Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA)
21st April 2010
At 8:56 Poland time, on the morning of April 10, an aging Russian made TU-154 carrying top leaders of Poland crashed into the Katyn forests, an area that was ironically witness to another Polish tragedy in 1940 -- the execution of 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia by the Soviet militia of Stalin. Both represent the loss of a generation of Polish leaders.
The leaders on the flight were on their way to attend the 70th commemoration ceremony of this tragedy that has been a highly emotive issue for Poland haunting its psyche. The lawyer and solidarity leader who had fought for the freedom of Poland from Soviet Union and President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, his wife Mary, and 87 top political, military and cultural icons perished in the crash enveloping the nation in grief, making Katyn, for the Polish people, a synonym for tragedy, an Iliad of calamities.
The outpouring of grief for the President, his wife and the leaders was palpable. Thousands upon thousands kept night long vigil outside the 17th century presidential palace in the beautiful Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street in Warsaw. Mourners came from far and wide; families with children in tow, the youth, the middle aged and the old, many poor, some challenged, several travelling overnight from the interior of the country to join in the expression of solidarity and grief at a poignant time in their nation’s history. The queues were never-ending with mourners braving the cold and intermittent rain, waiting for as long as seven hours to pay homage to their dead leader. They stood even before the body had arrived at the palace, staring in silence and disbelief at the symbol of their nation that the palace represented.
The rich and elite, resplendent in their designer attire, mingled with their poor and less fortunate fellow citizens to light beautiful candles in glass containers of red, yellow, white and blue, transforming the area around the palace in hues of grief, sombre despite their magnificent light. It was an orderly and disciplined way of expressing their pain and sorrow. There were hardly any policemen to regulate the crowd. Uniformed scouts, some even barely in their teens, patiently took flowers and the lit candles, laying them in neat rows and removing those that had given up their glow. For Poles, it was a tragedy, the proportion of which they had not seen since the Second World War. A PhD student and part-time lecturer, Sebastian Zukowski, from the city of Poznan said: “We are sad and shocked, though we may not have liked Kaczynski’s policies. He was nevertheless, our President and it is a time of national tragedy.”
The show of unity and solidarity came naturally to the Poles though the majority of the country shared a similar dislike for the policies of the late president. He was not their national hero though he was widely respected. His constituency was the old, the conservatives and those who came from the rural areas. The urban elite, particularly the youth, disliked him for what they considered were his nationalistic policies that were anachronistic in an interconnected world. To them, the late president was honest but a leader who was living in the past.
As someone who had fought for freedom from Soviet Union, he was opposed to anything that could even remotely erode Polish sovereignty. It found natural reflection in his policies. He and his conservative political party, Law and Justice, even opposed Polish entry into the EU which was finally achieved only through a Referendum in 2003 that had 77.5 percent of Poles voting in favour of the membership.
While the nation was in grief, there was another drama that was being played out in Poland. It was on the choice of Wawel Castle, in Krakow, as the final resting place for the late President. Many disapproved of the choice on the ground that it is a place of great significance and a national symbol for the Poles and one deserving to be the resting place of only those whose contribution to Poland was unquestioned, to which Lech Kaczynski did not qualify.
The people of the southern province were particularly incensed at the decision. Some of the leading business leaders that the author spoke to aired their disapproval, stating that the President did nothing for Krakow. Some opined that the President was born in Warsaw, was its Mayor and should be rightly buried there. They added that he does not deserve to lie with those great people whose contribution to Polish history is indisputable like the kings or General Józef Piłsudski who is credited with having won Poland its independence in 1918. There were some protests. But slowly, the opposition was drowned in the overwhelming sense of loss that the Poles were coming to terms with. It was evident in the presence of an estimated 100,000 Poles who had gathered in the Pilsudski Square on Saturday afternoon, the day prior to the funeral, for the mass in honour of the dead.
The late President did not accord high priority to improving Poland’s relations with Russia. He was evidently more pro-West in his approach and had worked for closer relations with the US which has a sizeable population of Polish immigrants. But lately, the relations with the sole superpower have come under some cloud. For one, the ordinary Poles (the author had spoken to many) are hurt that they are being treated unequally over the visa issue. While Polish citizens require visa to visit the US, there is no such requirement for US citizens visiting Poland. The unilateral dropping of the plan to install the missile defence shield on Polish soil by the Obama administration, the low level representation of the US during the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War at Gdansk in September 2009, an event of great symbolic significance for the Poles, despite Poland’s almost unconditional support for US policies including its participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, have resulted in a growing perception that the new leadership in the White House would not accord high priority to US-Polish relations.
Russia was particularly distrusted by the Poles. During the Cold War the Poles had little choice but to suffer communism. After the end of the Cold War, the suppressed distrust of Russia surfaced straining Polish-Russian relations. Poland’s support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, its support for Ukraine’s membership of NATO and its eagerness to establish on its soil the US missile defence shield, further sharpened the divide. Poland’s open support for Georgia during the Russian invasion of the country in 2008 added to the mistrust.
