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Poles mark anniversary of Smolensk plane crash

President, 95 others killed; suspicions continue

- - Sunday, April 10, 2011

BERLIN | Poland on Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of a plane crash that killed not only its president and other key leaders but also, ultimately, efforts to improve relations with Russia, its historic enemy.

Thousands of Poles filled churches and cemeteries to commemorate the deaths of President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others near Smolensk, Russia. The Polish delegation was en route to the 70th anniversary ceremony of the Katyn massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by Soviet secret police — a ceremony intended to bring Poland and Russia closer together.

But the April 10 crash of the Russian-made airliner carrying the Polish leaders and its aftermath have sparked political infighting among Polish politicians and generated mistrust among many Poles.

"The Polish government knows that this is still a volatile and fragile issue," said Kai-Olaf Lang, an analyst at the Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "That's why they have tried to broaden and to deepen Polish-Russian relations."

Conspiracy theories flourished immediately after the crash: Russia was behind it, many said, reviving historic suspicion over Poland's neighbor. Meanwhile, the death of Mr. Kaczynski, a polarizing figure while he lived, continued to divide Poles after his death.

At first, the debate focused on where he would be buried. In spite of protests, he was entombed at Cracow's Wawel Cathedral, a place reserved for nobility and national heroes.

Later, populist politicians used the crash itself to win support, say observers. After Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee ruled the crash was caused by pilot error in January, Mr. Kaczynski's twin brother and former prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the conservative Law and Justice party, rejected the findings.

Recent surveys show that 87 percent of Poles believe the crash is being used to score political points, while 69 percent blame it for increased conflict in domestic politics, a poll by Warsaw-based pollster CBOS cited in the Warsaw Business Journal found.

"People are simply getting tired of lasting grief," said Polish blogger Piotr Stohnij, who started a Facebook group in January calling for a "Day Without Smolensk." "Knowing why the plane crash happened is a priority for all of us but the catastrophe (is being) used for political gain."

In the months following the crash, Poles began to see Russians more favorably.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin moved Poles with their expressions of sorrow after the crash. Poles also hailed the November declaration by Russian lawmakers recognizing the 1940 Katyn massacre as a Stalinist crime. And Russians' openness about their investigation into the crash was unprecedented, observers say.

"I cannot remember any situation of that kind where the Russian government was so open," said Sergej Sumlenny, a Russian political scientist and commentator based in Berlin. "Normally what you can expect is a very short press release with their conclusions. But in this case, they tried to open everything up."

What's more, he number of Poles who saw Polish-Russian relations as "bad" dropped from 38 percent in March 2010 to a low of 15 percent two months later, according to surveys by CBOS.

A year after the crash, 42 percent of Poles now see Polish-Russian relations as "bad," according to CBOS.

"The idea that Russia is an enemy is still alive [in Poland]. Russians tend to believe Poland has tried to find the darkest parts of our history and to point it out, ignoring that Russia is now another country," Mr. Sumlenny said. "There was an idea that maybe [the crash] could be a turning point, that maybe relations would change. But I cannot say that relations are dramatically better. The history is very complicated."

Andrei Ryabov, a political scientist at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank, said that while the outpouring of grief by average Russians for Poland's tragedy was initially great, it has been long forgotten. He added that traditionally, relations with Russia's Eastern European neighbors has not been a priority, but that is changing.

"There are real chances to make steps toward each other if [Eastern Europeans] recognize that not only Russians have to make these steps," he said. "But what has been really positive in the past year is that there is real recognition in Moscow that better relations with our Eastern European neighbors will really contribute to progress in Russian-European relations."

Poland, meanwhile, is divided politically between a progressive faction largely in favor of the European Union and improved relations with Russia, and a staunchly Catholic and nationalistic faction of conservatives who focus on the country's history of being wedged between — and occupied by — two larger powers, Russia and Germany.

Manfred Sapper, editor of the Berlin-based journal Osteuropa (Eastern Europe), said that Russia is used as a bogeyman in Polish politics. That is why Poland has chosen a "decidedly America-friendly, transatlantic position," he added.

Today, Polish leaders are working toward bringing the era of "self-marginalization" under Lech Kaczynski to a close and become a "first league player" in the EU, Mr. Lang said, adding that Poland could strengthen its position by improving its relations with its neighbor.

"Still, Poland is interested in a proactive U.S. policy in the post-Soviet space, and in a well-orchestrated transatlantic policy vis-a-vis Russia," he said.

At the same time, U.S. relations with Poland continue to be closer than with other Eastern European countries. President Obama will visit Poland in May, which is likely to reassure Poles of their importance to the Americans and appease those who fear the United States has lowered the priority of Eastern European nations in its efforts to bolster relations with Russia, Mr. Lang said.

That was a concern expressed by Eastern Europeans after the signing of the START II Treaty in Prague last April by Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev.