Monday, November 24, 2008

Poland cringes at president's diplomatic blunders

Poland's president has put words in Barack Obama's mouth, kept Condoleezza Rice waiting, and snubbed national icon Lech Walesa.

Now, many Poles are cringing over Lech Kaczynski's gaffes and fretting about the damage to Poland's image.

"He obviously doesn't feel at ease as president," said middle school teacher Wieslawa Ozelska, 57.

A childhood film star who won fame playing a troublemaker alongside his identical twin Jaroslaw, Kaczynski still enjoys support from those who admire his past anti-communist activism, unswerving patriotism and commitment to fighting corruption.

But in three years as head of state, he has made protocol blunders that have raised eyebrows in the carefully choreographed world of foreign diplomacy and made him a frequent butt of jokes.

He is also often faulted for letting personal grudges play out in matters of state.

For instance, he was criticized for not inviting Solidarity founder Walesa, who has come to symbolize the nation's liberation from Soviet dominance, to a recent gala celebrating the 90th anniversary of Poland's independence from Russia, Prussia and Austria.

The slight was seen as deliberate and rooted in animosity that has developed in past years between Kaczynski and Walesa, former pro-democracy allies.

Some blunders appear less calculated.

One high-profile stumble came just days after Obama was elected president. Kaczynski's office issued a statement saying the president-elect promised him during a phone call to stick by George W. Bush's controversial plans to build a missile defense site in Poland.

Very quickly, an Obama adviser said the future president made no such promise, forcing Kaczynski's aides into a humiliating backtrack.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski complained that Kaczynski had caused a diplomatic embarrassment for the country. "We shouldn't be overzealous and put words into the mouth of the president-elect that he didn't say," Sikorski said.

It wasn't the first faux pas with Washington.

In August, Kaczynski held up the signing ceremony of the missile defense deal by 10 minutes, making U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and top Polish officials sit waiting for him in hushed expectation in a large hall at the prime minister's chancellery.

Kaczynski later blamed Prime Minister Donald Tusk's government for his delay, saying he wasn't allowed to use the elevator and was forced to waste time walking up three flights of stairs.

The government denied that, saying Kaczynski had simply arrived late. Many Poles saw the incident as a petty show of power.

"He's a conceited little Napoleon," freelance photographer Wojtek Antoszek, 55, said of the diminutive president. "Totally unfit for the position."

Some observers blame Kaczynski's inexperienced staff. Political analyst Jacek Kucharczyk says the problem is rooted in a suspicion of veteran politicians by Kaczynski and his ex-prime minister brother.

The twins are thought to view anyone with too much experience as potentially compromised by past contacts with former communist rulers or corruption-stained governments that followed.

"He'd rather be surrounded by people whom he trusts than by very competent people whom he doesn't trust," said Kucharcyzk, deputy director of the Warsaw-based think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. "If you are too competent, it's almost suspicious."