Sunday, 28 February 2016

Secret files will set us free!

Secret files will open our eyes! Secret files coming to the light will make our lives better!

Prospects of government running out of money to procure bread are looming, so in order to keep the nation in high spirits, rulers need to put up circuses!

I haven’t got the faintest idea whether it was unfettered greed, desire to vindicate her late husband or plain crass stupidity that incited widow of general Kiszczak to contact IPN and let them know about documents stored by the general for several years. I am not fond of conspiracy theories so I am ruling out the story that Mrs Kiszczak had been manipulated and intimidated by secret services, although I cannot say such version does not hold water at all.

Since as it turned out the documents had been kept by Mr Kiszczak at home illegally, IPN investigators swiftly seized six cardboard boxes, one which included documents pertaining to Lech Wałęsa. For no apparent reason the remaining five boxes have gone to archives and will be carefully scrutinised by historians. But for some not necessarily apparent reason, files on Mr Wałęsa have been publicised almost instantaneously. Without expert analysis whether the documents had been counterfeited, the president of IPN (Mr Łukasz Kaminski, whose term expires this year) adjudicated, they were authentic, but not certainly true. A quick look-up in the Polish language dictionary tells us words autentyczny and prawdziwy are synonyms. Mr Kaminski probably meant the documents were genuine, but their content might not have been true, but who cares about details. The compilation of signatures speaks for itself…

Yes, whose cares. The whole agitation around Mr Wałęsa’s alleged collaboration with communist secret services will make few adults change their perception of the former president. For some he is a hero and will remain, for others he is a traitor and will remain. Debates on shameful past of Mr Wałęsa have lasted for many years and will continue even after his death.

For me, even if he signed a declaration to collaborate with the secret services, he remains an icon of Poland’s most recent history. Mr Wałęsa was a young, simple worker and reality of those times tough and anything but black and white. What matters more is that files bring no evidence of any link between Mr Wałęsa and the secret services after 1976 (some would argue, but no one will forbid them tale-telling). But what matters the most is how he prevaricates today over those events. Had Mr Wałęsa been a wiser man, he would have handled it much more sensibly, instead of dragging himself down. Making a clean breast of this anything, but glorious episode, would not damage his credentials.

The case is nevertheless not about Mr Wałęsa and his merits, it is about rewriting the history of Poland of the last fifty years, denigrate those who are now enemies of the dobra zmiana and replace them with different figures, particularly with another Lech. Once PiS and their henchmen paint a picture of abhorrent III RP being an awful child of PZPR, communist secret services and corrupt opposition leaders being in liaison with apparatchiks, they will earn a strong mandate to tear down the state built since 1989. The core driver is the revenge. Kaczynski brothers were ousted by Mr Wałęsa from his office in 1992 and tossed into political non-existence for several years. The same desire goes down to masses of ordinary people who have either not benefited from the transformation into market economy, or in some other way have had it uphill in life, are worse-off than their peers and blame the system for it.

Oddly enough, a short reminder for those who have not noticed where the divide line lies. It does not matter where you were before 1989. It only matters where you are now. The example of Mr Piotrowicz, a rising star of PiS who before 1989 was an ardent communist prosecutor (therefore fits well the ruling party) proves it best.

Also, the files taken over by IPN are likely to be used selectively, when opportune moments arise. The so-called historians could assume the whole content of secret service files are home truth, as rascals serving the principals from Moscow were beyond all doubt truthful and honest functionaries. If so, all their archives should be disclosed to the public. But they will not. They will be used selectively and wait patiently their turn for a moment when their content can hurt the most.

And scarily, the same people who talk so much about przemysł pogardy (the industry of contempt / disdain), whenever any of their supporters dares to criticise PiS, they set in motion the mud-slinging machine against them. This happened to professor Jadwiga Staniszkis recently. For years she would never hide her preference for PiS, but once she passed an unfavourable judgement on recent moves of the party, believers of the prezes put dragged her name through the mire. So voter beware!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Out on the market

A write-up on my search for a dwelling, briefly signalled in October

If you are not under pressure to move out from where you currently reside, have specific budget constraint and defined expectations towards location, layout and age of your property, at the stage of seeking you can easily filter out those which meet the pre-defined criteria.

