Seeing Double in Poland

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It's an unusual problem for a country to have: Poland may be the first country in history to boast identical twins in its two top political posts. Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski are Poland's President and Prime Minister, respectively. In order not to confuse world leaders, they have a policy of not traveling together to summits such as this week's NATO meeting in Riga. They also try to avoid appearing together at home. Even so, there have been mix-ups. The Financial Times told its readers that Prime Minister Kaczynski visited Britain when, in fact, it was the President. A reporter for BBC Newshour asked President Kaczynski about his earlier talks with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But it was his brother who had traveled to Berlin. "Let's be precise," replied the miffed President. It's my brother who met with Angela Merkel though perhaps I am a little bit similar to him."

In appearance, the brothers are in fact very difficult to tell apart, although Lech, the President, has a small mole on his left cheek and another on the right side of his nose. They both stand about 5'4". Lech is married with a daughter while Jaroslaw is a bachelor who lives with his mother and a cat. Now 57, they came to prominence as 13-year-old child stars in the 1962 Polish film The Two Who Stole the Moon, in which they played mischievous but endearing blond brothers. Later, in the 1980s, they joined the Solidarity movement that would trigger the overthrow of communism across Eastern Europe. They orchestrated the 1990 victory in Poland's first post-communist elections of Solidarity's most famous son, Lech Walesa, but fell out with him shortly afterward and left politics for a time.

Lech Kaczynski returned as Justice Minister in the late 1990s, promising to get tough on crime. That image served as a springboard to launch the Law and Justice Party, which the brothers control. The party went on to win closely fought Parliamentary elections last year and, shortly afterward, presidential polls in which Lech was a come-from-behind winner. Jaroslaw did not become Prime Minister right away. Fearful of being mistaken for his brother by a would-be assassin, however, he requested official government security not ordinarily accorded a party leader. He was appointed Prime Minister earlier this year when his predecessor stepped down following disagreements over the direction of government policy. Political analysts in Poland believe that Jaroslaw first declined to take the job, even though his party won the election, in order to avoid handicapping his brother's chances in the presidential elections that came shortly after.

The twins' year in power has been filled with controversy. They are staunch social conservatives who would like to see the death penalty reinstated and are intent on purging Polish political and judicial circles of the last vestiges of Communist rule, which they blame for most of Poland's ongoing economic and political problems. Relations with Russia have deteriorated under their governance: a European Union effort to sign a new deal with Russia on energy investment collapsed on November 24 partly because of Polish objections. (Poland wanted Russia to lift a ban on the import of Polish meats and other produce, which Poles say Russia imposed in retaliation for Polish support of the so-called Orange Revolution in neighboring Ukraine). The brothers have maintained Poland's historical support for the U.S., commanding a sector of Iraq and agreeing this month to send 1000 additional troops to shore up NATO in Afghanistan.

The twins talk to each other on the phone many times each day. "After all we have a family in common," Lech told TIME on the eve of his election. They recognize that their unusual relationship has the potential to raise eyebrows. Earlier this year, Lech skipped his brother's inaugural speech to Parliament, an occasion that Presidents have in the past attended, in order not to "distract" people, as Jaroslaw later explained. Soon after the speech, a reporter asked Lech whether it would become their policy that "where Prime Minister Kaczynski shows up, President Kaczynski does not?" "There might be exceptions to that rule," Lech replied. "Sometimes we are appearing together but it is true, it does not happen often."

On Tuesday, President Kaczynski will travel to Riga to meet with George W. Bush and other leaders to discuss missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Memo to POTUS: he is the one with the mole on his cheek. Or is that Jaroslaw?

With reporting by Beata Pasek/Warsaw