On Tuesday morning yesterday news feel like last winter Olympics: long gone. Monday is full of corruption stories. This week’s Monday is an entrée for the big story, as announced, which is scheduled for Tuesday. Tuesday comes, people wake up early. People buy Gazeta Wyborcza paper edition for the first time in years. They read the story. Here’s what they read.
The news breaks ahead of dawn
Tuesday, 29 January, 4.44 am.
Gazeta Wyborcza is out. It publishes one bomb shell article after another. Corruption story after corruption story. Poland is not as corrupt as some other countries in EU. GW has a long history of investigative journalism. They changed history not once, not twice. Back on 27 December 2002 the story they broke, about a corruption of the SLD leaders, brought down the government and the entire political system. Today the news people of this power house have a similar objective. They have been chasing stories about misbehaving of the Law and Justice politicians for years. Today’s the day of the biggest news. Today’s the day.
Today main story: Jarosław Kaczyński (69 years old), the leader of Law and Justice, the political mastermind known for his strategy of ruling by conflict, has been caught on tape. The tapes are called “the Kaczyński tapes” and there is a series of articles about the issues on hand. The core of the news is this: politicians and sympathisers of Law and Justice want to build a couple of skyscrapers in Warsaw. Their initial names are “K-towers” for the Kaczyński twins, or just – “the Twins”. The investor who is going to do it is the company “Srebrna” (Silver), named after the address of its real estate. The Srebrna‘s owner is the Foundation Institute of Lech Kaczyński, which has been created after Jarosław’s identical brother Lech, who was Poland’s president 2005-10, has perished in 2010 in a plane crash. Jarosław Kaczyński is a member of the Institute’s board.
Srebrna’s strength is land, but it lacks capital to build up the towers. Srebrna owns parcels in the Warsaw city centre; they are worth millions. The political entourage of the first Jarosław Kaczyński party, the Centre Agreement (Porozumienie Centrum, PC), received this piece of land in early 1990s. It was a shady business back then, but now the dust has settled. Srebrna is the owner of the parcels.
The partner of Srebrna is an Austrian businessman and a Kaczyński distant relative, Gerald Birgfellner. Together they plan to construct two skyscrapers of about 190 meters tall. Warsaw is full of high-rise buildings and there is plenty of room for new investments. Building skyscrapers is a good business.
Hurdle number one: the money. No problem: the state-owned bank, Pekao S.A. is expected to grant a loan of 300 million Euro to finance the investment.
Hurdle number two: “wuzetka”, or a permit to begin the construction. The city can give the permit, but the city needs an OK from a conservator of historical buildings. It is necessary to ensure that the building which exists on the parcel Srebrna owns has no historical value. It is disputable; the building is about 100 years old. In Warsaw, a city destroyed during the second world war, most buildings predating 1944 are usually protected. Newsweek Polska published the story back in 2017: the conservator who issued the OK to take down the building was a PiS nominee. Still, the OK from the conservator is there. The city, however, is delaying its permit. Politics becomes an issue.
Kaczyński says on 27 July 2018: “If we don’t win the Warsaw elections, we will not build the skyscrapers“.
Summer 2018. There is a new political problem, hurdle number three: “the Śpiewak operation”. Jan Śpiewak is a left-wing independent candidate for mayorship of Warsaw. His “operation” is in fact an attempt to publicise the PiS plans to construct a skyscraper in the centre of Warsaw. Śpiewak says today in natemat.pl: “We simply publicised the issues of this construction, we pointed out that this is an initiative out of the ‘Bantustan’. In Europe it is out of people’s mind to think that a political party would build their position through real estate development.”
In summer 2018 the construction is put on hold. Mr. Birgfellner is unhappy. He has had 160 business meetings related to the investment, including 16 with Jarosław Kaczyński. He has had costs. He has been promised 3% commission, or about 9 million Euro. Srebrna refuses to pay the bills. Birgfellner takes the case to court. The tapes are published.
Kaczyński tries to calm down Birgfellner. He says he has no direction over the Srebrna management and that the only way for Birgfellner to recover his costs is to sue Srebrna.
Sue us, we will settle the issue, we will get a title [reason] to pay and we will pay the money.
Jarosław Kaczyński to Gerald Birgfellner, 27 July 2018
Instead, Birgfellner sues Kaczyński. A number of other cases come to the prosecution and the courts. Mind you, the Polish courts independence is… well, how to say this? Questioned. One of Birgfellner lawyers says: we consider to sue chairman Kaczyński in Austria, as the Austrian law so allows.
First and foremost, the political parties in Poland cannot run economic activity. If Srebrna is PiS (which chairman Kaczyński suggests when he talks about Srebrna “us”) this is a violation of the law. Also, if Kaczyński didn’t represent Srebrna in those negotiations, whom did he represent?
