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Poland: Russian Businessman At Center Of Spy Controversy

By Chris Klimiuk and Breffni O'Rourke

Warsaw, 19 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz has called for calm in the widening controversy sparked by the activities in Warsaw of ethnic Russian businessman Sergei Gavrilov.

It all started a few weeks ago with a report in a Warsaw newspaper that the Polish Banking Control Office was concerned about aspects of Gavrilov's take-over of the well-known Warsaw Guarantee Trust Bank. Since then it has blown into a sensational scandal with allegations that the Russian intelligence services are financing the purchase of key sections of the Polish economy as one of a series of ways of torpedoing Poland's chances of joining NATO and the European Union.

In his appeal for calm, however, the prime minister did not rule out the possibility that Russia would in fact attempt to damage Poland's chances of joining the key western military and economic organisations. And even State President Alekander Kwasniewski mused on that possibility.

The original "Zycie" report which started the controversy dealt mainly with economic themes. It said that the government's bank supervision office believed Gavrilov was using laundered money to buy the Warsaw Guarantee Trust Bank. The report said the bank's owners were trying to hinder the lawful checks carried out by Polish banking officials.

Gavrilov, the figure at the center of the row, was reportedly born in Canada to Russian parents and is now a citizen of Belize. He was at one stage a senior official at the foreign trade ministry in Moscow, and is thought to have studied at an academy for KGB agents. Even now, said the paper, there are indications that he has contacts with Russian intelligence.

"Zycie's" report led to a public reaction from the irritated head of the Polish State Protection Office (UOP), Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, who accused the paper of blowing the lid off the affair just as the UOP was engaged in a secret operation against Gavrilov's banking group.

In a subsequent press interview, Siemiatkowski really put the affair in center court by saying he foresees possible great provocations soon from the Russian special services. He said Gavrilov's bank takeover was part of a broader Russian undercover plan to shatter by economic and political means Poland's credibility with its Western partners.

He also said Polish counter-intelligence had observed Russian diplomats intensifying contacts with Polish leftist and opposition parties with a view to creating a strong pro-Russian lobby in Poland.

And Siemiatkowski carried his views beyond the domestic political stage by visiting Germany for talks with intelligence officials there. He travelled to the headquarters of the German intelligence service (BND) near Munich, and also visited Bonn. According to Polish press reports, he was "met with understanding from the German side" as to Russian spying activities.

Siemiatkowski is now back in Warsaw, and many politicians want a fuller explanation of his accusations. The Sejm (Lower House of Parliament) Special Services committee scheduled a meeting with him today to discuss the allegations. One commitee member, Bogdan Borusewicz, has noted that he has not offered any evidence for his accusations. Press reports suggest that if Siemiatkowski can't defend his allegations, his job is at risk.

In Moscow, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service this week dismissed the whole thing as "absolute fantasy". And a spokeswoman accused Siemiatkowski of having his own agenda in making the charges. She said one was to brand as "Moscow's people" those Poles who did not agree with Warsaw's official pro-NATO line. Another was to stir up fear of renewed Russian expansion.

The affair rolls on at high level. Polish Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati was to meet today with Russian Ambassador Leonid Drachevski to discuss the alleged spying activities.

Gavrilov, for his part, is keeping quiet.