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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » April 30, 2010
From the Politics&Society Editor
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Chance for reconciliation
April 30, 2010   
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The horrific crash in Russia that killed the Polish president and 95 other people aboard his plane could bring about a rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow after years of troubled, often bitter, relations.

The crash, which killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński and dozens of the country’s political and military leaders April 10 as the plane attempted to land in heavy fog at Smolensk airport, western Russia, was the worst disaster in Poland’s postwar history.

Some observers have pointed to what they describe as a bitter twist of fate: it took a tragedy to produce an atmosphere of reconciliation that could “reset” bilateral relations, which have been marred by a long list of grievances, some stretching back centuries.

The tragedy may also help shed light on some of the most painful chapters of shared history in Russia as well as other regions of the world.

Three days before the presidential air crash near Smolensk, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Katyn Forest in western Russia, where the NKVD Soviet secret police killed several thousand Polish army officers in the spring of 1940 on the orders of top Soviet leaders, including Joseph Stalin. The defenseless Polish captives were shot in the back of the head. In all, 22,000 Polish army officers were executed at Katyn and several other sites.

The joint Polish-Russian ceremony at Katyn cemetery April 7 had no precedent in the history of bilateral relations, and the speeches made by Tusk and Putin reflected this. Commentators said afterwards that the Russians may have sent a message that they were finally ready to tell the truth about the Katyn crime.

Although back in 1992, the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin provided Poland with historic documents that showed beyond doubt that the Soviets were behind the Katyn massacre, many groups in Russia, including influential politicians in Moscow, kept denying responsibility.

According to these people, the crime was committed by the Germans after the Third Reich invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Soviets offered such a version of the events at the 1945 Nuremberg Trials.

While the meeting between Tusk and Putin received little attention in the Russian media, the death of President Kaczyński was breaking news in the country’s media for several days after the air crash, and the media had to provide the background on why Kaczyński and all the others were traveling to Katyn. In the wake of the air crash, top Russian politicians, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, openly said that Stalin was responsible for the 1940 crime.

Directly after the disaster, Putin made his way to the Smolensk airport to offer his condolences. Medvedev, in turn, attended the state funeral of Kaczyński and his wife Maria in Cracow April 18, even though most Western leaders missed the event, citing air traffic restrictions across Europe.

The Russian media was full of sympathy, and the online forums of major Russian newspapers were inundated with warm and friendly comments about Poland and Polish people. Such an outpouring of support has been rare since Poland left the Russian zone of influence in 1989, a development that many people in Russia have decried as an act of “betraying the Slavic commonwealth.”

Except for a handful of radicals, all major political players in Poland and Russia, along with a vast majority of the public, are hoping that the coming months will see a further improvement in Polish-Russian relations.

Another outcome of the Smolensk tragedy is that the international media suddenly took an interest in the Katyn massacre and other tragic events of World War II. This interest was also visible in those Western newspapers that have been known to label Auschwitz “a Polish death camp” or confuse the 1944 Warsaw Uprising with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.
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