It only took one hour to dismantle a nearly 200 year old Polish national treasure, and now one month later, the world class reputation of Poland’s state run Arabian horse breeding program is laid out on the ground like shattered glass. The destruction of the program, and the bewildering manner in which it occurred is illustrative of a far more troubling trend in the country. The unrelenting interference of Poland’s newly elected government.
On the very eastern edge of Poland, just 3km to the border with Belarus, where the European Union ceases to exist, there is a small village. It would be much like any other Polish town if not for it the iconic Arabian horse state stud farm, Janow Podlaski. Initiated in 1665, under the guidance of Louis XIV of France, state stud farms were designed with one purpose, to produce quality horses for local breeders and farmers. Janow Podlaski, built with the authorization of Tsar Alexander I in 1817, was designed to do the same. They’ve perfected breeding to the point where, Jaroslav Lacina, the President of the European Conference of Arab Horse Organizations, tells the Daily Beast that “Janow simply has the highest reputation in the entire world.”
“The men I was fired alongside with had worked in their profession for 40 years, and I’d been in this for 21 years,” Anna Stojanowska, the former Chief Arabian Horse Specialist of Poland’s Agricultural Property Agency tells the Daily Beast. “In one hour, we were all gone, and by all accounts, the people they’ve chosen to replace us with aren’t capable of running the operation.”
Stojanowska, along with Marek Trela and Jerzy Bialobok, the two directors of Poland’s world renowned studs at Janów Podlaski and Michalów, were summarily fired on February 19th of this year. Her dismissal came as a shock says Stojanowska, but at least she received a specific explanation, even though the accusation of mismanagement had nothing to do with her realm of responsibility. “That was the funny part, I have no control over the thing they said I’d done wrong.” The other two, Trela and Bialobok were relieved of their duties without explanation.
Thanks to a newly established law by the now ruling government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, the firings were well within the law. They were among hundreds of directors and managers of state enterprises who were sacked and replaced without any sort of competitive process. Warsaw based Lawyer Krzysztof Izdebski told the Daily Beast that although it’s quite common for every new party in power to bring in their own people, the scale with which PiS has done so makes it different. “They created a whole new law on civil service which allowed them to rid of state officials at once without any need to look for justification. He adds, “to be honest the former government was only a bit better, but at least they didn’t risk putting loyal but incompetent people in significant posts.”
The PiS slogan during the election campaign had been, “Dobra Zmiana”, or “Good Change”, and it had been incredibly successful. However, what happened next had Poles on social media sarcastically asking, ‘is this what they meant by good change?”
In mid March, just weeks after Trela had been released, he had been replaced by an economist loyal to the PiS party. A man who publicly admitted he had no previous horse experience. Shortly after he assumed responsibility for Janow, a horse owned by Shirley Watts, the wife of the drummer for the Rolling Stones and a 25 year client, suddenly died.
Now the situation was spiralling out of control for Polish officials. The firings had sparked the ire of the horse world, with organizations like The World Arabian Horse Organization (WAHO), a nearly fifty year old apolitical non profit dedicated to the preservation, improvement and preservation of Arabian horses, issuing supporting statements and sending concerned letters to Polish officials. But the death of Shirley Watt’s horse set off serious concern within Poland itself.
Ironically, the intestinal ailment that caused this horse’s death had been the same one that killed another horse in October. That horse’s value was pegged at 3 million euros. Nearly six months after it was gone, but shortly after the firing, in a response to public pressure for a justification, the death was blamed on Marek Trela.
An investigation into the death of Mrs. Watt’s horse was promptly announced the next day. It seemed that the hiring of a new and untrained director might have been a factor, but the allegations were quickly brushed aside by the head of the Agricultural Property Agency, Waldemar Humiecki, who said “it happens quite often with horses.” It was astonishingly brazen. Two deaths, both with the same cause. One led to the ending of a 40 year career, the other elicited a shrug of the shoulders.
