Overheard in Warsaw

Warsaw's elite thought they were off the record. What happened next threatens Poland's politics and international relations.  

WARSAW, Poland — The Polish capital is a city of 1.7 million people, but the country's elite is tiny -- a few hundred people at most -- and the places that politicians, senior bureaucrats, and top executives like to meet are clubby restaurants like the Amber Room, a discreet dining room in a neo-Renaissance 19th-century palace, where the exclusive business club is a perfect setting for boozy, late-night off-the-record conversations.

At least that's what Warsaw's elites thought. It turns out that the Amber Room, and other chic and very private dining rooms in a handful of the city's best restaurants, were far less discreet and off-the-record than they could have ever imagined.

Waiters were apparently bugging some of those hushed conversations over expensive bottles of wine and the results have been splashed all over Wprost, one of Poland's leading newsweeklies. The stories, picked up around the world, are shaking the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, denting the reputation of the central bank governor and the foreign minister, and wounding Poland's relations with its closest allies, the United States and Great Britain.

Warsaw is now worried that Poland's age-old enemy, Russia, may have had a hand in what is turning into Tusk's most serious scandal since he came to power in 2007.

Speaking to parliament on Wednesday, June 25, before a vote of confidence in his government, Tusk said the leaks could be tied to the import of coal from Russia and to people interested in gas pipeline links between Poland and Russia, which avoid sending Europe-bound gas through Ukraine.

And even bigger geopolitical dynamics may also be at play, according to the prime minister. "In the background there is also the situation in Ukraine and in Europe," Tusk said. Poland has been a leading EU hawk on Ukraine, pushing for a tough response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for armed insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

"I don't know in which alphabet this scenario was written, but I know very well who could be the beneficiary of political chaos or the lowering of the reputation of the Polish state," Tusk continued. So far the evidence of any foreign link to the bugging scandal is a little sketchy, but if true it would allow Tusk to cover the humiliation of the leaks in the cloth of national security.

Wprost has published a series of illegally obtained recordings over the last two weeks, the latest coming from a January dinner between Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and former Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski. Although comparisons are being made with the impact of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden's revelations about U.S. spying, at least in Warsaw there is no precedent for so many senior officials having private, and often embarrassing, conversations become international news.

In a chatty dinner marked by a lot of salty language and a few off-color jokes, Sikorski, a noted anti-Russia hawk and strong advocate of NATO, also weighed in on what he thought of Poland's "worthless" alliance with the United States. "Complete bullshit. We'll get into a conflict with the Germans and the Russians and we'll think that everything is super because we gave the Americans a blowjob," Poland's top diplomat said.

Sikorski, who was educated at Oxford University and belonged to the same exclusive social club that was the fiefdom of upper-class toffs including current U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, then took a skewer to the British leader. He complained that Cameron had "fucked up" his policy towards the EU in a clumsy attempt to satisfy euroskeptics in his Conservative Party, and Sikorski fretted that the end result could be Britain leaving the European Union. Sikorski, foreign minister of the most pro-EU country in the union, has little patience with the U.K.'s ambivalence about staying in the club.

The former finance minister agreed. "That won't be good for us, because we want Great Britain to stay," responded Rostowski, who was brought up in the United Kingdom and still speaks Polish with a slight English accent.

The conversation has been blasted over the pages of the British press, damaging Cameron's reputation at home by being subjected to a blistering critique from someone who had been a friend. This comes at a time when he already faces fallout over his attempt to halt the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg who envisions a stronger role for Brussels, as the new head of the European Commission.

The leaked conversation put in public -- and in crude terms -- what was an open secret in recent years as Poland has tightened relations with Germany and the EU at the expense of historically close ties with Britain and the United States.

Poland's fraying links with Britain were made apparent at the beginning of this year, when Cameron tried to bolster his domestic popularity by hammering Polish migrants for supposedly abusing social benefits. 

Tusk immediately called Cameron and "fucked him over" for targeting the hundreds of thousands of Poles now living in the United Kingdom, said Pawel Gras, a former government spokesman, in another leaked conversation.

Sikorski appears to have also drifted away from his earlier robust pro-Americanism, disenchanted by U.S. reluctance to build part of its anti-missile defense shield in central Europe and by the bungled war in Iraq, in which Poland was a significant participant, and dismayed at the U.S. pivot away from Europe towards Asia.

