Archive for the ‘Poland’ Category

Old Captive Nation, New Captive Media

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Ah, how something like the following takes us geezers back to the old days!

Szydlo
“[Poland’s] Premier Szydło discusses new law about TK.” TK means Tribunał Konstytucyjny or “Constitutional Tribunal,” meaning Poland’s Supreme Court. That TK hasn’t been operating so well lately, really since the new right-wing PiS government took power last November. Among other things, it then pushed through laws intended to severely curtail the TK’s ability to exercise judicial review, that is, to vet the laws passed by the country’s bicameral legislature (Sejm/Senat) and reject those in conflict with the national constitution. Those controversial government measures against the TK included rejection of judges who had been appointed to join the TK prior to the regime-change, in favor of other judges more to the new government’s liking.

In exchange, the sitting TK has ruled against and therefore refused to accept those laws, and those new justices. For months now there has been this stalemate between the executive/legislative branches and the judicial branch – something along the same line but still much worse than the US Senate’s refusal to consider President Obama’s nominated replacement for deceased Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia.

The new government also legislated to put the national TV and radio stations under much closer government control, which led to mass resignations of much of the media talent at those institutions. These two areas – that is, TK and media – are the main elements (but not the only ones) which has led to much alarm about the direction of Polish democracy, foremost on the part of the EU, but also within the US government. A recent Washington Post piece in connection with President Obama’s visit to Warsaw for the NATO summit there (Obama slammed Polish democracy) showed this high level of concern.

More entertainingly, it also lays out how tricky editing when it came to the report about Obama’s remarks that was actually broadcast on Polish State TV made sure that most national viewers were left with no inkling that the US President saw Poland as anything other than a model democratic state. Really, those who ran the same broadcast facilities with an iron fist during the bad-old Communist times – however many are still left – are surely nodding in approval.

That WaPo peace is of course in English; you can read all about the details if you like. The point is, it’s now 2016 and media has expanded into the social variety, yet the same whitewashing treatment can be seen with those new sorts of messages, such as the tweet seen above. “Prime Minister discusses law” – as if the whole matter simply revolved about finding and passing the right legislation to clear up the TK controversy and get the government back to functioning normally again.

For the details about this latest legislation the Warsaw Business Journal has a nice summary. Ultimately, though, all of that is irrelevant: this is a constitutional stand-off that cannot be resolved simply by passing more laws, for it is clear that the Constitutional Tribunal will simply yet again point out how it is inconsistent with Poland’s constitution and reject it – and the stalemate will go on.

The WBJ piece suggests that one function of this latest law was simply to try to impress on President Obama, in time for his visit, that steps were being taken to resolve this grave constitutional dispute – to fool President Obama, that is, since as we have seen this is no sort of effective contribution towards bringing about resolution. Of course, it’s unlikely that Obama follows the @Wiadomosci_PR (that is, “News_PR” when PR = Polish Radio) Twitter-feed: it is native Poles who do that, and so it is they who are being hoodwinked by such State propaganda, which, again, really must at least inspire nostalgia – of the unwelcome sort – among those old enough to remember government messages from the old RPL – Polish People’s Republic.

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Heads of State & Their Rides

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

Oh, to have one’s choice of a ride – of wheels, man, of an automobile to take you around! The vast majority of us are limited in this respect by budgetary considerations, but some are not. Among those are heads of state, and Rzeczpospolita takes a look at their choices of roadster.

Jezdza
This inquiry just doesn’t come out of the blue, though. Last Friday there was apparently some sort of incident involving Polish President Andrzej Duda as he was riding in his official limousine along the national A4 highway. This article only mentions this in passing; you have to go elsewhere to find out any more about it (like here, to the tvn24 site, in Polish), and even then many details are still missing. The important thing, of course, is that President Duda was completely unharmed. Additionally, there seems to have been some damage to the tires, at least, but otherwise the incident is being investigated further, by all sorts of Polish governmental agencies. President Duda was himself asked directly about it yesterday (Monday), but he was willing only to confirm that he was in fine shape.

Well, what sort of car is it that he rides around in? A common thread for presidential cars – as one would expect – is that they are made within the same country in question, so that, for example, David Cameron uses a Bentley Mulsanne, President Mattarella of Italy cruises in a Lancia Thesis, Czech President Zeman disposes of a Škoda Superb and (of course) Angela Merkel* has a Mercedes S Class. Poland is not really known for any make of cars, though, so President Duda is taken around in a BMW 7, the “High Security” version which is (like all the others mentioned) modified to reflect the needs of security (and of communications) for a head of state.

President Obama’s ride is most famous of all. It’s a Cadillac, again highly, highly modified (e.g. to enable communication at any time with the Vice President and the Pentagon; also to withstand chemical attack), known as Cadillac One, or the Beast. This vehicle is transported to any of the various places in the world to which the President may travel, and is so heavily weighed-down by its armor and other equipment (it weighs 10 tons, although with a super-charged engine that can handle all that) that it gets only 100 km per 30 liters of gasoline (that is 7.8 miles/gallon).

The piece finishes up with a listing of other Heads of State and their official cars, which I’ll reproduce (and translate, where appropriate) for you here:

  • France: Citroen DS5
  • Hungary: Audi A8 Ls
  • India (sorry, no Tata): Mercedes-Benz S600
  • Japan: Toyota Century
  • Malaysia: Maybach 62 (Maybach is owned by Daimler-Benz; it’s their luxury line. Strange, Wikipedia reports that the 62 model was discontinued, so the Malaysian government may have trouble finding spare parts.)
  • Russia: Mercedes-Benz S Class (just like Merkel)
  • South Korea: Hyundai Equus VL500
  • Sweden: Volvo S80; and finally
  • Vatican: Kia Santa Fe (!); maybe they particularly like the model-name?

* Yes, it’s true that, properly speaking, Angela Merkel does not belong in this list because she is a Head of Government, not Head of State. Nonetheless, this is the data-point which the (unnamed) Rzeczpospolita author uses. I think we can assume German President Joachim Gauck rides around in his own presidential Mercedes S Class as well.

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Gassing It From Both Sides

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

The second week of Champions League last-16 action kicks off tonight, with a pair of very juicy matches indeed: Bayern Munich at Juventus and Barcelona at Arsenal. So maybe it’s the appropriate time for a little reminder about one of that competition’s chief sponsors.

Gazprom has paid big to associate its name with Europe’s leading international football club competition for a number of years now, and at every commercial break you’ll see an elaborate paean to it on your TV screen, generally in cartoon form and accompanied by a medley of leading tunes from Tchaikovsky. The thing everyone must remember is that Gazprom is not really a company in the conventional sense of that term. Rather, it is a component of the Russian state, tasked with making money, for sure, but also with carrying out Putin’s strategic objectives. Those have included, multiple times, forgetting about money entirely and cutting off gas supplies to entire countries – generally in mid-winter, of course – to make them knuckle under. Among these victims have been the Ukraine, of course, but also those EU countries, generally to the East (e.g. Bulgaria, Slovakia, Estonia, Finland), which have not had the resources or time to make the considerable infrastructure switch from the heavy dependence on that gas that they had during Soviet times.

So you can watch those playful cartoons of serious-looking employees manning gas pipeline control rooms, etc., flick by on your screen, but you need to remember: this is a “company” that would be glad to simply let you and your family freeze; all that it takes is for Putin to give the word. The sad fact that it has been able to do that reflects the absence of any common EU energy policy. Yes, the Commission has certainly been aware of the problem, and of course there exists a Directorate-General for Energy within the Commission, now headed by the Slovak Maroš Šefčovič. And in one sense it’s reassuring to read (in Dutch, from Het Financiële Dagblad; behind paywall) that the Commission recently concluded from a study that “well coordinated actions by member-states, above all in case of emergency, can considerably increase the security of [natural gas] delivery.” (On the other hand: Why did they find this out only recently? And what are they going to do to make that conclusion a reality?)

