Monday, November 28, 2005

Poland needs a new PR agent

‘Queer bashing, CIA torturing, Star Wars II anti-ballistic missile hosting American poodles’. Is Poland becoming a European pariah?

It’s not been a good couple of months for the image of Poland abroad.

The EU thinks that the new Polish parliament is a nest of Eurosceptics; headlines in the international newspapers scream at the injustice of gays denied the right to demonstrate, and get beaten up when they do - and British MEP, Sarah Ludford has called on Brussels to take legal action against the government; human rights campaigners suspect Poland is hosting secret CIA torture camps; and western Europeans fret that Poland might welcome, in the near future, American, Son of Star Wars, anti-ballistic missile systems on its soil.

The government has been warned by the EU that it has signed documents guaranteeing rights to sexual minorities; the Council of Europe is investigating the possibility of CIA camps and has warned that, if true, then Poland would be in breach of numerous international agreements and could face serious sanctions from Brussels.

But is Poland as bad as it’s being portrayed by some foreign journalists?

Europe’s homophobes?

The charge of homophobia is certainly justified. Many here hold social attitudes more applicable to Warsaw in 1935 than 2005. For four decades communism stopped Poland’s development dead in its tracks. When the regime crumbled the nation’s economy, social structure and culture were stuck in the past. A can of worms opened and out spilled some antiquated and distasteful social attitudes.

A religious based homophobia is one of them. This is being expressed by the new PiS government, which reflects the backwardness of maybe 1 in 2 of the population who feel that freedoms of speech should only be for people ‘like us’ and not for people ‘like them’.

And that’s a very ‘1930s’ type of attitude.

Anti-ballistic missile base?

Still living in the 1930s, many Poles feel that Russia is the threat and that a defense shield should be put up to guard Poland from eastern threats.

“We will analyze everything thoroughly and at the appropriate moment say whether it is good or not for Poland,” PM Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has said, admitting that talks about a US antimissile system have been going on with the Pentagon for years. He has promised that, before any final decision is reached, a thorough public debate will take place first.

But Poland is not alone in looking at this system. The Czech Republic and Hungary are also looking at the plans, and the UK has long supported the general idea of a system being set up in Europe.

CIA gulags?

I have argued on the beatroot before that the often hysterical claims about these camps do not match the evidence. Just because we know that planes used by the CIA for transporting terror suspects landed in Poland does not prove anything at all, apart from the fact that the planes have been using a northern Polish airstrip to land on.

We now know that the CIA has been using many countries to do this in, including Denmark, Spain, Holland, Italy, the UK…. But nobody has suggested, like one Turkish writer has done, that the UK or Holland are sites of a ‘US Auschwitz’.

I wonder why? Perhaps these writers are being informed by some 1930s prejudices of their own – if Poland and other Central European countries had a death camps on their soil once, could they have them now?

Last Friday, Dick Marty, the Swiss senator heading the investigation on behalf of the Council of Europe, said that the prospect of large clandestine torture camps in Central Europe was ‘highly unlikely’, though he did think that is possible that ”there were detainees that stayed 10, 15 or 30 days. We do not have the full picture." The Council of Europe is currently trying to get hold of satellite images of the airbases in Poland and Romania.


There is no doubt that many politicians affect an anti-European stance in much of their rhetoric. Again this reflects an almost pre-war distrust of Western Europe and an inability to deal the world as it is today. Two parties currently propping up the minority government in parliament – Self defense and League of Polish Families have indicated that they would like to re-negotiate Poland’s terms of entry into the Union.

But Poles in general are not as Eurosceptic as are many in northern Europe – particularly in the UK and Denmark. And the Polish government has said that the EU is essential for the economic development of the country. The torturous negotiations over the EU budget shows that it is not Poland who is holding up a resolution to the problem, but rather richer countries like the UK that want to reduce their contributions. Poland, on the other hand, wants to get its hands on those contributions in the form of subsidies and joint investment projects.

So though of the criticism of Poland recently rightly points out a backwardness of much of the population to issues that were settled in the nineteen sixties in the western Europe, a lot of that criticism is also based on a misunderstanding of the facts, a love of conspiracy theories, an ignorance of Central Europe, and lazy journalism.

But I still think that Poland needs a better PR manager, because the current Polish government is not doing a very good job at all – in fact, it’s very much part of the problem.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Gay activists in Warsaw protest Polish homophobia

Over 1000 gather peacfully at Plac Konstitucji, in the centre of the Polish capital, surrounded by several hundred police.

Under gloomy skies and in light rain the demonstrators listened to speeches and music booming out of sound systems, as the rest of Warsaw did their Sunday shopping. The action came in response to violence from police and rightwing thugs in Poznan last weekend, when several protestors from the Campaign Against Homophobia were beaten and arrested.

