Poland lifts veil on corruption

'Rywingate' hearings rivet Poles and may signal new era of openness.

A reality show that is only too real has transformed daytime Polish TV in recent weeks and kept millions glued to their screens.

Starring an Oscar-nominated film producer, the country's prime minister, and one of Poland's most respected anti-Communist dissidents, live coverage of parliamentary hearings into influence peddling is tearing the veil from an allegedly tight-knit group of rich and powerful Poles accused of corruptly controlling the country.

The public hearings could mark a turning point in Poland's transition from communism to free-market democracy, some say.

"In the parliamentary committee, we see the defenders of corruption being pushed back, because they cannot ignore public opinion," says Ludwik Dorn, an opposition member of parliament and prominent anticorruption campaigner. "This is a political and social process."

"Rywingate," as the case is known, hit the front pages two months ago. Gazeta Wyborca, Poland's leading daily newspaper, published a story alleging that Lew Rywin, co-producer of Roman Polanski's film "The Pianist," had asked the paper's editor - former dissident Adam Michnik - for a $17.5 million bribe to ensure that a new media law would be written in a way that would allow Gazeta Wyborca's parent company to buy a national TV network.

Mr. Rywin, the movie producer, claimed to represent Prime Minister Leszek Miller, the article said, quoting from a tape of Rywin's conversation that Mr. Michnik had made secretly in July.

Rywin has refused to testify to the parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Miller has denied having anything to do with the alleged bribe, and Michnik has said that he held off publishing the story for five months while he conducted a journalistic investigation, and so as not to damage Poland's bid to join the European Union.

The case, and the public hearings, have riveted Poland like no other corruption scandal in recent years. "The Rywin case is interesting as a metaphor for all the perceptions Poles have of arrogance amongst the elite," says a Western diplomat. "The average Pole is a little cynical about these guys. He thinks that anything goes."

A recent poll found that 91 percent of Poles believe the threat of corruption in their country is "very high" or "rather high," and that 71 percent think senior government officials reap unwarranted benefits from holding public office.

That attitude stems partly from Poles' experience in their daily lives. They know that they can't get a driver's license without paying someone a bribe, nor can they get decent medical care in a government hospital, and that policemen are notoriously easy to influence with a few zlotys.

Their suspicions that such behavior reaches high into the bureaucracy are also fed by revelations such as one that emerged from a parliamentary debate last month on the introduction of a vehicle road tax. The number of vehicles on Poland's roads increased by 46 percent between 1995 and 2001, the government reported, but gasoline sales fell by three percent, according to tax office figures.

Illegal untaxed gas sales cost the government more than a billion dollars a year in lost revenue. "That sort of thing cannot happen without protection from the top," says Mr. Dorn.

"The roots of corruption are in politics, and the Rywin case is showing that clearly," says Julia Pitera, who heads the local office of Transparency International, a worldwide anticorruption watchdog. "Even most opposition parties are trying to stay out of it, and not express an opinion."

Observers who think the current uproar has exaggerated the real scope of corruption in Poland, such as Anna Rozicka who heads the George Soros-funded Stefan Batory Foundation, are quick to add that the case has opened their eyes.

"Rywingate suggests that the connections between media, business, the courts, the government and political parties are deeper than we had expected," Ms. Rozicka says.

The most dangerous aspect of Polish politics, she adds, is "the Teflon effect. Politicians can go through scandal after scandal and not be affected. That does not help to create public trust or standards" in public life.

But as privatization proceeds, say some businessmen, the opportunities for corruption recede. "I come across corruption very often, but it is getting less," says one Western banker. "As politics and business disentangle themselves, fewer people will play by the old corrupt rules."

Poland's efforts to reform its economy and political life in order to join the European Union - a goal it is due to achieve next year - have also had an impact, the banker argues. "One lobbyist I know who acts as middleman for the sale of public property says he will only have work until 2004," he says.

Some analysts suggest that Poland may not actually be more corrupt today than five years ago, despite public perceptions, but that people are now talking about it more openly. "That's an important change," says Dorn. "You are not regarded as a dangerous populist or a fool any more for raising the issue."

Rywingate is certainly making Poles talk, and it might be changing attitudes among a cynical public, Dorn hopes. "It won't change everything, but it shows that there are centers of corruption and that there are people who fight them," he says.

Neither Dorn nor many other observers here believe that the truth behind the murky affair will ever emerge. But that is only half the point, says Rozicka. "The hearings are a real education experience for citizens," she argues.

"Maybe this whole story has been cooked up by somebody trying to get rid of somebody else," she says. "But maybe it's about democracy and the first real fight against corruption."

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