Thursday, September 25, 2008

Simon Mol is dying

The Cameroonian on trial since July for deliberately infecting women in Warsaw with HIV is to be released from prison to get treatment for AIDS.

His condition seems very serious as he will not be put under police custody when in hospital but he has had his passport taken away and is forbidden to leave Poland.

The case caused outrage when it broke in late in 2007. I can’t face writing the details all over again and hesitated before even writing this much here, as it seems to bring out the worst in everyone.

What is perhaps the biggest danger now is that his trial will never be completed and that the truth as put before a court of law - the only truth that counts - will never fully emerge. The women he infected, and Mol himself, deserve to see the end of this. It appears this might not happen.

For details of the case see previous posts here and here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Poland’s ‘liberal’ government - part 365

Donald Tusk’s ‘liberals’ are conservatives in drag.

“Poland's liberal opposition Civic Platform party has won a massive poll victory…” (BBC); “Poland's main liberal opposition Civic Platform was leading elections for the European parliament early Monday with 25.21 percent…” (Eurobusiness); “’Liberal landslide ends Poland's era of the twins”…” (M&C); “Foreign leaders and Poland's business community on Monday welcomed the victory of the liberal Civic Platform party in Sunday's parliamentary elections…” (Financial Times).

So wrote the western press after the victory of Civic Platform in last autumn’s general election. With the defeat of the Kaczynski/Giertych/Lepper arch-conservative coalition, the future of Poland was Donald Tusk’s ‘liberalism’, right?

Wrong. As I have pointed out many times there is little ‘liberal’ about the current government, apart from a certain liberalising instinct when it comes to the economy. This past month we have seen how conservative the Civic Platform party really is. Donald Tusk is the equivalent, not of a Polish J.S. Mill, but a weird kind of Polish pro-European Margaret Thatcher - in drag.

Take his call for ‘chemical castration’ of paedophiles following the brutally strange case of the Polish Fritzl. When challenged that castration, be it of the chemical or knife variety, was against human rights - once a punishment is served and a debt paid to society the convict should be free to rehabilitate themselves back into society; or when doctors complain that they are there to treat people, not castrate them; or that this is against the Polish Constitution, the ‘liberal’ Donald Tusk said: “I don’t consider paedophiles truly human, so why should they have ’human rights’?”

Of course, castration would not have prevented the repeated rape of the Polish Fritzl’s daughter…nor would it have prevented the abuse of the majority of the victims of child molesters in general. Most have no previous convictions. But that’s not why Tusk is supporting chemical castration. His policy proposal is the typical knee-jerk reaction of a reactionary, conservative political jerk - the need to be seen to be doing something about a modern folk devil, whenever a media panic ensues.

The liberal Civic Platform government also has a problem with that bastion of liberalism throughout the ages - free speech and expression. Director PaweĊ‚ Chochlew is looking for funding for his new fictional feature about the Nazi invasion of Westerplatte that effectively began WW II. A thousand national myths surround this event. But Chochlew decided that a fresh approach was needed and decided to look again at some of those myths. But when he sent the script in to the government’s film board to try and get some money to produce Tajemnica Westerplatte (The Secret of Westerplatte) the government promptly threw it in the bin. The script is “anti-Polish” and “demeaning”, apparently. Chochlew’s defence that his film was meant to be fictional and so has no responsibility to be ’historically and/or politically correct’ fell on deaf ears.

It seems that some of Poland’s myths are so fragile that they cannot be challenged.

Donald Tusk’s government is censorial and reactionary. And each time journalists - both at home and abroad - reach for the ‘liberal’ adjective to describe them, John Stuart Mill turns, uneasily, in his grave.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The end of capitalism as we know it?

Morbid headlines are starting to appear in the Polish media just as they have elsewhere - we are facing the “worst financial crisis since 1970s…no, 1940s…no, the Great Depression!” What a load of nonsense.

A few months ago I was talking to a British bloke here in Warsaw. He was a member of the old Trotskyist Militant faction, an entryist organisation within the UK Labour Party that I knew well when I was involved in the Poll Tax unions of the early 1990s. That was quite a while ago but the rhetoric is undimmed by nearly two decades. “We are heading for a showdown,” said my Trotsky friend. “Environmental crisis, and capitalism is facing its greatest meltdown since the 1930s. We live in interesting times. It gives us great opportunities politically,” he said knowingly.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Did lefties still talk like this, these days? Are they still waiting for the inevitable collapse of capitalism?

