Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Radek Sikorski has had a terrible last year, and unfortunately for the former Polish foreign minister and now parliamentary speaker, the troubles that are threatening to derail his political career are showing no sign of ending – something that has senior politicians predicting his imminent political death.
Sikorski, 51, started 2014 as an international star. He had been one of the main promoters of the idea of trying to rope ex-Soviet republics like Ukraine and Moldova more closely to the EU through the Eastern Partnership – a Polish-Swedish initiative. The decision by former Ukrainain president Viktor Yanukovych to back away from an EU free trade and association deal that in large part stemmed from that scheme set off a rebellion that ended up overthrowing his kleptocratic regime and led to the current confrontation with Russia. Sikorski jetted into Kyiv in February 2014, playing a key role in getting Yanukovych to stop shooting at protesters.
Those successes made him a viable candidate to take over as the EU's new foreign policy chief, which probably marked the Oxford-educated minister's public peak. It has all been downhill since then.
Blow after blow
First, Poland was sidelined from talks over Ukraine, replaced by France and Germany when the confrontation over eastern Ukraine turned into a Russian-backed war.
Then Sikorski became the subject of an international scandal in June after an earlier dinner chat in a fancy restaurant with former finance minister Jacek Rostowski was illegally recorded and splashed across the pages of the Wprost news weekly. Sikorski disparaged Poland's alliance with the US, calling it “bullshit” and complaining that the Poles had given the Americans a “blowjob” that annoyed its European allies but did little to improve Poland's security. He also ridiculed UK Prime Minister David Cameron, saying he had “fucked up” his policy towards the EU by trying to appease Eurosceptics in his party.
By the end of the summer, it turned out that the official nomination to replace Catherine Ashton as the EU's top diplomat was only a feint designed by Donald Tusk in his successful campaign to get the EU's senior job, president of the European Council. As Tusk abandoned Polish politics and prepared to move to Brussels, his replacement Ewa Kopacz kicked Sikorski out of his beloved foreign ministry and shunted him into the parliamentary speaker's chair. The post is a bit of a guilded cage, theoretically the second most prestigious job in the country after the presidency, but in reality a bit of a paper shuffling post that involves shoving legislation through a fractious parliament instead of strutting the world's political salons.
Just weeks into his new job, Sikorski stumbled badly in an interview with Politico, the US news portal, saying that Vladimir Putin had once suggested to Tusk that Poland and Russia divide Ukraine between them. Sikorski had to back away from the story, and in the end Tusk said there had never been such an offer. A furious Kopacz hung Sikorski out to dry.
Things have not improved much since then.
Radek falls off the radar
A scandal that started with a group of MPs from the opposition Law and Justice MPs fiddling with their expenses has now ensnared Sikorski as well. The MPs had improperly claimed mileage for driving their cars to a meeting in Spain (one that they barely bothered to attend), instead flying there on a discount airline and pocketing the difference. As speaker of parliament, Sikorski launched a probe, but then allegations surfaced that he had also improperly claimed 90,000 kilometres of travel on parliamentary business while using his own car at a time when he had access to the limousine and guards provided by the foreign ministry. Sikorski denies wrongdoing, but the expenses are being investigated by prosecutors and the opposition is calling for him to be dismissed.
Over the last couple of weeks, another expenses issue has engulfed Sikorski. This time it turns out that the foreign ministry paid more than PLN250,000 (€59,000) to Charles Crawford, the former UK ambassador in Warsaw, for services as a speechwriter. Crawford, an experienced speechwriter, has a new book out called "Speechwriting for Leaders: Speeches that Leave People Wanting More", pointing out the strong and weak points of speeches by various leaders (including Sikorski). The fact that a foreign adviser knew the details of key Polish speeches that other Polish officials only heard once they were delivered, as well as the cost of that advice has become grist for the opposition's mill, but Sikorski insists it was money well spent. “Should Polish diplomacy play in the regional leagues or in the world extra class?” he tells the Rzeczpospolita newspaper. “I felt that one should spend more money to increase the striking power of Polish diplomacy.”
But the stumbles, scandals and questions have turned Sikorski from an international star into a target of the local press. People joke about his car expenses while waiting at grocery store checkouts. His views on the global political situation are no longer eagerly solicited. “Sikorski doesn't realise it yet but he's a dead man walking,” says a very senior member of his own Civic Platform party, who asked that his name not be used.
He said the chances are very remote that Sikorski could successfully run for the presidency when the job becomes vacant in five years time. “He's finished.”
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