Fortunately, other developments have occurred which – often independently from anything the Commission might have done – serve to lessen this dependency on Gazprom and Russia. For one thing, demand for natural gas is declining simply due to increased energy-efficiency and alternate renewable sources of energy that are coming on-line. And there are other developments, too, discussed in a separate article not stuck behind a paywall (although it is in Polish):

GazBitwa
“American natural gas arriving on European shores forces Gazprom into a battle for the market and for investors.” Yes, the Americans are coming to the rescue again, specifically the shale-oil companies which, via fracking, have unlocked considerable new supplies of both petroleum and gas there on the North American continent. Mighty kind of them, you have to admit, namely to pollute their own ground-water and a as result have so much gas coming out of local household water-taps that you can light a match and explode it, all just to produce some more fossil fuels to sell. But the business of America is business. (more…)

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I Protest! Take My Blood!

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

Perhaps some of you in the UK will have already heard of the remarkable #polishblood initiative, but most have not. And it is all supposed to go down tomorrow (that is, Thurs., 20 August).

xpolishblood
This is a tale of the birth and growth of a special meme, largely via social media, in this case among the very many people of Polish citizenship living and working in the UK. It started out of the substantial accumulation of grievances held by this particular cohort against the country they chose to move to – basically, of the many instances of unfair discrimination against Polish people as being foreigners, as an unwelcome people coming to the UK to steal native jobs, to compete for resources, take up space on a crowded island generally, etc.

One of their natural champions in articulating and publicizing these grievances has been Polish Express, a Polish-language UK newspaper. This publication certainly does not hold back on its Twitter-feed:

xpol1
“20 thousand pounds reward for information on the affair of the degenerate who brutally attacked an immigrant” – Polish, of course.

xpol2
“Immigrant [actually, not Polish this time] does not pay a fine of 20 pounds, is deported.”

xpol3
“These UK firms cheat their workers! We publish the government’s ‘list of shame.'”

A few weeks ago, in the febrile atmosphere of the UK’s summer heat, resentment at this sort of treatment cropping up in the Polish Express’ on-line forum finally boiled over. “We’ll show them!” was the new attitude. “Let’s have all Polish people in the UK go on strike for a day, to show the Brits how their economy would collapse without us!”

That must have been a satisfying feeling, getting that off one’s chest and being able to look forward to a coordinated, nation-wide action designed finally to demonstrate the error of their ways to what UK-based Poles perceive as an often resentful native population, insufficiently appreciative of their contributions to modern-day Britain. Just how things went on from there, however, is not so clear.

For the evident down-side of such public action – assuming it really can successfully be coordinated on a wide scale in the first place – is that it could make British people angry even as it reminded them of how much they depend on the Poles. Indeed, it might make them angry precisely by making them aware how much they depend on the Poles.

Blood for Money

That is why we now have #polishblood, at least as Rzeczpospolita (which is of course one of the leading national newspapers in Poland) reports it. Don’t go on strike; instead, take some time from your work to go to the local hospital, or Red Cross center, and donate blood!

That’ll show those Brits! Ha! No regular Anglo-Saxon person will be able to donate blood his/herself that day, as all the slots will be taken up by Poles! In fact, according to the Rzeczpospolita piece, this new campaign took off among Poles so much that even they were having trouble arranging to go give blood on the appointed day (which is 20 August: tomorrow), so that many of them had to resort to booking times to do so even several days before. (more…)

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Hardly A New Drang Nach Osten

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

This ain’t 1941. This is actually good news!

zolnierz
“German soldiers go into Ukraine.” But not to stay: they’ll be in the western part for around 11 days starting July 20, near the major city of Lviv, participating in NATO maneuvers called Rapid Trident, associated with the separate Sea Breeze exercise coming in off the Black Sea.

This is good news as the token it is of German support for Ukraine in its struggle over the eastern provinces which, although now seemingly at a low burn, has hardly yet been resolved. US troops (and ships) will be involved as well in these exercises as well, of course; the Obama administration has so far shown itself willing to go even further in its support for Ukraine than the Europeans, to include training and even selling equipment (although, so far, the latter has remained “non-lethal”).

This German participation has also attracted public Russian attention, as Vice-Premier Dimitri Rogozin inquired on social media whether the Germans were there to tour the sites of their past “military successes.” There we are taken back to 1941, and clearly the Russians aren’t happy about this development. But just let Rogozin vent, or any of his colleagues: they surely still have credit on account from the 20 million+ dead of 70 years ago.

UPDATE: And speaking of 20 million . . . Here’s a new report that the German government is increasing its budget for Bundeswehr maneuvers outside the country by that amount.

Bundeswehr
Note that this is a budgetary supplement applying only for the remainder of this year. In fact, in terms of numbers of troops, slightly fewer German soldiers are going on maneuvers outside their country this year compared to last; further, the really big exercise – named “Trident Juncture” – actually is to take place on the Iberian peninsula from 28 September to 16 October.

Nonetheless, this monetary move is seen to be an explicit sign of resolve towards Russia.

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Lethargy in the Air Defense

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

One’s first reaction might well be that this is hardly something you should discuss publicly over the national airwaves. Then again, Poland has certainly become considerably more transparent since the bad old days of the “People’s Republic” (Rzeczpospolita Ludowa):

Obrony
The tweet is from Polskie Radio, and as is the very function of their feed, they’re tweeting about some interview they will broadcast (or have broadcasted). “Minister of National Defense: we really need air-defense weapons fit for the XXIst century.”(!) And the lede:

As MON [= Ministry of Defense] Chief Tomasz Siemoniak said on Radio 3, it has not yet been decided that American Patriot rockets will be chosen for Polish air defense.

Now, it happens that some Patriots are due in Poland quite soon, at the end of March, but they don’t belong to Poland, they are American and will be there in connection with an ongoing series of military exercises with American forces that are clearly an explicit response to all the trouble happening on the other side of Poland’s eastern border.

And that is just it: especially given that strategic context, why are people hearing statements like the following?

We really need anti-aircraft defense for the twenty-first century, that’s been a priority for the last three years. It’s not only about the purchase of specific equipment, it’s also a matter of deep cooperation with other governments. You have to look at it as the complex affair it is.

Right, and against the American offer to sell Patriots, the Polish Ministry of Defense is also considering what he called in the interview the French SAMP/T air defense system, which would seem to be from out of the larger “Aster” family of military missiles developed jointly by France and Italy. That decision is due at the end of May. But to me, the whole tone of Siemoniak’s report here is that of wanting to excuse delay and inaction.

You’d have to assume that Russian intelligence does not require discussion on public interview programs to have a very good idea about the nature of Poland’s air defense weaponry. (Indeed, the reply-tweet you see there from @KajdasMarek suggests that what they have to work with for now is merely 23mm and 57mm guns from the 1960s.)

I guess what disturbs me the most about this news is the seeming lackadaisical attitude here in the face of a very real threat from the East, to which most Polish political actors, at least, have been quick to respond. But their efforts will have been in vain if/when the Russian air force gains air superiority over Polish territory through sneak-attack – and the nearest American air bases are far back in Western Germany!

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Hand-Me-Down Arms to Ukraine

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

Here’s a good on-the-ground example of what the current Western skittishness about providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself actually means.

Szrot
Szrot for the Ukrainian army.” Szrot (pronounced simply as [shrot]) would be a fun Polish word in any other context: it means “scrap metal,” basically trash. But that’s basically what the Ukrainian army has to look forward to now, specifically to twenty “Saxon”-type armored personnel carriers coming fairly soon from United Kingdom stocks, to be eventually followed by fifty-five more.

