Walesa poised to fill cabinet gaps

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The Independent Online
When Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, sets off on a tour of central Europe in the middle of this month, his first stop will be Poland, the region's largest country and the one that has pressed hardest for early membership of Nato. While in Warsaw, Mr Rifkind will hold talks with President Lech Walesa and the Prime Minister, Waldemar Pawlak. He should also be meeting his counterpart - providing, that is, he has one by then.

For the past two months, Poland has not had a defence minister. For the past two weeks it has been managing without a foreign minister. Such gaping holes have been due to the inability of President Walesa and Mr Pawlak to agree on suitable cabinet candidates to fill them.

It now appears that a compromise may be in the offing. On Tuesday , Mr Walesa announced that Mr Pawlak had made two nominations he could accept. But many Poles are worried that the long-running dispute has seriously damaged the country's international standing and possibly hampered its aspirations for membership of Nato and the European Union.

"For the benefit of short term tactical gain, both sides have been risking our long-term goals," said Piotr Stasinski, head of the political desk at the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. "The interests of state have been sacrificed to personal ambition."

The root of the crisis lies in the ambiguous division of powers laid down in Poland's constitution. According to Mr Walesa, this gives him full control over appointments to the ministries of foreign affairs, defence and the interior.Mr Pawlak believes such a prerogative belongs to the government.

In the first year of Mr Pawlak's premiership, there was an uneasy "cohabitation", based on the Prime Minister's acceptance of Mr Walesa's appointees. That was shattered in November when the President himself engineered the dismissal of the Defence Minister, Piotr Kolodziejczyk.

Since then, the post has remained vacant, with Mr Pawlak consistently refusing to endorse Mr Walesa's nomination and vice-versa. To complicate matters, Andrzej Olechowski, Mr Walesa's choice as Foreign Minister, resigned earlier this month, saying his position had been undermined by Mr Pawlak.

According to one school of thought, the main architect of all the confusion is Mr Walesa, who is deliberately seeking to discredit the government and tar it with an anti-reform brush in order to improve his chances of re-election in November. Others believe the dispute reflects genuine differences of opinion about the aims of Polish politics.

In his dramatic resignation speech, Mr Olechowski accused Mr Pawlak's government - a left-wing coalition between former Communists and the Polish Peasants' Party - of not sharing his policy goal of Nato and European Union membership and of wanting to reforge links with Russia and the east.

That was immediately denied by the Prime Minister. Less partial observers have also rallied to the government's defence, saying that, while it may not be quite so pushy about knocking on Nato's door as Mr Walesa, its approach remains fundamentally pro-Western.

In keeping with the traditions of Polish politics, it is good knockabout stuff. And even if, as seems likely, compromise candidates for defence and foreign minister are in place by the middle of this month, the disputes should provide Mr Rifkind with plenty of food for thought.