Friday, December 30, 2005

Most Significant Polish Moment 2005


A worldwide BBC poll has found that Planet Earth thinks the tsunami (15%) and the war in Iraq (15%) have been the most important events of 2005. But guess what Poles thought was the most earth shattering.

The survey for the BBC World Service, taken from sample of 32,000 in 27 countries including Poland, finds that the third most significant was Hurricane Katrina (9%).

In fourth place was the death of John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict (6%).

But in Poland the death of ‘the Polish Pope’ came top for 48% of Poles polled.

No surprise, really. The week before he died, and the week after, was a strange time here. Football hooligans from Legia Warsaw and Warsaw Polonia dropped to their knees in the middle of John Paul II Avenue in prayer and a truce of solidarity among thugs. Lech Welesa offered his hand to ex-communist and bitter enemy, Aleksander Kwasniewski and invited him to Solidarity's 25th birhtday bash in Gdansk in July.

And then the lying in state with crowds of people shuffling past, taking photos with their mobile phones. This year everyone has turned into paparazzi photographers, and we are all the paparazzi victims.

This was probably the last ever Great Polish National Experience. The Pope wasn’t just a religious symbol, he was a political and national one. It’s going to be hard to find someone or something that can bring them together like he could.

The Great Polish Solidarity only lasted a few days, though. It wasn’t long before riot police had to break up fights again at football grounds (in fact, it was only two days), and politicians, with an eye on the looming general and presidential elections, started knocking lumps out of each other.

I was relieved in a way. The normal state of affairs in this country is that when you put four Poles in a room you get five points of view coming out. And I quite like that.

Most Important Event 2006?

Well, it’s between two front runners: the Football World Cup – can England win, or will they fail at the quatre finals as usual?

Or maybe it’s going to be when Ania and I get married in Gibraltar in April. We have not told many people, so that's a bit of a beatroot exclusive!
.
If England win the World Cup the Most Important Event 2006 is going to be a close call.

Happy New Year to the beatroot readers.

ps. The subject of torture has never been far from a blog somewhere this year, and many governments, including Poland's, have been caught up in this nasty trade. See how Blair and New Labour have got sucked into it all at my favourite blog at the moment, Blairwatch. See blogging at its best as it helps you see documents that Blair would rather you didn't.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Polish troops to stay longer in Iraq


But do Iraqis really, really need or want them there?

To the dismay of the opposition Civic Platform, and populist parties propping up the minority government in parliament, Prime Minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has sent a request to the new Head of State, Lech Kaczynski, for troops to be able to stay in Iraq until the end of 2006. Kaczynski will give his permission.

The previous SLD-led government, kicked out in the September election, had planned to remove troops alongside the Ukrainian withdrawal at the end of this year.

But Poland will be pulling 600 of its 1,500 troops out of the war-torn wreck of a country in March. So how much use will the 900 that remain be to the new Iraq?

Well, not much. Duties will be limited to training new volunteers into the Iraqi army and police.

Marcinkiewicz admitted that it was a ‘difficult’ decision. He knows that 3 in 4 Poles are against the war and think that the troops should come home. And this opposition can be found within most political parties. Roman Giertych of the nationalist, xenophobic League of Polish Families thinks that staying longer in Iraq is a ‘strategic error’. Civic Platform thinks it’s ‘mission accomplished’ in Iraq and time to come home.

So, in the face of such opposition, and with such a small token force to be left in the country, what, many are asking, is the point of staying on at all?

Marcinkiewicz has said that the Iraq government asked Poland to stay longer. But is Baghdad really that desperate that it needs 900 extra Poles?

Probably not. Maybe this is more to do with problems in the United States and the UK than it is with Iraq. Poland is increasingly being used by Bush, Blair and the pro-war movement to give the war and the coalition some sort of credibility. “See how the coalition of the willing is still willing in Warsaw’, they say, trying to keep a straight face.

In reality, if Polish governments were asked by the US/UK to run across burning coals and even dive into a vat of boiling (Iraqi) oil they would give serious consideration to the request. Poland does not have an independent foreign and defense policy at all, and will do whatever it is asked.

Polish opposition?

Though pressure has been building on the government to get out of Iraq, the opposition to the war here has always been weak. When I was on a march in Warsaw in the February before the invasion began, there were only about 1,000 frozen demonstrators marching through the center of the capital. And what a strange bunch we were: a few anarchists with dogs on the end of bits of string marching alongside listeners from the catholic fundamentalist Radio Maryja. I felt about as uncomfortable as I would have marching alongside representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, as over a million were in that massive demonstration in London.

And what of Civic Platform’s statement that the ‘mission has been accomplished’ in Iraq. What mission would that be, then? Invading a country without any concrete plan about what to do next? Smashing up any semblance of civil society, disbanding the army and police force, and encouraging the growth of ‘identity politics’ where your ethnicity and tribe is of more importance than your Iraqi nationality?

What the ‘mission’ has achieved is that it has produced a country on the brink of civil war. I hope Civic Platform are proud of themselves and Poland’s contribution.

But as Brendan O'Neill argues at antiwar.com, the 'mission' appears to have been more to do with a moral vacuum in the West than it has ever been about a genuine liberation of Iraqis, or a search for WMD.

As to whether Poles should be in Iraq or not, then Iraqis themselves will decide that. If a new, credible government does emerge after the recent election, then will it bend to the will of its own people? Most Iraqis do not like having invaders in their country and want to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

My advice to Polish troops is this: keep your bags packed just in case you have to get out quick.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Polish nativity scenes fall fowl of avian flu panic


No place at the inn for sneezing chickens in Warsaw this year.

Turkishpress reports that live farm animals have been included in nativity cr├Ęches (szopka) since the 13th century, when Francis of Assisi introduced the practice.

But not this year: "We wanted, as in previous years, to include birds in our creche alongside other animals," said Father Jan Maria Szewek, in charge of the nativity tableau at the Franciscan church in Krakow in southern Poland.

"But the farmer who usually lent us his poultry reminded us of the measures brought in because of bird flu," he told the Polish PAP news agency.

Since the summer farmers have been instructed to keep all farm animals indoors in case they sneeze in someone's face and bring the dreaded avian flu to central Europe.

As the photo above demonstrates, to compensate for the lack of characters clucking around the baby Jesus they appear to have replaced the chickens with live humans.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas from the beatroot

Would a turkey vote for Christmas?


Well, in Poland, turkeys vote ‘Yes’ for Christmas by a landslide.

This is because Christmas dinner tables around these parts do not groan under the weight of a 10-kilogramme bird stuffed with horse chestnuts and sage. Christmas tables in Poland groan under the weight of (traditionally) twelve different dishes, the centrepiece of which is a carp.

They eat the Christmas carp in many different ways. You can bake it, steam it, fry it. You can stew it in beer and raisons, have it accompanied with a sweet and sour source, stuff it with almonds, or even have it (yum, yum!) jellied in aspic.

Not really my cup of tea, but most Poles just love the Christmas carp. Total production of farmed carp in Poland amounts to around 22,000 tons annually, most of which is consumed at this time of the year.

The best way to buy your carp (say fishy aficionados) is alive and kicking and swimming around a small tank at your local grocers. The fish is then taken home, and, quite often, kept in the bath until it has to be cooked.

The problem then comes, of course, when you have to kill the wriggling, slimy little beast. The best method, I am assured, is by a quick and accurate whack over the head with a small hammer.

But not everyone can face this most brutal of tasks. It’s the man’s job, traditionally. But not all men are man enough to get hold of a fish that is as determined to see what’s in its Christmas stocking as the rest of us, haul it out of its watery Death Row, and put an end to its misery.

So many try to find novel ways of doing the deed. Getting drunk before you have to is, understandably, one of the favourites. Another way is to not drink the vodka yourself, but give a bottle of it to the fish – that way at least the poor thing will die with a smile on its face.

I have even heard of one traumatised carp killer who decided that he was not going to bash it over the head after all, but electrocute it. This bought him more than he bargained for when. After putting a steam iron plugged into the shaving socket into the bath with the carp, the whole of the block of flats where he was living plunged into darkness.

Carp Liberation Front

But concern is growing among ecologists and fishy freedom fighters about the treatment of carp during the Christmas period. An organisation called Gaja has been organising marches in Poland in protest at, what they say, is the cruel and barbaric conditions in which the carp are reared, transported and killed. Gaja (known to their friends, possibly, as the Carp Liberation Front) have been buying up lots of these fish from supermarkets and then liberating them back into rivers.

