Poland today marked the tenth anniversary of the Smolensk plane crash, in which President Lech Kaczyński and 95 others died, in muted fashion, as the measures imposed to mitigate the coronavirus epidemic prevented public events and kept most people off the streets.

But, as always with an issue that has become highly politicised and divisive, there was controversy too. In particular, politicians from the ruling camp were accused of violating the government’s own restrictions on public gatherings while commemorating the tragedy.

Meanwhile, the head of the government’s investigatory committee claimed, once again, that findings would soon be published proving that the crash was caused by an explosion and thereby dispelling the “propaganda of lies concerning Smolensk”.

Lech Kaczyński: “one of the most significant people in modern Polish history”

Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and Poland’s de facto leader, paid tribute to the late president in an interview on Polish Radio. He described his twin brother as “one of the most outstanding, most significant people in Poland’s modern history”.

The political right would be “lost and in pieces” without Lech Kaczyński’s contribution to Polish politics, said Jarosław. And the PiS party – which was founded by the Kaczynski brothers in 2001 – would be “nothing more than an idea”.

Jarosław Kaczyński claimed that his brother’s achievements as president came despite the “terrible governments” of the time led by the Civic Platform (PO) party, as well as the “industry of contempt” that he faced. His efforts “paved the way for 2015 [when PiS came to power]…and the politics that is successful today”.

By contrast, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki aimed for a more conciliatory note in a tweet marking the anniversary of the crash. “We experienced a national tragedy as a community. Today, in different circumstances, we also need unity,” appealed Morawiecki.

Controversial commemoration

In the morning, Kaczyński and Morawiecki were joined by a number of other officials, including the PiS speaker of parliament, in gathering at the Smolensk monument on Piłsudski Square in central Warsaw.

Photographs and television pictures showed that they appeared not to be abiding by the current restrictions limiting public gatherings to a maximum of two people and requiring that people remain two metres apart in public.

With many asking why the police had not intervened to enforce the law, Warsaw police responded by tweeting that the commemoration was not an official assembly under the terms of the law.

Rather, it involved individuals performing their tasks as part of their offices and functions, wrote the police. Many, however, pointed out in response that Kaczyński holds no public office other than being an MP.

Kaczyński and others also laid wreaths today at the graves of victims of the crash, prompting criticism from some commentators, who accused them of failing to set a good example.

Some cemeteries are currently closed due the epidemic, and funerals can be attended by no more than five people, excluding the person administering the service.

Members of the opposition marked the anniversary separately, laying wreaths at the plaque in the Polish parliament commemorating the disaster. They included Barbara Nowacka, an MP, whose mother Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, a former deputy prime minister, died in the crash.

Report proving “explosions destroyed the plane” ready but waiting

Meanwhile, the head of the government’s controversial Smolensk investigatory committee has once again promised that a final report on the causes of the crash – which would challenge previous official Polish and Russian investigations – is imminent.

“It is ready,” Antoni Macierewicz, who is also deputy leader of PiS and a former defence minister, told Catholic television station Trwam earlier this week. But due to “the coronavirus pandemic and Holy Week, it is likely that this report will be presented a little later”.

Macierewicz also repeated previous claims that the report would demonstrate that explosions caused the plane to crash, in contradiction to previous official findings. “Our analyses show that…the disaster occurred as a result of two explosions…that destroyed the entire plane and killed all those travelling on it.”

In another interview with Trwam today, Macierewicz even more explicitly argued that there has been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about Smolensk. “For ten years [we have been] living life under the propaganda of lies concerning Smolensk,” he said.

But “we will emerge victorious from today’s tragedy”, promised Macierewicz, who argued that the fact the tenth anniversary fell on Good Friday and amid an epidemic was a “sign”. It showed through “faith in salvation, Christianity and drawing on national tradition” Poles can “overcome problems…to rebuild our spiritual, economic, social and political life as based on truth”.

Macierewicz has been the leading figure in PiS’s efforts to claim that the Smolensk tragedy was not an accident, and instead to suggest that some kind of deliberate act and subsequent cover up took place. The PO government of the time, headed by Donald Tusk, as well as the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin are regularly accused of some kind of involvement.

The commission to investigate the crash – established by PiS in 2015 and led by Macierewicz – has over the years repeatedly announced that it is on the verge on proving what really happened. But so far it has failed to provide clear evidence challenging previous official findings that the crash was caused by pilot error and organisational deficiencies.

In 2016, Macierewicz said he would be presenting evidence “within the next month” proving that “Moscow decision-makers aimed to bring about the catastrophe”. Soon after, then foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski said that he had uncovered many documents raising suspicions about the actions of the PO government at the time of the crash and would release them soon. In neither case were the promises fulfilled.

Last year, Kaczyński said that the investigation had “made some findings along the way, but they were not announced, because it is better not to agitate the public”.

In 2019, however, Tusk’s former chief of staff, Tomasz Arabski, was found guilty of negligence for his role in organising the presidential flight to Smolensk. He received a ten-month suspended sentence, though an appeal is still pending.

Polls in recent years have shown that only a minority – albeit a substantial one – of Poles believe that the disaster was anything other than an accident. Just over a quarter (26%) think it was a deliberate attack, according to an Ipsos poll conducted in February for OKO.press. In the same survey, 59% said it was an accident.

But among those who intend to vote for the reelection of PiS-backed incumbent president Andrzej Duda, around half believed that the tragedy was caused by an attack.

Poland again demands Russia return wreckage

Meanwhile, Poland has renewed its demands for the return of the wreckage of the presidential plane, which has remained in Russia ever since the crash. The issue has long been a bone of contention.

Last year, Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz broached the subject in a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, notes Onet. And his ministry has now again appealed to Moscow, saying that “no norm of international law provides a basis for Russia to keep Poland’s property”.

“We have repeatedly pointed to the lack of basis for further retention of the wreck…and black boxes. They are Polish property, and their return is not just a legal obligation, but a moral one too,” Czaputowicz argued in 2018.

Main image credit: Adam Guz/KPRM/Flickr (under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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