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Poland has launched a government commission to investigate Russian influence in the country. The conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which held power for eight years before losing the 2023 elections, finds itself at the center of suspicions. For PiS, the allegations are particularly damaging, as the party built its political reputation on anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian rhetoric. Nevertheless, current Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a member of the rival Civic Platform party, has accused PiS of collaborating with Russian intelligence to wiretap political opponents and of facilitating increased coal imports from Russia, among other concerns pointing to a potential relationship between the “anti-Russian” party and Moscow itself.

Content
  • The spy hunt

  • KGB's comeback?

  • The wiretapping scandal

  • PiS and Russian coal

  • Russophobe-Russophile

  • Friends on the right

  • PiS and Polish Zhirinovskys

  • What will be investigated

RU

The spy hunt

On May 9, Donald Tusk, the usually composed Prime Minister of Poland and leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Coalition party, made a fiery speech from the tribune of the Polish Sejm. Addressing the rival PiS faction, he shouted: “Traitors on salary, henchmen of Russia!” This outburst was prompted by the escape of Polish judge Tomasz Szmydt to Belarus, along with subsequent allegations of espionage against the jurist by the Polish prosecutor's office.

Judge Szmydt had access to state secrets, including to documents outlining appeals against denials of state secret disclosures by both government bodies and private organizations. Zbigniew Ziobro, the former Minister of Justice and Prosecutor General under the PiS government, had since 2011 been instrumental in advancing Szmydt's career. Ziobro was also a key architect of the judicial reform that shifted the formation and approval of Poland's Supreme and Constitutional Courts from the judges themselves to the parliament and president. In 2019, Szmydt and his then wife, Emilia, became embroiled in the “hater affair,” in which an anonymous onet.pl portal user going by the name “Little Amy” published compromising information about members of the Polish National Council of Judges who were opposed Ziobro's reforms. Polish prosecutors are expected to charge Emilia for acting as “Little Amy,” and it has been alleged that Russian or Belarusian security services played a role in the campaign.

On May 20, Tusk announced the formation of an investigative commission to examine Russian and Belarusian influence on Polish affairs, including at governmental and administrative levels. The tense atmosphere in Poland justifies Tusk's emotional outburst in the Sejm. There have been regular arrests of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Polish citizens on charges of conducting espionage activities on behalf of Russia. According to investigators, Kremlin agents have been monitoring railway cargo, planning sabotage operations, and spreading propaganda against Polish and NATO member politicians. Russian influence is also suspected in a fire at a paint factory in Wroclaw and in another at a large shopping center in Warsaw. Five people with alleged ties to Russia and Belarus have been arrested in connection with these incidents.

In April, Polish prosecutors reported the arrest of a suspect allegedly planning an assassination attempt on Vladimir Zelensky — on Russian orders. Polish authorities worked with their Ukrainian colleagues to apprehend the suspect. Earlier, in August 2023, Poland announced the detention of 22 individuals suspected of having spied for Russia over a 14-month period. These developments have alarmed the Polish government to such an extent that the Foreign Ministry in Warsaw is restricting the movement of Russian diplomats and consular staff (Russian Ambassador Sergey Antonov excepted). Russian diplomats will be confined to travel in the voivodeship of Masovian, where Warsaw is located. Russian consular officers will be restricted to the regions where their diplomatic institution of assignment is located — be it Lesser Poland, Greater Poland, or Pomerania.

The leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Coalition party, Donald Tusk, became prime minister for the third time as a result of Poland’s 2023 parliamentary elections. The voting ended the eight-year dominance of the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) in power. To achieve this outcome, the Civic Coalition formed a broad alliance with the left (Lewica) and moderate centrists (Third Way, which included the popular Polish Peasant Party).

Adding to the tensions, pro-Putin slogans were heard during recent protests by Polish farmers. Dissatisfied with concessions given to their Ukrainian counterparts, the protesters blocked transit routes and borders with Ukraine, going so far as to dump Ukrainian grain from trucks and train cars headed westward. Kyiv suspects that such demonstrations are orchestrated by Russia itself.

KGB's comeback?

In Poland, accusations of Russian ties have long been a political weapon. However, the current allegations are particularly serious. Tusk and his coalition partners are now investigating several “Pandora's boxes” left behind by eight years of PiS rule. These include:

If connections to Russia are proven, it could be devastating for PiS's reputation. Polish society, already wary of its eastern neighbor, has been openly hostile to the Russian regime since its 2014 annexation of Crimea. This sentiment has only intensified with the full-scale war in Ukraine that began in 2022.

Tomasz Piątek, a journalist who has written extensively about Russian influence on PiS, told the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, “PiS only verbally criticizes Russia... but in reality, it's a pro-Russian party.” He traces the party's Russian connections back to 1989, when PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, an ally of Poland's first democratically elected president Lech Wałęsa, first communicated with Anatoly Vasin, a secretary at the Soviet embassy.

The leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Coalition party, Donald Tusk, became prime minister for the third time as a result of Poland’s 2023 parliamentary elections. The voting ended the eight-year dominance of the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) in power. To achieve this outcome, the Civic Coalition formed a broad alliance with the left (Lewica) and moderate centrists (Third Way, which included the popular Polish Peasant Party).

PiS's connections to Russia can be traced back to 1989

Piątek claims that Vasin, widely believed to be a KGB agent, had previously recruited Finnish politician Esko Aho, who served as Prime Minister in Helsinki from 1991 to 1995 and later joined the supervisory board of Russia's Sberbank. In his book “Agreement against One-Man Power,” Kaczyński wrote about discussing Wałęsa's Moscow visit with Vasin (referred to as Lasin in the text). The conversation allegedly turned to the prospect of a “Finlandization” plan for newly independent Poland — i.e. a neutral security status outside the orbit of both NATO and Moscow. Piątek points out chronological inconsistencies in this account, noting that Kaczyński could not have been managing Wałęsa's international trips in the summer of 1989, as someone else in the Solidarity movement held that responsibility.

Piątek further alleges that Kaczyński's party received funding from Moscow during the final years of the Soviet Union’s existence. “KGB funds were funneled into Poland to support Communists at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s,” he explains. “Janusz Quandt, a financier and head of Bank Przemysłowo-Handlowy in Krakow, was one of those managing these funds. He played a crucial role in Kaczyński's rise to political influence and business success, financing his activities and helping him acquire valuable real estate in central Warsaw. Interestingly, Quandt and other former Communist special service members began supporting Kaczyński immediately after his months of meetings with Anatoly Vasin, the top [Soviet] spy in Warsaw.”

The wiretapping scandal

Another reason to suspect PiS of Russian ties emerged in 2014-2015, a pivotal period in Polish politics. Donald Tusk's Civic Platform, then in power, made a sharp turn away from pragmatic cooperation with Putin's Russia following the annexation of Crimea and the rise of Russian-backed separatism in Donbas. Tusk personally lobbied European and world leaders to sign on to the sanctions package imposed against Russia as a result of Moscow’s first incursions into Ukraine in 2014.

It was at this critical juncture that the “wiretapping scandal” unfolded. Marek Falenta, a key trader of Russian coal in Poland, obtained recordings of Civic Platform government members discussing state affairs — and each other — in harsh terms at various Warsaw restaurants. Falenta passed these recordings to the PiS leadership, and their transcripts were subsequently published in the media, severely damaging the public image of Tusk's party. This scandal forced the government to resign, paving the way for PiS to take power. It was only in November 2023 that Civic Platform (rebranded as the Civic Coalition after merging with other left and centrist parties) regained political control.

In the aftermath of the wiretapping scandal, Falenta secured a lucrative contract for Russian coal supply. He later became embroiled in a money laundering case, fled the country in 2016, and in 2019 was extradited from Spain in order to serve a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Polish media later reported that the restaurants where the secretly recorded meetings took place were co-owned by Russians or individuals with Russian connections. Newsweek Polska even claimed that the recordings had been “in Russian hands” before reaching PiS leaders. This is why Tusk famously remarked that the “wiretapping scandal” scenario was “written in Cyrillic.”

PiS and Russian coal

Under PiS rule following the wiretapping scandal, Russian coal purchases initially decreased slightly before sharply increasing. According to the Polish fact-checking agency Demagog, which references state statistical data, Poland imported 6.5 million tons of coal from Russia in 2014 (pre-scandal). This figure dropped to just below 5 million tons in 2015 and stood at only 5.2 million tons in 2016.

A significant increase began in 2017, when 8.6 million tons were imported from Russia's Kuzbass region. The peak came in 2018 with 13 million tons. The amount then gradually decreased: 10.8 million tons in 2019, 9.4 million tons in 2020, and 8.2 million tons in 2021.

Moreover, by 2021 Poland’s imports of Russian coal constituted 65% of all coal Poland purchased abroad. Australia was a distant second, supplying 2.1 million tons (less than 17%). While the trend towards reducing imports from Russia continues, Demagog cautions that “a three-year period is too short to conclude that the current trend is sustainable.”

Russophobe-Russophile

The third reason to discuss Russian influence on Poland’s former ruling party is the actions of Antoni Macierewicz, the defense minister in the PiS government from 2015 to 2023. Macierewicz is a close associate of Kaczyński and, rhetorically at least, a staunch Russophobe who earned his reputation by serving as the head of the commission investigating the plane crash that killed dozens of Polish officials — President Lech Kaczynski among them — over Russian territory in 2010. This was the second commission convened under the right-wing government; the first was led by Jerzy Miller.

For many years, Macierewicz argued that the crash of the Polish aircraft was a terrorist attack, claiming traces of explosives had been found on the seats. This version was rejected by both the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee and the Jerzy Miller commission, which agreed that the crash was due to pilot error under conditions of extreme weather. In contrast, Macierewicz’s commission labeled the accident the “Smolensk murder” while somehow managing to “lose or destroy” the few remaining parts of the crashed government Tu-154 that Poland had in its possession. Since Russia never handed over all the plane debris to Poland, the disappearance of the remaining pieces caused a negative reaction in Polish society.

From 2015 to 2023, Macierewicz surrounded himself with people whose views were not hostile to the Putin regime. One of them was General Krzysztof Gaj, who after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 became known for his stance on events in Ukraine:

“I'm not a Russophile, but at this moment I perfectly understand Putin — these are fascists. And Putin is absolutely right – they need to be dealt with because Europe will catch fire because of them. It's a cruel joke of history: I admit that Putin and the Russians are right in this situation. I see no other way out.”

Gaj also became infamous for forwarding secret information about NATO armaments and upcoming actions to a government administration employee.

Jacek Kotas also worked as a deputy minister in Macierewicz's Ministry of Defense in the 2010s. He was one of the top managers and co-owners of the Radius group, whose leadership was accused of ties with the Solntsevo gang, a Russian organized crime grouping. These connections were reported by the Polityka magazine, against which Kotas filed a defamation lawsuit. The court did not satisfy his claim.

Friends on the right

In response to Tusk's accusations, PiS deputies reminded the current prime minister of his own past connections with Putin: in the late 2000s, the Polish government, then headed by the liberal Tusk, built neutral relations with Russia for mutual benefit.

Nevertheless, just a few days after raising the issue, PiS Sejm deputies and Polish MEPs appeared at a congress of far-right parties. They warmly welcomed representatives of the Austrian Freedom Party, Putin's friend Viktor Orbán, and Marine Le Pen, who received a loan for her election campaign from a Russian bank and openly supported Putin up until his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister under PiS from 2017-2023 and now a member of parliament, sent a video greeting to the congress.

Law and Justice representatives stated that they attended the congress to “support Ukraine” among the numerous “friends of Putin” in attendance from Austria, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. This argument seemed weak compared to Tusk's specific accusations: that the wiretapping affair had been “written in Cyrillic” and that imports of coal from Russia had increased under PiS.

PiS and Polish Zhirinovskys

Poland is ostensibly “hostile” to Russia, but there have always been movements openly supporting the course of Putin and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. One such example is Andrzej Lepper's Self-Defense, a populist party representing peasant interests. Lepper openly called for a “turn to the East” by deepening cooperation and trade with both Lukashenko's regime and with Russia. Known as the “Polish Zhirinovsky,” a reference to the late leader of Russia’s ultra-nationalist “Liberal Democratic Party,” Lepper ran for president of Poland four times. In 2007, Self-Defense entered a coalition with PiS, and Lepper himself became deputy prime minister. In 2011, he was accused of sexual harassment and later found dead. The police ruled it a suicide, but this version raises many doubts.

The leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Coalition party, Donald Tusk, became prime minister for the third time as a result of Poland’s 2023 parliamentary elections. The voting ended the eight-year dominance of the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) in power. To achieve this outcome, the Civic Coalition formed a broad alliance with the left (Lewica) and moderate centrists (Third Way, which included the popular Polish Peasant Party).

Andrzej Lepper
Andrzej Lepper

Mateusz Piskorski, a politician accused by the Internal Security Agency and the Polish prosecutor's office of having contacts with Russian intelligence and receiving money from Russia to maintain the political party Change, also got his political start in Self-Defense. Piskorski behaved too openly for a spy, working as an observer at the “referendum” in Crimea in 2014 and holding a “Crimean Spring” street exhibition in Warsaw to celebrate Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.