This piece by Rzeczpospolita staff-writer Piotr Wożniak goes on to estimate that Ukraine will be paying the UK government about $51,000 for each such APC, which seems hardly a high amount for a military vehicle. The trouble is that this is hardly top-of-the-line equipment. A perusal of the Wikipedia page for the Saxon is valuable here, although Wożniak provides several related data-points of his own. Saxons went into service in the British Army in the early 1980s; they’re no longer actively used there because they’ve been replaced by more modern equipment. You’ll only find them still in use in backwater militaries like that of Hong Kong or Mozambique.

Even then, and even for that $51,000 apiece, none of the Saxons will come equipped with the armament that was standard for them in British service (namely a 7.62 mm MG medium machine gun, which itself is really no very big deal) – for no one wants to actually provide the Ukraine with “offensive weapons” as that would be too “offensive” to the sensibilities of Vladimir Putin. (Meanwhile, just go on-line for satellite photos to take a gander at the top-of-the-line Russian military equipment – and personnel, let us not forget – crossing the border to support the Separatists.)

Relevant to this point, Wożniak has a great paragraph:

What is interesting is that the lack of support for Kiev when it comes to weapons and military equipment cannot be rationally explained. Ukraine is not the object of any embargo, nor is it some terrorist-supporting state. There exist no legal obstacles.

Ah, but of course that is just a Pole talking, someone whose country knows all about invasions from the East from past experience, whose country is objectively next in line – just look at the map! – after Ukraine falls. That is, someone who doesn’t realize how Vladimir Putin can be a perfectly reasonable fellow, provided one simply doesn’t resist him.

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France: The Lock-Up Starts

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

Take a look: is this really a face only a mother could love? (I mean the guy on the left.)

Dieudonne
He’s not getting much love in France right now. In fact, he’s under arrest. His name is Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala; his occupation depends on whom you ask. Avant-garde comic – or dangerous rabble-rouser. One thing for sure is that he is rather anti-Semitic in his views, and that has led in the past to cancellation of some of his shows. To name but another of his misdeeds, shortly after the beheading of James Foley by ISIL he posted a video making light of that event. (His controversial opinions also meant that he was denied entry into the UK outright – yes, which once provided exile to the likes of Karl Marx, back when it was known as the British Empire.)

But right now we’re still lingering in the Charlie Hebdo afterglow, and Dieudonné had to put his two cents’ worth in. I want to rely on this report from Rzeczpospolita in the first instance to get a little distance, a little impartiality: from this, it seems that all he did was use his Facebook account to make fun of the “Je Suis Charlie!” slogan, writing instead “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” using there the surname of the slain hostage-taker at the Jewish supermarket in Paris. (more…)

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Take 2 Rocket-Launchers, Call In AM

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

“Something a bit like the flu” – does that phrase sum up for you the recent geopolitical struggle over the Eastern Ukraine? No? It doesn’t cut it for Polskie Radio, the Polish State radio & TV broadcaster, either.

PrezCzech
Translation: “Czech President is for lifting sanctions on Russia. He appeared at a conference organized by a colleague of Putin.”

That first individual mentioned would be President Miloš Zeman, the second is Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian railways. We all know that you don’t get that sort of high-profile executive job at a State agency in Russia without Vladimir Putin’s personal approval; in fact, Yakunin is originally from Leningrad, like the Russian dictator, and is a close neighbor at a restricted zone of country dachas fronting an idyllic lake just to the North of the city.

He is also President of something called “World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations,” which provided the occasion – on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, no less – for President Zeman’s disparaging remarks about the Ukraine confrontation. Zeman knew very well who was behind the conference, this article reports, as they happen yearly and he has attended them regularly – just not before as Czech President. What’s more, he delivered his remarks there in Russian. (But he is old-school enough to come from that period in Czechoslovak history when you had to learn Russian to get ahead.)

The Poles have quite a different evaluation of the situation in Ukraine; you can be sure that they are not pleased with this official Czech line, nor with Miloš Zeman’s choice of associates.

Swing Your Partner – If He’s There

In related news from Polskie Radio, Ukraine President Poroshenko recently announced an initial slate of 60 reforms to his country’s laws and legal practices designed to make it ready to become an EU member-state by the year 2020. “Without reform,” he declared, “we have only one road – to Russia.”

That’s very fine – and, Lord knows, the way business and government is run in the Ukraine is badly in need of such reform – but joining a club also depends on the willingness of that club to accept one as a new member. Is Poroshenko quite sure that the EU will be ready to admit the Ukraine in 2020, or ever? Has the EU offered the Ukraine any concrete indications or guidance on the question? (The European body-politic it purports to represent would surely like to know! There does exist an entire EU Commission DG/body of bureaucrats, named “Enlargement,” that is supposed to be on top of such matters.)

Or, having learned nothing from its 27-year-long Turkish tease (applied for full EU membership in 1987; still has no chance in Hell of getting it), is the EU about to embark upon another awkward, ultimately fruitless accession lap-dance with a geopolitically crucial country?

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Revealed: Ukraine’s Weapons-Sellers!

Monday, September 8th, 2014

This might be considered as the most important “secret” result of that NATO summit at the end of last week that was held at some golf resort in Wales, and the EU Beobachter (“EU Observer”) has picked it up.
5staaten

Yes, in the wake of that summit five states intend to start selling weapons to the Ukraine, and they are: the USA, Poland, France, Italy and Norway. The notable absence on this list is Germany, whose weapons, notably its small arms, are particularly good in comparison to most others, but whose Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, made it clear at that summit that it was not ready to take that step. Understandable: the German government only in the past few weeks decided that it would break precedent and send arms to the Kurds fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, and that decision caused quite a bit of consternation on the German political scene. Merkel was not ready for the same again – not that that was the only reason for German reticence.

What’s really notable about these arms-sellers is just how hush-hush the whole subject is. None of these countries has been willing to announce these upcoming weapons-sales; indeed, all have officially denied they are ready to do so. So who knows? Against that we have – for what it is worth – an announcement yesterday by a close advisor to Ukraine President Poroshenko that these five countries would indeed be supplying his country militarily. That announcement notably appeared on the advisor’s Facebook page.

If we examine that roster, the sales from the US and from Poland are understandable: American weapons manufacturers are seemingly ready to sell anywhere, anytime, while Poland is the state leading the alarm over Ukraine developments. For France and Italy it is a bit harder to understand why they would want to be involved (indeed, the Italians have continually been suspect as too Russia-friendly) – until you realize, as this article states explicitly, that they mainly see this as an opportunity for their native arms industries to make some money. It’s only Norway whose involvement is totally mysterious: its economy doesn’t need the money, and to this point it has not seemed particularly alarmed about what is happening off to the East. Indeed, as a good Scandinavian land, it is supposed to have certain ethical pretensions of not selling war material into an active war-zone. (more…)

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Wikimisery

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Did you know that Wikipedia is in trouble? I wasn’t aware; for example, there has not been an appeal for money appearing there at the top of the Wikipedia page for some time now. And it still seems to get plenty of respect from PR agencies. From today:

WikiPR
Still, it is not the financial front where Wikipedia is encountering problems. Just what is the matter – the “biggest crisis” since its founding – is explained well in a recent piece in Germany’s Die Welt on the occasion of the arrival of a new chief for the Wikimedia Foundation, one Lila Tretikov, a computer scientist who, as her name suggests, comes originally out of Russia. She is said to be particularly motivated to right things at Wikipedia because of the way the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl (which occurred when she was just 8) killed so many more people than it should have because of the way information was withheld from those who needed to know it.

Nonetheless, as that Welt article points out in its title, she herself represents what is troubling Wikipedia. As you probably know, the whole institution is set up as a volunteer effort – and the problem is precisely that the number of volunteers (or “authors”) has fallen by a third since 2007. What is more, that author cohort has tended to reduce to a typical, predictable group – namely white, Western, male, and usually expert in technical subjects. (But sometimes in others as well: the article makes its point by noting that the Wikipedia coverage of female pornstars seems to be particularly . . . uh . . . deep and well-organized.) Ms. Tretikov admits to never having written or even edited a Wikipedia article herself – so it is in that sense that she is part of the problem, since it is more participation, particularly on the part of knowledgeable women, that the project so desperately needs.

