Thursday, April 22, 2010

Europe view on Poland. Politics as normal?

Winners and losers
Apr 22nd 2010

Normal politics, and hard questions, loom in Poland

IN THE churches of Warsaw and other Polish cities, the funerals continue but questions are looming. Why were so many of the country’s top brass on the plane that crashed on April 10th, killing President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 others, including some of the country’s brightest and best military officers? Some of the relatives are, privately, furious. They say that their menfolk were ordered to travel to the Katyn memorial service as a backdrop for the launch of Mr Kaczynski’s re-election campaign.

Bosses often waste busy people’s time for reasons of their own. But every decision that led to the crash now looks questionable. The decencies of mourning mean that media and political opponents are behaving gently. But that won’t last, especially when an even bigger question is in the air: what made the pilot decide to try to land at fog-bound Smolensk? He could have landed at Minsk, which would have been safer but would have ruined the commemoration ceremony by making the president late.

Was that just the pilot’s decision? Did he have doubts? Was there any pressure from Mr Kaczynski? (In 2008 the president publicly berated a pilot for “cowardice”.) The answer may never be known. The cockpit voice recorder includes only the crew’s preceding 30 minutes of conversation; the decision to ignore an air-traffic controller’s suggestion to land at Minsk was made nearly 45 minutes before the disaster.

A third question is whether Mr Kaczynski deserved burial at the Wawel Cathedral in Cracow. That honour is normally reserved for Poland’s greatest heroes: the most recent to be buried there was Wladyslaw Sikorski, the country’s legendary wartime leader. Mr Kaczynski’s death was tragic. But he was a divisive figure, not an epitome of Polish greatness.

The answers to these questions may determine another: who wins the June presidential election. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin, could stand, perhaps buoyed by a sympathy vote. But his chances look fragile. If some of the blame for at least the scale of the disaster ends up falling on the late president, the Kaczynski legacy would look even flimsier.

Mr Kaczynski’s rival, Bronislaw Komorowski, is leading the opinion polls. In accordance with the constitution, Mr Komorowski, the speaker of the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) is already acting president. He should be a shoo-in. But his two public appearances since the crash have seemed wooden and unsympathetic. Some wonder if a cross-party candidate would be a good move, epitomising the new mood of national unity. But who? Despite the largely trivial political differences between the country's two main parties, Polish politics is sharply polarised.

Away from the backbiting world of domestic politics, the immediate question is whether Poland’s relations with Russia have been genuinely transformed or if the changes are just cosmetic. Some see realpolitik at work, assuming that Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, considers it worth making minor concessions over historical questions in order to fix relations with its large western neighbour, particularly given growing awareness of Poland's potential gas reserves. As for the Polish business lobby, profits in Russia loom larger than fiddly questions about history and justice.

The biggest question is about Russia. Openness about Katyn and Stalinist crimes against Poland inexorably leads to questions about the still greater crimes of the communists against Russians themselves. Pull on the thread of truth and all sorts of things will start to unravel. Why is the mass murderer Lenin, the author of the Red Terror, still venerated on Red Square? Answers on a postcard to Mr Putin.

No comments: