Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poland's president and first lady lie in state

The first couple's only child, daughter Marta, led mourners

The bodies of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and First Lady Maria Kaczynska are now lying in state in the capital, Warsaw.

Maria Kaczynska's body arrived earlier from Moscow amid emotional scenes after Saturday's plane crash in Russia that killed the couple and 94 others.

Parliament has held a special session to honour those killed in the disaster.

The first couple are to be buried on Sunday, a day after a memorial service for the victims in the Polish capital.

A guard of honour stood to attention in the rain at Warsaw airport as the body of the first lady arrived on a military plane. President Kaczynski's remains were repatriated on Sunday.

Weather warning

After a brief religious ceremony, mourners took turns to kneel at Maria Kaczynska's casket and pay their respects as it stood on the tarmac.

They included the late first couple's only child, daughter Marta, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, identical twin of the late president.

Maria Kaczynska's coffin, draped with Poland's white-and-red flag, was then driven through the streets of Warsaw to the presidential palace.

Thousands of Poles lined the 10km (6 mile) route to the city centre, covering the hearse with flowers, then took turns to file past the coffins.

The first couple will be laid to rest on Sunday at Wawel Castle in the southern city of Krakow, according to Poland's PAP news agency.

A special session of both chambers of parliament was held on Tuesday to pay tribute to those who died in the disaster.

An investigation is ongoing into the crash; the plane clipped tree-tops as it tried to land in fog at a former air base north of Smolensk city on Saturday morning.

Russian officials say the pilots of the Soviet-built Tu-154 airliner had ignored weather warnings and repeatedly tried to land.

Polish prosecutors have stressed there is no evidence the crew were pressured by those onboard to ignore the advice.

The president and his party of senior Polish military and political officials had been due to attend a memorial for the Polish victims of a World War II massacre by Soviet secret police at Katyn, near Smolensk.

Relatives are in the Russian capital helping forensic scientists identify the bodies. Family members are being supported by Polish and Russian psychologists.

Forty-five of the victims have been identified, the Russian health minister said on Tuesday, reports AFP news agency.

Some of the bodies are so badly disfigured that DNA evidence will be needed.

Poll date

President Kaczynski's body was identified on Saturday in Smolensk by brother Jaroslaw, who is a former prime minister.

Poland is in the middle of seven days of mourning over the tragedy.

Russia observed a day of mourning on Monday.

Pictures of Polish president and wife

In pictures: First couple mourned

President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have devoted much time to dealing with the aftermath of the crash.

The Russian president is expected to be among leaders attending Sunday's state funeral for Mr Kaczynski, who was an outspoken nationalist known for his distrust of Russia.

Moscow's handling of the tragedy has been widely appreciated in Poland, though others suggest the thaw in relations may not last, the BBC's Duncan Kennedy reports from Warsaw.

Meanwhile, Acting President Bronislaw Komorowski said he would announce on Wednesday the date of the country's presidential election, expected in May or June, reports Reuters news agency.

Mr Komorowski, who is parliamentary speaker, had been expected to run against the late president.

Opinion polls before the crash indicated Mr Komorowski, the official candidate of Prime Minister Donald Tusk's governing Civic Platform Party, would have comfortably beat Lech Kaczynski, who had become increasingly unpopular.

There is now speculation that Jaroslaw Kaczynski may step in to represent the Law and Justice party. Analysts say he may benefit from an outpouring of public sympathy following his brother's death.

Source:BBC News

Monday, April 12, 2010

In dark times Poland needs the sunlight of truth

n 1943 Poland’s wartime leader accused Moscow of ordering the Katyn massacre, the systematic murder of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals. A few months later he was dead, the victim of an air crash. Was it murder? Almost certainly not, but Poland’s painful past, combined with official secrecy, created precisely the muggy and mysterious conditions in which conspiracy theory thrives.

In 2010 another Polish leader, President Lech Kaczynski, heads to Katyn to commemorate the appalling massacre that took place there. Within hours he too is dead, along with his wife and 94 other members of Poland’s elite, the victims of another air crash. Was this coincidence? Almost certainly, but a similar climate of suspicion ensures that the conspiracies are already sprouting, and spreading.

The thread connecting these events is secrecy, for it is concealment that turns a tragedy into a festering historical sore. Britain still has not released all the files on the death in 1943 of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-exile. For decades Moscow declined to admit what had happened at Katyn, and Vladimir Putin still refuses to apologise.

In the confusion and grief following the Smolensk air crash on Saturday, the whispers, rumours and accusations have begun to circulate. The Polish president’s plane, it is noted darkly, was Russian-made, and recently serviced in Russia. The Russian Government heartily disliked President Kaczynski, who had criticised Russia’s “new imperialism”. Moscow declined to invite him to a ceremony at Katyn last Wednesday — so Kaczynski decided to hold a second memorial service, and was killed en route.

Initial reports have ruled out mechanical failure, so was the pilot pressurised to make the landing by his august passengers? Polish conspiracists are already blaming the Russian secret service, while others suggest that Russian hardliners may have sought to undermine Mr Putin by sabotaging the plane.

Poland has a deeply emotional, almost mystical relationship with the story of tragedy, rebellion, courage and repression that is Polish history. The present is permanently refracted through the past. “The place is cursed,” declared Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former President, after the latest tragedy associated with Katyn.

Lech Walesa’s remark was even more telling: “This is the second Katyn tragedy; the first time they tried to cut our head off, and now again the elite of our country has perished.” Implicit is the assumption that “they”, unnamed enemies, must also lie behind Poland’s latest national calamity.

The only way to ensure against wild conspiracy theories is to conduct the crash investigation in the disinfecting sunlight; to eschew the secrecy that is Moscow’s natural instinct; and to ensure that the historical verdict on this episode is provided, or at least believed, by Poles. To do, in short, everything that Britain failed to do when investigating the death of another Polish leader, 67 years ago.

On July 4, 1943, General Sikorski, the Polish commander-in-chief of land under Nazi occupation, took off from Gibraltar in a converted RAF Liberator bomber, bound for England. A few minutes later the plane plummeted into the harbour, killing 16 passengers on board including Sikorski’s daughter, Zofia. The Czech pilot was the sole survivor.

A British court of inquiry conducted a swift and secret investigation, which ruled out sabotage but failed to establish the cause of the crash. The pilot said his controls had jammed.

The conspiracy theories erupted almost immediately, and have continued ever since. One held that the Nazis had orchestrated the crash, determined to remove a popular Polish figurehead. Even greater suspicion fell on Stalin, who had most to gain from eliminating the troublesome general. Three months earlier Sikorski had called for a Red Cross investigation into the Katyn massacres, prompting a furious Stalin to break off relations with the Polish Government-in-exile.

Alternative theories claimed that the assassination was the work of a Polish faction, or the British, keen to remove an impediment to good relations with its Soviet ally. Soldiers, a 1968 play by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, even suggested that Winston Churchill had played a role in the supposed assassination plot.

Many British documents relating to the crash remain classified, and for nearly seven decades the conspiracists have been allowed virtually free rein. Kim Philby, then head of MI6 counterintelligence for the Iberian Peninsula, was said to have had a hand in organising Sikorski’s death on behalf of his Moscow spymasters. Sikorski’s daughter was allegedly spotted in a Soviet gulag many years later. Sikorski himself was variously said to have been poisoned, strangled, suffocated or shot before being loaded on to the doomed plane.

Last year Polish forensic scientists exhumed the general’s corpse from a crypt in Cracow and concluded that he had died in the air crash after all. But, as Polish historians pointed out at the time, until or unless all the British and Soviet archives are released, the fate of Poland’s wartime leader will continue to be a source of friction and fantasy.

Sikorski’s plane probably crashed because someone accidentally placed luggage on the steering mechanism. An equally simple explanation — most likely pilot error — may lie behind the accident that deprived Poland of so much of its leadership last weekend.

