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May 24, 2022

Smolensk, near Katyn

Paradoxes of history are not at all rare. If, back in the 18th century, when China had the world’s biggest GDP, the country had opened to the rest of the world, global history would have probably been different. The world history would have also been different if the US had not joined the WWI in April 1917 and if USSR had not launched the perestroika and glasnost in 1985, the evolution of Europe, if not the entire world, would have also been different than recorded by history.

If the Polish army aircraft that, on April 10, 2010, was flying Poland’s President Lech Kaczinski and almost 90 other high-ranking political and military personalities to Katyn, near Smolensk (Russia) to commemorate the assassination of some 20,000 Polish officers in 1940 had not crashed, this tragic episode would have probably been definitively transferred into both countries’ history books. But the terrible aviation tragedy did not allow for a heavy dossier of the Polish-Russian relations to be closed.

Last Sunday, when a year since the crash of the Tupolev plane at Smolensk leaving the country without its president and a great part of its political and military leadership was commemorated, Poland froze for a moment in remembrance of the departed and of the outstanding event. The memory simply had to be emotionally transferred to Katyn, the forested area near Smolensk, where part of the Polish elite perished by Stalin’s order a year into WWII. Therefore, a direct reference to the bilateral dossier including both the historical wars between Poland and Russia, the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact whereby Germany and Soviet Russia shared the territory of the Polish state, as well as, naturally, Katyn.

The matter itself is, of course, the fact that an unfortunate event has been politicised. As one can suspect, its causes have turned into a subject of dispute between the Russian and Polish authorities. After the inquiry, the former drew the conclusion that the fault had been entirely the crew’s and the latter ones said the Smolensk military airport tower had not given correct information on the weather conditions. But the politicising of the event could have only come as a surprise, although the commemoration of a year since the death of the almost 100 personalities of Poland threw a nation that had already been harshly treated by history into grievous pain. According to opinion polls, 78 per cent of the Poles believe the circumstances of the air crash a year ago have not been completely clarified, meaning that they question the Russian investigation report. Practically, the Polish authorities decided to conduct their own investigation in the case, which only reopened old sores towards the Eastern neighbour, in relations with a predominantly contentious dossier over the last century. Various conspiracy theories were spread by the media, going so far as to say that the Russian authorities had purposely created the fog that caused the accident. Naturally, a majority of the Polish population does not believe in those theories, but the brother of the late president, Jaroslaw Kaczynsky, an eminent politician and PM’s electoral competitor himself, did not accept the findings of the Russian probe, accused the Government of ‘servitude’ and said that Russia had ‘a direct responsibility for the accident’ because it had made the decision (therefore Moscow and not the airport tower) to allow the aircraft to land.

The daily broadcasting of news on the Smolensk air crash in the Polish media upset the Polish-Russian relations, by making a subliminal reference to the 1940 Katyn tragedy. Most Poles are aware of that: almost 80 per cent say they are bored and annoyed by the daily media bombardment and a group of students has even launched a campaign for having a full day with no media coverage of the tragic accident.
The mention above draws attention to another reality, this time one referring not to relations with Russia, but to the very Polish society as a whole. Many international press features covering the Sunday event stressed from the headline the fact that the Polish nation shows signs of division. As an expression of that political fracture, one has to note the fact that two distinct ceremonies were held at the Warsaw Powazki military cemetery, attended by both the current President of the country, Bronislav Komorowski, and by the PM, Donald Tusk, in the company of high-ranking officials of the state. It was an opportunity for the president to make a call for unity: ‘A year on, we should see what is great, what is good, and what hurts so terribly, and also what is less important, such as division, dispute and political conflict,’ he said. And one of the best known Polish journalists, Tomasz Lis, was writing: ‘This nightmarish catastrophe, which could have united the nation, has instead divided the nation in a decisive fashion.’

The official ceremony was boycotted by Jaroslaw Kaczinsky, the head of the opposition conservative Law and Justice Party, the brother of the dead president, who condemns both the Russian authorities and the Polish Government in office. He organised a separate ceremony. Nearly 2,000 supporters of his party held a demonstration in Warsaw, on Saturday, with slogans urging for investigations against Russian PM Vladimir Putin and declaring Donald Tusk a traitor.

The atmosphere of the commemoration of a year since the Smolensk tragedy was massively influenced on the one hand by the upcoming legislative election due in October, when the Law and Justice Party hopes, by this call on historic feelings, to influence the electorate, with the competing party led by PM Tusk – leader of the Civic Platform – being second in opinion polls. On the other hand, another inappropriate circumstance intervened. The Smolensk authorities decided to replace a commemorative plaque with a text in Polish language from the scene of the tragedy arguing that it should be written in both languages and trying to avoid the mentioning in the context of the Katyn 1940 episode. A Russian official of the Smolensk region said the Polish authorities had been advised on the replacement of the plaque by a bilingual one and that Katyn did not need to be mentioned in the text. The old plaque will be put into a museum devoted to the 1940 event.
A Polish delegation headed by the president, that went to the scene of the tragedy yesterday, had been duly warned by the Foreign Ministry and the opposition energetically demanded the cancellation of the visit as early as last week.

This is the kind of surprises history holds when political passions – as in the Polish case – step in, as well as sensitivities when it comes to admitting one’s own recent past, as in Russia’s case. It is a historically charged dossier of two neighbouring nations that has been recently enriched with yet another hot page, all because of a faulty management on both sides of a tragic accident that, just a year ago, was bringing everyone together in the emotion of grief.

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