Poland’s troubled rulers
An admired minister goes, further weakening the government
POLAND’S defence forces, unlike those of most European countries, are tough, numerous and enthusiastic. So the resignation on Monday February 5th of Radek Sikorski, the country’s suave and forceful defence minister, is more than a quirky turn in the history of a notoriously eccentric government. Poland’s soldiers are in both Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other hotspots—and unlike some token members of international coalitions, they do real jobs. Poland is also a planned site for an American “star wars” missile-defence base.
Nobody is talking publicly about the reasons for the resignation. On departure, Mr Sikorski praised Poland’s prime minister and president (the identical twins Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski). The government has spoken of “reservations” about his work. But the outlines are clear.
The main battle is about who controls military intelligence. Mr Sikorski has been wrestling for months with Antoni Macierewicz, a close ally of the Kaczynskis who was installed as deputy defence minister to oversee the liquidation of Poland’s WSI military-intelligence service. Depending on whom you believe, this was a nest of traitors and gangsters, a decent outfit full of professionals, or a mixture of the two.
Mr Macierewicz certainly takes the first view. He has replaced the WSI with two new services, one for spying, one for spy-catching. He claims to have rooted out scores of secret WSI collaborators in the media, business and officialdom, and is about to publish a list—maybe as soon as next week—which will expose their malign influence over the past 18 years of post-communist Poland. His supporters reckon that Mr Sikorski was too soft. That certainly chimes with the Kaczynskis’ view of Poland: a land bedevilled by sleaze and treachery.
The alternative view is that the influence of the WSI is wildly overstated and that Mr Macierewicz is cynically feeding the Kaczynskis’ paranoia. Mr Macierewicz has now taken personal charge of the new military counter-intelligence service and is using it—critics say—as a personal intelligence-gathering outfit for the Kaczynskis. That, coupled with a witchhunt against experienced officers, has endangered Polish national security, especially the troops serving abroad.
Separating imagined ghosts and real demons is tricky. Mr Sikorski had several times threatened to resign if Mr Macierewicz’s influence was not curbed. There are suggestions that Mr Macierewicz had counter-attacked by ordering the collection of dirt on Mr Sikorski himself. Mr Sikorski fled Poland after the imposition of martial law in 1981, and spent the next decade in Britain, where he gained British citizenship. The communist-era Polish security service thought he must be a British spy; it would be ironic if Mr Macierewicz, an anti-communist witchfinder-general, were to take a road so well-trodden by his foes.
What is clear is that Mr Sikorski’s resignation robs an already troubled government of one of its few ministers with unquestioned practical competence. Since taking power in October 2005, the government has had two prime ministers, five finance ministers, two treasury ministers and two foreign ministers. With Mr Sikorski gone, only two ministers—those in charge of justice and regional development—strike outsiders as worthy of their jobs. Mr Sikorski introduced changes in Poland’s defence establishment such as regular fitness tests and modern IT (ability to use a BlackBerry is a condition of promotion).
Critics may call these changes gimmicky and superficial. But Mr Sikorski was also a rare Polish government figure able to talk convincingly to the outside world. Even supporters of the ruling right-of-centre coalition admit that its foreign policy is startlingly clumsy. The Kaczynskis seem to distrust all foreigners except Americans, and have reduced relations with Germany to a level of icy puzzlement unknown in Poland’s recent history. In European Union meetings, it is almost a laughing-stock.
Mr Sikorski, who used to work at an American think-tank, will continue as a senator in Poland’s upper house of parliament. He will be heard of again: a Polish magazine has even suggested he may be a future president. The shaky coalition government’s future looks rather less assured.