As a young Solidarity activist in 1980 Radek Sikorski worshipped Lech Walesa. Ten years later, as deputy defence minister in Poland's first freely elected government, he met President Walesa, a political thug bent on buying nuclear weapons from the Russiansby Radek Sikorski / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
By my final year at secondary school, aged 17, I was a hardened anti-communist. On 1st September 1980, the ceremony marking the beginning of my last academic year was as tedious as always: the same communist slogans, the same wooden speeches. But in the boys’ lavatory there were excited whispers. “Who is this man Walesa? Why did he need such a huge pen?” Television pictures had showed him the night before signing the historic Gdansk agreement with a pen in the shape of a huge cigar. We eagerly exchanged bits of information we picked up from the official media, foreign broadcasts and the grapevine.
Outside school, the streets had changed. Usually, tired, grey people shuffled from shop window to shop window in the hope of hunting down a piece of meat or a roll of toilet paper. But now the crowds were smiling; queues reverberated with chatter. I noticed a driver stop at a zebra crossing and motion pedestrians to go first instead of charging ahead, horn blaring. I had experienced this mood twice before: it was the same feeling of participation in something greater than ourselves that we had felt when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, and then when he had come to Poland the previous summer.
Everybody was talking politics. My father was elected head of the Solidarity branch in his architectural office. My mother travelled to the Solidarity headquarters in Gdansk, and brought uncensored newspapers to her co-workers. Then we saw Walesa in the flesh. He had a brother in Bydgoszcz, my home town; Walesa’s rally there was one of his first public appearances outside Gdansk. The largest hall in the city was full to capacity. We came away charmed and impressed. Nobody could repeat what Walesa actually said-he spoke ungrammatically, in a proletarian jargon-but he gave the impression of being sincere. We guessed what he meant because we assumed that his were the same thoughts as ours, long stultified by lies and censorship.
In Bydgoszcz, as in the rest of the country, Solidarity branches sprang up in most factories and offices. Within days, the regional Solidarity headquarters (by the river Brda, in the same building in which my grandmother lived) became a power in the city. Bydgoszcz had two leaders who complemented each other: Antoni Tokarczuk, the nephew of a patriotic bishop, and Janek Rulewski, who became one of the dozen best known national Solidarity figures. A tall, commanding figure, he had a history of resistance to communism as early as his army service where, it was said, he had refused to swear an oath of allegiance because it contained an undertaking to defend socialism and the Soviet Union. The authorities made the mistake of giving him a lowly job at Romet, Poland’s biggest manufacturer of bicycles and one of the largest factories in Bydgoszcz. This put Rulewski in touch with the workers, who chose him to lead their revolt. The 16 months of Solidarity’s legal existence between 1980 and 1981 have been described as a “self-limiting revolution”-Walesa and his advisers in Gdansk moderated their demands hoping to work out a co-existence between the free trade union and the communists. But “our” Rulewski would have none of it. In interviews he brushed aside talk of a possible Soviet intervention. At a rally, he said he would march on Moscow barefoot if need be. Afterwards, the local communist governor sent him a box with a pair of sneakers.
Needless to say we, the local schoolboys, loved Janek. I should have been cramming for my exams but it was much more fun to hang around the Solidarity headquarters. My English, already good, came in handy. I translated newspaper clippings for our local Solidarity paper, called Wolne Zwiazki (Free Trade Unions).
Several of us from the same school also started an underground organisation, modestly called Zwiazek Wyzwolenia Narodowego (the National Liberation League). Like every self-respecting underground movement, we printed a bulletin, Orzel Bialy (the White Eagle). We held forth about the evils of communism, the truth about the Katyn massacre of Polish officers, and the perniciousness of Soviet domination. We obtained the stencils at the Solidarity headquarters and a friendly printer ran it off in the dead of night. On one occasion we bought buckets, wide brushes and glue, and spent an exciting night pasting the bulletin all over town. Socialist sloth was for once our ally: the streets were dark, lit only with poor-quality bulbs, half of them missing. We smeared the posters with glue all over, which made them nearly impossible to tear off. We worked swiftly and systematically: one team along the May Day Avenue, another in Dluga Street, a third in Dworcowa.
