Poland’s government has faced accusations of cronyism and nepotism over three appointments to senior positions at state-owned firms.
Two of the decisions – one relating to the wife of a minister and the other a former MP from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – have already been rolled back. The third appointee – an uncle of President Andrzej Duda placed on the board of Poland’s rail freight company – remains in place.
The cases follow a long line of claims that hiring decisions at Poland’s many state-owned firms – some of which are among the largest companies in the country – are often based on political considerations or connections rather than on merit.
The former MP
The latest development came yesterday, when Łukasz Zbonikowski, a former PiS MP, was fired from his position as president of Wojskowe Zakłady Inżynieryjne (WZI), part of a state-owned defence group, just one week after being appointed.
Zbonikowski had previously been suspended from PiS in 2015 following accusations of domestic violence against his wife. However, he was later reinstated, before last year being ejected again and losing his parliamentary seat.
His appointment in late August to head WZI drew much attention and criticism, in particular because of the domestic violence accusations against him (though the cases had been discontinued) as well as his apparent lack of relevant qualifications.
With regard to the latter, Zbonikowski defended himself by arguing that the fact his “father was a military man” and he had grown up in a military environment qualified him for the job.
Zbonikowski w mailu do „Wyborczej” przekonuje też, że ma odpowiednie kwalifikacje: „Ojciec był wojskowym, uzbrojeniowcem w pułku inżynieryjno-saperskim, a cały Włocławek żył wojskiem. Można powiedzieć, że wyssałem tematykę 'z mlekiem matki'".
— Jan Kunert (@Jan_Kunert) August 31, 2020
The board of WZI has not disclosed the reasons for his sudden sacking. However, the newspaper Super Express reports claims from inside sources that the decision was forced on Jacek Sasin, the minister for state assets, by Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of PiS and Poland’s de facto leader.
The minister’s wife
Zbonikowski’s departure follows closely from that of Kamila Andruszkiewicz, the wife of Adam Andruszkiewicz, who is a deputy digitisation minister.
At the end of August, she had been appointed president of the board of the Industrial Development Agency Foundation (FARP), part of the Polish Development Fund (PFR). The position comes with a reported monthly salary of 14,500 zloty (€3,260).
The decision immediately received criticism, even from within the ranks of the ruling party, and just one week later Kamila Andruszkiewicz announced that she was resigning from her new role.
Kamila Andruszkiewicz poinformowała w oświadczeniu o złożeniu rezygnacji z funkcji prezesa Fundacji Agencji Rozwoju Przemysłu.https://t.co/hsegB1SPEn
— TVN24 BiS (@TVN24BiS) September 4, 2020
In her official statement, she cited “concern for the good name of the foundation and the tasks it carries out”, reports Gazeta.pl. If she had continued, she wrote, the organisation’s work would be perceived “not substantively, but in the context of [her] person”.
Speaking to TVN24 on Tuesday, government spokesman Piotr Müller commented on the two hasty departures: “Changes and corrections have already taken place, because we believe that such decisions should not be made. When we see such errors, we correct them.”
Müller added, however, that in the case of Andruszkiewicz some of the criticism directed at her had been “unfair”. He also said that there was no need for the prime minister to look further into why she was appointed given that she has already resigned.
Müller: Nie wiem, czy premier będzie to badał. W tej chwili nie ma takiej potrzeby, ponieważ sama pani Kamila Andruszkiewicz zrezygnowała#300POLITYKALIVEhttps://t.co/KciYQC8TAn pic.twitter.com/BYmuGv4tRt
— 300Polityka (@300polityka) September 8, 2020
The president’s uncle
A third recent appointment, however, remains unchanged.
Antoni Duda, another former PiS MP and also the uncle of President Duda, was this month appointed to the supervisory board of Poland’s state-run PKP Cargo, one of Europe’s biggest rail freight companies. Duda admits that he has no experience with rail transport, but told nto.pl that he has a “rich CV” with experience in other industries.
Approached by an undercover reported from Super Express pretending to be a ministry official, Duda defended his appointment, citing “over 45 years of work in managerial roles in industry, in state and local government office, parliament, and social experience (…) in the Catholic Intelligentsia Club”.
Coming to Duda’s defence, Sasin said that “being the president’s uncle didn’t help him at all.” Duda has “plenty of experience working in business entities”, noted Sasin in an interview with RMF FM.
“However, the fact that he is a former PiS member of parliament is an additional argument for taking his competences seriously,” added Sasin. This is proof of “certain social competences” such as “societal trust”.
“I am an opponent of nepotism, I aim in favour of there being none in the Ministry of State Assets,” continued Sasin. But he admitted that he “is not always successful” in this regard.
“Party, family and friendship, not competence”
PiS came to power on a promise to clean up the “corruption, nepotism and cronyism that spread across the country” under the previous government, as Kaczyński put it in 2014.
But since then the party has itself often faced similar charges over appointments to state-owned companies. Indeed, some evidence suggests that their scale has in fact increased under the current administration.
In June 2017, Puls Biznesu, a leading business daily, tried to calculate how many appointments to state-owned firms and organisations during PiS’s first year in power had been made on “the principle of party, family and friendship, not competence”.
Its list – which excluded anyone who appeared to have appropriate qualifications for the job – was 1,000 people long. By comparison, when the same newspaper compiled a list on the same basis after five years of the previous government, it found only 400 such individuals.
Nepotyzm, kumoterstwo, upartyjnianie państwa, posady dla "swoich", poczucie bezkarności i zwykła bezczelność. Wszystko co mieliśmy za rządów PO-PSL mamy też za rządów PiS, a najprężniej rozwijającym się programem partii rządzącej jest program #RodzinaNaSwoim⬇️ pic.twitter.com/Dkk5RXI1jq
— Konfederacja (@KONFEDERACJA_) September 3, 2020
Among the cases that have drawn widespread attention was that of Bartłomiej Misiewicz, the 26-year-old chief of staff to the defence minister, who was appointed to the board of a state-owned defence group despite not meeting the statutory requirements.
Following a number of controversies surrounding his actions, Misiewicz was eventually forced out of PiS in 2017. Last year he was detained on corruption charges.
A number of family members of senior figures from the ruling coalition have also found themselves employed by state-run firms. After it was discovered that the son of Ryszard Czarnecki, a PiS MEP, was working for a state defence firm, his father said that Czarnecki junior had landed the job based “on patriotic merit”.
A case often seen as representative of the mismanagement that can result from political appointments is that of Janów Podlaski, a world-renowned, state-owned stud farm in eastern Poland.
Its longstanding and respected director was fired in 2016 and replaced by a figure from one of PiS’s junior coalition partners, who admitted after his appointment that he “loves horses but has not had close contact with them”. The farm’s reputation – and revenue from its annual horse auction – subsequently declined.