The most popular place where one can find property advertisements are numerous Internet sites which, thanks to presence of filters, facilitate the look-out. The conclusions one can reach upon frequent searching is that:
1) most properties have been out for sale for several months, if not years,
2) most ads are put up by estate agents.

The first observation bears out the secondary market for properties in Warsaw has been in a standstill for a few years now. It is not the case no one is willing to buy flats (though buyers recently tilt towards brand-new dwellings) or no one can get a loan to buy a property. The fault, I guess, is with vendors unwilling to get down to earth in terms of their price expectations. Nearly any flat (except for those with dreadful drawbacks) would sell, provided the price is reasonable and it has to noted if a seller really wants to dispose of a property, they will nail down the deal within a month or two. In practice turnover of flats has been very low. Week after week you see the same flats put up for sale.

The second observation leads to my precious piece of advice: avoid agents like a plague. I do not want to denigrate the profession, since many professional estate agents do their job very well, but the majority of them work hard to earn this profession the label of overpaid spongers. This has been confirmed by my two high school friends who had episodes of being agents in golden years of 2007-2008. As they have told me, the job is lousy and produces little value added. Unless you have no time to search for a property and have no notion on legal and technical intricacies related to the purchase and the very property, paying up to 3% plus VAT for an intermediary who will match you with a seller is probably the biggest rip-off I have seen in life (except for those seen at work as a bank employee of course)!

In general agents:
- put up outdates advertisements to attract clients and insist you sightsee another flat,
- put up advertisements without seller’s knowledge and after you call them, they need to call the seller or another agent to arrange sightseeing,
- often cannot answer basic questions regarding the property (rent charges and what is included in the basic rent, history of the flat, whether it is mortgaged, or not, etc.).
The only good thing I can tell about them is that they are punctual and rather polite (though some astonishingly reticent).

Big thanks should go to Mr Gowin who in his de-regulation craze freed up access to the profession. While I watched Mr Gowin opening the way for so-called ‘restricted’ professions to laymen, I thought he was cracking down on cliques of rent-seeking cronies and breaking their monopoly. Then came the day when I found an ad of a flat I was interested in, put up by an estate agent (one of the biggest brokers in Warsaw) who had exclusivity agreement for carrying through the sale process. I thought it was clear if the agent was remunerated by the vendor, he would be representing his interest, while I would be representing myself. The next day I pulled up to the site, met the agent, but outside the building before we went inside to see the flat, the agent (sly guy aged around 20, as later evidenced by his LinkedIn profile) asked my to sign an agreement with the agency he represented. I resisted his hastening remarks and read the whole paper, which included the obligation to pay the agent 2.9% + VAT of the purchase price if I bought the specific property. I kindly asked why should I pay the agent anything if I found the flat on my own, contacted the agent as the representative of the seller. The lad replied it had been the business model of the agency for 20 years and it had functioned well. Slightly worked-up, I reformulated the question. I asked what service would I get from the agency in return for 2.9% plus VAT, since in the normal market if you pay, you get a service in return and emphasised I would handle all formalities on my side on my own. His response was that I was paying him for creating the opportunity to buy that very flat. I told him he had been employed by the vendor to find the buyer and should be loyal to him and if he did not show me the flat, he would be acting to the detriment of the seller, because he was not maximising efforts to sell the flat and asked whether he would show me the flat, if I did not agree to pay the commission. After a firm refusal, more than annoyed, I walked away…

Then I carried out my own investigation. The estate agency said it was their policy indeed and as long as the seller agreed for charging both parties the commission, they can do that. Checked it out online – it any party agrees on a conflict of interest, charging both parties 3% plus VAT of transaction price is permissible! Jaw drops open. And then I found this firm statement of Estate Agents’ and Managers' Federation according to which what the agent was trying to coerce me to was unlawful – if the agent has the exclusivity from a vendor to run the property sale process, they had no right to condition showing the property upon signing the agency agreement by a potential buyer. If they do so, they violate the duty of care and loyalty to their principal (seller). I got in touch with the Federation and was informed on my rights and how I can file a complaint on an agent and what steps they can take. The only problem that in fact since the agent did not hold a licence (after Mr Gowin’s deregulation he does not need to), he is not subject to any code of ethics, code of conduct, integrity principles or whatever rules the Federation sets out to licensed estate agents and I could do nothing.