But a carp in the bath can have positive consequences. A British man I know lives in Warsaw with his Polish wife. A few years ago they were staying with their Polish in-laws for the Christmas holiday. It was the morning of Christmas Eve when they decided to stay in bed and have a bit of yuletide rumpy-pumpy. Being a good catholic girl she used the so-called ‘natural method’ of contraception – which involves, among other things, the wife getting up after they had finished and going to wash in the bathroom to have a bit of a wash. Of course, when she got to the bathroom she was confronted by the carp swimming away merrily in the bath. But what to do? She couldn’t get in the bath with the carp – modesty forbid! So she just returned to her husband in bed, unwashed.

Nine months later a little baby girl was born.

So, as I go into the grocery stores on the run up to Christmastime I’m always looking into the large vats they have full of carp swimming around waiting for there own little private Year Zeros and I think of that little girl.

But I swear that one carp caught my eye in the shop this morning. It was trying to tell me something. It was saying that it was not looking forward to Christmas in Poland, would not have voted for it if it had been asked, and wished, just wished, that it were a turkey.

This was originally posted at the P3 blog

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

EU Culture Wars


The battles inside Brussels and Strasburg are not just limited to budgets and structural funds (logo: League of Polish Families)).

An organization called Catholics for Free Choice has written to the EU Commission saying they are outraged at a poster exhibition put up last month in the European parliament by the League of Polish Families. Josep Borrell writes in a letter to the Commission’s President:

As religious, women’s rights and human rights leaders, we are outraged that an exhibition in the European Parliament included posters comparing abortion with the Shoah and request that the Parliament publicly dissociates itself from the exhibition.

We are saddened that MEPs representing European citizens from Poland would seek to condemn women who make the complex moral decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy by suggesting they are mass murderers.

We feel deeply concerned that the political culture in the European Parliament will be degraded if the leadership of the Parliament and the majority of MEPs do not stand up to defend the values and principles of the EU from attacks by religious extremists.

The exhibition featured images of children in concentration camps under captions referring to abortion. Liberals tried to rip the posters down and a tussle broke out between MEPs.

All very ugly. But some smell a plot. A communist plot. Lifesite.net – a ‘pro-family, pro-life’ group writes:

The poster that caused the furor was displayed by a group of Euro-skeptics, MEP’s who have formed a coalition against the leftist extremism that they perceive as a threat to the sovereignty of the nations making up the EU. The intensity of the reaction to the poster appears to indicate that the parties who have controlled the EU are worried about cracks in their power.

LifeSiteNews.com was unable to reach representatives of the Polish family and pro-life organizations, but the existence of a movement against European Union leftist extremism is a growing phenomenon. Earlier this month, LifeSiteNews.com reported that with the election of the new leader of Britain’s Tory party, David Cameron, a coalition of MEP’s is finding strength to resist EU social engineering pressure.

Blimey! UK politician that nobody had ever heard of until this year - and most of you still won’t know who he is even now - is going to save Europe from a extremist lefty take-over! I bet that’s news to the ideology-lite, policy-lite Mr Cameron.

And who are these leftist extremists? Peter Mandelson?

I should point out that the League of Polish Families - the party that organised the exhibition - is so rightwing loony that even the not-quite-so-loony, but equally euroskeptic British celeb politician Robert Kilroy-Silk refused to join the same EU Parliament club as them because he thought they were 'right wing nutters'.

The whole thing goes to show that there is now a culture war going on within the EU. And it’s the conservatives who are on the attack. One of their tactics could be to try and revive a shortened EU Constitution and try and roll back the secular 'supra-state' that way. Brussels might issue a statement proclaiming the usual ‘tolerance to everything but intolerance’ line – which says nothing at all, really.

The old EU consensus, about pretty much anything, has gone for good.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Are Poles starting to go off Americans?


A new opinion poll suggests that this is so (pictured: Presidents Bush and Kwasniewski).

The CBOS opinion pollsters report that Poland’s three favorite nations are Italy, Britain and Spain.

Unfortunately, Poles still seem to have some unhealthy prejudices against Arabs and Roma gypsies.

But the main surprise in the CBOS survey is that support for the US has decreased this year by sixteen percent. Americans now rank alongside Czechs - a nation Poles have never had a great affection for.

But why?

After all the support that Polish governments have given the US – in the so-called ‘War on Terror', in the War in Iraq, and so on – many here are smarting that the US has not given Poles visa free travel. Even though Poland has given America tender loving care and special treatment over the years - especially since 9/11 - this love and care appears to be unrequited.

And now we have the CIA ‘gulag’ scandals, making Poles fear that they are rapidly going up the al-Qaeda hit list.

If George W. Bush is stuck for a few ideas for Polish Christmas presents this year, then may I suggest that a plane ticket to Washington, but without the usual queue at the Embassy in Warsaw for a visa, would slip inside the Polish stocking very nicely.

Grandpa Ludwig’s trip to London


The freedom to travel without visa or restriction is the main benefit of EU membership for the ordinary Pole – even if you are an 84 year old pensioner on a bike. (pictured: Znin railway station, central Poland).

The family of Ludwig Zon, an 84-year-old pensioner from the small town of Znin in central Poland, were getting worried last week. The old man had gone missing. The last anyone had seen of him was when he set off on his bike a few days before and rode off into the winter sun.

And then he disappeared into thin air.

The family reported him missing and sixteen policemen and ten firemen searched in the neighboring forests and fields. But no sign of the old man, or his bike, were found.

And then, much to the relief, and puzzlement, of his family, they received a telegram from the Polish Consulate in London informing them that granddad Ludwig was alive and well and having the time of his life in Britain.

But how had he got there?

Apparently, for months and months, Ludwig had been secretly saving up around 12,000 zloty – that’s around 3,000 Euros – from his 600 zloty pension, in order to live out a dream: a trip to London.

So, one day, he rode his bike to the nearest train station, traveled to Warsaw, got on a bus to the airport, purchased an airline ticket on a scheduled flight to Heathrow and got on board the plane.

H e was found a few days later, still wondering around the airport.

Though he hadn’t got very far in London, he was still having a great time. He told the Polish Super Express tabloid: “I thought I might look around for a job. Here in Poland, a person hasn't got a future."

Back in Poland, his granddaughter, Malgorzata Kocinska, told the paper: "Granddad had never traveled farther than the neighboring village before, and he speaks no English at all.”

Freedom to travel

The story of the intrepid Ludwig Zon is a moving one, and shows that the main perceived benefit of joining the EU is not the chance to participate in endless rounds of budget negotiations; or the joys of being told by Brussels that they will have to put funny little traffic light symbols on all their food packaging just in case the Polish consumer is too dumb to know which is a so-called ‘healthy food’ and which one is not; or the many other intrusive measures from Brussels that membership of the Union brings with it. The main benefit of EU membership for most ordinary Poles is the freedom to travel around the 24 other countries unmolested by customs officials.

Journalists and politicians have been trying to convince Poles that the EU budget talks, which staggered on for much of this year and were finally resolved last week, were a very, very interesting topic and that everyone should be reading the acres of newsprint and hours of radio and television that have been dedicated to the whole affair.

But the talks were crucial to this country for many reasons. Poland simply could not make any long-term investment plans until the deal was done and dusted. But many of the benefits of EU membership are not obvious to many here. But benefits there are, even though the price of these benefits is paid by giving up certain aspects of national sovereignty.

Polish drivers, for example, who spend a great deal of their time behind the wheel moaning about the lack of decent motorways, and the awful state of Polish roads – and which have more holes in them than granddad Ludwig’s string vest – are crying out for so-called EU structural finds. But these projects could not go ahead until the leaders of the 25 members came to an agreement on the share out of the budget.

And many Polish farmers have seen some of the benefits of membership these last 18 months. Subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy have started to flow into the larger, more efficient farms. Exports of farming produce have increased by as much as 40 percent.

But when I talked to Poles last week about the budget, their eyes just glazed over and I noticed that they were having trouble staying awake. But when I asked what they thought the main plus of membership was they all said the same thing: the joy and dignity of free travel.

No more will Poles have to suffer the embarrassment and hassle of being grilled by immigration officials about the reason foe their stay, what address would they be staying at, how much money they had with them, etc.

