Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Barack, open your present…

'Michelle, I'm just playing, er, a game...'
Diplomatic protocol says you buy a present when a major world leader visits, as President Barack Obama recently did when popped by Poland this past Friday and Saturday. But what to get a man who not too long ago bought GM and a big swathe of the American banking system?

An iPad, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his boys decided. Before you roll your eyes at what appears to be a gauche gift, that iPad was brimming with modern Polish culture, including prominently a copy of the PC game Witcher 2, the real focus of this post.

I have personally not played it -- after all I'm a serious analyst who would never do such a thing as play "games", oh no -- but by all accounts it is another PC blockbuster for a Polish games company.

Yes, I said another. Yes, Poland is not just a land of patriotically insane, wreath-laying pious former dissidents. Poles also do crazy cool things like make interesting, intricate, morally complex games like the Witcher series, known for tackling adult themes (see picture for a whiff). The Witcher was based on the books of Andrzej Sapkowski, who has created a hugely successful series of books. Imagine Tolkien for adults, sex included.

Poles likewise come up with amazing animation like the Animated History of Poland (Barack got this on his new iPad) and City of Ruins, a fly-over of the ruins of Warsaw after the failed uprising of 1944 (Barack also got this one).

To counter the close-minded Poland that lingers in the words of certain politicians (Jaroslaw Kaczynski) and in the minds of too many, there is the Poland of the Witcher and Tomasz Baginski (who did the Animated History...) and many more. Tusk and gang thus did a bang up job highlighting this in the gifts for Barack. If only they could do equally well reforming the country....

Friday, May 27, 2011

President Obama 'doesn't fit my schedule'

No, this is not some alter-globalist shit. Neither is it leftist, anti-American gibberish. Lech Walesa, Poland's ex-president and the ex-leader of Solidarity who singlehandedly toppled communism, will NOT meet President Obama. Walesa was supposed to meet the US president but unfortunately his schedule collided with Obama's. So...sorry, Mr. President, you should have booked a meeting with Lech Walesa earlier, way earlier.

"I will not have a meeting (with Obama), it doesn't fit my schedule. My calendar is stretched to a maximum," the icon of the anti-communist movement told public TV.

That's the spirit. He showed them who's boss didn't he? Well, Walesa is known for his blunders and strange things to say.

"For me a parliamentary democracy is a peaceful war between everybody" or "there are negative pluses and positive pluses" to name two. So, the fact he doesn't have time for the president of the only remaining global super power is exactly something he would say. It fits the bill I say.

Of course the Polish media, hungry for the whiff of a story before Obama actually lands in Warsaw (go Iceland go!), immediately jumped on the bandwagon and has now reported that other distinguished guests will not meet President Obama. Leszek Balcerowicz, the author of Poland's economic reforms, known for being nominated by the Polish press for every conceivable international post available, he, dear readers, will not be meeting Obama either. I don't know if he was supposed to though. The press failed to mention that little detail.

Oh, just to assuage your curiosity  -- neither I nor my pardner here are going to meet Obama either. We could, of course, but what the heck would that give us?

Visa-free travel for Poles: Priceless

President Barack Obama hits Warsaw Friday for his long-awaited Polish tour. Of course, Polish attention is less on big global events like Afghanistan, the financial crisis, the IMF replacement, world peace, and rather more firmly fixed on what much of the media believes is the key current issue in US-Poland relations: visa relief for Poles. 

The Americans have said time and again the problem is not us, it's you. Too many Poles abuse visa privileges for visas to be removed, they say.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Thursday ahead of the visit that though he had pledged to get visas for Poles removed he would not beg. Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said much the same.

Obama should make up for the perceived early slighting of Poland and for the very real undermining of Poland's desire to be a close ally of the US and get rid of the visas. It is ridiculous that Poles have fought and died side by side with Americans since 2003 at least and yet a Polish veteran can't travel to the US without undergoing a process that might not involve water boarding but many I know do not describe as friendly. 

After all, as Tusk suggested Thursday, for all its problems Poland is a bit of a "yes, you can" country and there is no more huge line of Poles waiting to go to the US to work illegally. After all, they can just go to the UK or Germany or Austria and work for more legally.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Delays, delays

Who would have thought? Poland's pride and joy, its National Stadium, won't be ready on time. The daily Dziennik even put this "news" on the front page. I am probably way too cynical, but honestly I would have been far more shocked by "National Stadium ready on time."