I checked then the acts (ustawy) and decrees (rozporządzenia) governing property management and learnt all the points setting out requirements towards estate agents have been revoked. I felt duped by the Polish state and stripped of protection of unethical practices of cunning bastards.

My piece of advise – for most properties if you search carefully, Google will find you (sometimes cached) an advertisement of a specific property placed by its owner directly. Sometimes after a few weeks of futile search, owners fall back on estate agencies and give them a free rein without exclusivity. Given limited value added of an agent, it does pay off to take the trouble and contact the vendor directly! If the vendor insist you get in touch with the agent, make sure you will not pay the commission!

Back to my efforts – all people telling me finding the right flat was a matter of months rather than days or weeks were right.

In October I found one dwelling which met my expectations. Not ideal in terms of layout (bedrooms not much smaller than living room, while I wanted the two rooms dissimilar in area), but passing muster, in good location, with price slightly above my budget. The seller (found after a half-an-hour intense search in an archived ad) had been trying to sell the flat for nine months. The flat needed a refurbishment (wall-painting and some repairs) and from the legal side needed conversion from co-operative right of ownership to regular ownership (entailing notary’s costs), so I wanted to beat down the price (already decreased by 15% from the first asking price) by PLN 20,000 more. It turned out another buyer was willing to pay the seller without haggling.

In November and December the search was put on hold, since after I had been relocated to another department at work and assigned new duties and clients, I worked up 70 hours a week, including weekends, to get to grips with the mess I had been entrusted. This took me two months during which I had little time and energy to pursue the search.

In 2016, seeing supply of flats recently put up for sale is short, I decided to screen out the primary market I had been sceptical about. What I learnt is a bit staggering:
- times of buying a hole in the ground are back – supply of completed flats is very short and their prices are exorbitant and actually despite not being under huge pressure, I do not want to wait two years before I move in,
- the best locations have been developed some time ago and locations offered now are either lousy or pricey,
- layouts of most flats are a crying shame. Architects excel in squeezing possibly many rooms into limited space, design long halls, kitchens combined with living rooms without windows and possibility to separate them, the other menace are rooms shaped other than rectangle, moreover developers are unwilling to rearrange flats as expected by a buyer, even if they are still under construction,
- openness of developers for meaningful price negotiations is close to zero, because sales are record-high, this is also why developers do not care much about potential customers (one of them told me if I did not like their offer, several other clients were waiting to buy the same flat, so why wasting their time).

I called my friend who is in charge of residential property financing department at one of the biggest banks and sees the market from the inside and he confirmed by observations. Developers have no problems finding buyers for their horrible products, however from his insight into gaps between asking prices and purchase prices, the room for negotiations exists.

Another piece of advice – before you talk to a property developer, familiarise with the right the ustawa deweloperska gives you as a customer. Knowledge of legal and technical rudiments (and even more) is a must if you go out into secondary market as well.

Then I returned to the secondary market, went around a few flats. None of them was ideal, I seriously consider buying one of them, but I need to count up the costs of all-out refurbishment (as my father rightly tells me, it may be more costly than finishing a flat from a developer, since the cost of removing bathroom fittings, kitchen furniture, wardrobe, floors, tiles, etc. needs to be added and God knows what is hidden beneath it) and I need to try how long the commute will take me from there (Włochy).

Visiting other people’s flats (usually uninhabited) is also a psychological experience – sellers attitude vary from total indifference (guy has been attempting to sell an empty flat for a year but has not taken the trouble not only to tidy it up but also to hide any defect – good for me) to aggressive hard-selling and tale-telling on alleged advantages of a flat (playing me a fool).

The bottom line is simple – it is better to spend a few thousand more and be satisfied with the purchase (as you will stick with it for a while) instead of saving a few thousand and regretting the decision, the same goes about waiting for a good opportunity – one month or two will not save you. Less serious and easier to unwind decision to change job two years ago involved six months of turning down offers I found unsatisfactory and when the position lived up to my expectations crossed my way, I took the decision swiftly and after nearly two years with hindsight I see this was that very opportunity I was meant to grab.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Zachłannni - book review

The book is unlikely to stand a chance to be ever translated into English, but if it accidentally was, I posit its title to be “The Lustful”. Needless to say, words such as greedy or avaricious seemingly fit better as English equivalents of the Polish word zachłanny, but would not render what the characters of the book are like.