Second class travel

Poles do remain second class citizens in the EU, though, as only Britain, Ireland and Sweden are allowing them to work in their countries, This situation is slowly getting better, and Finland is in the process of opening up its labour market to the Polish plumber, nurse, dentist and bar worker.

None of which seems to have bothered Ludwig Zon, our granddad with a mission, I am glad to say. But sadly, and much to his chagrin, when he was found at Heathrow airport he was promptly sent back to Poland and his distraught family on the next plane home.

He wasn’t too pleased by his forced ejection from the UK. In fact he seems to have rather liked it there: “"It's too bad I wasn't allowed to stay longer, because the people there have got a wonderful life," he said.

I imagine his family will be watching him like a hawk over the Christmas holidays, in case he slips off on his bike again with his passport.

But you never know: if you live in London, the next time you ring for a plumber don’t be too suprised if an 84 year old Pole turns up, with only his monkey wrench for luggage and the glint of freedom in his eyes.

Friday, December 16, 2005

CIA scandal raises level of terrorist threat in Poland


When the Polish prime minister ordered an enquiry into the allegations of secret CIA torture sites in Poland last week, because he thought claims by Human Rights Watch and others “put Poland in danger”, was he thinking about possible terrorist attacks?

A report from the Polish Center of Strategic Studies and Forecasts appears to agree with him. Ryszard Machnikowski, head of the think-tank, thinks that the speculation of ‘black site prisons’ in northeast Poland has risen the level of threat from ‘radical Islamist suicide bombers’.

If so then I hope al-Qaeda doesn’t read the German Stern magazine. This week it published the most detailed ‘evidence’ of CIA camps near the northeastern town Stare Kiejkuty in the Mazuria lakes district, popular with millions of tourists.

The magazine describes a Polish military base with an ‘inner zone’ that even regular Polish officers don’t have access to.

The 100-metre by 50metre wide ‘zone’ has a three metre high barbed wire fence around it, and has had prisoners there until as recently as last month, when they were moved on to camps in Northern Africa.

Earlier this week, the Council of Europe said that the claims of secret CIA camps in Poland were ‘credible’.

In a belated attempt to stem the speculation, Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has launched an investigation to be concluded before Christmas.

But Poland's former intelligence chief, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, has again denied the claims. He says that just because CIA operatives have been coming and going in Poland – and he says thet there have been only around 10 landings of CIA leased plans in Poland, as opposed to over 450 in Germany - does not mean that they are bringing terrorist suspects with them. Their duties include training Polish officers, apparently. Which is feasible.

But could it be that Polish, and other Secret Services in Europe, are out of control? When Polish politicians deny the existence of camps in Poland could it be that they are telling the truth, and have no clue what is going on within their borders?

The Polish Intelligence services always was the most autonomous in the Soviet bloc. And after Poland democratized in the late nineteen eighties they kept that level of control. Since then a series of scandals involving ex-communist politicians have caused many people to assume that Polish spooks still have links with the past and are unaccountable.

One of the first things that the new, conservative PiS-led government did when it was elected this autumn was to sack the entire top level of the service.

If any real, concrete evidence of the camps does turn up – and we are still relying on circumstance and mysterious ‘inside sources' for that evidence - with gross abuses of human rights going on behind the barbered wire fence, then expect PM Marcinkiewicz to be pointing the blame at officers like Zbigniew Siemaitowski and his connections with the ex-communist opposition.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

I owe you a drink...



Thanks for the nominations in the Fistful of Euros Satin Pajamas 2005 blog awards. I am touched and blushing a deep beetroot colour…

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Poland: where the past never dies


Twenty four years after martial law, Jaruzelski is to be charged with ‘breaking the constitution’.

He’s 82 years old, has an attractive daughter in show business and was hoping for a quiet retirement.

But General Wojciech Jaruzeski will not be allowed to drift quietly into obscurity just yet. Ewa Koj, a prosecutor with the National Remembrance Institute, which pursues communist-era crimes, is preparing to charge the old dictator with harassment, internment of thousands of prisoners during and after the martial law period (late 1981-2) and the deaths of over 100 people.

"It's necessary to say at last that the general is not a hero, that what he did was bad and brought about serious consequences," Koj said on TVN24 television.

The charges could lead to Jaruzelski being banged up for up to three years in prison.

The General has always maintained that if he had not imposed marial law on December 13 then the Soviets would have done something about it themselves.

Many Poles, however, agree that Jaruzelski is not a villan, but was acting for the good of the country.

Jaruzelski’s lawyers are certainly busy. The General still faces trial for the 1970 shooting to death of striking shipyard workers in Gdansk and other port cities when he was defence minister. The trial began in 2001, but ran in to procedural problems.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Euro scandals and ‘bollocky EU bureaucracy’


Two scandals fight for the top headline in this evening’s news.

Bogdan GOLIK (pictured), Polish MEP for the radical farmers union Samoobrona, has been charged in Brussels with raping a French prostitute.

Apparently, she was in his room when, it is alleged, an argument took place over the wearing of a condom. When she refused to do it without one, Golik used force.

When leader of Samoobrona, Andrzej Lepper, was asked for a reaction to the story, he leered at the reporter: “So how is it possible to rape a prostitute?”

What charmers these guys are. Allegedly.

The other scandal involves a ‘joke’ script for a speech by Tony Blair to the EU when he comes to Brussels this week to try and do a deal on the 2007-13 budget. Written by Britain’s Ambassador in Warsaw, Charles Crawford, and emailed to Downing Street, it’s not very complimentary to the Poles.

The juicy bits of the email include:

Mes chers amis and, in particular, mon ami Jacques, it gives me great pleasure to be back here in Brussels, home of the bollocky EU bureaucracy.

Here you breathe the sweet smell of Belgium’s unique brand of corruption, which it has generously bestowed on the rest of Europe.

I welcome to the table the representatives of the new member states, who joined our community in May last year. It hasn’t been long but you have already adapted well to the ways of the EU. You are now displaying a rudeness and ingratitude it took the likes of Portugal and Greece years to develop. With your unpronounceable names and incomprehensible languages — why don’t we all just speak English? — you may have some difficulty understanding this but let me say it plainly. We in Britain have thrown open our doors. We’ve created more jobs for Poles and Czechs than you could have dreamt of under your five-year plans. And what do we get? Not a word of appreciation but a sniffy thumbs-down for my budget plan…

You can imagine the panic that gripped the Ambassador’s residence last Sunday morning when he read that email in the Sunday Times.

The British Embassy finally scrambled out a statement saying that the email was ‘a joke’.

And I must say, it is a bit of side-splitter. He’s in the wrong career!

The Polish Foreign Office has invited His Excellency for a cup of tea with milk, and to discuss the differences between Polish and British humour (In Poland when someone refers to ‘English humour’ they often mean that something isn’t funny).

But many Polish politicians have been on television saying that this shows up the arrogance that the British government have for the Polish negotiating position on the budget.

The email must be a joke, of course. Polish MEPs are never 'rude and ungrateful', are they? They are all perfect gentlemen. Even Bogdan Golik and his boss. Allegedly.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Pot, kettle, and black sites

Embarrassing notes to a meeting two years ago come back to haunt those principled Eurocrats.

EU Referendum blog points out an interesting article in the UK Sunday Telegraph. It seems Brussels’ indignation about possible US ‘gulags’ etc in Poland and elsewhere contradicts an offer they made to Americans a couple of years ago.

The European Union secretly allowed the United States to use transit facilities on European soil to transport "criminals" in 2003, according to a previously unpublished document. The revelation contradicts repeated EU denials that it knew of "rendition" flights by the CIA.

The EU agreed to give America access to facilities - presumably airports - in confidential talks in Athens during which the war on terror was discussed, the original minutes show. But all references to the agreement were deleted from the record before it was published.

The original minutes say that:

"Both sides agreed on areas where co-operation could be improved [inter alia] the exchange of data between border management services, increased use of European transit facilities to support the return of criminal, inadmissible aliens, co-ordination with regard to false documents training and improving the co-operation in removals.’

The EU is currently carrying out its own investigation into the 'black sites' affair and Polish and others involvment. We must presume, then, that its own offer to cooperate with ‘renditions’ will be included in the evidence.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Watchdog gets in a muddle


It appears that Human Rights Watch – the NGO that ‘exposed’ Poland as the site of gulags and torture – can’t quite make its up about the quality of its evidence.

