The Slippery Pole

In elections held last September, the people of Poland chose a man named Leszek Miller to be their prime minister. After this happened, I sat back and waited for the reaction in Western Europe. I waited, and I waited. Nothing happened.

Then, at last, the reaction came. Last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain and Prime Minister Leszek Miller of Poland published a joint article in Rzeczpospolita, Poland’s newspaper of record. ‘The need to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the European Union has been under discussion for a very long time,’ this unusually opaque piece of writing began. It then continued, with much talk of ‘public participation’ in European institutions, many rhetorical questions (‘Why do Europeans need the European Union?’) and, well, you can imagine the rest.

I had, it is true, heard rumours of the new, close relationship between Mr. Blair and Mr. Miller. During the Polish Prime Minister’s first visit to London, the two supposedly spent three hours bonding in Downing Street. Up to a point, this is as it should be. Poland is the largest of the candidate members of the European Union, and, within a mere two years, if all goes as planned, it will have the same number of Euro MPs and the same number of votes in the European Council as Spain. It speaks well of Blair that he has had the forethought to court a leading Polish politician. Still, I was taken aback by his public chumminess with this particular Polish politician, and by the enthusiastic tones of their joint, lavish praise for ‘democracy’.

Let me introduce you to Tony’s new Polish friend: meet Leszek Miller. These days he smiles a lot, and has studiously learnt to speak passable English. In a previous incarnation (I first met him about 12 years ago) he smiled less. At that time he was a member of the Politburo of the Polish Communist party, and was best known as a member of the party’s ‘beton’ wing concrete blockheads, for lack of a better translation who stood solidly in opposition to democratic reforms. As late as March 1990 a year after Miller and the Polish Communist party were both defeated in elections he stated that ‘the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland will do no one any good.’

In 1991 he went a bit further, choosing to spend his holidays that summer in the Crimea, where he just happened to share a hotel with Boris Pugo and Gennady Yanayev, two of the leaders of the Moscow putsch against Gorbachev. The putsch took place a few days after that holiday ended. Had it succeeded, Miller might well have become prime minister of Poland a good deal earlier. But, although we don’t know exactly what he talked about with Pugo and Yanayev, we do know that Miller had already had many close dealings with the Soviet Communist party. It appears that in 1990 he helped arrange for the Polish Communist party to receive a loan from its Soviet counterparts, delivered by the KGB, which was intended to help the party transform itself into the ‘Social Democratic’ party that maintains such close relations with the British Labour party today.

The loan, $1.2 million, plus half-a-billion Polish zlotys, was an enormous sum at the time, and may well have helped both the party and a number of its members to find their feet in newly capitalist Poland. Polish prosecutors began an investigation into the ‘Moscow loan’ in 1991, and got as far as stripping Miller of his parliamentary immunity in 1993. He wriggled out of the investigation soon afterwards, however: his party regained power in a previous round of general elections, and the investigation was hastily dropped.

Certainly, no one can describe Leszek Miller as ungrateful. Before being elected prime minister, he dropped a number of heavy hints, suggesting that he planned to terminate a gas-pipeline contract that the previous, Solidarity-led government of Poland had recently signed with Norway. The contract, which will reduce Poland’s dependence on Russian energy, would also damage the interests of Gazprom, Russia’s largest company, and of Bartimpex, Gazprom’s closest Polish partner. Miller hasn’t ended the contract yet, possibly because the issue has become very controversial; he’s biding his time. But Miller’s links with Bartimpex, and with its owner, Alexander Gudzowaty the closest thing Poland has to a Russian oligarch (Gudzowaty is said to own Gucci’s former house on the Riviera) are still intact. Gudzowaty personally contributes huge sums to Miller’s ‘charity foundation’. Recently, a Polish newspaper also revealed that Miller’s mortgage was arranged by Gudzowaty’s bank.

Leaving aside his Russian interests, Leszek Miller has, since coming into office, hardly behaved like a Blairite either. Within the first weeks of taking power, he and his government carried out an unprecedented ‘purge’ of officials, ambassadors, civil servants and managers of state companies including apolitical figures such as regional conservationists who are responsible for protecting old buildings in an effort to create more jobs for the boys. No previous government, including the first democratic government that took over in 1989, has sacked so many people so quickly.

Those who would not go easily have been pushed. A few weeks ago, the security services arrested the head of the largest company in Poland PKN Orlen, an oil company and interrogated him before letting him go. The following day he was sacked, no reason given, by an intimidated board of directors (which had previously refused to sack him). A Polish court has now declared, after the fact, that it is illegal to use the security services to effect personnel decisions. No one expects anything to be done about it.