Of course, this is not the only stadium needed for the Euro 2012 football tournament delayed. Gdansk and Wroclaw are in similar situations. The Polish football association PZPN recently had to admit the upcoming Poland-France friendly will be moved to Warsaw because the Gdansk stadium still has a huge hole in the ground instead of a pitch even though that would arguably help Poland's chances. Media also speculate that another "friendly," Poland-Germany, set for September will be delayed too.

Speaking of delays, I wonder if the imminent visit of President Barack Obama to Poland will have to be delayed too. I honestly don't know what Poles did to piss off those volcanoes in Iceland, but every time President Obama plans to visit they blow their lids. Last year President Obama missed President Lech Kaczynski's funeral because of the volcano. This year, there's a slight risk of another delay.

Speaking of President Obama, the Polish press speculates he will meet the families of those killed in the Smolensk crash that also killed Kaczynski. Today some representatives of the rather large, diverse group held a presser saying this is a disgrace. Why? Well, because it is terrible that such a fine ally of Poland, which shed blood for US independence, could meet the WRONG families, the ones that do not want to get to the bottom of the "plot" behind the crash. Geez, I wonder why he wouldn't want to meet them?

The president sucks….

Lollipops. There, I did it. I challenged Polish law. I put myself on the line for a night-time raid from Poland's internal security police, a hard drive seizure, an obliteration of Poland X, and a one-way trip to court on charges of "publicly insulting the president."

I have thus shown solidarity with a fellow blogger who survived all of that last week. Robert Frycz was raided by the secret internal police for launching AntyKomor.pl, a blog that made fun of President Bronislaw Komorowski by, for instance, letting people play games in which you could throw shit at a picture of the man. Funny pictures were there too, if you can believe it.

"AntyKomor.pl was solely satirical . . . Preventive censorship and press licensing are characteristic of methods used to control the media in an authoritarian system," Frycz says in a message on the rump page his blog has been boiled down to.

Komorowski and PM Donald Tusk have reacted with surprise to the closure and say they will change the law to stop law enforcement from being able to abuse the "publicly insulting the president" part of the law. We shall see. If they move as fast as they have with reform, we could be waiting a bit.

The opposition Law and Justice (PiS) of course reacted with outrage. One PiS member of parliament talked of massive threats to Polish freedom of spee . . .

. . . of course, a PiS MP would forget the funniest misuse of this particular law. When Lech Kaczynski (PiS) became president, a homeless drunk at Warsaw's seedy Central Station apparently cursed Lech's name to high heaven. A police officer heard the drunk and proceeded to arrest him on charges of "publicly insulting the president."

Hubert H., the last name protected due to law, provided yours truly with one of the best bits of "reality TV" ever. During a trial that was televised live, the judge asked Hubert to give his side of the story. Hubert looked at her, pointed his right hand to his neck and said, "I can't remember, I was wasted."

If Komorowski et al want to be remembered in the same vein as his predecessor, do nothing. But if they truly want to be different, and show they have a sense of humour, change the law pronto.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Corruption schmorruption

We don't take bribes, for the wrong price.
Poland is a hotbed of corruption where bribes and backhanders are the only way to do business. Oligarchs and tycoons, all of whom stole their first million, have bought off everyone of significance and thus an honest man or woman is doomed to fail. Or so goes the conventional wisdom, especially among Poles of a conservative-populist streak. Well, I've got news: fewer Poles say bribes are needed to get business done than is the average for Europe.

Ernst and Young's annual European Fraud Survey 2011 found that 25% of Poles at companies say a bribe is a universally accepted method of doing business. The average for Europe is 28%. Moreover, some 40% of Europeans say the troubled economic times of the past few years has increase corruption. Only 33% of Poles say the same.

I don't mean to downplay corruption, though. Some 74% of Poles say corrupt practices are common, below the 81% score for developing markets but well above the 62% average for Europe and the 46% average for developed economies.

Poland clearly has some way to go to match developed market standards. Or if you'd rather believe Poland is very corrupt, please send EUR 500 to my Swiss bank account. Or better yet: wire it to Jaroslaw Kaczynski's new account and call the Anti-Corruption Bureau.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chinese road-building conundrum

If they can build those...
Poland's roads are in a league of their own, in a bad league, as you all know and as we have mentioned often here. Poland's road-building sector is supposedly in not much better shape with cut-throat competition and low margins bankrupting many companies. This phenomenon is quite strange because overall Poland spends quite a lot on roads. For example, a 10-kilometre fragment costs 2.3 billion zloty. So when a Chinese company came and said it would build roads quickly and significantly more cheaply, it was sure to win some contracts and it indeed did.

