14 septiembre

WARSAW – While many Americans remain transfixed by investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Poles are learning that their country may have served as a testing ground for Russia's efforts. Russia has long sought to install pro-Kremlin politicians at the highest levels of power in Central and Eastern Europe. And there is now evidence suggesting that Russian military intelligence agencies are wielding influence in Poland's Ministry of Defense.

In 2014, when Poland was governed by Civic Platform (PO), it was the only country in Europe that had successfully staved off recession in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. During the PO government's eight years in power, Poland's GDP grew by almost 25%, while unemployment and the budget deficit fell by almost half. Despite this strong performance, Jarosław Kaczyński's Law and Justice (PiS) party resoundingly defeated PO in Poland's 2015 parliamentary elections.

To understand why, we need to go back to 2013, when Marek Falenta, a shady Polish businessman, hired two waiters to record private conversations in a restaurant frequented by politicians. These secret recordings fueled a scandal that forced almost all of the PO's leadership out of government. Among those who resigned was Marshal of the Sejm Radek Sikorski, the co-author of a European Union initiative designed to strengthen the resilience of certain Eastern European and Eurasian countries to Russian pressure.

PiS politicians also frequented venues where recordings were made, and yet none of their conversations were leaked. Falenta, it turned out, had owed $26 million to a Russian firm, Kuzbasskaya Toplivnaya Kompaniya, with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And while he was eventually convicted for his involvement in the eavesdropping plot, no one else involved in orchestrating the leaks has been identified. At the same time, similar scandals removed liberal politicians from power in Hungary and Slovakia, which are now ruled by the most pro-Russian governments in the EU.

When the PiS assumed power in 2015, Poland's foreign and defense policies took a bizarre turn, starting with the appointment of Antoni Macierewicz as Minister of Defense. Macierewicz, the only PiS politician who acts independently – and sometimes in defiance – of Kaczyński, was also the man behind Poland's botched 1992 lustration, or political screening, process, which delayed the country's de-communization efforts. Many still remember the notorious "Macierewicz List" from that period, which tarred innocent people as communist-era secret-police collaborators. Under a later government, Macierewicz published a report on Poland's counterintelligence agency, the Military Information Services, which outed undercover Polish intelligence agents and led to the disbanding of the agency.

While in power, the PiS has started disputes with Poland's most important European allies: Germany, France, and the European Commission. In November 2015, it ordered a raid on a NATO-affiliated counterintelligence center that had been established to track Russian intelligence efforts. Then, Macierewicz's defense ministry unexpectedly canceled a contract with France for the purchase of 50 Caracal helicopters, leaving Poland without a crucial military capacity to this day. And earlier this year, Macierewicz fired 90% of the military's General Staff and 82% of its General Command, and formed a new military force whose leadership consists of pro-Kremlin activists and NATO critics.

Recently, the Polish journalists Tomasz Piątek of Gazeta Wyborcza and Radosław Gruca of Fakt, along with the organization Miasto Jest Nasze (the City Is Ours), have uncovered highly suspicious associations from Macierewicz's past. For example, one of Macierewicz's closest business and political associates after 1989 was Robert Lusnia, later found to have served as an informant both during and after the communist period, his recent handlers most likely being agents of Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) operating in Poland.

Piątek has also delineated "numerous and long-term connections between Macierewicz and Russian gangster and financier Semion Mogilevich and the Russian GRU." According to the American investigative journalist Robert I. Friedman, Mogilevich is "the most dangerous mobster in the world," and is widely known to work closely with the GRU.

Macierewicz's closest ally in the United States is the US senator-cum-lobbyist Alfonse D'Amato, who supported Trump during the 2016 campaign. D'Amato's assistant, Edmund Janniger, served as an adviser to Macierewicz until 2015. The American press has reported that both D'Amato and Mogilevich have past ties to The Bank of New York Mellon, which extended loans to D'Amato's Senate campaign in the early 1980s, and allegedly laundered money for Russian organized crime groups in the 1990s.

Today, D'Amato's firm, Park Strategies, lobbies for the interests of US arms manufacturers Aerojet Rocketdyne and United Technologies at the Kremlin, and it has recently provided services for Poland's Ministry of Defense under Macierewicz. Indeed, Macierewicz hired Park Strategies to help with the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw – a major event for arms makers. And before Macierewicz canceled the arms contract with France, he met with D'Amato, a lobbyist also for the US arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Afterwards, Macierewicz began calling for the purchase of Lockheed's Black Hawk helicopters.

In response to these many revelations, Macierewicz decided not to file a civil suit against Piątek, which would have required him to prove the journalist's findings incorrect. Instead, he has called for Piątek to be criminally prosecuted for threatening a government official.

But Macierewicz is not the only PiS official under a Russian cloud. The Guardian recently reported that, "Bartosz Kownacki, a key lieutenant of defense minister Antoni Macierewicz, was a member of a group of Polish international observers during Russia's 2012 election." Kownacki was accompanied on that trip, according to the report, by "Mateusz Piskorski, the founder of a Polish think tank, the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA) who is now in detention in Poland, facing charges of spying for Moscow."

It is in Putin's interest to sow discord in the West, especially within the EU, and no one is furthering his aim of EU disintegration more effectively than the current Polish government. Given its strong economy, Poland could be a powerful ally to France and Germany in a post-Brexit Europe that is working toward deeper integration. But France and Germany cannot count on Poland so long as Kaczyński and Macierewicz are in charge, sowing discord in the EU and acting in ways that benefit only Russia.

Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2017

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