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Death in Smolensk – A Polish Tragedy

Commentary, 14 April 2010
The tragic plane crash in Poland has devastated the Polish political elite, reminiscent of the effects of the 1940 Katyn massacre. However, the loss is unlikely to destabilise the country and in the long-term the political changes may actually lead to more harmonious relations both domestically and internationally.

The tragic plane crash in Poland has devastated the Polish political elite, reminiscent of the effects of the 1940 Katyn massacre, to which the President and other leaders were travelling to commemorate. However, the loss is unlikely to destabilise the country and in the long-term the political changes may actually lead to more harmonious relations both domestically and internationally.

By Agnieszka Eile for

Smolensk Crash

The date 10 April 2010 marks what has already been widely described as the worst tragedy in the history of post-war Poland. The country's president Lech Kaczynski and his wife, along with military chiefs, the governor of the central bank and dozens of other representatives of the Polish political and cultural elite were killed in a plane crash near Smolensk, western Russia. The president and his delegation were travelling to Katyn, to participate in official commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviet NKVD, precursor to the KGB, during the Second World War. After so many years, Katyn has once again become a symbol of Polish loss.

An unprecedented tragedy
Investigations into the incident suggest that the crash was caused by a combination of severe weather conditions and human error. The Tupolev TU-154 aircraft apparently hit treetops while attempting to land and crashed some 400 metres from the runway of Smolensk airport. It seems that the pilot decided to land in the heavy fog despite being warned several times by Belarusian and Russian air traffic controllers not to. Weather conditions were so severe that controllers had advised the Polish pilot to fly to Minsk in Belarus instead. Furthermore, the airport in Smolensk, which until October last year was a military landing field, lacked automated landing systems. Despite these repeated warnings, the Polish pilot made an attempt to land in Smolensk and, if the reports are correct, that proved to be a mistake that cost Poland the lives of its political elite.

Among those killed were some of the most senior Polish figures, including the president and his wife, the chief of the Bureau of National Security, the last president of Poland in exile, the vice-marshals of the Polish Parliament and Senate, MPs from all major political parties, ministers, the governor of the National Bank of Poland, the chief of the Institute of National Remembrance, almost the entire high command of the Polish armed forces, officers of the Government Protection Bureau and relatives of the victims of the 1940 Katyn massacre.  

Former Polish Presidents, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Lech Walesa, shocked by the incident, paid tribute to those killed. In an emotional statement, Mr Kwasniewski described Katyn as a cursed site. In 1940, the military elite and intelligentsia of the Second Polish Republic were brutally murdered there and now, seventy years later, the leaders of the Third Republic have tragically died whilst travelling to commemorate the earlier tragedy. In his comments, Mr Walesa emphasised that the Polish public should put aside political divisions when faced with the loss of their country's political and intellectual elite.

Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin announced that he would lead a special inquiry into the causes of the catastrophe. The question now being asked is why so many senior figures of the Polish government and almost the entire high command of the Polish armed forces were allowed to travel on the same plane. According to the law the President, Prime Minister and Marshals of the senate and parliament cannot fly on the same plane. After the latest tragic accident this list will probably be extended to include the commanders of the armed forces.

Domestic repercussions
Although this is a great loss for the Polish nation, political analysts believe that the incident will not destabilise the country either politically or economically, as Poland's constitution is prepared to deal with such situations. According to the constitution, the Marshall of the Polish parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, will assume the president's responsibilities. He will announce the date of new presidential elections within the next two weeks, which would then be held by the end of June. According to recent polls, Mr Komorowski is the favourite to win an election and would probably have defeated Mr Kaczynski had the October elections taken place as planned.

The Smolensk tragedy is unprecedented in scale and the death of so many senior leaders will have serious political repercussions for Poland. There are two trains of thought as to its effect on the Polish political scene. Some analysts suggest that the ruling centrist party, Civic Platform, will now seize full power in the country. Others predict a wave of support for the right-wing Law and Justice Party, lead by President's Kaczynski's twin brother, Jaroslaw. Inspired by the recent tragedy, and reinvigorated with a new younger staff, Jaroslaw may realize his brother's political agenda. However, sceptics claim that the current outbreak of national grief will not translate into votes for Law and Justice or its potential presidential candidate. Some even predict that the President's twin might disappear from the political scene, leading to the party's break-up. 1

International relations
President Kaczynski was a controversial figure on both the Polish and international scenes. With a strong nationalist and conservative agenda, opposing rapid free market reforms and a Euro-sceptic, Mr Kaczynski polarised opinion in Poland and was often criticised for his negative attitudes. The relationship between the President and Prime Minister Tusk was also a difficult one. Mr Kaczynski opposed the Prime Minister's liberal economic policies and stood in the way of reforms, frequently vetoing the centrist government's bills. Should Mr Komorowski become the next president and Civic Platform take over the majority of governing positions in the country, more of the ruling party's initiatives will be pushed forward and relations with some European partners will improve.

Another source of contention was the president's anti-Russian attitude, which he showed openly, most notably by supporting Ukraine and defending Georgia's independence. After the recent incident Polish-Russian relations might change in two ways. On the one hand, the tragedy might lead to their deterioration.2 Conspiracy theories might flourish about Russian involvement in the incident. Such suggestions, however, will be limited to the fringes. More likely, the accident will bring the two countries closer; Mr Putin has been trying to provide as much support to Poland as possible in this difficult time. Should Civic Platform make the predicted gains in the coming election, the party will certainly attempt to build on this goodwill and improve relations with Russia in the long-term.

The economic impact
Polish financial markets, according to analysts from the Polish Financial Supervision Authority, are unlikely to experience major upheavals as a result of this tragic event. Economists from the major banks, including Raiffeisen Bank and Goldman Sachs, confirm that thanks to the political continuity guaranteed by the Polish constitution, markets and investments should remain stable. Economically, the most important thing now is for the temporary government to show that the country is stable and that the Central Bank will continue to function as normal. Investors will, however, keep a close eye on who becomes the new governor of the National Bank of Poland.3 The military is also not expected to plunge into disarray, as the deceased commanders' deputies will immediately take over their responsibilities.

'There is no right and left today. There is no separation, no difference. We join together in offering our condolences to the families of those who died', said Mr Komorowski in his address to the Polish nation. Whatever political changes Poland experiences in the coming weeks, a possible silver lining for the nation is that this tragedy will help ease disturbances in the political scene, toning down aggressive rivalries between parties and improving relationships both to the East and the West. One thing is for certain, Katyn will forever remain a cursed word in the minds of Poles.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



1 "Jaroslaw Kaczynski moze sie wycofac?", 10 April 2010

2 Richard Pipes in an interview for, 10 April 2010

3 Elzbieta Glapiak, "Ekonomisci: reakcja rynkow bedzie wywazona" Rzeczpospolita, 10 April 2010

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