
29% Italy
21% Estonia
19% Latvia
17% Slovakia; Spain
9% Hungary; Poland
Source: European Commission; Council of Europe

So Saleta will no doubt head the campaign for Poles to carry the new ‘Euro cards’, which, when carried in your wallet or handbag, allow for organs to be removed after death without having to ask permission from grieving family.

But what better Christmas present could a dad give his daughter than a new kidney?

The story puts back my faith in humanity.

And let me wish the hundreds of thousands who have passed this way in 2007 a very, very Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Simon Mol charged with infecting 12 Polish women with HIV


Almost a year after he was first detained by police in Warsaw, the Cameroonian ‘refugee’, poet and human rights activist is finally charged by the prosecution service, and faces a long jail sentence.

Mol’s case, as it was revealed in a blaze of outrage in the Polish media in January this year, is a tabloid journo’s dream.

An African who had won refugee status and had become a well-known media figure, campaigning on human rights and race issues in Poland, was accused by numerous women in Warsaw of infecting them with HIV, while all along knowing that he was carrying the virus.

But the case is not just about whether he knew, or not, that he was HIV positive (although that is what the court, when he finally comes before a judge, will be deciding). When asked by the women to use protection before sex, he had refused, claiming that they were only asking him to wear a condom because he was ‘an African’.

When the Rzeczpospolita daily went to Cameroon and Nigeria to examine whether Mol’s claims of political persecution in those countries was true, they found that his family, friends and work colleagues knew nothing about it. It seems that Mol was an economic migrant, not a political refugee. Mol's side of the story is here.

So, in one case we have a deadly combination of sex, race and politics. If you had to write a prototype tabloid shock, horror story, then this was it.

Of course, if the prosecution can prove that Mol knew he had HIV and had deliberately infected women as some kind of political ‘revenge’ – and this has been suggested in the press coverage here – then this is a very, very nasty crime, indeed, and nobody would be too upset if they slung him in jail and threw away the key.

Simon Mol and the ‘Warsaw Salon’

Many of the women who slept with Mol seem to come from artistic, liberal circles, known here as the ‘Salon’. Mol was a poet and writer (though not a particularly good one) who was a member of many cultural societies and political organizations in Poland. He was allied to the small Green Party, but also a member of an ex-pats’ writer’s club based in Warsaw.

After I was asked to join the same writer’s club, this summer, I was talking to one of the organizers about the Mol case. The guy told a familiar tale, of feeling ‘betrayed’ by Simon. Everyone was taken in by him, and not just the 12 women infected with HIV, and the many others who were lucky enough to get away with the encounter.

I also took part in a UK documentary about the culture of Polish soccer fans, which was filmed in Warsaw and Krakow late last year. One of the other contributors was Simon Mol, who was involved in the ‘Kick Racism out of Football’ campaign. I got a slightly worried email in March, this year, from the British producers of the film, asking whether Mol’s presence in the documentary would damage its credibility. It was too early to say yes or no, as nothing has been proved in a court of law, one way or another (and we should remember that it still hasn’t). I don’t know whether they have kept Mol in the film, but if I was the documentary maker, I probably would have left him on the cutting room floor.

I met Mol a few times, and he was a convincing character. He seemed genuine. And what he talked about – the inadequate refugee services in Poland, the racism he and other Africans encountered, remains, despite the fact the Mol himself allegedly appears to have been charlatan, essentially true.

Mol has left many angry, disappointed, and sick people in his wake. What is also worrying is the damaged image of genuine African refugees in Poland. They have joined the long list of victims of the actions of Simon Mol, the man whose poetry seduced a nation.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Poland slips down the index


Two rankings released his week – the FDI Confidence Index, and the Migration Integration Policy Index – show Poland performing poorly.

The real shock is the FDI index – Poland has slipped from 5th to 22nd in just 12 months. India and China are the sexiest for the investor.

The consultancy that produces the report says emerging economies are the most attractive. Of ‘Eastern Europe’ it says:

While executives see opportunity in Eastern Europe's lower labor costs and proximity to Western Europe, they remain concerned about corruption and the lack of reform in the region.

The perception of Poland has taken a dive at a time of rising confidence in the region, in general. Investors think that Poland still has poor infrastructure, is conflictual with Moscow and Brussels, still corrupt and, crucially, the cost of labour is going up.

Now, the above sounds, of course, like a description of how critics see the performance of the previous PiS government.

From Poland with love

Another index, this time the Migration Integration Policy Index, produced by a Very Big Brussels Think Tank, doesn’t rank Poland too highly, either. Out of 28 European countries measured, Poland struggled in at number 21.

Oh, bugger.

Ranked on anti-discrimination initiatives, access to the labour market, etc, Poland falls down on its …migration, integration, policy.