Reality, however, has prevailed yet again over marketing blitz and now we can see that what is cheap is expensive. The key parts of the highway that was to connect Warsaw with Germany ahead of the upcoming Euro 2012 soccer championships are nowhere to be found. Or rather only a big hole in the ground can be seen. Instead Polish contractors are striking because the Chinese company did not pay them on time. The government's road agency is also threatening to throw them out. It seems more and more likely the highway will not be ready before 2012.

Are the Chinese really to blame? Maybe some people on the market have arrived at the conclusion that having a Chinese company, one that is totally alien to our little road-building world, is not such a good idea. But before we throw them out, let's look at other roads across Poland. Well, surprise, surprise, what you find are delays, people going to court, contracts being annulled or missed. Successive governments have also been promising to build thousands of klicks of highways for years.

Maybe, just maybe, this is not the fault of the Chinese. There are so many wild stories about road-building processes in Poland that I would not be surprised at all that someone decided to "get rid" of Chinese competition once and for all through a little "informal arrangement."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Belka - will the jumper jump?

Comfy, thank you very much
Hiring managers the world over look with dismay at the jumper, that individual who always seems to be leaving work for brighter pastures elsewhere. Current NBP Governor Marek Belka is something of a jumper extraordinaire, having held a million different jobs just since 2000. So, will he jump again if he gets a crack at being the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as some speculate?

Let's first look at the jumping since the 2000s. Belka began the new millennium as finance minister in the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD)-run government in 2001. He bailed in mid-2002. His next stop was a cushy stay as an adviser for JP Morgan (how he didn't go to Government Sachs beats me) until 2003. Then he was parachuted (nearly literally) into Baghdad, where he was responsible for economic policy for the ill-run Coalition Provision Authority. 

Before long his pal Aleksander Kwasniewski, the then president, coaxed him into returning to Poland in spring 2004 to take over as prime minister from the disastrous reign of Leszek Miller. Belka actually held that job for over a year, though he did jump parties from the SLD to the still-born Democratic Party (eventually Demokraci.pl).

After the 2005 elections, Belka hob-nobbed between some high profile international positions. He worked for the UN from 2006 to 2008, in 2007 losing out to Dominique Strauss-Kahn for the IMF presidency (no Dominique, it doesn't stand for I Must F**k) in 2007. But DSK plucked Belka away from the United Nations and in November 2008 he became director of the IMF's European department. Then came June 2010, when Belka took his current job as the head of the NBP.

Perhaps this history of jumping is why Belka reacted Tuesday with frustration to questions about the speculation he could be in the running to replace DSK as head of the IMF. He scoffed and said he planned to be governor for the 5 remaining years in his term.

If I don the hat of the career planner, I might advise Belka to keep his job for a few years. But come on, if I were offered to be the head of the IMF, I know I'd jump. I suppose the difference between him and the rest of us saps is we are given the choice of buying the newspaper with the video disc of Wall Street or not. Belka is offered the job of running Wall Street. I know which I'd choose.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Jarek: The weather should be nice for all Poles

Poland's weather has largely been able to stay outside the political fray as the ruling Civic Platform (PO) and the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) cracked heads over other swathes of life. This is unsurprising since the weather usually disappoints. But PiS boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski has said no more. The weather too must be fought over.

"Today is beautiful," Kaczynski said during a weekend PiS rally, "which leads one to ask: can it happen that we will have beautiful weather for all of Poland.

"We're convinced such a day will happen."

I love the idea of Poland's notoriously fickle weather casting hot immersive rays on the bold and beautiful in the big cities but leaving the weather-beaten rural Pole destitute in a grey forgotten mist.

I also love the image of Jaroslaw standing out in a field with some intricate mechanical contraption pointed at the grey rain clouds ready to bring "beautiful weather for all of Poland."

'I can control the weather,' you can almost hear him say . . . .

