Poland – The shadow of the Smolensk air crash over Polish politics

The crash of the presidential aircraft in Smolensk on 10 April 2010, killing not only president Lech Kaczynski (Law and Justice – PiS) and his wife but also 94 other high-ranking politicians and military officials as well as the crew, is arguably the most significant moment in Polish politics during the last 25 years. PiS, controlling presidency and government since 2015, has recently ramped up its efforts to promote their questionable version of the events. Seven years on, the crash thus still casts its shadow over Polish politics and pose interesting questions regarding the developments in government and presidency.

President Duda lays wreaths at the Smolensk memorial and victims’ graves – 10 April 2017 | photo via prezydent.pl

The news of the crash in Smolensk (Russia), from where the president and other passengers were meant to drive to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD in 1943, put Poland in a state of shock – surpassing even the mourning in the aftermath of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Contrary to the passing of the ‘Polish Pope’, however, the event divided Polish society more strongly any other issue in modern Polish history. Criticism was mainly levelled at the Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk (Civic Platform – PO) and their handling of the investigation. In particular, the conservative and traditionally russophobe part of the electorate (which moreover strongly identified with the views of PiS), were discontent with the fact that Russia was handling the primary investigation, although this was dictated by international law. This was amplified by problems reported with the identification of victims (leading to exhumations even years later) and their transport to Poland. Already then PiS politicians including Jaroslaw Kaczynski – party leader and identical twin brother of the president – openly accused Donald Tusk and his government of conspiring with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to kill the president.

After Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost the subsequent presidential election against the government candidate and parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, controversy centred on the various reports on the crash. Prosecutors concluded that the plane had descended despite adverse weather conditions and too early, colliding with a tree and breaking up. An impromptu parliamentary commission led by PiS politician Antoni Macierewicz on the other hand produced a report that claimed that the plane had been brought down by explosions, basing its conclusion on statements by several self-proclaimed experts and containing several contradictions and inconsistencies. Throughout the years following the crash, PiS also supported vigils, a grass roots movements and other initiatives such as the yearly ‘Smolensk Conference’ (whose website has a section dedicated to exposing alleged misinformation and cover-ups by the Tusk government).

The issue of Smolensk remains highly divisive, yet PiS has interpreted its victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections – preceded by the election of its candidate Andrzej Duda as president only months earlier – as a mandate to not only execute a number of highly controversial and arguably unconstitutional measures, but also to considerably increase its efforts to push their own version of the events nationally and internationally. Although formally these are promoted by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and members of her government as well as president Duda, it is clear that they are coordinated by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (who does not hold any government office himself and is not even leader of the parliamentary party). At first, the new government disabled the official website about the investigation. Later, it started to promote the widely criticised film ‘Smolensk’ which is based on the discredited explosion/assassination theory; as even diplomatic posts were used to promote it internationally, some cinemas rented for the purpose of viewings cancelled the booking as the film was seen as government propaganda. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself has stated that the film showed ‘the truth’. In November 2016, the government opened a new investigation which included the exhumation of the president and several other victims against protests by the majority of relatives. Two weeks ago, the Polish prosecution – which like the state media has been restructured to reflect the views of the ruling party – announced they would charge two Russian air traffic controllers with deliberately causing the crash.

The activities of the Polish government regarding the Smolensk air crash are part of a wider strategy and legitimising narrative to consolidate power. Nevertheless, they have never been able to shake the appearance of a personal Vendetta by Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Therefore, and given that a majority of the Polish population is now in favour of laying the matter to rest (only ~25% consistently report to rather trust any of the conspiracy theories), it is puzzling why the government would still pursue it. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s personal interest is surely a driving factor, yet he is also well aware that he cannot win elections with the topic (admittedly, the government has a introduced and put more effort into a number of other policies more clearly directed at gaining popular support). However, it may well be that the recent shift from the explosion-theory to accusing Russian air traffic controllers is part of a larger plan to rather mobilise anti-Russian sentiment in the Polish population (which is more promising). Another interesting point is the fact that Andrzej Duda as president, albeit supporting the PiS narrative, has not taken a more prominent role. At first glance, this may appear as a strategy to appeal to a wider electorate in the next presidential election than just PiS’ core electorate. Yet as he has so far never openly criticised the government or any of its policies, this seems unlikely. Rather, the Polish presidency under Duda (and Jaroslaw Kaczynski as the grey eminence) eerily beings to resemble developments observed in Hungary, i.e. towards a presidency as mere lapdog of the ruling party rather than an effective check-and-balance. While the once again poses the question, what use the institution then fulfils for the party in power, it is a parallel in two increasingly illiberal democracies that requires further investigation.

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