It was well past midnight and we had still not been interrupted, so we decided to risk sticking posters on the wall of the regional Communist party headquarters. It was an imposing building, distant and well lit, but you could approach to within several steps through a subway. Our hearts pounding and our hands shaking, Stefan and I went forward to apply the posters. The plaster on the building was uneven, so the paper would not stick. Finally, after we had applied half a bucket of glue, the poster stayed.
The next day I could not wait to see the impact we had made. Our campaign had been a great success. We joined groups reading our bulletins, pricking up our ears for their comments. They were mostly friendly. One elderly lady, referring to Stefan’s radical piece about the presence of Soviet troops in Poland, said: “Those who wrote this have their heads screwed on right.” We nodded in agreement.
a lot happened to me and my country in the following ten years. After being active in Solidarity, I was granted political asylum in Britain in 1982. I studied at Oxford, worked as a journalist and wrote a book about the mujahedin in Afghanistan. In 1989, with communism crumbling, I returned home and while working as a journalist began restoring a dilapidated manor house called Chobielin. One day in February 1992 I was working on the roof when a telephone call came through from Warsaw.
Polish telephone charges being extortionate, I hurtled down to get it and picked up the receiver, panting. “The minister of defence would like to speak to you,” a voice said. I heard a click followed by the voice of Jan Parys, the first civilian minister of defence since communism’s collapse. He had been appointed a couple of months before but had already made a name for himself. He had forced his communist predecessor to retire and called for faster withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland.
I knew him well. Now in his early 40s, he had dealt with western embassies on behalf of a part of the underground opposition in the 1980s. I liked his clear language, the legacy of his studies in philosophy. His wife Malgosia ran a salon in her Warsaw villa. Our first fully democratic elections had been held a few months before and it was in her salon that the first coalition government of that parliament was formed. I knew Parys liked my articles, and he had read my book about the Afghan war. We had spent hours discussing how our army could draw lessons from a war in which a poor, small country defended itself against the might of the Soviet Army.
He said he wanted me to consider becoming his deputy, in charge of security policy and the army’s international relations, which meant contacts with Nato. I said I would think about it and ring him back. A deputy minister’s pay was at the time $266 per month. This meant a 95 per cent pay cut from my job as Rupert Murdoch’s representative in Poland, so the restoration of Chobielin was bound to slow.
What Parys wanted was no less than to overhaul our entire Soviet-style defence establishment. Our top brass had been trained at Soviet military academies for the task of invading northern Germany and Denmark. Now the only possible danger came from the east. Poland had specialised in aggressive weapons: aircraft and tanks. What we needed for self-defence were anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Our ministry of defence did not have a single department devoted to strategy: the orders had always come from Moscow. Seventy per cent of our troops were stationed west of the Vistula, poised to attack Nato. In the east, we were completely exposed. Our air defences were antiquated and our military intelligence had for decades been subordinate to the Soviets.
I needed about 30 seconds to make up my mind. I spoke the west’s language, both literally and metaphorically, and had contacts in the British and US military establishments from the time when I had lectured on Afghanistan. Unlike the great majority of our officers, I had seen a war, and a victorious one at that. If we managed to get an inch closer to Nato, our cycle of war and occupation might at last be broken. To serve a free Poland was what I had dreamed of in exile. I rang back and accepted.
My conversations with Parys lasted all of two minutes, but they were a crucial early mistake. They were picked up by the military intelligence (WSI), who bugged the minister’s own telephone, “for his protection,” as they later claimed. Parys’s desire to reform the Polish army was hardly shared by all of the officer corps. In the past, those who toed the Soviet line had been rewarded with promotions and foreign postings. Now, their future looked uncertain.
My appointment was bound to raise an eyebrow or two. I was young for the job-only 29-and I held a second (British) passport, which I had acquired when, with everybody else, I had assumed that communist rule was eternal and I would live in exile for the rest of my life. Second passports held by politicians are not so unusual in countries with convoluted histories. Two pre-war Polish presidents had held Swiss passports and even in 1992 several newly appointed Polish ambassadors had come from the Polish diaspora in the west. As a journalist, I flattered myself, I would be able to handle the media attention better than most. I imagined that the media would like three things about my record: that I had been educated in the west; that I had helped the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan; and that I was restoring Chobielin. I was wrong on all counts.
