Briefing

A secret-recording scandal is rocking Poland. Here's what you should know.

A Polish magazine has been publishing recordings of officials' conversations, apparently recorded in Warsaw restaurants. And it's threatening to topple the government.

By , Correspondent

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    Sylwester Latkowski (c.), editor-in-chief of Wprost magazine, carries his laptop as police look on at the magazine's offices in Warsaw last Wednesday. The magazine has been publishing a series of secret tapes that are embarrassing the government. Police raided the magazine's offices last week to try and retrieve the tapes.
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For the past week, the publication of secret recordings of government officials by a news magazine has been roiling Poland.

The audio recordings – apparently made as top ministers and officials ate in Warsaw restaurants – have impugned the political independence of Poland's central bank and strained the country's relationship with the US. And it's all threatening to bring down Prime Minister Donald Tusk's government.

The scandal is the biggest to hit Poland in years. Here's what you need to know about it and its impact on one of the US's historically staunchest allies.

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What was on the tapes and why has it caused a scandal?

Polish news magazine Wprost has released two batches of recordings so far, both of high-level Polish officials discussing political matters.

The first batch, published a week ago, included a conversation between Marek Belka, the chief of Poland's central bank, and Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, in which they discussed how the central bank might use its power to help the government win reelection in 2015. Mr. Belka said that his condition for help would be "the dismissal of the finance minister" in favor of a “technical and apolitical” one. They also discussed the creation of a law that would allow the central bank to buy government debt on secondary markets, a practice known as quantitative easing.

Under Polish law, the central bank has to be independent from political interference. But Jacek Rostowski, the finance minister, did indeed lose his job in November last year and was replaced by Mateusz Szczurek, an economist with no political experience. And new laws that include a provision allowing quantitative easing are also now in the works.

The second set of recordings, released Sunday, featured Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski speaking to Jacek Rostowski, a member of parliament with the ruling Civic Platform who until last year was finance minister. In the profanity-laden conversation, which Wprost said was made earlier this year in a Warsaw restaurant, Mr. Sikorski criticized Poland's relationship with the US. "You know that the Polish-US alliance isn't worth anything. It is downright harmful, because it creates a false sense of security," he said. "We'll get in conflict with the Germans, Russians and we'll think that everything is super."

He also suggested Poland too often has been willing to play second fiddle in foreign relations. "The problem in Poland is that we have shallow pride and low self-esteem,” he said.

The revelation of private criticism of the US-Poland relationship, which both countries have publicly praised, deeply embarrassed the Polish government.

What effect has the scandal had?

The scandal has cast a shadow over the government’s probity and competence, and threatens to bring it down.

At first, Prime Minister Tusk tried to marginalize the scandal, and until Wednesday it looked like he would survive the storm. But the situation has completely changed when police and state prosecutors raided Wprost's headquarters on Wednesday in a failed attempt to seize recordings. The failed raid, seen as an attack on freedom of speech and of the press, crystallized public outrage over the scandal. The next day, Tusk said that early elections might be necessary within weeks if the political crisis expands.

Interior Minister Sienkiewicz is expected to lose his job soon. Belka has also lost his credibility – Bloomberg recently called him “Europe's worst central banker” – and may also be forced to step down. So far, Tusk has refused to sack any of his ministers, and reiterated his refusal again today.

“Mr. Tusk is losing support of his own party,” says Jacek Sokolowski, a political scientist at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. "Paradoxically, early elections could be his only chance to hold the leadership – he needs to close ranks and convince his party that he is able to lead it to victory, like he did in previous years."

If early elections are not called, Mr. Sokolowski says that the ruling Civic Platform party could instead change the prime minister. But it is hard to say who could replace Tusk. Another possibility would be for the opposition to call a vote of no confidence in parliament to dismiss the government. “But the opposition is divided and does not have enough votes,” Sokolowski says.

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of opposition Law and Justice party, said that snap elections “are necessary, but they need to be carried out by a technical government that can give some guarantee of honesty,” suggesting that if they were organized with the current government, they could be somehow manipulated.

According to a poll conducted by TVN, a Polish television channel, 47 percent of respondents want snap elections, but 66 percent don't want Mr. Kaczyński to be next prime minister. The poll also found that Civic Platform has 25 percent support (a drop of 3 percentage points), the Law and Justice leads the poll with 32 percent (an increase of 4 points). The only other groupings that would get into parliament are the Democratic Left Alliance (10 percent) and New Right (8 percent).

Who made the recordings?

It is still unknown who was secretly recording politicians. One of the files that Wprost published was signed “a patriot.” The magazine said on Sunday that the source was “a businessman” and that two of its journalists knew his identity. Some speculate that former secret service agents, political enemies, or even foreign intelligence were involved.

The manager of the restaurant Sowa and Friends, where the conversation between Belka and Sienkiewicz took place, was detained for questioning and was charged on Wednesday with two counts of criminal wiretapping. According to some media reports, he testified that he had been given the recording equipment by one of Wprost's journalists. But the journalists denied his claim.

The recorded conversation between Sikorski and Mr. Rostowski took place in a different restaurant.

The Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported on Monday, under the headline "Waiters' plot shakes Poland,” that employees at three different restaurants in Warsaw were recording politicians and businessmen to get extra money for more than a year. The paper also claimed that former security officers were helping them organize. The claim was not confirmed by the prosecutors.

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