Plane Crash Kills Polish President: A Blow to Russia-Poland Relations

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A firefighter walking near some of the wreckage at the crash site where Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and some of the country's most prominent military and civilian leaders died Saturday April 10, 2010.

The president of Poland was killed in a plane crash on Saturday in western Russia, setting off a new cycle of grievances between Russia and Poland on a day that was supposed to serve the cause of reconciliation between them. President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and some of his top security officials were among the 96 people killed in the crash. As the fuselage of the Soviet-made Tupelov airplane (operated by a Polish airliner) still smoldered in forest near the city of Smolensk, the grim irony of their deaths became clear to the stunned Polish nation: Their president had been on his way to Russia to commemorate the massacre of tens of thousands of Poles, who had been executed on the order of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1940 in those same forests in the region of Smolensk.

Blame for the crash has fallen on the pilot, who reportedly ignored warnings from air traffic control and tried to land on Saturday morning in dense fog, snagging the tail of his plane on a tree about a mile from the airport. "The pilot was advised to fly to Moscow or Minsk because of heavy fog, but he still decided to land. No one should have been landing in that fog," an air traffic control official told Reuters, indicating that recklessness may be behind the tragedy. Russian law enforcement officials said they had opened an investigation, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called to express his condolences to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who reportedly wept upon hearing of the catastrophe on Saturday.

Kaczynski, who became Poland's president in 2005, had been a dogged critic of Putin and Russia's efforts to restore influence over the former Soviet Union. He sparred with the Kremlin over the bans Russia imposed on Polish food imports in recent years, calling them part of a strategy of political blackmail and manipulation. In 2006, he even proposed that the European Union impose sanctions on Russia for its economic bullying in Eastern Europe. His animosity had deep roots. In 1980, he spent nearly a year in prison for "anti-socialist" activities when the Moscow-backed communist government imposed martial law in Poland. After his release, he became a leader of the underground Solidarity movement that campaigned for democratic reform, helping to topple the communist regime.

One of the key initiatives of his career was to achieve greater openness and recognition from Russia about the massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet secret police in 1940. He insisted that the two countries could not build normal ties without achieving reconciliation over these crimes. On Wednesday, Putin made an unprecedented gesture of good will on this issue, becoming the first Russian leader ever to commemorate Stalin's mass executions of Poles alongside a Polish leader. Prime Minister Tusk had flown in to Smolensk that day for the ceremony in the village of Katyn, where most of the 22,000 political murders were carried out by Stalin's NKVD secret police, a forerunner to the KGB.

After the ceremony, which marked the 70th anniversary of the killings at Katyn, Putin gave a controversial explanation of why Stalin had ordered them. He said Stalin was seeking revenge for the death in 1920 of Red Army soldiers in Polish prisoner of war camps, where around 32,000 troops under Stailn's command who had been captured by the Poles died of hunger and disease. "It is my personal opinion that Stalin felt personally responsible for this tragedy, and carried out the executions [of Poles in 1940] out of a sense of revenge," Putin said at a press conference. He also disappointed many in Poland by failing to call the massacres a war crime or to pledge that the perpetrators' names, which are now sealed in Russia's secret archives, would finally be opened to the Poles.

But for most people in Poland and in Russia, Wednesday's ceremony with Tusk was still seen as a remarkable step forward in the process of reconciliation. President Kaczynski was due to arrive on Saturday for another ceremony along with a delegation of more than 80 Polish officials and relatives of the victims of the Katyn massacres. "I hope I get a visa," Kaczynski had joked when announcing the visit. As part of the ceremony, he was due to receive an urn of soil from the forests were the thousands of Polish officers had been executed with a bullet to the base of the neck.

The horrific irony of the crash that cut short this visit was not lost on officials in Russia, who expressed their shock and grief over the incident. "The soul can only shudder from the realization that Katyn has claimed more victims," said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia's parliament. Mourners in Warsaw had already begun to gather by the presidential palace on Saturday to lay flowers and light candles. The political impact of the crash will likely be felt in Poland for years to come.

Under the constitution, new presidential elections will have to be held, and replacements will also need to be found for the chief of Poland's military and the deputy minister of foreign affairs, as well as scores of other officials who were on that flight. How the tragedy will effect relations between Poland and Russia will depend a lot on how Russia handles the investigation of the crash alongside Polish authorities. For his part, Putin is traveling to Smolensk on Saturday to help oversee the inquiry and meet with Tusk, who has also said he is coming to the scene of the crash. But whatever the investigators find among the wreckage, Poles will now have yet another tragic reason to mourn their countrymen in the forests around Katyn.