Mourning in Poland

Polish journalists at the crashsite.Photo by Dmitry Raichev, Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Polish journalists at the crashsite.Photo by Dmitry Raichev, Rossiyskaya Gazeta

The tragic plane crash of President Kaczynski and the 96 people onboard the Tupolev U-154 is rich in symbolism and historical pathos. A large part of Poland’s elite has once again been wiped out, seventy years after Stalin’s henchmen executed thousands of Polish officers within the pine and beech tree forests of Katyn. They flew to Russia to pay homage to those who died in 1940, but instead they have become the focus of a week of national mourning in Poland.

The disaster has ruptured Poland’s political nervous system. A Who’s Who list of political, financial and high brass military leaders lost their lives in Saturday’s crash. In addition to President Kaczynski these include Army Chief of Staff General Franciszek Gagor, head of the National Security Office Aleksander Szczyglo, Central Bank Governor Slawomir Skrzypek and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer. The scale of the catastrophe is unprecedented in modern European history and has temporarily paralysed Polish society. Prime Minister Donald Tusk has described the event as “the most tragic event in Poland’s post-war history.”

Across Poland this weekend, people walked around traumatised as if in a trance. Thousands flocked to the Presidential Palace in Warsaw where they lit candles and laid flowers. Most stood in complete silence while some muttered prayers or quietly sang the Polish national anthem. Huge lines formed in front of Varsovian flower shops as people bought simple red and white bouquets – in the colour of the Polish flag. In Krakow the massive Wawel Cathedral bell was tolled, a rare occurrence only performed to mark defining moments for the Polish nation. Previous occasions included the outbreak of the Second World War and the death of Pope John Paul II.

Saturday’s tragedy came at a time when Poland and Russia were on the cusp of a gradual reconciliation. To many Poles Katyn is shorthand for both mass murder and the official cover-up adopted for many decades by the Soviet and (Socialist) Polish leadership. The Katyn massacre is ingrained in Poland’s collective psyche and continues to shape how many Poles view its eastern neighbour. Therefore, President Putin’s recent gesture – he is the first Russian prime minister to pay tribute to the Polish dead at Katyn – is all the more significant. It could well be a can-opener for future reconciliation efforts.

For most Poles, the most harrowing casualty of the April 10 plane crash was President Kaczynski. For better or for worse, Lech Kaczynski – and his identical twin brother Jaroslaw – played a major role in sculpting Poland’s political landscape over the past two decades. A former Solidarnosc activist and anti-Communist crusader Kaczynski spent his whole political life fighting for freedom, at home and abroad. In 2008 he defied expert advice and risked his life by flying to Tbilisi to show solidarity with the Georgian people. He did the same for Ukraine during the country’s now defunct Orange Revolution. A poster-child of Rumsfeld’s New Europe, President Kaczynski was a strong U.S. ally – sending a continued supply of troops to Iraq and then Afghanistan. Eager to establish Poland as a major European player Kaczynski also wanted to prove that Poland was not, in his words, a nation of deserters.

Often overlooked were the late President’s efforts to promote closer ties with the Jewish community in Poland and his hope to rekindle Jewish life in the country. But President Kaczynski was also a very divisive figure – within Poland and the European Union. He often used history to serve his political battles. Critics say he shaped policy using an ideological cookie-cutter.

President Kaczynski was fundamentally a values-based politician. He was steered by his strong Catholic and conservative beliefs, and a fixed moral compass. This led him to support controversial anti-abortion and anti-homosexual laws as well as the death penalty. The Kaczynski twins and their Law and Justice party came to power promising a moral revolution in Poland. This did not happen primarily due to President Kaczynski’s main limitation: he was largely out of touch with Poland’s younger – and increasingly cosmopolitan – urban masses. All in all, however, there can be no doubt that President Kaczynski was a true Polish patriot and had Poland’s interests at heart. Even his most staunch opponents, and there were a few, would agree with this.

One day after the major political earthquake, it is still too early to evaluate the long-term damage this tragedy will have on the fabric of Polish society. It will, without a doubt, chisel out a somewhat new political landscape. With presidential elections to be held within the next sixty days all eyes will be on Lech Kaczynski’s 45 minute older twin, Jaroslaw, to see if he will run. Beyond the political implications, it is important though not to forget the immense human suffering. As schoolboys, Lech and Jaroslaw once swapped places during an exam – now Jaroslaw Kaczynski is on his own. Some twenty-four hours after the crash Jaroslaw was having to identify the charred corpse of his identical brother.

If there is any consolation at a time like this, it is that the reconciliation process is edging forward. Last week’s handshake between Prime Ministers Tusk and Putin turned into a hug yesterday evening, as they lay wreaths at the site of the crash. The developments in Katyn as well as the tragedy itself have injected a much needed dose of political penicillin into Polish-Russian relations. Unlike 70 years ago the death of Poland’s may unify, not divide.

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