BERLIN, Germany — A major scandal consuming the government in Poland is threatening to derail the career of the brightest star in Polish politics as it exposes a hidden rift between Washington and a once-staunch ally.
Recorded surreptitiously in an opulent Warsaw restaurant and leaked to the swashbuckling right-wing magazine Wprost this week, the so-called Warsawgate tapes purport to reveal the country's central banker angling to pull strings in the government and a former minister negotiating with the head of the Polish equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service to quash a probe of his wife's dental practice.
But the most shocking revelation came in the crude language of Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski — a Twitter-savvy, Oxford-educated former journalist once thought to be among America's strongest supporters in Warsaw and a frontrunner in the behind-the-scenes race for foreign policy chief of the European Union.
“This is a wonderful instrument to undermine his chances this time around to gain an important European position,” says Konstanty Gebert, a veteran Polish political analyst associated with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“His job in Poland is safe, but if he tries for more, those tapes will re-emerge,” he adds. “They're bound to hound him for life.”
Sikorski eclipsed German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier during the early days of Ukraine’s crisis earlier this year, playing a main role in brokering negotiations between then-President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition, and claiming the lion's share of accolades for averting a Tiananmen Square-style bloodbath.
A former war correspondent who’s married to the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Anne Applebaum and dined at the same Oxford old boys' club as British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, Sikorski's ambitions run high.
Poles believe he’s aiming as high as the presidency if not the prime minister's office.
Now he hopes — or hoped — to succeed the UK's Catherine Ashton as the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs or Denmark's Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary general.
But the tape scandal shows him to be more Rahm Emmanuel than Barack Obama.
“The running joke at the Foreign Affairs Ministry is 'What's the difference between God and Sikorski?’” Gebert says. “’God doesn't think he's Sikorski,'”
Heard on tape excoriating his countrymen for their pride in giving “the Americans a blowjob,” Sikorski describes Poland's alliance with the US as “worthless” and uses a racist epithet to disparage what he calls the slave mentality of his fellow Poles.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk has so far declined to dump Sikorski or respond to calls for snap polls to re-establish the government's legitimacy.
As damage control, the foreign ministry has said that Sikorski was actually parroting what the opposition was saying at the time.
Experts point out that even if the recording does reflect the foreign minister's own views, the tapes date back to February, when Washington had yet to take a strong stance on Ukraine’s crisis and offer Warsaw the security assurances it wanted in response to the Kremlin’s aggression.
Still, the harsh words — which have drawn comparisons to the embarrassing recording of US diplomat Victoria Nuland that hit Youtube in February — suggest Obama's 2013 revision of a planned missile defense system in Europe and much ballyhooed pivot to Asia may have damaged relations with Poland more than previously believed.
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Some rumors blame the tape scandal on Russian spies, and Sikorski himself has said the recordings represent an attack against the government by “organized criminals.”
But in a country that attributes everything, including bad weather, to Moscow, blaming the usual suspects may not be enough to prevent a temporary damping of Poland's rising star even if Sikorski doesn't flame out altogether.
“These tapes are very damaging to the image that Poland has built for itself, with hard work, as a serious, responsible, normal country,” Gebert says.