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Analysis & Opinion
12.04.10 Tragic Reconciliation
By Tom Balmforth

On Monday, Russia stood side by side with Poland as it mourns the deaths of its president and ruling elite in a plane crash on Saturday morning. The Polish delegation was making its way to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of Polish officers by Soviet secret police in 1940. This second Polish tragedy on Russian soil has devastated Poland, where a vigil in front of the presidential palace was attended by thousands of Poles. Meanwhile, the response from Russia’s leaders has been sensitive, and their investigation energetic. Might this catastrophe pave the way away from rocky Russian-Polish relations?

The Polish delegation was flying to the Smolensk airport on its way to the Katyn forest, where it was to mark 70 years since 4,000 Polish officers and 18,000 other Poles were murdered by Lavrenty Beria’s NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB, under Stalin’s rule in 1940. The delegation was to be joined by 400 Polish relatives of the Katyn victims.
On its approach to Smolensk in westernmost Russia, the presidential plane had to circle the airport three times due to bad visibility, before it was urged to land instead at Minsk in Belarus. According to preliminary reports, the plane then made a fourth attempt to land in thick fog, and crashed 300 meters before the runway. All 96 people on board were killed, including Polish President Lech Kaczynsky, his wife Maria, top military staff, the head of the central bank, members of Parliament and senior clergymen.

Lech Kaczynsky’s body has been recovered from the wreckage and is to be buried on Saturday. But many funerals will be delayed, as only 14 victims of the crash have yet been officially identified, Polskie Radio’s English service quoted Poland’s health minister as saying this morning.

President Dmitry Medvedev has set up a government investigatory commission into the crash, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is chairing it. The investigation has focused on why the pilot disregarded warnings to land elsewhere, after Putin announced that there was no evidence of a technical fault having taken place on the 26-year old Soviet-built Tu-154 plane.

In the aftermath there were fears that the tragedy would scupper the recent moves toward reconciliation in historically cool Polish-Russian relations, but Moscow’s response has given hope of the opposite. “I was with Former Polish President Alexander Kwa?niewski [in office from 1995 to 2005] yesterday evening and he was very positively impressed by the statements and behavior of Putin and Medvedev in the situation,” said Alexander Rahr, program director for Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“Russia’s reaction after this tragedy really was very human,” said Adam Rotfeld, former Polish deputy foreign minister and a leading member of the Polish-Russian Group on Difficult Matters. “It seems to me not only human – they demonstrated very positive feelings – but also very friendly. In recent years I do not remember this type of reaction shown toward the Polish people.”

Fifty-nine years ago today Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, but Russia on Monday marks a day of mourning, Medvedev announced in a message of condolence yesterday, which appeared on his Web site in Polish. “The response of the Russian authorities was more than satisfactory – the pace of this reaction and the involvement of the authorities in the whole process after the catastrophe from my point of view are really impressive,” said Marcin Kaczmarskia from the Center for Eastern Studies. On Saturday, Putin met Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the scene of the crash, where the two embraced.

On April 7 last week Putin had become the first ever Russian leader to attend a memorial service in Poland to commemorate the Katyn massacre. It was seen as a strong reconciliatory gesture, but many Poles had wanted Putin to go further and officially apologize for Katyn, whereas Putin said that responsibility for it was Soviet, and not Russian. A survey carried out by independent Polish research center CBOS two days after Putin’s visit found that 53 percent of Poles think that Russia should recognize the massacre as genocide and 56 percent demand that all the files on Katyn be opened.

But Rotfeld said that he and his counterpart in the Polish-Russian Group on Difficult Matters had met alongside Tusk and Putin behind closed doors on April 7, and that the meeting was “very, very positive.” “I had the feeling that the Russians are ready for a new stage in relations. I don’t want to be optimistic – there is a need to see the deeds and not only the words. But the words were more than positive,” he said.

A Polish film on the massacre entitled “Katyn,” aired in Russia for the first time last week on Kultura, a relatively minor television channel, was given a second airing yesterday at prime time on Rossiya, Russia’s main channel. “Yesterday the film was aired to millions of Russians at peak time, and it definitely creates a new understanding of what happened 70 years ago and why for Poland, it was so significant to be there on the highest level,” said Rotfeld. “In other words, there is a new political psychological mood in Russia, and it seems to me that we have a chance to think how our mutual relations can be improved in qualitatively new ways – not only to just discuss some new initiatives in a very diplomatic sense, but to really do something in common,” he said.

“There have been a lot of symbolic gestures from Russia,” said Rahr. “There is a good chance that some new arrangement and policies in Russian-Polish cooperation could emerge. Nobody could have thought about this before. It’s a good chance now to change relations,” said Rahr.

Polish-Russian relations have soured after two centuries of what Poland perceives as Russian imperialism, whether under the guise of the Russian empire or the Soviet Union, and the massacre in Katyn has in particular been a sticking point in reconciliation. The speech that the late president Kaczynsky was to read on Saturday, made public today, proclaims: “Katyn became a painful wound of Polish history, which poisoned relations between Poles and Russians for decades. Let’s make the Katyn wound finally heal and cicatrize. We are already on the way to do it. We, Poles, appreciate what Russians have done in the past years.”

Troubled Polish-Russian relations do not just stem from history though –Kaczynski’s and his party’s relationship with Moscow was greatly complicated by their staunch support of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in the wake of the Georgia-Russia “five-day war” in August of 2008. However, Polish foreign policy may become more pro-Russian after new elections. Lech Kaczynski leaves behind his twin brother Jaroslaw, who heads the Law and Justice party that Lech was member of. It is as yet unclear whether Jaroslaw will withdraw from politics. But polls suggest that the position of president, whose responsibilities are above all foreign policy, may well be filled by the candidate from the more pro-Russian Civic Platform party (PO). Bronis?aw Komorowski, vice-chairman of Donald Tusk’s PO, has stepped in as acting president until the new presidential election is held within the next 60 days.

Komorowski is the favorite for the post of president, especially as the would-be opposition party has been decimated by the plane crash. “The main opposition party has almost vanished – the main people from this party have died. For now the Civic Platform candidate for the presidential elections is Komorowski. I guess they will win, but really I’m not sure – we expect that the election campaign will be more quiet than usual. I’m not sure how people will vote,” said Agata Dubas, an independent political analyst based in Poland. “It’s too early really to say anything – there is so much emotion now. Generally, Donald Tusk’s current Polish government is one of the most pro-Russian governments in the last few years. I think they are very friendly toward Russia,” said Dubas.

In the emotional aftermath of the crash it is difficult to speculate on the future of Polish-Russian relations. But as Russia shows unprecedented sensitivity toward its former vassal state Poland, and more pro-Russian Polish leadership appears on the horizon, Saturday’s tragedy could help put to rest the history of enmity in Polish-Russian relations.
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