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Poland: Will cash-for-visas scandal cost PiS the election?

September 19, 2023

Polish consulates are alleged to have issued visas in exchange for bribes. The full scale of the corruption has yet to be determined. Has the scandal wrecked the anti-migration ruling party's chance of reelection?

Two people get off a bus; in the background is an opposition election campaign poster featuring an image of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the words 'I am a threat,' Gliwice, Poland, September 7, 2023
A poster for the Polish opposition features an image of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the words 'I am a threat'Image: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Four weeks out from Poland's parliamentary election on October 15, the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party would appear to have fallen into its own trap.

The ruling right-wing populists have been agitating against refugees from Muslim-majority countries for years. "A secure future for Poles," reads one of the party's campaign slogans. The PiS also claims to be the only party capable of saving Poland, and Europe, from being "flooded" by illegal migrants from Africa and Asia.

Indeed, no less than two of the four questions in the referendum that will take place on the same day as the parliamentary election — and which was organized by the government in an attempt to garner more support — are about migration.

But recent revelations made by independent Polish media are casting a shadow over the government's credibility when it comes to migration.

Media reports allege irregularities and corruption in relation to the issuance of visas in Polish consulates outside Europe.

A soldier patrols along a barbed-wire fence on the Polish–Belarusian border, December 13, 2021
Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which likes to portray itself as being tough on migration, has fortified its border with Belarus to keep out migrantsImage: Marcin Obara/PAP/dpa/picture alliance

The allegations look especially damaging for the PiS which portrays itself as the only guarantee for secure borders.

Poland's deputy foreign minister sacked

When Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk, who was responsible for overseeing Polish consulates around the world among other things, was suddenly sacked on August 31, just a few insiders knew the real reason for his dismissal.

It was only in the second week of September that it became known that the Public Prosecutor's Office had launched investigations into irregularities associated with the granting of visas back in March.

So far, seven people have been arrested, three of whom are still in custody.

Opposition accuses government of hypocrisy

With the election fast approaching, the opposition immediately sensed an opportunity to accuse the PiS, which is running on an anti-migration platform, of hypocrisy.

Poland's former Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk
Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk was dismissed on August 31, officially for 'a lack of satisfactory cooperation'Image: Tomasz Gzell/PAP/picture alliance

"PiS has betrayed its own ideals, its own values. It promised security and created a threat," said Michal Szczerba, a lawmaker for the largest opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), on the television channel TVN on Monday.

Last week, opposition leader Donald Tusk announced that there were question marks hanging over some 250,000 Polish visas issued in Africa and Asia during the past 30 months.

Schengen visas for fake Bollywood film crew

According to reports on the news portal Onet and in the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Wawrzyk fostered a system that allowed the fast-tracking of visa procedures in exchange for bribes. It is also alleged that he put pressure on consular heads to expedite the issuing of visas to people he had selected.

According to Onet, about 36 Indian citizens were granted Schengen multiple entry visas in this way. The Indian citizens apparently posed as workers in the Bollywood movie industry. Onet says that the group even gave the title of the film they were supposedly working on. Upon closer examination, however, it was established that the "choreographer" couldn't dance and the "make-up artist" had never worked in the movie business.

Donald Tusk addresses a crowd in front of a large Polish flag on an outdoor stage, Sopot, Poland, August 27, 2023
The opposition grasped the opportunity to highlight what it sees as the hypocrisy of the government on the subject of migrationImage: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Schengen multiple entry visas are particularly sought-after because they allow the holder to travel within the Schengen Area, Europe's visa-free zone, as well as to Mexico, from where it is easier to be smuggled across the border to America. Onet claims that 21 of the 36 members of the "film crew" in question did just that.

A major scandal or just a 'stupid idea?'

Initially, the government tried to play down the affair and sit it out.

"Tusk speaks of hundreds of thousands. That's a lie, a lie, a downright lie," said PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski at an election rally in Torun last Saturday, launching a counterattack on his biggest rival in the election.

"There is no scandal, not even a little scandal, just a stupid idea with a criminal background," he claimed.

Government accuses opposition of exaggeration

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced that investigations had been opened into exactly 268 cases — not 250,000. He also reported that the public prosecutor was investigating consulates in India, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski delivers his speech during the Law and Justice party conference in Konskie, Poland, September 9, 2023
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has referred to the fast-tracking of Polish visas for migrants as 'a stupid idea with a criminal background'Image: Pawel Malecki/AGENCJA WYBORCZA/REUTERS

Ziobro claimed that it was the Polish secret service which had uncovered the corruption. Independent Polish media, however, claim that it was foreign intelligence services — in particular in the US — who warned Polish authorities.

"No scandal? No little scandal? Then maybe just a tiny scandalette," commented opposition leader Tusk on X, formerly known as Twitter, in response to Kaczynski's claims.

'No visa scandal'

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau rebuffed opposition calls for him to resign. "There was no visa scandal," he told journalists in New York on Monday.

He stressed that his ministry has issued almost 2 million visas, most of which were granted to citizens from Ukraine and Belarus, in the past two years. Most of what was being discussed in the public domain was "a cascade of fake news," he added.

All Polish consulates to be audited

Nevertheless, measures taken by the government on September 15 show that the scandal is certainly not seen as a minor transgression.

The head of the legal department at the Foreign Ministry, Jakub Osajda, a close associate of the sacked deputy minister, was dismissed with immediate effect.

Tomasz Grodzki, August 29, 2023
'This is the biggest scandal we have faced in the 21st century,' Senate Speaker Tomasz Grodzki told the nation on Friday, September 15Image: Leszek Szymañski/PAP/picture alliance

Audits were also launched in the consular department of the Foreign Ministry and in all Polish consulates around the world. In addition, all contracts with private companies that acted as intermediaries in visa matters were canceled.

Will Poland be ejected from the Schengen Area?

The media controlled by PiS did not report on the cash-for-visas scandal at all for quite some time. Instead, TVP, the national broadcaster, reported on the large numbers of migrants recently arrived on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

To break through this wall of silence, PO politician Tomasz Grodzki gave a live address to the nation on prime-time television late last week. As the senate speaker, Grodzki has the right to do so. "This is the biggest scandal we have faced in the 21st century," he said.

The next day, PiS politician and speaker of the lower house of parliament Elzbieta Witek hit back: "The lies cannot go unanswered," she said. She used her television address to attack the opposition, warning that "Tusk means Lampedusa in Poland."

Some Poles are now worried that Poland could be ejected from the Schengen Area because of the cash-for-visas scandal.

"If the allegations are confirmed, Poland will be thrown out of the Schengen Area," warned Poland's former ambassador to Latvia and Armenia, Jerzy Marek Nowakowski.

In a poll published on Monday by the daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita, 30% of those surveyed said that the visa scandal would damage PiS's chances in the election, while just under 40% said that the right-wing populists would survive the scandal.

This article was originally published in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects