Poland: Paper Chase

Rywingate, also known as the Rywin scandal or Rywin affair, is Poland’s most serious corruption scandal in a decade. Involving efforts by a film mogul to bribe the editor of Poland’s most popular newspaper, it reveals flaws in democratic rule just as the country is set to join the European Union.

As the story goes, in the summer of 2002, Lew Rywin, the producer of Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning movie The Pianist, solicited a bribe of $17.5 million from former dissident and Gazeta Wyborcza editor Adam Michnik in exchange for amendments to a media bill that would have enabled the paper’s parent company, Agora, to enter the television business. Rywin claimed to be speaking for people in the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Though Michnik taped his conversations, he did not publicly acknowledge them until his paper broke the story in December, claiming that he sought to salvage Poland’s bid to join the E.U. by delaying until after the Copenhagen summit the same month. Prime Minister Leszek Miller, a friend of Rywin, and President Aleksander Kwasniewski were said to be aware of the shakedown, but they, too, remained silent until news of the bribery became public.

In January, Parliament set up a commission to investigate the scandal, but the prime minister and president have yet to tes-tify before it. So far, the scandal’s namesake has come off better than almost everyone else involved in the matter. As Marcin Prezwozniak noted in Warsaw's independent weekly Zycie Warszawy on Feb. 24, “The producer’s lawyers were triumphant. Their client did not answer one single question, taking advantage of his right to refuse testimony.” President Kwasniewski, a founder of the SLD, has sought to distance himself from Miller, pointing to the prime minister’s, rather than his own, failure to turn to prosecutors.

Janina Paradowska, writing in Warsaw's independent weekly Polityka (April 5), noted the irony of the president’s moralizing on how the country’s elites had allowed lines between state and business to blur. “In truth, there was grumbling within the SLD that the president had gone too far, because he himself was an important co-creator of this intermingling.” Lukasz Perzyna, in an article in Warsaw's centrist Rzeczpospolita titled “Disaster in Installments” (April 4), observed that the war in Iraq allowed the prime minister and president to stand tall briefly before Rywingate reared its ugly head. “Leszek Miller clearly seems to be finished as prime minister. Is he also finished as a party leader? He is putting up a strong fight with Aleksander Kwasniewski.” If Miller stepped down,  Perzyna noted, “only Kwasniewski could be the architect of a new order—within the SLD or as overseer of a cabinet.” In Warsaw's conservative weekly Gazeta Polska, Anita Gargas claimed that “the Rywin affair is very dangerous for the SLD,” citing Justice Minister Grzegorz Kurczuk’s warning of permanent harm to the party (April 2).

The parliamentary investigative commission has proved to be a test of Polish democracy. A record 86,000 viewers tuned in to the commission’s first hearing on the all-news TVN 24 channel.