If so, it is essential that the Polish people themselves see the truth being revealed. So far, Russia has made the right noises, promising an open investigation and agreeing to leave the aircraft at the scene.

But so long as Mr Putin heads the commission investigating the crash, Poles will wonder about the truth of its findings. Russia should invite Polish experts to take part in, and witness, every aspect of the investigation. Mr Putin has gone some way towards building a historical consensus about Katyn, even making a personal appearance at the service last week. This is another opportunity for him to demonstrate that history, as it unfolds, can bring old enemies together, as well as force them apart.

Like the Katyn massacre and the death of General Sikorski, the Smolensk crash will come to represent another tragic milestone in Poland’s history. The horror of Katyn was hidden for half a century behind Soviet lies; the fate of Sikorski was obscured, for far too long, by British secrecy. This time Poland itself should have the right to decide what really happened.

Source:Times online

Mystery still surrounds cause of Polish air tragedy

POLISH INVESTIGATORS say they have uncovered no evidence that Polish president Lech Kaczynski demanded that his pilot make a fatal crash landing in fog last Saturday.

Russian authorities confirmed yesterday that they had identified the body of Polish first lady Maria Kaczynska, who died along with her husband and 94 others in the air crash near the western Russian town of Smolensk.

Her remains will be flown home today, a day after those of Mr Kaczynski. The deceased president will lie in state from today at the presidential palace in Warsaw ahead of a state funeral on Saturday.

Mystery persists about why the aircraft clipped trees and crashed in flames after Russian tests yesterday revealed no mechanical defects.

Polish authorities say the aircraft had been fitted recently with new electronic equipment and the engine had been overhauled. But diplomats familiar with the aircraft have questioned why Warsaw still used a Soviet-built Tupolev 154 “badly in need of replacement”.

“It’s hard to understand how we are involved in costly missions in Afghanistan and Iraq but are unable for years to equip our [leaders] with proper planes,” said Prof Roman Kuzniar, an international affairs analyst at Warsaw University.

That has all turned the spotlight back on Mr Kaczynski. Asked whether the pilot was pressurised to land by the president, Poland’s chief prosecutor, Andrzej Seremet, said yesterday: “At the current level of the investigation we have no such information.”

After flight recorders revealed nothing unusual, Russian investigators said yesterday they had moved on to the voice recorders.

Mindful of the continuing week of mourning, Polish media have not dared even raise the possibility that Mr Kaczynski had a role in the crash. But the Russian media have recalled how, in 2008, Mr Kaczynski demanded that a pilot land his aircraft in Tblisi in the middle of the Georgian war; the pilot refused and diverted.

A Russian flight expert suggested in the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily that the crash was caused by “VIP passenger syndrome”. But this was dismissed by a colleague of Arkadiusz Protasiuk, the crash pilot.

“He was a tough man who wouldn’t let emotions prevail over common sense,” said Tomasz Pietrzak, another government pilot, on Polish radio. “He would certainly not risk passengers’ lives.”

The crash has also prompted reflection in political circles about whether the incident might have been the indirect consequence of years of competition between the president and Polish prime minister Donal Tusk.

Last Wednesday, Mr Tusk flew to Katyn for a memorial service with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Feeling snubbed at not being invited, Mr Kaczynski, from a competing party, organised a competing event on Saturday to remember the 22,000 Polish soldiers massacred at Katyn in 1940.

“As a consequence of the crash, this unfortunate situation may finally be at an end,” said Andrzej Maciejewski, political analyst of the Sobieski Institute think tank.

Mr Kaczynski’s office published his final, undelivered speech yesterday, in which he paid tribute to the Katyn soldiers and the families who kept their memory alive, and condemned the Soviet cover-up as “the founding lie of the [communist] People’s Republic of Poland”. But the president, known for his anti-Russian tirades, saved his final words to thank Moscow for its assistance ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre.

