7 years later, Poland still wrestles with plane crash trauma

AP News
Posted: Apr 09, 2017 4:42 AM
7 years later, Poland still wrestles with plane crash trauma

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It's been seven years since Poland lost its president in a plane crash in Russia. His twin brother, who effectively runs the Polish government today, remains in mourning, only wearing black suits and black ties in public — and determined to punish those he blames for the crash.

The identical and inseparable Kaczynski twins Lech and Jaroslaw were in the Polish public eye for half a century — childhood actors, then advisers to President Lech Walesa, then rising to become president and prime minister simultaneously.

Tragedy struck when President Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash on April 10, 2010, along with his wife and 94 others, many of them top members of Poland's political and military elite. They were flying to an airport near Smolensk, Russia, to pay tribute to some 22,000 Polish officers killed in the Katyn massacres by the Soviet secret police during World War II.

Poland will mark the anniversary of the crash Monday with state observances.

Seven years later, Jaroslaw Kaczynski still thinks many questions surrounding the crash need to be answered, not the least by Russia, which has refused to return the wreckage and the plane's flight recorders, and Donald Tusk, the then-Polish prime minister who is now one of the European Union's top officials.

Kaczynski has used his position as leader of the ruling Law and Justice party to direct state bodies to try to debunk official findings that the crash was an accident. Early on, Polish investigators concluded the crash was an accident resulting from several factors, including pilot error and heavy fog.

His supporters, often Catholic and generally older, see Kaczynski as a brave defender pursuing the truth. Opponents see him as a dangerous promoter of conspiracy theories for which no evidence has ever surfaced.

The continuing quest is also deepening Poland's isolation in Europe, evident last month when the government's objections to the re-election of Tusk as president of the European Council failed.

Kaczynski accuses Tusk and his allies of not doing enough to clarify all facts surrounding the crash and of failing to ensure proper security for the flight of a president who was in an opposing political camp. Some of his accusations have been strong, of Tusk somehow colluding to make the accident happen.

Tusk has denounced the accusations as absurd, saying at first they could be attributed to Kaczynski's deep grief, but later calling them a "nasty" and "cynical" ploy for power by a party without any other political ideas.

Even in 2014, when Tusk was still prime minister and Kaczynski led the opposition, he said, "What Jaroslaw Kaczynski is doing with the catastrophe is already a problem for the whole state."

Along with his brother and sister-in-law, a large swath of the ruling elite perished in the crash, including the head of the central bank and the army's chief of staff. That a patriotic president was on a mission to honor an atrocity inflicted by Moscow only deepened a sense of continued Polish suffering due to Russia — a country that Jaroslaw Kaczynski has called "cursed earth."

"I lost a twin brother," Kaczynski, now 67, said months after the disaster. "You need to have one to understand what kind of loss that is."

While his loss elicited widespread sympathy, Kaczynski's opponents have grown extremely critical of what they, like Tusk, see as is a cynical use of the tragedy for political gain.

Anti-government protests will take place on the sidelines of Monday's state ceremonies. Opponents say they will also protest the country's overall political direction, which they decry as anti-democratic.

The Polish government, now 17 months in power, has come under international censure for steps that have eroded the system of checks and balance on the government. While Kaczynski holds no government post, he is widely considered the real power behind both the prime minster and president, whom he both chose.

The main anti-government protest, which is being organized by civic rights group Obywatele RP, will rally in defense of constitutional freedoms and against "an emerging Catholic-nationalism in Poland, which we see as very close to fascism," said Pawel Kasprzak, one of the organizers.

Since the Law and Justice party took power, a new investigation into the plane crash has been launched, which cost 3.6 million zlotys alone in 2016 ($900,000), leaving an opposition party to ask state auditors to review whether the expense is justified.

But government officials say the concerns are real and they must press on.

"The longer you hide the wreckage, the longer you hide the black boxes, the more you make Poles aware that you are complicit in this catastrophe," Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said Thursday.

Last week prosecutors said a new analysis of the evidence has found that two Russian air traffic controllers were guilty of "deliberately causing an air traffic catastrophe," helped by a third official in the tower at the time. The allegations were rejected by Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman.

In the past, Law and Justice officials have suggested the Russians created fake fog or placed an explosive device on board.

They also are horrified by the sloppy way the Russians carried out the autopsies, with body parts mixed up in the wrong graves, and have ordered exhumations of most of the victims, also in search of new evidence. Authorities recently revealed they discovered three hands in one grave.

Bereft of the person who was closest to him, Jaroslaw Kaczynski now visits the presidential palace in Warsaw on the 10th of each month to honor the Smolensk victims.

"The truth about Smolensk is close," Kaczynski told flag-waving supporter last month, the 83rd time he marked the day.