A satirical article in a German newspaper has prompted a major diplomatic row after the Polish President Lech Kaczynkski was compared to a potato. The President's twin-brother, newly appointed Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynkski, has called on the German government to take action against the paper as German-Polish relations further deteriorate.
Published by the leftist national newspaper Die Tagezeitung, the editorial first appeared some two weeks ago. The column -- renowned for its irreverent, sending-up of political heavy-weights -- chose Polish President Lech Kaczynski as the subject for parody and a few harsh words of criticism. Under the headline "Young Polish Potatoes -- the Rogues who Want To Rule the World," the column attacked Kaczynkski and his twin-brother, panning their "dark vision," conservative politics and alleged homophobic views.
The Polish government has reacted with ill-concealed outrage. Last week, President Kaczynski pulled out of a tripartite summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Jacques Chirac, citing bad health. But it appears his absence had more to do with a diplomatic huff than health. Kaczynski is furious about his portrayal in the German paper. His spokesman confirmed he had been angered by the article, which he described as "disgusting" while Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga went on the attack, accusing Die Tageszeitung of employing methods reminiscent of the Nazi-era newspaper Der Stürmer. However, German government spokesman Ulrich Willhelm declined to criticize the newspaper, saying it was not policy to comment on press articles about foreign politicians.
Now, Poland's new prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has also leaped to his twin brother's defense, demanding that Germany take action against the unbudging left-wing newspaper. "If is now up to our partners to improve relations. We aren't the ones who insulted someone," he told Polish newspaper Wprost. "An insult to a head of state is a crime and there must be consequences," he added, with no hint of irony.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski was officially appointed prime minister on Monday after the resignation last week of Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. Jaroslaw, head of the conservative Law and Justice Party, takes office during a low point in European relations. Analysts and commentators have criticized the Polish government, claiming it is wrong that two brothers should hold the highest offices in the country and, according to Reuters, that their "combative style and nationalist rhetoric bode ill for Poland's fragile relations with the outside world." The president's no-show at last week's "Weimar Triangle" summit has also been loudly criticized within Poland. A group of eight former foreign ministers wrote an open letter criticizing the Polish government's overreaction. Now, Poland's ambassador to Germany, Andrzej Byrt, has lashed out at his own government, branding the reaction to the satirical article "exaggerated" and condemning the president's withdrawal from the tripartite summit.
A misunderstanding of press freedom
Die Tageszeitung editor Bascha Mika told SPIEGEL that certain passages in the original column were admittedly "particularly tasteless," but suggested the storm of protest showed a misunderstanding of press freedom. The newspaper has long been a critic of the Polish government, branding elements of the administration "nationalist" and "anti-Semitic." The subsequent political brouhaha even bears similarities to the storm of protest which followed the publication of cartoons in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, satirizing the Prophet Mohammed. At the time, Muslims demanded that the Danish government apologize on the newspaper and country's behalf -- a move that it also declined, claiming that the government has no role in the decision-making of private media.
German-Polish relations have plummeted to a new low after months of wrangling and lightly veiled displeasure. Last year, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder struck a deal with the Russian government to build a new gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea.The pipeline bypasses Poland, which could have expected to collect fees on gas transported across its territory, and the decision raised concerns within the country about energy security. Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski compared the pipeline deal to the "Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact," also known as the Hitler-Stalin pact.
President Lech Kaczynski has long been sensitive about Poland's portrayal in the German media, often overlooking the fact that his own country's media has been no less savage in the image it provides of Germany. "I follow the German press with great interest," the president told SPIEGEL in a March interview. "But not all of what I read there is helpful toward achieving German-Polish reconciliation."
Within Germany, there is palpable disquiet over the path the populist conservative Polish government has taken. Openly homophobic comments, coupled with alleged anti-Semitism and a chronic fear of corrupt "communists within" have not gone down well in Berlin. Israel announced on Monday that it would have no dealings with new Education Minister Roman Giertych because of anti-Semitism in some wings of his League of Polish Families (LPR) party. After the party's election success last year, members of junior government coalition partner LPR's youth wing were seen giving the Hitler salute. But Giertych has denied the claims made against his party, saying there is "no place for anti-Semitism in Poland."
The resignation of Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz, one of Poland's most popular politicians, has not helped matters, either, given that he was considered one of the more moderate voices within the Polish administration. New Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski is thought to have had his eyes on the position of prime minister ever since his party won the Polish election last year. But, apparently in order to secure his brother's election to the presidency, he declined the job, in favor of Marcinkiewicz, claiming it would send the wrong signal should twin brothers hold high office simultaneously. The former prime minister did not explain the decision for his resignation last week, but it is understood there was a major falling-out within the cabinet.