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Corruption, Russophobia Weigh on Poland

WARSAW -- From outside this country, Poland seems as if it ought to be a happy place, securely democratic after all those years of Communist dictatorship, enjoying a growing economy, membership in the European Union and a greater role than ever in world affairs.

But that is not the case. Objectively, as one commentator, Helena Luczywo, deputy editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, put it recently, Poland is better off than at any time since the 16th century.

Yet, as Luczywo readily allows, the mood is gloomy. Charges of high-level corruption dominate the news. The ruling coalition, led by the Alliance of Left Democrats, or SLD, is deeply unpopular. Far-right nationalist parties are threatening to flow into the vacuum. Why do the Poles feel bad when things are good?

"There are three reasons," said Leszek Jesien, a political scientist and former government adviser on Poland's entry into the European Union. "One reason is corruption."

Recently, parliamentary commissions have been holding televised hearings on suspected malfeasance in the sale of Polish state assets to private companies, and the sessions have been full of melodramatic accusations -- most notably of a secret and somehow sinister meeting between Poland's most famous captain of finance and the Russian intelligence service.

"Second, in 2001, there was the total decomposition of the right," Jesien continued, referring to the collapse of the government associated with the Solidarity democracy movement.

"Now, there's the total decomposition of the left, without any prospect that either of them can be recomposed," Jesien said.

"And third, before, we were the poor orphans of Europe. Now, we're an equal member of the all-powerful EU, but we are still poor."

In other words, there may be a touch of hypochondria to the Polish malaise. But that does not mean that the problems, especially of corruption, are imaginary. This is a country, after all, where the mayors of several towns -- and, in at least one case, almost the entirety of the municipal administration -- have been indicted or are already in prison after having been convicted of corruption of one sort or another.

Still, something seems a bit strange about the various corruption scandals and investigations. The corruption seems a bit on the petty scale, not quite worthy of a great political crisis.

In one high-level, high-visibility case, a film producer, Lew Rywin, reportedly a friend of a former prime minister, Leszek Miller, was found guilty of trying to solicit a bribe from Adam Michnik, the editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, to enable Gazeta to bid on the sale of a state-owned television station.

But, more generally, the investigations have revealed little in the way of a clear story of systematic corruption. Because of that, the investigations are beginning to take on an aspect of political theater: grand, made-for-TV gestures motivated more by the eagerness of party leaders to grab the spotlight than to use it to shed light.

"The parliament is a platform for political struggle," Jozef Gruszka, the head of one of the investigating commissions, acknowledged in an interview. "And it's hard to say that investigating commissions are completely free of political influence," Gruszka said.

The main corruption scandal has to do with the sale of Poland's biggest oil company, Orlen. This is the subject of the commission headed by Gruszka.

But he is not investigating whether bribes were paid or assets were sold off at ridiculous prices. The charge is that Orlen may have been sold to the oil giant LUKoil, which comes from the country that the Poles love most to hate, Russia.

"The basic problem was that there were many conversations between the political establishment and the Russian government and parties," Roman Giertych, leader of the rightist League of Polish Families, said in a brief interview in the Polish Parliament. "It's important not only for the economy. It's a question of economic sovereignty."

The strange thing, however, is that Orlen was not actually sold to LUKoil or to any other Russian company. In other words, the biggest allegation of malfeasance in the privatization process involves an event that did not actually occur. The investigation concerns the possibility that, had it not been stopped, it might have occurred.

Here is where accounts of meetings between a Polish businessman and a supposed Russian agent come into the picture.

The businessman, Jan Kulczyk, generally referred to as Poland's richest man, met last year in Vienna with Vladimir Alganov, a Russian who is almost a household name in Poland. Alganov served in the Kremlin's embassy in Warsaw through most of the 1980s and early '90s, reportedly working for Russian intelligence.

The parliamentary commission that has been holding hearings on Orlen released a lurid Polish intelligence report on that meeting, which included unsubstantiated claims that Alganov complained to Kulczyk that Russia had not succeeded in buying Orlen even though millions of dollars in bribes were paid to Polish officials. After that, the head of Polish intelligence, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, appeared before the commission and delivered a stark warning.

"I'm afraid that the Russian empire is being restored," he said. "Yesterday it was tanks. Today it is oil. The commissars are being replaced by politicians and businessmen."

Other prominent political figures in Poland -- former Treasury Minister Wieslaw Kaczmarek, for example -- have offered the opinion that if cash-rich Russia wants to invest in cash-poor Poland, Poland would be well advised to seize the opportunity. Ignoring that common sense, some hotter heads in Poland have been trying to stir up public anxiety about dark Russian dealings.

Giertych is among those who have been most active in drumming up Russophobia. Of course, he happens to head a nationalist party that has been picking up influence as the mainstream parties have declined.

"It's true that Poland hasn't been in such good shape since the 16th century," Marek Beylin, a commentator for Gazeta Wyborcza, said when asked about Luczywo's comment. "But we are in a deep crisis," because the political parties are trying to destroy one another.

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