PBS News Hour: Poland Begins Delicate Political Rebuilding After Deadly Plane Crash

PBS – May 3, 2010

After the devastating air crash that killed Poland’s president and many other top officials, Ray Suarez talks to the country’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, about receiving the tragic news, the country’s political future and emerging international relations challenges.

Transcript

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: Poland tries to rebound from its latest national tragedy, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: The funeral of Poland’s president last month was still another reminder for millions of Poles that fate seems to conspire against their country.

The day president Lech Kaczynski, victim of an air crash in foggy weather, was buried, another accident of geography turned against the nation. Scores of world leaders, including President Obama, were diverted from the state ceremonies because ash from an Icelandic volcano grounded flights over much of Europe.

One leader who did make the trip to Krakow was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a tangible sign perhaps of a thaw in Russian-Polish relations brought about by the crash. From the first news of the crash, Russia’s leaders and people were quick to express sympathy and show their concern.

The sad irony was this: The doomed plane, carrying the president, his wife, and scores of top officials, was heading to a ceremony marking one of the bitterest moments between Poland and Russia, the World War II murder of 20,000 Polish officers and soldiers by Russian secret police.

Only recently have Russia’s leaders more openly acknowledged their country’s role in the killings at Katyn. More than 20 years since the end of Soviet communist domination, there are constant reminders Poles still live in a dangerous neighborhood, marked by tensions with Russia.

In neighboring Ukraine, a former Soviet republic locked in tense relations with Moscow, fistfights broke out in parliament last week over proposals for Russian access to Ukraine’s ports.

And even in Poland’s new alliances with the West, all is not smooth. Polish relations with the Obama administration remain delicate since Washington’s decision last year not to go ahead with missile defense elements planned in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Joining us is Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski. He’s a former defense minister, also an author and journalist. He was a political exile in England and studied there in the 1980s.

Minister, welcome.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI, Polish Foreign Minister: Hello.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we ended there with a picture of President Obama. How would you describe relations with the United States at this moment? How important an element was that withdrawal of the missile battery from your soil?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Polish-American relations are solid. And we have many projects in common.

Poland is the sixth largest contingent out of 46 ISAF nations in Afghanistan. And despite what your intro stated, the M.D. project wasn’t canceled. Its configuration has been changed. And we rather like the new version better than the previous one.

RAY SUAREZ: You were the member of the Polish cabinet who got the call when that jet went down carrying your president, terrible information to receive. How long was it before you realized the extent of the loss?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: My first information was that the plane crashed, but didn’t explode. So, there was room for doubt and for hope that maybe they just lost a wheel.

But then I got a direct connection to our ambassador, who — who managed to get himself on to the scene and — and saw the wreckage. And there was no chance that anybody was alive. So, I was — had to alert the prime minister. I had to tell the speaker of parliament that he was, as of then, acting head of state.

And I had to get the emergency services going, so that we could start the process of repatriating the bodies and starting the funerals. I also had the unenviable task of informing the twin brother, the leader of the opposition, that the president, with whom he had spoken by sat phone only half-an-hour earlier, had died.

RAY SUAREZ: This is terrible news for any nation, but Poland is a relatively young state, not in its existence as a culture, not in Poles’ existence as a nation…

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Well, we have been around for about 1,000 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Right — but, in your new political dispensation, still a young state. This must be a terrible blow.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Our constitution stood the test. The transfer of power was smooth, and the logistical operation, which was considerable, including the — the visit that you showed of several dozen foreign delegations, was smooth as well.

Poland was actually on a psychological upswing recently. We are the only country that grew last year by 1.8 percent. We are, for the first time in our history, extending assistance to other European countries that have been — that have been affected by the financial crisis. So, this tragedy was — was really a shock and a reminder of earlier times that we thought had — had been confined to the past.