Times Argus reports:

Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper caused a stir when it published an interview with Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst with the rights organization, saying his group had documents corroborating that Poland was the chief CIA detention site in Europe in a system of clandestine prisons for interrogating al-Qaida suspects.

"Poland was the main base of interrogating prisoners and Romania was more of a hub," Garlasco was quoted as telling the newspaper. "This is what our sources from the CIA tell us and what is shown from the documents we gathered."

But Human Rights Watch quickly distanced itself from those remarks, with one of their reseearlier this week, archers, John Sifton, saying they "had left a misleading impression with some people" that the group has more evidence than it in fact does.

So, that’s nice and clear then. I bet handbags are being thrown at HRW HQ.

On Tuesday, ABC News in America said that Polish sources had confirmed that 11 al-Qaeda suspects had been held at a camp in Poland as recently as last month, when HRW made their initial statement. The detainees had then been rushed out of the country to somewhere in Africa, ahead of the visit of Condoleeza Rice to Europe this week.

All of a sudden, Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz has leapt into action. He’s announced that he’s going to be having a bit of an enquiry into the whole matter. It’s only taken him a month to get around to it. Must be a busy man, bless him.

His excuse for not getting around to investigating the matter previously - ‘if there is no evidence then what do we investigate?’ - was a supple intellectual gambit that evaded most of us. But is he now starting to think that, maybe, there is a bit of evidence? Both Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita are now claiming that five planes have landed in Szymany airstip since 2002. An eye witness one time said that nobody got out of the aircraft, which was surrounded by vans from Kiejkuty, the site of a Polish secret service school.

Or is the belated investigation by the Polish government because virtually every other nation that has CIA planes landing at one of its airports is having an enquiry, and Marcinkiewicz is starting to feel lonely? Or has the speculation - fed by HRW and its vague evidence - got so out of hand that he has to be seen to be doing something, anything?

Don’t miss the next installment of Human Rights Watch and the Polish gulags from hell – at a blog near you.

Good post on this from Jakub Wrzesniewski at WorldAndUS

Polish heaven or hell in Ireland?


Press reports of ‘suicidal Poles’ in Dublin are an exaggeration, says Ambassador.

The Polish Ambassador to Ireland, Witold Sobkow, is not a happy man. I have come to interview him about an article published in Newsweek Polska three weeks ago claiming that Poles are often living in misery in Ireland. He didn’t like the piece, I gather.

“If this sort of article becomes the norm in the Polish press then the Irish government might just stop giving Poles PPS [social security] numbers”, he fumes.

The Newsweek article claimed that many of the 120,000 Poles who have turned up in Ireland looking for work since Poland joined the EU in May last year have had trouble fitting in to Irish society, do not speak English, have not found work and are living in sub-standard accommodation or are homeless. In the last 12 months, says the magazine, eight lonely Poles have taken their own lives in Ireland, so complete was their alienation and isolation.

Newsweek blames the ‘fairytales’ told by Polish media about Dublin’s streets being paved with gold Euro coins. These stories have filled young Poles with false expectations of how easy it will be to make a new life for themselves in the Emerald Isle. And the Irish, says Newsweek, are using Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians and so on as cheap labour, while falling to provide support for those who run into trouble.

On the day that I went to see the Ambassador, the Irish Times picked up an article in StrefaEire – a Polish language weekly published in Dublin – agreeing with Newsweek. The Irish Times reports the editor of StrefaEire, Tomasz Wybranowski, as saying that media back home in Poland paint a rosy picture of life in Ireland, where everyone can find work. “The Polish media only shows one side of the story – the big money side,” he told the Times.

Irish employers are ‘racist’ in their treatment of Poles and other central Europeans who are competing with each other for jobs, says Wybranowski. He also thinks that this ‘racism’ will get worse if Ireland's booming economy falters.

The Polish Ambassador argues, however, that the 500 or 600 Poles who are having problems with work and accommodation make up less than one percent of Polish migrants, and that they are not representative.

Ambassador Sopkow told me that he has written to the editor of Newsweek – someone he says that he has met on several occasions – saying that the article is sensationalist and presents the hard luck stories as the norm, when they are, in fact, the exception. “But I have yet to receive a reply.”

Personally, I couldn’t find Poles willing to say that the Irish were racist. Izabela, who works as a television presenter on the City Channel’s Polish language programme said that she had not met anyone who was having as bad a time as Newsweek or StrefaEire make out.

I also asked a policeman if he has ever had any trouble with Poles. “I’ve never had any contact with Poles at all. They have not come here to be criminals,” he said.

The Ambassador claims that Irish employers do not discriminate against Poles – quite the opposite, in fact. “Polish nurses work longer and harder than their Irish counterparts. They are also better trained. Irish employers know that.” He also thinks that the Irish government is genuine when it says that it opened its borders to the new EU countries to share Irish prosperity.

I couldn’t find anyone to support the racist argument, but it would be a very unusual place if there was no exploitation going on in Ireland. For the Poles who have no qualifications and who can’t speak English then things are going to be tough. And if they are having a hard time then young Poles have the choice of going back home to a youth unemployment rate of nearly forty percent.

Demonstrators march against slave ships on the Irish Sea


An Irish industrial dispute highlights exploitative employers using central Europeans as wage slaves. But Poles and others have helped to create jobs in Ireland and have not depressed wages.

As my plane took off from Dublin airport on my way home to Warsaw yesterday, marches were taking place all over Ireland in support of Irish Ferry workers. The company plans to sack staff and replace them with low paid, non-unionized employees from Latvia. AP reports that:

More than 10,000 labor union members protested Friday in Ireland's capital and other cities over shipping company Irish Ferries' plan to replace its workers with low-paid Eastern European immigrants in the country's most bitter industrial showdown in decades.

Irish Ferries, a subsidiary of Dublin-based Irish Continental Group PLC, earlier this year offered its 543 unionized workers on its main Britain-Ireland routes payoffs worth 25 million euros ($30 million) if they quit voluntarily.
But when the company two weeks ago began introducing new workers, chiefly from Latvia - who were willing to work for 3.60 euros ($4.25) an hour, less than half of Ireland's minimum wage - union chiefs seized control of two ships, forcing the company to shut down services at an estimated loss of 2 million euros ($2.5 million) a day.

Many demonstrators – including Poles and Lithuanians – carried banners saying ‘Stop outsourcing’ and ‘No slave ships on the Irish Sea’.

But the Irish Confederation of Employers warns that Irish Ferries might simply close down and hire other firms outside the country to do the work for them at much lower labour costs.

But you won’t find many Irish people complaining that Poles and others have harmed their booming economy and are dragging down wages. In fact, wages are increasing way beyond the EU average. And while there are around 65,000 registered Polish workers in Ireland at the moment, unemployment rates have not gone up – they have gone down! In the last 12 months, 70,000 new jobs have been created, and the Irish unemployment rate remains at 4.3 percent – again, around half that of the average rate in the Euro zone.

The reason why Ireland and the UK welcomed people from the new EU accession states was that the economies in those countries are performing much better than on mainland Europe. As long as Ireland continues with growth rates of 4 or 5 percent you won’t be seeing anyone setting up an Irish national Front anytime soon.
Good economies have nothing to fear fro migrant workers. So it’s no surprise that fear of the Polish plumber is most acute in places like France where the economy is about as dynamic and agile as an edible snail.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Blair Witch Project


That’s the headline in today’s Gazeta Wyborcza, describing the Polish attitude to Tony Blair’s plan to ‘reform’ the way European Union does its business.

The British Guardian reports that France and Poland are spearheading the attack on Blair’s attempt to get a compromise agreement on the EU 2007-2013 budget, which plans to cut spending by 16 billion euros.

Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, the Polish prime minister, underlined the deep unease in Eastern Europe at Britain's plan to slash their structural funds by £9.3bn. "The proposal is not based on solidarity," he said. "In this form it is unacceptable."

In a sign of Britain's isolation, the European commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, added his voice.” This proposal amounts to a budget for a 'mini-Europe', not the strong Europe we need."

