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The quest to take down Tusk

Gerhard Gnauck
March 28, 2017

Ever since the EU summit in which Donald Tusk was reelected President of the EU Council against Warsaw's will, Tusk's greatest rival, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has been escalating the conflict. Tusk now faces treason charges.

Belgien EU Gipfel in Brüssel Donald Tusk
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Roge

Poland's Law and Justice party (PiS) chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski warned the EU it would have "problems" if the liberal politician Donald Tusk were to be elected as European Council president for a second term, meaning another two and a half years. For months now, Polish media have been predicting a confrontation between the two politicians.

Kaczynski's warnings were of no avail; the positions have actually become even more entrenched. Between 2007 and 2014, Donald Tusk served as Polish prime minister. Since then, he has served as EU Council president and was reelected for a second term on March 9 of this year by 27 member states, with only one vote against him from Poland. Now Warsaw is trying to come up with reasons to oppose this choice. Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski says that expert reports view Tusk's reelection as legally questionable, even "falsified," as Warsaw's preferred candidate, the MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, had apparently not even been allowed to run. However, other government representatives have distanced themselves from the foreign minister's statement.

Political opponents accuse Tusk of treason

The charges filed by Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz pose a greater risk for Tusk. Macierewicz, one of the most powerful figures in the current government, has accused Tusk of "diplomatic treason" with regard to the 2010 Polish Air Force plane crash near Smolensk in Russia. The offense can be compared to "treason" as defined by other European states and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Polen Jahrestag Flugzeugabsturz Beata Szydlo und Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and Kaczynski are united in the fight against TuskImage: Reuters/K. Pempel

According to the Polish news agency PAP, the charges have been filed for the time period after the airplane crash. Tusk's government has been accused of grave errors in the handling of the investigation with Russia and for having been too lenient on Moscow. Then-president Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw Kaczynski's twin brother, and 95 other people on board the Polish Air Force plane were killed, including high-ranking government and military officials, politicians and members of the clergy.

In the charges, Macierewicz maintains that Tusk "did not fulfill his duties." Tusk allegedly left it to Russia to investigate the accident. Also, Tusk had apparently done too little to have the airplane wreckage returned by 2011 from Russia to Poland, as promised by Moscow's then-president Dmitry Medvedev. This also included efforts to return the flight recorder. The wreckage and the black box are still in Russia.

An attempt at a political takedown

It is interesting that the allegations as stated only encompass the time period after the accident. No one has been accused of causing the disaster. That is what Tomasz Diemoniak, former defense minister in the liberal government, says. He believes that the current criminal charges are pure propaganda. The investigative committee for the Smolensk crash created by Macierewicz has apparently already discredited itself and not yet discovered anything, Diemoniak says. An aviation expert noted that the current charges were irrelevant for the investigation into the cause of the accident.

However, these charges are not the only problem that Tusk faces. He has already been summoned as a witness in Warsaw for another trial related to a cooperation agreement reached in 2013 between Polish and Russian intelligence agencies. Tusk was supposed to testify but did not appear due to appointments he had as President of the EU Council. Now, he is expected to be summoned once again in April.

Another problem may be the Amber Gold scandal that is being investigated by an inquiry committee set up by Polish parliament. The scandal entails the fraudulent Gdansk financial institution and the affiliated airline OLT Express, where Tusk's son Michal worked for a brief period of time. The inquiry committee has summoned Michal to testify and also asked him when and if his father had found out about Amber Gold's scams.

Another problem on a smaller scale could be the investigation into the privatization of the chemical group Ciech. While Tusk was in office, Ciech was sold at a low price to the international investment group Kulczyk Investments.

Russland Flugzeugabsturz von Smolensk - Lech Kaczynski getötet
Who is to blame for the Smolensk disaster - the Polish leadership doesn't buy the official verisonImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Chirikov

Foreseeable struggle to maintain presidency

In the meantime, Polish media are already speculating whether Warsaw can obtain a European arrest warrant for Tusk. However, there is no automatic procedure that would allow Tusk to be extradited to Warsaw by other EU countries. As a witness in other trials, he could also testify from abroad or in a videoconference.

It is likely that most of these legal measures would make it very risky for Tusk to enter his home country. They could also damage his authority as president of the EU Council. When the PiS government took office, Tusk trivialized the attacks from Warsaw, in the belief that they were of a personal nature. "They will talk and talk, and then have enough of it," is apparently what he once said. Now he is worried about himself and his son.

The showdown is yet to come. It will take place before the 2020 presidential election at the latest. Tusk is considered the most promising candidate of the Polish opposition. The Polish magazine "Newsweek Polska" wrote that until then, the country will be shaped by two processes: the "dynamics of discrediting the government" and the "dynamics of the authoritarian reorganization of the country." Both processes have the potential to escalate. "The clash is inevitable, but the moment and impact of the clash is unpredictable, and in this equation there is a great unknown: how Polish citizens will act."