Second, and probably the most important: the public message. PiS is supposed to be clean. PiS is supposed to fight with “deals”. PiS is at odds with the wealthy and the powerful; PiS is a friend of the underprivileged and disenfranchised. Yet in July last year chairman Kaczyński offers a settlement, or a deal, to his Austrian business partner. Kaczyński says he cannot allow for newspapers to write stories like “Party builds a skyscraper” for this would not be acceptable for the general public. For his electorate. This explains the frontal attack Law and Justice led in local elections 2018 in Warsaw. The party lost the vote, massively. Today we know, they really tried their best to win the city back. PiS may try again, soon. Once PiS lost, it was clear the party – or, simply, Kaczyński – could not pursue the construction deal.
Third, the double standards. Gazeta Wyborcza concludes Poland is not Russia, even if Putin does what Kaczyński contemplates. “Considering the fact that Putin was never caught when he admits to breaking the rules; while Kaczyński – is caught”. Yet Poland is not a country where people are equal in front of the law: if this was any other political leader, “he would have a visit of ladies and gentlemen of the CBA accompanied by the cameras of the TVP”. A footnote: CBA is the Central Anti-corruption Bureau and TVP is the public TV station.
Michał Danielewski of Gazeta Wyborcza concludes in his opinion piece: “So we came to a place when a big scandal is when an [opposition] politician swears at a dinner, while a trifle when [Jarosław Kaczyński] ostensibly admits breaking rules and paragraphs”.
First hours after the publication: PiS is silent. PiS cancelled their politicians presence in all the morning media the evening before. A media embargo on all its politicians until one message is worked out and communicated jointly. Then, the counter-offensive begins: the tapes prove that Warsaw is full of problems.
In a nutshell, there are two Poland and each half got confirmation of their preconceived message. Half of the country shares the view of Jarosław Gowin: “This is a record of normal business negotiations. There is nothing abnormal there.” Beata Mazurek says there is nothing new, because gossip about the investment is “out there” for years now. A number of MPs are “surprised” and thankful that Gazeta Wyborcza praises the PiS chairman. They quote Kaczyński’s words from the tape “We are honest, everything needs a basis in papers, we don’t want to cheat nobody”.
PiS is relieved. The “bomb” is nothing new. They calm down the situation and smile to the cameras. Their signal to the electorate: we’ve got this under control. We are clean. Let’s move on to other business.
The other half of the country is outraged. People call it pathology, they accuse Kaczyński of cheating the public opinion. Biedroń quotes Kaczyński words of 2015: “One does not go to power for money. Who wants to monetise their political position has to leave” and probably hits the tone of the critical half.
Many people see a different, new face of Jarosław Kaczyński. A financial ascetic is capable of leading major business negotiations. Some take Kaczyński to the courts. Ryszard Petru (former creator of .Modern, currently leader of “Now”) sees a problem that Mr. Kaczyński uses his political influence for material gain.
What a possible entrée for a new political force! Gazeta Wyborcza did not remove PiS from the Polish political scene today. But GW did something else: they have shattered the public image of Jarosław Kaczyński and Law and Justice as a morally superior party representing an average, low-income Pole. As Jan Śpiewak said: “PiS and Kaczyński can no longer say ‘we are better than PO or .Modern'”.
Agreed, PiS is in retreat. Yesterday Bartłomiej M.’s arrest is a rolling stone that the opposition will thrive on for weeks to come. Now, PiS retreats its years-old-slogans about fighting the crime and secret deals. PiS upper hand seems visibly shaken. When Law and Justice politicians smile today they seem not to notice the following: yesterday they were worried something may come out. Today they are relieved nothing new came out. But their yesterday worry proves there is something else to discover!
At best, PiS is like everybody else. At worse, they are much worse. That’s the message even PiS supporters will read. If you are a PiS voter not because of your convictions, but because of your interests, the Tuesday main story is irrelevant. If you are a true Law and Justice believer, this story may shake you a bit, you may look around for someone else to support. Someone with a different look. You may look to the right of PiS to the far-right options (story 1, 2), or you may actually look to the centre, or the left.
This is where PiS retreat is interesting. Just a few days from now the new Biedroń initiative is to take shape. PO’s latest convention and focus on women’s rights was aiming precisely to out manoeuvre the new party. SLD has also been active as of lately to try to prevent outflow of their support to the new party.
Somehow everybody is afraid of this new force. What will it bring? What will it be? The expectations seem to be on the rise. Will Robert Biedroń deliver? Only PSL is at ease. PSL’s leader Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz has been talking lately about that party becoming a sort of “Polish CSU” (link for the Polish readers only).
I shall come back to what’s up with PSL and SLD in the coming days, unless the big boys prevent me from focusing on the smaller players.
*A footnote of clarification. My name is Piotr Maciej Kaczyński, but for the purpose of this blog whenever I write “Kaczyński” or “Mr. Kaczyński” I mean Jarosław Kaczyński, not myself.