“Rambo has landed!” “God save Poland!” screamed the headlines. I must be a CIA agent, one newspaper argued. After all, I had written a paper for a London defence institute which had a former CIA director on its board. No, I was a British agent, suggested another. Who but the Secret Intelligence Service could have paid for me to go to Oxford?
Reporters did not stalk me on the doorstep. In fact, nobody ever asked me any factual questions. The rumour mill just fed on itself. Someone had heard some snippet from an acquaintance and rushed it into print. Once in print, it was treated as fact, which gave grounds for ever wilder conjectures. Even my travels with the Afghan resistance counted against me. Was I in favour of those guerrillas who produced drugs, or did I favour those who specialised in throwing acid in women’s faces? A sober news magazine even pronounced gravely that I should go to jail for serving in Afghanistan without the permission of the Polish authorities.
On the first day after my appointment, my ministerial car drew up in front of my flat in Warsaw. It was an old Polonez, communist Poland’s answer to the Volvo. I opened the door and the driver, a young recruit in soldier’s uniform, saluted me and made a brief report. I made a joke, but he only stiffened. It was a ten-minute drive from the vicinity of the old town where I kept a flat (one room an office, the other a bedroom-described by the media as “luxurious”) to the ministry of defence building across the street from the then presidential palace at the Belvedere.
My office was in a small villa at the back of the main compound. There was a garden sloping down towards a fence and behind it, no further than 200 yards away, a pile of stone slabs with porticoes and window frames in the heavy neo-classical style so beloved by dictators-the Russian embassy. I never bothered to have the villa swept for bugs. At this distance, the Russians could listen to us with direction microphones. It was a ludicrous site for the defence ministry-that is, if you wanted to conduct a policy independent of Russia.
The office itself was a long room with large windows, reputedly used by General Jaruzelski to record the speech which announced the imposition of martial law in December 1981. Now it was drab and looked empty, as if someone had left in a hurry. I asked for a telephone connection to Brussels. “Three hours wait, two with luck, minister,” replied Pani Halina, my secretary. I could not dial direct to anywhere outside Warsaw. Those trying to reach me were often connected to the teachers’ common room of a primary school in another part of town. Yet I was responsible for the foreign relations of a 220,000 strong army.
Later that day, I took part in the first military council. Several faces were openly hostile. They included some of the generals who had been members of the Wron, the military junta which ran Poland under martial law. They knew that this was likely to be one of their last military councils. They were right. Parys had them sacked within a fortnight.
The chief of military intelligence, Admiral Wawrzyniak, briefed us. Menacing Nato aircraft had been probing our air space and Nato ships were skirting our territorial waters. Parys did not want to embarrass the old spy in front of his colleagues and had a quiet word with him afterwards. Nato, he explained, were now our friends and potential allies. At the next meeting, our strategic situation had been transformed. The admiral now warned that Russian aircraft were menacing our airspace and Russian ships were skirting our territorial waters.
A few days later Parys invited me for supper at Helen?2w, a closed military compound a dozen kilometres from Warsaw. After supper, we took a walk around the biggest pond, Parys’s two bodyguards hovering behind us, just out of hearing.
“What do you think would happen if Poland acquired nuclear weapons?” asked Parys.
I looked at him. His face was tense, expectant. He was not joking. I thought for a moment. Poland was a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. There was no point in having nuclear weapons if the potential adversary did not know about it. But if the adversary knew, then everybody was likely to know too. In the wake of the discovery of Saddam Hussein’s secret nuclear programme, the west was understandably concerned about nuclear proliferation.
“You mean, we have developed them?”
“No. We can buy them.”
“The former KGB. They are selling everything. We can have five tactical nuclear warheads for $1m.”
“I think we should decline. If they find out, the US will classify us as another Libya or Iraq. And if they are kept under wraps, then what’s the point?”
“I’m glad you think so. I’m also resisting it.”
