EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The recent process of reconciliation between Poland and its historical foe, Russia, has stalled after Polish leader Donald Tusk threatened to call an international enquiry over the Smolensk plane crash.
“If talks do not yield a joint position we will take recourse to international institutions. I hope that there will be no need to take recourse to the arduous and potentially long-lasting international appeal procedures, but the Polish side will consider all the possibilities which are given by the Chicago Convention if need be,” Mr Tusk said on Thursday (13 January) in Warsaw after breaking his holiday to hold a special press event.
The Chicago Convention is a 1947 international treaty governing who should do what in the event of an air crash.
Under the terms of the convention, Russia took sole custody of the initial probe into the April 2010 air disaster in Smolensk, near the Belarus-Russia border, which claimed the life of former Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 other top-level Polish officials and relatives.
Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee published its findings on Wednesday, causing shock in Poland, after it put all blame on Polish pilots and said a half-drunk Polish general, Andrzej Blasik, made matters worse by trespassing in the cockpit and bullying the airmen to land in bad weather.
Many Russia-wary Polish politicians and commentators, not least the late president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and his daughter, Marta Kaczynska-Dubieniecka, have been pleading for an international probe ever since the crash took place.
The tragedy, which happened on a symbolic anniversary in a symbolic place – the Katyn memorial for over 20,000 Polish officers murdered by Soviet forces in 1940 – stirred deep-rooted fears that Russia may even have caused the crash to again hurt the Polish elite.
At the same time, an extravagant show of grief by the Kremlin propelled forward an ongoing process of diplomatic reconciliation after decades of Polish bitterness over Soviet-era crimes.
“The difficult process of building better relations between Poland and Russia has been going for many months. Both sides have shown courage … The catastrophe built an atmosphere of solidarity and gave hope, after the wave of empathy, that even such a terrible catastrophe could help in the building of these positive relations,” Mr Tusk said at the press event on Thursday.
“We want an objective relation of events which led to the catastrophe … The circumstances, and maybe also the causes, but certainly the circumstances of the catastrophe were also the [poor condition of the] Russian airport, the control tower and the behaviour of controllers,” he added, with a Polish report based on Russian-gathered evidence due later this month.
Mr Tusk, whose Civic Platform party faces general elections by October, is walking a political tightrope on the Smolensk situation.
On the one hand, he has staked his reputation on closer ties with Russia both at home and at the EU level, where Poland is keen to shed its Russophobe image and to team-up with France and Germany on deepening EU defence integration during its tenure as the EU presidency in late 2011.
On the other hand, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s opposition Law and Justice party has attacked him for cozying-up to the Kremlin in a message which still resonates in the belly of Polish society.
Mr Kaczynski, in remarks cited by the Polish Press Agency on Thursday, focused on the allegedly drunk General Blasik. He noted that there could not have been a real toxicology test on his body because it was found 11 days after the crash. “In short, there is no shadow of proof for us to believe in this kind of allegation,” he said. “Knowing Russia, but even if it was another country, if they say something but don’t give documents, it means they are lying.”
Ewa Blasik, the general’s widow, accused Russia of exploiting the events for the sake of propaganda. “The Polish government should protect the dignity of Polish officers and the dignity of my husband. It should protect them especially in a situation where they can not do it for themselves,” she said.