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Russia, Poland pledge reconciliation at crash site memorial

Russia's Dmitry Medvedev and Poland's Bronislaw Komorowski met on the one-year anniversary of a plane crash that killed Poland's former president en route to Russia. A probe of the crash has sparked controversy.

By Correspondent / April 11, 2011

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (r.) and his Polish counterpart Bronislaw Komorowski (c.) take part at a wreath laying ceremony near Smolensk on Monday, April 10. The presidents of Russia and Poland on Monday visited the site of the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other people last year, amid simmering tensions over a plaque commemorating the disaster.

Vladimir Rodionov/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP

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Moscow

The presidents of historical enemies Russia and Poland, Dmitry Medvedev and Bronislaw Komorowski, met Monday at the scene of the horrific air crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other Polish luminaries near Smolensk a year ago. The two men pledged to stay on the path of reconciliation, despite a fresh controversy over a memorial plaque removed by Russian officials from the accident site.

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For the two countries, which have known little other than mutual hostility for 500 years, the crash that wiped out much of Poland's top elite while they were on their way to commemorate the World War II-era Soviet massacre of 20,000 Polish officers in Katyn Forest near Smolensk was a moment of supreme strain.

But leaders on both sides appeared to rise to the occasion, and the worst pitfalls seemed to be averted amid an outpouring of public sympathy in Russia and Kremlin assurances that the accident's causes would be fully investigated.

But a year later, much of that goodwill has dissipated. Many in Poland reject the findings of the official Russian probe, which blames the crash squarely on crew error compounded by interference from high-ranking passengers who urged the pilot to land despite bad weather warnings.

As Polish parliamentary elections slated for October draw nearer, public opinion polls suggest that the opposition Law and Justice Party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski – the late president's twin brother – is rapidly gaining on the ruling Civic Platform Party of pragmatic prime minister Donald Tusk, at least in part due to its fierce rejection of Moscow's explanation for the crash. And a survey by Polish broadcaster TVN 24, published this week, found that just 12 percent of Poles consider relations with Russia to be "good," down from 29 percent in May 2010, when both countries seemed united by grief over the tragedy.

Many Poles are now reacting furiously to the discovery that Russian officials on Saturday removed a Polish-language plaque placed by mourners at the accident site. The plaque said that President Kaczynski and the others died while traveling to commemorate "the Soviet crime of genocide against prisoners of war, Polish Army officers."

The Russians replaced it with a new, bilingual marker that makes no mention of the Katyn massacre, and says simply: "In memory of 96 Poles led by the president of the Republic of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash near Smolensk on April 10, 2010."

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