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.
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."
A rally by about 1,000 Poles in front of the Russian embassy in Warsaw on Sunday featured a huge banner that read: "The most awful truths about Katyn and Smolensk may reconcile us. Lies never will," according to the official ITAR-Tass agency.
In an effort to smooth over the dispute, Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Komorowski agreed to set up a joint commission to determine the contents of a permanent future memorial.
"It's unfortunate that, despite the findings of the official investigation, some Poles still voice these accusations that the crash was a Russian terrorist act against the presidential plane," says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti agency in Moscow. "Now there is this story of some Poles hanging a memorial plate in Smolensk that accuses Russia of 'genocide.' The Katyn massacre was a terrible crime, no doubt, but it cannot be called genocide."
Speaking of the Katyn massacre, Medvedev acknowledged the guilt of the Soviet-era NKVD in the murders – a fact that Soviet leaders denied for 50 years – and said that Russia would take further steps to clear up historical ambiguities that still surround the episode. Russian officials say they have begun handing over to Poland almost 200 secret Katyn-related documents from the former Soviet secret police archives, including lists of Polish servicemen held captive by the NKVD, interrogation and forensic reports, medical records, burial certificates.
"Leaders of the Soviet state of that period carry responsibility for what happened" at Katyn, Medvedev said. "In the name of the future, we have to turn this page, but in a manner that leaves it in the memory of Russia and the Poles."
But the process is already under fire from nationalists in both countries. In Russia, many conservative politicians argue that the Kremlin's recent half-hearted efforts to separate itself from the legacy of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin are demeaning to Russians and diminish its historical greatness.
"The course of Russian-Polish relations is always like navigating through a minefield; one wrong step and it's all ruined," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "In Poland, this is all about current politics. The leaders, like President Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk, are trying to be pragmatic, to accept what's happened and move on. But it's an election year, and they can't afford to ignore the loud demands from Kaczynski and others for what they call the 'full truth' about the crash."
Mr. Lukyanov says that while the politics in Russia are somewhat more muted, the country also faces parliamentary and presidential polls within the next year, which might pit a liberal Medvedev against his more nationalistic rival Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"Some in Russia say there's already been too much groveling to Poland, and there is a very polarized discussion going on," he says. Though it was Mr. Putin who began the diplomatic warming trend toward Poland almost two years ago, Medvedev has more explicitly urged that Russia break with its Soviet past and seek deeper reconciliation with Poland.
"In both countries, much will depend on the outcome of upcoming elections," says Lukyanov.