Poles Apart

06.24.14

Warsawgate Rocks Poland

Leaked recordings of top Polish officials dissing the Obama administration have worked to Putin’s benefit. Could he be behind them?

In early June, Poland celebrated the 25th anniversary of the partially free elections that brought Solidarity to power, triggered the collapse of communism throughout Eastern and Central Europe, and ushered in a new age of democracy and growing prosperity. Chronic partisan bickering largely gave way to a rare moment of well-deserved self-congratulation. Also for a brief moment, when Barack Obama addressed the Polish people and European leaders assembled in Warsaw’s Castle Square, the U.S. president appeared to convince Poles that the bonds between their two countries were as strong as ever.

But what a difference a couple of weeks make.

As a result of the publication by the weekly magazine Wprost of surreptitiously recorded private conversations of several of Poland’s top officials, the current government is under siege, U.S.-Polish relations have taken a massive hit, and all of Poland is awash with conspiracy theories. Under Polish law, the only clearly illegal actions were performed by whoever recorded the conversations without the permission of the parties involved, but everyone caught up in Warsawgate is reeling.

The biggest bombshell exploded at the feet of Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, who has been a key player in Europe’s response to the Ukraine crisis and harbored ambitions of succeeding the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catharine Ashton. The recordings were made in restaurants a few months ago, before the Russian takeover of Crimea that triggered renewed cooperation with the United States. But that didn’t make the tone of Sikorski’s remarks any less incendiary.

According to the recording, Sikorski told a fellow minister that U.S.-Polish relations are “worth nothing,” characterizing them as "bullshit.”  They only lead to frictions with the Germans and the French, he declared, and called Poles “suckers, complete suckers” because of their eagerness to please the Americans.

Sikorski told a fellow minister that U.S.-Polish relations are “worth nothing,” characterizing them as "bullshit.”

Before the Ukraine crisis, Sikorski and others were clearly frustrated by the Obama administration’s seeming uninterest in their part of the world as signaled by its “pivot” to Asia, and increasingly uncertain about the value of its security guarantees at a time when Washington’s influence was seen as on the wane. Once probably the most pro-American people in the world, Poles have been steadily strengthening their ties within Europe while public criticism of the United States has become increasingly commonplace.

As tensions escalated in Ukraine, Warsaw and Washington looked to be working more closely together again, signaling a marked improvement in their relationship. Polish and U.S. officials were quick to insist that the leaked recordings of Sikorski’s remarks did not change those fundamentals, but it did change the conversation completely. According to President Bronislaw Komorowski, the recordings of Sikorski, several other Polish politicians and even Marek Belka, the head of the National Bank of Poland, indicate that somebody is seeking “the real de-stabilization of the state.”

Speculation is now rife that either “business interests” or foreign secret services—most probably Russian—are behind such efforts. Writing in the European Voice, Edward Lucas, the author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Threat to Russia and the West, argues:  “One does not have to be a hardened conspiracy theorist to see a connection between the release of this material and the stalwart role Poland is playing in support of Ukraine, and in building a regional coalition against Russian revanchism.”

Others caution about jumping to conclusions, but note that the Polish media has now switched from covering the Ukrainian crisis non-stop to focusing almost exclusively on Warsawgate.  “There is no evidence that Russia is behind this, but it is clearly the beneficiary,” says Michal Kobosko, the head of the Warsaw office of the Atlantic Council.  

The government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk is desperately seeking to contain the damage, while opposition politicians are already clamoring for Sikorski’s head—and some are demanding that Tusk and his whole team also pay the price. In a move that immediately backfired in a blaze of adverse publicity, prosecutors raided the office of Wprost last week and attempted to grab the laptop of editor-in-chief Sylwester Latkowski, but failed.

Tusk quickly distanced himself from that action, but pledged to focus his efforts on finding out who is behind the illegal recordings. The Wprost journalists insisted they are willing to cooperate. But Latkowski also proclaimed that he was performing a public service by exposing recordings that could be used to blackmail the government and also highlight the failure of the security services to protect the privacy of senior officials. Not coincidentally, his weekly is basking in the spotlight—and racking up huge sales—while performing this “service.”

The right-wing Law and Justice Party, the main opposition party, is still weak and distrusted by a large part of the population, so Tusk’s Civic Platform may be able to hang on. But Sikorski, who has been denouncing the attack by “an organized criminal group” on him and other officials, is fighting for his political life—and is unlikely to still have a shot at a big job within the E.U.

With Wprost promising to publish an unspecified number of additional recordings, there is no end in sight—and the fallout is likely to keep spreading. By offering a glimpse into the unguarded remarks of politicians to each other, the revelations will continue to generate sensational headlines, whether or not they demonstrate any genuine wrongdoing.

Warsawgate demonstrates what Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, learned just recently: there may be no such thing as a purely private conversation anymore, whether it’s about politics, race or business. Poland has now fully entered the new era, for better—and for worse.

Andrew Nagorski, a former Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin bureau chief for Newsweek, is the author of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.