Poland: Opportunity in Tragedy
WASHINGTON -- This past weekend Poland said goodbye to President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and dozens of members of the political and military elite who died on April 10 in Russia's Katyn forest. As Poland begins to emerge from a period of national mourning, how is the country faring and what are the opportunities and challenges it now faces? The crash was a powerful blow to the Polish state. The president died along with the Polish army's chief of staff and most of the senior military leadership, the president of the Central Bank, the chief of the president's Chancellery, deputy ministers of defense and foreign affairs, parliamentarians, and many other senior officials. Yet, despite this shock, the country's institutions have continued to function.
As dictated by the Constitution, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, has taken over the role of president. The deputy president of the Central Bank has assumed leadership, calming the market, and military chiefs have been temporary replaced by their deputies. In other words, the system is working, without panic or chaos. Nonetheless, the June 20 presidential elections will show the true impact of the tragedy on Polish democracy. Will the shock of the crash lead opponents to rise above the usual bitter partisanship? Will they moderate their tone, for fear of being punished by disapproving voters? Whatever the tone, one thing seems certain: disagreements over the vision for Poland's future will continue. Acting President Komorowski is the candidate of Civic Platform, the center-right ruling party, in the upcoming elections. It was Komorowski who addressed the nation first after the disaster; he then quickly assumed the responsibilities of president. Reconciling the two roles of candidate and president will require some skill, but if he does it well, he will be hard to beat. The latest poll shows him more than 20 points ahead of the next candidate. As president, Komorowski would assert his independence but also collaborate with Civic Platform's government. President Kaczynski had planned to run as the candidate of the Law and Justice party, the main opposition. The conservative political group's only other natural candidate is his brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who could of course campaign as the torchbearer of Lech Kaczynski's legacy. Although Jaroslaw Kaczynski is a divisive politician, popular sympathy for his late brother now makes him formidable.
Mr. Kaczynski must decide soon whether to run. However, there is no doubt that the crash was a profound personal blow to him; in Warsaw, some speculate that he might take early retirement instead. The unlikely victory of Law and Justice's candidate would mean extended period of divisive cohabitation with a Civic Platform prime minister. Smaller parties will have a hard time competing in these elections because they will have only two weeks to collect the 100,000 signatures necessary to register their candidates. The third largest party, the Social Democrats, who also lost presidential candidate Jerzy Szmajdzinski in the crash, lack a natural candidate and might instead support an independent center-left candidate, Andrzej Olechowski. This tragedy has also done a great deal for Polish-Russian relations, with the Russian leadership making some very significant gestures. The Polish crash investigators have received full cooperation from Russia, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally oversaw the investigation. The Russian leadership also finally authorized the showing of the Andrzej Wajda's film Katyn, which truthfully and graphically depicts the murder in 1940 of 21,768 Polish officers by Stalin's secret police, the NKVD. This followed an already historic meeting between Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Putin in Katyn less than a week before the crash.
Finally, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev managed to come to Krakow for last Sunday's funeral, despite the volcanic ash that grounded many other leaders. In his speech at the funeral, Komorowski said that these gestures are "deeply appreciated, and accepted with an open heart and great hope." Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski even spoke of an "emotional breakthrough." Does all this already translate into better Polish-Russian relations? Not yet. Many divisive issues remain. But perhaps the default mode has moved from suspicion to gratitude and a beginning of trust.
Michal Baranowski is a Program Officer with the German Marshall Fund in Washington.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.