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What we know about the visa scandal in Poland


Now to political drama in Poland, where the government has fired the deputy foreign minister and indicted at least seven other people over a visa fraud scandal. The case threatens to damage the reputation of the country's ruling right-wing party less than a month before a national election. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz is here to bring us up to speed on this story. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. so I gather this minister - ex-minister, he was just fired - he also had his office raided by authorities. Just tell us what's going on here.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Late last week, Polish media published reports about how Polish officials in Warsaw and abroad had fast-tracked work visas for migrants from throughout the developing world in exchange for large sums of money. The operation was reportedly run through Polish consulates and companies that helped clients expedite the Polish visa process. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk was fired over the scandal, and seven others, including his assistant, have been indicted for accepting bribes in return for issuing official visas. Now Polish media are reporting that Wawrzyk is in the hospital after a suicide attempt.

KELLY: Oh, no. OK. Give us a sense of the scale of this. How many visas are we talking?

SCHMITZ: Well, officially, the Polish government's prosecutor office has evidence of 268 cases of visa fraud. But that could just be the beginning. From 2021 to the beginning of this year, Poland issued more than 250,000 visas to people from all over Asia, Africa, the Middle East and beyond. And observers say many of those visas might have been part of this bribery scandal as well.

KELLY: I mentioned all of this is happening as Poland gears up for national elections next month. How big a deal might this scandal be?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. What's interesting here is that Poland's ruling party, Law and Justice, came to power on an anti-immigrant platform. For this past eight years, the party has railed against migrants, especially Muslim migrants, and it often blames them for Poland's problems. And now, as it runs a government, its own officials have been caught selling visas to migrants. I spoke to political analyst Andrzej Bobinski about this. He says, in this election season, the Law and Justice Party has centered much of its campaign for reelection around illegal immigration.

ANDRZEJ BOBINSKI: Quite obviously, for Law and Justice, the idea was that this campaign was supposed to be about migration, illegal migrants, about the situation on the Polish border with Belarus. And basically, there was this feeling that Law and Justice would use migration to try and attack the opposition and basically to build their whole electoral campaign around. Now, with the scandal, that's going to make it much, much more difficult.

KELLY: More difficult indeed, I would imagine. Up until this scandal, was Law and Justice, the ruling party, were they predicted to win again?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. The most reliable polls had Law and Justice on top at around 38% of voter support, followed by a coalition of center-left parties called the Civic Coalition at around 31% support.

KELLY: Could this potentially be enough to unseat Poland's government?

SCHMITZ: Well, political analysts I'm talking to do not think it will. They do think that Law and Justice will lose support, but they think voters who will be angry about this scandal likely won't change their vote to a more left-wing alternative because they see the Civic Coalition as soft on migration. Instead, Bobinski told me that angry Law and Justice voters would likely change their votes to another coalition that's even further to the right of Law and Justice called the Konfederacja (ph), a group of parties that is unwilling to form a coalition with Law and Justice. So this scandal is likely to make the process of forming a government more difficult after Poland's election on October 15.

KELLY: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting from Berlin. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.