It began with something so small: a tiny microphone hidden near a dining table in a fancy Warsaw restaurant.
But after the bug caught Polish government ministers discussing private deals, Cuban cigars and off-color jokes — including a comparison of U.S.-Poland relations to oral sex — over expensive meals, a scandal that began as small-talk quickly spread. There were arrests, accusations of international spying and sealed documents leaked on social media.
On Wednesday, almost exactly a year after they first emerged, the secret recordings claimed their biggest scalp yet when four Polish government ministers and the speaker of parliament abruptly resigned.
The resignations are bad news for the already embattled governing party, Civic Platform, which two weeks ago narrowly lost its grip on the presidency. Its chances to retain control of parliament in elections four months from now are disappearing faster than the drinks heard clinking on the restaurant audio tapes.
“Today, on behalf of Civic Platform, I extend my heartfelt apologies” to party supporters who for the past year “listened to the tapes with disgust, irritation,” Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said in announcing the resignations, according to the Associated Press. “As long as I am the prime minister, I will not allow for political games over the tapes during the electoral period,” Kopacz also said.
But “Waitergate,” as it has been called, also has implications for Europe and the United States.
Polish politicians have claimed Russia was behind the recordings and is maneuvering to exert greater control in the region. Under Civic Platform, Poland has been a close partner of the United States — sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan — and a vocal member of the European Union.
In many ways, Waitergate sounds more like a spy thriller than a political scandal. It began in several of Warsaw’s fanciest eateries: places such as Sowa & Przyjaciele, a swanky restaurant sporting candlelight, leather couches and $1,200 bottles of wine.
Not on the menu, however, were the listening devices hidden around at least one of Sowa & Przyjaciele’s tables, according to Newsweek. It’s unclear who orchestrated the eavesdropping, but beginning in 2013, a handful of Poland’s top politicians were recorded eating $500 meals while discussing less than savory things.
In July 2013, Marek Belka, governor of the central bank, was recorded telling the interior minister that he could help the government win reelection by easing monetary policy in exchange for axing the finance minister. (According to Polish law, the central bank must remain apolitical, the BBC points out.)
That exchange was just an appetizer, however, compared to the juicy conversation captured between Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister at the time, and then-finance minister Jacek Rostowski.
Sikorski called Poland’s alliance with the United States “bull—-” and “worthless” before comparing the relationship to oral sex.
“We’ll get into a conflict with the Russians and the Germans, and we’ll think that everything is super because we gave the Americans a blow job,” he said. “Losers. Complete losers.”
Sikorski was also overheard accusing British Prime Minister David Cameron of “incompetence in European affairs” and using “stupid propaganda” to appease critics, according to Newsweek.
These and other conversations were leaked by Polish magazine Wprost starting in June 2014. They were an embarrassment to Civic Platform, particularly Sikorski, a handsome and high-flying politician with close ties to England and the United States.
Sikorski had led student strikes in Communist Poland during the political unrest of the early 1980s, later receiving political asylum in Britain. He studied at Oxford before becoming a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan and Angola. He later married Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and journalist who writes a column for The Washington Post.
For many Poles, Sikorski’s comments — illegally recorded as they were — seemed to show another side to the outwardly pro-Western politician.
The expensive meals — more than the minimum monthly salary in Poland — and conversations about Cuban cigars were arguably even more damaging. “Poles were angered that politicians, lobbyists and business people were debating political stratagems and deals while dining over baby lobster, paid for with taxpayers’ money,” according to the AP.
The recordings roiled Poland.
Days after the Wprost began releasing the recordings, police raided the magazine’s headquarters, prying laptops out of editors’ hands. The government, meanwhile, launched a criminal investigation while publicly pointing fingers at Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Prime Minister Donald Tusk, in remarks reminiscent of the fall of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, has emphasized that the bugging of private conversations is strictly illegal and has blamed the leaks on ‘an organized criminal group that is destabilizing the state,'” Newsweek reported in July. “Tusk has encouraged the widespread belief that Russia is behind the bugging because it seeks to undermine the Polish state, as it has in neighboring Ukraine. Fingers are being pointed at Marek Falenta, a Polish multimillionaire whose company imports coal from Russia and who was detained in connection with the recordings.”
Despite the uproar, however, it initially seemed that Civic Platform would escape any serious consequences. Tusk stepped down in September after being appointed president of the European Council — a major coup for both the politician and for Poland — passing the torch to Kopacz. Sikorski, meanwhile, became speaker of parliament.
But Waitergate wouldn’t go away.
The scandal was still on voters’ minds last month when president and former Civic Platform member Bronisław Komorowski lost reelection to Andrzej Duda of the opposition Law and Justice party. It was a stunning defeat for a party that had dominated Polish politics for nearly a decade.
Evening of the Long Knives in Poland. Half of Cabinet, multiple advisers, Parliament Speaker Sikorski sacked or resign in wake of Waitergate— Marek Matraszek (@matraszek) June 10, 2015
The scandal escalated again earlier this week when a blogger and activist, Zbigniew Stonoga, published 2,500 pages of sealed documents from the ongoing investigation into the audio tapes. “The materials, which Stonoga claimed to have found on Chinese Internet sites, include testimony from the accused and from witnesses, along with personal information such as addresses and phone numbers, and evidence for the case,” according Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news agency.
Stonoga was arrested and charged with illegal publication of classified documents, according to the AP.
After the recordings became headlines once again, Kopacz decided to clean house in hopes of holding onto parliament in elections later this year, according to the BBC. She has also called for the resignation of the prosecutor in the case.
Sikorski and ministers in charge of health, treasury, security and sports all announced Wednesday that they were stepping down for the good of the party.
More than a year after the scandal first broke, and two years after the recordings were made, it’s still not clear who was behind Waitergate. Several servers have been accused of involvement. Falenta, the Polish coal magnate, has protested his innocence.
If it was Russia, as Tusk suggested, the plan looks to have backfired. Duda, the new president, has promised to support Ukraine in its fight against pro-Russian separatists.
Ultimately, the mystery over who bugged the bread basket remains unsolved.