Has the Clock Run Out on the Smolensk Conspiracy?

Blaming the Russians, or political opponents, only goes so far.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski attends a ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the presidential plane crash in Smolensk on April 10, 2015. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)
Jaroslaw Kaczynski attends a ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the presidential plane crash in Smolensk on April 10, 2015. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

Eight years after an aircraft crash killed senior members of the Polish government, theories claiming a Russian- or opposition-orchestrated operation appear to be finally receding into the background.

The last of the monthly memorial ceremonies marking the Smolensk tragedy is scheduled Tuesday, on the anniversary of the crash. The current government plans to release its own final report into the crash that killed the Polish president and dozens of other senior officials.

Originally, the government said the final report would be done in time for the anniversary.

Instead, a partial report is expected to be released.

Moscow has still not returned the physical wreckage, and Poland is still divided between those who believe there was a cover-up by the previous government and those who think the current government is pushing conspiracy theories around a tragic accident as a way to garner power.

The crash came during a key split in the Polish government: Lech Kaczynski, then the president, belonged to the Law and Justice party, while the prime minister, Donald Tusk, was a member of the rival Civic Platform. In April 2010, Tusk went with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD at Katyn in Russia.

But Kaczynski hadn’t been invited, and so, three days later, he made his own trip, using the same plane Tusk had traveled on earlier. Only this time, the plane crashed in a forest by the Smolensk airfield in Russia, killing all onboard. 

A Polish report following an official investigation declared the crash an accident caused by pilot error, among other issues on the Polish side and control tower errors made on the Russian side. But some — including Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski — believed it was a conspiracy orchestrated by the Russians, Civic Platform, or some combination of the two.

In 2015, Law and Justice ran on a platform that included investigating what happened in Smolensk.

Law and Justice won the election, making party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski the most powerful politician in Poland. Antoni Macierewicz — who was, until recently, defense minister — became a vocal proponent of the theory that Smolensk was the result of foul play, hinting that the full truth would be revealed only with the final report.

But critics of Law and Justice accused the party of using the Smolensk catastrophe to go after its political enemies, and the conspiracy appeared to divide even the current government.

In January, Macierewicz, who clashed with President Andrzej Duda, was removed as defense minister.

(Of the idea that Smolensk was the reason for Macierewicz’s dismissal, the Polish Embassy in Washington offered, “No such comments were made by the representatives of the government.”)

Before his dismissal, Macierewicz promised a final report in April.

“The date of the publication of the report is dependent on the speed of work of the subcommittee,” the embassy wrote. “It will be published as soon as the investigation is concluded.”

What happened to the urgency of finding out what some people believe to be the truth about Smolensk?

Pawel Artymowicz, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto, says the usefulness of Smolensk as a political tool has faded.

“Apparently the leadership of that party decided quite recently it’s not really useful for them anymore,” says Artymowicz, who conducted his own independent investigation into the physics of the attack and concluded it was an accident. “That’s the reason, combined with the fact that Macierewicz could not provide any evidence for it.”

Now that Law and Justice is in power, the party has found more useful topics to mobilize its base, according to Polish journalist Jaroslaw Kociszewski. “[T]he illiberal trend is driven rather by a fear of fictitious enemies, i.e., Islamic migrants, Germans, than Smolensk,” he wrote in an email to FP.

But one government’s tired conspiracy theory is another’s live campaign material. Just days before his own re-election, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban unveiled a memorial called “Memento to Smolensk.” A visiting Kaczynski said Orban reminded him of his late twin brother.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola