WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Interference from “abroad” could be behind the eavesdropping of the compromising conversation between two Polish top leaders, some claim as a political scandal grows and threatens to topple the government in the Eastern European country.
Though no evidence has emerged to that effect, in the current context that’s understood as a reference to Russia, whose relations with Poland have worsened due to Warsaw’s strong opposition to the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine.
The crisis broke five days ago when the popular weekly magazine Wprost released a secretly taped conversation between Poland’s central bank head and the country’s interior minister in which they appear to be colluding over how the bank could help the governing party win re-election in 2015. That would amount to a violation of the bank’s independence.
Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Thursday that early elections within weeks may be necessary to calm the situation, but he vowed not to step down now.
“I will not resign in response to actions that, we all know, had criminal character, and, maybe were …. aimed at the government’s resignation or fall,” Tusk said.
So far only one suspect has emerged in the criminal investigation of the case: the manager of the restaurant where the talks took place, identified only as Lukasz N. The magazine has referred to its right to protect its sources, but has also suggested that past or current secret agents, a business group or Tusk’s political opponents could be behind the recording.
Some officials are suggesting interference from the Kremlin.
“There’s a difficult international situation,” the leader of the opposition Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski said earlier this week. “We don’t know where this information came from. It could be an intervention from abroad. We have to protect this government.”
Gen. Marek Dukaczewski, a retired head of military intelligence, said he feels certain the bugging was not the work of Polish security forces. In an interview with the newspaper Polska The Times, he said it’s more likely the work of “foreign services hostile to us, who have used part of the material for their own internal needs, but also want to cause some turbulence on our internal arena.”
In past days Poland has been completely focused on the new crisis, pushing aside its earlier focus on Ukraine, said Marcin Zaborowski, the head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. That of course, serves Moscow’s interest, but is not enough to consider the Russian connection “a viable theory” at this point, he said.
Edward Lucas, author of the book “Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West,” argued that Russia does have a “big interest in destabilizing Poland,” though he too stresses that there is no evidence.
“The Russians are experts at bugging and at information warfare,” he said. “Clearly Poland is a major problem for Russia at the moment.”
Polish-Russian ties have been tense for years but took a turn for the worse with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Poland is staunchly pro-West and has reacted to the violence in Ukraine by pledging to increase its defense budget and calling for a permanent NATO presence on its soil. For years it has taken the lead in the EU in trying to encourage democratic and Western values in Ukraine.
And the Russians are known for using bugged conversations to embarrass political opponents.
In February, a bugged phone call posted on YouTube with Russian subtitles captured U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland dismissing the European Union with an expletive in frustration over Europe’s pace in helping Ukraine. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the video was “a new low in Russian tradecraft,” indirectly suggesting that Russia was responsible for bugging the call.
Lucas, the author, said there was “a lot of Russian intelligence activity” directed against Poland before it joined NATO in 1999 but it diminished in recent years as Polish counter-intelligence has improved. Still, from time to time Russian spies are caught spying on Poland from within its borders or from elsewhere in Europe, he said.
“There is no doubt that Poland is a major Russian intelligence target,” he said.