Thursday, March 30, 2006

Global Voices not being heard properly

Jordon and Maria continue their very good Polish blog review on Global Voices Online. But the comments mentioning this blog are not correct.

They write about my post, ‘Anti-social’ Poles and ‘racist’ Northern Irish. After commenting on criticisms of Polish domestic politics they say that Poland is, quite literally, getting a kicking abroad, as well. Jordon and Maria write:

‘Not only having trouble at home, according to the beatroot, Poles are taking a beating abroad as well. Incidents of scuffles [in Belfast] between Poles and local residents are not isolated, particularly in Ireland. The beatroot makes a religious connection, arguing that beatings are less common in Catholic areas. To be fair, Ireland is one of the few countries that have opened their borders to work-hungry Poles.‘

They say: “Incidents of scuffles between Poles and local residents are not isolated, particularly in Ireland.” But there have been no incidents, to my knowledge, of Poles taking beatings in Ireland. In fact I never mentioned Ireland in that post once. I was talking about Northern Ireland, which is, of course, part of the United Kingdom.

And the ‘scuffles’ you talk about have put Poles in hospitals – surly a bit more than a ‘scuffle.’

Then we have, ‘...the beatroot makes a religious connection.' No I didn’t. But Poles have done, as they seem to think these are anti-catholic beatings. I don't think they are.

I said that the attacks have been in Loyalist areas – Loyalists, in this context, are mostly Protestants, but a loyalist is a political category, not a religious one. The conflict in N. Ireland over the past 30 or 40 years has not been over some theological point, but over the six counties being British (loyalist) or Irish (Irish republican).

The attacks on Poles have been almost exclusively in poor, Loyalist areas in Northern Ireland – that is a fact. Groups from to loyalist paramilitary outfits may have been involved in one of the incidents, and some of these groups are very nasty skinkhead types with connections to British groups like Combat 18 (follow the links and you will see that these are linked to Polish neo-nazis as well). These days, these groups are just organized criminals or just a bunch of thugs out for a 'laugh'.

But I made the point that the attacks are probably nothing to do with Poles being Catholics and are not sectarian in character at all, but are the result of a general law and order breakdown in areas which used to have communities that policed themselves. Since the Good Friday Agreement that ability seems to have gone, communities have become depolitisized and the police do not seem to be able to reduce the soaring crime rate in general in those areas.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

PiS artist

Krzysztof Cugowski, senator for the ruling, conservative, Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość - PiS) and singer with Polish rock dinosaurs Budka Suflera, , is fed up with politics...already.

Cugowski has been on television twice in two days saying that he’s a poor disillusioned guy who didn’t realise that politics was such a dirty business.

Bless him!

He’s the 56 year old lead singer with a group that recorded 25 albums between 1974 and 2005, Budka Suflera (Prompters Box?).

After making a lot of money over the years, he must have got bored – like ageing rock stars do – and thought that he would represent the very un-rock and roll Law and Justice (PiS) in the Senate at last September’s general election.

But already he looks like he would rather be back in the recording studio, fiddling with the mixing knobs.

Asked on the television show Teraz My* what he thought about gay rights and same-sex ‘marriages’ - a very contentious issue with supporters of his party, PiS - he said that he had ‘no problem with gay marriage’.

Err...excuse me? Cugowski senator for PiS, the party that thinks that gays are a threat to civilization as we know it?

He was asked on television tonight if he thought that Andrzej Lepper – the firebrand leader of the rural proletarian Selfdefence party, who is demanding a place in government (maybe deputy prime minister - eek!) as condition on forming a coalition with the minority government – should be welcomed into such a high position?

He indicated that if this happened then it would be the excuse for getting out of a rather prematurely ejaculated political career.

I feel sorry for the guy. He’s a rock singer. Period. Stay out of politics. But you have to wonder at his naivety.

* ’Teraz My’ means ‘Now Us’ – in reference, I think, to a comment a right wing politician was heard making after his party won the election in 1997 after a few years of ex-communist rule – ‘Teraz Kurwa My!– “Now it’s fucking our turn!”

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pakistani bloggers blocked on

Sign the petition against the Pakistan government’s decision to censor blog sites.

This has been going on sometime and I missed it (Hat tip Renegade Eye). Pakistani bloggers using the same site as this one have been unable to read their blogs after all blogs were blocked. Apparently, internet sites on blogspot were inviting people to draw a cartoon of Mohammed (snigger, titter, titter..!). Pakistan authorities got scared at the protests in Karachi and other cities over the Danish cartoons fuss and blocked blogspot.

Unfortunately...there seems to be little fuss about the blockade on blogs in Pakistan. The BBC reports:

The BBC's Aamer Ahmed Khan in Karachi says the blocking is unlikely to turn into a major freedom of expression issue in Pakistan as there seems to be a consensus against allowing such freedom to extend to irreverent treatment of religious figures.

Oh, bugger.

But I still think it’s outrageous. It means the beatroot is banned in Pakistan! My many Pakistani readers must be extremely distressed.

Bring the beatroot back into Pakistan! Sign the petition now!

Election matters – and why psephology is sexy

Parliament will be voting in the first week of April on whether to have another general election – only nine months after the last one. But some in Poland are starting to see the electoral system itself as one of the nation’s problems.

When Poles went to the polls in September last year to vote for a new government, most thought that two parties would end up holding the balance of power and would form a coalition government. Voters thought that because the two parties in question – the socially conservative but economically leftist, Law and Justice, and economic liberalizes, Civic Platform - told them that this would be so.

But after the election this coalition never materialized, and Law and Justice – the largest party in parliament – has tried to rule as a minority government ever since. This has meant that Law and Justice leaders, such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have spent more time trying to cobble together temporary coalitions than they have governing the country.

And so Law and Justice are trying to get parliament to dissolve itself and have another election.

To do this, however, they need a two-thirds majority in the Sejm, the Polish Lower House. This means the government needs the support of opposition parties, some of which have seen their support in the country shrink since September’s general election. Consequently, these parties like the parliament just the way it is now and don’t want an election, which would probably cut their number of seats.

Electoral turkeys, after all, do not often vote for Christmas.

Another objection to having an early election in late spring this year is the visit in the last week in May of Pope Benedict – his first to Poland since being elected Pontiff. The Polish church agrees.

Opposition Civic Platform - though now in the lead in the opinion polls - has also complained that the electoral system in Poland is to blame for the current stalemate and instability in parliament.

So what does the Polish proportional representative electoral system look like?

Let me take you, briefly, into the murky world of psephology – the study of elections and electoral systems.

Polish PR
The Polish administration's own web pages explain Polish PR as follows:

‘In proportional elections, the number of candidates representing the various parties returned to Sejm is proportional to the number of votes their respective parties receive…The number of successful candidates returned for each party in a given constituency is calculated after the final count of votes on the basis of the d'Hondt system.’

More of the d’Hondt system in a moment, but basically that means that if a party gets 35% of the vote throughout the country then they will end up receiving around 35% of the seats in parliament.