Britain hopes to win round the new member states by proposing four measures that will make it easier for them to spend the £100bn they will be offered in structural funds. These are: cutting the level of cofinancing the new members will have to provide from 20% to 15%; allowing private funds to be included in co-financing; giving an extra year to spend the money; and allowing inner-city housing to be funded. Mr Straw said: "This is an enormous amount. The total funds for the new member states is twice the amount of the Marshall Fund that rebuilt Western Europe 60 years ago."

There has been some surprise that Poland and the other 8 countries from Central Europe that entered the EU in May last year are so opposed to cutting budgets and liberalizing markets. And that surprise is not just limited to Britain. Whatever happened to Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘New Europe’, many Americans are asking themselves?

But the ‘New Europe’ thing always was a load of tosh. The reason that countries like Poland wanted to get into the EU in the first place was to get their hands on some much needed investment – not to have Brussels tell them to put funny little traffic light symbols on their food packaging and regulate how to throw away their rubbish.
Poland wants structural funds to help with infrastructure projects like road building and repair – Polish roads currently have more holes in them than a string vest.

So the prospect of Britain getting a deal when the nations meet on December 16 looks slim, though Poland is under enormous pressure to find a compromise, as it cannot start planning for expenditure in the 2007-13 period until a budget is agreed.

For Poland, Blair’s six-month presidency of the EU has turned into a horror movie.

The beatroot is going to be spending some EU money of its own this week, as I am being sent – at the EU's expense – to Dublin to do some reporting. So the next post will be from the Emerald Isle. See you then.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Blood and treasure in Iraq


Update Dec. 5…....PM Marcinkiewicz says that a decision on Polish troop withdrawal will be made after the Iraqi elections on December 15...

The Polish defense minister is in Washington this weekend discussing when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq.

As the United States’ ‘coalition of the willing' in Iraq gets less willing by the day, and the queue to get troops out becomes ever longer, Radek Sikorski has gone to negotiate where Poland will be in the line.

The previous SLD government had said that the 1,500 troops would be handing over the Polish controlled south-central sector of Iraq in January. But Poland’s president-elect, Lech Kaczynski, indicated that troops may stay until next summer, and some will remain behind after the rest have left.

Sikorski has said that the decision to stay or when to go is as much dependant on economic factors as military. He said last Thursday that the war had put enormous strain on Poland’s resources:

"We've invested a lot of energy - both blood and treasure and government attention, and political capital - in the mission and we certainly want to end it with success. By success, I mean handing over our sector of responsibility to a democratically elected Iraqi government ... and I think they are actually pretty close to success."

Poland’s mission in Iraq, which is centered around the ancient city of Babylon, has cost $600 million - ten percent of the defense budget.

"Whereas our army has increased its readiness and we are proud to have participated in an operation to help to stabilize Iraq, to bring democracy in Iraq, we could have modernized our forces faster with those funds," Sikorski told The Associated Press.

17 Poles have died in the conflict.

Mercenaries?

Apart from showing the US that Poland is an enthusiastic and responsible member of NATO, the economic aspect was always a major factor in deciding to join the occupation.

Iraq had lots of unpaid debts with Poland from back in the nineteen seventies and eighties. The Polish government also thought that it would get its hands on some tasty reconstruction contracts. But these have been slow in coming and have not lived up to expectations.

Poland sold Iraq $400 million dollars worth of arms in two years, though. The deals included helicopters, guns, special military vehicles and field service equipment, accounting for about 30 percent of all the arms Iraq purchased in that period.

And the new PiS government is involved in an oil deal between Warsaw and Baghdad. Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz denies, however, that this is ‘blood for oil': “We do not connect these things," he told Polskie Radio last week. He said that Poland had to find a way of diversifying its supplies of oil – at the moment the bulk of which come from a not very friendly Russia.

Time to go

Many in the United States like to think of Poland as their most staunch ally in the war. And it’s true that Polish governments have been, and will be, falling over themselves to sound positive and lend a helping hand.

But the war has never been popular with ordinary Poles. Only around one in three have ever supported it. The liberal middle class share the same dislike as their counterparts in other coalition nations of what seems to be an idiotic attempt to ‘bring democracy' to the people of the Middle East by cluster-bombing them. Religious Poles follow the Vatican line that foreign intervention of this kind is sinful.

So getting troops out of Iraq – and the sooner the better – will be a popular political move at home. The terms that the pull-out takes will be decided in Washington this weekend.

But the only people who should be able to decide if Polish, British or US troops stay or leave are the Iraqis themselves. If anyone took the trouble to ask them, they would – like you and I would if we had foreigners occupying our land – tell them all to get out, now, and fast.

But then, what ordinary Iraqis want has never been at the top of the list of priorities in this bloody and ridiculous war.

CIA ‘torture’ planes only landed in Poland once…


…but they appear to have arrived and departed in the UK more frequently than a no-frills airline.

The UK Guardian says it has seen the flight logs of 26 planes used by the CIA. “Only one visit is recorded to the Szymany airbase in north-east Poland, which has been identified as the alleged site of a secret CIA jail” says the paper.

But CIA planes have been whizzing all over the skies of Europe in the last few years and appear to have the sort of widespread coverage of airports that many airlines would kill for.

Suspicious Boeing 737s touched down 96 times in Germany and 80 times in the UK.

The New York Times claims that 26 planes known to be operated by CIA front companies have made 307 flights in Europe since September 2001.

Now this must, I hope, come as a bit of a shock to Britain’s Interior Minister, Jack Straw, who, only last Tuesday, asked the United States for formal clarification of the issue. So we have to presume that Jack didn’t have a clue about the 80 flights touching down right under his nose.

I bet he will be having an interesting conversation with Condoleeza Rice – his American counterpart – when she comes to Europe for talks next week, if his ignorance is genuine (and we should always presume the ignorance of New Labour politicians).

Suddenly the case against Poland being the host to ‘gulags’ starts to look a little pathetic. I hope Human Rights Watch has got better proof than this. Otherwise it is going to look very silly indeed.

And it always was a slightly ridiculous argument (see US Auschwitz), begun by the Washington Post and elaborated by Human Rights Watch, the NGO which named Poland and Romania as being the torture camp capitals of eastern Europe after the Post had agreed with the US government not to reveal which countries the camps were in (those brave, independent journalists!).

The director of Szymany airfield, Jan Pashtorchziak, told the Russian Izvestia daily that there is simply no room to house a torture camp in that part of northeast Poland.

"Two kilometers long runway and a small building - that is all we have here. The airport was closed in May, 2004 when Poland entered the EU for it does not meet the European requirements. At that time 40 people worked here, and now – only 10. We are going through repairs. No suspicious American planes landed here. I do not know what could cause the suspicions of HRW. Maybe the fact that the airport is located in the forest?"

And since there is only evidence that a single plane landed at the airport in September 2003 then it must mean that either the prisoners are still there huddled in their little building, have been secretly transported across borders to another location, or they never existed in the first place.

Outgoing Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, sais on Thursday: "There are no such [CIA sponsored] prisons on Poland's territory, there are no such prisoners on Poland's territory," Kwasniewski said. "If there had been any planes landing, the proper authorities have to comment on this. No president is informed about every airplane that lands. I can assure you that there are no such prisons or prisoners held in Poland. And there were none in the past."

And now the director of HRW, Tom Malinowski, seemed to back off, slightly, from its original claims. He told RFE/RL: "We have specific evidence which is circumstantial; we've never said that we have proof that there are facilities in these countries or that there are facilities. It's the flight logs of the aircraft that were known to be carrying Al-Qaeda prisoners; in particular, flights that began in Kabul, ended in Guantanamo, and made several stopovers in Poland and Romania -- which really can't be explained by the need to refuel or anything else."

But when the original report came out a few weeks ago, HRW had said that they were ’90 percent certain’ that there are, or were the so-called ‘black sites’ prisons in Poland and in eastern Europe.

The truth appears to be that the CIA have been landing planes all over Europe, and particularly in western Europe – not in the east, as was originally claimed.

Everybody is waiting for the US to confirm or deny that they are imprisoning and torturing terror suspects in European locations.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Post 100


The beatroot is six months and one hundred posts old. I never knew it would be so much fun!

Got an email from expatanchor.net. Apparently the beatroot has been judged as ‘most influential expat blog in Central Europe’ – whatever that means! It was good to see, as well, that two other blogs – Kinuk in Poland and Warsaw Station - got in the top ten as well. I don’t really understand how they have come to this conclusion, but I am not complaining.