In 2016, Piskorski was arrested. While in police custody, he was proclaimed the leader of Change, “the first non-American party in Poland,” whose logo includes a stylized letter Z. Piskorski began his political career with ultra-right football fan formations.

Janusz Korwin-Mikke, the leader of the party “Confederation. Freedom and Independence,” combines libertarian and ultra-right views and can certainly compete with Lepper for the title of “Polish Zhirinovsky.” After visiting annexed Crimea, he fell under Ukrainian sanctions, and he remains very hostile towards Kyiv. In December 2022, nearly a year after the full-scale invasion, Korwin-Mikke tweeted: “Even if it were terrible in Russia and there was cannibalism I would support good relations with Russia because I fear the growth of Ukraine's power and want to have an ally behind its back.” In April 2022, he called into question the reality of the Bucha massacre. Despite these sentiments, he has served as a deputy of the Sejm and as a member of the European Parliament.

The young leader of “Confederation,” Krzysztof Bosak, received the post of deputy speaker of the Sejm. Bosak is known for his anti-Ukrainian statements and is listed in a Ukrainian database of pro-Russian sympathizers due to his “participation in acts of humanitarian aggression” against Ukraine. Confederation is considered part of the “Putinternational” — a grouping of European extremist parties that act in Russia’s interests.

It may appear that those sympathetic to Russia are on the periphery of Polish politics, often seen as eccentric by the majority of voters. However, PiS eagerly brings them into its coalitions, offering them positions of power and shifting them from the fringes to the very center of public attention.

The leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Coalition party, Donald Tusk, became prime minister for the third time as a result of Poland’s 2023 parliamentary elections. The voting ended the eight-year dominance of the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) in power. To achieve this outcome, the Civic Coalition formed a broad alliance with the left (Lewica) and moderate centrists (Third Way, which included the popular Polish Peasant Party).

Law and Justice eagerly brings fringe parties into its coalitions

What will be investigated

The investigative commission announced by Tusk in May began work on June 5. Interestingly, this is not the first attempt at such an inquiry. In 2023, a similar commission was created in the Sejm by PiS itself in an attempt to use “cooperation with Russia” as a tool against its political opponents, including Tusk himself. This group stopped working after the 2023 elections.

The commission, led by Polish military counterintelligence chief Jarosław Stróżyk, includes 11 experts recommended by the prime minister and several ministries. Among them are scientists, journalists, diplomats, and former representatives of the Internal Security Agency and other special services.

According to Stróżyk, the new commission will work in thematic groups focusing on the economy, state security in its broadest sense, and the media. The commission's scope will cover events in Poland over the last twenty years, from 2004 to 2024. It may also examine potential Russian and Belarusian influence on the farmers' protests this past spring, investigate the causes and consequences of the migration crisis on the Belarusian border, and address the issue of strengthening Poland's eastern border. The commission is expected to present its initial findings in early August 2024.

Tusk has called the new group a “commission of experts,” one that “will not turn into a media circus” — meaning that it will work largely in secret. Such a step indicates that the government plans to send its findings directly to the Polish prosecutor's office and security services. However, as Tusk himself has admitted, he had “no desire to prevent Jarosław Kaczyński from participating in the European elections, so the investigation began only after the vote,” which took place earlier this month.

Still, while promising secrecy, Tusk seemingly could not resist announcing what he expects the investigation will find. “We are tightening the informational noose around Antoni Macierewicz,” the Prime Minister said. “This means that we have accumulated a lot of information about his activities, and it just needs to be sorted and organized.”

Tusk's main political claim — one that could potentially lead to criminal charges against his domestic rivals — is that for the eight years PiS was in power, Poland’s security services ignored Russian agents of influence, prioritizing party interests over the country's. While there is a war on Poland's border and fighter jets sometimes have to be scrambled in response to potential Russian threats, PiS and Confederation repeat the mantra that all of Poland’s problems come from Brussels and Berlin, Tusk says.

But the prime minister’s Civic Coalition risks losing one key ally in its fight against PiS. Szymon Hołownia, leader of the Third Way and Speaker of the Sejm, has already come out against the “Polish-Polish war,” saying he would prefer that the state’s security services, not the government, do the job of identifying Russian agents of influence.

The leader of the liberal-centrist Civic Coalition party, Donald Tusk, became prime minister for the third time as a result of Poland’s 2023 parliamentary elections. The voting ended the eight-year dominance of the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) in power. To achieve this outcome, the Civic Coalition formed a broad alliance with the left (Lewica) and moderate centrists (Third Way, which included the popular Polish Peasant Party).

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