Poland and its past
Apr 4th 2007 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
The cure for ex-communist sleaze in Poland may be worse than the disease
SLEAZE was endemic among the ex-communists who ran Poland until 2005, say the moral zealots now in charge. They have backing from a surprising source: Jozef Oleksy, an ex-communist who was, in the 1990s, prime minister, interior minister and parliamentary speaker. A leaked recording of his boozy three-hour lunch with one of Poland's richest businessmen, Aleksander Gudzowaty, contains detailed allegations about top ex-communists' financial shenanigans.
All those mentioned deny everything. Aleksander Kwasniewski, president between 1995 and 2005 and still the left's most popular politician, calls Mr Oleksy an “utter cretin” and “traitor”. Mr Oleksy has grovelled in vain to his former colleagues, complaining that the tapes were doctored in the hope of sowing dissension on the left and of scuppering Mr Kwasniewski's return to domestic politics.
Recorded by Mr Gudzowaty's security staff, the tapes seem to have reached the media via the justice ministry and the security services. Mr Gudzowaty, Poland's fifth-richest man, has not explained how they got out. Some think he is currying favour with the powers-that-be: Law and Justice, the centre-right party founded by Lech Kaczynski (president) and his twin brother Jaroslaw (prime minister).
The Kaczynskis loathe this sort of thing. They like to stand above all for clean government. Their own probity is unquestioned. But their record is tainted, not least by the antics of two coalition allies. One of these is a bunch of farmers with dodgy business ties; the other is a bunch of homophobes who flirt with anti-Semitism.
Worse, the government has created a paranoid atmosphere, in which secret material is close to becoming a political currency. Government critics complain of being bugged: hard to prove, but a fear rarely expressed since the collapse of communism. The justice ministry seems heavy-handed and too fond of publicity. Some say it is being misused for political ends.
The Kaczynskis want to drive the old regime's cronies out of their powerful jobs. But they have often brought in their own chums, rather than apolitical experts. In a tussle over the sale of Poland's largest insurer, they replaced the firm's boss with a candidate who lacks the usual qualifications. The head of the country's largest oil company has been replaced by an inexperienced friend of the president's.
The biggest row is about the government's “lustration” law, which beefs up the vetting of anybody who ever co-operated with the communist-era secret services. The aim is to uproot the uklad, a supposed network of communist-era spies and their allies in business and the public services that the Kaczynskis blame for all of Poland's wrong turnings since 1989.
Screening public figures for connections to the old regime is common in eastern Europe, but the new law has unparalleled scope. Leading academics and journalists have threatened civil disobedience. The institute that looks after the secret-service archives is concerned that it will be unable to certify the purity of as many as 700,000 people within the time limit stipulated by the law.
Critics say that screening laws, however well-meant, tend to hit collaborators—perhaps coerced at the time and remorseful now—more than perpetrators. Heavy vetting is a cumbersome way of dealing with the uklad. A better one would be to make the economy more open, so that connections ceased to matter. Jan Winiecki, a professor and critic of communist economics, calls the law “unacceptable on both moral and legal grounds” and says it “puts its authors beyond the pale of Western civilisation”. The final version proposed by the president is vague, lacking a clear definition of collaboration.
If the publication of the tapes was a bid to destroy the ex-communists' party, it has backfired. Wojciech Olejniczak, the party's 32-year-old leader, has strengthened his position against the old guard after Mr Oleksy's remarks. Polls show that Mr Kwasniewski remains popular. The Kaczynskis are creating monstrous difficulties for small fry. But they are not catching big fish, such as the tycoons who have prospered so mysteriously in recent years.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
Poland and its past