The blurb at the back cover informs a reader the book is the first story of słoiki (literally jars, a deprecatory nickname for those coming to Warsaw from provincial Poland who work in the capital but often travel to their hometowns and on their way back bring stocks of food packed into jars by their families), while I would argue the characters in the book are universal and what befell to many of them could have happened to people aged 30 born and bred in Warsaw.

As time passes by, your mindset is, as I believe, less about your descent, more about where you are. Of course those who have spent their formative years in small town somewhere in Poland are less self-confident and shier than those who have grown up in Warsaw, but some problems and complexes are common no matter where you ancestors have lived.

One character, Paweł, is frustrated, since he cannot become a flat-owner. For ten years he and his girlfriend have been renting several flats with no prospects of buying their own one, since because they both work under junk contracts, they are not eligible for a mortgage. Another character, Ewa, is frustrated, since she has turned 30 and unlike her friends she has not got married, does not have children, nor even has a boyfriend. Her material status is enviable (parents have bought her a flat, she does not even have to care about mortgage repayments), she has a well-paid job, but she feels her life is empty and heads nowhere.

What distinguishes the two from their peers from Warsaw is the disdain for Warsaw-born inhabitants of the capital. Paweł hates them, because many of them have inherited flats after grandparents and many possess assets sufficient to live off rental income. Had Paweł been from Warsaw, he would live with his parents and would be frustrated on account of not affording to move out. Ewa, instead of travelling to her hometown for the weekend, would spend Saturdays and Sundays at her parents’ as many singles do when their friends have raised families and have less time to foster friendships.

Truth be told, usually migrants who came to Warsaw have it uphill. No matter what their social status is (usually it is not low, as had it been, they would not have even dared to move to the capital), they suffer a shock as they encounter a big city which a bit different that other big cities in Poland. For some the financial struggle to make ends meet is the biggest challenge in the capital, while for many mental adjustment to Warsaw-like lifestyle is the toughest test they are put to.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the book is not about migrants from provincial Poland. The essence of all three stories told is the price to pay for attaining what you yearn for. The characters face a question how low one can stoop to get what one covets.

Paweł aches to be a flat-owner. Upon overhearing a story of a couple who looked after their lonely, childless neighbour who out of gratitude bequeathed them his flat, Paweł begins to search for a lonely old man, finds one and hits it off with him, only out of hope for a bequest. Ewa craves for a man by her side and desperately tries to find one. The price to pay for means she uses in the pursuit of her end turns out to be ultimate. Aśka, Paweł’s girlfriend, the third character, longs for easy life. Sick and tired of “sweet nothing” Paweł has offered her for ten years of their relationship, she quits him and on the same day moves in to Paweł’s best friend and Ewa’s brother, Marcin, a well-off entrepreneur. In the pursuit of carefree, copious life she destroys two relationships Paweł had been building and caring for years.

I found Paweł’s story distasteful. He overstepped boundaries to achieve goods he thought would give him and his girlfriend happiness. Ewa’s story was most fascinating to me. Realising the tale could have been simplified and stereotypical, I strived to gain insight into the mindset of a single woman aged 30 (could theoretically come in handy if any woman at such age I meet is not single) and somehow sympathised with her. Aśka, a mercenary materialist, totally heedless of people around her, was the one I held in contempt.

The way three słoiki are portrayed is more or more simplified, but the down-to-earth plot makes the book easily readable. Definitely not a work of art, nor something which would go down in the history of Polish literature, but if you are at the loose end, worth reaching out for. By the way, at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to read more. Currently I’m reading the fifth book this year – would not hurt to keep up the pace and read at least 30 books in 2016 and thus beating by a long shot an average Pole (60% of Poles declare they have not read a single book over the recent year, sadly).

PS. Seven years of blogging (my first post on PES on 17 February 2009), time to move on instead of looking back!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The quest for a better tomorrow

The day when the new police law comes into force coincides with the monthly overview of Poland’s new rulers’ attainments. As a relatively unpopular foreign-language blogger, I consider my place at the list of enemies of the good change is near the bottom, so I feel free to share my thoughts.