With the summer close at hand, here's hoping the "beautiful weather" will indeed come for all Poles, and some foreigners too.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

PO is guilty of Smolensk crash! (maybe)

Forget Osama. Forget Obama. Forget Strauss-Kahn. Poland has produced even better news, at least according to Law and Justice (PiS) member Antoni Macierewicz (pictured). Prime Minister Donald Tusk co-operated with the Russians to weaken Poland and undermine President Lech Kaczynski, who was killed in the plane crash near Smolensk, Russia in April 2010, according to parts of a report on the crash being prepared by Macierewicz and cited by Newsweek Polska's website. Tusk and his Civic Platform (PO) are thus morally and politically responsible for the Smolensk disaster and the 96 people killed, Macierewicz concludes.

That is not all. Government representatives are cited lying about the preparations for the fateful April 10 flight, which came a few days after an official government one led by Tusk to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by the Russians. The Defence Ministry is also said to have congratulated President Kaczynski for having got all the military generals to have agreed to go on his flight. All the generals of course died.

Current President Bronislaw Komorowski, who was the lower house speaker in April 2010, is also implicated. Macierewicz notes how Komorowski asked the president to bring together a group of lower-house MPs and Senators to accompany the trip. They all of course died.

One can rest assured there will be more allegations, but the full report will not be published until the campaign for the October elections, ensuring the entire issue is not a tragedy but rather part of the mostly "tragic" political discourse.

PiS's position on Smolensk is clear (Russians to blame, PO complicit), but what I don't understand is why they would get Macierewicz to lead the report if they wanted it to be credible in any way. I wouldn't trust Macierewicz if on a sunny day he said the sky was blue. Or he said that an IMF leader and leading French presidential candidate would be absoltely insane to try to rape a chambermaid.

I can't actually think of too many less credible politicians in Poland than Macierewicz. For an international comparison, it is like getting Ollie North to write about the supposed 9/11 conspiracy. Or getting Rupert Murdoch to write about anything.

The only reason I can possibly think to have chosen Macierewicz is that he plays well among PiS's core electorate, especially among fanatics in the Radio Maryja crowd. This of course means the report has nothing to do with convincing anyone of Tusk's or the PO's complicity, or even of the Russians' alleged guilt. Rather, it is designed to keep the PiS base fired up and to try to alienate everyone else who can't stand Macierewicz and his ilk going on and on and on....

Friday, May 13, 2011

Egg on their face

The Solidarity trade union vows to embarrass the government in front of all 500 million of the EU's citizens when Poland holds the rotating EU president in July-December. Tens of thousands of unionists are to converge on Warsaw for protests, including the bullying mining unions from the south and the angry shipyard workers from Solidarity's birthplace in the north.

"We want to show the EU elite that the 'green island of prosperity' in Poland presented by PM Donald Tusk is a myth and the country is struggling with huge problems the government has no idea how to deal with," one Solidarity leader told the daily Rzeczpospolita recently.

Solidarity's idea of how to tackle the "huge problems" is to raise the minimum wage, slash the excise tax on fuel, and ramp up social expenditure.

"We will take to the streets because people are ever poorer and the government doesn't want to talk about how to solve our problems," another union leader said.

Power to the people! Solidarity has spoken. We should all show solidarity with . . . but wait a minute. If Poland is not a "green island" of growth, as Prime Minister Tusk styled the country when it was the only EU one to grow in 2009, then how can it afford to increase the minimum wage and spending as well as slash taxes.

And if Poland is already on the verge of being punished for a gaping government fiscal deficit and skyrocketing public debt, which it is, wouldn't lowering revenue and increasing spending only push Poland over the precipice. That would lead to economic bankruptcy a la Greece or Ireland.

Can Solidarity really be so blind as to support policies that will only impoverish even more people or do they have some ulterior motive?

The sad truth is the celebrated Solidarity of old is no more. The current bunch not only has a narrow view of which precise workers should benefit, it is also closely connected to the conservative Law and Justice (PiS). In fact, the old Solidarity leader will likely run on PiS lists in the October election. The new Solidarity leader is set on the same course. This will ensure that the once famed trade union remains a shadow of its former self and in that will have more in common with Tusk and the Civic Platform than either side thinks.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sticks and stones

Poland is misbehaving. The police are chasing badly behaving soccer hooligans. Prime Minister Donald Tusk is chasing misbehaving soccer clubs, forcing them to shutdown stadiums due to hooligan misbehaviour. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski is chasing Gadaffi's forces in Benghazi. We also have the very same Sikorski chasing the publisher Axel Springer in courts for alleged misbehaviour and for offensive comments made on forums tied to its newspapers. The comments have actually led Axel Springer, which publishes Poland's top tabloid, and the weekly Wprost to chase naughty posters off its forums.

