Poland's Bitter Spring

The April 10 crash of the plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and scores of other Polish dignitaries shook Poland to its core. Professor John Micgiel looks at the aftermath—and the significance of the plane's destination.

by John Micgiel Published Summer 2010
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After April’s crash, though, the Russians realized that they had a potential public relations coup in the making. Admitting the truth about what happened 70 years earlier would cost them little, and that acknowledgment might help remove one of the historical barriers that have separated the Poles from the Russians. So Putin met Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Smolensk and gave him a much-publicized hug. In a very short time, the Russian government changed its policy on Katyn: Wajda’s movie was shown on Russian TV, it was discussed in Russian newspapers, and the Russian state archives put up on its Web site some of the Katyn documents that Yeltsin had handed over to the Poles in 1992.

Most Poles welcome this change, along with Putin’s decision to take charge of the investigation into the crash, which seemed to be a guarantee that the Russians would be taking this very seriously. Others, like my students, urge caution. And some, because of the historical meaning of Katyn, think that this wasn’t an accident — that this was somehow the work of the Russians. The conspiracy theories come thick and fast. For these people, no investigation — Russian or Polish — will ever be satisfactory.

Starting Again

In the event of the death of the president, the Polish constitution provides that the speaker of parliament take on the role of acting president and that elections be held within 60 days. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin brother, announced in late April that he would be running for president as the candidate of the Law and Justice Party. Former prime minister and current deputy prime minister Waldemar Pawlak was the first to provide the electoral commission with the necessary minimum of 100,000 supporters’ signatures. The Civic Platform’s candidate is Acting President and Speaker of the Parliament Bronislaw Komorowski. Of the roughly two dozen hopefuls who announced that they would try their luck, 10 met the legal requirements to run for the office.

Komorowski and the Civic Platform, which, with its coalition partner, the Peasant Party, now runs the government, are eager to have better relations with Russia. However, that does not mean that they want to have poorer relations with the United States; quite the opposite. Because of their history, most Poles understand that security is exceedingly important and having partners like the United States and NATO, which Poland joined in 1999, is essential.

A few weeks before the presidential election, four out of five of my Polish students think that Acting President Komorowski will defeat the conservative Kaczynski. Residents of economically challenged areas, older voters, and rural voters — a broad cross section of society — think otherwise. As of early June, various polls indicate that Komorowski will wind up just short of the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win the elections in the first round of voting.

Kaczynski is polling in the mid-thirties. As election day draws nearer, both candidates will approach other parties in an effort to have them withdraw their candidates either before or after the first round.

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