Which individuals take these seats depends on where they were on the list of candidates for their party on the local ballot paper. The higher the percentage of the vote the party receives the more individuals that party can send to the parliament.

Confused yet? You will be.

There are many different types of PR system – Poland’s works at the moment on the aforementioned d’Hondt system, named after a Belgium lawyer, who, way back in the 1870s came up with an amazingly complicated formula for matching popular aspiration with the number of seats in parliament.

I have looked at the D’Hondt system and guess what: I don’t understand a word of it.

What the PR system is good at is producing a parliament that reflects the proportion of votes. What it is bad at is producing governments with a working majority.

If you don’t believe me then look at the famously chaotic Italian system, which, until they reformed it a few years ago, had produced more governments since the war than Mama had produced plates of hot steaming pasta.

To remedy this Civic Platform mooted an idea last year that Poland should adopt the British, First Past the Post System. This system does have the advantage of being understandable by the electorate that has to take part in it.

Majority rules
Basically, parties put up individual candidates in the 646 constituencies in the UK. Whichever party gets the most votes in those constituencies gets a seat in parliament. So the UK system is actually made up of 646 individual elections. And the winner takes all.

It is that simple and it also tends to produce a two or three party system, and often creates one party with an overall majority in parliament.

What the British system is very bad at, though, is reflecting the popular vote within parliament. For instance, Tony Blair’s New Labour won about 38% of the vote in last year’s election but they have about 60% of the seats in parliament.

Unfair says voters for smaller parties which are disenfranchised by the bias towards the larger parties.

But this is what Civic Platform want for Poland. And many can see why. It would produce a two, maybe three party system which would be able to govern, uninterrupted by having to make deals in smoke filled rooms just so it could be agreed who is going to be ordering the coffee.

The chances for a spring election in Poland look slim, however. So politicians and the rest of us will have to wait till late autumn or a poll next year. And it the system the election will be fought under will probably be the same that produced the stalemate in parliament last time.

Until then the government will struggle on, intrigue upon intrigue and deal upon broken deal will emerge from those smoke filled rooms.

So much for psephology and electoral systems. Many normal people here argue, however, that it is not the system - with its PR, its d’Hondt, its First Past the Post - that is to blame for Poland’s political instability, but - and here’s a radical suggestion – it might just be something to do with the politicians that the system produces.

Now that’s an interesting thought.

D’Hondt system explained (sort of!)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Alexander Lukashenko and other bastards

Hooliganism by Belarusian police after opposition try, and fail, to get a (counter!)revolution going.

The Belarusian foreign ministry has said that, contrary to western reports of violence by police and the arrest of the main opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin, for ‘hooliganism’, everything now in Minsk is calm and everyone is happy. The police had only started bashing heads of demonstrators after they had started heading to the detention centre where Alexander Kozulin was being held, apparently.

Wanting to protest an arrest? The Jacobins!

I saw what the police did on the television. Not very pleasant. I have been in those situations quite a few times and, believe me, when the cops start charging at you, with batons beating against their shields, thud, thud, thud, you wish you had brought along a spare pair of trousers. And I would say that the Belarusian riot cops are as nasty as their Parisian counterparts. Very nasty.

President Lukashenka, now ‘elected’ for a third time, is an international pariah – apart from an awkward friendship with Russia. Putin is embarrassed by Lukashenka’s antics, but knowing that Belarus, as it is, couldn’t exist without Russian support, he’s not too bothered.

But Lukashenko does have a few friends. Look at this report by something called the Workers World. Under the headline Belarus beats Bush, they rightly point out all the western help (and interference, in many cases) the opposition has been getting.

Both the U.S. and European governments poured in millions of dollars openly and covertly to defeat Lukashenka. The Feb. 26 New York Times admitted that the Bush Administration was spending $12 million in 2006 to overthrow the Belarus leader. Another $2.2 million was allocated by the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is also trying to topple Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

The European Union awarded $2.4 million to a German company to broadcast hostile radio and television programs into Belarus. The Polish regime set up Radio Racja with similar goals. Though he is an opposition figure in Belarus, Milinkevich was allowed to address the Sejm, the Polish Parliament.

Poland also broadcasts in the Belarusian language on Radio Polonia (the other two broadcast stations mentioned transmit in Russian and then Belarusian – which is slightly missing the point, as one of the opposition’s main demand is for Belarusian to be the nation’s first language and not Russian, as it is now).

But they have got a point. The West wants to export ‘people power’ and another ‘revolution'.

The revolution that wasn't

Ukraine is having an election today and the likely result is a win for the candidate deposed in the Orange Revolution . The first survey since the ballot closed shows the Russian supported Viktor Yanukovych with 33%, ex-orange revolution Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, on 22%, and then the guy someone poisoned to try and get rid of him, and hero of Ukrainian 'people power', Viktor Yushchenko, with a sad 13 percent.

It's only been just over a year since the orange revolution. And it didn't get anywhere. So what sort of ‘revolution’ was that?

The media will start calling the results of a parish election a ‘revolution’ soon. Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia - these were not grass roots movements, Solidarity style - they were revolutions among elites.

Maenwhile, back at Workers World's last hope for proletarian dictatorship - Belarus - they go on to explain Lukashenka’s undoubted (but massively exaggerated) support:

80 percent of industry is still state-owned. That is a good reason why the unemployment rate in Belarus is 1.5 percent, as compared to 18 percent in Poland in 2005, and 48 percent for Black men in New York City in 2003.

All true of course – if you forget that ‘employment’ in those types of countries is quite a flexible term. It could mean you have a job digging holes in the road and then filling them back in again.

And this is where the Workers World article starts getting more than a little silly.

Average wages increased by 24 percent last year. Pensions also went up. The sales tax was cut.

It’s starting to sound like an economic report during the 1970’s in Poland. Belarus, listen to me – it won’t last!

And then, poor old Workers World start frothing at the mouth:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Belarus, along with Cuba, People’s Korea and Zimbabwe, as “outposts of tyranny.” But for workers everywhere Belarus is an outpost of resistance.

Oh, dear. It was all going so well.

Check out Swedish journalist, Tobias Ljungvall on Belarus, blog. He posts every Sunday on Belarus.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

‘Anti-social’ Poles and ‘racist’ Northern Irish

A 51 year old Polish bricklayer gets beaten in Belfast and a crowd of thugs go nuts. Poles think they are being targeted because they are Catholics. But it’s not religion that’s the problem.(photo: UVF - Loyalist paramilitary organization grafitti)

My mother’s family is from Country Antrim, Northern Ireland, and I live and work in Poland. So I have been following this story carefully.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that on 20 March…

‘…Shortly after 10pm a gang of up to seven men armed with baseball bats smashed through the doors of a house in Donegall Street.