The above are both examples of how the previous government alienated the rest of...well, Planet Earth, quite frankly. It was a bit of, what they call in the trade, A Big PR Balls Up.

Will the next government improve Poland’s battered image? Well, if the body language between Tusk and Frau Merkel was anything to go by when they met in Berlin yesterday, then things could get steamy!

But one cold shower for Tusk could be a sign of things to come. Coal miners are getting restless.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pole sues Wikipedia for calling him ‘a troll’!


Buy perfect Christmas ‘Metka by Traczka’ present – as mentioned in Przekroj magazine - here…if you don’t my girlfriend will kill me…

Arnold Buzdygan (photo) – sometime wannabe presidential candidate, and a regular on usernet sites in Poland – went to court in Wroclaw, southwestern Poland, last week, to sue Wikpedia Polska for deformation of character.

Is the victim/litigation culture entrenching itself in Poland, as it has done in the United Kingdom? Let’s hope not.

Buzdygan claims that his fiancée’s mother refused to let the marriage go ahead because of an entry on the Polish version of Wikipedia, which, in the ‘controversies’ section, calls him ‘a troll’ for his vulgar interjections on blogs and forums. thenews.pl reports:

Buzdygan claims that calling him a “troll” is offensive. “This is a very grave offense among Internet users. Something like a paedophile elsewhere”, says Buzdygan, quoted by the tvn24.pl news portal…

“Mr. Buzdygan’s claims are ridiculous. Wikipedia is not our product, it is being created by Internet users. Basically, anyone can contribute. The administrator’s role is solely to prevent vandalism”, said a Wikipedia editor…

However, Andrzej Malicki, at the Circuit Bar Council in Wroclaw, disagrees: “Internet media should adhere to the same rules as newspapers, for instance. If offensive material is published, the editor should bear in mind the possible consequences.”

Troll? ‘Offensive material’?

Wikipedia’s own entry on the word says:

Someone who intentionally posts controversial or contrary messages in an on-line community such as an on-line discussion forum or group with the singular intention of baiting users into an argumentative response.[1] It often has a broader meaning referring to any shady trouble making Internet activity.

So, it is possible to waste precious Polish court time – and it is precious: cases can take years to get as far as court – by claiming that saying someone is a ‘troublemaker’ on the internet is 'offensive'. LOL, as troll-types say.

It is bad enough when big business use the courts to shut people’s opinions up which they don’t like, but when internet users go to the same lengths, then it is about time we called cranks like Buzdygan something worse than a ‘troll’. How about 'dickhead timewaster'?

His fiancée’s mother is a very wise woman, indeed.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Polish guns and crime


Another teenager goes on the rampage in the US. Lucky, many say to themselves, as they shake their heads, we don’t have a gun culture in Poland like those crazy Yanks. Well, some Polish MPs want to ‘liberalize’ gun laws, using the argument that it will actually reduce crime.

In general, Europe is getting more panicky about guns. The EU parliament.com magazine reported at the end of November:

MEPs have backed plans which are expected to severely restrict the circulation of firearms that can be converted into handguns.

It means that such weapons will in future be subject to the same strict minimum EU rules which currently apply to all firearms.

Some countries, such as the UK, currently ban firearms that can be converted into handguns, but today's decision means that severe restrictions on the supply and circulation of such weapons will apply throughout the EU.

The plenary in Brussels has today also endorsed a proposal to raise the age for obtaining firearms to 18, subject to certain conditions.

Deputies voted by 588 votes for the proposals, with just 14 against, and the European commission's directive is now expected to come into force across the EU by 2010.

European legislators (although they don’t really legislate anything) are unanimous that we do not want to go down the US route with people walking around like gun slingers.

And yet, there is no correlation between gun ownership and murder rate. Spiked has a provocative article which points out that...

It may sound shocking to note that in 2004 there were 11,624 gun-related homicides in the United States. However, the overall US homicide rate (0.043 deaths per 1000 people per year) is lower than many other countries, including EU members Poland (0.056) and Bulgaria (0.045).

So maybe gun ownership actually reduces crime? Some law makers in the present Polish ruling party Civic Platform certainly think so. Political Gateway reports:

A Polish private magazine, with support from criminal law experts and some politicians, has launched a campaign to make gun licenses easier to obtain.

The Giwera (Gun) magazine, shooting clubs and fire arms fans, appealed to police to make more liberal gun possession for ordinary Poles, Polish Radio said Monday.

The idea is to make guns available to people in case they might need to defend their families and properties. However, restrictions on carrying guns in public would be upheld.

Cezary Grabarczyk, infrastructure minister, said he might support the idea. He was appointed minister Friday when a new coalition government was formed by Prime Minister Donald Tusk of the liberal pro-EU Civic Platform.

The latest police data published in June said out of Poland's 38 million population, some 23,000 people have registered fire arms.

