Monday, 12 April 2010

Poland, Russia united through tragedy

As Warsaw and Moscow mourned victims of Saturday's plane crash that took the life of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and many senior government officials, the tragedy appeared to be a catalyst in thawing decades of tense relations between the two countries.

A visibly distraught Prime Minister Vladimir Putin turned to embrace his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, after both arrived at the scene of the crash on Saturday.

The image was broadcast repeatedly on Polish television, and appeared to strike a powerful chord.

"At the human level, Poles are impressed and touched by the Russians' reaction," Eugeniusz Smolar, a senior fellow at Warsaw's Centre for International Relations told The Moscow News. "We know that Putin is not a very emotional person. This made an impression. There are many issues, but the human touch will help overcome some of them, because there is goodwill on both sides."

Putin had visited Smolensk just days before the crash to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when Soviet secret police killed some 20,000 Poles, including thousands of army officers. His comments then were "guarded and limited," Smolar noted, but the event marked that considerable headway had been made by both sides in overcoming the past.

"There is no difference between the Polish and Russian academics about what happened in Katyn," Smolar said, noting that their historic agreement was a major step.

Russian authorities reacted fast to the crash, with Putin taking personal charge of the investigation. Victims' families were given full hospitality by authorities in Moscow.

Poland's Foreign Ministry expressed gratitude on Monday for Russia's assistance.
With Poland's presidential elections scheduled for June, the efforts would cement the improving trajectory of relations, political analysts said.

"I just spoke to Poland's former president Alexander Kwasniewski, and he said that whoever is the next president of Poland, he will not forget that the Russians were very helpful in dealing with this tragedy," said Alexander Rahr, programme director for Russia and Eurasia at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

While Putin has had friendly relations with Tusk, a member of the pro-European Civic Platform party, his relations with Kaczynski, a conservative nationalist who planned to run for re-election under his Law and Justice party banner, were notoriously strained.

With the Civil Platform party in power, Poland has been increasingly more conciliatory towards Russia. It demonstrated reluctance to deploy a US missile shield, which Russia opposed, on its territory, and Poland's support for NATO entry for Ukraine and Georgia became more subdued.

By contrast, "Putin had no relationship with Kaczynski, as a politician. Kaczynski avoided relations with the Russian government," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

But the last weeks saw "serious reconciliation, particularly on the Katyn issue," Lukyanov said. "There was an impression that both sides were trying to overcome this heavy historical burden."

Meanwhile, another presidential contender, Jerzy Smajdzinski of the Left Democratic Alliance party, was also killed on the crash, leaving the country's parliament speaker and acting president, Civic Platform politician Bronislaw Komorowski, as the clear favourite to win the election.

"Of course there is a chance that Jaroslav Kaczynski may run for the presidency, and he will have some moral support due to the tragic death of his brother," Rahr said, "But from today's standpoint, it looks like Komorowski has the best chances to win."

Under Komarowski, relations with Russia would become better, Rahr said.

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