Sunday, April 11, 2010

Could Polish Air Tragedy Lead To Better Russian Polish Ties?

In the fog and trees of western Russia, Poland lost many of those who moved and shook that eastern European country.  The Saturday crash in Smolensk took the lives of President Lech Kaczynski, and dozens of other Polish political, military and religious leaders.  Poles are shocked and numbed, noting the bitter irony of the disaster.  Poland's who's who were on their way to commemorate victims of the Katyn massacre.  In 1940, Soviet secret police gunned down more than 20,000 Polish officers and other elites, effectively decapitating the ruling class.  And while completely at different ends of the scale spectrum, the target was the same: Polish elite.  And although one appears to be an accident, the other coldblooded mass murder, the two tragedies took place a stone's throw from the other.  But there is one other big difference.  Katyn painted the Russians as murderers and liars, just another seed of distrust, fear and hatred in these countries' stormy 500 years of ties.  However, the Smolensk plane tragedy has brought the two countries together if briefly, to share their grief and condolences.

For the Russians, Kaczynski was no real friend, at least on the political front, as Pakistan's Daily Times points out.  

Kaczynski was a political force to reckon with throughout these years. He was known as a pro-American leader who often used anti-Russia rhetoric. He also gave strong support to the controversial US missile shield plan proposed by the Bush administration. In 2009, Poland declared its support for a revamped missile defence system announced by Washington and decided to allow a small US base equipped with SM-3 interceptors on its territory. The base would be used to target short and medium-range missiles. US President Obama assured the Polish prime minister that the new START 2 nuclear arms reduction treaty recently signed between the US and Russia will not affect the planned US missile shield in Europe.

Kaczynski vocally opposed what he branded as Russian "imperialism" in ex-Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine, even braving bullets during Moscow's short war with Tbilisi in 2008 to show his solidarity with President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Some on the fringes of the web have have speculated that maybe the Russians were behind the crash as they were eager to erase an enemy in Kaczynski. 

Tusk is seen as more Moscow friendly, if such a Polish leader, let alone average Pole exists.

It was Tusk whom Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin invited for Russian commemorations of Katyn, as this year was the 70th anniversary. 

It was the first time ever Polish and Russian leaders joined together to pay respect to those Poles killed by the NKVD on Stalin's orders in 1940.

After mourning the Katyn dead, the two were at each others side to inspect the Smolensk plane crash site, as politics gave way to human emotions and feelings.   For a moment, pan-Slavs everywhere saw a glimpse of what could be.

"We did not expect this gentle, kind approach, this personal involvement from Putin," said Witold Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland's National Security Bureau and one of the few Kaczynski aides not to have been on Saturday's ill-fated flight.

"Naturally it will have a positive impact on the relationship between our countries. I can imagine a high-ranking Russian delegation from Moscow coming to Kaczynski's funeral."

His comments were echoed by Poland's ambassador to Russia.

"We can sense Russian solidarity at every step of the way (since the crash)," Jerzy Bahr told Polish television.

Before the Smolensk plane disaster, the Russians spread more goodwill when Russian TV agreed to air the Polish film, Katya, a day director Andrzej Wajda thought he would never live to see.

It was a sign the Russians were ready to reappraise this gruesome chapter of their history.

But while Tusk and Putin may have a better "chemistry", their countries still have objectives at odds with the other.

According to Polskie Radio, Tusk is glad the new strategic nuclear arms treaty, START 2, will not impinge on U.S. plans to build missile defense components in his country. 

“I came with some concerns, I leave with confidence,” Tusk said after the working dinner attended by 11 central and eastern European nations and Barack Obama in the Czech capital, after America had signed a new nuclear reduction treaty with Russian president Dimitry Medvedev.

PM Tusk said that the dinner was dominated by Poles’ and Czechs’ concerns that the New START II will hamper the construction of an anti-missile shield and will weaken NATO. “American defence policy in Europe needs to be consistent,” said Tusk.

He also said he had not spoken with Obama about the stationing of Patriot missiles in Poland, with the addition of 100 American troops, scheduled to arrive this year.

Poland is firmly in the Western-backed camp with membership in NATO and the EU. 

The country's elite back any and every role in the U.S. anti-missile shield.

That will remain a very sore point in relations between Poland and Russia. 

The two countries coming together now to grieve, however, will, unfortunately, likely only be a blip in their turbulent ties.
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