Left wing members of parliament from the SLD, SdLP, Greens and the Democratic Party gave suppport to the protest.

An expected counter-demonstration from far-right politicians and hooligans did not happen - except for a small press conference from the League of Polish Families in the square. A handful of skinheads hung around the four corners of Plac Konstitucji, making calls on their mobiles (I was suprised that they seemed to know how to work them!) trying to get more of their little buddies to come along.

The demonstration is part of a nationwide action this weekend involving six Polish cities, including Gdansk, where the local chapter of the Solidarity trade union gave its support.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Update!!!… Demonstrations organised by the Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland will take place this weekend in Elblag, Gdansk, Torun, Lodz, Warsaw, Rzeszow, Wroclaw, Katowice and Krakow…The demo in Warsaw will start on Sunday at 12.00p.m. at Plac Konstitucji…. If you care about human rights in Poland then BE THERE……

Two Polish newspapers, Wednesday, had parts of their front pages blacked out with ink in support of freedom of speech in Belarus. Video footage, however, shows that human rights problems can be found closer to home.

Under the headline ‘This is what freedom of speech looks like in Belarus’ Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita inked out sections of articles on their front pages in support of an Amnesty International campaign against human rights abuses in Belarus.

And jolly good, too.

Shame then that the Polish newspapers don’t pay as much attention to human rights abuses going on in their own country.

To the usual deafening silence, gays and lesbians and human rights campaigners were denied the right once again to protest against officially sanctioned homophobia in Poland. Last Saturday, protesters in Poznan – who went ahead with an Equality March even though the local council had denied them permission to do so – were beaten and arrested by cops and intimidated by local right wing thugs.

See how the Polish authorities respect human rights in this video.

And where is the blacked out front pages about that one then?

Last night, Marian Pilka (Marian is a male name in Poland), an MP from the ruling Law and Justice party, called for gays to have psychiatric treatment and to ban the 'promotion' of homosexuality.

And word is getting around. On his first trip to London since becoming PM, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz had to use a side entrance when visiting Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street so as to avoid protests from activists.

It's easy for Polish newspapers to look good and radical when you are up against someone like Belarus' President, Alexander Lukashenko. It's not even a very controversial move to have a go at old baldy, now is it? I'm sure even Gazeta's advertisers didn't mind that much.

Might it not be a great idea, though, for Polish newspapers to take a look at somewhere a little closer to home, perhaps?

Now that really would be radical.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Rainbow warriors

The liberal-minded environmentalist Greenpeace, and the socially conservative Law and Justice government are united in their campaign against ‘Frankenstein food’.

The Baltic port of Gdynia had never seen anything like it. Last Thursday, activists from Greenpeace, the direct action environmental campaigners, tied themselves and their yellow rubber dingy to the anchor of a ship, preventing it from docking. The ship, the Hope, which began its journey in Argentina, was full up with 25,000 tons of animal feed made from Genetically Modified soya beans.

In Argentina, say Green activists, GM soya is causing massive environmental problems, such as deforestation, dramatic increase in the spraying of toxic herbicides and infertility of the soil.

Greenpeace say that Poland – where the majority of soya beans imported are used for animal feed - is rapidly becoming a ‘gateway’ through which GM crops are ‘sneaking into Europe’. Polish meat producers – which Greenpeace ominously remind us are ‘mostly in the hands of foreign owners’ - feed GM products to animals, which are them exported to countries such as Belgium, Germany, Sweden, UK, The Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. Greenpeace says that ‘GM derived meat and other products bare a completely unqualified health risk for consumers.’

I should warn that the ‘unqualified health risk’ in that sentence is another way of saying that there has been no proven health risk to humans from GM crops – but that’s another argument.

Meanwhile, back at the port in Gdynia, Greenpeace had picked a bad day for attaching themselves to a large ship’s anchor. The Baltic Sea is an unforgiving one. At this time of year it is absolutely freezing. After five hours of dangling from the anchor, buffeted by high winds in low temperatures, Greenpeace called it a day, and the cargo, imported by the US firm Cargill (I told you those nasty foreign firms were involved), finally made dry land.

Following directives from the European Union, growing GM crops in Poland is now illegal. But importing GM crops is legal. Greenpeace want to ban it all.

Bad news for greens

Though Greenpeace opened an office here a few years ago, the green movement is not a large one in Poland. People are not so much interested in sustainable development, they just want some sort of development.

Many in the West have decided that that their level of consumption is bad, and that emerging economies should not reach the same amount of consumption, and wealth, as they have. They must develop in a ‘sustainable’ way. And that means slowing down development. They are expecting people in Poland, naively, to slow down the rate at which their incomes grow.

