The Smolensk Disaster: New Revelations and Old Accusations

Candles in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw, April 2010. Source: Agence France-Presse

Candles in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw, April 2010.
Source: Agence France-Presse

by Stanley Bill

Five years after the Smolensk plane crash that killed Polish president Lech Kaczyński, new transcripts from the flight recorder have emerged, potentially offering new insights into the disputed cause of the disaster. Notes from Poland looks at these new revelations and the continuing politicization of a national tragedy by both sides of the ideological divide against the broader background of Poland’s Eastern policy before and after the Ukraine crisis.  

On 10 April 2010, the Polish Air Force Tupolev Tu-154 carrying the presidential delegation to the ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre crashed into the forest just short of the runway in Smolensk, Russia. Among the 96 victims were President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, 18 members of the Polish parliament, Solidarity hero Anna Walentynowicz, high-ranking military officials, the president of the National Bank of Poland, members of the Catholic clergy, and relatives of the Polish army officers murdered by the Soviets in the forest at Katyn seventy years earlier.

The uncanny resonance of this tragedy with the tragedies of the past has given the event an almost unbearable symbolic weight, dividing Polish society between believers and non-believers in a creed of Russian foul play and Polish government collaboration. This week, on the anniversary of the crash and with presidential elections on the horizon, a leaked transcript presenting new analysis of the flight recorder has brought the Smolensk catastrophe back into the headlines in Poland.

Five years after the event, there is still no broad consensus on why the presidential plane crashed. The official Polish government report, released in July 2011, largely blamed pilot error, though – unlike the earlier Russian report – it also pointed to inaccurate information supplied by Russian air traffic control and irregularities at the airport (more recently, the military prosecutor’s office has even issued charges against the Russian controllers for contributing to the disaster). The opposition party, Law and Justice (PiS), led by the deceased president’s twin brother Jarosław, rejected both reports, making repeated accusations of a Russian plot and a treacherous cover-up by the Polish government. The party established its own parliamentary commission to investigate the crash, assembling a team of scientists who have presented evidence suggesting that multiple explosions on board the plane had caused the crash.

In turn, the ruling party, Civic Platform (PO), has accused PiS of hysteria and cynical politicization of the catastrophe. This consistent message has formed the basis of a successful political strategy. PO won the last parliamentary elections in part because more Poles believed their version of events, viewing the crash as a tragic accident and rejecting the PiS narrative as paranoia or political opportunism. Nevertheless, almost a quarter of the population still believes in the assassination theory, while many more feel that the truth may never come to light.

Today, as every year on the anniversary of the disaster, anti-government protestors gathered in the centre of Warsaw to remember the victims and express their anger at the supposed perpetrators in the Kremlin and in the Polish government. Jarosław Kaczyński addressed the crowd in front of the presidential palace, attacking his political opponents and insisting that the Polish state could never be strong without “the truth about Smolensk.” Earlier in the day, the Archbishop of Łódź proclaimed from the altar that this “truth” was laboring to break through “the tangle of lies.” The latest Polish tragedy on Russian soil continues to confound and divide.

New Revelations

Source: smolensk.eu

Victims of the Smolensk crash, 10 April 2010. Source: smolensk.eu

On 7 April 2015, three days before the present anniversary, Polish radio station RMF FM published leaked new transcripts from the Tupolev cockpit flight recorder. The transcripts are the result of the latest analysis of the flight recordings conducted by experts working for the Polish military prosecutor’s office. On April 9, the prosecutor’s office responded by releasing the full transcript with its own accompanying analysis, so as to clear up the “imprecise information” circulating in the media. In fact, there do not appear to be significant differences between the two versions, though the expert commentary is sometimes more cautious in establishing the identity of certain speakers. This is the fourth analysis of the recordings, following earlier versions released in the official Russian and Polish reports, and later by the Polish military prosecutor. The new transcripts include 30-40% more comprehensible words than previous versions, thus shedding more light on what unfolded in the cockpit before the crash.

The vastly improved interpretation is the result of a new copy of the recording made by Polish experts on a special trip to Moscow. The earlier transcripts were all based on a single copy made by the Russians, which the current Polish experts now regard as a faulty transfer (raising questions about the competence of the earlier Polish investigators, who failed to pick up this problem). But what does the expanded transcript reveal? Perhaps nothing astoundingly new, though it corroborates and strengthens earlier theories of pilot error and undue external influence on their decision making.

Here we should immediately ask who leaked the transcript to the media now (before the crash anniversary and so close to the presidential elections) and why. So far, those responsible have not been identified – they will face prison terms if caught – and we can only speculate on whose interests the leak may serve. Above all, the new transcript would seem to undermine the PiS narrative of suspicious circumstances or an assassination, so one imagines that the party’s opponents would not find its release displeasing. 

Lieutenant General Andrzej Błasik. Source: PAP

If the transcript is authentic, it exposes a chaotic atmosphere on the flight deck, showing that the pilots were under pressure to land in spite of poor visibility caused by heavy fog. Specifically, the transcript reveals the presence of Commander of the Polish Air Force Andrzej Błasik in the cockpit until the flight’s final moments, as well as earlier interference from Director of Diplomatic Protocol Mariusz Kazana. The pilots repeatedly ask for silence and instruct passengers to return to their seats, but these requests are apparently ignored. Błasik remains on the flight deck, and even appears to involve himself in the landing process.

In fact, suggestions about Lieutenant General Błasik’s role in the catastrophe had emerged earlier in the Russian and Polish official reports. The Russian report even suggested (contrary to the evidence) that he was under the influence of alcohol. Yet later analysis of the flight recording by the military prosecutor in 2013 indicated that he was not in the cockpit at all, thus exonerating him of any suggestion of improper interference in the pilots’ operations. His widow, Ewa Błasik, and her supporters in PiS and the conservative media – who had always rejected the accusations – declared that his name had been definitively cleared. The new transcript reverses this finding once again.

Below I quote key excerpts from the new transcript in literal English translation (I have made no attempt to clarify obscure or ambiguous sentences). I have used the edited version published by RMF FM for ease of reference, but I have removed the editor’s tendentious interpretations of certain statements and cross-checked with the official version released by the military prosecutor. The contents of the transcript may be disturbing to some readers.

8:26:18 – conversation between the captain of the plane and the director of diplomatic protocol:

Sir, the fog’s come out at the moment,” says the captain, “And in the current conditions we won’t be able to land. We’ll try to approach; we’ll make one approach, but probably nothing will come of it. Please think about the decision on what we’re going to do.”

We’re going to keep trying until we succeed,” replies the director of protocol.

Umm, we don’t have enough fuel to do that,” says the captain.

Well, then, we have a problem!” says the diplomat.

[. . .]

8:40:07 – the first TERRAIN AHEAD! alarm sounds, preceded by a bang. In the cockpit a conversation ensues.

Somebody’s messed up here,” says one of the members of the crew just before the TERRAIN alarm begins.

You’re saying goodbye!” says the co-pilot.

No, somebody will cop it for that,” says the captain.

I-de-as!” says the Commander of the Air Force.

8:40:21 – the crew of the descending plane monitors the altitude reading [in meters].

2-8-0,” reports the co-pilot.

300!” the navigator corrects him.

We don’t have to be precise,” says a member of the crew.

You’ll fit easily,” says the Commander of the Air Force.

Two seconds later, he adds: “230.”

8:40:33 – second TERRAIN AHEAD alarm.

8:40:38 – third TERRAIN AHEAD alarm, obscuring the words of one of the crew members: “It’s not going to come off.”

8:40:41 – fourth TERRAIN AHEAD alarm.

8:40:42 – PULL UP alarm.

TERRAIN AHEAD and PULL UP alarms sound together; it’s loud in the cabin.

8:40:48:

Maniacs,” says an unidentified voice in the cockpit. The plane is at 100 meters.

Bring it in more slowly,” advises the co-pilot.

Altitude drops to 90, then 80 meters.

We’re aborting,” says the co-pilot.

Altitude is still falling: the navigator announces 70, then 60 meters.

Good,” says somebody in the cockpit at 8:40:52.

The navigator continues to report falling altitude: 50, 40, 30…

The PULL UP! alarm continues to sound.

At “50” the air traffic controller instructs the flight to level out: “Horizon, 101.” He repeats the instruction after “30,” this time in a raised voice.

8:40:54 – the recording registers a light impact on the fuselage.

20” screams the navigator.

8:41:00 – in the cabin can be heard “a noise consistent with damage to the plane’s structure in a collision.”