Rafał Trzaskowski, a member of Parliament for the opposition party Civic Platform told the Daily Beast that this attitude is characteristic of PiS’s wanton meddling. “They think that positions in all aspects of the state should be occupied by PiS. The sheer magnitude of the changes and the chutzpah with which they are implemented, it’s unprecedented. They just don’t care, they are not making any effort to hide what they are doing. The chutzpah with which they operate is the most dangerous part.”
That Chutzpah would be challenged heavily just days ago, when another of Shirley Watts horses succumb to illness at Janow. This time the scrutiny and repercussions were much greater however. Two prize horses, belonging to a valued 25 year client and public figure, had died within weeks of each other.
When asked if there was any chance this could be a freak coincidence, a representative of the World Arabian Horse Association told the Daily Beast that “coincidence is a funny thing.” WAHO’s Katrina Murrary said, “I know that the new management did make a strange decision. They transported her to have her foal at a clinic in Warsaw, now bear in mind that the stud at Janow has been breeding horses for 200 years with very experienced staff. For whatever reason, they took her to Warsaw to have her foal and then brought her back, merely by doing that, is highly dangerous. Colic, which the horse died from, is very complex, but you cannot induce it by giving a drug or poisoning oats. You can however increase dramatically the risk of colic by moving a mare away from her familiar surroundings a few days before her foaling date.”
Shirley Watts immediately began procedures to remove the remaining two horses she kept at Janow, sending a signal to the horse world. “Two of the best trainers at Janow quit in protest after we were fired,” says Anna Stojanowska. “And then two of Shirley’s horses died. We have world class horses from all over the world that come to Janow. Do you think they want to keep their horses in Poland in these circumstances? If I was in their place, I would take my horses back.”
And some have, including Jaroslav Lacina, who told the Daily Beast that although he’s not sure of who else has taken their horses away, he arranged to have his 3 year old colt taken away last week.
PiS, in another troubling characteristic that’s quickly coming to define their tenure, sought out someone to blame. The new agriculture minister announced that the deaths were the result of foul play, hinting at a conspiracy to bring down PiS.
However, in Katrina’s eyes, that doesn’t hold any weight. “They’ve alleged foul play. As I understand, they had samples taken of the feed and there’s traces of an antibiotic that isn’t normally used in horses in a couple samples of the oats. It wouldn’t cause colic anyway, and secondly it wouldn’t be a sufficient amount to kill a horse.”
The investigation into the deaths is ongoing, with the media tightly focused on the results. Horse experts and vets now grace the screens of Polish television, keeping viewers informed of every potential detail. Either way, the damage to Poland’s legendary Arabian horse program seems set in stone while three extremely qualified people who could flip the switch remain on the outside looking in.
In a stunning allegation, Anna Stojanowska told the Daily Beast that she quickly realized why she’d been fired. “Senator Jan Dobrzinski of PiS, is also an Arabian horse breeder. He bought some mares and sent them to me for breeding. Well, one of his newborn foals died from a viral epidemic that killed several other foals. He asked for compensation of around $40,000 USD, which is much higher than the value of the foal. It was refused and at the end, the Senator said that sooner or later he’d fix it. I believe that our dismissal was a result of private revenge.”
Lawyer Krzysztof Izdebski thinks that’s just par for the course at this point. “Of course it was initiated by the politicians, and this was certainly a political decision but it is only the peak of the mountain when it comes to cronyism in Poland right now.”
Senator Jan Dobrzinski and representatives of the Polish ministry of agriculture did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In a dejected aside at Arlington National Cemetary in Virgina days ago, former Polish Prime Minister and current President of the EU was asked to comment on the situation and said, ”Maybe it’s because these things have symbolic weight. Personally I have to say that for me as a Pole, someone who takes actions that lead to the deaths of horses, and in a stud like Janow, is doing something terrible.”
Finally, in reference to the iconic white birds, deeply beloved by Poles, which have migrated thousands of kilometres for centuries on end to spend summers bearing their young amongst the picturesque Polish countryside, he quipped, “I’m just wondering if they’re going to start shooting the storks.”