On 19 January the Polish prime minister participated in a debate on threats for democracy in Poland. The course of the debate and its repercussions were a debacle of liberals and a huge victory for Mrs Szydło (whose hollow words and declarations made much better impression than worthless utterances of leftist and liberal deputies) and for all EU-sceptical politicians who put in superb stunt as allies of PiS. The timing of the debate coincided with the news of several refugee rapes in Germany being concealed from the public, a water to the mill of those claiming Germany has no right to interfere into functioning of democracy in Poland if in the name of political correctness they covered up crimes committed by jobless rabble…

On Monday the banking tax came into effect. The draft of the retail trade tax is now in the phase of public consultation and nearly everyone involved tears a strip off it. In the shape it is put forward the biggest retailers who were supposed to bear the burden of the tax are likely to be beneficiaries of it. The most dreadful part of the tax which might be a nail to the coffin of small retailers and which might send several people unemployed is the highertax rate for turnover generated on Saturdays, Sundays and on bank holidays. This will also mean end of cheaper petrol over weekends (it is less costly because many company cars can be fuelled up only during the working week), bigger discrepancies between prices working-week and weekend prices (typical practice for repricing food produces in Auchan) and generally lower competition, since some retailers will drop off. Customer beware, you will pay the bill anyway!

By the way, formally each draft law undergoes public consultation under the lawmaking process. Sound commendably, but I wonder when any amendment proposed by the opposition or any other entity participating in the consultation is included into any final legal act.

The PLN 500 child allowance draft law is also being consulted. There was a short discord between the ministry of finance and the government, but Mr Szałamacha was swiftly taken to the task. Funding for the generous giving away is secured for 2016, when the programme will be serviced only over nine months and when one-off proceeds of PLN 9 billion from LTE frequency auction are to flow in, but streams of revenues which will finance the allowance from 2017 onwards have not been defined. Besides, politicians of PiS keep on appealing to the wealthiest Poles not to apply for the allowance, instead of setting an income cap above which parents would not be entitled to the benefit.

Besides, worth mentioning pace of works on the draft bears testimony to the greatest lie of the pre-election campaign. On 20 October 2015, as the TV debate between Mrs Kopacz and Mrs Szydło was drawing to a close, Mrs Szydło showed a blue file with ready drafts of new laws. She also told she would show the documents during a conference right after the debate. Needless to say subsequently Mrs Szydło only waved the file and has never showed any draft law. An excellent PR stunt, I wonder only why everyone, including journalists and politicians from today’s opposition, has fallen for it no one has taken the trouble to check out what the content of the file was?

And just recently PO came up with a counter-proposal of an even more generous pro-family agenda of giving out PLN 500 for every child, regardless of income per person in a household. Jaw drops open. If the biggest, in terms of number of deputies, party in the opposition, keeps on fooling about like this, in a year they will enjoy support below 10% in the polls. In the meantime is losing its vigour. In the long run Mr Petru and his partisans are unlikely to retain support above 20% and if they miraculously manage to win the election, they will lose power quickly. Affluent and resourceful people who want lean and efficient state, in other words liberal electorate, make up a tiny, though growing, percentage of voters.

After Standard and Poor's downgraded Poland’s rating, Fitch and Moody’s have announced reviews of Poland’s rating within 12 months and warned of possible downgrades for reasons far more substantive than those behind S&P’s move. As two other rating agencies point out, generous government spending calls into question fiscal balance and in the long-run is likely to decrease creditworthiness of Poland.

The government is getting to grips with the ailments of state-owned coal mines. During the campaign PiS promised not to close any mine and not to make redundant any miner. After the reality check strongly unionised miners, in order to help the government meet its promises, will have to accept salary cuts. Good luck!

Finally the Smolensk crash stands a chance to be scrutinised properly! The new team of experts, some of which even have notion about intricacies of aviation, but none of them has experience in investigating civil nor military passenger airplane crashes, is to carry out an unbiased investigation and definitely will not set any hypothesis in advance; exactly like Mr Macierewicz who signed a decree setting up the team and subsequently during the conference on which establishing the team was announced, adjudicated there had been an explosion which blew up the Tu-154 plane some fifteen or eighteen metres above ground level.

Three weeks into public media takeover, apart from a few spectacular lay-offs, the change I witness is less spectacular than many expected. The extent to which TVP is PiS biased is similar to how TVN is anti-PiS biased. Different views are presented and guests with different views are invited, but the bottom line message delicately instructs audience how to shape their opinion. Nevertheless, fortunately TVP has not stooped to the level of TV Republika, lousy propaganda which would drastically decrease popularity of TVP.