RAY SUAREZ: So, you’re describing a poised, mature system, but you have also just plunged into a new political campaign. Is this another test of your maturity as a state?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: We have a campaign. As the constitution states, we need to elect a president within two months. But I think it will be quieter and more dignified than it would otherwise have been, because we were going to have this presidential campaign this year anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: How has this experience, from the time of the crash to today, changed the relationship, changed the way your country speaks to Russia?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Well, the Russian authorities didn’t try to hide anything, were open and very helpful.

And I think that, coupled with the fact that Prime Minister Putin three days earlier came to Katyn, and — and felt the horror of that place, and acknowledged Russian guilt, that is beginning to — to thaw emotions on both sides, because, just like our reconciliation with Germany, the reconciliation with Russia, which we wish for, has to be based on respect for the facts.

And that’s the only way to overcome the fear that some people still have felt in those relations. So, these are hopeful signs. I think it will be important, not just for Poland, but primarily for Russia and for the world, if Russia were to fully de-Stalinize its historical memory, its historical consciousness, because I think great countries have the capacity to acknowledge not only the good things that happened in their history.

So, we hope that Russia treads that path.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of analysts, both in your country and writing from E.U. member states, have talked about Poland’s recent embrace of Europe, its increased stature in NATO — and you mentioned the role in ISAF — and this new closeness with Russia as all being a sort of declaration of independence from the United States.

Is that really the case, that, if you move toward one, you move away from the other?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: No, I don’t think so.

The United States was very helpful to us when we liberated ourselves from communism, when we made the transition from a command economy to — to the free economy, and in our aspirations to join institutions of the West, OECD, WTO, and, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

There is the security relationship, but there is also a potential industrial investment relationship. Poland likely sits on rather large deposits of unconventional gas. And — and we hope that this will become a Polish-American venture.

RAY SUAREZ: What does that mean, unconventional gas?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: It’s shale gas…

RAY SUAREZ: Ah.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: … that you have explored in the U.S., very successfully. And — and, apparently, there — well, there are companies that are prospecting for it in Poland right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, thanks for joining us.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: Poland tries to rebound from its latest national tragedy, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: The funeral of Poland’s president last month was still another reminder for millions of Poles that fate seems to conspire against their country.

The day president Lech Kaczynski, victim of an air crash in foggy weather, was buried, another accident of geography turned against the nation. Scores of world leaders, including President Obama, were diverted from the state ceremonies because ash from an Icelandic volcano grounded flights over much of Europe.

One leader who did make the trip to Krakow was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a tangible sign perhaps of a thaw in Russian-Polish relations brought about by the crash. From the first news of the crash, Russia’s leaders and people were quick to express sympathy and show their concern.

The sad irony was this: The doomed plane, carrying the president, his wife, and scores of top officials, was heading to a ceremony marking one of the bitterest moments between Poland and Russia, the World War II murder of 20,000 Polish officers and soldiers by Russian secret police.

Only recently have Russia’s leaders more openly acknowledged their country’s role in the killings at Katyn. More than 20 years since the end of Soviet communist domination, there are constant reminders Poles still live in a dangerous neighborhood, marked by tensions with Russia.

In neighboring Ukraine, a former Soviet republic locked in tense relations with Moscow, fistfights broke out in parliament last week over proposals for Russian access to Ukraine’s ports.

And even in Poland’s new alliances with the West, all is not smooth. Polish relations with the Obama administration remain delicate since Washington’s decision last year not to go ahead with missile defense elements planned in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Joining us is Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski. He’s a former defense minister, also an author and journalist. He was a political exile in England and studied there in the 1980s.

Minister, welcome.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI, Polish Foreign Minister: Hello.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we ended there with a picture of President Obama. How would you describe relations with the United States at this moment? How important an element was that withdrawal of the missile battery from your soil?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Polish-American relations are solid. And we have many projects in common.

Poland is the sixth largest contingent out of 46 ISAF nations in Afghanistan. And despite what your intro stated, the M.D. project wasn’t canceled. Its configuration has been changed. And we rather like the new version better than the previous one.

RAY SUAREZ: You were the member of the Polish cabinet who got the call when that jet went down carrying your president, terrible information to receive. How long was it before you realized the extent of the loss?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: My first information was that the plane crashed, but didn’t explode. So, there was room for doubt and for hope that maybe they just lost a wheel.