While getting rid of as many non-communists as possible, Miller has also made some curious appointments. His chief adviser for foreign policy, for example, is one Tadeusz Iwinski, once better known as a Communist party ideologist. Both Iwinski’s anti-Americanism and his anti-Semitism are matters of record. He is the author of works such as Political Strategies of Contemporary Capitalism, which contains a chapter entitled ‘The Zionist version of bourgeois expansionism’, as well as pearls of wisdom which translate more or less like this: ‘The distinguishing characteristics of Zionism continue to be nationalism and chauvinism, a pro-imperialist orientation, and anti-communism’, and so on. Jews, according to Mr. Iwinski, are trying to create ‘a new Herrenvolk’.

But, given that their past enthusiasm for capitalism was limited, it is also perhaps no surprise that Miller’s government has, in a few short months, already started to reverse many of the gains of the past decade. Education, health and pension reforms are being dismantled. Public services are being recentralised. The large-scale privatisation of recent years has been halted. Taxes have gone up dramatically. The government is hell-bent on undermining the recently established independence of the Polish central bank. Perhaps it is not surprising that the number of young Poles leaving the country to look for work abroad has suddenly started to rise again.

Finally, Miller has also leaned heavily on Poland’s media not through censorship, of course, but through harassment, in the Russian manner. Polish state television no longer reports news which is unflattering to Miller, such as the story of his mortgage. The private owners of independent stations are suddenly finding their lives more difficult: they can’t get licences, or they are arbitrarily forbidden to raise their level of advertising.

Meanwhile, the chairman and deputy chairman of the company that owns Poland’s only truly independent daily Rzeczpospolita, the same one that printed the Miller-Blair opus last week have been placed under police observation, have had their passports confiscated, and have been forbidden to leave the country. There is a trumped-up pretext (just as there was in the case of the oil-company CEO), but no one much doubts that the government’s real intent is to scare the paper’s foreign investors into selling their controlling share, thereby allowing it to be bought by a company ‘friendlier’ to their party. Groups such as the International Press Institute and the World Association of Newspapers have protested, to no avail.

Groups such as the European Union and the Blair government have not protested, however which is odd, if you think about it. When Silvio Berlusconi was about to take power in Italy, the heavy-hitters of the European media the Economist, Le Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung all wrote editorials against him for his supposedly undemocratic attitudes. When Jörg Haider’s Freedom party joined the Austrian ruling coalition, the governments of Europe joined together to exclude Austria from European diplomacy; even to disinvite Austrian diplomats from cocktail parties.

Now Poland is run by a man who is not merely, like Jörg Haider, suspected of possibly sympathising with a former totalitarian regime; this is a man who openly sympathised with a totalitarian regime indeed helped to run one as a member of its Politburo. Nor is he, like Signor Berlusconi, thought to harbour designs on independent media and business. He has, since taking power, openly tried to use the legal system to shut down unfriendly press, turned state television into a mouthpiece for the regime, and used the secret services to arrest businessmen whose political allegiances displease them. Where is Le Monde? Where is the Belgian foreign minister, Louis Michels, who called on all Belgians to cancel their Austrian skiing holidays when Jörg Haider’s Freedom party came to power? Where, indeed, is that advocate of ‘democratic legitimacy’, Tony Blair?

My hunch is that they are all so pleased to have an enthusiastic pro-European running Poland that they aren’t really interested in what actually happens inside the country. One of the first things Miller did, on taking office, was to send his foreign minster off to Brussels to concede every single point under dispute in the Polish-EU accession agreements. The gnomes of Brussels will have noted, approvingly, that this is not a government much interested in saving any aspects of Polish sovereignty. Whether this fanatical subordinacy derives from Moscow’s desire for access to Western European markets, via its pliable Polish partners, or whether it comes out of habit, is a matter for speculation. ‘We’re so used to taking orders from Moscow, we’ll be good at taking them from Brussels,’ one leading member of Miller’s ex-Communist party once quipped.

Still, one would expect Tony Blair, who shows so much concern for democracy and human rights in places such as Afghanistan, to feel just a teensy-weensy bit uncomfortable about writing a joint newspaper article with Leszek Miller. Looking at Miller’s squat figure, reading the Foreign Office’s reports on his biography (surely we’re paying them to know who took large sums of money from the KGB), he ought to have recoiled. Even if his political judgment and his Christian moral sensitivity didn’t warn him away, one simply expects better taste from a British prime minister.