“It is a damned place,” commented Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish president and communist-turned-social democrat.
It’s difficult to disagree.
Katyn, the forest near the western border of Russia, which in 1940 became a mass grave for some 4,000 Polish Army officers and community leaders out of 20,000 first interned by the Soviet government following the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov carve-up of Poland and then subsequently murdered by the KGB’s predecessor on Stalin’s orders, has tragically claimed more Polish victims almost exactly seventy years later.
In news that sent shockwaves through Poland and the rest of Europe, the plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 130 (88 according to Polish media) other senior government and military officials as well as family members of original Katyn victims has crashed on approach to the Smolensk airport, according to the latest reports killing everyone on board.
The Polish delegation was flying in to take part in joint Polish-Russian commemorations of the Katyn Massacre. The visit, following the participation of Russia’s Prime Minister Putin in an earlier commemorative ceremony, was widely seen as an encouraging first sign of a thaw between the two countries. Relations have been strained both by centuries’ worth of bad blood and conflict, as well as a more recent determination of post-communist Polish governments to chart a pre-European and pro-American course, outside of Russia’s sphere of influence.
The death of the president, together with so many key officials and guests, is not simply a tragedy in itself, but it throws the whole region into a sea of uncertainty of the kind not experienced since the fall of Communism.
It was under Kaczynski’s tenure as president that Polish-Russian relations reached freezing temperatures. Putin, the glacial tsar of the new Russia, had found a stubborn match in Kaczynski, a former anti-communist dissident and then a constant fixture of the Polish political scene over the past two decades of independence. In 2001, Kaczynski founded, together with his twin brother Jarsolaw, the Law and Justice Party, a conservative populist platform that allowed Jaroslaw to govern as the prime minister between 2006 and 2007 and Lech to be elected as president in 2005. The influence of Law and Justice on the Polish political scene has been characterized by a mixture of social conservatism with a nationalist-Catholic bent and foreign policy whose three main pillars are pro-Americanism, throwing Poland’s new-found weight around the European Union, and strong anti-Russian sentiments.
Law and Justice lost the 2007 general election to another party of the right, the more liberal (in a classical European sense) Citizens Platform. The constant tension between the right-wing government in the Sejm (the Polish Parliament) and the even more right-wing presidency has been one of the constants of Polish domestic politics over the past three years.
That conflict might have tragically, and prematurely, resolved itself amidst the wreckage burning 1.5 km from the Smolensk airport. The presidential elections were set to take place later this year; however, with the president’s death, Polish Parliament Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski has now automatically under the Constitution become the head of state. Komorowski now has 14 days to announce an early election, to take place within within 60 days. While Kaczynski was expected to run for reelection, the latest opinion polls clearly favored the man who has now temporarily replaced him, Komorowski himself, of the governing Civic Platform. Should Komorowski stumble, the second most likely was Platform’s current foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, a name familiar to many in the American conservative circles from his stint as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute between 2002 and 2005.
In the meantime, Putin and President Medvedev find themselves with an extremely delicate accident investigation, the Polish political scene lingers in limbo, and the Polish Army leadership has once again been decapitated on Russian soil, this time by accident and not by design of the hosts (almost the whole General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces was, unwisely together, on board the flight). The eerie coincidence has not escaped either Kwasniewski (“First the flower of the [pre-war] Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk, now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport”) nor his past antagonist and another former president, Lech Walesa (“This is the second disaster after Katyn. [The Soviets] wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished.”).
Ironically, in January this year, Russia’s accident-prone national airline, Aeroflot, had announced the retirement of its fleet of Tupolev aircraft after 40 years of patchy service. We don’t know yet whether a mechanical fault or human error in difficult weather conditions is to blame for the crash of the presidential Tupolev plane that carried Kaczynski and his entourage to Smolensk, but there have been persistent calls in the past to replace the Russian flying coffins still in Poland’s official service. Sadly, they have not been heeded in time.
And so, Katyn is set to maintain its cursed place in Polish history, the tragedy reaching across the gulf of generations to add another 100 victims to its already heart-breaking butcher’s bill.