Caught on Tape

Great excitement in Poland this week following the publication in Wprost magazine of excerpts from tapes of a conversation between Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, the interior minister and Marek Belka, the president of the national bank of Poland. The tape which was made in July 2013 records a meeting which two held in Warsaw restaurant ostensibly to discuss the security of Poland’s currency but apparently wandering off piste to discuss monetary policy. The state prosecutor is investigating the illegal nature of the recording and the politicians are having a field day, as usual. Why the fuss?

Well, apart from the generally colourful language, the recording appears to show the government asking for help to deal with a budget deficit to increase its chances of winning re-election in 2015 and the President of the bank asking in return for the removal from office of the then finance minister Jacek Rostowski. Rostowski was indeed replaced four months later by Mateusz Szczurek, athough the Prime Minister Donald Tusk claimed earlier this week that this was a coincidence. The prime minister declined to remove the interior minister describing – rather over dramatically you might think, given events elsewhere in the world – the recording of the conversation as a “coup attempt to bring down the government by illegal means”. And never one to miss the opportunity to throw fuel on the fire, opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said on Tuesday that he had written to President Bronislaw Komorowski demanding that the government resign. He claimed that the tapes prove that an “old boy network” was running Poland.

Marek Belka himself has not resigned saying in an interview with TVN: “Financial markets, where my authority counts most, would not disagree with anything I said. I am not considering stepping down”, helpfully adding: “That conversation was not for public consumption.” The prime minister had declined to call for Belka’s resignation saying that however unpleasantly they expressed their opinions, the two were talking about how to help the country, not how to harm it and about joint actions in times of crisis. Besides, the prime minister has no power to remove the head of the Polish central bank who is constitutionally independent and whose current six-year term ends in 2016. “I don’t care who wins elections, though it cannot be said I am a supporter of [the opposition] Law and Justice,” Belka told TVN.

Perhaps I am missing something but it all seems a great deal of fuss about not very much. Of course the illegal recording is an issue worthy of attention, especially if state bodies are involved, but the content of what was recorded on this occasions seems rather less so. The independence of the president of the national bank of Poland is clearly established but it seems odd to assume either that the central bank and government don’t talk or that they should automatically be at each other’s throats if they do. And this is especially true given the short term nature of modern politics when the electorate seems expect a constant diet of good news punctuated every four or five years by elections during rival politicians seek ever more elaborate ways of bribing them with their own money. Private conversations taken out of contact are apt to give a misleading impression. Besides, I imagine that had anything untoward really been planned they might have found a better meeting place.

Be that as it may, on this occasion, the last word goes to Rostowski. Displaying the dry sense of humour which always made his talks more enjoyable than most, he commented that not much can be done as the rules were designed to protect the national bank of Poland from government pressure not the other way round.

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