Unfortunately, that is not the only problem Wikipedia is currently experiencing, as we see here:

Wikiporno
Yes: “Porno!” The linked article is from the German business newspaper Handelsblatt and in fact these troubles only involve the German Wikipedia – for now, at least. There’s a webplatform in Germany for teachers called newsforteachers.de (yes, they use the English); the people there went hunting for pornographic links from Wikipedia and, by George, they found them. Under rubrics like “Piercing”; “Penetration”; and of course much worse than that. Really, if you read the Handelsblatt piece carefully, it does seem that they mainly found this stuff, not in the German Wikipedia itself, but on a related site called Wikimedia Commons. No matter: the president of the German teachers’ professional organization, the Deutscher Lehrverband (DL), is now advising teachers and parents that Wikipedia is to be considered “unsatisfactory” for schoolwork.

Indeed, DL President Josef Kraus is demanding an immediate removal of all pornographic content from Wikipedia and all related sites – which really makes you think that, even to this point, President Kraus has formed for himself but an incomplete picture of what the Internet is all about and how it works. (more…)

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How Easily They Forget

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

As you surely will have picked up, President Obama has made a trip over to Poland. He has already arrived in Warsaw, been greeted appropriately by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and held the customary news conference at the presidential palace. He even tried out some Polish to the greeing public on arrival at the airport: dzień dobry or “good day!” – only two words, yes, but harder than you may think.

He comes to Poland at an opportune time given the on-going crisis in Ukraine and Poland’s resulting deep sense of insecurity. The ostensible point of the visit, however, and why it was originally scheduled, is tomorrow, June 4, which is the 25th anniversary of the first post-World War II (partially) free elections in Poland that ushered in a non-Communist government, and that truly constituted the first major crack in the structure of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe that almost completely collapsed by the end of that year.

All Polish newspapers and twitter-feeds are now awash with Obama news. Yet over in a comparatively obscure corner there is also this, from Polska The Times.

Duda
“Duda” is Piotr Duda, current chairman of NSZZ Solidariność – yes, that same “Solidarity” of the 1980s, led then by Lech Wałęsa, that roused the entire nation against the Communist government and even survived a period underground after the imposition of martial law in December, 1981, before emerging again as an important power-broker later that decade.

Duda has written an open letter to the remaining members of Solidarity, which these days is little more than a fairly unimportant political organization. That is in fact the point: no representative from Solidarity has been invited to join Presidents Komorowski and Obama tomorrow at the ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the elections.

[Duda] judged that the omission of [Solidarity] at the ceremonies was entirely a political decision of the current government, in retaliation for its struggle for workers’ and citizens’ rights. “There’s no freedom without solidarity,” he wrote.

The chairman issued a reminder that, just as the greatest triumph of Polish workers was the uprising of the union in 1980, Solidarity’s greatest victory was the elections of 4 June 1989.

There is no mention in this article, but I assume that Lech Wałęsa himself will surely be in attendance tomorrow. While a great subversive leader in subservise times, he turned out to be somewhat of an indifferent Polish president once Poland was truly free (free thanks to his efforts, of course). There have even been rumors of a code-name for him within the old Polish state security “service” (SB), as if he collaborated with the Communist authorities in any meaningful way – obviously a ridiculous idea, given the historical record.

But Wałęsa long ago outgrew his identification with Solidarity – just as in the Czech Republic Václav Havel went on to become President and outgrow his association with the Civic Forum organization which largely guided the “Velvet Revolution” at the end of 1989. For that matter, there’s much less remaining of Civic Forum today than of Solidarity – the latter has fully passed into history, and there’s no one really around (even if still alive, which Havel himself is not) who could even be invited to any ceremonies – such as the 25 anniversaries the Czech Republic will be celebrating come November.

The point, however, is whether there would even be a desire to do so, whether possible or not. There will not be for Civic Forum, I am sure; and there apparently is not for Solidarity. The latter really does show an appalling willingness to ignore history on the part of current Polish authorities. It’s a disturbing obliviousness that finds its further reflection in the national press, in which Duda struggles to find a voice even as one of the two national journalistic pillars – Gazeta Wyborcza, or “election newspaper” – had its origin precisely in those breakthrough, free-ish national polls of 25 years ago.

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Father’s Lament for Conchita

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

You remember Conchita Wurst? She/he won the Eurovision Song Competition for Austria, held in Copenhagen two weeks ago.

Someone didn’t like that.

Conchita
“A girl with a beard. That is paganism unleashed.” This comes from Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Roman Catholic priest most known in Poland for the Radio Maryja station he founded and runs (yes, “Maryja” as in “The Virgin Maryja”), the voice of ultra-conservative Polish Catholicism: no divorce, no abortion, everything like that. (Still, you can listen to Radio Maryja on tunein if you like, it has 19,000 followers there! Be forwarned: It’s basically exclusively spoken-word in Polish.)

I seriously doubt Father Rydzyk was tuned in to Eurovision back on May 10. The result must have percolated to him slowly, probably further delayed by a wall of sheer incredulity. It’s still interesting to quote the good Father’s reaction here at length:

We must educate people, because look at what’s happening. Good Lord, we must educate people! Because look at what’s happening! This flood of paganism isn’t coming from this country. Really, look, is that normal, that a country-boy makes himself up like a woman, that boy there, I don’t know who he is supposed to be, with a beard, he performs and wins first place in Europe as a singer! Really, like he’s some Pavarotti!

Here Father Rydzyk had to pause: he was live-broadcasting these remarks to an audience in a church via a closed-circuit link, and everyone had started laughing. (more…)

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Mirror-Imaging over Ukraine

Saturday, April 26th, 2014

Take a look at the latest word issuing from Voice of Russia, the international radio broadcasting “service,” and associated website, of the Russian government. Hubert Orzechowski of the Polish edition of Newsweek first picked this up.

NewsweekPolska
Translation: “Russian radio: Poles in Zhitomir want autonomy, and Warsaw pushes for the break-up of Ukraine.” Zhitomir is a province of Western Ukraine, with a lot of ethnic Poles in it (although, interestingly, it’s not one of the two Ukrainian provinces that actually abut Poland itself).

The lede (of the Voice of Russia article he cites):

Ethnic Poles living in Ukraine demand a referendum in the Zhitomir Region to create a Polish autonomy with broad self-governance rights. They also insist that the Polish language be granted the official status along with the Ukrainian language.

As I say, it’s the Polish Newsweek that points this out but, fortunately for us all, the article where Voice of Russia lays out this case of Polish agitation in Western Ukraine was published in the English-language section of their site (from where I took that above lede), so you can click that link to read it all, in English which is often less-than-perfect but still quite understandable.*

Just be aware that it’s all a crock. That’s the point of Orzechowski’s Newsweek piece. Yes, parts of Western Ukraine are what used to be Poland, before World War II; yes, there was considerable tension between Poles and Ukrainians over those lands – even leading to infamous massacres – in the 1930s and 40s. But for Poland a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that era, a lot of changes-of-regime, plenty of time for a change of attitude. Further, there has been no indication of this sort of alleged unrest among ethnic Polish citizens of Ukraine other than that cited in Voice of Russia’s fevered imaginings.

These days the Polish government acknowledges its special relationship with Ukraine in more positive ways, such as actively supporting its eventual EU membership, as well as having taken the lead (along with Germany, in fact) in EU diplomacy towards Ukraine and Russia back when the Maidan Square crisis was at its height the first couple months of this year. This leading Polish role is not so much the case anymore, probably because NATO is becoming a more important forum for Europe to confront these increasingly alarming developments to the East.

