Europe

Poland bugging: The table talk that shook Warsaw

Radoslaw Sikorski (left) with David Cameron in London, 15 October 2009 Image copyright Flickr
Image caption Poland's foreign minister (left) is said to have branded David Cameron "incompetent" in EU affairs

Poland's bugging scandal has provoked the most serious test the government has faced since it took office seven years ago, with its shockwaves being felt in Washington and London.

It appears that for a year or so government ministers, state officials and businessmen meeting for lunch or dinner in exclusive Warsaw restaurants were illegally recorded.

There is speculation that waiters left a remote controlled device concealing a microphone on the diners' tables. At the moment, it is not known who did it or why, but fingers have already been pointed at opposition circles, wealthy businessmen or perhaps the Russian secret services, angered at Poland's tough stance in support of Kiev.

The private conversations are frank, profane and revealing.

In the latest batch of transcripts published by the weekly news magazine Wprost, a man identified as Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski brands the alliance with the US "worthless" and calls UK Prime Minister David Cameron "incompetent" in EU affairs.

Enjoying a bowl of pumpkin soup, then a steak accompanied by a bottle of expensive wine, Mr Sikorski tells his dining partner, former Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski, that Warsaw's alliance with Washington is "complete bullshit".

"We'll get into conflict with the Germans, with the Russians, and we'll think everything is super because we gave the Americans a blow job. Losers. Complete losers," he continues.

The magazine states that Mr Sikorski said Mr Cameron's attempts to appease Eurosceptics had backfired on him: "He's not interested, because he doesn't get it, because he believes in this stupid propaganda. He stupidly tries to manipulate the system."

Odd opponents

This conversation seems strange for two men with close links to the UK who have repeatedly stated the EU will be better and stronger if the UK remains inside.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz (left) is said to have discussed politics with Poland's top banker

Mr Sikorski read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. He was a contemporary of Boris Johnson and a near-contemporary of David Cameron in the exclusive Bullingdon Club.

For years he has publicly lauded the value of a strong security alliance with the US. Westminster School-educated Jacek Rostowski was once a member of Britain's Conservative Party.

The conversation apparently took place in early 2014, shortly after Mr Cameron singled out Polish migrants for abusing the UK's benefits system. Comments that caused outrage in Poland.

In terms of security, Russia was yet to annex Crimea. Mr Sikorski has bemoaned the level of support Washington has been willing to lend Poland in the past but since the Ukraine crisis there are more US troops in Poland than ever before.

Mr Sikorski has not denied making the remarks. Both he and Prime Minister Donald Tusk say the government has come under attack from an "organised group of criminals". It is illegal to record a conversation in Poland without the participants' knowledge.

In a tweet, Mr Sikorski wrote: "In UK, illegal taping of politicians and celebrities led to prosecutions for eavesdroppers and journalists. And the closing of the News of the World."

Political damage

The need to uphold the law whilst protecting freedom of speech was at the heart of the most dramatic moment of this scandal. Last week, following the first set of revelations, security forces raided Wprost's offices to try to obtain the tapes.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Some of the tapes were allegedly made at the Sowa i Przyjaciele restaurant in Warsaw

News channels were tipped off about the raids and plainclothes officers' attempts to wrestle the laptop out of the firm grip of the editor-in-chief, Sylwester Latkowski, were broadcast live.

Outraged journalists began gathering in Wprost's offices to loudly protest against the action, which was judged "unacceptable" by the OSCE.

Mr Tusk admitted his government would suffer as a result despite, he said, the raid being ordered by independent prosecutors investigating the illegal recordings. He added that if the crisis could not be contained, early elections were an option.

A day later Wprost said a businessman who labelled himself "Patriot" sent them an email with internet links to four recordings.

He was apparently the source of the first recordings too.

On Tuesday, Polish media reported that one of the country's wealthiest businessmen, identified as Marek F, had been detained in the affair.

The businessman is reportedly co-owner of one of the country's biggest coal distributors, skladywegla.pl. Earlier this month 10 managers from the company were arrested on suspicion of fraud, VAT extortion, and money laundering as part of a government investigation into illegal coal imports from Russia.

Sections of the media are now focusing on who is behind the scandal and what their motivations are following the debacle of the Wprost raid.

The daily Gazeta Wyborcza has reported that investigators are pursuing a theory that waiters and a manager at two exclusive Warsaw restaurants began recording businessmen. The tapes would then have been sold back later to those bugged.

And then politicians began being recorded and those ended up in the hands of the person who supplied Wprost.

The scandal has seriously damaged the reputation of Mr Tusk's government, which just a few weeks ago was enjoying renewed popularity for its leading role in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Early elections might be avoided. The governing coalition has a majority. If it sticks together, it can vote down attempts to unseat it.

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