Walesa dogged by allegations of conspiracy: Political opponents claim President and aide were Communist agents

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WHO was Agent Bolek? Was he Poland's President, Lech Walesa? Was he a low-ranking Solidarity activist turned informer for the Communist secret police? Did he even exist?

For many Poles, it seems outrageous to insinuate that Mr Walesa, the single most important contributor to the defeat of Polish Communism, might have been a collaborator. Even his former enemies, such as General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who interned him under martial law in 1981, dismisses the accusations as ludicrous.

'I regard them as something not to be taken seriously, part of some game which all in all is proceeding towards destabilising the situation in Poland,' he told Warsaw television last month.

Still, Mr Walesa's political opponents persist in raising the charge. Since last June, they have used public rallies and media appearances to fix the idea in Polish minds that he once worked for the SB, the Communist security police, and even the KGB. Going even further, they allege that Mr Walesa's presidential staff is operating a gigantic deception on the Polish nation, pretending to lead it into democracy while actually using networks of former secret agents and Communist officials to run the armed forces, security apparatus and economy.

Mr Walesa's camp rejects this as a tissue of lies. They point out that the chief accusers are men with a grudge against him. These include former ministers in the government of Jan Olszewski, whose fall Mr Walesa engineered last year, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who was once Mr Walesa's chief of staff but went into opposition in 1991.

The 'Bolek affair' emerged last June, when Interior Ministry officials hinted that they possessed a set of compromising files on Mr Walesa, obtained from an informer with the code name Bolek. The President, who spent most of the 1970s and 1980s under police interrogation or surveillance, acknowledged that he had signed 'loyalty declarations', but said any documents naming him as an agent must be forgeries. Most members of parliament agreed.

However, it has proved harder to declare a clean slate for Mr Walesa's chief assistant, Mieczyslaw Wachowski. An underground activist in the 1970s, he later served as Mr Walesa's chauffeur but in 1989, when Solidarity took power, was a crewman on a ship sailing round the world. Since he displaced Mr Kaczynski as the President's closest aide, his rivals have repeatedly denounced him as a Communist agent.

Matters took a bizarre twist last January when Polish newspapers published a photograph, taken in 1975, of five men in football outfits. Mr Kaczynski said they were secret policemen and identified one as Mr Wachowski. But a police officer in the eastern town of Lublin said that it was he, not Mr Wachowski, wearing the football strip. Pouring scorn on the allegations against Mr Wachowski, Mr Walesa's spokesman, Andrzej Drzycimski, said: 'A man walking on the pavement pays no attention to the insects crawling in the cracks.'

The Bolek and Wachowski affairs have tarnished Mr Walesa's image. They may be complete fiction, but if enough mud is thrown month after month, some sticks. This is doubtless the aim of his opponents, who hope to return to power by whipping up fears of Communist conspiracies.

But the most serious damage is not to the President. It is to Poland's efforts to build a law- based, democratic state. Libel and slander laws are so ineffective, and national politics so disorganised, that crude allegations serve as a substitute for reasoned debate. It does little to endear Poles to their new political order.

(Photograph omitted)