Polish experts said laws liberalizing gun possession lessen a crime rate in a country, giving an example of the United States where a murder rate is much higher in states with restrictive laws than in states with liberal gun possession, the radio said.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Polish fire safety drill


I work in a large public institution in Warsaw and it was ‘Fire Drill Day’ today, when we all practice what would happen if a fire really did break out in the building. And if this comical farce was anything to go by, then we are all going to fry alive.

Yesterday afternoon, someone from administration gave me a tip off. She said: “Listen, don’t tell anyone, but there is going to be a surprise fire drill at 11 O’clock tomorrow.”

So I went and told everyone that there would be a surprise fire drill at 11 O’clock.

This was useful news. The mornings are particularly intense where I work and this would help us organize a little better if we all had to troop out of the building and stand around in the cold for heaven knows how long, while firemen inside ran around pretending there was a fire.

Come the morning my immediate boss was told there would be a surprise emergency fire drill at 11 O’clock. So he told all the staff…who already knew, of course.

As 11 O’clock approached the atmosphere became expectant. At 10.30 the lifts stopped working. By 10.45 people had stopped working. By 10.50, when downstairs buying sandwiches (who knows how long this would last?) I saw people in coats and hats waiting in reception for the alarm to go off. It reminded me of the Fawlty Towers episode where all the hotel guests did the same thing, hanging around reception half an hour before the alarm. Basil Fawlty told them to go “back to their rooms and act normally.”

But nobody where I work was acting ‘normally’.

And then 11 O’clock finally came. And then 11 O’clock finally went. No alarm.

The only surprise left of the ‘surprise fire drill at 11 O’clock’ was that it didn’t happen at 11 O’clock.

By 11.15 it still hadn’t happened, either.

The Director came in to the office and told me that the reason why the surprise fire drill was late, was that the fire engine had gotten stuck in the heavy Warsaw traffic!

A bad comedy script writer wouldn’t have dared to make this up.

Finally, at 11.20 the Director reappears, walking down the corridor, opening each of the doors to offices, saying: “Ok, it’s started.”

People emerging into the corridors, confused. If the fire drill had started, then where was the fire alarm?

Meanwhile, fake ‘smoke’ started to appear from the corridor around the corner.

Who was not down stairs already on the third floor where I work, trooped their way down, with fake smoke hot on their heals.

Except …our department had a problem. One of us, Wlodek [all names are changed except when it is their real ones] is disabled, and cannot walk down stairs. And the lifts stopped working forty minutes ago.

Earlier the boss had rang security, asking what to do about this. We were told that four of us had to ‘bring him down in a stretcher.’ My boss asked them if they ‘had a stretcher?’

They hadn’t. So did they expect that we would have one?

By the time we got to the stairs, Head of Security emerged with two mates. They told Wlodek to ‘go back to the office and wait till it’s over.’ So I watched Wlodek and Security disappear back down the corridor and into the fake smoke gloom.

When we got outside, the fire engine had just pulled up, watched by a few policemen who had been posted on duty by the gates. Someone heard the Chief Fireman ask one of the hundreds of people hanging around, “Which entrance is the main one?’ He hadn’t even consulted plans of the building before turning up!

We were told the performance could last ‘up to two hours’, so I was glad of my sandwiches. I was even thinking of popping home. In the end, thankfully, it only lasted about 15 minutes, when we were called back in again.

The lifts didn’t work for another hour and a half, so we drudged back up the stairs, through the fake smoke, to find Wlodek hard at work in his office.

All in all, a totally pathetic performance by all public services, and…well, a little dangerous that public buildings should be in the hands of a bunch of fools.

Still, I haven’t laughed so much in ages.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

In a flap over bird flu in Poland


Turkeys on two farms near Plock, central Poland, have been detected as suffering from the H5N1 strain of avian flu.

And two in the northern Pomorze region, meat containing the potentially deadly strain of the virus have been found in shops coming from two warehouses, in Żukow and Sierakowice.

Lithuania has put a ban on poultry being imported from Poland [correction - see comment 1]. The Polish government claims that this is against EU rules.

Is it a risk to human? Well, the virus has been around at least since the early 1090s and humans have been infected since 1997. Just over 206 people have died over the years, even though millions of birds have caught the virus. Not one case has been detected of being transmitted from person to person – meaning a pandemic is unlikely with the virus in its present form (though it does mutate).

The humans that have contracted the decease usually live within close proximity of poultry – on small farms in southeast Asia, for instance.

If meat is cooked normally then it can not be transmitted that way, either.

So it will be interesting to see the newspaper’s reporting of these two cases tomorrow. Are we in for more doom and gloom headlines about a bird flu pandemic heading our way?

More panic?
See Survive the flu!
Deadly avian flue - official, the beatroot, March 2006