I don’t think I need to point out why this is not going to be a very popular political option.

And now the good news…

There is some good news for the green movement in Poland. Central and eastern Europe is beginning to freak out about GM. Around 76 per cent of Polish consumers say they don't want to eat any food containing GM ingredients, according, that is, to a PBS opinion poll commissioned by Greenpeace Polska.

This follows an earlier study that says that 95 per cent of Russians who are aware of GM ingredients are either opposed, or are ‘seriously concerned’ by them.

And there is more good news for Polish greens. The new, populist, socially conservative, Law and Justice (PiS) government has come out squarely against genetically modified organisms getting in the food chain and messing up the wildlife.

This government position comes from two sources: one is that the EU is putting pressure on governments to fall into line with its anti-GM, precautionary stance. The other is what I would call the ‘Prince Charles’ position - that doing research into genetics, nanotechnology etc, is ‘scientists playing God’.

And the religious in the Polish government, and its allies in parliament, agree with the red faced, jug-eared, unemployed Royal about that kind of thing.

So the new, socially conservative government in Poland, and the ‘radical’, ‘liberal’ green campaigners of Greanpeace, have something in common: they are both against Genetically Modified Crops.

Another unlikely alliance in this wacky 21st century, Post-Cold War world.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Catholic Poland

A survey conducted by the Polish church shows that the majority of Poles are not ‘religiously active’.

Working as a journalist in Poland forces you to write sentences that include phrases such as ‘in staunchly Catholic Poland…’, or, ‘the devoutly Catholic Polish…’, or, ‘In a country where 95% are Catholic…’, etc. And every time I write these words (editors like it when you do, for some reason) I know that I am misleading the reader. Yes, 95% of people identify themselves as Roman Catholics. But that does not mean Poland is overflowing with the god-fearing.

A survey just released confirms this. Only 43% of Poles claim to be ‘actively religious’, or practicing Catholics. The majority of Poles only go to church on religious holidays, or for births, weddings and deaths. Some never go near the place at all.

This tallies with opinion polls that say that 50% of Poles want their very strict abortion laws liberalized. Seventy-five percent do not believe in the Catholic explanation of what happens after death. And, remarkably for a country where ‘natural methods of contraception’ (otherwise know a ‘cross your fingers and hope for the best’) are taught by the priests, Poland has one of the lowest birthrates in the world.

So the next time you see an article with ‘In a country where 95% are Catholic’ in it, make sure you put inverted commas over the catholic bit.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Is it a bird, is it a plane...?, it’s Andrzej Lepper, Super-capitalist!

Yes, you thought that Lepper, leader of the populist, left wing farmer’s union and lawmaker, was the former communist party political bruiser, the farm owner down on his luck, who came to fame as the organizer of road blocks in rural areas in the fight to defend the Polish farmer from market reforms, Brussels, and towns and cities in general with populations of over six hundred and fifty.

You thought his foreign policy included a sympathetic ear to the trials and tribulations of the Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko.

You thought his economic plan included halting privatization, and the state keeping hold of all major industries.

You thought that Andrzej Lepper was an unreconstructed, Soviet-type socialist with a dollop of nationalism thrown in.

But just as Clarke Kent slipped off his suit and tie in a phone booth to reveal the caped crusader beneath, so Lepper has thrown away the muddy boots and straw in the top pocket, to reveal a tasty pinstripe suit.

Andrzej Lepper has declared himself a capitalist!

“A socialist party has no chance today,” he says, with the dazed look of a Damascus experience still lingering in his eyes. He’s in favor of the privatization of everything but essential industries. He’s a modern guy! Honest!

But what led Lepper to this flash of market orientated inspiration? What took Leper out of the pig shed with shovel and into the office and executive toys?

Naked ambition? Quite probably. He knows that the minority PiS government can’t rule without him and his Samoobrona (Self defense) party. He wants a formal coalition with PiS, and a place in the government.

But he’s not just decided he’s a capitalist. He also says that he is now a ‘social-liberal’.

Oxymoron? Yes, but a typically Polish, political oxymoron. The liberal bit means he ‘believes’ in the market. The social bit means that the state is not going to be cutting social services, welfare, and social spending in general. And the farmers are still going to get price stability and lots of subsidies.

A tactical metamorphoses. But the change is less like a Clarke Kent to a Superman, as a tadpole into a frog.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Poles ban gay parade, EU bans anti-abortion exhibit

Polish reactionaries and EU liberals have more in common than they think.

It’s becoming a bit of a habit. Local authorities in Poland, this time in the mid-west city of Poznan, have banned a Gay Pride march, scheduled to take place this Saturday. The reason the local council give for denying people the right to free assembly and expression is that the march would be a, ‘serious danger to social order and property.’

