What’s Next?

Aftermath of tragedy: solidarity and hope for a new beginning

What happened on Apr. 10 was a shock, but what followed was just as much of a surprise.  That morning, a Polish Tupolev Tu-154 military airplane carrying the heads of state crashed into a forest, just short of the Smolensk airport runway. Russia’s reaction to the incident could potentially help to heal an open wound; one that has haunted relations between the two nations for a very long time.

President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, along with 94 others, were on their way to celebrate the anniversary of the Katyn Massacre. In this forested area just outside the city of Smolensk, around 22,000 officers, teachers, and Polish intelligentsia were slaughtered in an attempt to eliminate Poland’s will to exist as an independent state. Ironically, the heads of the Polish Armed Forces, along with many other influential Poles were also on board the aircraft, an all too real déjà vu.

“Katyń is a cursed place,” said former Polish President Alexsander Kwanniewski, just after the catastrophe. He spoke of his previous experience there: “In the forest there is morbid quietness. There are no birds, and generally there is no sign of life.”

This place of tragedy is the setting of the bitterness that has existed between the Russian and Polish people, and could possibly also be the setting for reconciliation. The Katyń Massacre has severely hindered the relations between the two, as Russian authorities have not been cooperative with a thorough investigation and former Soviet officials have denied that they carried out the killings until the collapse of the Union. Former President Kaczynski had always taken a hard stance against the Russian government, further deteriorating relations between the nations.

“This is a tragedy for us too,” stated Vladimir Putin, as he stood in the vicinity of the crash site. “We feel your pain.”

This sudden openness and sympathy took everyone by surprise. It began when Prime Minister Putin embraced Donald Tusk, Poland’s Prime Minister known for his firm character, at the crash site. Putin sprang into action by organizing a transparent examination of the crash, inviting Polish investigators to cooperate. Only this time it was not exclusive. For the relatives of the victims Putin set up accommodation in Moscow, also providing psychologists for them as they waited for the bodies to be identified.

The film Katyn, a Polish-Russian production about the massacres from 1940, was shown on primetime television a day after the catastrophe. This was a significant step-up from the movie’s first airing on a local channel during a poor time of the day.

A national day of mourning was announced on the day of the crash and the flag above the Kremlin was lowered to fly at half-mast. A moment of silence was enacted throughout the entire country, the population standing still for a full minute under the sound of sirens.

Poland also participated.

A huge effort has been initiated to replace the heads of state that died in the crash. According to the Polish Constitution, the seat of the President must be passed to Bronisław Komorowski, the deputy speaker of the Sejm. His responsibility will be to announce new elections within two weeks, an event that is not to take place more than two months after the president’s death.

Komorowski has already put himself on the ballot for the presidential election. Even before Lech Kaczynski’s death, he was seen as his main competitor for the position. Now Komorowski is up against his twin brother, Jaroslaw. After the crash and Kaczynski’s tragic fate, there was little doubt that he would take over as the party leader.

“We have been saying for some time that there had been no decision as yet, just that we were waiting to make an announcement,” says a fellow member of Kaczynski’s party, the PiS.

The election will yield interesting data as to whether this recent catastrophe will help Jarosnaw in getting elected. The last years of Kaczynski’s presidency, especially when Lech was President and Jarosnaw – Prime Minister, saw polarity shrink due to conservative and hard line politics. In a poll conducted by Gazeta, a Polish newspaper, Komorowski was predicted at being well of Kaczynski: 52% to 27%.

Time will tell whether this newly found empathy for the Polish will hold true for Russia. But so far communication and support has come more from them than from any other nation, including the United States. Obama’s failure to attend the funeral in Kraków could be seen as a negative, as Medvedev flew there himself regardless of the volcanic ash.

President Komorowski is already scheduled to attend the Russian celebration of their victory over Nazi Germany on May 9.

For background on the Katyń Massacre, see “Katyń Massacre: Resurfacing” in TVR May 2010.

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