The Katyn tragedy of 1940 has hung like a dark cloud over Russia-Poland relations. USSR/Russia had been reluctant to admit responsibility for the massacre and had blamed it on Hitler until April 13, 1990. Moscow had also desisted from making any overt reconciliatory gestures for the acts of the Soviet leader, who according to them, was also responsible for the death of millions of Russians. To them, Stalin was the leader of Soviet Union and not Russia. He was in any case a Georgian, born in its Gori province. Ironically, the tragedy caused by the crash of a Russian-made aircraft on Russian soil at the place of another Polish tragedy, has brought Russia and Poland closer. It gave Russia an opportunity to reach out to Poland and assuage its feeling and it was not lost on Moscow.
As soon as the tragedy struck, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered their condolences. Putin took personal charge of the investigations. He lit candles at the crash site in honour of the victims and hosted Donald Tusk, his Polish counterpart, in the Katyn Forest, becoming in the process the first Soviet/Russian leader to honour the murdered Poles at a commemoration ceremony. During the ceremony, Putin spoke of the “shame” and the need to arrest the hate and distrust from being passed on to future Russian and Polish generations. To the Poles, these were welcome and “correct” gestures, 70 years late though they may have been. The power of the gestures was so strong that it did not appear to matter to the Poles who are unused to Russian empathy that the admission was short of an apology. To them these were gestures that signalled a new Russian sensitivity to Polish sentiments just as Russia’s recent airing of the highly acclaimed Polish movie, Katyn, by Andrzej Wajda, on its public television channel was.
Over 80 world leaders, including President Barack Obama were expected to attend the funeral of the late President. The expected visit of the US President had particularly generated considerable enthusiasm amongst the Poles. Other prominent leaders expected, included Prince Charles, Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi and the Kings of Spain and Sweden. But all of them abandoned their plans because of the volcanic ash that blocked the air corridors over most of Europe. And when the funeral took place on Sunday, there was no notable leader from the Western world. There was none from the US, UK, France and Germany except for the titular head of Germany, President Horst Koehler, representing Angela Merkel.
But among the dignitaries and thousands of mourners there was one leader who was most noted by the Poles. It was the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, who braved the volcanic ash and landed in Poland for the funeral. Before returning to Russia he invited Poland's Speaker of Parliament and interim President, Bronislaw Komorowski, to Moscow for the victory parade scheduled to be held on May 9. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Polish contingent could also be taking part in the parade.
The courage displayed by the Russian President has overwhelmed the Poles. That the Russian President risked coming to the funeral is a “great gesture” said former Deputy Foreign Minister of Poland, Professor Boguslaw Zaleski. He added that it was an “important step” in the improvement of Polish-Russian relations and that the empathy shown by Russia in the last 10 days when Poland was in mourning has “taken the Poles by surprise”. In a similar vein, though a little more guarded, Professor Edward Halizak, Director of the Institute of International Relations of the University of Warsaw, saw the participation of the Russian President in the funeral as another step in the “steady progress towards reconciliation” between Poland and Russia. It contrasted sharply with the cancellation of the visit by Obama. It left the Poles wondering why the US President with all the technological marvels that he can command was unable to make the trip if the Russian President could.
The Russian overtures come at a time when its overall influence in the former Soviet sphere appears to be on the rise. Its powerful gestures of reconciliation to Poland evidently hide the objective of dampening Polish enthusiasm for the membership of Ukraine and Belarus in the EU. Any shift in Polish policies towards Moscow could, however, alienate the pro-West parties in Poland. In Kyrgyzstan too, fortune seems to be favouring Russia. The present upheavals sweeping the country and the gaining power of the opposition led by a former Foreign Minister, Roza Otunbayeva, who is expected to be more sympathetic to Russia, are unmistakable signs of Moscow gaining more influence in Central Asia. It would give Russia more leverage with the US as the Manas Air Base is crucial for American operations in Afghanistan. In neighbouring Ukraine, the failure of the Orange Revolution and the election of Viktor Yanukovych as the new President would end any immediate prospects of the nation becoming a NATO member. He has already dissolved the commission that was constituted to prepare the country to join the Western alliance and many other committees designed to further relations with the West. With the economy of the country in dire straits, the leadership would be focussed on ways to improve the lot of its people by building closer relations with Russia, its main trading partner.
In death too, Lech Kaczynski has divided the nation first by the decision of the Polish authorities to give him a resting place at Wawel Castle and then by giving Russia an opportunity to make strong overtures that could blunt the opposition of all but the strongest pro-West parties of Poland. Russia seems to have so far succeeded in its efforts to surprise Poland with its overtures. It may be a sign of a resurgent Russia trying to mend fences with its neighbours to prevent the US from gaining further foothold in a region considered to be the sphere of influence of the mighty Soviet empire, whose successor is Russia.