A similar excuse was given by the then mayor of Warsaw, and now president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, when he banned (for the second year running) a similar parade through the centre of the capital this summer.

Of course, if you asked these politicians what the real reason is for such authoritarian behaviour they would tell you that they just find homosexuality offensive and ungodly, and don’t want to see such a parade in their city.

Polish human rights campaigners have argued that banning gay pride marches goes against the Polish Constitution. The European Union has warned President Kaczynski that he is going against human rights agreements signed by Poland.

Meanwhile, down at the EU parliament…

An anti-abortion exhibition entitled Life and Children in Europe ended in fisty-cuffs yesterday. Sponsored by MEPs from the League of Polish Families (LPR), the exhibition showed photos of unborn foetuses, and children in WWII concentration camps.

Enraged by the connection between terminations and Nazis, liberals and social democrats in the parliament, where the exhibition was being displayed, tried to take down the photographs. Security guards intervened when LPR members tried to keep the photos just where they were, and a fight broke out.

But the liberals succeeded in getting the offending material taken down.

Leader of LPR in the EU parliament, Maciej Giertych, said that he “never thought that the exhibit would be censored. I thought parliament was the place where controversial opinions were expressed.”

And, of course, he’s right. Just because someone doesn’t like opinions being expressed, or finds them offensive – like I do - is no reason to ban those opinions.

And that includes the actions of bigots in the local council in Poznan. Just because they find homosexuality offensive is no reason to ban a Gay Pride march.

Both the League of Polish Families and the liberals in Strasburg seem to agree that freedom of speech and expression is only permissible if that speech is not offensive to anybody.

But freedom of speech is not divisible. Both gays and anti-abortion activists have the right to press their case. And if people don’t like that case then they should be free to oppose it. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking is becoming increasingly unfashionable, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum.

If I was the security guard at the EU parliament I would have left the MEPs to it. These days, bigots and 'liberals' deserve each other.

It’s not been a good week for European liberty.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Still a hard sell?

The Polish defense minister, Radek Sikorski, and Star Wars II

The Warsaw Station blog comments on official recognition that Warsaw and Washington have been negotiating a deal on placing the US ‘Star Wars II’, anti-ballistic missile system in this country. Gustav notes that:

Gazeta [Wyborcza] reports that Dominique Moisi from the French Institute of International studies, says: "Did Poland consult its decision with European allies? Poland sees itself in the EU as a bridge between NATO and Europe. Together with this new government the question arises: Hasn't she already gone to the other side of the bridge?"

The US is building two bases at home where anti-rocket rockets and radar systems will be searching the skies for incoming threats from the latest bogey-state of the day. The Pentagon has been searching for a third base, in central and Eastern Europe, since late 2003. Candidates include Poland, Czech Republic or Hungary.

If Poland is chosen, then the man on the Polish side responsible for dealing with the Pentagon is the new Defense Minister, Radek Sikorski. If this is the new government’s policy then Sikorski must presumably be for the policy too.

Well, late last year he was more skeptical. In December 2004, Emmanuel Evita writes at the American Enterprise Institute web site:

Sikorski said granting interceptor host rights to the United States amounts to "ceding territory (for one country) to launch violence against another country to affect its strategic calculus." Anything less than a generous package -- which could include greater industrial and economic incentives according to Sikorski -- would be "a difficult sell in the current atmosphere of Central Europe" -- including Poland, said Sikorski. "There is a growing feeling in the region that 'We are not doing Iraq again.'"

So what’s happened since a year ago? Has the situation in Iraq got any better? Or is the 'package' getting better?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A United States’ Auschwitz?

Speculation about CIA gulags in Poland reaches new heights of absurdity …and I get quoted in the Washington Post!

Imagine my surprise when reading an article in the Post – the newspaper that originally broke the allegations - on reactions to the story in central and Eastern Europe, to see extracts from something I wrote for the radio. Washington Post journalist Jefferson Morley writes:

In Poland, Peter Gentle of Radio Polonia said the Post story came "as a bit of a shock to Poles. Most – maybe all – people I have spoke to just can’t believe a word of it. A Guantanamo Bay type prison in the middle of northern Poland? Don’t be ridiculous. "

Gentle described the evidence to support the claim of a prison in Poland as "dodgy, to say the least," adding that Poles "won’t believe that there are any [secret prisons] in Poland until physical evidence of these camps is uncovered before their very eyes."

The headline on his column evoked incredulity: "CIA Gulags--in Poland?"