Sikorski's frank assessment might have benefits in Europe. "Paradoxically, Sikorski's comments could actually help him in some European capitals because they show that in view of U.S. withdrawal from Europe, he views the relationship with the U.S. in more realistic ways," said Eugeniusz Smolar, a Warsaw-based foreign-policy expert.

But conditions have changed since the January recording was made.

Russia's policy towards Ukraine has forced Warsaw to reassess its foreign policy. Led by Tusk and Sikorski, Poland is again one of the most pro-U.S. countries in Europe. In recent weeks, Poland has promised to increase its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, one of the highest levels in NATO. And back in Washington, the United States has insisted that ties with Poland are "very strong," while the State Department has refused to comment directly on the recorded conversation. In April, several hundred U.S. troops were dispatched to Poland to allay worries over a possible threat from Russia. 

But if Moscow has thus far shown reluctance to prod Europe's boundaries militarily, it's been less reticent to employ other measures.

When the recordings surfaced, there was immediate suspicion in Polish political and media circles of a Russian link. That was not without reason: Moscow has delighted in embarrassing its enemies. Russia has been blamed for the February release of a conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, when Nuland apparently said, "Fuck the EU."  

As Tusk unleashed Polish law enforcement to dig up who was behind the leaks, a Russian tie looked at least possible. 

Wprost has said only that the recordings were supplied by a "businessman" who signed his name as "Patriot." In recent days, Polish authorities have arrested two waiters working in restaurants where the recordings were made. Police have also detained Marek Falenta, a 39-year-old businessman worth about $145 million who invested in a coal-distribution company, reportedly on suspicion that he may have been the person who fed the recordings to Wprost. The company in question, Sklady Wegla, imports cheap coal from Russia and had been the subject of an investigation into tax fraud and other offences. Falenta's lawyer has denied his client's involvement in the bugging affair.

The Sikorski recording may have made the biggest splash internationally, but other embarrassing transcripts have been showing up on the pages of Wprost over the last two weeks, shaking up domestic politics. Others caught on tape include Treasury Minister Wlodzimierz Karpinski; Jacek Krawiec, the head of state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen; and Pawel Gras, Tusk's former spokesman.

Aside from the Sikorski-Rostowski chat, the most damaging was a conversation between Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz and Central Bank Governor Marek Belka. The conversation, which included jokes about the penis size of a key member of the interest-rate-setting Monetary Policy Council, have damaged Belka's ties with that body and tarnished his reputation, which until now had been sterling. 

More worrying for Poles, if not markets, was the talk of political horse-trading over monetary policy. In the conversation, recorded last July, Sienkiewicz sounded out Belka on whether the Central Bank would be willing to intervene to prop up the economy in the hypothetical event of a slowdown, worrying that a sluggish economy could hurt the ruling Civic Platform party's chances for a third term in parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

Remarkably for an apolitical appointee, Belka agreed, breaking a taboo for a central banker. "My condition is, excuse me, the dismissal of the finance minister," Belka said, referring to the minister as "Count von Rostowski."

Rostowski was removed as minister in a cabinet reshuffle last November, although both he and Tusk insist there was no pressure on him to go. Another of Belka's conditions, a change in central bank regulations, is working its way through parliament.

However, Belka is not quitting. Tusk has said that he did nothing illegal, and Belka has tried to patch up relations with the Monetary Policy Council -- although, if a lukewarm statement from the council is anything to go by, he still has some work to do to return to its good graces.

Tusk is also standing firm in the face of the firestorm over the leaked tapes. Instead of resigning, as demanded by the opposition, he has attempted to shift the debate from the content of the leaks to who made the recordings and why -- turning the issue of support for his government into one of patriotism by bringing the focus onto an issue nearly all Poles seem able to agree on: distrust of Russia.

"There can be no place for a scenario where criminals who record and make public recordings from bugs are going to dictate the actions of the parliament or the government," he told parliament on Wednesday.

Tusk's gamble is to calm the atmosphere by showing he still commands a majority in parliament and by trying to deflect questions over the embarrassing behavior of his ministers and the incompetence of the security services, which should have ensured that their bosses weren't being bugged. The danger for him is that there are still many recordings out there, according to Wprost, and the Polish media smell a wounded government vulnerable to more scandal.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images


Am I My Brother's Keeper?