But then I got a direct connection to our ambassador, who — who managed to get himself on to the scene and — and saw the wreckage. And there was no chance that anybody was alive. So, I was — had to alert the prime minister. I had to tell the speaker of parliament that he was, as of then, acting head of state.

And I had to get the emergency services going, so that we could start the process of repatriating the bodies and starting the funerals. I also had the unenviable task of informing the twin brother, the leader of the opposition, that the president, with whom he had spoken by sat phone only half-an-hour earlier, had died.

RAY SUAREZ: This is terrible news for any nation, but Poland is a relatively young state, not in its existence as a culture, not in Poles’ existence as a nation…

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Well, we have been around for about 1,000 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Right — but, in your new political dispensation, still a young state. This must be a terrible blow.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Our constitution stood the test. The transfer of power was smooth, and the logistical operation, which was considerable, including the — the visit that you showed of several dozen foreign delegations, was smooth as well.

Poland was actually on a psychological upswing recently. We are the only country that grew last year by 1.8 percent. We are, for the first time in our history, extending assistance to other European countries that have been — that have been affected by the financial crisis. So, this tragedy was — was really a shock and a reminder of earlier times that we thought had — had been confined to the past.

RAY SUAREZ: So, you’re describing a poised, mature system, but you have also just plunged into a new political campaign. Is this another test of your maturity as a state?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: We have a campaign. As the constitution states, we need to elect a president within two months. But I think it will be quieter and more dignified than it would otherwise have been, because we were going to have this presidential campaign this year anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: How has this experience, from the time of the crash to today, changed the relationship, changed the way your country speaks to Russia?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Well, the Russian authorities didn’t try to hide anything, were open and very helpful.

And I think that, coupled with the fact that Prime Minister Putin three days earlier came to Katyn, and — and felt the horror of that place, and acknowledged Russian guilt, that is beginning to — to thaw emotions on both sides, because, just like our reconciliation with Germany, the reconciliation with Russia, which we wish for, has to be based on respect for the facts.

And that’s the only way to overcome the fear that some people still have felt in those relations. So, these are hopeful signs. I think it will be important, not just for Poland, but primarily for Russia and for the world, if Russia were to fully de-Stalinize its historical memory, its historical consciousness, because I think great countries have the capacity to acknowledge not only the good things that happened in their history.

So, we hope that Russia treads that path.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of analysts, both in your country and writing from E.U. member states, have talked about Poland’s recent embrace of Europe, its increased stature in NATO — and you mentioned the role in ISAF — and this new closeness with Russia as all being a sort of declaration of independence from the United States.

Is that really the case, that, if you move toward one, you move away from the other?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: No, I don’t think so.

The United States was very helpful to us when we liberated ourselves from communism, when we made the transition from a command economy to — to the free economy, and in our aspirations to join institutions of the West, OECD, WTO, and, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

There is the security relationship, but there is also a potential industrial investment relationship. Poland likely sits on rather large deposits of unconventional gas. And — and we hope that this will become a Polish-American venture.

RAY SUAREZ: What does that mean, unconventional gas?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: It’s shale gas…

RAY SUAREZ: Ah.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: … that you have explored in the U.S., very successfully. And — and, apparently, there — well, there are companies that are prospecting for it in Poland right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, thanks for joining us.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Thanks.

PBS – April 12, 2010 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/europe/jan-june10/poland2_04-12.html

Transcript

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we are joined by Andrew Nagorski, author and former Warsaw and Moscow bureau chief for “Newsweek.” He is now vice president of the EastWest Institute an international affairs think tank.

And, Andrew Nagorski, you heard the former Polish President — President Lech Walesa say, “We lost great people, and it will be hard to replace them.”

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How hard? Is Poland managing today, when it has lost such a large group of its elite?