That kind of thinking, then, might be still alive, but not so well, on what is left of the cranky leftwing. No surprise, really, I suppose. But my friend’s catastrophist thinking has become almost mainstream today. Everyone is talking about the crisis in the financial sector in the US and elsewhere as if it really was the greatest economic crisis since… well, the Great Depression.

See the skies raining bankers and brokers as they take their last step, from a tenth story window!

Last month, the British press reported that UK finance minister, Alistair Darling had “let the cat out of the bad” when he announced that Britain faced the worst economic conditions since…1948![?] Quite why the chancellor chose 1948 as his Year Zero is still a mystery to me. Why not 1947, or 1949?

Darling was quite obviously talking out of an orifice not designed for the talking out of.

My dad was alive in 1948 and I remember him talking of rationing, which was still in existence then in Britain. There were chronic shortages of many things, including labour. Those post-war years were dark and difficult for most.

Darling’s 1948 bull, however, looks almost sensible compared with some other doom mongers, who, like Mr Militant, think a new Great Depression is coming. But let’s look at that real Great Depression and see what it had in common with the banking crisis of today.

What they do have in common is that both then and now, problems started in the US. In the first ten months of 1930, 744 American banks failed. Prices and incomes fell on average around by 20 to 50 percent during those years. At its worst point in 1933, 25 percent of Americans couldn’t find work. Between 1929 and 1932 the Times index in New York declined by 89 percent. Poverty was endemic. More than half of Americans were living below subsistence level. In 1930, GDP shrank by 9.4 percent!

Sounds familiar today? No, it doesn’t, does it. And nobody is expecting growth to fall by nearly 10 percent. In fact, what is expected is that growth will remain sluggish in western Europe and the US…maybe even dipping below zero for a time. Unemployment today is not expected to rocket over 10 percent. Mass poverty is not about to return.

In Poland, they are starting to get media alarmist too. But it never will reach the hysteria that is now sweeping our great commentators and politicians in western Europe and the States. Poles remember hard times just gone past. Nothing is going to be worse than the 1980s. The economy is growing by 6 percent, will slow to something like 4 percent. And though the price of bread is rising like a particularly lively yeast culture, it won’t be going up by 100 percent overnight, as the communist had an annoying, and very dumb, habit of doing every ten years or so.

There is an unforeseen element in all this that is hard to predict. But if my friend Mr Trotsky, from Tunbridge Wells, wants a revolution then he had better sharpen up his ideology, and maybe even power of hypnosis - he‘s gonna need them - cause he will not be stepping from the ruins of capitalism and sweeping into the Presidential Palace, just yet.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Polish kings, American presidents?

A slightly bizarre article by Polish born American Henryk A. Kowalczyk (not the PiS MP) ponders: which foreigner would be best suited to become US president?

He thinks either Tony Blair or ex-finance minister and early-1990s “Mr. Shock” therapist Leszek Balcerowicz would be good choices...bizarrely.

He starts off claiming some similarity of Polish kings to US presidents. The similarities being - firstly the kings, like presidents, were elected (though the electorate was rather small in the case of Poland) and that the end results of the ballot could be a little messy.

Slightly tenuous link, Henryk, but never mind.

But his main point is that foreigners could be elected as kings of Poland - several were. But in US elections every one in six living in the US are not eligible for the top job. Maybe that is why the usual calibre of entrants is so poor?

So he comes up with a few names who would be good as foreign presidents. UK ex-prime minister Blair he chooses because - bizarrely - he:

…is already deeply involved in the Middle Eastern mess, and he was clever enough to have already started pulling British forces from Iraq. This indicates that, as president, he would get us out of Iraq as soon as achievable, and with as little humiliation as possible.

Oh, and…

Blair reformed UK immigration policy by managing increased legal immigration and keeping illegal immigration at about 0.7 percent of the population (compared with at least 4 percent in the U.S.). We need someone who can do the same here. Additionally, Blair worked on reforming the government-run National Health Service by promoting the increased role of the private sector. In the United States, we might need some government involvement in reforming our privately run health care system. Blair sounds like the most qualified man for this job.

So Blair should be US president for his record on Iraq, immigration and the health service!? I don’t think you would get a single British person anywhere to agree on all three…or even one or two, of those.

And Balcerowicz? US president? Yup!

His "shock therapy" converted the completely disintegrated Polish economy of the socialist era into a halfway decent market-driven system. Balcerowicz grew up and received his education in a socialist country, but gradually matured to understand and value the benefits of the free market.