So, dear readers, if you have the strange feeling Poland has gone bonkers in the past few days, don't worry, so do I. If you don't believe me, let me remind you that it snowed in Poland on May 3 (yes, just a week ago), triggering transportation chaos, but has been well over 20 C for the past couple of days. Bonkers, I say.

The idea of shutting down forums is thus the latest episode of madness. Maybe it is the "stadium shutdown effect" of overblowing and overreacting to even the slightest problem. I can somewhat understand why Axel Springer would shut down its forums -- they are being sued by a well-known minister. It might be easier to shut them down, wipe the offensive comments and seek some sort of deal. But what the hell is Wprost thinking killing its comment sections due to unruly users?

I understand its forums are full of teenage idiots who think calling someone...no, I'm not gonna go into that...let's say bad names...makes them grown up and cool. I understand it is not easy to moderate these forums. But now it will be even harder.

The Sikorski vs Axel Springer case is a "classic reap what you sow" example. If you make a living off of the most popular tabloid in Poland based on the rule "the more controversy the better," you should be prepared to take responsibility for attracting people to your web pages that are not afraid to throw around sexist, racist and vulgar comments. Shutting down the comment section is just pushing the problem somewhere else.

On other hand let's not be overly dramatic ourselves. Wprost said "what is going on in forums is no different to what is happening in the stadiums." Really?! I would say there is a significant difference between the two things as the hooligans' death toll is somewhere in the teens whereas verbal violence on forums is somewhere in the territory of hurt feelings.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tusk's political touch on display

Many Polish political watchers said Prime Minister Donald Tusk's courting of popular leftist Bartosz Arlukowicz (pictured, not the dog) was the first step in a potential post-election coalition between Tusk's Civic Platform (PO) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) with which Arlukowicz is a caucus member. But I don't agree. Rather, Arlukowicz's aisle-stepping jump is proof of Tusk's wiliness and makes the PO likelier to do better in the October elections, thereby making a PO-SLD coalition less likely (if it has any effect at all).

Tusk and Arlukowicz, who is not an SLD party member, announced jointly at a Tuesday presser held in lovely park in Warsaw that Arlukowicz agreed to be a minister to help the "marginalised." The pair hailed this as a breakthrough. Arlukowicz added that he could no longer stomach the SLD voting alongside Law and Justice's (PiS) radical Jaroslaw Kaczynski and that his goal has always been to ensure Kaczynski never takes power again.

Arlukowicz is a fairly new player in the political game, having done a decent turn as a parliamentary investigator in a commission last year. His political capital is thus high. Though his brand recognition is not yet wide, the SLD should have done everything to keep him. He is charismatic. Importantly for a party still tainted by its ex-Communist roots, he is not old or a dinosaur.

But it appears his relative popularity has also made him a threat to SLD leader Grzegorz Napieralski, who obviously decided that an Arlukowicz elsewhere was best for his political prospects and not necessarily the party's.

Tusk's wooing of Arlukowicz, as noted, is adroit. Not only does he remove a threat from the SLD, he adds a possible plus for the PO. Tusk's party has done more poorly among the left of late, particularly after former deputy leader Janusz Palikot left the party. Arlukowicz's presence combined with a track record that can hardly be described as liberal could pay benefits, ensuring a better performance among leftist voters even as liberal ones have nowhere else to turn.

Tusk desperately wants to win the October elections outright and to avoid having to form a coalition with the SLD, who would be a way tougher partner than has been the PO's current partner, the Polish Peasants' Party (PSL). Doing well among leftist voters will only help Tusk meet his dream and will do nothing to improve the chances of a PO-SLD coalition.

We're back!

While we were offline enjoying some much-needed R'n'R, everyone's favourite terrorist met his demise. To pre-empt rumours that these two events are perhaps linked, I'd like to make it crystal clear that neither I nor Vasyloo is part of Seal Team 6 and neither of us was there for the big kill. Neither of us is in fact a special force operator either, though I have trained as a ninja (if punching trees as a kid can be considering training) and Vasyloo is "special" (heh heh heh). At any rate, we are back and hope to bring you your daily dose of Polish news crack. Enjoy.