They broke windows before attacking the 51-year-old householder [his name is Jurek] with a hammer. He suffered arm injuries and was later treated in hospital before being released…

Detectives believe the same gang, who all wore scarves to cover their faces, then attacked houses in Fortuna Street and Coolfin Street, breaking a number of windows. All the incidents are being treated as racist.’

At the same time a group of about 30 people from the Loyalist (Protestant) Donegall Road, Village area of Belfast were demonstrating about ‘antisocial’ behaviour of Poles who had moved into the area since Poland joined the EU in 2004.

Antisocial behaviour are buzz words in what passes off for British politics at the moment. It means noisy neighbours ,etc. Apparently, Poles in the area have been having some noisy parties and there have been reports of ‘urinating in the street’.

But the BBC reported that:

‘MP for south Belfast, the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell, accused those taking part in the protest of behaving "like Nazis".

"I have a lot of sympathy with the economic plight and difficulties on Donegall Road, and I have done much since I was elected MP to ensure government channeled resources into that area," he said.

"But how long can you go on turning the cheek in that situation when the people are behaving like Nazis?"‘

The attacks on Poles in Belfast this week are not isolated incidents. Last year, between April and August, 11 separate reports of verbal and physical abuse wee recorded against Poles by the police. One Pole told Radio Polonia:

‘Was I ever the target a racist attack? Yes, I was. I was coming back from work with my friends through the local park when a group of 5 Irishmen approached us. They were suddenly joined by 10 more people and started beating us up with wooden planks and anything else they could find. I was taken in an ambulance into a nearby hospital where I waited 4 hours for inspection. I often hear of similar attacks happening near Belfast. Is it about religion? Yes, it’s not about whether you are Polish or Lithuanian but whether you are Catholic.‘

There have also been similar incidents in Country Antrim, to the north of Belfast.

I try and tell Poles that not all Irish Protestants are anti-Catholic thugs. Not all of Billy’s Boys are bully boys. But that’s the type of coverage it has been given here. They are convinced that Poles are being attacked by anti-Papists.

But I don’t think so.

The Donegall area of south Belfast is rough. Unemployment, bad housing, the middle class and the better off moving out. The usual deprived area scenario.

That makes rent in the area cheap and Poles and other immigrants have gravitated towards it. When they get there, however, the reception is not always friendly. And not just for Poles. In December 2004, the BBC again:

'Two houses in the Donegall Road and Coolsin Street areas were badly damaged after being set on fire. The houses were occupied by Romanian and Pakistani families, but both were away on holiday. Also last month, two Chinese families and a Ugandan family were forced to leave their homes in the village area after being targeted on the same night.'

The area has been degenerating for some time. Money is being thrown at the place, community centers are being built, nice murals painted by children are replacing the old, Loyalist graffiti.

But crime levels in the area, by Belfast standards – low crime during the ‘Troubles’, but rising since the Good Friday Agreement, interestingly - are high.

And rightwing gangs feed off that sort of situation. The communities used to be able to police themselves – but no longer.

So Poles are not getting attacked in places like Donegall Road because they are Catholics – but because they just strolled into the wrong part of town.

Gangmasters exploiting Polish in Wales, March 25

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

How not to make friends and influence people

It’s easy: become a member of the Law and Justice (PiS) government! In power for six months, and making a new enemy everyday. And the opinion polls are starting to show the disenchantment.

In just half a year the conservative, Catholic, economically leftish, Law and Justice government has made people hate them in:

The Central Bank. This goes back a long way and involves an apparent vendetta against the head of the National Bank of Poland, Leszek Balcerowicz. He was the architect of the economic ‘shock therapy’ of the early nineties, which liberalized the economy but also hurt many, creating unemployment and a growing difference between rich and poor. Kaczynski supporters and those from other populist parties, right and left, have been out to get Balcerowicz for ages and they are determined to get him before the end of his term as head banker this year.

The Supreme Court – full of commies, apparently.

The mainstream media. Law and Justice see a conspiracy between ex-communists and economic liberalizers (?) from the opposition Civic Platform, deep within the news media. They think that the media is out to get them. Law and Justice seem only to trust the Catholic fundamentalist media based around the slightly wacko Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who owns Radio Maryja and TV Trwam and the daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik.

At a key signing of the Stability Pact between the minority government and two smaller parties, PiS only invited Trwam along for live coverage. All mainstream media boycotted the press conference afterwards. And that’s unprecedented here.

Law and Justice are also setting up a Special Parliamentary Committee to look into the work of the media in the 16 years since the end of communism. They are looking for bias against…well, people like them. It sounds a little bit like the Spanish Inquisition, to me.

Of course, anyone half sympathetic to PiS in the media before the election last September (and there were a few) is not feeling so generous to them now. The media are predominantly Civic Platform voters – if they vote at all. Generally, though, journalists are professionals before they are voters. So they do try and be fair.

But when you are feeling got at, that objectivity becomes harder to stick to. It's only natural.

PiS have created a self-fulfilling prophecy: the media wasn’t out to get them before the election – but large sections of it are now.

The EU – which is anxious at the rise of protectionism within the Union. They are particularly concerned about PiS’s attempt to block the Italian bank Unicredito’s aim to merge two Polish banks it has interests in. This was the issue with which PiS have used to bash Leszek Balcerowicz. The EU is also not too keen on some of the human rights aspects of the PiS government.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and the trans-gendered community. PiS exhibit chronic symptoms of homophobia – an irrational fear which, as President Lech Kaczynski (Jaro’s twin) expressed recently on a trip to Germany, believes that if homosexuality is encouraged then all Poles will turn, over night, into Sodom and Gomorrah. President Kaczynski banned two gay rights marches when he was major of Warsaw before becoming president.

Germans – on that trip to Germany, Kaczynski generated acres of newsprint in the German press that was not very flattering. They couldn’t understand why he kept talking about ‘the war’ (he wants Germany to cough up some Euro compensation for Nazi crimes). Many German Christian-democrats (like Chancellor Merkel) would quite like to see Poland give them back Silesia.

Tesco’s supermarket – since they came to power PiS\have not appeared to have been over-welcoming to foreign investment – particularly from giant supermarket retailers, who they think are the devil’s spawn (0ne of a few things they share with lefty-liberals in western Europe and the US, interestingly – they don’t like GM crops either, as they are not made by the Almighty). They also don’t like…
Italian bankers (see EU above)

The list goes on. The latest opinion poll released this evening showed PiS falling behind Civic Platform by four percent (although, PiS think that opinion pollsters are part of the same nest of communists and liberals that the media are from – opinion pollsters probably hate them too).

The government is going to put a bill through parliament this week to force an early election before Pope Benedict comes to Poland in the last week of May. A big occasion for the faithful here – (and PiS supporters). Civic Platform – which must vote for it otherwise the bill will fail to become law – has said that it will not support early elections. They favour a ballot in autumn. Both parties are trying to call each others bluff and making the other look ‘chicken’. Which is very boring!