Poles’ reaction is indeed one of disbelief, and some feel insulted that, on the back of circumstantial evidence, Poland is being accused of not just hosting secret camps, but of trying to cover up their existence.

But this hasn’t stopped the speculation in the media. Again from the Jefferson Morley article in the Post:

In Turkey, a columnist for the Yeni Safak newspaper said, "human smuggling sponsored by governments is gradually becoming a nightmare for the entire world... Are we going to cover up operations, unlawful acts, and crimes against humanity committed by the CIA or on its behalf in this country?" Ibrahim Karagul predicted the "secret torture centres" in Eastern Europe will be recorded in history as "the United States' Auschwitzs."

The Turkish writer goes on to say that he, ‘has no doubt the largest of these camps is in Poland’.

A ‘United States’ Auschwitz’ in Poland? This is an amazing claim to make, and I really think the guy who wrote that is a fool. Quite apart from the nauseating way that people, these days, over use words associated with the holocaust – and in doing so take away the unique horror of what happened during WWII – does he really think that another Auschwitz in Poland could be kept a secret? Does he know what the original Auschwitz was like?

In search of a smoking gun...

The evidence for a camp in Poland is based on one fact, and lots of ‘unnamed sources’.

A plane, en route from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan and back again, touched down in Szymany airstrip, northern Poland. We know this from the flight logs of a 737 Boeing thought to be one of a fleet of planes used by the CIA the purpose of moving around terror suspects.

An eyewitness – the ex-director of the airport - has said that, on September 22, 2003, she saw five men get on the plane, traveling on US passports. She also said, however, that nobody got off the plane, which was on the runway for about an hour.

We also have a TIME magazine article this week claiming that ‘counter intelligence sources’ had conformed the existence of the camps in central and Eastern Europe.

Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a public-interest documentation center in Washington, told Democracy Now:

I think the bottom line is that the C.I.A. fears that if the names of these countries are published, the people in those countries, Eastern Europeans who have, you know, pushed away from the gulags of the past and are trying to rebuild democracies in the present, will say: ‘Hey, this is not what we want in our countries!’ And this is exactly what happened with the C.I.A. detention center in Thailand. When it was revealed the C.I.A. was running a secret center in the war on terrorism in Thailand, the Thai government said: ‘We want to be able to deny that we have such a detention center here, and you have to shut it down.’ That is what the C.I.A. is truly worried about, is losing its ability to sustain these facilities.

These claims are also backed up by the TIME article I referred to earlier.

Maybe the best bit of evidence comes from the Washington Post itself, which says that it knows which countries are involved, but has agreed with the US government not to reveal them. The media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has complained that this ‘self censorship’ is dangerous for press freedom in the States. "The possibility that illegal, unpopular government actions might be disrupted is not a consequence to be feared, however-it's the whole point of the First Amendment,” it says.

While it is certain that there are secret camps being used around world for keeping al.-Qaeda suspects, the evidence that they are here in Poland is circumstantial, and certainly not good enough to claim that there are modern day equivalents to Auschwitz.

In the meantime, me, the girlfriend and the dog will not be opening the door to dodgy looking Americans who say that they are ‘from Washington’.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Forward to ‘Polish capitalism’

The vote of confidence in parliament Thursday means that Poland finally has a government. But for how long?

It was no surprise, really. Two hundred and seventy two deputies voted for the Law and Justice (PiS) led government – including lawmakers from League of Polish Families and SelfDefence, and 187 voted against, including ex-communists SLD and the largest opposition party, the free market Civic Platform.

This gives the government, headed by PM Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, the go ahead for their slightly vague program. Details include; trying to forge closer links between the US and the EU; no privatizations of key state industries such as the postal service, public television and radio, banking and energy; a simplified (but not flat) tax system, the end of capital gains tax on stock market earnings, and a 30 billion zloty (8.75 billion dollars) ceiling on the budget deficit.

But what to call this new arrangment?

"We are going to develop these companies to create a Polish brand name and Polish capitalism," Marcinkiewicz said after the vote last night.

Polish capitalism? Throw in some of PiS’s more socially authoritarian policies and what you get is a Polish conservative-socialism!

PiS are presenting all this as a pragmatic agenda and not an ‘ideological’ one. This is wise as it gives them more room to change their program as external political realities dictate.

The support achieved by PiS in parliament in the vote of confidence from smaller, more extreme populist parties is provisional. Roman Giertych, head of the far-right League of Polish Families gave PiS a warning that they could not expect his party to just vote for everything that comes their way: "We won't give this government another chance if it departs from what has been announced in the policy statement," he said.

In an attempt to stabilize the situation, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the parliamentary wing of PiS, said yesterday that he did not rule out a more formal arrangement for a coalition government with the farmers union, SelfDefence.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Brussels to the rescue?

