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The Ghosts of Smolensk

How the divisive legacy of late President Lech Kaczynski still poisons Poland’s politics.

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At the height of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, Polish President Lech Kaczynski led a delegation of Central and Eastern European leaders to Tbilisi to demonstrate their solidarity with Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s embattled president.

The delegation was scheduled to fly to Ganja in Azerbaijan before making the four-hour drive to the Georgian capital. But during a stopover in Crimea to collect the Latvian prime minister and the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, Kaczynski announced a change of plan: They would be flying directly to Tbilisi. His pilot refused. They did not have the requisite security guarantees to fly into a war zone on such short notice, he said, and he could not fulfill his duty to ensure the safety of the passengers.

At the height of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, Polish President Lech Kaczynski led a delegation of Central and Eastern European leaders to Tbilisi to demonstrate their solidarity with Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia’s embattled president.

The delegation was scheduled to fly to Ganja in Azerbaijan before making the four-hour drive to the Georgian capital. But during a stopover in Crimea to collect the Latvian prime minister and the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, Kaczynski announced a change of plan: They would be flying directly to Tbilisi. His pilot refused. They did not have the requisite security guarantees to fly into a war zone on such short notice, he said, and he could not fulfill his duty to ensure the safety of the passengers.

Kaczynski confronted the pilot, demanding respect for his authority as head of state. “If someone decides to become a pilot, he cannot be fearful,” the president told him, according to the Polish newspaper Dziennik. “After we return home we shall deal with this matter.” A few weeks later, a deputy from Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party demanded that the pilot be prosecuted on the grounds of his “cowardice” and insubordination.

Different people remember Kaczynski’s Georgian mission for different things. His appearance in Tbilisi, including a fiery speech in which he declared that Poles were willing to help “take up the fight” against Moscow, made him a Georgian national hero and won him a devoted following across Central and Eastern Europe. But what many Poles now remember better is the fate of the aircrew that got him there. While the pilot who was accused of cowardice ultimately dropped out of the military, citing depression, his co-pilot and navigator died in an aviation disaster just under two years later. They were flying a delegation led by President Kaczynski to Smolensk in western Russia.

On April 10, Poles will mark the sixth anniversary of that catastrophe in Smolensk, when Kaczynski; his wife, Maria; the chief of the general staff; the heads of all three armed forces; the director of the intelligence service; the president of the national bank; and many dozens of others were killed when their plane came down in thick fog, crashing into a forest adjoining a Smolensk airfield.

It will also be the first anniversary of the crash since Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, run by Lech’s identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, regained power last year, winning the presidency and Poland’s first parliamentary majority since 1989. Law and Justice portrays Kaczynski not just as a great president, but as a man of immense historical significance. And his death, many believe, was no accident: His immense stature had provided his enemies at home and abroad with sufficient grounds for murder. “What happened at Smolensk,” declared Law and Justice Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz last month, “was aimed at depriving Poland of its leadership, which was leading our nation to independence.”

To his detractors, Kaczynski’s confrontational brand of patriotism was dimwitted and counterproductive, his intransigence achieving little other than to burden Poland with a reputation as an impetuous and unreliable partner, his recklessness raising difficult questions about his role in the accident that killed him. They worry that Law and Justice is exploiting his memory for political purposes and that by grossly exaggerating his achievements, the party is rewriting history to justify its ongoing efforts to capture Poland’s democratic institutions.

As a consequence of these divisions, an event that one might expect to unite the nation in grief only serves to exacerbate the bitter political divisions that preceded the crash, and which continue to poison public life in Poland to this day.

The Smolensk catastrophe happened when Poland’s executive branch was divided between Lech Kaczynski’s presidency and the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, leader of Law and Justice’s chief rival, Civic Platform. Between 2007 and 2010, competing domestic and diplomatic agendas — exacerbated by personal enmity, differences of temperament, and disagreement concerning the division of labor between the head of state and head of government — resulted in profound dysfunction in the highest echelons of the Polish state.

