Secret Tapes in Polish 'Waitergate' Scandal Could Cost Warsaw's Government a Key European Commission Post

Donald Tusk
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk leaves after voting at Parliament in Warsaw on July 11, 2014. The Parliament that day rejected a motion of no confidence in the Tusk government. Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

It has all the makings of a Cold War spy thriller. Shady deals over caviar and vodka in an East European restaurant, a waiters' plot, a foreign minister dismissing the country's alliance with one of its most important allies—all to the sound of clinking glasses in expensive restaurants.

The scandal surrounding the publication of secret conversations between Polish politicians—dubbed "Waitergate" after the restaurant staff was implicated in the bugging—has come at a time when the Polish government appeared to be riding high. Last month, the country celebrated the 25-year anniversary of the elections of June 4, 1989, that marked the end of Communism in Poland, a historic milestone crowned with a long-awaited visit to Warsaw by President Barack Obama.

The F-16 fighter jets that flew over Warsaw's Castle Square that day symbolized the strength of the Polish-American alliance. But they were also a chilling reminder of the unrest to Poland's east, where, unlike Poland, Ukraine has so far failed to replace Communism with a stable democratic system, and of the Polish government's new emphasis on security in the region since Russia annexed Crimea in March. In this part of Europe, memories of invasion by German and then Soviet Red Army troops remain fresh.

But the atmosphere of celebration and self-congratulation in Warsaw came to an abrupt end when Wprost, one of Poland's leading newsmagazines, published explosive private conversations between top government politicians that were peppered with swearwords and crass humor.

In the first recording, released on June 14, Interior Minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz was heard discussing the fate of the then-finance minister, Jacek Rostowski, with Marek Belka, governor of the central bank, over a gourmet meal at an elegant Warsaw restaurant, Sowa & Przyjaciele, back in July 2013.

In return for Sienkiewicz's help in removing Rostowski from his post, Belka said he would be willing to help the government get re-elected by easing monetary policy if an economic downturn precedes 2015's parliamentary elections. In American terms, it would be as if Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, were caught on tape conspiring with Sally Jewell, secretary of the interior, to remove Jack Lew, secretary of the treasury.

In a second conversation, leaked a week later at a different restaurant, Radosław Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister, who has long entertained ambitions of becoming the European Union's next foreign policy chief, is heard telling Rostowski, who was indeed replaced as finance minister, that their country's alliance with the U.S. is "bullshit."

Piotr Nisztor, the journalist who brought the first recordings to Wprost, has said his intention wasn't to topple the government but to show how leading politicians worked in sick and devious ways.

The recordings have caused mayhem in Poland. Prime Minister Donald Tusk, in remarks reminiscent of the fall of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, has emphasized that the bugging of private conversations is strictly illegal and has blamed the leaks on "an organized criminal group that is destabilizing the state." Tusk has encouraged the widespread belief that Russia is behind the bugging because it seeks to undermine the Polish state, as it has in neighboring Ukraine. Fingers are being pointed at Marek Falenta, a Polish multimillionaire whose company imports coal from Russia and who was detained in connection with the recordings.

Tusk's center-right Civic Platform party, which has held power since 2007, has won all of the past seven consecutive elections. But that winning streak may be coming to an end. In the elections to the European Parliament in May, Civic Platform defeated its main rival, the conservative Law and Justice party, by a mere 0.35 percentage points. With parliamentary elections due next year, Poles have started to brace themselves for a Law and Justice victory.

According to a poll by Millward Brown conducted three days after the first leaks were published, 48 percent of Poles think Tusk and his government should resign because of the tapes. Tusk has ignored the opposition's calls for him to resign, though he does not rule out early elections.

A raid on Wprost's editorial offices by Poland's internal security agency on June 18 added to the drama. Video footage released by the prosecutor's office shows agents trying to wrench the laptop containing the recordings from Sylwester Latkowski, the magazine's editor-in-chief.

The incident temporarily united much of the press against Tusk, despite the many doubts cast on Latkowski's character and the magazine's role in publishing the recordings. Tusk managed to regain the political initiative, refusing to fire any of the ministers involved and turning the scandal into a question of national security. He initiated and won a surprise vote of confidence in his government on June 25, backed by 237 lawmakers, with 203 voting against.

But things do not bode well for Tusk in the long term. Waitergate has added to Polish voters' general disillusionment with those who govern them, says Wawrzyniec Smoczyński, director of Polityka Insight, a Warsaw think tank. "For the regular voter, it's not so much about what they say in the tapes as how they talk and spend public money in fancy restaurants," he says.

Some smell blood in the water. According to Law and Justice spokesman Adam Hofman, Tusk's corpse is "already floating down the river Vistula," which runs through Warsaw. But the main opposition party has struggled to take advantage of the scandal. Its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, was silent during the debate before the confidence vote, instructing a colleague to speak on his behalf.