Should the EU ‘save’ Poles from their ‘radical’ government?

The outgoing president, ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, told a British newspaper this week that the ‘EU and NATO’ will limit the more extreme tendencies of the new minority, populist, social conservative Law and Justice (PiS) administration.

The comment comes before a constitutional vote of confidence which PiS must pass in the Sejm (parliament) this Thursday if they are to remain in government.

To get through the vote PiS must find support from parties such as the League of Polish Families (policies of which include making still more strict Poland’s already strict abortion ban, even when rape is the cause of the pregnancy) and the SelfDefense farmers union (the leader of which gives his support to Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko).

Since the general election last September, Law and Justice have been making policy noises that will certainly disturb many a Eurocrat in Brussels.

Finance Minister, Lubinska, has said that she thinks that foreign hypermarkets are not a positive investment in Poland and that smaller, indigenous retail units should be given more support (see below). The top layer of the secret services has been given the sack. The police force is being radically reorganized and up to 50% more police will be recruited and put on the streets to combat crime. Economic policies appear to fail to tackle Poland’s ballooning budget deficit. And PiS – long hot under the collar (and sweaty of palm) about homosexuality, have indicated they are considering legislation to ban gays from the teaching profession.

All radical, or reactionary, stuff. But should President Kwasniewski be calling for the EU to save Poles from PiS and their rather strange friends?

After all, nobody is claiming that PiS won the election unfairly. There were no ‘hanging chads’ clogging up the ballot boxes.

At a time when many educated Poles throw up their hands in horror at the dismal level of turnout in Polish elections (if 50% drag themselves out to vote then it’s considered quite a success in Poland – see my Silent Majority) then should we be hoping for the un-elected in Brussels to save Poles from themselves?

Many will find some of the policies of the present government repugnant, but hoping for bureaucrats somewhere outside the country to do something about it will only increase Poles disengagement from the ballot box, democracy and politics in general.

As has been said many times elsewhere, in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. If Poles don’t like PiS then they can get rid of them next polling day.

Monday, November 07, 2005

If you go down to Tesco’s today… won’t be seeing the new Polish Finance Minister by the cheese counter.

It’s official: Teresa Lubinska, the recently appointed FM in the new Polish minority government, does not shop at Tesco’s, or any other foreign owned supermarket. She thinks that these sorts of retail outlets are ‘not productive investments’ and Poland should be opening up more of its own stores.

The revelations came in an interview the minister did with the Financial Times. “Hypermarkets like Tesco are no investment. I mean they are not vital for economic growth,” she said.

She added that when she was working for the local authority in Szczecin, the port city in the northwest, she tried to ‘chase out’ these stores, and supported smaller, Polish shops.

The remarks caused some concern among foreign investors, unsurprisingly. Was this the right signal to send out to the markets at the start of a term in government? Lubinska was thought to be a technocratic financial moderate, with links to the free market Civic Platform, the largest party in the opposition.

Rafal Antczak, of the Center For Socio-Economic Analyses, and the man behind the economic policy of Civic Platform, told Polskie Radio that he was surprised by the statement.

“It’s hard to know why the new FM, who is trying to build a reputation with the market, where she is not well known, should do so by making such a controversial statement.’

But it’s not that hard to figure out. Chris Bobinski – one time Polish correspondent for the Financial Times – reminds us of political realities:

“Her statement won’t do her any good abroad, but at home – where the government faces a vote of confidence in the parliament on Thursday – it won’t do her any harm at all.'

To get through that vote, Law and Justice needs the support of several right wing and populist parties, such as the far-right League of Polish Families, the Peasant’s Party and the radical farmers union, Samoobrona. All those parties have mentioned before how unfair foreign supermarket chains are, as they push the smaller Polish units out of the market by cutting prices and making food cheaper, and offering better service and better produce and a wider choice.

No statement from Tesco’s, however, which is the UK’s biggest investor in Poland.

Meanwhile, all ministers are banned from making statements to the press in advance of the confidence vote. Which gives them more free time to cruise the isles at their local, Polish owned supermarket.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

More on the ‘Polish gulags’

Polish officials deny existence of camps, but say that planes did land (pictured: Szymany airstrip?)

Human Rights Watch’s accusations (see previous two posts) that secret camps in Poland are holding terror suspects on behalf of the CIA have been denied by the Polish government. But they are not disputing that planes on route to Guantanamo Bay from Afghanistan did touch down in Poland. AP reports:

Polish authorities…confirmed Friday that a plane carrying Americans touched down at a little-used airport on the day when, a human rights group says, flight logs indicate that a C.I.A. aircraft landed there. Airport officials and border guards said that on Sept. 22, 2003, a Boeing passenger plane carrying seven people with United States passports touched down at midnight at Szczytno-Szymany Airport, a former military base in the northeastern pine forests. Szczytno-Szymany is not an operating airport, but planes may land if arrangements are made in advance.