An autumn election? Who knows how many more enemies PiS will have created by then.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Politics: the art of the nearly impossible

Twenty five years ago this week the Solidarity trade union called for a four hour warning strike, with a general strike threatened to follow four days later. Participation in the warning strike was 100 percent. Maybe the Belarusian opposition should take note..?

On the March 27, 1981, at 8 a.m., workers all over Poland downed tools and stopped work for four hours. Communist Poland came to a standstill. In the streets the flags of Poland and Solidarity hung from every conceivable point, fluttering in the early spring breeze. Every second person was wearing a badge – the red and white of the local branch of the trade union, the silver and black of a specially made image of the Solidarity monument, which now stood proudly near the gates of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, the home of Solidarity.

At 12 noon workers all over the country picked up their tools again and re-started work. The message was clear to the communist authorities. Solidarity now had the power, and the solidarity, to bring the regime to its knees. Would they heed that warning in Spring 1981 and stop breaking the promises that they had made in the August Agreement the previous year, which officially recognized Solidarity as the first free and self-governing trade union in the communist block?

But just how was it possible to organize such a strike in what were extremely oppressive circumstances?

This is a question maybe the opposition in Belarus might be asking themselves today. The presidential election last Sunday ended in a landslide for what many call the ‘last dictator in Europe’, Alexander Lukashenko, a strange figure who seems nostalgic for the good old days of the Soviet Union. This Charlie Chaplin-esque character, who would indeed make a great comic supporting actor in a Buster Keaton or Keystone cops movie, if he wasn’t so paranoid and oppressive a personality - received 86% of the vote, according the Belarus electoral commission, that is.

Landslide? (snigger!)

Of course, nobody believes this figure, maybe not even Lukashenko himself. The OECD has said that the elections were anything but ‘free and fair’; the opposition candidates received very little coverage on the state controlled television channels at all; candidates were harassed, and in some incidences, beaten. Independent newspapers and other media have been shut down.

Lukashenko was not taking any risks with the actual result of the election, so he appears to have all but fixed it before hand.

Many in the West and certainly Poland were waiting, hoping, that another Orange or Rose Revolution would take place as it did in Ukraine or Georgia, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in a show of ‘People Power’.

On the night of the election, about ten thousand filled the main square in Minsk, the capital. The next day, however, the numbers had slipped to only around five hundred.

It looks certain there will be no ‘Denim Revolution’ this time.

But why? The opposition complains, rightly, that there isn’t a level playing field and that people are scared to say and act as they really feel.

All true, but how did Solidarity do what they did in even more difficult circumstances 25 years ago?

Between August 1980, the beginning of Solidarity, to just eight months later in March 1981, the union had organized itself into what was an alternative civil society in waiting. Out of 12.5 million workers eligible to join, the Solidarity trade union had nearly ten million members.

There were underground newspapers: Solidarnosc printed in Gdansk, Niezaleznosc (Independence) printed in Warsaw. There was what they called 'Solidarity Radio' in Wroclaw, which was actually a cassette recording duplicated and played over the works radio all over the region. There was a Solidarity Press Agency. There was the underground printers Nowa, churning out translations of Orwell's Animal Farm and other forbidden material. There was telephone and fax networks connecting up all parts of the union, which was organized into regions and local chapters, with a Central Committee coordinating the whole thing, and Lech Walesa sitting, almost king-like, at the top of the pyramid.

Geo-political reality

After the warning strike on the Friday, twenty-five years ago, a hectic weekend of negotiations with the communist government followed. Eventually, and at the very last minute, Walesa decided that the risk of a general strike was just too great. Not because he though that the strike would not get the support it needed – people were ready to take the plunge – but because of what they called then the ‘geopolitical reality’. That meant the Soviet Union and the tanks on the border; that meant 1956 in Hungary, it meant 1968 in Prague.

But it shows that in Poland then, politics was not the art of the possible but the nearly impossible. If it weren’t for the constant threat of an invasion from the East, the communist state in Poland would have been history.

Today, for sure, President Putin would not have been too happy about the prospect of another show of ‘people power’ on Russia’s borders, but nobody is suggesting that he would have sent in the tanks if he didn’t like the result of the Belarus presidential elections.

The reality in Belarus is that, though Lukashenko definatly doesn’t have 86% of the people behind him he does have a significant amount of popularity – especially among the old, the unemployed and in rural areas. He is also faced with a fragmented opposition.

In those circumstances it’s a mystery why he feels so paranoid that he has to use the oppressive measures he does. Maybe he could have won the election without them.

The difference between Solidarity twenty-five years ago and Belarus today is one of imagination, organization and ultimately, Solidarity.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

It was a communist plot

Italians say that Moscow was behind Pope John Paul assassination attempt.

Senator Paolo Guzzanti, of a special Italian parliamentary investigation said this week:

"This commission believes, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate Pope John Paul...They relayed this decision to the military secret services for them to take on all necessary operations to commit a crime of unique gravity, without parallel in modern times."

Pope John Paul was shot in St Peter‘s Square on May 13, 1981 by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

"It is completely absurd," said Boris Labusov, spokesman for Russia‘s foreign intelligence service, "We are tired on denying these rumours."

In the book of memoirs published just before he died, the Polish Pope said that he thought that there was a ‘mastermind’ behind the shooting, and the Turk was not operating alone.

Polish Government wants election...

...but turkeys might not vote for Christmas.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice (PiS) minority government, told a rally, Saturday, that his party will be seeking to dissolve parliament.

He said that he prefers a date before the summer. “"We will submit this motion (to dissolve parliament) shortly so that elections could take place before the Pope's visit to Poland,." That means before the end of May.

One month ago PiS signed a ‘stability pact’ with two smaller, populist parties so that they could get essential and wide ranging legislation through parliament.

But the pact has become unreliable, says the government. "We want to strengthen democracy. When conflicts cannot be solved in parliament they should be solved by citizens," said Kaczynski, whose twin brother Lech is Poland's president.

To successfully dissolve parliament the government needs a two-thirds majority. This means that they need votes from the opposition Civic Platform, which PiS are currently neck and neck with in the opinion polls.

The dissolution also needs the support of at least one other party. But support probably won’t be coming from the two parties that the government signed the stability pact with – League of Polish Families and SelfDefense.

Leader of the latter, Andzej Lepper – who’s party has around five percent in the opinion polls at the moment, meaning that SelfDefense might not get into parliament after another election - is, not surprisingly, none too keen on going to the voters: “I will absolutely not support this motion. The government enjoys support, we have a parliamentary majority, so why all the manipulation?", he said.

So we just might be in a situation where a government wants an election and the opposition say, “Nope, not interested.”

Friday, March 17, 2006

Into the heart of darkness

Defense Minister, Radek Sikorski has said that Poland will be sending military police to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a multinational EU force, before the nation’s first ever democratic elections. (photo: Polish troops training for Kinshasa traffic cop duty?)