Meanwhile, the radical New Right party, led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a bow tie-wearing septuagenarian, stands to benefit the most from the affair. In the recent European Parliament elections, it received 7 percent of the vote, but since the scandal, its support in the polls has risen to 10 percent, according to TNS Polska, making it Poland's third strongest party.

Of all the revelations, it is Sikorski's comments about Poland's "worthless" alliance with the U.S. that have raised the most eyebrows abroad. "We'll get into a conflict with the Russians and the Germans, and we'll think that everything is super because we gave the Americans a blow job. Losers. Complete losers," Sikorski told Rostowski. Sikorski also blasted British Prime Minister David Cameron's policy toward the EU, accusing him of using "stupid propaganda" to appease Euroskeptics and suggesting that he practices "a kind of incompetence in European affairs."

Sikorski, a former contributor to National Review who advised Rupert Murdoch on investing in Poland, holds a special place in Polish politics. After his student activism in Communist Poland, he studied at Oxford University, gaining political asylum in Britain in 1982 after before becoming a war correspondent. He won a World Press Photo award in 1987 for his work in Afghanistan. He is married to Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, American-born journalist.

Despite the stir Sikorski's comments have caused in the international press, they have mostly left Poles unmoved. His unplugged remarks have merely confirmed to them what they already suspected: that Cameron is considered a troublemaker by some EU leaders and that Poland's relationship with the US is asymmetric. The average Pole seems more perturbed by the 1,352 złoty ($445) spent on the dinner, with the foreign ministry picking up the tab. In a country where the minimum net monthly salary is just 1,237 złoty ($408), it is Sikorski's extravagance, not his indiscretions, that might end up costing the governing party votes.

In another part of the eavesdropped conversation, Sikorski brags about his efforts to source the best Cuban cigars for Tusk, with the Polish Embassy in Havana bending over backward to help. "The fifth time 'round, I find out he doesn't like Cuban cigars, he prefers weaker ones," Sikorski says.

As the scandal has unfolded, Poland has been trying to secure an important post in the European Commission, that body that runs the everyday workings of the EU. The new appointments will be decided in the coming weeks, and Sikorski is one of Poland's star candidates.

With Tusk having floated the idea of a European energy union that would leave EU countries less dependent on Russian gas imports, Warsaw had been hoping to fill the post of energy commissioner with one of its own. In the leaked conversation, Rostowski promised to back Sikorski for the job. (Chancellor Angela Merkel wants fellow German Günther Oettinger to remain in the post.)

But the biggest prize by far in the race for European Commission jobs is who will become the EU's foreign policy chief when Brit Catherine Ashton's term ends later this year. Sikorski has long been mentioned as her successor, but the leaked conversations may have fatally undermined his chances. Some argue, however, that his strong pro-European stance and the realistic view of the U.S.'s role he voiced in the leaked recordings could work in his favor.

The focus of interest in Poland has shifted away from what was in the leaks to who arranged the recordings. A few people have been detained in connection with the bugging, including Falenta, 39, believed to be the mysterious "businessman" who passed the second set of recordings to Wprost. A 2013 ranking of the richest Poles placed him in 67th place, with a fortune of 440 million złoty ($145 million).

A company co-owned by Falenta, Składy Węgla, is importing coal from Russia at a time when the Polish government has been desperately trying to boost the country's flagging mining industry. A week before Waitergate broke, Składy Węgla received a visit from the government's bureau of investigation, and 10 managers were arrested on suspicion of fraud, sales tax extortion and money laundering.

Falenta, who was released on bail, insists that he is innocent and that politics is behind the affair. "I wanted to sell cheap Russian coal in Poland, which took money away from coal barons rather than Polish mines," he said. But speaking in the Polish parliament, Tusk mentioned the coal trade in connection with the scandal. "The association seems obvious: The situation in Ukraine and Europe is part of that," he said.

Although there is no proof of Russia's involvement in the bugging, the timing of the scandal plays into Moscow's hands. The revelations have pushed Ukraine out of the news in Poland and could damage Poland's chances of winning the European Commission's foreign policy or energy posts.

Tusk has managed to calm the country's nerves—for now. But that fragile peace could be shattered if more recordings are released. And Law and Justice says it intends to call for another vote of no confidence before long. A far more daunting test for Civic Platform will be this autumn's local elections. Tusk could still decide to fire Sienkiewicz, the interior minister responsible for the secret services, who was himself bugged, or go for a fuller cabinet reshuffle.

But it may be too late. The leaked conversations have given Poles a glimpse of the double-dealing that takes place in the government, where one thing is said in public and another in private, all over expensive meals paid for by the taxpayers. It is that tawdry image of skullduggery in high places that is likely to linger in voters' minds until the elections take place next year.