So the propaganda purpose of this sort of article is self-evident. As Orzechowski says at the end of his own commentary, “you can’t help feeling that this description fits perfectly yet another neighbor of Kiev’s”; one doesn’t know whether to mock Voice of Russia for its lack of imagination, or to admire it for its audacity, in trying to project onto Poland the very same irredentist trick its sponsor government is itself trying to pull in Eastern Ukraine.

* But do let me give credit to Voice of Russia’s English-language writers where it is due: they actually nail the subjunctive there (“. . . insist that the Polish language be granted . . .”), something far beyond, say, at least 75% of English native speakers.

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Tracking the Mystery Flight

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

UPDATE: The BBC caught the “10 Theories about Flight MH370’s disappearance” meme around the same time as Gazeta Wyborcza (discussed below), so I would be remiss to not refer you to their piece, which of course is in English and also extensive (and fanciful, in places).

It’s amazing to realize that, come Friday, it will be a full two weeks since Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370’s complete disappearance from Southeast Asian skies, with a “Good night” from the co-pilot (local time was just past midnight) the very last message received, some forty minutes in. With some sources saying that finding the plane could still be a matter of weeks, one can only marvel at the patience of those actually sailing in or flying over the areas of the Indian Ocean now being searched, gamely putting up with what must be an excruciatingly boring needle-in-a-haystack ordeal.

What’s more, there is as yet no sort of confirmed explanation for what exactly happened. But at least accessing the foreign press can help one plug into that greater “hive mind” out there in the world to at least start evaluating possibilities.

Zloto
10 hipotez – that’s 10 hypotheses, the ten most-likely possibilities for the story behind Flight MH 370 based upon facts and analysis Piotr Cieśliński of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza has been able to gather. (more…)

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Best Job in the World?

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

You might remember that was the publicity campaign undertaken back in 2009 by the Australian state of Queensland, when it opened applications for that “best job” of working as a blogging “caretaker” of an island on the Great Barrier Reef for six months, at a hefty salary.

How hefty? Hey: 53 thousand zlotys per month!

OK, he wasn’t actually paid in zlotys, probably in Australian dollars. But that’s simply the figure given in this treatment today by the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita:

Najlepsza praca świata: Poszukiwany kandydat do opieki nad rajską wyspą w Australii. Do obowiązków należeć będ… http://t.co/Ec5dPVxkNz

@rzeczpospolitaa

Rzeczpospolita.pl


My calculations show that that is just less than the equivalent of €13,000 per month – pretty good! But there was trouble in paradise. Agata Każmierska’s article also tells of how the winner (who beat out 34,000 other applicants), the Briton Ben Southall, was stung by a “un-large, but uncommonly dangerous jellyfish” just days before his “best job” gig was to end. As he recounted on his blog, at first he tried to tough it out with the increasingly severe symptoms he experienced – feeling light-headed, but then fever, rising blood pressure – but finally called a doctor onto the island, who saved him from a heart-attack just in time.

That Rzeczpospolita tweet actually reads like a job announcement (“Wanted: Candidate for a paradise island in Australia”), as if “The Best Job in the World” is set to go again. It’s a bit strange: Ms. Każmierska merely hints that that might be the case, and does so inaccurately, when she writes as the first sentence after her lede, “Unfortunately, the work is only for candidates from Great Britain and Ireland.”

In fact, “The Best Job in the World” is in fact on again, but for details you need to switch to a piece provided by AFP in the Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique. (more…)

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Blue-Sky Tokenism for Poland

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Here’s a story that has come under the radar (no pun intended) of most of the international press, but at least we have it here in Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza:


“In Łask, the Americans have NOT landed,” it reads.

Well – yes they have, yet they also have not. Łask is a Polish village just to the West of the city of Łódż, whose only claim to fame is that it has an airbase. There, the American and Polish air forces recently staged a joint ceremony – you can click through if you’d like to see the photo – marking the arrival of 16 American F-16 fighter-bombers and associated personnel, flight and ground (among which, strangely, only 10 pilots). This is noteworthy because, as the article notes, it is the first permanent stationing of US armed forces on Polish soil.

It’s a big deal, among other reasons because it’s a sign of the American commitment to Poland’s defence within NATO. (Against whom? Against parties to the East, of course.) This is not so much because of the equipment itself – the F-16 is a good, if ageing, plane, but 10 of them (only 10 pilots, remember) is not many should a general war break out – but instead due to the very presence of such American personnel within Poland, and thus within the line-of-fire should Poland be attacked. It’s likely then that these would come to harm, thus increasing the pressure on the US president to actually fulfill America’s promises under NATO to intervene. (more…)

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Warsaw: Last Chance Saloon

Monday, July 30th, 2012

How do you know when your foreign campaign trip is not going well? When there are headlines like Today Romney visits Poland. Will there be further gaffes?, to be found today atop a piece by Mariusz Zawadzki in Poland’s most preeminent national daily, Gazeta Wyborcza.

In truth, the Poles already have something to gripe about when it comes to Romney, who likes to lambast President Obama for wanting to make America more “European,” which is supposed to mean “where everybody lives off the government,” and the like. Or in Zawadzki’s formulation of Romney’s message: “Obama draws insipiration from the capitals of Europe, [while] we belong to small-town America!”

Warsaw is, of course, among those “capitals of Europe.” Sigh. Once, he recalls, Europe was America’s most important ally, even for Republicans. But that was mainly during the Cold War; now we have international economic crisis instead, with what is now depicted as a decadent, decaying “social Europe” with its scandalous levels of government debt financing health care for all.

None of this past baggage bodes well for Romney’s visit, even as it is his “last hope” for achieving some sort of positive PR accomplishment out of his foreign junket. We’ve already had a furore about “Polish death camps” during WWII, not that long ago and out of the mouth of the President – surely Romney can at least avoid making that same mistake? Then again, he will be meeting in Warsaw with Lech Wałęsa, a figure as prickly as he is historical and world-renowned. That encounter could turn out to be a minefield, even as Wałęsa speaks no English – let’s hope that the translators will be skillful not just in language but in protocol! And that Romney at least remembers the old Solidariność leader’s name, something he failed to do when meeting with British Labour Party leader Ed Milliband!

UPDATE: I’m now made aware that Romney traveled initially to Gdańsk on Monday, 30 July and continued on to Warsaw the following day.

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G20 Tit for Tat

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

From the reports coming out of the G20 conference which has now come to a close in Los Cabos, Mexico, you would think that the main kerfluffle occurred over the EU’s plans for getting itself out of its euro/sovereign debt problem, and that meanwhile President Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin had time to get together for a nice chat. Maybe. But as far as the latter was concerned, there was also something else:


“Putin threatens America,” is what we get from Gazeta Wyborcza.

So what’s that all about, and is there really anything to it? Well: yes and no. It is true that there is a new irritant in Russo-American relations, and that is the Magnitsky Bill, now before the US Senate. Its purpose is to punish Russian “human rights violators” (mainly those involved in the 2009 death in prison of anti-corruption fighter Sergei Magnitsky, but also others) by denying them visas to the US and freezing any of their US-held assets. Vladimir Putin’s “threat,” according to the Gazeta article, is simply to come up with a Russian list of Americans to punish in a similar way, should that bill be passed into law.

Reasonable, no? Well, the US prison system may not be the world’s most humane, but at least things have not gotten to the point where prisoners “inconvenient” to the ruling administration are murdered there under flimsy pretexts. So that’s where the seeming symmetry in the diplomatic retaliation breaks down. Unfortunately, Putin found a sympathetic ear with President Obama, who has shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for that “Magnitzky bill” as an interference in his administration’s policy towards Russia.

So in the end “Putin threatens America” is a bit overblown – one brave man’s death at the hands of his Russian jailers amounts to but an unwelcome irritant in Russo-American relations.

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Rage Over “Polish Death Camps”

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Big mistake: President Obama marred his White House ceremony last Tuesday evening, during which he presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan, Madeline Albright, and other notables, with three fateful words: “Polish death camps.” These he uttered while awarding that medal to a representative of the now-deceased Jan Kozielewski, who during World War II actually had himself smuggled into and then out of the Warsaw ghetto and one of those death camps in order to report to the rest of the world what was going on there. Yes, they were “death camps,” but they were “Polish” only to the extent of being located in Poland. A better adjective is “Nazi” since they were set up, owned, run and operated by Hitler’s regime.

Poles around the world, most especially Polish government representatives, were distinctly displeased by the President’s remarks. No surprise, then, that one of the leading Polish papers, Gazeta Wyborcza, has put out a run-down of what has been done – and not done – in their wake, apology-wise:

Biały Dom: To była pomyłka. Przeprosiliśmy. I tyle http://t.co/If6a3o7M

@gazeta_wyborcza

Gazeta Wyborcza.pl


Translation: “White House: It was a mistake. We have apologized. And so on.” As in: “So don’t bother us about this anymore.” Yes, there is a palpable sub-text here of the American authorities trying to run away from the controversy, trying to downplay it. Why? Because this is an election year, silly, and so any (alleged) Obama error is sure to be pounced upon by the opposition. (more…)

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Defender of the Indefensible

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

Ever hear of Clarence Darrow? You have if you’ve ever heard of the “Monkey Trial” of 1925 in Tennessee, which pitted him against William Jennings Bryan.

But I’m not referring to that here. For that matter, ever hear of Robert Servatius or Dieter Wechtenbruch? History now has an additional name to add to the ranks of these gentlemen, namely Geir Lippestad.

To żona namówiła go, by podjął się obrony Breivika. Kim jest Geir Lippestad?: Geir Lippestad podjął się ostatecz… http://t.co/6U02M8o1

@polskathetimes

Polska The Times


Kim jest Geir Lippestad? “Who is Geir Lippestad?” we see in the Polska headline. Well, before he took on Bryan, Clarence Darrow was famous for accepting legal clients that no one else would touch, such as a pair of teenagers (Leopold and Loeb) accused in 1924 of a sensational murder; Servatius and Wechtenbruch were the defense lawyers for Adolph Eichmann, the key Nazi in the Holocaust who was brought to trial – and executed – in Israel in 1962. For his part, Geir Lippestad has taken up the defence of (alleged) Norwegian mass-killer Anders Breivik at his current trial. (And if you click through, that is him as the second head from the left in the photo up top. Please don’t mistake him with Breivik, the most-rightward figure.)

To be clear, then, these are all admirable characters. Yes, including Lippestad – even though that Oslo legal proceeding has mainly been about Breivik defiantly confirming his guilt and, in effect, mocking the Norwegian state for lacking the death penalty within its arsenal of criminal penalties. Because someone had to function as legal counsel for Eichmann, etc. and similarly someone needs to be there doing the same for Breivik, as odious as he may be. Because that is the mark of a society with the rule of law, that practices true justice, namely that the defendant is offered the maximum opportunity to put forward his side of the story, just to be sure that society’s sanctions (fines, imprisonment, execution in certain other states) are not applied by some horrible mistake to what is actually an innocent man. (As usual with this blog, “his,” “man” and the like are intended to be generic and apply to both genders.)

Further, it is not as if Lippestad is merely some court-appointed lawyer who happened to be in the wrong place in line at the wrong time when the judge had to designate someone to work with Breivik. No, he took the case voluntarily. Or rather (to give credit to where it is really due), his wife had him take the case. That’s even in the first part of the Polish tweet, that his wife persuaded him to step forth, “because democracy demands it.”

Now, this is Norway – pretty decent folk – but that still has not stopped Lippestad having to take up police protection because of all the various threats to his life that he has received for the services he is providing to Breivik. One would expect that all of that is just an ugly patch, and that he will be able to resume his former life with no penalty once his client is dispatched to the harshest sentence that Norwegian jurisprudence is allowed to impose – I suppose life imprisonment. (After all, there has been no attempt by him to deny or even mitigate his guilt in setting off that tremendous car-bomb in Oslo last July, and then shooting down all those young people afterwards on that island.) Still, Polska writer David Charter* does provide a useful service by taking the spotlight off the accused for a little bit to consider other players caught in their own poignant situations by the awfulness of this crime.

* A curiously non-Polish name! Is this piece actually taken (and translated) from some other publication? I find no indication that it is.

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Spinning Macht Frei

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Annals of Tone-Deaf Advertising – Check out what “Polska The Times” has dug up:

Auschwitz w reklamie… klubu fitness. “Obóz koncentracyjny dla kalorii”: Zdjęcie torów prowadzących do obozu ko… http://t.co/4f4aQBhV

@polskathetimes

Polska The Times


OK, maybe you don’t know Polish, but nonetheless you can see the “Auschwitz” there . . . and the word “fitness” . . .

A rather strange combination, no? Well, the payoff is really the Polska article linked to here, to which I would encourage you to click through since it shows the poster in question for a recent advertising campaign undertaken by a fitness-place called The Circuit Factory: a long, low shot of a railroad track leading to a bleak building (with the label “Auschwitz” off to the left, in case there is any confusion), and the catch-phrase below “Kiss Your Calories Goodbye.”

Let me hasten to add that this “Circuit Factory” place is by no means Polish – it’s apparently to be found in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. In his response to initial press inquiries, though, its owner – one Phil Parkinson – tried to explain the campaign as an effort to demonstrate that his club was “a concentration camp for calories.” Somehow that seemed to contribute nothing further at all towards stemming the waves of opprobrium that headed his way via the Internets and social media.

Then again, on-line there is no such thing as bad publicity. The Polska article ends by citing comments Parkinson made to the Arabian Business website about how beneficial the Auschwitz campaign has been for his firm’s Google/Facebook/YouTube results – “and we have had about five times as many enquiries [presumably about club membership] as before.”

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Kaliningrad Calling!

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Now this is interesting – if also a little obscure. One of the current lesser crises going on (so that you barely hear about it) is the erosion of the EU’s Schengen Treaty whereby a large subset of member-states allow travel among themselves with absolutely no border controls. Now this arrangement – formerly the pride of the EU, on par with the common currenchy – is on the back foot, mainly due to the flood of refugees coming from North Africa (a by-product of the “Arab Spring”) and the general loss of member-state confidence that the Italian authorities at the first line of defence can keep them out before they do get into Italy and thereby into the Schengen zone, from where they have many options for further uncontrolled inter-EU travel. France was loudly talking about re-imposing controls on its Italian border a while back, while Denmark has actually done so on its border with Germany – to the sputtering protests (with no attendant action) of EU authorities.

In the middle of this, as the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza now reports, the EU Commission is likely to open up visa-free travel from Russia. Well, not really all of Russia – but rather that strange Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, stuck there between Poland and Lithuania, outside of Russia proper. Oh, and they won’t actually be able to go to Lithuania – just to Poland. And, to make it clear, there still will be border controls in place, these Kaliningradians (?) will just be able to go through them (presumably flashing their Russian passports) without having to go through the trouble of getting a visa beforehand.

Then again, Poland itself has been within the Schengen zone for a while now; who knows where some of them will want to go on to from there? But the Commission is seemingly willing to take that chance and announce such visa-free entry tomorrow; according to the article (no by-line), it’s motivation is essentially that it feels sorry for the Kaliningradians, they must be so lonely: “to avoid the isolation of Kaliningrad from its immediate neighbors, it is necessary to ease the travel of its citizens.” Because that sort of isolation can’t be very healthy for any body politic.

Don’t laugh: since Kaliningrad was first isolated this way by the independence of Lithuania in 1990, it’s been mainly known (when noticed at all) for the shady activities of all sorts going on there: weapon-smuggling, alcohol/cigarette-smuggling, the dispatch of freighters with suspicious cargoes, and the like. This is quite simply a gesture to persuade people there to start behaving themselves.