It had not been his idea. The head of military intelligence, the same admiral who had given us the briefing, had made a secret appointment with him, laid some papers on a table, and said: “By order of President Walesa, please sign this authorisation.”
It was an order to proceed with the purchase of the warheads. The added twist was that the sellers were to be cheated out of their payment. The swap was to happen on Polish territory. Our troops would stand by and take the money back soon after the transaction. The operation was practically “without risk,” the admiral had said. Walesa was pressing Parys about it. Walesa’s former chauffeur, a murky figure called Mieczyslaw Wachowski, now chief of staff, approached Parys at a reception and said: “You do what we tell you and you’ll be minister for ever.” Fortunately, Parys’s signature was necessary for the disbursement of money from the secret intelligence fund.
Was it possible that Walesa would be so reckless? I had met him for the first time since March 1981 a couple of months before, when I interviewed him for Polish state television to mark the first anniversary of his presidency. I had gone to the presidential palace a Walesa supporter. In 1991, when most of the Warsaw establishment had been denouncing him, I wrote articles defending him. In front of the cameras, I was respectful and sympathetic. After all, “our” Lech was president at last. But Walesa interpreted my sympathy as weakness, failed to answer any questions, and simply ranted incoherently. Only ten minutes of the 40-minute tape were remotely usable. Walesa exuded strength, but it was not tempered by civility or even a trace of modesty. I was appalled by the atmosphere around him in the presidential palace. The language was that of the beer hall; the ambience that of a gang of racketeers. The yes-men in his entourage pandered to him as if to some African tribal chief. I left the presidential palace humiliated, ashamed and saddened. Humiliated by his rudeness, ashamed of having been blind enough to support him for so long and saddened that a man who had achieved immortality was in the process of destroying his own greatness.
Since that time, news had seeped out that during the anti-Gorbachev coup in Moscow the previous year, Walesa had written a letter of congratulation to the hardline plotters which was intercepted only at the last minute by the then prime minister. Now Walesa was doing the rounds of European capitals peddling the idea of a second Nato, a plan for some kind of east European military alliance which might include Russia and to which Russia would cede its nuclear arsenal. It was either na?ve or crazy, particularly as he had failed to consult even his own chancellery, let alone the foreign ministry or us at defence. I had to face the fact that my former hero was half Mahatma Gandhi, half village yokel, and you could never be sure which side would predominate. He seemed capable of anything.
But his attempt to acquire nuclear weapons could have been a disaster in a league of its own. If news of the operation had leaked out, Poland could have become a pariah state. Our credibility as a new democracy and our chances of joining the institutions of the west would disappear. Perhaps that was indeed the point. Perhaps the Russians were trying to draw us deeper into the intrigue and then blow the whistle. The whole world would learn how irresponsible the Poles were-better that they were kept under the thumb of a more reliable power.
Parys refused to sign the authorisation. Walesa and his people stepped up the pressure, but Parys stood firm. Instead of toying with nuclear weapons, we decided to sack the people who had devised the plan, first of all, Admiral Wawrzyniak. It was ludicrous for him to pretend that such an operation carried “no risk.”
This was the spring of 1992, only a few months after the failed coup against Gorbachev and just weeks after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Soviet troops still occupied Poland. Meanwhile, the WSI was the last institution in Poland that had not been touched by reform. In communist times, particularly during the 1980s, it had been much more than just the eyes and ears of the army. Under martial law, the army ran the country. The WSI, with cells in every military unit, kept an eye on the army itself. It was General Jaruzelski’s ultimate instrument of control. Had the coup in Moscow succeeded and the Soviet Union and the old guard reasserted its control, the WSI could have tried to re-establish their stranglehold over Poland.
A month later, Parys summoned the admiral to his office without warning, with a paramilitary unit in reserve in case of resistance. His replacement-a general from outside WSI-was already waiting. We drove to the WSI headquarters in convoy: Parys in an armour-plated car in the front, his bodyguards in another. I took his chef de cabinet in my Polonez. In the event, the handover went without a hitch. Walesa was furious. He liked having as cronies men who were compromised. He did not mind old communist spies, as long as they were useful in hatching his intrigues. Three years later, when he fought for re-election as a champion of anti-communism, I had to smile.