Russia linked to 2014 scandal with wiretapping in Poland

In Poland, there is growing concern about Russia’s potential involvement in the dramatic wiretap scandal that shook Polish politics in 2014, after reports emerged that a businessman convicted of organizing the operation owed tens of millions of dollars to Russian coal businesses.

Marek Falenta, a Polish businessman with interests in the coal industry, was convicted in 2016 of organising the operation, which involved recording 700 hours of conversations over the course of more than 80 meetings between senior politicians and officials at two Warsaw restaurants.

The people recorded included the interior minister, the finance minister, the foreign minister and the transport minister, all from Poland’s pro-European Civic Platform party, and the heads of the national bank, the supreme audit office, the government protection bureau and the central anti-corruption bureau. Two waiters were also convicted for their part in the affair.

The publication of the edited transcripts by Wprost, a Polish weekly, in June 2014 caused a sensation after it emerged that Radosław Sikorski, the then foreign minister, had described Polish defence ties with the US as “worthless”, and the head of the national bank had appeared to suggest to the interior minister that Jan-Vincent Rostowski, the then finance minister, be removed in exchange for the bank’s support for government policy.

The revelation of Falenta’s debts raises the prospect of Russian involvement in a scandal that observers say was a major factor in the collapse of public support for Civic Platform, ahead of elections in 2015 and the subsequent coming to power of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, a Civic Platform MP, said: “When the operation happened in 2014, we weren’t conscious of the extent to which Russia was prepared to interfere in other countries’ elections – in the United States, in Brexit, in Catalonia, in Germany.

“But now that we know what happened in those countries, we need a full explanation of what happened in Poland.”

There have long been questions over how Falenta and the waiters managed to carry out such a sophisticated and long-running wiretapping operation without any external help.

The majority of the recordings took place in a private dining room at Sowa i Przyjaciele, which was established in 2012.

In 2016, it emerged that the restaurant in Warsaw had been established by two business associates of Robert Szustkowski, a Polish businessman and property developer who has lived in Russia. At the time of the revelations, Szustkowski was serving as the acting ambassador at the Gambia’s embassy in Russia.

Ewa Domżała, a former business partner of Szustkowski, told the Guardian that Szustkowski had worked in businesses associated with Andrei Skoch, a Russian oligarch, for decades.

Skoch, now a member of the Russian parliament, was included in April on a US treasury sanctions list “for longstanding ties to Russian organised criminal groups, including time spent leading one such enterprise”.

The Polish weekly Politykaalleged last week that in late 2013 or early 2014, Falenta travelled to Kemerovo in Russia to meet representatives of Kuzbasskaya Toplivnaya, a Russian coal company.

According to the report, the deal is understood to have left Falenta about $20m (£15m) in debt to the company. Intelligence sources cited by Polityka claim the meeting was facilitated by Szustkowski.

In a statement published by Onet, a Polish news website, Szustkowski denied cooperating or working with Falenta, although he did not deny having had contact with him. He also strongly denied connections with any foreign intelligence agencies or organised crime groups, and any connection with the wiretapping operation.

Questions have been raised about the extent to which political pressure from figures associated with PiS, a major beneficiary of the operation, may have hampered official investigations into potential Russian involvement. Neither government nor law enforcement officials have commented on the revelations.

A former intelligence officer who was serving in a senior role at the time of the scandal said: “The connections to Russia were numerous and obvious at the time, but they were never properly investigated.

“The Polish intelligence services are, unfortunately, heavily politicised, and already in 2014, many senior officials knew which way the wind was blowing. It simply wasn’t – and still isn’t – in anyone’s interest to dig into whether the incoming administration was elected with Russian assistance.”

Sławomir Sierakowski of the left-leaning thinktank Krytyka Polityczna said: “The operation happened at the peak of Polish influence in the European Union, when Poland was a strong advocate for Ukraine after the Maidan protests.

“The Russians have been infiltrating Polish politics and trying to control the region for centuries – why would they stop now?”