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Consolation-Prize Polish Missiles

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

You may recall how George W. Bush had big plans for a Europe-based anti-missile shield, mainly aimed against anything that might come flying from Iran. The radar and control installations were to be based in the Czech Republic, while the interceptor missiles themselves would be in Poland. But then Barack Obama became President, considered that such a set-up would be too expensive – and would also probably rile the Russians a bit too much – and so canceled the whole plan, on the symbolically-important date of 17 September 2009.

(Symbolically-important only to the Poles, as that is the anniversary of their invasion by forces of the Soviet Union, back in 1939 when they were already trying to fight off German forces attacking from the West, that effectively sealed their fate and sentenced them to five years of brutal occupation. Apparently not so symbolically-important to, say, the US State Department, which must be suffering from a shortage of anyone with an awareness of modern Polish history.)

So too bad, that’s it then, right? Not so fast, as this recent tweet from the leading Polish national daily Rzeczpospolita reminds us:

Ustawa o ratyfikacji umowy ws. tarczy antyrakietowej podpisana: Prezydent Bronisław Komorowski podpisał ustawę u… http://bit.ly/eJo9DW

@rzeczpospolitaa

Rzeczpospolita.pl


This tells us of the recent signing by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, following ratification by the Polish Parliament, the Sejm, of the US-Polish agreement initialed back on July 3, 2010, to let Poland station some US-made, US-controlled interceptor missiles after all. For when it comes to US allies and American missiles, everyone is a winner and all must have prizes! (more…)

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Sneaky Soviet-Style Switcheroo

Monday, April 11th, 2011

The past weekend was a bit of a traumatic one for Poland, and on the surface it’s easy to understand why: Sunday was the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic plane-crash at Smolensk airport of the Polish government airplane that was carrying President Lech Kaczynski and almost 100 other members of government or other prominent VIPs to ceremonies meant to commemorate the 1940 Katyn Massacre, in which the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) executed in the deep woods near that city around 20,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia captured in the German/Russian invasions of the previous fall. But it’s even worse than that: whereas the tragedy understandably united the Polish nation in grief, a year later that effect has worn off and instead the deceased president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw – who happens to head the opposition political party Law and Justice – is now trying to make political capital ahead of elections later this year by hinting at a Russian conspiracy to kill his brother, and by denouncing what he sees as the current government’s subservient attitude to the Russians.

You would think that, for its part, the Russian government would welcome the improvement in relations with Poland that was the initial result of the tragedy and the common investigation both nations’ authorities then undertook, and so would try to prolong that any way possible. Or maybe not. For an article in one of the leading national newspapers Rzeczpospolita now informs us of a piece of trickery – petty trickery, at that – which would have elicited an approving nod from the likes of Lavrenty Beria, long-time head of the NKVD under Stalin.

What’s worse, it took an on-site inspection by no less than Poland’s First Lady, Anna Komorowska, to reveal the transgression. Last Saturday she led a ceremonial delegation to the Smolensk memorial site, now meant to commemorate not only last year’s crash but the Katyn atrocity that indirectly led to it. There, the delegation discovered to their horror that a change had been made to the memorial plaque that had been placed there shortly after last year’s tragedy. Those of you out there who would like to try out your Polish can click here to see the before-and-after for yourselves, otherwise let me just inform you that the original Polish-language tablet was gone and replaced by a bilingual Russian-Polish one. OK, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, except that space had been created to fit the Russian in by deleting the text in the first plaque which had mentioned the Katyn atrocity, cited as “genocide” (ludobójstwo)*, together with the Russian government’s admitted responsibility for that.

Naturally, the Polish government had never been consulted – because it would never have approved. The Russian authorities apparently just went ahead and made the change. Actually, it would have been more appropriate to consult the “Association of Katyn Families” since that was the name on the original plaque, responsible for putting it there. Instead, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski will have a chance to “consult” with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev today on a number of things, including – one would expect – this plaque affair.

UPDATE: Poland’s other mainstream national daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, is now reporting that the two presidents have found a solution to try to tamp down the public outrage in Poland over the Smolensk memorial plaque shenanigans. A competition! There will be a competition, run by the Polish Ministry of Culture, to come up with yet another memorial plaque, to be placed at there in time for the two-year anniversary of the tragedy next year – which, we can only hope, will proceed a bit more tranquilly, in both countries.

*Of course the Katyn massacre per se was by no means “genocide.” That word unfortunately has been so overused by those out to make cheap political points that its original meaning and impact are truly under threat – and it is only roughly 67 years old!

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Euro Entrance Gift: Inflation

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Currency reform: Back in Cold War times that phrase always sent a cold shiver of fear down the spines of those living in the Communist Bloc. What seemed so reasonable in the government announcements – hey, too many zeroes have accumulated on the currency through inflation, let’s simplify things by knocking some of them off all prices! – all too often turned out to conceal hidden measures designed to punish earners of “black” wages (by forcing them to go to official offices to exchange the cash hoard they were holding that was about to become worthless) or even simply eliminate large swathes of purchasing power from the economy (e.g. by declaring notes of certain denomination to be no longer valid).

Citizens of what was then known as the “Free World” have by-and-large been spared such abuses. Indeed, here in the Eurozone we have the common European currency, a medium of exchange not subject to the whims of any one national government. What’s more, it was adopted on 1 January by yet another EU member-state, Estonia. Yet that was recognized by most observers as somewhat of a bittersweet occasion; taking up the euro does say important things about the extent of that country’s European integration, yet the sovereign debt financial crisis with which the EU has struggled for a little over a year has revealed several cogent reasons for a country to regret ever giving up its own national currency.

But I’m not out to talk about any of those here. Rather, let’s get back to the “currency reform” scam: it’s the damndest thing how prices seem to rise whenever a country adopts the euro! You see, all prices, wages, etc. have to be converted then by a fixed conversion-ratio – for example, it was 2.20371 for the Dutch guilder – and usually the new price that results is not a very round number. No, much better to make it so – and do you think that merchants then round it upwards or downwards?

Any of you out there over the age of twelve knows the answer quite well – strange, isn’t it, how wages and bank-account totals don’t benefit from a similar rounding? – and so the result inevitably is an otherwise uncalled-for bit of inflation. That’s what made the Germans nickname their new currency the Teuro (teuer is “expensive” in German); on a local note, I can remember how Amsterdam bars, in particular, raised their prices under the quite shameful assumption that their customers were not capable of doing elementary division with a calculator.*

Naturally, then, the same thing has come to Estonia, as we see in a pieces from the Polish national daily Gazeta Wyborcza: Inflation in Estonia highest for two years. Specifically, December’s inflation rate was 5.7% higher than it was in December, 2009. (And how much was that? Annoyingly, the article prefers to use differential rather than absolute inflation rates.) We do know that inflation was high there throughout the last part of the year, as last month’s rate was also only 0.5% higher than last November’s. The main commodities driving this are listed as mainly foodstuffs and non-alcoholic beverages. (Can we hope, then, that the owners of Estonian drinking establishments actually restrained themselves?)

Anyway: Welcome to the club!

*Interestingly, grocery-store prices were mainly converted in a straightforward manner – mainly because Dutch consumer-rights organizations promised to watch them like a hawk!

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Fast and Loose Polish Patriots

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Wikileaks has now come to Poland: revelations from the massive dump of US State Department confidential cables have now come to the surface which – as has also mostly been the case in other contexts – do much to undermine the rosy picture of US-Poland solidarity usually presented for public consumption. Poles are now in a position to read all about them in summary articles coming out in both of that country’s prestige nationwide dailies, namely Rzeczpospolita (coverage by Wojciech Lorenz) and Gazeta Wyborcza (by Marcin Górka).

