Why Russian-Polish relations must soar ahead

By Dmitry Babich

Russia has published the report of the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) on the causes of the April plane crash in which Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other people died. As expected, its conclusions have outraged the bulk of Poland's political elite.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk

Russia has published the report of the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) on the causes of the April plane crash in which Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other people died. As expected, its conclusions have outraged the bulk of Poland's political elite.

Those who supported the late Polish president and his brother Jaroslaw, who was himself only 4% short of victory in Poland's June 2010 presidential election, continue to blame Russian air traffic controllers for the disaster.

The IAC report, which says the plane crashed because its Polish crew decided to land in bad weather under pressure from the high-powered officials on board, is a godsend to them. They can now say that their pro-Russian prime minister, Donald Tusk, who advocated cooperation with Russia, was wrong and that Russians do, in fact, hate Poland.

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That Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's prime minister for the period 2005-2007, planned to use these tactics became clear on Wednesday, when immediately after the IAC news conference he said that the IAC report was a "pure speculation" even though he could not have had time to read it.

"Prime Minister Tusk has not accepted a single one of our proposals to ensure the crash is investigated by the Polish side," Kaczynski said. "We can now see the consequences of that decision: The report blames the crash on the Polish crew."

Tusk cut short his vacation during the news conference, which was only logical: The opinion of the man who was only 4% short of becoming Poland's president garners significant respect across the country. The prime minister will have to explain his position, because the IAC's report has not answered all of Poland's complaints, which were coordinated with Tusk and sent to Moscow as a 150-page report in December 2010. Poles will certainly demand that Tusk insist on including all of Poland's grievances in the report.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski has achieved his goal: Debates have been steered off course, and the question "What happened?" has been replaced with "Who is to blame?"

IAC head Tatyana Anodina and her colleague, Alexei Morozov, who delivered the committee's conclusions on Wednesday, said it was not up to them to determine who was to blame for the crash. Guilt is meted out in a criminal case, they said, while the IAC was only studying the technical aspects of the crash.

But this has not stopped Poles from turning the issue into a political problem.

The presidential plane crash at Smolensk was caused by a fatal combination of circumstances.

If Lech Kaczynski had not chosen to attend the commemoration ceremony in Katyn, where over 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were killed in 1940, to which he was not invited (Prime Minister Tusk opposed his decision to go)...

If the status of his visit and flight had not been shrouded in uncertainty for that very reason (the IAC says it was a personal visit, while the president's brother claims it was a military visit)...

If his Tu-154 plane had not tried to land in thick fog, and if the airport authorities had clearly and unambiguously refused to give it permission to land...

And lastly, if Russian-Polish relations were blissfully trouble-free...

Disasters happen when there is a fatal combination of such "ifs." Usually a whole host of people are to blame, rather than any one individual in particular, although the urge to blame someone is indisputable.

Anyway, the blame cannot be meted out on national lines. Saying that either Poles or Russians are to blame is entirely misguided. Both Russians and Poles acted honorably in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Russians laid flowers and lit candles outside the Polish embassy, while Poles proposed a rapprochement with Moscow. Both sides should now find the courage to continue to act in that honorable spirit.

There are those who seek to reduce this tragedy to a petty squabble, forcing us to apply erroneous moral values, just as the Polish president's crew made the erroneous decision to rely on the radio altimeter rather than the barometric unit. Some political forces in Poland have acted in an unconscionably mean fashion, claiming that the heavy fog blanketing the airport was in fact, artificially produced, and that the Russian air traffic controllers were drunk (so says Jaroslaw Kaczynski).

Responding in kind would be unwise, but reducing all Polish complaints to Jaroslaw's whims would also be wrong.

"If the reports on the disaster refuse to take Poland's opinion into account or if they reject it as 'unacceptable,' that would be an ill omen for Polish society," said Jaroslaw Kurski, a commentator with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, who has been trying to debunk the conspiracy theories about the Smolensk air crash. And he seems to be right.

Some may shrug off Polish public opinion as insignificant, but it would be wrong. We will never turn Kaczynski's supporters into our allies, but they do not represent the entirety of Poland. It would surely be worth trying to win over Poland's real heartland, and to establish good relations with it.
RIA Novosti