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Poland's Tarnished Golden Age

The release of compromising recordings of top officials takes the shine off a time of self-congratulation.

by Martin Ehl 1 July 2014

When the private talk of one politician, full of rough language and questionable sentiments, is aired, that’s a scandal that usually ends with a resignation. But when a spate of such recordings involving key cabinet members appears, that’s an attempted coup d’état, and the security agencies should be enlisted to ferret out the traitors. That is what seems to be happening in a scandal that has shaken Poland for two weeks.


Nobody knows what might be revealed next. Polish political life has reverted to the wild years of the Kaczynski brothers – the late President Lech and former Prime Minister Jaroslaw – of the mid-2000s after seven boring years of stable government under a coalition led by the center-right Civic Platform party and Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a master political marketer but failed reformer.


While the first recordings, revealed by the Wprost weekly, were damaging, the second batch, transcripts of which were published last week, were disgusting.


In the first recordings, central bank governor Marek Belka discussed with Interior Minister Bartlomej Sienkiewicz the prospect of helping the government with the economy in exchange for the firing of the finance minister, and the transportation minister (who has since resigned) asked the deputy finance minister to stop a tax audit of his wife. In the second recordings, Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski used unprintable language to describe Poland’s relations with the United States and the UK. The sentiments were not surprising, but the way this self-styled British gentleman – Sikorski is Oxford-educated and once held British citizenship – spoke was.


Leaving aside whatever might be published next, the scandal has brought the Polish government back to Earth from its orbit as a star economic performer. The Economist’s most recent issue said the country’s achievements in the 25 years since its first free elections had ushered in a “new golden age,” a phrase coined by World Bank economist Marcin Piatkowski. Polish politicians themselves boast of the country’s harsh but quick transformation, stable institutions, and prosperity.


But perhaps we should thank the so-called “coal mafia,” members of which have been questioned by prosecutors in the taping affair. These importers of cheap Russian coal allegedly prepared the secret recordings as revenge for government investigations against them for money-laundering and tax fraud.


The recordings have shown us how deals are struck between the supposedly independent central bank and the government, and laid bare the opinions of the country’s famous foreign minister.


And this is not just about secret recordings. We can see the Polish miracle, which avoided recession during the financial crisis, cracking. There is growing danger of big trouble for the esteemed Warsaw stock exchange after the government drove private pension funds out of the only-15-year-old pension system. Those funds were a main driver of financial market growth and privatization, and IPO machines. The Warsaw stock market has thus weakened significantly.


Tusk, mired in quarrels with journalists over prosecutors’ and secret service action against Wprost, quickly regained the political initiative last week with a surprising call for a confidence vote in parliament, besting an unprepared opposition.


But discontent is growing and local elections in the autumn will be the real test of support for the governing parties. The most dangerous form of discontent, especially for Tusk’s party, is voter apathy. While the conservative opposition can typically rely on a relatively stable pool of voters, Civic Platform usually wins by mobilizing against something. It has had no real program since the Euro 2012 football championship was played and most of the main planned highways were built (now you can travel from the north to south via highways, which is an achievement truly worthy of a golden age).


The recording scandal has shown Poland needs a new generation of politicians for a real new golden age. But the problem is that not only voters, but potential leaders are tired and disgusted. Politics is considered a tiresome, filthy business while there are so many better ways to get rich and have fun.


On the other hand, maybe that’s not such a small achievement after 25 years of liberal democracy and free markets in a region that historian Timothy Snyder has famously called "bloodlands."
Martin Ehl
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily 
Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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© Transitions Online 2014. All rights reserved. ISSN 1214-1615
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