POLAND: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Aircraft crash annihilates Polish leadership
, May 1, 2010
"Not since the height of Stalinist repressions have so many of the country's best and brightest perished." That was how The Economist described the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others aboard a Polish Air Force Tupolev Tu-154M aircraft that was attempting to land at a fog-bound airport in Smolensk, western Russia, on April 10.
The delegation was due to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration of the World War II Katyn Forest murder of thousands of Polish army officers who had been captured by Soviet forces in the early months of World War II.
The airport, just south of Smolensk, is less then 25 kilometres from Katyn Forest where over 4,200 Polish were shot in the head and secretly buried by killing units of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, during the spring of 1940.
A subsequent body-count, supervised by the International Red Cross, revealed that the network of mass graves held an admiral, two generals, 24 lieutenant-colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs and over 100 civilians.
But this was only a fifth of all Polish military and other personnel killed by the Soviets. In addition to the 4,200 victims executed at Katyn, there were subsequently discovered to be other major Soviet killing-sites and mass graves containing the rest of the Polish victims in Kalinin/Tver (north of Moscow), Kharkiv (eastern Ukraine) and elsewhere.
It was not until April 1943, three years after the NKVD mass executions, that the mass graves at Katyn were discovered. German army units based near Smolensk decided to investigate claims by local peasants that the Katyn Forest harboured a gruesome secret.
Aleksander Kwasniewski (Lech Kaczynski's predecessor as Poland's president), said: "It [Smolensk] is a cursed place. It sends shivers down my spine.
"First, the flower of the 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."
Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, a political rival of President Kaczynski, said: 'The contemporary world has not seen such a tragedy.'
Although a series of uncharacteristically friendly gestures by Russia's leadership are being hailed worldwide and inside Poland as ground-breaking, mystery inevitably surrounds the second Smolensk disaster.
According to an American nationwide daily, President Kaczynski's jet was "equipped with a safety device that warns pilots when they get too close to the ground. ...
"The existence of the device deepens the mystery of why the jet struck woods and exploded as pilots attempted to land ... at a Russian military airport, aviation safety experts said. If the safety device was working properly, it would be the first such crash of an aircraft equipped with the system since its introduction in the late 1990s.
"The Russian-built Tupolev TU-154 had been equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) made by Universal Avionics Systems of Tucson, said company spokesman, John Hamby." (USA Today
, April 13).
Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, said there was no evidence that engine failure had brought the plane down.
According to the Russian tabloid newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda
, Smolensk airport was shrouded in fog and controllers had told the pilot to divert to Minsk, Belarus.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared a day of mourning, and the country held two minutes of silence in memory of those killed in the crash.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately announced he would take personal charge of the investigation into the crash, and Russia's normally slow bureaucracy was prompt to permit Polish investigators and relatives of crash victims access to the site.
Even the 2007 Polish film, Katyn
, directed by honorary Oscar recipient, Andrzej Wajda, whose father was murdered at Katyn, has been allowed to be screened in Russia.
The Smolensk air tragedy followed hard on the heels of a bitter political tussle in Poland between the office of the president and the prime minister. The rivalry is believed to have even led to problems over invitations to the recent Katyn commemoration ceremonies, access to aircraft and related issues.
President Lech Kaczynski and his identical twin Jaroslaw had founded Poland's hardline tradition-oriented Law and Justice Party, which was not viewed favourably by followers of Prime Minister Tusk's more liberal-oriented Civic Platform.
Civic Platform had nominated Mr Tusk as its candidate for Poland's 2005 presidential elections, but Lech Kaczynski defeated him in the second round by winning 54 per cent of the vote.
President Kaczynski believed that it was a requirement of his office to attend certain functions. Attendance at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Katyn Forest massacre would most definitely have been on the must-attend list.
A question that will increasingly be asked in the weeks ahead is why so many of the nation's leading figures were aboard the same tragic flight.
Was this perhaps because no other aircraft could be spared? And, if so, did this mean that President Kaczynski's political allies could not have attended this truly significant anniversary had they not been bundled aboard one aircraft?
Moreover, the tussle between the Law and Justice Party and Civic Platform has revealed deep political differences between the leaders of the opposing parties.