Sorry this post is a bit self-indulgent but, what the hell, it’s my blog!

I started the beatroot originally to put things that I had written elsewhere in one place – like a portfolio, or something. But then I soon discovered that there was much, much more to blogging than that!

Since then I have met so many people via other blogs, have learnt loads, and found out which of my arguments are good and which ones are just completely stupid.

Blogging is not like journalism. I have no editor, sub-editor (although many people say that I need one!) advertisers (blogs should not have advertisers!), board of directors, etc. That’s the strength of blogs – they are independent. The weakness of blogging is that there is no editor, sub-editor (although many people say that I need one!) advertisers (blogs should not have advertisers!), board of directors, etc. It means that blogs have none of the usual filters that journalism has.

So the only checks and balances that we bloggers have is through the comments we get from our readers. And I want to thank the many people who pop in to tell me about the things that I have written and express their opinions. I love it when the comments are more interesting than the original post – which is quite often. As far as I can understand one of the criteria for ‘most influencial expat blog’ is the quality of the comments. And I have been lucky to have some real battles going on(see comment section on last post for a good example of this). Two contributors stand out – Michael Farris and Stefanmichnik, who have had some very entertaining battles over the last couple of months, or so.

On the beatroot’s one hundred posts birthday, can I also thank (this is turning into an Oscar type speech – sorry!) all the other blogs who have said nice things about the blog, including EU Referendum blog, Brussels Journal, By Dawn’s Early Light, European Democracy, Around the World in Eighty Days, Bicyclemark.org (who I talked to yesterday on his excellent podcasting blog from Amsterdam) and many more that, to be honest, I can’t remember right now.

So, thanks again and I hope the next 100 posts are as much fun and education for me as the first lot have been.

Peace!

PS. Please visit our collective blog – P3 - that we have set up here in Warsaw. It brings together several individual bloggers under one name and place. Our next p3 meeting is this Saturday, I believe.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Poland needs a new PR agent


‘Queer bashing, CIA torturing, Star Wars II anti-ballistic missile hosting American poodles’. Is Poland becoming a European pariah?

It’s not been a good couple of months for the image of Poland abroad.

The EU thinks that the new Polish parliament is a nest of Eurosceptics; headlines in the international newspapers scream at the injustice of gays denied the right to demonstrate, and get beaten up when they do - and British MEP, Sarah Ludford has called on Brussels to take legal action against the government; human rights campaigners suspect Poland is hosting secret CIA torture camps; and western Europeans fret that Poland might welcome, in the near future, American, Son of Star Wars, anti-ballistic missile systems on its soil.

The government has been warned by the EU that it has signed documents guaranteeing rights to sexual minorities; the Council of Europe is investigating the possibility of CIA camps and has warned that, if true, then Poland would be in breach of numerous international agreements and could face serious sanctions from Brussels.

But is Poland as bad as it’s being portrayed by some foreign journalists?

Europe’s homophobes?

The charge of homophobia is certainly justified. Many here hold social attitudes more applicable to Warsaw in 1935 than 2005. For four decades communism stopped Poland’s development dead in its tracks. When the regime crumbled the nation’s economy, social structure and culture were stuck in the past. A can of worms opened and out spilled some antiquated and distasteful social attitudes.

A religious based homophobia is one of them. This is being expressed by the new PiS government, which reflects the backwardness of maybe 1 in 2 of the population who feel that freedoms of speech should only be for people ‘like us’ and not for people ‘like them’.

And that’s a very ‘1930s’ type of attitude.

Anti-ballistic missile base?

Still living in the 1930s, many Poles feel that Russia is the threat and that a defense shield should be put up to guard Poland from eastern threats.

“We will analyze everything thoroughly and at the appropriate moment say whether it is good or not for Poland,” PM Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz has said, admitting that talks about a US antimissile system have been going on with the Pentagon for years. He has promised that, before any final decision is reached, a thorough public debate will take place first.

But Poland is not alone in looking at this system. The Czech Republic and Hungary are also looking at the plans, and the UK has long supported the general idea of a system being set up in Europe.

CIA gulags?

I have argued on the beatroot before that the often hysterical claims about these camps do not match the evidence. Just because we know that planes used by the CIA for transporting terror suspects landed in Poland does not prove anything at all, apart from the fact that the planes have been using a northern Polish airstrip to land on.

We now know that the CIA has been using many countries to do this in, including Denmark, Spain, Holland, Italy, the UK…. But nobody has suggested, like one Turkish writer has done, that the UK or Holland are sites of a ‘US Auschwitz’.

I wonder why? Perhaps these writers are being informed by some 1930s prejudices of their own – if Poland and other Central European countries had a death camps on their soil once, could they have them now?

Last Friday, Dick Marty, the Swiss senator heading the investigation on behalf of the Council of Europe, said that the prospect of large clandestine torture camps in Central Europe was ‘highly unlikely’, though he did think that is possible that ”there were detainees that stayed 10, 15 or 30 days. We do not have the full picture." The Council of Europe is currently trying to get hold of satellite images of the airbases in Poland and Romania.

Eurocepticism?

There is no doubt that many politicians affect an anti-European stance in much of their rhetoric. Again this reflects an almost pre-war distrust of Western Europe and an inability to deal the world as it is today. Two parties currently propping up the minority government in parliament – Self defense and League of Polish Families have indicated that they would like to re-negotiate Poland’s terms of entry into the Union.

But Poles in general are not as Eurosceptic as are many in northern Europe – particularly in the UK and Denmark. And the Polish government has said that the EU is essential for the economic development of the country. The torturous negotiations over the EU budget shows that it is not Poland who is holding up a resolution to the problem, but rather richer countries like the UK that want to reduce their contributions. Poland, on the other hand, wants to get its hands on those contributions in the form of subsidies and joint investment projects.

So though of the criticism of Poland recently rightly points out a backwardness of much of the population to issues that were settled in the nineteen sixties in the western Europe, a lot of that criticism is also based on a misunderstanding of the facts, a love of conspiracy theories, an ignorance of Central Europe, and lazy journalism.

But I still think that Poland needs a better PR manager, because the current Polish government is not doing a very good job at all – in fact, it’s very much part of the problem.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Gay activists in Warsaw protest Polish homophobia

Over 1000 gather peacfully at Plac Konstitucji, in the centre of the Polish capital, surrounded by several hundred police.

Under gloomy skies and in light rain the demonstrators listened to speeches and music booming out of sound systems, as the rest of Warsaw did their Sunday shopping. The action came in response to violence from police and rightwing thugs in Poznan last weekend, when several protestors from the Campaign Against Homophobia were beaten and arrested.

Left wing members of parliament from the SLD, SdLP, Greens and the Democratic Party gave suppport to the protest.

An expected counter-demonstration from far-right politicians and hooligans did not happen - except for a small press conference from the League of Polish Families in the square. A handful of skinheads hung around the four corners of Plac Konstitucji, making calls on their mobiles (I was suprised that they seemed to know how to work them!) trying to get more of their little buddies to come along.

The demonstration is part of a nationwide action this weekend involving six Polish cities, including Gdansk, where the local chapter of the Solidarity trade union gave its support.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Hypocrites


Update!!!… Demonstrations organised by the Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland will take place this weekend in Elblag, Gdansk, Torun, Lodz, Warsaw, Rzeszow, Wroclaw, Katowice and Krakow…The demo in Warsaw will start on Sunday at 12.00p.m. at Plac Konstitucji…. If you care about human rights in Poland then BE THERE……


Two Polish newspapers, Wednesday, had parts of their front pages blacked out with ink in support of freedom of speech in Belarus. Video footage, however, shows that human rights problems can be found closer to home.

Under the headline ‘This is what freedom of speech looks like in Belarus’ Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita inked out sections of articles on their front pages in support of an Amnesty International campaign against human rights abuses in Belarus.

And jolly good, too.

Shame then that the Polish newspapers don’t pay as much attention to human rights abuses going on in their own country.

To the usual deafening silence, gays and lesbians and human rights campaigners were denied the right once again to protest against officially sanctioned homophobia in Poland. Last Saturday, protesters in Poznan – who went ahead with an Equality March even though the local council had denied them permission to do so – were beaten and arrested by cops and intimidated by local right wing thugs.

See how the Polish authorities respect human rights in this video.

And where is the blacked out front pages about that one then?

Last night, Marian Pilka (Marian is a male name in Poland), an MP from the ruling Law and Justice party, called for gays to have psychiatric treatment and to ban the 'promotion' of homosexuality.

And word is getting around. On his first trip to London since becoming PM, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz had to use a side entrance when visiting Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street so as to avoid protests from activists.

It's easy for Polish newspapers to look good and radical when you are up against someone like Belarus' President, Alexander Lukashenko. It's not even a very controversial move to have a go at old baldy, now is it? I'm sure even Gazeta's advertisers didn't mind that much.

Might it not be a great idea, though, for Polish newspapers to take a look at somewhere a little closer to home, perhaps?

Now that really would be radical.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Rainbow warriors


The liberal-minded environmentalist Greenpeace, and the socially conservative Law and Justice government are united in their campaign against ‘Frankenstein food’.

The Baltic port of Gdynia had never seen anything like it. Last Thursday, activists from Greenpeace, the direct action environmental campaigners, tied themselves and their yellow rubber dingy to the anchor of a ship, preventing it from docking. The ship, the Hope, which began its journey in Argentina, was full up with 25,000 tons of animal feed made from Genetically Modified soya beans.

In Argentina, say Green activists, GM soya is causing massive environmental problems, such as deforestation, dramatic increase in the spraying of toxic herbicides and infertility of the soil.

Greenpeace say that Poland – where the majority of soya beans imported are used for animal feed - is rapidly becoming a ‘gateway’ through which GM crops are ‘sneaking into Europe’. Polish meat producers – which Greenpeace ominously remind us are ‘mostly in the hands of foreign owners’ - feed GM products to animals, which are them exported to countries such as Belgium, Germany, Sweden, UK, The Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. Greenpeace says that ‘GM derived meat and other products bare a completely unqualified health risk for consumers.’

I should warn that the ‘unqualified health risk’ in that sentence is another way of saying that there has been no proven health risk to humans from GM crops – but that’s another argument.

Meanwhile, back at the port in Gdynia, Greenpeace had picked a bad day for attaching themselves to a large ship’s anchor. The Baltic Sea is an unforgiving one. At this time of year it is absolutely freezing. After five hours of dangling from the anchor, buffeted by high winds in low temperatures, Greenpeace called it a day, and the cargo, imported by the US firm Cargill (I told you those nasty foreign firms were involved), finally made dry land.

Following directives from the European Union, growing GM crops in Poland is now illegal. But importing GM crops is legal. Greenpeace want to ban it all.

Bad news for greens

Though Greenpeace opened an office here a few years ago, the green movement is not a large one in Poland. People are not so much interested in sustainable development, they just want some sort of development.

Many in the West have decided that that their level of consumption is bad, and that emerging economies should not reach the same amount of consumption, and wealth, as they have. They must develop in a ‘sustainable’ way. And that means slowing down development. They are expecting people in Poland, naively, to slow down the rate at which their incomes grow.

I don’t think I need to point out why this is not going to be a very popular political option.

And now the good news…

There is some good news for the green movement in Poland. Central and eastern Europe is beginning to freak out about GM. Around 76 per cent of Polish consumers say they don't want to eat any food containing GM ingredients, according, that is, to a PBS opinion poll commissioned by Greenpeace Polska.

This follows an earlier study that says that 95 per cent of Russians who are aware of GM ingredients are either opposed, or are ‘seriously concerned’ by them.

And there is more good news for Polish greens. The new, populist, socially conservative, Law and Justice (PiS) government has come out squarely against genetically modified organisms getting in the food chain and messing up the wildlife.

This government position comes from two sources: one is that the EU is putting pressure on governments to fall into line with its anti-GM, precautionary stance. The other is what I would call the ‘Prince Charles’ position - that doing research into genetics, nanotechnology etc, is ‘scientists playing God’.

And the religious in the Polish government, and its allies in parliament, agree with the red faced, jug-eared, unemployed Royal about that kind of thing.

So the new, socially conservative government in Poland, and the ‘radical’, ‘liberal’ green campaigners of Greanpeace, have something in common: they are both against Genetically Modified Crops.

Another unlikely alliance in this wacky 21st century, Post-Cold War world.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Catholic Poland


A survey conducted by the Polish church shows that the majority of Poles are not ‘religiously active’.

Working as a journalist in Poland forces you to write sentences that include phrases such as ‘in staunchly Catholic Poland…’, or, ‘the devoutly Catholic Polish…’, or, ‘In a country where 95% are Catholic…’, etc. And every time I write these words (editors like it when you do, for some reason) I know that I am misleading the reader. Yes, 95% of people identify themselves as Roman Catholics. But that does not mean Poland is overflowing with the god-fearing.

A survey just released confirms this. Only 43% of Poles claim to be ‘actively religious’, or practicing Catholics. The majority of Poles only go to church on religious holidays, or for births, weddings and deaths. Some never go near the place at all.

This tallies with opinion polls that say that 50% of Poles want their very strict abortion laws liberalized. Seventy-five percent do not believe in the Catholic explanation of what happens after death. And, remarkably for a country where ‘natural methods of contraception’ (otherwise know a ‘cross your fingers and hope for the best’) are taught by the priests, Poland has one of the lowest birthrates in the world.

So the next time you see an article with ‘In a country where 95% are Catholic’ in it, make sure you put inverted commas over the catholic bit.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Is it a bird, is it a plane...?


...no, it’s Andrzej Lepper, Super-capitalist!

Yes, you thought that Lepper, leader of the populist, left wing farmer’s union and lawmaker, was the former communist party political bruiser, the farm owner down on his luck, who came to fame as the organizer of road blocks in rural areas in the fight to defend the Polish farmer from market reforms, Brussels, and towns and cities in general with populations of over six hundred and fifty.

You thought his foreign policy included a sympathetic ear to the trials and tribulations of the Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko.

You thought his economic plan included halting privatization, and the state keeping hold of all major industries.

You thought that Andrzej Lepper was an unreconstructed, Soviet-type socialist with a dollop of nationalism thrown in.

But just as Clarke Kent slipped off his suit and tie in a phone booth to reveal the caped crusader beneath, so Lepper has thrown away the muddy boots and straw in the top pocket, to reveal a tasty pinstripe suit.

Andrzej Lepper has declared himself a capitalist!

“A socialist party has no chance today,” he says, with the dazed look of a Damascus experience still lingering in his eyes. He’s in favor of the privatization of everything but essential industries. He’s a modern guy! Honest!

But what led Lepper to this flash of market orientated inspiration? What took Leper out of the pig shed with shovel and into the office and executive toys?

Naked ambition? Quite probably. He knows that the minority PiS government can’t rule without him and his Samoobrona (Self defense) party. He wants a formal coalition with PiS, and a place in the government.

But he’s not just decided he’s a capitalist. He also says that he is now a ‘social-liberal’.

Oxymoron? Yes, but a typically Polish, political oxymoron. The liberal bit means he ‘believes’ in the market. The social bit means that the state is not going to be cutting social services, welfare, and social spending in general. And the farmers are still going to get price stability and lots of subsidies.

A tactical metamorphoses. But the change is less like a Clarke Kent to a Superman, as a tadpole into a frog.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Poles ban gay parade, EU bans anti-abortion exhibit


Polish reactionaries and EU liberals have more in common than they think.

It’s becoming a bit of a habit. Local authorities in Poland, this time in the mid-west city of Poznan, have banned a Gay Pride march, scheduled to take place this Saturday. The reason the local council give for denying people the right to free assembly and expression is that the march would be a, ‘serious danger to social order and property.’

A similar excuse was given by the then mayor of Warsaw, and now president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, when he banned (for the second year running) a similar parade through the centre of the capital this summer.

Of course, if you asked these politicians what the real reason is for such authoritarian behaviour they would tell you that they just find homosexuality offensive and ungodly, and don’t want to see such a parade in their city.

Polish human rights campaigners have argued that banning gay pride marches goes against the Polish Constitution. The European Union has warned President Kaczynski that he is going against human rights agreements signed by Poland.

Meanwhile, down at the EU parliament…

An anti-abortion exhibition entitled Life and Children in Europe ended in fisty-cuffs yesterday. Sponsored by MEPs from the League of Polish Families (LPR), the exhibition showed photos of unborn foetuses, and children in WWII concentration camps.

Enraged by the connection between terminations and Nazis, liberals and social democrats in the parliament, where the exhibition was being displayed, tried to take down the photographs. Security guards intervened when LPR members tried to keep the photos just where they were, and a fight broke out.

But the liberals succeeded in getting the offending material taken down.

Leader of LPR in the EU parliament, Maciej Giertych, said that he “never thought that the exhibit would be censored. I thought parliament was the place where controversial opinions were expressed.”

And, of course, he’s right. Just because someone doesn’t like opinions being expressed, or finds them offensive – like I do - is no reason to ban those opinions.

And that includes the actions of bigots in the local council in Poznan. Just because they find homosexuality offensive is no reason to ban a Gay Pride march.

Both the League of Polish Families and the liberals in Strasburg seem to agree that freedom of speech and expression is only permissible if that speech is not offensive to anybody.

But freedom of speech is not divisible. Both gays and anti-abortion activists have the right to press their case. And if people don’t like that case then they should be free to oppose it. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking is becoming increasingly unfashionable, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum.

If I was the security guard at the EU parliament I would have left the MEPs to it. These days, bigots and 'liberals' deserve each other.

It’s not been a good week for European liberty.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Still a hard sell?


The Polish defense minister, Radek Sikorski, and Star Wars II

The Warsaw Station blog comments on official recognition that Warsaw and Washington have been negotiating a deal on placing the US ‘Star Wars II’, anti-ballistic missile system in this country. Gustav notes that:

Gazeta [Wyborcza] reports that Dominique Moisi from the French Institute of International studies, says: "Did Poland consult its decision with European allies? Poland sees itself in the EU as a bridge between NATO and Europe. Together with this new government the question arises: Hasn't she already gone to the other side of the bridge?"

The US is building two bases at home where anti-rocket rockets and radar systems will be searching the skies for incoming threats from the latest bogey-state of the day. The Pentagon has been searching for a third base, in central and Eastern Europe, since late 2003. Candidates include Poland, Czech Republic or Hungary.

If Poland is chosen, then the man on the Polish side responsible for dealing with the Pentagon is the new Defense Minister, Radek Sikorski. If this is the new government’s policy then Sikorski must presumably be for the policy too.

Well, late last year he was more skeptical. In December 2004, Emmanuel Evita writes at the American Enterprise Institute web site:

Sikorski said granting interceptor host rights to the United States amounts to "ceding territory (for one country) to launch violence against another country to affect its strategic calculus." Anything less than a generous package -- which could include greater industrial and economic incentives according to Sikorski -- would be "a difficult sell in the current atmosphere of Central Europe" -- including Poland, said Sikorski. "There is a growing feeling in the region that 'We are not doing Iraq again.'"

So what’s happened since a year ago? Has the situation in Iraq got any better? Or is the 'package' getting better?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A United States’ Auschwitz?


Speculation about CIA gulags in Poland reaches new heights of absurdity …and I get quoted in the Washington Post!

Imagine my surprise when reading an article in the Post – the newspaper that originally broke the allegations - on reactions to the story in central and Eastern Europe, to see extracts from something I wrote for the radio. Washington Post journalist Jefferson Morley writes:

In Poland, Peter Gentle of Radio Polonia said the Post story came "as a bit of a shock to Poles. Most – maybe all – people I have spoke to just can’t believe a word of it. A Guantanamo Bay type prison in the middle of northern Poland? Don’t be ridiculous. "

Gentle described the evidence to support the claim of a prison in Poland as "dodgy, to say the least," adding that Poles "won’t believe that there are any [secret prisons] in Poland until physical evidence of these camps is uncovered before their very eyes."

The headline on his column evoked incredulity: "CIA Gulags--in Poland?"

Blimey!

Poles’ reaction is indeed one of disbelief, and some feel insulted that, on the back of circumstantial evidence, Poland is being accused of not just hosting secret camps, but of trying to cover up their existence.

But this hasn’t stopped the speculation in the media. Again from the Jefferson Morley article in the Post:

In Turkey, a columnist for the Yeni Safak newspaper said, "human smuggling sponsored by governments is gradually becoming a nightmare for the entire world... Are we going to cover up operations, unlawful acts, and crimes against humanity committed by the CIA or on its behalf in this country?" Ibrahim Karagul predicted the "secret torture centres" in Eastern Europe will be recorded in history as "the United States' Auschwitzs."

The Turkish writer goes on to say that he, ‘has no doubt the largest of these camps is in Poland’.

A ‘United States’ Auschwitz’ in Poland? This is an amazing claim to make, and I really think the guy who wrote that is a fool. Quite apart from the nauseating way that people, these days, over use words associated with the holocaust – and in doing so take away the unique horror of what happened during WWII – does he really think that another Auschwitz in Poland could be kept a secret? Does he know what the original Auschwitz was like?

In search of a smoking gun...

The evidence for a camp in Poland is based on one fact, and lots of ‘unnamed sources’.

A plane, en route from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan and back again, touched down in Szymany airstrip, northern Poland. We know this from the flight logs of a 737 Boeing thought to be one of a fleet of planes used by the CIA the purpose of moving around terror suspects.

An eyewitness – the ex-director of the airport - has said that, on September 22, 2003, she saw five men get on the plane, traveling on US passports. She also said, however, that nobody got off the plane, which was on the runway for about an hour.

We also have a TIME magazine article this week claiming that ‘counter intelligence sources’ had conformed the existence of the camps in central and Eastern Europe.

Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a public-interest documentation center in Washington, told Democracy Now:

I think the bottom line is that the C.I.A. fears that if the names of these countries are published, the people in those countries, Eastern Europeans who have, you know, pushed away from the gulags of the past and are trying to rebuild democracies in the present, will say: ‘Hey, this is not what we want in our countries!’ And this is exactly what happened with the C.I.A. detention center in Thailand. When it was revealed the C.I.A. was running a secret center in the war on terrorism in Thailand, the Thai government said: ‘We want to be able to deny that we have such a detention center here, and you have to shut it down.’ That is what the C.I.A. is truly worried about, is losing its ability to sustain these facilities.

These claims are also backed up by the TIME article I referred to earlier.

Maybe the best bit of evidence comes from the Washington Post itself, which says that it knows which countries are involved, but has agreed with the US government not to reveal them. The media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has complained that this ‘self censorship’ is dangerous for press freedom in the States. "The possibility that illegal, unpopular government actions might be disrupted is not a consequence to be feared, however-it's the whole point of the First Amendment,” it says.

While it is certain that there are secret camps being used around world for keeping al.-Qaeda suspects, the evidence that they are here in Poland is circumstantial, and certainly not good enough to claim that there are modern day equivalents to Auschwitz.

In the meantime, me, the girlfriend and the dog will not be opening the door to dodgy looking Americans who say that they are ‘from Washington’.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Forward to ‘Polish capitalism’


The vote of confidence in parliament Thursday means that Poland finally has a government. But for how long?

It was no surprise, really. Two hundred and seventy two deputies voted for the Law and Justice (PiS) led government – including lawmakers from League of Polish Families and SelfDefence, and 187 voted against, including ex-communists SLD and the largest opposition party, the free market Civic Platform.

This gives the government, headed by PM Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, the go ahead for their slightly vague program. Details include; trying to forge closer links between the US and the EU; no privatizations of key state industries such as the postal service, public television and radio, banking and energy; a simplified (but not flat) tax system, the end of capital gains tax on stock market earnings, and a 30 billion zloty (8.75 billion dollars) ceiling on the budget deficit.

But what to call this new arrangment?

"We are going to develop these companies to create a Polish brand name and Polish capitalism," Marcinkiewicz said after the vote last night.

Polish capitalism? Throw in some of PiS’s more socially authoritarian policies and what you get is a Polish conservative-socialism!

PiS are presenting all this as a pragmatic agenda and not an ‘ideological’ one. This is wise as it gives them more room to change their program as external political realities dictate.

The support achieved by PiS in parliament in the vote of confidence from smaller, more extreme populist parties is provisional. Roman Giertych, head of the far-right League of Polish Families gave PiS a warning that they could not expect his party to just vote for everything that comes their way: "We won't give this government another chance if it departs from what has been announced in the policy statement," he said.

In an attempt to stabilize the situation, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the parliamentary wing of PiS, said yesterday that he did not rule out a more formal arrangement for a coalition government with the farmers union, SelfDefence.