Fucking hell!”

PULL UP!

PU! [Alarm cut off]

[Very loud destruction of the plane’s structure]

Abort and go around!” [Air traffic controller (in Russian)]

[Low scream]

[High scream]

Oh Jesus!

Fuck!

[Short, very strong impact cut off with the end of the recording]

[Loud bang]

 

Politicizing a Tragedy

Russian soldiers at the crash site. Source: Associated Press

The original Polish government report of 2011 suggested that the pilots were subject to “indirect pressure,” which clouded their decision making. Large sections of the mainstream Polish media, including journalists for Gazeta Wyborcza and Polityka, have interpreted the new transcript as strong confirmation of this diagnosis. Indeed, if the transcript is authentic, it would be difficult to reach any other conclusion. The pilots seem intensely aware that time is running out for the president and other passengers to make it for the scheduled Katyn memorial ceremony. A high-ranking diplomat repeatedly implies that, one way or another, they must land at Smolensk. Meanwhile, the Commander of the Polish Air Force is hovering behind them, offering unsolicited advice, while various unidentified people wander in and out of the cockpit’s open doorway throughout the last minutes of the flight. There is even an unknown person drinking beer on the flight deck. The whole scene is terrifyingly disorganized, and the pilots’ mounting anxiety is evident from the transcript.

Yet other sections of the Polish media – including the conservative Gazeta Polska, Fronda and Nasz Dziennik – have questioned the veracity of the new transcripts, or even followed the head of PiS’s parliamentary commission, Antoni Macierewicz, in dismissing them as false or fabricated. At the same time, the relatives of certain victims of the crash, led by Ewa Błasik, have demanded an international investigation, insisting that “the Polish state has compromised itself.” Others, including opposition leader Jarosław Kaczyński, have reiterated the assassination theory, pointing to a book just released by German investigative journalist Jürgen Roth. The book supposedly reveals that an anonymous German intelligence operative has confirmed the possibility of Smolensk being an attack. According to Roth’s thesis, Smolensk is just one part of a broader Russian “policy of deception” that includes the Ukraine crisis and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. He argues that the whole truth may never come out, since both the German and Polish governments have good reasons for suppressing it.

Jarosław Kaczyński speaking at the fifth anniversary commemoration in Warsaw, 10 April 2015. Source: PAP

From an outsider’s perspective, the most striking aspect of the whole Smolensk saga has been the political instrumentalization of this terrible tragedy by both sides of Polish politics. PiS has constructed a hagiographical legend around the figure of Lech Kaczyński, inflating his achievements as president and drawing strongly on the symbolic vocabulary of Polish Romantic nationalism, with its preoccupation with death and messianic sacrifice. Jarosław Kaczyński has often seemed obsessed with proving that his brother’s death was not an accident, and at times the “Smolensk question” has formed the very foundation of his party’s policy platform and the source of its most passionate support. Ultimately, this has been destructive to the party’s electoral chances, as the majority of Poles have remained unconvinced by the assassination theory and the insinuations of Polish government collusion with Putin.

The unhealthy focus on Smolensk has prevented PiS from being the strong alternative party that Poland needs. Indeed, a credible opposition to hold the government to account is especially important given the length of PO’s tenure in office (eight years – an unprecedented term in post-communist Poland), along with questions about its ability to maintain Poland’s strong economic performance, and a string of political scandals.

PO has taken full advantage of the tragedy, stoking the electorate’s fears of a PiS government by presenting Jarosław Kaczyński as a raving lunatic and a danger to the country. Instead of focusing their attention on developing dynamic policy to deliver the structural reforms that Poland still desperately needs, PO has preferred to run exclusively negative campaigns, sharpening the division between what President Bronisław Komorowski has called “the rational Poland” and “the radical Poland.” Komorowski’s slogans of “concord” and “security” for the upcoming presidential elections reflect a complete vacuum of ideas and the complacent assumption that PiS can be defeated simply by raising the ghosts of Smolensk.

The Polish political scene has become a creative wasteland, just when the country needs politicians of vision to support its recent economic and social achievements, which have been driven by domestic small- and medium-sized businesses, European integration and a rising civil society. Both parties are to blame for the formation of this wasteland, and the Smolensk catastrophe has played a baleful role in the completion of a polarizing process that began when PO and PiS failed to negotiate an expected coalition back in 2005.