A man's most open actions have a secret side to them.
Jozef Korzienowski (Joseph Conrad)

When the UN – which already has 17,000 troops in one of Africa’s largest and most war torn countries – announced that it needed the EU to come and help stabilize the place before elections this June, the queue of member states lining up to volunteer help was...not very long, really.

The EU only promised to send a tokenistic 1,500 troops, but nobody seemed particularly keen to go to a country where war over the last decade has been estimated to have taken an incredible 4 million lives.

The British said, “Sorry mate, but we are a bit busy in Iraq, Afghanistan...’; Germany, which is apparently head of the special EU battle group (I didn’t even know we had one!) ready to send troops at lightening speed to trouble spots at a ‘moments notice’, has been dragging its feet, claiming that the mission needed ‘better clarity’.

Perhaps they just needed a little bit more notice to be able to move at lightening speed?

The only two countries to initially volunteer troops were Austria (about 30) and Poland. The Polish government initially promised Congo a massive battalion of...ten troops!

Now that's gonna sort out those pesky Africans!

Or perhaps not. How can a force of men not large enough to raise a soccer team, help stabilize a country the size of western Europe and which has 300 rival factions, all positioning for power?

To the rescue have come Spain, France and Sweden, that will, along with Poland and Austria, be sending a massive 500 men. The Germans are going to have to pick up the rest of the tab.

Apart from supporting the US and Europe’s man in the Congo, President Joseph Kabila, why drag the EU into Joseph Conrad’s worst nightmare?

Bush seems to think that the failed African states could be a hotbed of potential terrorists; Congo is a very poor country, but it has massive resources that industrialized countries are desperate to get a piece of; and then there is the real obsession in the EU at the moment – immigration. If only Africa would stabilize then maybe they would all stay in their own countries.

The EU is also desperate for a mission – any mission! – to make it seem relevant.
And out front, fighting for justice is plucky old Poland, its ten brave men, following in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad, into dark hearted EU gesture politics.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Butcher of Belgrade..?

...or the Butcher of Bosnia – Slobo has been called many things. But in reality, he was just a ‘c’- list dictator, pragmatist, nationalist and looser, desperate to stay in power.

Slobodan Milosevic’s body arrived back in Serbia today and will be buried Saturday in his hometown of Pozarevac. A few of his old cronies from the Socialist Party were there on the tarmac to greet the coffin, and a few held banners saying ‘Slobo the hero’.

Not a popular view, even in Serbia, these days. Many in the West seem to think that he was one of the most odious dictators Europe has seen since the end of WWII.

For instance, in Slate magazine, Christopher Hitchins writes under the headline, No Sympathy for Slobo:

‘During his ignoble presidency, Serbia became a banana republic, and his predecessor, Ivan Stambolic, was later "disappeared" and found in a shallow grave. Serbian death squads were used against fellow Serbs and also "deniably" deployed in Bosnia and elsewhere. By the end of it, the Serbian minorities in whose name he had launched a regional war had been ignominiously expelled from their ancient homes in the Krajina region and in Kosovo itself. Only a Serb can truly feel the depth of the cultural and political and economic damage that he did…’

He has also been blamed for the break up of Yugoslavia and for loosing his country several civil wars, many, many lives and completely ruining the Serbian economy.

But his influence was wider than that. For many liberals his actions resulted in a change of view about intervention by western powers in the business of sovereign states. The UK Guardian wrote in its comment section:

‘His actions helped establish the idea of liberal intervention that emerged in the 90s after the first Iraq war and in response to the Rwandan massacres and the Balkan conflicts.’

His untimely death, before a verdict could be given at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia at the Hague, where Slobo was on trial for genocide and much more, has frustrated many. But what would have been the court’s verdict?

Not that simple

Well, for sure, Molosevic would have been cleared of the main charge – of being responsible for the massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims at the town of Srebrenica, in 1995.

In 2004, Dr Cees Wiebes, a professor at Amsterdam University, released a detailed report, including eye-witness accounts, secret service files, statements from key diplomatic sources, etc, which concluded that Slobo might not be a very nice guy, but we can’t pin the charge of genocide on him. Dr Wiebes said back then:

‘In our report, which is about 7,000 pages long, we come to the conclusion that Milosevic had no foreknowledge of the subsequent massacres. What we did find, however, was evidence to the contrary. Milosevic was very upset when he learnt about the massacres [as he wanted at that time to get some sort of deal with the Bosnians and end a war which he was beginning to loose].'

The report was given over to the international court as evidence but was rejected.

'What I heard from good sources in The Hague is that [chief prosecutor] Miss del Ponte thinks that we're too nuanced and not seeing things in black and white,' said the Dutch professor.

Remember: for many in the West, the Balkans wars were black and white - and the Serbs were very much the Bad Men.

No evidence has come to court since then to pin the massacre on Molosevic, however. So one of the main charges against the man would have failed, if he had lived long enough to have heard his sentence.

The charge that Slobo was responsible for the break up of Yugoslavia is a gross overstatement. The West is forgetting the ignoble role it played in the process, which really picked up steam after the EU recognized Croatia (after much dirty dealing between Germany and the UK) in January 1992, quickly followed by the US a couple of months later. This gave the green light to all the countries in the region to declare their independence. After that, civil war was inevitable.

International justice?

And what of the hapless International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia at the Hague, set up by the UN Security Council at the behest of the United States? Was it really an objective, impartial judge of the many crimes committed in the Balkans in the 1990’s?

I think not. Nor has it pretended to be. In 2000, David Chandler wrote in the New Left Review:

'[T]he Serb leader Milan Martic has been indicted for the use of cluster bombs on the Croatian capital Zagreb in May 1995, in which seven civilians were killed and an old people’s home and children’s hospital damaged. NATO’s own use of cluster bombs in its attack on Niš in May 1999, which killed fifteen people and damaged the city’s main hospital, was naturally in another category altogether […]

James Shea, NATO spokesman during the conflict…replying to a question at a press conference on 17 May 1999 as to the possibility of NATO leaders being investigated for war crimes by the Tribunal: ‘Impossible. It was the NATO countries who established the Tribunal, who fund it and support it on a daily basis.’

Indeed. The court was never intended to try leaders and states on an equal basis.

So while Slobo the Sad was truly a nasty bit of work, and should have been given over to the Serbs to deal with, he was not the Great Dictator and personification of evil that many think. And the West – and its liberal ‘humanitarian interventionists’ - should not be finding a reason to feel good about themselves buried in a icy grave in a small town, one hour south of Belgrade, this Saturday.

The guilt about what happened in the Balkans should be evenly spread.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Friday night quiz (on a Wednesday)

Q: I’ll be blunt. Does this man have a foreskin? (photo: Jacek Kurski with medical report?)

Answers on a post card to the usual address.

Roundhead or Cavalier? It may not be of any interest to you (at least, I hope it isn’t) but to Jacek Kurski – one of the ruling Law and Justice’s (PiS) key strategists - it’s a matter of political credibility.

