WARSAW — It's deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might have said. Once again, at a critical moment in Poland's political life, an accusation of involvement with Russian espionage has been made.
For some observers the real issue is not the truth of one charge or another but the failure to come to terms with the fact that, under communism, anyone in a certain position of authority in Poland had to be assumed to be in contact with Soviet agents.
"The [former Communists] are not ready to face their history fully and honestly," journalist and political analyst Wlodzimierz Korzycki has written. "After the victory in the parliamentary elections in 1993, [former communist Alexander] Kwasniewski begged pardon for the years of the People's Republic of Poland, but their efforts to deal with the past remained selective."
Michal Strzeszewski of the CBOS polling institute makes a similar point. "The post-Communists should have made a clean breast a few years ago and that would have made a difference," he says.
In December 1995, just as newly elected President Kwasniewski was about to take office, departing President Lech Walesa accused the post-Communist prime minister, Jozef Oleksy, of having compromising contacts with foreign intelligence services. Mr. Oleksy was said to have had a series of meetings with Vladimir Alganov, a onetime Soviet intelligence agent who stayed on in Poland after 1989 as a Russian secret service agent.
Oleksy resigned from his post, and an investigation was launched. He acknowledged having met the agent, but insufficient evidence was found for criminal charges. The post-Communists pointedly elected him their party leader.
Now President Kwasniewski, himself a former Communist official, stands accused of contacts with the same Russian agent. In late August two Polish newspapers have carried reports that Kwasniewski met with Mr. Alganov at a Baltic Sea resort in August 1994.
"I never met him," was Kwasniewski's stock response. When one of the papers, the Warsaw daily Zycie, published a photo Aug. 26 showing him and Interior Minister Leszek Miller with Alganov in 1987, Kwasniewski admitted that yes, he had met Alganov, as a diplomat, on that one occasion.
A flurry of claims and counter-claims between Kwasniewski and Zycie has ensued; the matter looks likely to be settled in court.
Meanwhile, Dziennik Baltycki, the other paper following the story, abruptly backed off, evidently as a result of misgivings by its German publisher, who in an open letter apologized to Kwasniewski that his reporters had gone too far.
That is "inappropriate interference with editorial independence," says a disgusted Bronislaw Wildstein, a deputy editor at Zycie.
He insists that his paper was not out to "get" Kwasniewski or his post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), but that the paper had a "duty" to report on this "interesting situation in public life in Poland."
He adds that the reports came out well before the Sept. 21 legislative elections.
Part of the Polish political story has been the efforts of the SLD, the legal heirs to the Polish United Workers Party, Poland's communist party, to recast itself as a mainstream European socialist party.
It is doing so partly through a natural generational change. Kwasniewski, the youngest head of state in Europe, was a junior minister in the last Communist government in Poland. But he was an infant when the Warsaw Pact was signed.
His claim to be no real part of the old system has been credible. That credibility will be lost, or at least damaged, if Zycie's charges stick in public opinion, whatever the legal disposition of the case.
Until the Solidarity Election Alliance forged a surprising win in Sunday's election, the right-wing coalition had been seen as backward-looking, preoccupied with score-settling and infighting. The SLD has seized the opportunity to pitch itself as the party of the future.
Picking up on this rhetoric, Maciej Poreba, a member of the SLD central executive committee, remarked in an interview, "If we try to build the road to the future by looking to the past, we shall never build that road."
But Mr. Wildstein, the Zycie editor, counters, "We can't cut off the past."