Monday, 11 October 2010
So who killed the President?
The debate and rumours in Poland about the death of President Lech Kaczynski on April 10th this year goes on and on. We now learn from the Polish Military Prosecutor's Office that after the interrogation of 360 witnesses and completing 82 volumes of hard copy script, the investigation by both the Russian and Polish authorities is still only half complete. More evidence from the Russians is expected after the Russians have completed their enquiries on November 22nd and a final report is not expected in Poland before January.
None of the original options, whether freak accident, negligence by the pilot or by Smolensk airport authorities, or even sabotage, have been definetely ruled out, but absolutely no concrete evidence for the last option has been found.
Poles being Poles, with their prejudices and demons, many of them the result of the country's traumatic history over the last 200 years, cannot leave the matter alone. They blame each other, the pilot, the Russians and/or any other bogeyman they can think of. Actually "think of" is not the right word. This is not "thinking" - it is more "conjuring up". Their fears are voiced by those like Antoni Macierewicz, former member of KOR in the 1970's and former Minister of the Interior in the 1990's, who now heads the ramshackle Polish Parliamentary Commission in to the accident, and has described the Smolensk tragedy as "zamach" - "assassination attempt" - from the first day.
The Russians watch the debate with some concern. The rest of the world, and many younger Poles, have long since marched on to other things.
Keen to alarm the conspiracy theorists, Macierewicz and "Gazeta Polska" say there has been a Russian-Polish cover up from the word go. But a cover up of what exactly?
Well, on what I have heard and seen so far, I have my interim theories.
So who do I blame for Smolensk?
First and foremost, I blame the Russians. I do not accuse them of deliberately killing the President and his 95 fellow passengers. Whatever I may think of some the former activities of Prime Minister Putin and the FSB, I can see no earthly reason for them to kill the President. By April - President Kaczynski was already a dead duck, due to face political obliteration with the October presidential elections in Poland. However I blame the Russians for contributing to the mischief as they dangled the Katyn massacre carrot between a more moderate Donald Tusk and a more fundamentalist Kaczynski. Prime Minister Putin had deliberately invited Prime Minister Tusk to the Katyn commemoraive ceremony, not President Kaczynski. Let us remember that this was a historic rapprochement on a grand scale, where the Russian nation was for the first time inviting the Polish nation to share in the mourning of those 22,000 Polish officers and representatives of Poland's elite massacred by Stalin in 1940 in a crime then covered up by his Soviet successors for more than 50 years. I believe that it should have been President Medvedev as head of state inviting President Kaczynski as head of state. Tusk was invited because of Kaczynski's well known hostility to Russia's imperialist past and potential threat in the future. It had been Tusk who had invited Putin to the ceremonies in September last year commemorating the outbreak of WWII. Kaczynski had made no secret of his disapproval of the Russian's presence in Poland in such a sensitive month associated in Poland's mind as much with the Soviet invasion, as well as German Nazi, invasion of Poland. The Russians wanted to rub Kaczynski's nose in it before his predicted final humiliating electoral defeat 6 months later.
This was mischief a plenty - effectively interfering in Poland's internal politics over an issue which was still an open wound for some. As Lech Kaczynski himself described it - the Katyn massacre and the subsequent Katyn cover up were the buckle that shut tight the Communist belt around Poland's neck for 50 years.
Of course, once the unexpected tragedy had occurred, an embarassed Russian government stood on its head and bent over backwards (both metaphors are equally valid) to make up for their part in the unfolding tragedy, promising a joint role in the recovery and interpretation of all evidence leading to conclusions on the tragedy, sending their President to attend the President's funeral in Krakow, despite the genuine threat of volcanic ash, and even showing Wajda's film "Katyn" in some Russian cinemas. It was partly guilty conscience and partly part of a possible cover up in case it transpired that the accident may have resulted from Russian negligence at Smolensk airport.