After the eastern enlargement of the EU and NATO in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe faced the dilemma of how to maintain a united front against an aggressive Russia, but without alienating Western European countries that were unwilling to provoke Russia further, and that still harbored prejudices about Eastern European “hot-headedness” and paranoia. Although Kaczynski and Tusk shared a belief in Poland’s basic Western orientation, they addressed this issue in sharply different ways.

After his election in 2005, Kaczynski forged a regional alliance with like-minded leaders in Romania, Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States. With the backing of the George W. Bush administration, they used blunt language and cited painful historical experiences of Russian aggression to hector their Western European allies into adopting a more confrontational posture toward Russia. By contrast, Tusk, who replaced Jaroslaw Kaczynski as prime minister after the 2007 parliamentary elections, aligned his government more closely with the Brussels consensus, courting not only Paris and Berlin, but offering himself to Moscow as a “reasonable” partner.

Where Kaczynski wielded his veto, Tusk preferred the counterproposal; where Kaczynski preached solidarity with Poland’s neighbors to the east, Tusk practiced political and economic integration with countries to the west. In theory, there is no reason why these different approaches could not have been coordinated in the national interest. But even as Kaczynski asserted his seniority on matters of foreign policy, Tusk insisted the president adhere to the government line.

The result was confusion and farce, reaching its nadir during an EU summit in October 2008. Poland is customarily represented on such occasions by its head of government, but in this instance Kaczynski insisted it should be him. Determined to prevent what it regarded as an unconstitutional land grab, Tusk’s office denied the president access to the government’s official airplanes, but an unperturbed Kaczynski chartered a Boeing 737, at the cost of 40,000 euros, instead. A Brussels-based journalist noticed that Kaczysnki arrived at the summit venue an hour late and without an official badge: “The president sat through the first item — a 10-minute Irish presentation on the Lisbon treaty — saying nothing,” she wrote, “then left as the agenda turned to the financial crisis, asking Mr. Tusk to keep him informed.”

It was against the backdrop of this struggle for status and authority that the Smolensk catastrophe occurred 18 months later.

Recognizing Poland’s increasing diplomatic weight in Brussels and Berlin, Moscow was keen to open the lines of communication with Warsaw so as to resolve a number of outstanding issues, including gas and missile defense. Tusk’s price for the deepening of relations was acknowledgement of Soviet crimes against Poland and the Poles, and Putin was happy to oblige.

In September 2009, Vladimir Putin — then Russia’s prime minister — attended a ceremony in Poland marking the start of World War II in 1939 — an unprecedented though tacit acknowledgement of the consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Soviet Union’s role in the beginning of the war. Seven months later, on April 7, 2010, Putin attended a ceremony with Tusk to mark the 70th anniversary of the murder of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD at Katyn and surrounding locations, the first time a Soviet or Russian leader had ever done so. “As recently as the previous September,” says Allen Paul, author of Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth, who attended the ceremony, “few Poles or Russians would have dreamed that such an encounter would have been possible.”

President Kaczynski, however, had not been invited. It suited both Tusk and Putin to underscore that, whereas Kaczynski’s confrontational approach had left him isolated, their statesmanship had yielded results. But Kaczynski was determined not to allow Tusk to take all the credit. Shunned by Dmitry Medvedev, his Russian counterpart, Kaczynski scheduled his own delegation to Katyn. It was this rival delegation, flying in the same plane as Tusk’s had done three days before, that would never reach its destination.