On a side note: I wonder which Polish king George W. Bush would fancy himself as? Probably Jan Sobieski (1674-1696), who won - helped win - the Battle of Vienna (an event the city of Krakow is celebrating this weekend) which “saved Europe” from the evil Turkish/Islamic empire. But maybe readers can come up with other monarchical role models for Poland’s King George W. the First. Poniatiowski? Nah…

Two tribes go to war

The electability of a foreigner in the US would be dependant on how he or she could come to be seen as part of the correct lifestyle tribe. These days, elections are not really about policy at all. This election is as much about lifestyle as politics.

Recent research shows that Americans are increasingly choosing the location of where they live on the basis of their political allegiance - Red or Blue. There are now almost consciously created Democrat zones and Republican parts of town.

Each sees the other group as if they came from Mars or Venus. Do you eat organic or spend Sunday morning at the Evangelical church? Do you prefer cats as pets (then you are a Democrat) or are you more likely to own a dog (then welcome to the GOP). The Economist writes:

Over time, this means Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views. In a book called “Hearing the Other Side”, Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.

Lifestyle as a definition of ‘politics’ could be seen by the nomination of Sarah Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential candidate, and the so-called ‘liberal’ reaction that came after.

Palin, though a pro-life, gun owning, God fearing Good Conservative, was conspicuously quiet on these issues in her acceptance speech. She seemed to be going out of the way not to say anything too political. She didn’t need to preach to the converted on those issues in the Republican electoral base. And she didn’t want to scare away too many of Hilary Clinton’s disaffected female supporters. This was the Republican version of ’identity politics’: “Vote for me…I am woman!”

And the liberal reaction to her shock candidature was anything but political. This was a middle class elite showing its disgust for her and her lifestyle. She is a gun-toting, hockey-mom redneck; she dared have a child in early middle age!! She returned to work after only a few days after giving birth…!

And remember - these are not conservative critics , they are the Huffington-ites of this world.

So could a foreigner immediately identify, and be identified, with one of these tribes? Blair? He maybe is a ‘liberal’ and is at ease with the Clinton tribe. But he is also a war-monger and supporter of the neo-con project of bombing democracy into the Middle East and elsewhere.

Maybe Balcerowicz would understand a little easier. There are some similarities between Poland and the US in this regard. Poles have always thought tribally - most urbanites have little in common with small town or rural folk. They vote differently on that basis. The Kaczynskis, despite being from Warsaw and qualified lawyers, like to make a show of their ordinariness, their non-cosmopolitan-ness - Jaroslaw’s favourite food is not oyster but scrambled eggs. Both twins like to make it known that they are not too keen on foreign travel - much as Sarah Palin has done.

However, in Poland, things are different. There is not the physical separation of the different tribes. Communist housing policy mixed everyone up. New areas are emerging and transforming, but the majority still live all jumbled up together.

And anyway, Poland is a thousand tribes, and the US just two, with a few sub-tribes thrown in for good measure. It maybe is easier to rule a country with a social complexion of just two lifestyle groups, but the presidential elections are precious little to do with politics and a whole lot more about snobbery - inverted or otherwise. This is one development that Poland should not import. We may as well go back to Poland's feudal kings.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sikorski with Laughrov

The New Cold war looks like this. Bit of a laugh, innit? (photo)

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was in town today. The meeting with Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski was keenly anticipated by the media commentariat. Would Sergei the Russian Bear be taken to task by Rad the Eagle? Or was Lavrov going to roast the eagle on a spit? After all, it’s Sikorski’s signature on the anti-missile shield agreement.

Would their high-octane meeting do what that particle physics experiment could not? Create a black hole with an energy force field so strong that the Foreign Ministry building on Szucha Avenue collapses in on itself, disappearing into thin air, and taking all of Poland and Russia’s diplomats with it?

There was a time when everyone thought - because Dziennik said so - that Lavrov had cancelled his trip to Warsaw after Poland’s support for Tbilisi during the South Ossetian war.

And then it was - if he does come, should he meet President Lech ‘Caucasus Rambo’ Kaczynski as well?

In the event, Kaczynski was out of the country today, busy with urgent meetings of the Visegrad group - and you can be forgiven for never hearing of it before. The G8, it is not.

So tension was high in Warsaw’s Foreign Ministry this morning.

And then…nothing really happened.

After the two emerged from their meeting it was all rather jolly and polite. If I was on the verge of a New Cold War I wouldn’t be smiling like that. But the thing is, we are not in a New Cold War - unless we want to talk our way into one, that is.

Lavrov did complain about the anti-missile system - but he was blaming the US, for trying to build a Nato ring around Russia. He said Poland was no threat to Moscow.

Sikorski said that he “understood Russia” better now. Which is good. I hope he shares his insights with us, and often.

And they both talked about the relations that are still going on between the two countries, in terms of trade, cultural ties, and so on.

So far, so predictable, so diplomatic. It was a par for the course foreign ministry meeting.

All the time the elephant in the room - Georgia - remained virtually untouched.

The only tricky bit came when Sikorski brought up the embarrassing antics of some of Russia’s generals. They love to get in the newspapers threatening to nuke Poland from the face of the universe. Which is quite rude, isn’t it?

But all in all, this was not the hyper aggressive Russia we have seen, on occasion, recently.

The historic fear of Russia in Poland is entirely understandable. But having an ahistorical fear of them is not. Russia is in a very new place right now. It has economic power, not military. It will try to hang on to as much territory as it can. It does so because it feels threatened. It’s from weakness not strength that Moscow is authoritarian and can bully.

And we should always ask ourselves: can the US, UK etc really accuse Moscow of being the bullyboy when they have taken it upon themselves to act like the world’s policeman/humanitarian social worker - whether the ‘client’ wants it or not - since the end of the Real Cold War.?

Beware the bear with a thorn in its foot. But in the end Russia needs the West as much as the West needs Russia. All talks and disputes should take that as their starting point.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Polish Fritzl

A man has been arrested in Poland for imprisoning his daughter for six years, raping her repeatedly and fathering two children who were immediately put up for adoption. Sounds familiar?

The 45 year old man comes from Siedlce, eastern Poland and is now in custody after she finally reported him.

His wife knew about all this, but was too afraid to do anything about it. Police are now searching for the two children, born in February 2005 and January 2007, to establish that they were the result of the sexual abuse.

Of course, the case clearly resembles the Austrian Josef Fritzl case earlier this year. I wonder if the western media will re-hash the nonsense they came out with then - that Fritzl was a product of Austria’s Nazi past and how “Central/Eastern Europe” just can’t come to terms with its past?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Poland’s government knew all about ‘secret’ CIA prisons?

Radio Zet has alleged that top ministers in the previous Law and Justice government were shown a report back in 2006 detailing the existence of those illusive CIA prisons in Poland used to detain Islamist terrorist suspects.

The names who saw and authored the report will be familiar to regular readers of this blog.

The author was our old friend Roman Giertych, who was heading a committee on the activities of Poland’s secret services at the time.

His report, written sometime in 2006 - confirming allegations made by Human Rights Watch back in late 2005 - was seen by Zbigniew Ziobro, state prosecutor Janusz Kaczmarek and special services coordinator Zbigniew Wasserman.

Crucially, today’s allegations have neither been confirmed nor denied by the present state prosecutor, Marek Staszak.

My understanding of the evidence collected by the Council of Europe’s report - which supported the original allegations made by the NGO and the Washington Post - you can see here and here.

Government ministers, and former president Aleksander Kwasniewski have always denied the allegations, dismissing them as nonsense.

In May 2007, the U.N. Committee Against Torture called on the Law and Justice government to disclose information gathered by Poland’s parliamentary committee on the CIA prisons issue. Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski dismissed the request: “The matter is now closed,” he said. But if the parliamentary committee had had access to the report written by Roman Giertych - and is it not too dumb to presume that they had? - then he, the prime minister, knew of the existence of these places in Poland.

If Radio Zet’s information is correct then several politicians are, quite simply, telling naughty little fibs.

Even though the present Polish government announced that an investigation into the issue would be re-opened, Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said this week:

"I have commented the issue as defense minister and I can take the responsibility for what I know and for what took place when I was responsible for military installations.

"I can once again categorically confirm -- during the time of the Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz and Jaroslaw Kaczynski governments, and also now, nothing like that has taken place in Poland."

So that is a flat denial, then. But we must look at Sikorski’s words carefully, however. He is stating that not since Law and Justice took office in November 2005 - Radek has been a minister in both the previous and present governments - have there been CIA prisons in Poland. But the reports following the initial allegations by Human Rights Watch stated that the prisons were closed down around the same time as the Law and Justice government won the election.

So maybe Sikorski is merely saying that there have not been any such prisons in Poland for the last three years. He is not saying there never have been.

The Council of Europe’s report quoted one US military intelligence source as saying: “Listen, Poland agreed top down…from the president [Kwasniewski], yes….to provide the CIA all it needed.”

If Radio Zet’s report turns out to be true then Giertych, Ziobro and ex-Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski are going to have a lot of explaining to do.