Iceland volcano ash keeps Obama, others from attending Polish president's funeral

President Obama and other world leaders were prevented from traveling to see Polish President Lech Kaczynski's funeral in Krakow today due to the cloud of ash hanging over Europe after the Iceland volcano.

Petr David Josek/AP
Passengers look out from the windows of Krakow airport, Poland, Friday. A cloud of volcanic ash from an Iceland volcano caused cancellation of flights across Europe putting which kept leaders from attending the burial ceremony of late Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife, killed in a plane crash.

One week after the tragic plane crash in which Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and a number of senior political and military leaders died, a mourning Poland is honoring its leader.

The president’s funeral took in the country’s historical site, the Royal Wawel Castle in Krakow, where Polish kings and key statesmen have been buried, but ash from the Iceland volcano continues to ground planes over Europe, preventing many world leaders from paying their respects in person.

President Obama’s Sunday visit to Poland was canceled at the last minute due to the volcanic ash cloud that has paralyzed Europe’s air traffic. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and other guests have announced their absence at the ceremony for the same reason.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, however, managed to get there.
"The tragedy of eight days ago and the sympathy and help extended by the Russians in these days give us hope for better relations between our two great nations," said Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz during the funeral. "I direct those words to [Mr. Medvedev]."

A big loss

The loss of a large part of its political class has been a major blow to Poland, a former communist country which joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999 and has been a European Union member state since 2004.

Poland was to hold presidential elections this fall, when Mr. Kaczynski’s first term would have come to an end. But interim President Bronislaw Komorowski set the election’s date for June 20. And the political significance of the tragedy should not be underestimated.

"It is clear that the accident has already had an impact on Poles’ voting behavior,” says Grzegorz Makowski, a senior analyst with the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank. "Recent polls show that the percentage of undecided voters has increased to 50 percent. With the death of both president [Kaczynski] and left-wing candidate Jerzy Szmajdzinski, who was also on board of the plane, a large part of the voters seems to have become more volatile in its choices.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Komorowski had been chosen the ruling center-right Civic Platform’s candidate for the election, where he would have run against president Kaczynski. The latter’s right-wing Law and Justice party has remained in opposition since 2007.

But Kaczynski's death has changed the political landscape, forcing all remaining candidates to revamp their strategies.

"[Komorowski’s] staff had previously wanted to focus the campaign on their candidate’s contestation of president Kaczynski’s policies. Now we can expect an entirely different approach from [Komorowski], who could even make [positive] references to [Kaczynski’s] legacy”, says Jan Filip Stanilko, a political analyst with the Sobieski Institute, a conservative think tank. "Also, a number of third-party candidates have pulled out of the elections, because they simply would not be able to collect the required signatures for their candidatures [within the new time frame]. This will further structure the campaign around the principal candidates.”

Will Kaczynski's brother run?

Another major factor in the election could be the eventual candidacy of the president’s twin brother, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has not decided yet on whether to run for president.

"Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s candidacy is likely, but it could turn out to be a two-edged sword. On one hand, being the president’s brother might improve his chances, but on the other, he had been a quite unpopular prime minister in the past,” said Mr. Stanilko.

Given some doubt about interim President Komorowski’s democratic mandate to name permanent replacements, the latter has hesitated to fill vacant senior posts. The central bank’s deputy governor Piotr Wiesiolek has been named acting chief, replacing governor Slawomir Skrzypek, while Gen. Stanislaw Koziej, the former Deputy Defense Minister in Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s government, has been named head of the National Security Bureau, replacing Aleksander Szczyglo.

Mr. Koziej’s nomination seems to be a conciliatory nod to the Kaczynski brothers’ opposition party.

"[Komorowski] has acted with caution to the pending nominations, asking for legal expertise on the matter of any eventual appointment,” explains Mr. Makowski.

A military without top leadership

Komorowski’s reluctance to make key appointments may have a downside, however.

It may prolong the instability of Poland’s military, which has lost all of its chief commanders in the tragic accident.

The deceased military leaders include the chief of staff, as well as heads of the land, air, naval, operational, and special forces. First deputies have taken over their duties, but the Army’s succession paralysis could persist for the next few months. The president names all chief commanders.

In the meantime, the Army has been pressured to review its security regulations. According to one of Poland’s former top commanders, the military’s lack of common sense is one of the key factors to blame for the tragic accident.

"In my opinion, security procedures were breached,” Gen. Waldemar Skrzypczak, the former chief of land forces, told the Polish channel TVP Info. "The country’s top leaders simply should not [have been] on board of the same plane.”

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