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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » May 28, 2008
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Tusk in Hot Water Over Travels
May 28, 2008 By W.Ż.    
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In mid-May President Lech Kaczyński and Prime Minister Donald Tusk made two major foreign trips: the president went to Israel and the prime minister traveled to South America. The latter visit caused controversy, with the opposition accusing Tusk of taking "a luxury vacation at Polish taxpayers' expense."

The president's four-day visit to Israel May 12-15 was primarily linked to celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Israeli state. Kaczyński and his wife were invited by President Shimon Peres. The visit was the latest in a series of important bilateral events after Tusk's recent visit to Israel and Peres' trip to Poland for the commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Kaczyński gave a speech May 13 at the Facing Tomorrow conference in Jerusalem, where the invited guests included leaders of countries where members of the Jewish diaspora live. "We want peace for Israel; we want peace for the Middle East," Kaczyński said, adding that in today's world, peace was a privilege enjoyed by Europe, North America and a large part of South America, but not the other continents, where a lot needs to be done to achieve it. Reaching this goal is not possible without strongly mobilizing the international community, the U.N., NATO and other international organizations, he said. Kaczyński also listed four fundamental values the world needs to seek: democracy, justice, smaller social differences and equal rights for women.

Earlier, Kaczyński held talks with Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and then with Education Minister Yuli Tamir. The talks centered on political relations, development of economic cooperation, cooperation on security as well as international relations. After his meeting with Tamir, Kaczyński said he expected a breakthrough in the coming years in the way young Jews perceive Poland; today he said they see Poland only as the scene of the Holocaust, forgetting that there was a huge Jewish diaspora here for over 800 years, that Poland was a country where Jewish refugees from other European countries found peace and tolerance.

Kaczyński traveled to Tel Aviv May 14, where he visited the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora and met with intellectuals at the university there. Back in Jerusalem he attended the Israeli president's dinner party and took part in a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of Israeli-U.S. relations.

The next day Kaczyński took part in a previously unplanned, 20-minute meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, who also attended the anniversary celebrations in Israel. The two politicians were joined by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili. They discussed plans to deploy parts of the U.S. missile shield in Poland, and also the situation in Georgia. Kaczyński said his conversation with Bush was "brief but to the point," adding that he gave Bush his assessment of the situation in Georgia and of its impact on the situation in Central Asia and also globally.

On the final day of his visit, Kaczyński presented Polish state decorations to a group of people who had contributed to the development of political, economic and cultural ties between Poland and Israel.

Storm over Tusk's "trip of a lifetime"

Tusk's trip to Peru and Chile proved controversial. Tusk returned to Warsaw May 20, after being away more than a week. In Lima, Peru, he took part in a summit between the European Union and Latin America and Caribbean countries, and met with the presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. He also visited the capital of Chile, Santiago.

Most observers said that Tusk had handed ammunition on a plate to the opposition. On the first day of his visit, Tusk admitted in an interview for the El Mundo newspaper that this was "the trip of a lifetime" for him. Out of six days spent in South America, just one was planned as a fully working day-the day of the summit. Apart from that, Tusk's official visit to Peru and Chile took him and his wife to the Machu Picchu complex, on a railway ride across the Andes and on a wine-tasting spree to Chile's most famous vineyard, Concha y Toro. Tusk was accompanied by five members of the official Polish delegation and 10 other staff-officials responsible for diplomatic protocol and interpreters. All this, the opposition has calculated, may have cost Polish taxpayers zl.1.6 million. The prime minister's office has not published the official costs, but has promised to do so and says they are "several dozen percent lower."

Tomasz Arabski, head of the prime minister's office, said after the trip that Tusk's visit to Peru and Chile was important, especially in the context of EU-Latin America relations. "This was money honestly and well spent. If we look at the importance of the visit and its costs, I fear your evaluation really is greatly exaggerated," he told journalists. Asked if Tusk's visit was compatible with his much-publicized "cheap government" strategy (for instance, when the prime minister previously flew to the United States he used a scheduled flight), Arabski said the prime minister used such routes when it was cost-saving. He said that in the case of a trip to Peru and Chile this was not a viable option and using a government plane had been vital.

Grzegorz Schetyna, deputy prime minister and interior minister, viewed as Tusk's right-hand man both in the government and the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party, admitted that if Tusk had to make a trip to South America again, he would only have taken part in the EU-Latin America summit and his visit would have lasted two days.

However, Schetyna added that the trip had been important, for example because of the emerging "new market of South America which is very important to Poland as a major player in European policy." He said he was counting on the expansion of trade and business contacts with Brazil, which is developing into one of the biggest markets in the world.

Such arguments failed to satisfy the opposition, which has accused Tusk of taking a vacation for taxpayers' money and calculated how many computers for schools, scholarships for talented young people or meals for underfed children the money spent on the trip could have paid for. Law and Justice (PiS) politicians and leftists say they are waiting for a detailed report on the costs of the prime minister's visit.
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