How the disappearance of three Israeli boys in the West Bank is upending Palestinian politics.

RAMALLAH — If there was ever any question about the Palestinian public's feelings about recent Israeli military operations in the West Bank, those were resolved in the predawn hours of Sunday morning, June 22.

Israeli forces carried out a raid only steps from a Palestinian Authority (PA) police station in the center of Ramallah. Pictures showed Israeli soldiers parked in front of the building, as Palestinian police officers peered helplessly out of windows above them. After the army left, groups of Palestinians turned on the PA police to punish them for their powerlessness in the face of the occupation forces. A crowd stoned the police station and smashed the windows on the cars parked outside.

The PA police were less hesitant to respond to their countrymen: They responded with live fire to drive the crowd away. When morning broke, dumpsters lining the city's main shopping district were still ablaze and large rocks carpeted the streets from the clashes hours before.

The early morning riot in Ramallah was the latest manifestation of the conflict tearing Palestinians apart -- just eight weeks after they were supposed to become united.

The latest Palestinian political tumult began nearly two weeks ago when three Israelis who attended a yeshiva in the sprawling Gush Etzion settlement went missing in the West Bank. Israeli officials blame Hamas, the Islamist movement that is one of Palestine's two main political factions, for the alleged kidnapping. That it came on the heels of the April 23 reconciliation agreement between Hamas and its rival Fatah, a deal that was seven years in the works and was supposed to pave the way for a more effective Palestinian government, was red meat to Israeli critics of the deal who say that Hamas is a terrorist group. The fallout from the disappearances -- and Israel's violent crackdown -- threatens to upend both Palestinian politics and relations with Israel.

In a June 18 speech to Arab dignitaries at the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Saudi Arabia, PA President Mahmoud Abbas accused the assailants behind the alleged kidnapping of a conspiracy. "The truth is that whoever carried out this action wants to destroy us," Abbas said. "That is why we will speak to him differently and take a different position toward him, whoever it is ... because we cannot tolerate such acts."Abbas also said security coordination with the Israelis was "in our interest ... to protect our own people."

A Hamas spokesman condemned Abbas's comments, saying they were "based on the Zionist narrative." But even some in the president's own faction chafe at PA policies.

"The leadership talks about reason and logic, but where is the reason and logic in living under occupation without resisting?" said Mohammed Abu El Nasr, a Fatah youth activist. "There is something wrong with the leadership's conflict management and its focus on peaceful resolution."

If Israeli allegations that Hamas is behind the disappearances are true, then the Islamist party has room to regain some of the clout it lost in the past couple of years by calling for another high-profile prisoner exchange. Moreover, they'll have boxed in the PA and its security forces, which, composed largely of Fatah loyalists, risk looking like collaborators with the occupation. And the conflict between the two groups could spiral into a crisis that plays into the Israeli government's hopes by unraveling the unity agreement.

Since June 12, the Israeli army has killed at least four Palestinians and arrested more than 470 others in an operation dubbed Brother's Keeper. The targeting of Hamas has been especially brutal, and is putting a serious strain on the recent Hamas-Fatah détente. The speaker and 10 members of the now-defunct parliament in which Hamas enjoys a majority have been arrested, as have at least 50 of the 1,027 Palestinians released in 2011 in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006.

The upper echelons of Hamas's West Bank political leadership are currently all incarcerated, including founding member Hassan Yousef. The Gaza Strip, where Hamas dominates political life, has been pounded by Israeli air raids. Even in Israeli prisons, members of the Islamist party are being punished by a slew of tougher living conditions that include a ban on family visits. Hamas has not claimed responsibility for what Israeli authorities allege is a kidnapping, but it has warned that there will be reprisals if the crackdown continues.

The stated goals of Israel's military operation have not only been to find the three missing teens; Hamas's West Bank infrastructure is also the target. "We have a goal," said the Israeli army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, "to find these three boys and bring them home and to damage Hamas as much as possible." Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said that the true test of Abbas's comments in Saudi Arabia will be whether or not he divorces Hamas.