Poland had already shown up as a bit player in another Wikileaks dispatch from earlier this week, revealing new NATO contingency plans to make extensive use of that country’s transportation infrastructure to shift troops to the Baltic States should they be invaded by Russian forces. (Polish soldiers would also be heavily involved, in the form of at least one of the nine divisions slated to be included in any such maneuver.) But the only really new element disclosed in that connection by the Wikileaks dump was a certain dissatisfaction among Polish political and military authorities over the plan, since in such a situation Russia would by definition be at war not only with the Baltic States but also with Poland and with NATO in general, and such a commitment of resources would necessarily thin out Poland’s own defences somewhat.

No, the new and notable revelations that have emerged over the past few days have to do with the physical commitment to Poland’s defence made by US authorities in the form of US Army Patriot anti-rocket and -aircraft missiles sent to be stationed there. (Those who want to read an English account can turn to the UK’s official Wikileaks publisher, namely the Guardian, which spreads the story out over two articles here and here.) Recall first of all that those Patriots were stationed in Poland in the first place as an accompaniment to the anti-missile rockets that were also to have been there as part of a “missile shield” system to protect the US from Iran-launched ICBMs that the Bush Administration had worked so hard to establish, but which was then canceled by Barack Obama in September of last year. The Poles were glad to have at least that one sort of partial American military presence in their country even as the other was canceled – for the old, crude reason that having American soldiers in your country heightens the chance that they will also be killed if anyone attacks you, thus making American intervention to do something about that attack much more likely – but they had always been more concerned about threats from Russia rather than from Iran. “Don’t worry,” was the American reaction, “the Patriot can defend your territory against airborne threats from any direction, not just from the Middle East.”

There was one catch, however, as we are only know finding out thanks to the Wikileaks dispatches: those Patriots can defend Poland against airborne threats coming from Iran, Russia, or anyone else only if they are equipped with bona fide live missiles, which for the majority of their presence on Polish soil they have not been. Indeed, these communications make clear that the concept for the Americans the whole time was for the Patriot contingent in Poland (stationed in some patch of wilderness up in the Northeast, near the border with the Russian Kaliningrad enclave) to be only a training post – fly Patriot crewmen in there on occasion just to get some practice in wartime deployment to a more-exotic location to the East, work a little with what amounted to only mock-up equipment, and then get out of there again back to their home unit. Naturally, the level of permanent personnel stationed there reflected this role, usually numbering only around 20 or 30 whereas Polish authorities had expected something more like 110, reflecting staffing for a ready-to-go combat unit.

It’s something, then, but it’s not much – and it certainly is nothing that would stop Russian aircraft or missiles should the need arise. But it was all that Polish authorities found themselves able to get out of the American government, and they did their complaining quietly (e.g. about getting nothing better than “potted plants”) while never letting up on efforts to try to get even more of an American deployment of forces to Poland, and maybe with some actual combat-teeth for a change. Ideas that have arisen along this line are stationing some F-16s on a Polish airbase and/or maybe some C-130 transport aircraft and/or maybe even moving a detachment of Naval Special Warfare troops from Stuttgart to Gdansk. As it happens, Polish President Komorowski will have the opportunity today to discuss such things as he visits President Obama at the White House. But the shine is already considerably off the encounter after these latest revelations of the fast-and-loose behavior American military and diplomatic authorities display towards even the country’s closest allies (e.g. still with its own troops fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with American forces in Afghanistan).

UPDATE: As a great philosopher once observed, “two out of three ain’t bad”! The Gazeta (Wyborcza) Twitter-feed carries the news coming out of the Polish-American presidential summit:

Amerykańskie F-16 i Herkulesy w Polsce. Od połowy 2013 roku http://bit.ly/hZyovB

So that will be 16 F-16’s (how symmetric!) and 4 C-130’s (all American-manned and -operated; this isn’t an equipment sale) stationed on a Polish airbase starting in mid-2013. And if you click through Gazeta’s link to the article you even can see, amid all that Polish, a nice photo of Komorowski chatting with Obama in the Oval Office.

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My Mayor, My Informant

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

On Sunday 3 October the run-off election is scheduled for Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) of Potsdam, that city of around 150,000 inhabitants just to the southwest of Berlin which was Frederick the Great’s capital and garrison-town and now is the capital of the state of Brandenburg. There’s a run-off because in the regular election, last Sunday, no one candidate got a majority of the votes, so the competition has now been narrowed down to the top two. Lying as it does within the former East Germany, Potsdam is not surprisingly a rather left-wing place, so it’s no surprise that those two candidates represent Germany’s main leftist party, the Social Democrats (SPD), in the person of incumbent Oberbürgermeister Jann Jacobs, and the formation even more to the left, namely The Left (Die Linke), represented by one Hans-Jürgen Scharfenberg.

Jacobs has been Potsdam’s mayor for a while now, since March of 1999, and he did come out on top of that initial vote with 41%. But Scharfenberg was not all that far behind at 33%, and the guy does have many useful qualities, such as being a shrewd judge of people’s character, and able both to keep a secret and submit thorough, informative reports. How do I know this? Because Hans-Jürgen Scharfenberg is also unique as the first significant German political candidate known to have been an informer back in the day for the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi. (more…)

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CIA Torture Prison in Poland: Ex-President, Premier Face Indictment

Friday, August 6th, 2010

PressEurop yesterday came forward with an obscure piece of news from Poland that may nonetheless soon resonate internationally. Citing an article in that day’s edition of the mainstream Polish national daily Rzeczpospolita, they noted that no less than Polish ex-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, his ex-premier Leszek Miller, and an “ex-head of intelligence,” one Zbigniew Siemiątkowski, were facing the prospect of going before a State Tribunal on war crimes charges stemming from the secret prison they allegedly allowed the American CIA to set up in their country back when the “War on Terror” was at its height, and which might well have been the scene for prisoner torture.

Good work, that, although the PressEurop editors did somehow miss within that Rzeczpospolita piece the credit that journal was willing to give to its arch-rival Gazeta Wyborcza for actually getting the scoop, in the form of this article which appeared the day before the Rzecz report. Also, Zbigniew Siemiątkowski was not “head of intelligence” but rather Minister of the Interior; and there is another ex-Minister of the Interior who is under investigation in this connection as well, one Krzysztof Janik.

In any event, the combined reporting from Poland’s two most-respected national dailies provides a fascinating glimpse into a story with explosive potential that still is being treated as a Top Secret matter by the prosecutorial authorities involved. As the Gazeta piece reminds us, the first indication the world had that something funny was going on in Europe was the reporting in the Washington Post of early 2005 that alleged the existence of CIA-run “black site” prison facilities in European countries. The Council of Europe then took that as a cue to investigate on its own, and soon concluded that such installations were in place in Romania, Lithuania, and Poland. When questioned at the time, Polish authorities were noticeably unhelpful, eventually admitting only that yes, there was an airport in the northeastern Polish wilderness that the government had made available for CIA flights. (more…)

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“Most Tragic Station on the Polish Golgotha”

Monday, April 12th, 2010

That’s the title of the speech that Polish President Lech Kaczyński was to have delivered at the Katyn Massacre commemoration ceremony to which he and his party of almost 100 important officials were heading when their plane crashed on Saturday. That title is now heavy with irony.

The newspaper Rzeczpospolita has posted a copy of that speech here – in Polish, oczywiście. Naturally, it mentions “21,000,” the NKVD, “Stalin’s will,” the “Third Reich” and the “Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact” within the first three sentences; Kaczyński wasn’t going there to use flowery diplomatic language.

If there happens to be a demand for a translation – and no one can find it elsewhere (I’ll be sure to post the link if I do) – then I’m open through the usual media (e-mail or Twitter) to requests to do it myself and post it here.

On the other hand, with all due respect to Poland’s tragedy of last Saturday, I can assure readers that neither this weblog nor the Twitter-feed intends to become “all Kaczyński plane-crash, all the time.”

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