Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Radek Sikorski has made a career out of being very well connected and very visible – which means that his unexpected departure as Poland's foreign minister leaves his successor scrambling to maintain Poland's international position.
Sikorski's preternatural talents for getting on with the great and the good was already apparent during his student days at Oxford. He had shown up at the university as a penniless but ambitious Polish refugee, refusing to return home to a country under martial law. A couple of years later he was being inducted into the Bullingdon Club, a boozing and dining club for rich toffs.
“I was awoken from a deep sleep by a dozen men in tailcoats, who smashed up my furniture, books, hi-fi, everything,” he later recalled. “I was completely dazed. Then Boris [current London mayor Boris Johnson] shook my hand and said, 'Congratulations, you've been elected!'"
Sikorski has been hovering around Polish politics since the early 1990s transformation from communism. But he has always been seen as something of a foreign body, despite his roots in the industrial northern city of Bydgoszcz.
He tried to bring Western ways into the Polish military when serving as deputy defence minister in 1992, at the age of only 29. But as a result he received the nickname “Radek Plakietka,” a play on his attempt to introduce name tags, or plakietki, into the army.
He was deputy foreign minister from 1998-2001, but after the ex-communist left came to power he decamped for Washington, where he worked for the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute.
His foreign credentials, excellent Washington connections and his exotic ways – natty pinstriped suits, barely accented English and gleaming Oxfords shoes – made him a catch as the centre-right prepared to return to power in 2005.
He was made defence minister, but was viewed with growing suspicion by the Kaczynski twins, then president Lech and prime minister Jaroslaw. The 15 months spent at the defence ministry in many ways made Sikorski the man he is today.
First, he had a brutal experience of seeing just where Poland ranked in US priorities. He came to Washington as minister, hoping to use his extensive contacts with people like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to get US help in modernising the Polish military. He got almost nothing – which shook his instinctive pro-Americanism. The disaster of Iraq also shook his confidence in the US.
He then got a close look at the increasingly paranoid tendencies of the Kaczynskis, who soured Poland's relations with Berlin and Brussels and rampaged through the military looking for communist-era spies and agents.
By 2007, he had jumped ship and signed on with Donald Tusk, the leader of the centrist Civic Platform party. When Civic Platform swept to power that year, Sikorski got his dream job as foreign minister.
Eastern Partnership pioneer
The Tusk-Sikorski tandem was greeted with relief across Europe after the chaos and unpredictability of the Kaczynskis. The two quickly patched up Poland's relations with the EU. Instead of making bizarre claims based on its wartime sacrifices, as Jaroslaw Kaczynski had done, Poland became a predictable power, helped along by an economy that shone during the long global crisis.
While Jaroslaw Kaczynski had been consumed with historical grievances against Germany, Tusk and Sikorski quickly made Germany the lynchpin of Poland's foreign policy. Tusk, a German speaker, cultivated a close personal relationship with chancellor Angela Merkel. Sikorski travelled to Berlin in 2011, during the depths of the Eurozone crisis, where he gave a remarkable speech calling on Germany to act to save the EU.
“I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say this, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity,” he said. “You have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You may not fail to lead: not dominate, but to lead in reform.”
Sikorski, together with Sweden's Carl Bildt, helped set up the EU's Eastern Partnership policy, an attempt to rope in ex-Soviet republics into closer ties with the EU. The policy never came to that much, in part because the EU was unwilling to clearly offer countries like Ukraine and Georgia the perspective of membership, and because Russia was not keen to see EU influence move east.
Perhaps the peak of Sikorski's influence came earlier this year, when together with his French and German counterparts he helped negotiate an end to street fighting in Kyiv during the waning hours of the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.
But as the stakes in Ukraine became ever more serious, first with Russia's annexation of Crimea and then with war in eastern Ukraine, Poland was pushed aside by France and Germany, which took the lead in trying to stop the conflict.
Sikorski's ambitions also compelled him to draw in his horns and not complain about being shoved aside. He toned down his anti-Russian comments when it became possible that he would become the EU's foreign policy chief – a job that eventually went to Italy's Federica Mogherini. Sikorski ended up sidelined when Tusk took the EU's most senior post, president of the European Council.
He has long been one of the most ambitious of Poland's politicians. He hoped to become secretary general of Nato, a job taken by Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2009, and by Jens Stoltenberg later this year. He also tried to win his party's nomination for the presidency in 2010, but was easily defeated by the incumbent, Bronislaw Komorowski. Because he was brought into the party by Tusk, he was always seen as lacking his own base of support within Civic Platform.
Civic Platform insiders say that Sikorski ended up leaving the foreign ministry because the new prime minister, Ewa Kopacz, refused his request to become deputy prime minister. He now becomes speaker of parliament – the most overtly political job he has had in his long career. “Radek really wants to become president,” says a senior party official. “Being speaker allows him to build his own power base within the party – something he hasn't had until now.”
Sikorski will have lots of time to build his position – Komorowski is all but certain to win another five-year-term next spring. However, his departure at a time of growing international tensions has left Poland with a foreign policy hole. Even Komorowski was surprised at Kopacz's decision to kick Sikorski upstairs to become speaker and replace him with Grzegorz Schetyna, a cigar-smoking party baron who has shown little interest in foreign policy in the past. “The president was convinced that Sikorski as minister of foreign affairs is needed in the government,” says a nonplussed Tomasz Nalecz, one of Komorowski's senior advisers.
With that less-than-overwhelming vote of confidence from the country's president, Schetyna is facing a tough task in trying to cut the same swathe through diplomatic circles as his suave predecessor.
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