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What a Polish murder has to do with bad roads

The gruesome kidnapping and killing of Krzysztof Olewnik exposes some of the government's basic weaknesses in Poland.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk promises to make the government more responsive to the nation's people. Here he speaks at a news conference at the Prime Minister Chancellery in Warsaw January 31, 2009. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

WARSAW — The rise to power of Poland’s new justice minister appears torn from the pages of a crime novel.

Andrzej Czuma, a former anti-communist activist, took over after Robert Pazik, a convicted killer, hung himself in his prison cell. Pazik was the third member of a kidnapping gang to have killed himself in prison.

But beyond the tabloid headlines, the change of guard at justice also has to do with Poland’s lamentable roads and lack of zoning regulations — all are rooted in the state’s inability to perform some of its most basic functions.

“I cannot accept the negligence, carelessness and weakness of the services responsible for this suicide,” Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, said after accepting Zbigniew Cwiakalski’s resignation.

The sloppiness of Poland’s prison services is only the latest official blunder in the kidnapping and murder of Krzysztof Olewnik. The handsome 25-year-old son of a well-connected meat magnate was kidnapped in 2001. He was chained up for two years in a basement, tortured and finally murdered several weeks after his family paid a 300,000 euro ransom.

The list of police incompetence in the case is long, from their failure to check the phone number from which ransom demands were being made, to bungling the hand-off of the cash to the gang, to having the documents of the case stolen, and even failing to react to an anonymous note that named two of gang’s ringleaders. For months police were convinced that Krzysztof Olewnik had staged his own disappearance.

While officials were incapable of saving Olewnik’s life, they were very quick to defend their own interests. Olewnik’s father was charged in September with assaulting an official after he reportedly grabbed the lapels of a prosecutor after reading through the case files and concluding that proper law enforcement could have saved his son. The charges were dropped this week.

Poles have followed the story closely because it’s gruesome and tragic, but also because it brought official indolence and ineffectiveness into the open.

In one of his first comments after being made justice minister on Jan. 23, Czuma said: “We have to increase the sense of security as well as ensuring that citizens feel that this state is their own.”

The sense that the state does not truly belong to its citizens is widespread and deep-rooted in Poland. During the 19th century, when Poland was partitioned among Germany, Austria and Russia, the state was something foreign and its rules and laws were something to be subverted for patriotic reasons. That same sentiment returned after the war, when Poland became a Soviet satellite and, again, the state served a foreign master.

After the end of communism in 1989, Poland inherited the laws, procedures and, crucially, the bureaucrats, of the communist era. Unlike the Baltic countries, which recreated their statehood anew after the collapse of the Soviet Union, building new institutions and training new people, Poles still had to deal with the same rude officials and impenetrable paperwork as before.

The result has been a severe brake on Poland’s development.

Despite 19 years of effort, Poland only has about 180 miles of highways, and some of those were built  at the behest of Adolf Hitler before the war. Outside of Warsaw, a 2.5-mile bypass took almost 18 years to complete, mainly because of the enormous bureaucratic difficulties involved.

Most of the country’s largest cities function without zoning plans. This means that every building project is at the mercy of city bureaucrats, who take inordinate amounts of time to issue permits. The result is a lot of urban development that is ill-thought-out and badly planned.

Every government since 1989 has promised a breakthrough in getting the state to be more responsive to its citizens, and Tusk is no exception.

“My government has in recent months successfully waged a battle against excessive bureaucracy in the government and in the economy,” he said in a recent interview. “We are freeing people from the power of bureaucrats.”

So far no Polish government has succeeded in keeping such a promise.

More dispatches by GlobalPost correspondent Jan Cienski:

 President, prime minister at loggerheads

Poland's economy catches the contagion

Warsaw, Washington must re-evaluate relationship

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/poland/090130/what-polish-murder-has-do-bad-roads