The 737 – which was on the runway for about an hour - took on five other people traveling on United States passports with business visas attached.

AP reports that a former director of the airport, Mariola Przewloczka, says that the occupants inside the plane did not get off, but guards went out and boarded the 737.

HRW’s evidence is not just from flight logs, which they claim to have seen. The NGO says that it has matched the records with information gained from interviews with detainees at US camps.

The Red Cross expressed concern “at the fate of an unknown number of people captured as part of the so-called global war on terror,” whom, it said, were held at undisclosed places of detention.

In the US – where Bush’s approval ratings have hit an all-time low due to Republican in-house scandals, the war in Iraq, and incompetence in the aftermath of the hurricanes which lashed New Orleans and other parts of the southeast – is under yet more pressure because of the ‘Polish gulag’ allegations.

On the Australian ABC television’s Four Corners programme, David Hicks –who was an inmate at Guantanamo Bay - claimed that he had been taken to one of these ‘black sites’ prisons, but didn’t know where it was.

Washington has refused to say whether these camps exist or not.

If the allegations turn out to be true then Poland will be in a particularly difficult position politically, as this would contravene EU and human rights agreements which it has signed.

Friday, November 04, 2005

And so the Poland/CIA plot thickens…

Reactions to reports that the CIA has been putting terrorist suspects in secret camps in Poland.

The EU and human rights groups such as the Red Cross are demanding answers to the allegations by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that Poland is playing a crucial part in the US’s ‘war on terror’. HRW said that camps in Poland and Romania are being used to hold terror suspects picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere. (see previous post).

Friso Roscam Abbing, a spokesman for the EU, said that the exisitence of these camps would violate the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Convention on Torture. Franco Frattini, the EU Justice Minister, said that he is ecnouraging member states to, “look into the matter.” The Red Cross – which has long suspected that the US is holding terror suspects in secret, somewhere - has asked Washington to clarify matters. And the Council of Europe is also investigating the claims.

The evidence…

HRW’s evidence seems to be based, only, on the flight logs of CIA aircraft from 2001 to 2004. "The indications are that prisoners in Afghanistan are being (taken) to facilities in Europe and other countries in the world," HRW’s Mark Garlasco, a former civilian intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, told AP.

He said that in September 2003, a Boeing 737 flew from Washington to Kabul, Afghanistan, making stops along the way in the Czech Republic and Uzbekistan. On Sept. 22, the plane flew on to Szymany Airfield in Poland, and then to Sale, Morocco, and finally to Guantanamo Bay.

HRW would not say how they obtained these flight logs.

The planes…

Apparently, the CIA does not own any Boeing 737’s, the planes that HWR alledges that the prisoners are being carried to Poland in. But a CIA ‘shell’ company – Keeler and Tate, based at an address in Nevada, US - does own the planes.

The company, however, has no list of employers and no business partners. All business handled by the company passes through the well-known Republican lawyer - and ex-best buddie to Ronald Reagan (in the days when he was aware that he had best-buddies) - Paul D. Laxalt.

I told you the plot had thickened.

The theories…

Of course, this sort of story – with al-Qaeda terrorists being buried away somewhere in deepest Poland – is just the kind to stimulate theories and conspiracies.

My favourite, so far, is the one mentioned by Mr. Ost on the beatroot (see comment 13 on previous post). He wonders if all this is to with the new PM, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz’s announcement this week that heads of Poland’s intelligence services (WSI) are in for the sack. ''The WSI will be eliminated, and replaced by other structures to guarantee Poland's security,'' said Poland's new PM.

Marcinkiewicz’s party, Law and Justice (PiS), have accused Polish intelligence services of still being under communist control, 17 years after the fall of the regime. In fact, the insistence that agencies such as WSI should be overhauled has been one of the many areas of friction between Law and Justice and Civic Platform recently, when they tried to, unsuccessfully, form a coalition. (PiS have also just announced that they are closing down the Gender Equality Office - another nest of commies, apparently).

So might the allegations be coming, not just from a bunch of plane spotters at HRW, but also from pissed off Polish intelligence officers who are in for an unexpectedly early retirement?

The intrigue grows and the plots will thicken...

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Al-Qaeda in Poland? Gulp!

But they are not sneaking into the country under the noses of border guards. They are being brought here by the CIA!

EU Observer writes that speculation is growing that there are secret camps in Eastern Europe where crazed Islamic terrorists are being imprisoned. The EU Observer reports that:

“Human Rights Watch, a leading US-based NGO, has identified Poland and Romania as likely locations for the camps…‘We have a high degree of confidence that such facilities exist in at least Poland and Romania’, said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of the NGO”

Blimey! Human Rights Watch say that planes coming to and from Afghanistan show strong evidence that Poland could be one of the destinations. Gazeta Wyborcza is also quoting ‘sources’ that conform this. Apparently, in 2003, a 737 Boeing with the registration number N313P landed at an airfield in northern Poland, on route to Afghanistan.

The gossip is that the most likely place for a camp such as this is in Szymanow, about 120 kilometres from Warsaw, where there is an army base and an airfield with a 2 kilometers long landing strip, large enough to land a 737.

The Financial Times reports that: ”Poland's role, if confirmed, would be especially controversial, given that it has recently joined the European Union.”

Polish officials have been lining up to deny the allegations. The FT quotes Leszek Laszczak, spokesman for the Polish defense ministry:

"No people suspected of terrorist activities were held in military bases on the territory of the Republic of Poland, either as a result of an agreement with the US government or with any other institutions of the US."

Gazeta quotes former deputy defense minister, Janusz Zemke, as saying: "I don't know anything about planes or prisoners." And Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, liason officer to the CIA in 2003, said: " The USA has never proposed that we hold terrorists."

If the reports are true - and the US is not confirming or denying them, which probably means that they are – then what is going on in these places? Is Poland now home to the European version of Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib? And how are they torturing the poor bastards? By force feeding them flaki?

The intrigue deepens and the plot will thicken...

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The third twin?

A minority government was sworn in on Monday in Warsaw that must rely on some pretty strange characters to rule. (pictured: Andzej Lepper)

To govern, the Law and Justice party (PiS) – led by the two Kaczynski twins - must rely on support from populists, xenophobes and far-right catholic nationalists. As Polityka magazine notes this week, with Lech Kaczynski now in the presidential palace, and his identical twin brother Jarolsaw controlling things behind the scenes in parliament, a third personality will be increasingly influential over the fortunes of this government, the leftwing populist and nationalist, Andzej Lepper.

Is Lepper, then, the ‘third twin’ in government?

With the second largest party in parliament, Civic Platform (PO), refusing to join a coalition with PiS over differences in economic policy and the choice of personnel in cabinet, this leaves the way open for smaller parties to get in on the act and wield power way beyond their numerical number within parliament. The largest of these groups, Selfdefence, led by Lepper, will be particularly important to the future of PiS in government.

Lepper – in return for his support of PiS in the election of arch-Eurosceptic, Marek Jurek, as Speaker of Parliament last week - has now been given the prestigious job as one of his deputies.

This has amused many Poles, who remember when Lepper was given the same job by the SLD ex-communists in the last parliament. But when the head of Selfdefence lived up to form by causing a lot of trouble in the chamber, he was removed from his post in November, 2001.

Sefdefence will be demanding more subsidies and protection for farmers, and an increase in welfare spending for pensioners, the sick, and the 17.5% unemployed. Lepper is also pushing for less independence from parliament for the interest rate setting Monetary Policy Council.

These policies are an anathema to the party that has refused to enter into the coalition, the Civic Platform, which wants cuts in public spending, a flat income tax, and speedier privatisation of Poland’s key industries. Donald Tusk – PO’s defeated candidate in last month’s presidential election – said PiS has a choice: “You can't have cooperation with Civic Platform and Andrzej Lepper at the same time," he said, adding, “It’s us or them.”

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has claimed that he has ‘begged’ PO to join the coalition, and the 17 members of the new cabinet unveiled Monday include some sops to PO, including Zbigniew Religa as health minister (who said during the presidential campaign that the prospect of a PiS led government ‘frightened him”) and Teresa Lubinska as finance minister, who is a former member of a party closest in outlook to PO, the now defunct Unia Wolnosci.

PiS must also go looking for support from the far-right League of Polish Families. Included in their election programme was a call to tighten Poland’s already extremely strict abortion law. The League proposes a ban on all terminations, even when the pregnancy is the result of rape.

So, if PiS and PO cannot form a coalition together we are left with a typically confusing, Polish political situation.

Foreign newspapers are claiming that the new government represents a shift to the right in Polish politics. But they are wrong.

Normally, the economic programme of PiS – which shares some of the state protectionist tendencies of Selfdefence – would, in the old days, be described as being [whisper it] socialist. Add to the mix PiS, Selfdefence and the League of Polish Families’ conservative social policies, and what we have is a Polish minority government which must rely on support from conservative-socialists.

This is not a natural blending of flavours, and is about as appetizing as curried ice cream.