Secondly, I blame Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his government colleagues, who allowed themselves to be drawn into this Russian intrigue. Their dislike and contempt for the Polish President blinded them to the need to transform Putin's political invitation into a proper state invitation. Of course Tusk, a patriot, but a pragmatic patriot, knew that Kaczynski, a romantic patriot, would not be satisfied with merely a joint act of mourning. Kaczynski would have wanted contrition from the Russians and even possibly compensation. Tusk was prepared to settle for less in the interests of improving Polish-Russian relations. He was aware that better relations with Russia would have been positively assessed by President Obama and the European Union, and his Economics Minister Pawlak was sure that better relations would open up some useful contracts for Polish companies in Russia and elsewhere and would ensure a steady flow of oil from the East. Angered by Kaczynski's persistent string of vetoes of their proposed economic and political reforms and contemptuous of the President's amateurish one dimensional vision of Poland's market economy and of its foreign relations, Tusk did not want his Russian deal undermined by a niggling Kaczynski offending his Russian hosts over the Katyn massacre when the Russians had already made vast strides towards Poland in this area.
Lech and Maria Kaczynski
Thirdly, I blame Lech Kaczynski and his brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who have persistenly failed to overcome their inferiority complex over Poland's place in the world and their lack of vision of a modern forward-looking Poland. Their understandable sense of outrage at the trashing of Poland's heroic and Catholic past by the pro-Soviet Communist authorities and their frustration at the willingness of a series of politically and socially liberal elites in the 1990s to avoid a proper confrontation with their Communist predecessors had led the Kaczynskis into a blind alley where liberalism and the modern Europeanisation of Poland was seen as an affront to Poland's true conservative and national values. They remained hostile to the new awareness of women's rights and gay rights, they hankered for a return to the death penalty and though they themselves were not anti-Semitic, they allowed many of their followers and political allies to espouse anti-Semitic statements and hamper a coming to terms with the need to look again more critically at the far from harmonious Polish-Jewish relations in the last 150 years.
I cannot excuse a head of government or a head of state for surrounding themselves only with yes men (and women) who shared their limited view of the outside world and their lack of knowledge or interest in any foreign language. Lech Kaczynski's embarassed laughter at a press conference in Warsaw in reaction to Tusk's competent response in English to a visiting Condoleeza Rice was in turn an embarassment to all who attended. (It is not as if Lech Kaczynski had not had an opportunity to learn English. - See attached letter to me in Polish where the later president explains why he could not attend a BBC course in English which I had organised at his request!)
I am not saying that Kaczynski was not morally right to expect more evidence of contrition from the Russians and I agree with his conviction that it was the Polish President, not the Polish Prime Minister, who should have been invited. But is "morally right" always expedient for Poland's interests? What is more, to impose his presence as President on to the Russians, in the teeth of Putin's hostility and Tusk's diplomatic silence, was not the right way to do it. It made his rightful anger seem petty and personal. Far better to have left the argument over the visit to the internal Polish political stage. But the twin brothers' sense of political destiny made it psychologically impossible to back away from imposing the President onto reluctant and bemused Russian authorities. It was a sort of siege mentality of "us true Poles" against a supposedly decadent mealy-mouthed liberal Polish government who was failing to be a true guardian of Poland's political heritage that forced Lech Kaczynski to impose partly his, but mainly his brother's, will on Russian protocol and oblige the Russians to receive him.
Why do I say "his brother's". I have met many from Poland's political elites who have explained the delicate relationship between the two twins. Lech was the bright academic and sports enthusiast, the determined and popular former conservative justice minister, the Quixotic chaser of windmills, married to a charming, cultured and sensitive fellow student - Maria. Jaroslaw was the humourless strategic political planner, the heavyweight, the manipulator and puller of strings, who lived with his mother, and had little time for socialising with Poland's liberal political elites. Lech was the more liberal, ready to consider a compromise solution, until corrected by Jaroslaw. Many of the vetoes on the Tusk's hovernment legislation in parliament were initially left in abeyance while roads to compromise were sought until Jaroslaw came into the fray and imposed his authoritarian imprimatur on his brother.
Close friends of mine with whom I was staying, sympathisers of the Civic Platform (PO) party headed by Tusk, once invited Lech and Maria to an intimate dinner at their Warsaw apartment as they were once close family friends. They warned me to say nothing about this meeting to anyone in advance, because Jaroslaw was on a summer break in the country with his mother. It was known that if he got wind of the dinner party he would immediately veto it.
Jaroslaw was of course due to fly with the President's plane to Smolensk. That he did not was due mainly to their mother's illness. It is extraordinary to think what the impact would have been if BOTH brothers had been on that plane. As it is, it was an act of extraordinary folly for so many notables to fly in one plane. Some, like the President of the National Bank of Poland or the Chairman of the National Institute of Remembrance or the former legendary Solidarity leader - Anna Walentynowicz -, were the President's personal friends, but others like the former last President of the Polish Governmemt in Exile or the parliamentary leaders of the main opposition parties or the spokesman for human rights were attending out of a sense of duty, while the 5 chiefs of staff who commanded all sections of Poland's armed forces, were travelling on the President's order. No other country would allow so many VIPs to fly together. At least, thanks to the bad blood between president and Prime Minister, no members of the cabinet were on the plane, albeit there were deputy ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Culture.
However the folly of the VIPs was augmented by the the mission as defined by Lech Kaczynski, and by default, by his brother. The mission was "Smolensk or bust - in time for the ceremony at the Katyn cemetry". Because the hapless President was such a figure of mockery among Poland's snobbish Europeanised chattering classes, there would be no room for error here. Having foisted their presence on the unwilling Russians, they must NOT make a laughing stock of themselves, by failing to turn up on time. So when the plane approached Smolensk and the airport advised them that it would not be possible to land because of a morning fog, Kaczynski's suspicious mind saw this as an attempt to divert him from his mission. We know from the black boxes recovered so far that the pilot, Captain Poltorak, and air force commander, General Andrzej Blasik, who was in the cockpit with him, refused to accept alternative landing facilities in Moscow, Minsk or Bryansk.
General Andrzej Blasik
How could they have made such a risky decision without the direct intervention of the President himself? To travel to any of the alternative airfields would have been a sign of failure to complete the mission in time. It HAD to be Smolensk. Perhaps Blasik and Protasiuk had not explained the difficulty sufficiently. Perhaps they thought they could make it anyway. They knew that if they tried to override the President's wishes then Protasiuk would have been sacked as was his predecessor who refused to risk the President's life during a dangerous flight to Tbilisi during the Russo-Georgian conflict. There is no doubt that President Kaczynski must bear a large part of the responsibility for endangering his life and that of his 95 co-passengers and crew by his insistence on landing in Smolensk.
To me, knowing the relationship between the twins, it would have been inconceivable that the decision to land in Smolensk, could have been made without Jaroslaw's consent and even insistence. There is no record of any conversation between them but the President's mobile phone was identified but completely destroyed. However Colonel Ireneusz Szelag, the chief military prosecutor, has announced that at least 19 mobile phones and laptops were recovered in relative working order and which indicated communication with the outside world. I repeat that, in view of their relationship, it is unimaginable that the Kaczynskis did not consider the options together, that Jaroslaw would have reinforced Lech in his position, as he usually did, and that the decision to land at Smolensk, must therefore have been Jaroslaw Kaczynski's as well.
He too must take his share of responsibility for this catastrophe.
A few wilder elements in Poland have hailed the Smolensk tragedy as an act of heroic martyrdom by which Lech Kaczynski chose death in order to reveal more clearly to the outside world that Katyn was a Soviet crime and needed contrition and closure. "Now the whole world knows about Katyn", they would say to me (on a number of occasions) with glee. If what they said was true then this would have been some kind of romantic suicide. It could be compared to the noble death in the Battle of Leipzig of one of President Kaczynski's neighbours in the crypt of Wawel castle - Marshal Joseph Poniatowski. However this is a dangerous and stupid theory. If Kaczynski had chosen to die then he had also chosen to kill his 95 fellow passengers, including the wife he adored. That would have been tantamount to murder. And for what? So that the world could comment on the Katyn massacre for a couple of days? At least Poniatowski only endangered himself and his horse during his death-leap into the Elster River. The President endangered 95 other lives.
I do not believe that either Lech or Jaroslaw wanted the plane to crash, just as the Russians did not. The brothers felt that it was their national destiny that Lech had to land at Smolensk come what may. It was a decision of gross folly and a horrendous waste of political talent, which caused more than 100 Polish children to lose their parent or grandparent and has left a new deep scar on Poland's psyche as the accusations of conspiracy, murder and negligence continue unabated and will continue even after the investigaion commission's fidings will be published in January. Possibly it is Jaroslaw Kaczynski's role in defining this mission to Smolensk that may have made him so bitter, particularly after his failed election bid.
Until the parties concerned acknowledge their own partial responsibilty for this tragedy this new wound will fester and corrupt Poland's democratic development for several decades to come.