"The Israelis tried to prevent [the unity government] from the beginning," said Ghassan Al Khatib, the vice president of Birzeit University. "And now they are taking advantage of this incident to abort this national unity by all means."

The limits of Palestinian unity came into stark view on June 20 when PA forces violently dispersed a Hamas-organized demonstration in Hebron supporting Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, beating both protestors and journalists. The PA's heavy-handed methods even prompted local media outlets to boycott all government events for three days.

In April, it seemed Palestinians were finally on the verge of putting a historical end to seven long years of infighting, which left the Gaza Strip and West Bank not only geographically but also politically isolated from each other. The unveiling of an independent government composed of technocrats and led by current Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was supposed to usher in parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. But no sooner had the ministers been sworn-in than the three Israelis went missing and the military operation ensued.

Israel's crackdown on Hamas -- and the PA's cooperation in it -- casts doubts on Fatah's initial claims of dedication to the reconciliation agreement with its old Islamist foe. The coordination efforts are condemned unanimously by Hamas members and supporters, who have gone as far as to call them a "disgrace" and "a crime punishable by law," under the Cairo Agreement, the initial reconciliation pact signed by the two parties in 2012.

At the leadership level, Abbas's confidantes have defended the PA's course of action thus far. Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told Reuters last Friday that there would be no Third Intifada on Abbas' watch. Those at the party's second tier, meanwhile, are lashing out against Israel's military incursions in the West Bank without criticizing their party's leadership. But at the grassroots -- the party's Revolutionary Council, lower-level members, and local activists -- dissatisfaction is growing.

"These are the people who are not really happy with the political leadership's statements, and who felt that the concessions are very high and have weakened the credibility of the Fatah movement in the eyes of the public," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who heads the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an independent East Jerusalem-based institute.

The Palestinian public longs for a coherent political strategy, something lacking from their leadership's agenda for some time. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the international representative body of the Palestinians, announced in November 2012 it would take its liberation struggle to international forums upon their ascendance to a non-member observer seat at the U.N.'s General Assembly. But since then, they have been largely reluctant to join other international organizations apart from the largely symbolic signing of a slew of treaties and conventions on April 1. Most importantly, Abbas has refused to make good on his threat that Israelis fear the most: approaching the International Criminal Court to ask the prosecutor to investigate Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"The leadership does not care about the average man's reaction," Abdul Hadi said. "From day one, Abbas said, 'This is my policy. I was elected to end the Intifada. I will not allow another one.' Some people say this shakes his credibility in the eyes of the public. He does not pay attention to that. He's not Arafat, he's not a leader; he is a representative for a mission."

After nine months of failed peace talks with Israel, with expanding settlements in the West Bank, and now a large-scale closure and assault, a security relationship with Israel is becoming increasingly unpopular. But for the PA, maintaining security cooperation with Israel is essential. Without it, EU and U.S. aid money and political support would end, recalling not-so-distant memories of the PA's previous ill-fated attempt at unity governance in 2006-2007. Following a boycott by international donors due to Hamas's presence in the government, the PA was left unable to pay salaries. Since one-third of all Palestinians in the West Bank are employed by the PA, many were subjected to extreme economic hardship.

But this time around things are different, with the actors making sure to not violate any of their Western donors' stipulations with their unaffiliated caretaker government. Even the United States expressed a willingness to test the new unity government, encouraging restraint and continued security coordination last week with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stating that the United States was "encouraged by President Abbas's strong statement to the Arab and Islamic foreign ministers today in Saudi Arabia."

"The fundamentals of Abbas's position are correct," said Al Khatib, himself a former government spokesman. "This kidnapping does not serve our national interests. "What [the president] is saying, is we should try to prevent a return to violence and I think he speaks for the silent majority of the Palestinian people."

But not everyone agrees.

Last Friday, the mood was somber in Qalandiya refugee camp, outside Ramallah, as families reeled from an overnight military raid that left three young men critically wounded. Inside, homes were filled with smashed furniture and clothes were strewn across the floor after Israeli soldiers ransacked the area the previous night.

Nasim Mteir, a 28-year-old resident of the camp, said the army searched his parents' and brother's houses during the raid. "They tore up the place," he said. "Since Israel seems to be in charge anyway, why don't we let it resume its responsibilities in the territories? Those who want liberation should not be concerned with political seats."