Polish president plane crash tests Polish, Russian leaders

Polish leaders appear to be quickly picking up the pieces after the tragic Polish president plane crash, which also killed much of Poland's political elite.

Petr David Josek/AP
Volunteers carry candles in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, after the Polish president plane crash killed President Lech Kaczynski.

The tragic Polish president plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski, along with much of Poland's political elite, on their way to share a moment of reconciliation over one of the most agonizing episodes in five centuries of stormy Russia-Poland relations, poses a severe political and moral challenge that both countries' leaders – at least so far – appear to be passing with flying colors.

The historical symbolism of the accident could hardly have been worse.

Mr. Kaczynski, along with several Polish World War II survivors and intellectual leaders, had been on their way to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, in which Soviet secret police murdered 20,000 Polish military officers and buried them in the Katyn Forest, near the western Russian city of Smolensk.

For many Poles, that slaughter epitomized their relations with Russia which, over the centuries, has seen their country invaded, divided up between Russia and other powers, and subjected to long periods of domination from Moscow that only came to an end with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

"It's hard to deny that this tragedy seems to have a strong mystical profile, as if it were some sort of sign," says Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy with the ruling United Russia Party and a Kremlin adviser. "Katyn is an intensely painful subject, and Kaczinski and his delegation died right near that terrible place ....

"Sometimes you come face-to-face with the awful, irrational nature of history, and this is such a moment," he says. "If this event had occurred a few hundred years ago, probably people would focus only on the mystical signal it seems to send. But we live in the 21st century, there is so much at stake, and we have to hope that everyone will behave rationally."

Poland's quick reaction

Many Russian commentators appear impressed with the swift and efficient reaction of Poland's democracy to what amounts to a political earthquake as well as a mass human tragedy.

According to the final tally of investigators, 96 people perished in the crash, including Poland's president, his wife, the chairman of the national bank, the Army chief of staff, the top naval commander as well as the heads of air and land forces, the chief of the national security service, a deputy foreign minister and several members of parliament.

"We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future," Piotr Pszkowski, Polish foreign ministry spokesperson, told news agencies. "Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland."

Poland's 1997 Constitution appears to be functioning smoothly.

Interim elections

Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, automatically becomes acting head of state, and interim presidential elections will be held within two months. Mr. Komorowski's first act was to declare a week of national mourning.

Other senior officials who perished in the crash are expected to be replaced in a similarly orderly manner.

"We can see that Poland is a working constitutional state, and a modern democracy, and it is reacting to this terrible shock in a very dignified way," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "One can be confident that there will be a process of new elections, fresh military appointments to fill this gap. There may be an interruption in the rapprochement between Russia and Poland that had been underway, but there seems no reason to fear a rupture because of this terrible accident."

Day of mourning in Russia

Russia, too, declared a day of mourning. President Dmitry Medvedev appointed his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, to head the investigation into the accident. Russian news agencies said that Polish investigators would be given full access to the plane's black box data and other details.

The initial report of Mr. Putin's lead investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, seems to exonerate Russia and blame "pilot error" for the crash. The report says the 26-year old Soviet-built Polish airforce Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft hit the trees at the edge of the Smolensk runway (as shown in this video reconstruction by the official Russian RIA-Novosti agency) and then smash into a field about 1 kilometer short of the runway.

The aircraft, which had undergone full servicing last December at the Aviakor plant – its original builder – in Samara, Russia, had no technical faults, according to Mr. Bastrykin. "The pilot was informed about complex weather conditions and, nevertheless, made a decision on landing," RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying.

Conspiracy theories

But the Russian Internet already abounds with conspiratorial "versions" of what may have happened, and suspicions of foul play can also be encountered in some Western-based blogs, such as here and here.

The conspiracy theorists point out that Kaczinsky, a long-time anti-Communist activist, had been instrumental in bringing Poland into a "special relationship" with the US, promoting the Bush-era plan to station strategic anti-missile weapons near Russia's borders, and advocating the induction of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

"With all the peoples' love of conspiracy, I don't believe there will be any serious provocations about this," says Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Center for Effective Politics, a Kremlin-sponsored think tank. "Of course there are some people who believe in the power of evil forces, and see their intervention everywhere, but that really looks absurd in this case."

But at moments like this, Russians must contend with their own country's tortured history, which has been the subject of intense domestic controversy in recent months. The era of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is pocked marked with mass atrocities, mostly committed against the Soviet Union's own people, although some, like the Katyn Massacre, affected outsiders. Although it remains difficult to tear the historical shrouds from Stalin's domestic crimes, the Kremlin appears more willing to own up to the USSR's misdeeds against foreigners.

"It was not difficult for Russia to recognize the criminality of the Stalin regime and admit what was done at Katyn," says Mr. Markov. "In fact, we've done this dozens of times. It's difficult to find just the right way to to do it. Sometimes it seems there's nothing you can say that will make the Poles accept the apology."

But, Markov says, the pragmatic Polish premier, Donald Tusk, and Vladimir Putin, had been moving toward an improved relationship, and a greatly improved historical dialogue was part of that process.

Indeed, he says, Russian leaders have strongly emphasized that their own country's premier holiday, Unity Day, which is held on Nov. 4 – to commemorate the liberation of Moscow from a Polish occupation army in 1612 – is not at all anti-Polish "but a day to celebrate the recovery of Russia," after the historic Time of Troubles, he says.

"Relations between Moscow and Warsaw are likely to remain difficult," says Mr. Konovalov. "But there are good reasons to hope that we'll be able to engage in reasonable dialogue about our differences. Sometimes a joint tragedy can play the role of a catalyst, to enable a process that ends acrimony and brings two sides closer together."

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