ANDREW NAGORSKI, vice president, EastWest Institute: It’s — it’s — it’s managing, but it’s very painful. The mourning which is going on is huge. It was such a shock to the system, if you can imagine that sort of group of people in this country going down in Air Force One, and maybe on their way to something like the 9/11 site, which has that added symbolic value.

For Poland, what happened in Katyn, where — the destination of this plane, was just as emotional, even more so. But I think what we have to say is that, amid the mourning, there has been a — a tremendous resilience shown by the Polish people and a system which is, after all, a democratic system only created 20 years ago, after the collapse of communism, is showing that it’s functioning.

Every step of that system is functioning — an acting president. Now there’s an acting head of the central bank. They are — people are being replaced, and new elections are coming up. And there’s a sense, I think, already of quiet pride that they are managing with this terrible tragedy.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that the system is only 20 years old. Is there a deep enough group in leadership so that these positions in a fairly young system could be filled quietly, easily and with competent people?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Not easily, but I think they will find competent people.

I think there have been a lot of people who have — who have risen in the last 20 years. And, remember, also, Poland had a struggle for freedom for the previous 20 years, at least, but especially in the ’80s, that helped nurture a new generation of leaders who, at first, when they went into the opposition largely and were part of things like the solidarity movement, didn’t imagine that they would ever be running the country.

But, by running an underground movement, an opposition movement, they learned the tactics of politics, forced a change in the system, and then learned to manage the new system. And I think we’re going to see a lot of new faces coming up. There will be gaps, of course, but I think the Poles have shown that they can manage both the politics and the economics, by the way, quite well.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that the ill-fated trip was to a commemoration of the Katyn massacre. This was a part of a very slow process of normalizing relations with its giant neighbor, Russia.

How could this accident affect Polish-Russian relations?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Oddly enough, the legacy — there may be — out of this tragedy, there could be two good things that happen, if you can call them good things.

One, the Poles always felt a tremendous amount of frustration that — about the lie about the Katyn massacre. During the communist days, the Soviet Union and the Polish communist rulers insisted on the lie that this was a massacre perpetuated by the Germans, who had not yet even invaded the Soviet Union at that time.

So, even though everybody in Poland knew who really was responsible, they — the official line was that lie. And it’s been painful to try to get the Soviet Union and then Russia to finally acknowledge that.

It began to change — this began to change in the ’90s, and gradually, in recent years, changed some more, although there was certainly some back — backsliding, as Putin tried to airbrush some of that history.

This time, there’s been a lot more acknowledgment of what happened. And even a Polish film about the Katyn Forest massacre, an extremely powerful feature film, was shown on — on — on Russian television recently. And Putin did attend a memorial with the prime minister of Poland a few days before this tragedy.

And I think the dignified way in which Russia has dealt with the tragedy, issue — having a day of mourning, being very respectful of what’s happened, and helping the families as they identify the remains, has impressed the Poles. And a lot of the old Polish-Russian enmity, of course, won’t disappear right away, but there is hope that this will begin to — to clear the air and allow for a new, more — more cooperative spirit to enter the relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Very briefly, Andrew Nagorski, you mentioned the dignified response from Russia. Is it also more open? You used to work in this country as a reporter. Is it possible to find out more about these things than it once was?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Oh, absolutely.

I mean, the — the press is still — still has a lot of controls, but there has been — on this issue, there’s been much more open discussion on the issue of simply the crash itself, the conditions.

There’s been — there have been immediate cooperation with the Polish authorities. In the past, of course, everything would have been shrouded in — in secrecy, and which would have — would have created all sorts of conspiracy theories.

Now, the fact of this openness and this willingness to at least deal with and try to get to the facts, and then also acknowledge the underlining — underlying tragedy that — that brought these people to — to Smolensk in the first place, has diminished those conspiracy theories. There always are some, but they’re far fewer.

And I think — I think, as long as the Russian authorities continue to behave this way, I think there will be far less of this kind of climate of suspicion that has usually shrouded these sorts of events.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Nagorski, thanks for joining us.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Thank you.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/europe/jan-june10/poland_05-03.html

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