The undelivered words carry additional poignancy now: “Let’s allow the Katyn wound to finally heal,” he planned to say. “We are already on the path; we should follow it to bring our nations closer and not stop or retreat.”

Mr Maciejewski of the Sobieski Institute said: “In future we will be able to distinguish between pre-April 10th Polish-Russian relations and post-April 10th.”

Source: Irishtimes

'VIP passenger syndrome' may have contributed to Polish plane crash

Russian aviation experts claimed that "VIP passenger syndrome" could have played a part in causing of the tragedy, as it was disclosed that Lech Kaczynski had previously tried to sack a pilot who refused to land a plane for him in dangerous circumstances.

Black box recordings have confirmed that the pilot, Arkadiusz Protasiuk, an experience airman serving with the Polish air force, had ignored warnings to divert to another airport because of heavy fog.
However, it has been suggested that Mr Kaczynski did not want to miss a ceremony for the 22,000 Poles massacred by Soviet forces in the Second World War and may have urged the air crew to continue trying to land the plane.

Viktor Timoshkin, an aviation expert, said: "It was quite obviously 'VIP passenger syndrome'. Controllers suggested that the aircraft's crew divert the plane to an alternate route. I am sure that the commander of the crew reported this to the president. But in response, for whatever reasons, he had a clear order to land."

In August 2008, Mr Kaczynski "shouted furiously" at a pilot who had disobeyed his order to land his plane in then war-torn Georgia for safety reasons. He later tried to have Captain Grzegorz Pietuczak removed from his post with the Polish air force for insubordination, however, Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister intervened. Captain Pietuczak was later awarded a medal for carrying out his duties conscientiously for his refusal to land having judged the risks.

A Russian aviation expert said yesterday: "If he tried to land three times and fell on the fourth then he probably had the 2008 incident in mind and that was why he felt he had to land at any price. In effect, he did not take the decision but the main passenger on board did - even if the main passenger did not utter a word to the pilot."

Andrzej Seremet, Poland's chief prosecutor, said that there was no information from the investigation so far to suggest that Mr Kaczynski had put undue pressure on the pilot.

A senior air traffic controller at the Russian airport where the Polish plane was trying to land stirred controversy by suggesting that the Polish pilots' poor knowledge of the Russian language was to blame.

"They were supposed to give us a report about their altitude on the approach to landing," he said. "They did not give it." When asked why, he said: "Because they have a bad command of the Russian language. There were Russian speakers among them but for them numbers were quite complex."

It came as tensions between Russia and Poland over the air crash were escalated when a Polish MP claimed the Kremlin was partly to blame for the tragedy.

The two countries have set aside centuries of mutual distrust to present a united and recrimination-free front but yesterday Artur Gorski, a member of the Law and Justice party founded by Mr Kaczynski, said that Russia may have tried to deliberately prevent Mr Kaczynski's plane from landing and thereby indirectly caused his death.

Mr Gorski said: "One version of events says that the plane approached the airport four times, because every time the Russians refused it permission to land; they wanted to send the plane with the president to an airport in Moscow or Minsk,

"They came up with some dubious reasons: that there was fog over the airport, that the navigation system didn't work as it was under repair, and that the airport had a short landing strip."

Mr Gorski suggested that the real reason Moscow did not want President Kaczynski to land was because he was due to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of an infamous Soviet massacre of Polish officers.

The Russians, he claimed, did not want Mr Kaczynski to upstage a similar event hosted by Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, a few days earlier.

The Kremlin may also have feared that the Polish president, a noted hawk when it came to Russia, may have planned to criticise Moscow for not issuing a proper apology for the 1940 massacre, he added.

Mr Putin, who has taken charge of the investigation into the air crash, which is being carried out by both Russian and Polish teams, yesterday promised an "objective and thorough" investigation.

Bronislaw Komorowski, Poland's acting head of state, has announced an immediate review of regulations, or the lack of them, governing just which political and military leaders can fly together. The air crash was carrying nine senior military leaders, as well as the governor of Poland's central bank.

Source: Telegraph