This week’s Polish version of Newsweek is carrying a story claiming that a key government politician is a bit of an exhibitionist. Two years ago, Kurski (known to his friends as ‘the Pit-bull’) was so worried about rumours going around members of the catholic-nationalist party, League of Polish Families (LPR), how he was a bit short in the foreskin department, that he got on a chair, took down his trousers and undies and proceeded to show a room full of LPR members his…member!

Kurksi has denied the gossip as ‘lies’ and is assuring anyone who will listen, he does, in fact, still have all that he was born with below the waist.

But why all the fuss about the ownership, or not, of a few milligrams of flesh?

Kurski comes from the political tradition of Catholic Poland. He was leader of the Movement to Rebuild Poland (ROP) in the mid nineteen nineties, a party associated with the mindset – if you are not a Catholic, then you ain’t Polish. And if you are Jewish then you defiantly ain’t Polish. The Stephen Roth Institute identified ROP in 1997/8 as being one the anti-Semitic parties that were growing in number in Poland at that time.

So you can understand why Kurski wants to make sure that everyone knows he still has his foreskin.

Kurski became (in)famous during the presidential elections last autumn for claiming that Donald Tusk – rival to PiS candidate Lech Kaczynski – had a grandfather who fought for the Germans in WWII. Shock, horror! Kaczynski, even, embarrassed by such a cheap stunt, sacked Kurski from his post of Communications Director for Law and Justice - only to reinstate him after the elections were over.

Robert Strak, from the League of Polish Families – a catholic-nationalist party that makes Kurski look like a moderate – remembers rumours going around a couple of years ago that Kurski was circumcised. And posters were up in Gdansk - Kurski's political base - claiming ‘Kurski is a Jew’.

For some circumcision is a religious ritual, for others it’s a ‘health’ thing. For Kurski, it’s probably a matter of reputation.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Milosevic is dead…

…but some of the myths of the Balkans war live on. Bosnia in the 1990's was not Poland in the 1940's.

Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack (?) in his cell in the Hague today, where he was on trial for war crimes. I can’t say I am very sorry about that - few tears will be shed for him outside Serbia.

But his death has given journalists another chance to recycle some misinformation about what happened in Yugoslavia during the very nasty civil war that eventually led to the nation’s break up.

CNN, for instance – when looking back at the events that led to Milosevic’s arrest and trial, reported today that Serbs were responsible for:

…bombarding towns and cities like Sarajevo with heavy artillery, besieging villages and massacring civilians. Snipers targeted men, women and children. Markets full of people shopping were shelled. There were concentration camps, mass rape and the forced prostitution of women and very young girls.

As the words concentration camps were spoken off-screen the picture of Fikret Alic (above), taken in 1992 at the Trnopolje camp, was shown as evidence that camps such as these had returned to Europe, almost half a century after the Nazi’s attempt at a Final Solution.

Though rape, murder of civilians and more did indeed take place back then, the 50 kilos Alic was not in a concentration camp looking out at the camera. The cameraman was the one behind the wire and Alic was the one looking in.

This fact came to light long after the war had ended, when the British LM magazine published an article in 1998 which claimed that this was ‘The picture that fooled the world’ – see article here. LM reported that:

The barbed wire in the picture is not around the Bosnian Muslims; it is around the cameraman and the journalists. It formed part of a broken-down barbed wire fence encircling a small compound that was next to Trnopolje camp. The British [ITN] news team filmed from inside this compound, shooting pictures of the refugees and the camp through the compound fence. In the eyes of many who saw them, the resulting pictures left the false impression that the Bosnian Muslims were caged behind barbed wire.

ITN was outraged that anyone should question the integrity of its journalists and promptly took LM to court for libel.

The case became a battle between liberal journalists - who had taken the side of the Bosnian Muslims, regularly painting a picture of Serbia bad, everyone else good – and more independent minded writers, such as BBC journalist John Simpson, who argued that the war was not nearly as black and white as that, and awful things were perpetrated by both sides, though a majority of them were, indeed, done by Serbians.

Liberals used the ‘Serbian fascist’ argument to call for intervention in the war by Nato.

As to whether Alic was in or outside the camp, the Judge in the libel trial in London agreed with LM magazine, which wrote after the case had finished:

Justice Morland had to concede in his summing up, 'Clearly [ITN journalists] Ian Williams and Penny Marshall and their TV teams were mistaken in thinking they were not enclosed by the old barbed-wire fence', before adding in his even-handed way, 'but does it matter?'.

He then found in favour of ITN (!) and fined the LM editor and publishers 375,000 pounds. This broke the finances of the magazine – which maybe had a circulation of 20,000 – and it was forced to close down. The magazine’s crime was not for getting the facts wrong, but claiming that ITN had deliberately misled their viewers.

Aren’t the infamously weird English libel laws marvelous!

Why a corporation the size of ITN had to take a small magazine like LM to court in the first place I didn’t understand at all. Why didn’t they just use their almost limitless resources to argue their case on television and in the press?

Nevertheless, the myth that Alic was inside a concentration camp when the picture was taken is still being peddled by news broadcasters today. Shame we can’t see the Balkans war for what it really was – a bloody mess with crimes committed by both sides.

Using War as an Excuse for More War: Srebrenica Revisited, Counterpunch, Oct 12, 2005

Polish bigots meet their Waterloo?

Swedish Euro-cheesy popsters Abba come to the rescue of Polish gays.

The four members of Abba, who have hardly been in the same room as each other since they broke up nearly two decades ago, have came together this week to sign memorabilia which will be auctioned off on the internet.

But what will all the ‘money, money, money’ raised be used for? Swedish web site The Local reports:

The signed Abba gear is being sold in an auction on eBay by Stockholm Pride, which organises the Swedish capital's gay pride parade every summer.

The proceeds of the auction will go to Warsaw Pride, which has come under attack from Poland's new president, Lech Kaczynski. He banned last summer's gay pride celebrations in Warsaw, said that homosexuals were "not a natural part of Poland's culture," and challenged gay people to repress their sexuality.

"As arranger of a Pride festival in a neighbouring country that is so privileged by comparison it is impossible to be aware of what is happening in Poland without doing something," said Stockholm Pride chairwoman Ulrika Westerlund.

Polish gay campaigner Szymon Niemiec is delighted that the Swedish Dancing Queens are showing their solidarity. He told Radio Polonia yesterday:

”I think this is a great idea, because we in Poland are getting help from other countries to make our country more tolerant or more democratic. For us, this is great promotion, and for me, personally, it is a good incentive to work harder against homophobia and intolerance in Poland.”

The Abba action came in a week that saw President Lech Kaczynski heckled while on a visit to Germany. Lifesite reports:

Dozens of protesters delayed his speech by about half an hour, chanting “solidarity without exclusion” in reference to the slogan of the 1980’s [Solidarity] movement that challenged communism in the country. The activists were protesting what they called his “homophobic policies.”

President Kaczynski banned a gay pride march in Warsaw last year, while he was mayor of the capital. The action outraged Polish gays.

