Sunday, April 11, 2010

Plane Crash May Strain Poland's Ties With Russia


The New York Times

April 10, 2010

Plane Crash May Strain Poland’s Ties With Russia


This article was reported by Nicholas Kulish, Ellen Barry and Michal Piotrowski, and written by Ms. Barry.

WARSAW — A plane carrying the Polish president and dozens of the country’s top political and military leaders to the site of a Soviet massacre of Polish officers in World War II crashed in western Russia on Saturday, killing everyone on board.

President Lech Kaczynski’s plane tried to land in a thick fog, missing the runway and snagging treetops about half a mile from the airport in Smolensk, scattering chunks of fuselage across a bare forest.

The crash came as a stunning blow to Poland, wiping out a large portion of the country’s leadership in one fiery explosion. And in a chilling twist, it happened at the moment that Russia and Poland were beginning to come to terms with the killing of more than 20,000 members of Poland’s elite officer corps in the same place 70 years ago.

“It is a damned place,” former President Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24. “It sends shivers down my spine.”

“This is a wound which will be very difficult to heal,” he said.

A top Russian military official said air traffic controllers at the Smolensk airport had several times ordered the crew of the plane not to land, warned that it was descending below the glide path and recommended it reroute to another airport.

“Nevertheless, the crew continued the descent,” said Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Alyoshin, the first deputy chief of the Russian Air Force Staff. “Unfortunately, the result was tragic.”

Russian emergency officials said 97 people were killed. They included Poland’s deputy foreign minister and a dozen members of Parliament, the chiefs of the army and the navy, and the president of the national bank. They included Anna Walentynowicz, 80, the former dock worker whose firing in 1980 set off the Solidarity strike that ultimately overthrew Polish Communism, as well as relatives of victims of the massacre that they were on their way to commemorate.

Poles united in their grief in a way that recalled the death of the Polish pope, John Paul II, five years ago. Thousands massed outside the Presidential Palace, laying flowers and lighting candles.

Magda Niemczyk, a 24-year-old student, held a single tulip. “I wanted to be together with the other Polish people,” she said.

“It’s a national tragedy,” said Ryszard Figurski, 70, a retired telecommunications worker. “Apart from their official positions, it is also simply the loss of so many lives.”

Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, one of the highest-ranking Polish leaders not on board the plane, told Radio Zet in Poland that he was the one to inform Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who “was in tears when he heard about the catastrophe.”

The crash happened days after Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin became the first Russian leader to join Polish officials in commemorating the 1940 massacre at Katyn Woods, a wound that has festered between the two countries for decades and to Poles was a symbol of Russian domination.

Former President Lech Walesa, who presided over Poland’s transition from Communism, called the crash “the second disaster after Katyn.”

“They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished,” he said.

The repercussions on Poland’s coming presidential elections were far from clear. The Law and Justice Party lost numerous important leaders in addition to the president, including its parliamentary leader. Mr. Kaczynski had been trailing far behind his opponent in the polls, but the outpouring of sympathy from the mourning public might benefit his party in the moved-up presidential election.

Under Poland’s Constitution, the leader of the lower house of Parliament, now acting president, has 14 days to announce new elections, which must then take place within 60 days.

While the crash is not likely to substantially change Poland’s relationships with other countries, including its plans to host part of an American missile defense system, it could agitate Poland’s relationship with Russia.

Mr. Kaczynski, 60, a pugnacious nationalist who often clashed with Russia, was on his way to Katyn, where members of the Soviet secret police executed Polish officers captured after the Red Army invaded Poland in 1939.

Relations between Warsaw and Moscow have been strained ever since. For half a century, Moscow denied involvement in the killings, blaming the Nazis. But last Wednesday, Mr. Putin took a major step to improve relations by becoming the first Russian or Soviet leader to join Polish officials in commemorating the massacre’s anniversary. He was joined there by Mr. Tusk.

Mr. Kaczynski, seen by the Kremlin as less friendly to Russia, was not invited. Instead, he decided to attend a separate, Polish-organized event on Saturday.

Russia’s leaders, acutely aware of the potential political fallout of the crash, immediately reached out to Poland with condolences. Mr. Putin left Moscow to meet Mr. Tusk at the site of the crash, and President Dmitri A. Medvedev recorded an address to the Polish people, saying, “All Russians share your sorrow and mourning.”

The plane that crashed was a 20-year-old Tupolev Tu-154, designed by the Soviets in the mid-1960s and operated by the Polish Air Force. Russia halted mass production of the jet about 20 years ago, and about 200 of them are still in service around the world, said Paul Hayes, director of accidents and insurance at Ascend, an aviation consultancy in London. He said the Polish presidential jet was one of the youngest of them.

Officials in Poland have repeatedly requested that the government’s aging air fleet be replaced. Former Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who survived a helicopter crash in 2003, told Polish news media he had long predicted such a disaster.

“I once said that we will one day meet in a funeral procession, and that is when we will take the decision to replace the aircraft fleet,” he said.

It was unclear whether the plane’s age was a factor in the crash. The crash site was cordoned off, but Russian news media reported that the airplane’s crew made several attempts to land before a wing hit the treetops and the plane crashed about half a mile from the runway. Correspondents at the scene said the plane’s explosion was so powerful that fragments of it were scattered as far as the outskirts of Smolensk, more than a mile from the crash site.

A spokesman for Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said 88 passengers were on the plane.

Among them, the Polish government said, were Mr. Kaczynski; his wife, Maria; Ryszard Kaczorowski, who led a government in exile during the Communist era; the deputy speaker of Poland’s Parliament, Jerzy Szmajdzinski; the head of the president’s chancellery, Wladyslaw Stasiak; the head of the National Security Bureau, Aleksander Szczyglo; the deputy minister of foreign affairs, Andrzej Kremer; the chief of the general staff of the Polish Army, Franciszek Gagor; the president of Poland’s national bank, Slawomir Skrzypek; and the commissioner for civil rights protection, Janusz Kochanowski.

Mr. Kaczynski was elected president in 2005 just as his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, became head of the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice government. He forged close relationships with Ukraine and Georgia and pushed for their accession into NATO, arguing passionately that a stronger NATO would keep Russia from reasserting its influence over Eastern Europe.

He was a major supporter of plans for part of an American antiballistic missile defense system to be based in Poland, infuriating Russia. Although that proposal by President George W. Bush was scaled back by President Obama, Polish officials have said they still plan to host American surface-to-air missiles in northern Poland.

That plan is unlikely to be affected by the crash.

Nicholas Kulish and Michal Piotrowski reported from Warsaw, and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Clifford J. Levy and Viktor Klimenko contributed reporting from Moscow, and Nicola Clark from Paris.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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