The Weakness of the Polish State

But what are we to make of the new transcripts from the flight recorder of the doomed Polish Air Force Tu-154? What really happened that morning? Many Poles – especially those in the PiS camp – have already made up their minds, and little is likely to change them. So how can Poland move forward from here?

Man mourning at the crash site in Smolensk. Source: The Guardian

Man mourning at the crash site in Smolensk.
Source: The Guardian

First of all, it would be worth looking more closely at the general weakness of Polish institutions and thinking about how to strengthen them. However we interpret Kaczyński’s death, something went terribly wrong on 10 April 2010, as Robert Krasowski points out: “The death of the president was a violation of the natural order. Presidents don’t die in air catastrophes. [. . .] In recent decades, death in a plane has met the leaders of such countries as Burundi, Rwanda, Botswana, Mozambique, Panama, Ecuador, Madagascar and Togo. Poland finds itself in an elite club of states for which the transport of the head of state from A to B is too complicated a task.” If the president’s death was an accident, then more difficult questions still need to be asked about the functioning of the military, the president’s office and several government ministries.

Secondly, I would tend to agree with Ewa Błasik, the widow of the Commander of the Polish Air Force whose alleged presence in the cockpit may partly have caused the disaster. An entirely independent investigation, preferably conducted by institutions based outside Poland and Russia, would be desirable, as the previous investigations have all been compromised in one way or another.

The Russian report is filled with inconsistencies, and, unsurprisingly, exonerates Russian air traffic control from all responsibility. The Polish official government report offers the least tainted account, but one might still point to potential conflicts of interest and methodological problems (for instance, the use of a substandard copy of the flight recording). In any case, irrespective of the true circumstances of the investigation, a significant proportion of the Polish population will never give credence to any report produced by the current government or the military prosecutor, so such a report is unlikely to build the greater consensus the country needs on such an important issue as the untimely death of a president.

If the work of the military prosecutor is potentially open to question, then the investigations of the PiS parliamentary commission are compromised beyond any shadow of doubt. Antoni Macierewicz has led a circus of grandstanding innuendo, leaping from one theory to another with his conference of largely non-specialist experts, the vice-chairman of which was forced to resign after admitting to lying about the evidence on television. Today, on the fifth anniversary of the disaster, he has repeated his claims about explosions and Russian responsibility, even going so far as to suggest that Russian aggression against Ukraine could never have taken place without the prior elimination of Lech Kaczyński. According to this interpretation, Smolensk was “the first salvo directed against peace in Europe.”

A truly independent (perhaps international) commission would not convince everybody, but it might convince some. More importantly, it might have a better chance of getting at some uncomfortable truths. After all, the conditions of the official government investigation were far from ideal. It may well be too late to shed any further light on exactly what happened at Smolensk (especially since the key facts are probably already known), but a new investigation might tell us more about Russia’s shoddy treatment of the material evidence and the Polish government’s weak response.

The wreckage of the presidential plane in Smolensk. Source: smolenskcrash.com

The wreckage of the presidential plane in Smolensk.
Source: smolenskcrash.com

For instance, it is an embarrassment for the PO government that it has failed to obtain the wreckage of the plane, or even the black boxes, from Russia. In general, the Polish leaders showed a lack of resolution and insight, taking a conciliatory tone as the Russians created antagonistic obstructions at every turn, perhaps even intentionally destroying evidence. Images of Russian soldiers breaking up the wreckage of the Tupolev with crowbars did not inspire confidence, and to this day the remains of the plane are lying on the tarmac in Smolensk, exposed to the elements, while the black boxes are in Moscow. Perhaps the leaders of the Polish government were laboring under illusions regarding Russian intentions, as they unsuccessfully pursued a broader normalization of relations with Russia, or perhaps it was simply not in their political interests to press the Russians to ensure a proper investigation. Either way, they are presumably under no illusions today, after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis and the subsequent disintegration of Polish-Russian relations.