The president responded to the demonstrators by saying he did not believe homosexuality should be encouraged because gay relationships cannot produce children. “I do not plan to persecute homosexuals or to hinder their careers,” he said. “But there is no reason to encourage it because it would mean that mankind would slowly die out.”

Er...right. So relationships are only valid if they can produce children, are they?

Not a very bright man, apparently, Kaczynski thinks that if you ‘promote’ homosexuality then heterosexuals everywhere will suddenly throw away their wedding rings, leave their partners and start hanging out in gay clubs, ‘dark rooms’ and public toilets, jumping on the first person they see of the same sex.

Is he that insecure in his own sexuality that he has to start oppressing someone else’s?

I’m off to the shops to get a copy of Abba’s greatest hits.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Stability pact remains about as solid as a wobbly jelly

The last few weeks have been like Groundhog Day. (photo: PiS head, Jarolsaw Kaczynski, showing us his hands off governing style.)

The Law and Justice (PiS) government threatens to go to the polls if its Stabilization Pact partners don’t behave themselves. Coalition partners keep on being naughty, then shutting up again. But PiS can’t keep threatening elections for ever.

The pact’s junior partners - catholic-nationalist League of Polish Families, and mainly rural SelfDefense - are getting increasingly restless. SelfDefense has talked about the need for a new ‘government of experts’. That’s not an unusual idea in this part of the world, where experience in running governments is usually confined to the ex-communist parties. Roman Giertych’s League of Polish Families, on the other hand, is throwing its limited weight around, demanding tax subsidies for families with over four children, and saying that it wasn’t all that keen on renewing any pact at the end of the year.

Wojciech Wierzejski of the League to Radio Polonia:

"If we were asked whether the League could continue in 2007with its support of the Law and Justice government on the basis of the stabilization pact in its present form and principles and lack of implementation of election promises, the answer would definitely be NO!"

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairperson of Law and Justice, regularly threatens to go to the polls – thinking that this is what neither of the two junior partners want. Support for both parties fell shortly after last autumn’s general election. After Giertych’s recent comments Kaczynski said tetchily:

"If he wants to meet with me, he would first have to change his opinions quite substantially."

But the latest poll, on TVN tonight, showed that Law and Justice had slipped into second place (33%), two percent behind the opposition, free market Civic Platform (35%). And support for Self Defense and League had grown to 9 percent.

Some of Kaczynski’s supporters are getting restless, too. The government made some wild promises – on housing, in social and economic policy – but can show little from the last few months, except for passing the budget and threatening elections all the time if everyone didn’t behave.

But if PiS have any chance of getting a majority in parliament, then it’s got to be now, or never.

Although, I said that the last time I posted about this.

If you would rather read some intelligent blogging, about Polish political economy and more, then check out Our Man in Gdansk, and Piotr's new-ish blog Eurogoeseast.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Deadly avian flu in Poland - official

After weeks of everyone else in Europe detecting the virus in their countries, Poland finally finds two swans to have died from the flu.

Updated 6 March

For many days now I have been sitting in editorial meetings discussing why Italy, France, Germany, Ukraine have found dead birds that had contracted the ‘deadly’ virus but Poland had not.

You would think that a country which has a president with the nickname ‘the Duck’ would be flooded with flocks of the dead birds.

Perhaps the migrating fowl just didn’t trust Poland’s veterinarian services enough, kept flying over Warsaw and touched down in Germany or somewhere with a better funded health system.

But now two swans have been found dead in Copernicus’s city of Torun, not far from the capital (well, not as the rather sickly crow flies). Senior officials told Reuters: "Initial tests confirmed that it is the H5 virus. We don't know yet, however, if it is the deadly (H5N1) kind. More tests will be done in Poland and abroad,"

It has subsequently been confirmed, in record time, that the birds have died from the H5N1 strain.

The testing centre in Pulawy is sending samples to the UK for confirmation.

Cue Polish media panic.

The story is now getting blanket coverage on the TVN 24 hour news station, with speculators speculating and pontificators pontificating on the deadly consequences of anyone happening upon one of these poor creatures.

Expect sales of chicken and other poultry, which are already down by over 20 percent, to plummet faster than a dead parrot not nailed to its perch. In Italy the hysteria has caused sales to fall by around 70 percent.

All very irrational but you can’t blame food shoppers for getting jumpy when the media is in a panic. Oprah Winfrey, the Queen of Daytime Television, has declared that she is going to get an anti-bird flu shot as soon a possible.

What Oprah says on air can be very influential. If she recommends a book on a her Book Club segment sales of that book soar (even if that book turns out to be not quite what it says on the dust jacket). So I imagine millions of Americans switched off their televisions after the announcement and rushed out to see the doctor demanding an injection.

But just how is Oprah, or anyone else for that matter, going to be able to get a shot for a virus that doesn’t even exist yet?

No rational person will worry about the H5N1 strain of bird flu until it somehow mutates into a virus that can be caught from person-to-person.

I feel sorry for the poultry producers who are now facing an irrational consumer boycott of their products. Two hundred million birds have been slaughtered or have died from the disease so far.

Many more are set to go the same way now in Poland.

To try and calm the situation down, and in a show of avian solidarity, Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz was on television this morning saying that he will be having chicken for dinner. So will I.

See H5N1 Bird Flu Confirmed in Poland, Washington Post, March 6
Bird flu spreads to Poland, infects cats in Austria, Swiss Info, March 6
H5N1 in Poland - official, Radio Polonia, March 6

In pole position for stars wars II

Poland is top of the list for the European arm of the US missile defense system.

M&C News reports:

Pentagon experts favour NATO member Poland as a potential location for the overseas portion of the United States National Missile Defence (NMD) project, Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza daily reported Saturday quoting sources in Washington.

More?The US-based NMD plan is designed to protect it and fellow NATO defence alliance members plus Japan from a potential nuclear missile attack by rogue states...

Poland's Minister of Foreign Affairs Stefan Meller confirmed last month Poland is 'continuing talks' with the United States on possible participation in its National Missile Defence (NMD), dubbed the 'Son of Star Wars' by critics.

Late last year, Poland's conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz urged public debate on whether Poland should host US missile bases.

Unconfirmed reports alleged Pentagon officials had already been scouting the Tatra mountains in southern Poland for possible missile base sites.

Defense Minister Radek Sikorski admitted some time ago that with Poland’s unpopular participation in the Iraq horror, with the US still refusing to drop the visa requirements for Poles wanting to visit America, getting a positive consensus for the measure might be a ‘hard sell’.

I have to say that I haven’t met many people who seem very concerned about this. In fact, I haven’t noticed much debate among ordinary people about this at all. And given the fact that governments frequently act against the wishes of the electorate, especially on foreign or defense policy, then I really don’t think that the Law and Justice party administration gives a toss about what Jan Kowalski thinks about this.

A few environmentalist might be slightly disturbed to learn, however, that the system could be housed in the beautiful Tatras.