To Kaczynski’s supporters, Tusk’s “alliance” with Putin offered grounds for suspicion that the tragic accident that killed Kaczynski was, in fact, an assassination. For them, the prime minister’s concessions to Germany and Russia were tantamount to national surrender, his conciliatory approach craven and unpatriotic. Kaczynski, they argue, had proven a formidable obstacle to these dastardly plots. In fact, he was so dangerous to Tusk and Putin that he was to be eliminated. Internet search engines groan under the weight of websites dedicated to proving malevolent collusion between Civic Platform and the Kremlin, and a Hollywood-style movie about the alleged plot, produced by a foundation funded by private, anonymous donations, is due for release (see the must-watch trailer here). “While I don’t know for sure who carried out this assassination,” writes Tomasz Sakiewicz, editor of the pro-Law and Justice tabloid Gazeta Polska, “I know who benefited from it: the Polish and Russian governments.”

For Kaczynski’s critics, the most likely explanation is more prosaic, if nonetheless troubling. 2010 was a presidential election year, and Kaczynski was lagging badly in the polls. They argue that Kaczynski’s delegation was heaving with top-ranking officials because of his desire to assert his status as head of state. When the warning came from Russia that his plane should turn back on account of heavy fog, it is possible to imagine that this was interpreted not as a warning made in good faith, but as a ruse to humiliate him further. Kaczynski had a record when it came to pressuring pilots to land in dangerous circumstances, and cockpit recordings appear to show senior officials pressuring the pilots to land immediately before impact.

We will never know if pressure from the president or other senior officials led to the crash. But the idea that Kaczynski posed some sort of threat either to Putin or to Tusk can be more easily discounted. The harsh truth is that by 2010, five years of tantrum diplomacy had left him a marginal figure at home and abroad. His consistent attempts to veto government legislation were deeply unpopular with voters, leaving him with a vanishingly small chance of re-election later that year.

Nor had his regional alliance amounted to much: What appealed to Law and Justice’s nationalist base — consistently vetoing or threatening to veto common EU positions, making constant references to Poland’s suffering at the hands of its neighbors — had alienated the very same leaders to whom Poland was appealing for solidarity over Russian assertiveness, leaving him with little authority beyond a handful of Central and Eastern Europe capitals.

None of this has prevented Law and Justice from subjecting Kaczynski to a kind of political beatification. For the party, he is a national saint whose assassination proves his greatness, and whose greatness proves he was assassinated. Rather than having “died” like a civilian in an accident, he is referred to as having “fallen” like a soldier in battle, a choice of vocabulary that has riled veterans’ groups. It is an elevation that has very little to do with an objective assessment of Kaczynski’s legacy, and a great deal to do with present-day politics.

Law and Justice justifies its ongoing effort to take control of Poland’s democratic institutions with the claim that they remain in the grip of a shadowy network of “interests” that grew out of the negotiations between former Communists and the leaders of Solidarity, the independent trade union and mass opposition movement that brought the Communists down in the late 1980s. Kaczynski’s alleged “assassination” by these shadowy forces not only proves their existence, but serves to substantiate Law and Justice’s claim to represent the “real” heroes of Poland’s anti-Communist struggle. Kaczynski died not in an accident but for a righteous cause, and his death bestowed upon his party a sacred duty to fulfill it.

It is in this political context that Law and Justice supporters seized upon the February release of unauthenticated documents purporting to show that Solidarity Chairman Lech Walesa may have informed for Communist security services for a brief period in the early 1970s. As Jaroslaw Kaczynski told Gazeta Polska soon after his brother’s death, “when Walesa is inevitably discredited, Lech [Kaczynski] will become the symbol of the Solidarity movement.”

In this way, a man who made a valuable but modest contribution to Poland’s anti-Communist movement would become, in Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s words, an “icon of an independent Poland.” Lech Kaczynski did not ask for any of this, and it is hard to imagine that he would have made any of the claims now being made on his behalf. But however history remembers him in the longer term, one can be sure that neither he nor the other victims of Smolensk will be allowed to rest in peace for a long time to come.

In the photo, people in Warsaw hold a portrait of the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski on April 10, 2015, as they mark the fifth anniversary of the plane crash in Smolensk.

Photo credit: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Christian Davies, a former researcher in the British Parliament, worked in Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2009 and 2010. He lives in Oxford and Krakow.

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