Poland’s Eastern Policy

The new political reality in Eastern Europe is sobering. In the light of recent events, is there any possibility that the Polish “conspiracy theorists” might have been right all along? Could the Russian security apparatus or a Russian oligarch really have assassinated the president of a European state? There is not a shred of evidence to corroborate this hypothesis, and it remains far-fetched for the simple reason of the missing motive for such a risky enterprise. Admittedly, Lech Kaczyński was no friend of Russia, but he was also an unpopular and largely ineffectual president, who – according to various polls – was almost certain to be voted out of power later in 2010. The idea that killing the Polish president was the founding act of a grand Russian plan to annex Crimea, attack eastern Ukraine and shoot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 remains fanciful, to say the very least.

Nevertheless, one thing we can say for sure with the benefit of hindsight is that Lech Kaczyński was right about the Kremlin. Putin probably did not have the Polish president killed, but Kaczyński’s suspicions of Russian geopolitical intentions in the post-Soviet sphere have turned out to be justified. However chaotic his personal style, Kaczyński’s stand on the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, and his efforts to forge an alliance of former Soviet Bloc countries against Russian aggression, look increasingly far-sighted today.

President Lech Kaczyński in Tbilisi, August 2008 Source: onet.pl

President Lech Kaczyński in Tbilisi, August 2008.
Source: onet.pl

Images of President Kaczyński standing on a stage in Tbilisi with the presidents of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are especially powerful after the recent annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine. On that evening in August 2008, he condemned Russia’s territorial revisionism in powerful and principled language: “[Our neighbor to the east] believes that the nations around it should submit. We say: no! That country is Russia! That country believes that the old times of the empire that fell less than twenty years ago are returning. They believe that domination will be the stamp of this region. It will not! Those times have finished once and for all!”

While Kaczyński pushed for an eastern alliance against Russian power, the PO government policy driven by Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski increasingly looked to normalize relations with Russia, even after the Georgian war, while strengthening ties with Germany and placing much less emphasis on Ukraine and the Baltic states. There were sensible reasons for pursuing this policy at the time, but in hindsight it turns out to have been a mistake. Russia demonstrated its contempt for Poland in the results of the Smolensk investigation and its refusal to return the presidential plane. Since then, Polish-Russian relations have practically fallen apart in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Sikorski’s eastern strategy has collapsed, while Kaczyński’s idealistic vision of a coalition of the weak against the strong – as flawed as it may be – looks increasingly relevant today.

Anti-government protestors in central Warsaw, April 2012 Source: gazeta.pl

Anti-government protestors in central Warsaw, April 2012.
Source: gazeta.pl

The Smolensk controversy will never entirely fade away. Whatever the conclusions of future investigations, some will always believe in the assassination theory. The power of the uncanny conjunction of symbolism (Katyn, anti-Russian sentiment, the atmosphere of “Solidarity,” Poland’s “culture wars” between traditionalists and centrists) is simply too overwhelming. One can only hope that the scale of the current divisions might diminish with time. Sikorski and Tusk made serious mistakes in their approach to Russia both before and after the Smolensk crash, but the attempt to normalize relations was a reasonable (though highly debatable) policy at the time, and there is no evidence to suggest that they did not have Poland’s interests in mind. PiS must stop demonizing PO as a party of traitors and murderers, and PO must stop demonizing PiS as a party of lunatics who have no right to participate in politics.

The conflict between Poland’s two major parties must shift from the nauseating politicization of a national tragedy into the realm of ideas for the country’s future: how to position Poland in the brave new international reality, how to tackle the country’s crippling demographic crisis, how to cut down the unnecessary bureaucracy that hinders business and people’s everyday lives, how to foster the creativity and innovation required to build the strong and distinctive Polish brands that will lift the economy to the next level. Regrettably, it is hard to see this shift taking place in the near future, as the specter of Smolensk has become too deeply embedded in the political strategies of both parties.

Whatever happened on Russian soil five years ago, the bitter political disagreement we see today only makes the country weaker. The Kremlin almost certainly did not kill Lech Kaczyński, but it can only profit from the deep disunity his death has brought to Poland.

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2 comments

  1. latajacysamowar

    This is by far the most insightful account of the Smolensk disaster that I have read so far. It seems impossible to achieve this level of objectivity, fairness and respect (for both sides) from an insider’s perspective (which is a shame, but I believe that one day we’ll get there). I hope all the media in Poland are now begging you for the permission to reprint it 🙂

  2. Pingback: Liberal, secular and gay: Poland’s unlikeliest – and most interesting – rising political star | Notes from Poland

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