Dirty Tricks in Warsaw

The last five years of velvet revolutions in postcommunist Europe have proven that the political and economic processes in one country in transition can have powerful repercussions in neighboring ones. Yet none of these countries will learn from the mistakes of others.

A political and economic bellwether, Poland is currently in the throes of a leadership crisis. Political and financial scandals are hardly news in Eastern Europe. But the forced resignation of Prime Minister Josef Oleksy -- over allegations that he spied for Moscow -- is the first such scandal to be publicly linked to the former patron state, Russia, and to Russian intelligence no less.

This fact and the scale of the scandal in Poland -- a comparatively stable state politically, gathering speed economically and unencumbered by a Chechnya -- prompts one to certain conclusions concerning Russian foreign policy, Russian-Polish relations and Russia's internal political struggles.

Coverage of the Oleksy affair in the Russian media has been exceedingly one-sided. So far, only television journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov on his weekly news analysis "Itogi" has tied the scandal to the proposed enlargement of NATO: Moscow may have wanted to discredit the Polish leadership (the former prime minister is usually mentioned in tandem with the president, former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski) in order to undermine Poland's chances of joining NATO.

Russians realize that Poland's left wing will do all it can to promote possible membership in NATO since this would be an undeniable feather in its cap at home and abroad -- which is why Russian intelligence has been charged with the task of compromising the Polish left. Even before winning last year's presidential election, Kwasniewski made it clear that joining NATO would be one of his administration's top priorities.

Although Oleksy has yet to be formally charged, Russian intelligence is already perceived as a prime witness in the case. Asked if the KGB was to blame in the Oleksy affair, former Polish Interior Minister A. Macherevic said: No, the KGB was not to blame because there is no KGB anymore. There are several services whose actions and interests do not always coincide.

On the other hand, those who say the same allegations being made about Oleksy could be made about half of Poland's political elite have a point. That was the reality in the socialist camp. Those were the rules. Information was exchanged around dinner tables, on hunting trips, in the baths. Nobody considered it espionage, one didn't have to be an agent to play the game. Nobel Laureate and former Polish president Lech Walesa does not deny that "he may have signed something along the line." And the West was well aware of these rules. So the Oleksy affair is hardly likely to influence NATO's decision on enlargement.

NATO aside, the scandal has clearly complicated the overdue business of improving Russian-Polish relations. The endless articles larded with the epithet "KGB agent" cannot fail to create the popular impression that Oleksy was just that. Meanwhile, Russia and Poland have a host of mutual problems to solve, including economic cooperation, transportation, illegal migration, terrorism, narcotics trafficking and the arms trade.

The internal politics of this crisis, however, is the most important of all. Kwasniewski has now decided to do what even the leaders of Solidarity could not: to conduct background checks on members of government. This decision will strengthen the political role of Polish intelligence. Selective checks ? what Walesa calls "smart checks" ? would clearly become a punitive instrument.

The inertia of Bolshevist "special methods" is at work in Poland, initatiated by the ones who brought down the Bolshevist regime. It is no accident that the Oleksy affair was made public by Walesa only after losing his bid for re-election.

During every change of power, Poland's Tribuna daily newspaper wrote recently, intelligence is used first to whip up public protest and then to channel it. Thus General Wojciech Jaruzelski subordinated intelligence to the military leaders before imposing martial law. When Walesa was president, the reorganized intelligence service served not just one idea, but one man. The parallels with Russian political reality are sadly clear, except that here, as the Pervomaiskoye tragedy showed, the military leaders take orders from intelligence.

One of Poland's greatest essayists and thinkers, Adam Michnik, wrote in a recent editorial that the people interested in an all-out confrontation are the people who reject the results of the last election and would use the accusations against the former prime minister to attack the government's constitutional order. It will take efforts on both sides of the barricades to avert the logic of a murderous confrontation, Michnik concludes; otherwise we will all drown in the morass.

With five months to go until the presidential elections in Russia, the barricades are already up. And Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's chances of winning, the polls tell us, are good. Russia's greatest achievement on the road to democracy is the fact the parliamentary elections were held. That the Communists received a relative majority is, evidently, natural and to be expected of a society in transition.

Poland's experience suggests that a left-wing government is not the greatest danger to democracy. The greatest danger is when special methods are employed against legally elected representatives, creating havoc in a society tired of cataclysms -- when power struggles threaten to shatter the fragile foundations of constitutionalism. Will Russia manage to learn this time from the mistakes of its neighbor?

Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Academy of Sciences' USA and Canada Institute. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.