Polish Opposition Questions U.S. Missile Shield Plan,, March 7

Friday, March 03, 2006

Beatroot’s Friday Quiz

This one’s called Spot the President.

Q:Just where is the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski in this photo, and what exactly is happening here? He’s quite a small guy, so you might have to look carefully or have very good eyesight (if you have to, you can click on the image for an enlargement).

The winner of the quiz - the first with the correct answer - wins a night out, all expenses paid, with President Kaczynski, his wife (on the right of the photo) and his twin brother Jaroslaw (who doesn’t have a wife but he does have a pet cat called Liberace).

The losers all get two nights out with the President.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

CIA Polish gulags update

When Human Rights Watch came to Brussels last week everybody expected some New Evidence of gulags and US Auschwitzes in Poland. But we were disappointed. (photo: Szymany airstrip – number one destination for War on Terror Package Tours?)

Instead, Joanne Marines from Human Rights Watch seemed to go over the same material that the NGO released to the Washington Post, so sensationally, last November.

HRW told the Euro parliament that it has "convincing circumstantial evidence" that Poland and Romania had harbored CIA prisoners on their territory. Presumably they are referring to the famous flight logs which show that CIA planes landed a few times in Szymany airstrip to and from Afghanistan and Guantanamo and other ‘black sites’.

All that we knew already. This blog has always been skeptical of the slightly hysterical accusations of gulags and worse. You would have thought from the reports that Poland had turned itself into the Central European equivalent of Abu Graib.

That’s not to say that the CIA is full of angels and saints - that would be silly. Monstrous things have happened in the name of ‘national security’ – especially since the ‘war on terror’ has given governments and secret services carte blanch to act as they see fit. But laying the blame on Poland and Romania ignores that fact that plenty of other countries have been allowing planes full of people, who didn’t willingly book a flight on War Against Terror Package Tours, to land at their airports

Some members of the special EU parliamentary committee seem to agree. Italian MEP Jas Gawronski said, “Hundreds of such flights take place in Europe. If we don't get solid proof that the ones in question transported prisoners then the whole issue is not worth debating.”

Don’t expect the parliamentary committee to get to the bottom of the matter. It has no powers to make witnesses swear an oath, nor has it any powers to make the witnesses come and testify. They have already asked Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell etc to come and have a chat but the US doesn't seem to think the committee is important enough to bother with. And they are probably right.

The HRW accusations have implications for Poland’s image in the world in general, and the Muslim world in particular. So it’s time for HRW to put up some decent evidence, or shut up.

And then maybe we can get back to debating if we should be having this war against abstract nouns in the first place.

Lots more Polish news stories here.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I may well be a little paranoid…

..but the Polish cops really are out to get me!

This week I have been stopped three times by the law – and twice within ten minutes! Are we living in a police state?

On my way home from work, near the junction of Pulawska and Odynsa, I regularly see a man, about fifty years old and looking a little grizzled, riding his bicycle, one hand on the handle bars and the other holding on to a cigarette.

He wobbles along the pavement, puffing away and making comments about life, love and Hegelian philosophy to passers by and the flower lady on the corner.

He’s amazing. But I wonder how many laws, by-laws he’s breaking? Certainly, looking grizzled in public is one. But there must be something in the statute books against bike smoking? And if there isn’t then I am sure Brussels can knock one up for us.

Cops though don’t seem to think he’s worth bothering about.

So why do they keep on harassing me?

I was a bit late to meet with a friend who had to do a ‘bar review’ for a magazine. I was to help him with the ‘review’.

I know, tough work but somebody (me, me!) has got to do it. And yes, working conditions are tough and we are going to form a new branch of the Solidarity trade union – Bar Review Chapter - to fight for pay and conditions.

Anyway, I’m standing at the traffic crossing and the little red man has just lit up (no, not a cigarette) and I’m hesitating whether to walk out in front of the tram - hoping it won’t start moving and turn me into spaghetti bolognaise – or wait for the little green man to wink into life.

As I dithered, an old man of about 70 years old hobbled off the pavement and started making his way across the tram rail. Then, to my right, a girl of about 11 calmly walked to the other side. Not wanting to be left behind by the aged and prepubescent children I walked across the tram rail, then the road and over to the other side of Plac Bankowy.

Just then I heard the dreaded “Prosze, Pana!(Excuse me, sir)

It was the cops. I was going to be harassed for jaywalking.

If it’s true that you know when you are getting old when the cops start looking young, then I must be nearing my old age pension. The cop who was now asking for my ID (which, of course, I didn’t have) looked the spitting image of a foetus.

I tried to explain to him that ‘there is no such anti-jaywalking law in the UK, so I just can’t get used to being controlled as to how I cross the street.' And anyway, I was only doing what that ‘old geezer over there was doing’, pointing at the 70 year old, thereby shamelessly trying to distract the officer from my case by stitching up the old and infirm.

He seemed genuinely fascinated that there is no jaywalk laws in Britain, and, I think, in genuine gratitude for providing him with such a tasty bit of traffic trivia, let me go.

Twelve hours later and I am in the park with the dog, 8.30 a.m. and I have a hangover of existential proportions from the bar ‘review’ of the night before. The dog, Chagall, is, as usual, frolicking in the snow and doggy muck, and barking at men on their own (he doesn't seem to mind them in twos) wearing dark clothes - he’s much more particular about who he harasses than the cops are.

Just then, from behind a tree, emerges a traffic cop. “Prosze Pana!” Oh, God, here we go again.

This cop is so young he appears to be a contemporary of an embryo.

“Why is the dog not on a leash and why is he not wearing a muzzle?”

I try to explain to him that ‘we don’t have such laws in the UK and I just can’t get used to … ‘

Meanwhile the dog is barking playfully at the policeman, who, to him, is just another man on his own wearing dark clothes.

Apparently, I could be fined 200 zloty ($70) for the heinous crime of letting my dog off his leash to do what comes natural.

After taking my details – mothers name, fathers name, place of birth, place of birth of mother - the cop let me and the dog go, probably fascinated by the fact that we don’t have dog discrimination laws in the UK.

But we were not free for long. Ten minutes later – ten minutes! – two more cops emerged from behind a tree.

“Prosze Pana!”.


They told me to put the dog on the leash. The only problem was, Chagall does not like going back on the leash once he’s let off it, and would not come anywhere near me or the two men in dark clothes.

So for five minutes, watched closely by the cops – these were older, cynical, more senior officers of about 15 years old - I pursued the dog around the park trying to get hold of him. Dog thought this was a great laugh and let me get close, closer and then dart away again barking his head off.

It must have looked like the end bit of Benny Hill with the bald man in the park(though me and the dog have much more hair).

The cops eventually got bored of this, took my name and left.

In the space of 12 hours my name, address, place of birth, father’s and mother’s name, had gone into three different little black books.

I’m a marked man. Maybe I should write to Human Rights Watch, or Kofi Anan. Anyone got his address?