Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
The November arrest of Aleksander Gawronik brought back the wild and violent days of Poland's early economic transformation, when shady former (and often not so former) communist secret agents rubbed shoulders with gangsters, businessmen and politicians in the mad scramble to make a fortune as Poland lurched from dead-end communism to unregulated capitalism.
Gawronik was all of those things. A lawyer, a Communist Party apparatchik and former agent of Poland's feared security service, who became a businessman in the 1980s, raising mushrooms and fixing cars before hitting the big time in 1989, when he used his top-level contacts to open Poland's first chain of legal money exchange offices. By 1990, he was the richest Pole.
His fall was just as swift. The police were hard on his heels by the early 1990s. He was convicted three times, and has so far spent nine years in prison after being sentenced for tax fraud and other economic crimes.
He now faces his most serious charges; he is accused of arranging the murder of investigative journalist Jaroslaw Zietara, who disappeared in Poznan in 1992 at the age of 24. No trace of him has ever been found and authorities are convinced he was killed.
Gawronik, 66, was arrested in early November and was placed in preventative custody as prosecutors build a case against him. He denies all charges. “The evidence gathered by us indicates that it was actually Aleksander G (as Gawronik is referred to under Polish public information laws) who persuaded concrete people to undertake the kidnapping and murder of Jaroslaw Zietara,” Piotr Kosmaty, a prosecutor, told reporters.
If convicted, Gawronik faces a possible life sentence, marking his final fall from grace.
Gawronik, a tough-looking man with close-cropped grey hair who favours thin, wire-framed glasses, seemed to be one of the biggest winners of Poland's economic transformation. He had left the Communist Party, and his short period of work as a secret police agent, by the end of the 1970s. Instead of ideology, he spent the next decade trying to make money in Poland's shortage-plagued economy, eventually joining in the black-market currency trade in Poznan in central Poland.
His chance for really big money came in 1989, when Mieczyslaw Rakowski, Poland's last communist prime minister, tried a last-gasp attempt to revive the country's failing economy. Rakowski turned to Mieczyslaw Wilczek, a non-ideological businessman and inventor, who became his minister of industry. Wilczek, who died earlier this year, pushed through radical reforms ending most restrictions on economic activity.
Those steps came too late to save the Communists, who were trounced in partly free elections held in June 1989, but they did unleash a wave of entrepreneurial activity. In those early days there were almost no rules, and access to the powerful could make a quick fortune. That was when Gawronik acted, using his connections to get to Rakowski and got permission to open the first private network of currency change bureaus. According to the Polityka news weekly, Gawronik also promised powerful interior ministry generals that their people would get jobs in his new business.
The day before new regulations allowing the the legal exchange of zlotys was to come into effect, Gawronik sent a fleet of taxis and workers to western Poland, quickly opening six offices close to crowded border crossings.
The new currency exchange offices proved to be an enormous hit, helped by an agreement with a German company which allowed Poles shopping in Germany to get their VAT back immediately. Instead of quietly ruling the incredibly lucrative currency exchange market, Gawronik quickly sold out, and jumped to take over Art-B, a shady conglomerate built by two Poles who had fled the country in 1991 after being investigated by prosecutors.
Gawronik also became the subject of police investigators, who accused him of stealing money and art from the company. His trial was to begin in 1993. Unlike the Art-B founders, who had fled to Israel, Gawronik escaped into politics, winning a seat in the Polish senate in 1993, which afforded him immunity from prosecution.
He left the senate in 1997, and was convicted in 2002, 2005 and 2007 for a variety of economic crimes. He last left prison in 2013 for a period of house arrest after failing to pay a large fine.
While Gawronik tangled with the courts, Poland's slow and often very ineffective police system slowly looked into Zietara's disappearance. Zietara had been looking into economic crimes in Poznan when he walked out of his apartment to go to work September 1992, and was never seen again. The authorities suspended their investigation in 1995, citing a lack of evidence, and again in 1999. Finally, in 2011, the editors of Poland's leading newspapers appealed to the government for more vigorous action, something former prime minister Donald Tusk promised to do.
The police began combing through old evidence, using modern techniques to hunt for DNA and fingerprints that were unavailable in the 1990s. By November, they were convinced that Gawronik was their man and that Zietara had been killed because of his work as an investigative journalist.
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