- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
Three and a half years later, the debate over what caused a plane carrying top Polish officials to crash near an airport in western Russia, killing 96 people including the president and his wife, is still raging. Today, it’s less a back-and-forth between those who think the 2010 crash was an accident and those who believe it was an attack, and more a steady stream of accusations and conspiracy theories from the latter camp. A conference of "independent experts" in Warsaw this week, for instance, put forth evidence involving everything from hot dogs to Red Bull cans to a plane flying backward in fake fog.
These conference attendees aren’t exactly fringe figures, either. An April poll found that 32 percent of Poles see an attack as a probable explanation of the catastrophe, and an October poll showed that nearly 17 percent were convinced that this was the case. In yet another manifestation of Poland’s age-old distrust of the Russians, many believe the "assassination" was carried out by the Russian government in cooperation with politicians from the ruling centrist party in Poland (the deceased president, Lech Kaczynski, belonged to right-wing opposition circles).
This is the case even though the government published a report in July 2011 that ruled out the possibility of a deliberate attack, instead blaming the crew’s inadequate training and poor decision-making, miscommunication with the Russian flight controllers, and external circumstances such as weather and the airport’s wooded landscape.
In the face of these findings, a very vocal group of right-wingers has set out to undermine the report, fueling the conspiracy theories believed by a large subsection of Polish society. The efforts are led by a crusading member of parliament named Antoni Macierewicz, along with experts who have contributed to a special parliamentary committee investigating the crash. In recent weeks, the committee has made news with several compromising gaffes, including the so-called "Skypegate" affair in which several panelists tried calling in to a public meeting on Skype, only to be stymied by Internet users who interrupted the calls. At one point, a user called "Vladimir Putin" tried to join the conversation.
Then, on Oct. 21, a group of "independent scientists" — including several who have worked with the controversial parliamentary commission — gathered in Warsaw at what Polish news outlets are calling a "mysterious conference" whose exact location was not disclosed. While journalists (and official government experts) were not invited, the two-day event was streamed online so that the public could have access to what the participants called a "scholarly investigation." And as the Polish news service Gazeta.pl has highlighted, this was no ordinary scholarly gathering.
First, there were those who attempted to provide a scientific basis for some of the conspiracy theories currently in circulation. Stefan Bramski from the state-run Institute of Aviation suggested that unidentified "terrorists" had triggered a bomb when the plane was in the air, while also dispersing fake smog above the airport.
One of the conference’s international guests, Chris Cieszewski, a professor of fiber supply assessment at the Center for Forest Business at the University of Georgia, brought up an infamous birch tree near the crash site (it has its own Wikipedia page). The Polish government’s report claimed that when the jet collided with the tree, a significant portion of the plane’s wing broke off. Cieszewski, playing into widespread skepticism about the birch, argued that the tree was damaged at least five days earlier, with someone climbing it, banging it with a hammer, and chopping it with an ax. Cieszewski and a music expert from the University of Warsaw also discussed the sounds that the plane made prior to the crash, dismissing those described in the official report and demonstrating what a crashing plane should sound like ("phew, phew, zoooom!").
The conference put a particular emphasis on empirical evidence. Andrzej Ziolkowski, who works at a public technology research institution, brandished an image of overcooked hot dogs to prove there was an explosion on the plane while it was still in the air. The hull of the plane cracked lengthwise, which Ziolkowski claims could have only been caused by internal pressure from an explosion in the cabin.
"We see this when we boil sausages for breakfast," he said, presenting an image of two hot dogs as an example of how the hull was split. A professor named Jan Obrebski also resorted to culinary evidence, trying to illustrate the damage to the plane by showing an image of a misshapen can of Red Bull (it gives you wings!) — the irony of which may have been lost on the academic.
Another scientist from a prestigious university in Krakow, Piotr Witakowski, was suspicious of the plane’s rudder, which fell off during the crash: "In my opinion the rudder was blasted off, shot off before the plane hit the ground."
But perhaps the most far-out theory came from Stefan Bramski, who deduced from the plane’s dented nozzle that the jet was actually flying backward — and hit the ground in that manner.