Moscow's attitude towards Poland's political rivals is also a matter of much speculation.
Did Russia's Medvedev-Putin alliance overtly and covertly favour the conciliatory Prime Minister Tusk and his allies over the more uncompromising President Kaczynski and his backers?
According to Alexander Osipovich of the Washington-based Foreign Affairs
journal, Prime Ministers Putin and Tusk had together mapped out a way ahead on a range of issues.
Osipovich says: 'Things were going so well that Putin and Tusk took part in an unprecedented joint memorial ceremony at Katyn last week, just a few days before [the] plane crash.
"Political analysts say Russia is eager to keep that love-fest going, because Poland, the largest of the former Communist satellite states, is a major influence in the European Union and helps set the agenda in EU-Russian relations. And given that the EU is a key trade partner and the main consumer of Russian natural gas, friendly ties with Warsaw may help ensure billions of dollars' worth of gas revenues for years to come. ...
"Russia's reaction to the plane crash that killed Lech Kaczynski could be a major boost to reconciliation efforts with Poland - or, depending what investigators turn up, it could plunge Moscow and Warsaw back to the days of bitter backbiting." ("Putin sends his condolences", Foreign Affairs
, Washington DC, April 13).
Did any Putin-inspired favouritism extend to who was and who wasn't to be invited to the Katyn commemoration?
Poland today has a vibrant press, one in which state secrets do not take long to be exposed.
Whatever happens, Poland's second Katyn Tragedy in 70 years will undergo a prompt and thorough investigation.Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based writer and historian.
Death toll of the Smolensk air tragedy
Among the 95 passengers and crew who perished with President Lech Kaczynski
was his wife, Maria Kaczynska
, an economist and French and English translator, whose uncle had been murdered at Katyn.
Others prominent Poles to perish on the presidential flight included:General Franciszek Gagor
, 58, army chief-of-staff since February 2006. From 2004 to 2006, he was Poland's representative at NATO in Brussels.General Andrzej Blasik
, head of the Air Force.Vice-Admiral Andrzej Karweta
, Navy chief commander since November 2009.General Tadeusz Buk
, land forces commander since Sept. 2009. He commanded Polish forces in Iraq during 2007.Slawomir Skrzypek
, president of the National Bank of Poland.Aleksander Szczyglo
, head of the National Security Office, former defence minister under President Kaczynski's brother, Jaroslaw.Jerzy Szmajdzinski
, deputy parliamentary speaker and defence minister during the time of the Iraq war.Ryszard Kaczorowski
, from 1989-90 Poland's last president-in-exile in London who passed on the insignia of Poland's presidency to the first democratically-elected president, Lech Walesa, in a high-profile ceremony in 1990.Janusz Kurtyka
, historian. From 2005 he was head of the state-run National Remembrance Institute, which investigates communist-era crimes.Krystyna Bochenek
, deputy parliament speaker, member of the prime minister's Civic Platform party.Anna Walentynowicz
, Solidarity activist whose August 1980 sacking from the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk sparked a workers' strike that spurred the eventual creation of the freedom movement, of which she was a prominent member.
Question about Polish plane crash tragedy
If past actions are any indication, the president would have been extremely reluctant to abort his trip once he had started. Earlier in his term, on Aug. 12, 2008, he flew to Georgia to express his support for its isolated president, Mikheil Saakashvili. On that occasion, he demanded that the pilot land in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, despite the threat of ground fire from Russian forces. The pilot refused to endanger the plane and the president himself, and landed instead in Azerbaijan. This angered Kaczynski, and a row ensued on board. Yet the pilot did not yield.
Could it be that on Saturday there was pressure on the pilot to disregard advice from ground services not to land in foggy Smolensk and instead land in Moscow or Minsk? Diversion would have been a reasonable decision, except that either alternative would have made the president and his entourage late for the ceremonies at the mass graves. ...
We hope the black boxes will tell the whole story of Saturday's crash. But it will be no surprise if the pilot felt unable to resist pressure from the president and the top brass of the Polish military.Extract from Adam Chmielewski and Denis Dutton, "A fog of questions in the Polish plane crash tragedy", Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2010.