Monday, 12 April 2010
What next for decapitated Poland?
It’s safe to say the notorious Polish president Lech Kaczynski was not much-loved in Brussels. His fierce Euroscepticism and opposition to climate change efforts had made him public enemy number one here for awhile. But you wouldn’t know that from the way the EU capital is reacting today. EU flags are flying at half mast, virtually every EU leader has issued statements of shock and sadness, and a moment of silence was observed during today’s midday press briefing. Whatever disagreements existed between Kaczynski and Brussels, it seems to have been forgotten in the face of this shocking event.
The enormity of the crash cannot be overstated. Poland’s centrist prime minister Donald Tusk, a political enemy of the ultra-conservative president, is said to have burst into tears when he heard the news. He has described the crash as "the worst national political tragedy Poland has experienced since the second world war". It is extraordinary that so many top officials would be allowed to fly in the same plane, but that is apparently what happened here. The dead include the head of the National Security Office, the head of the central bank, the deputy parliament speaker, the deputy foreign minister and the army chief of staff.
Incredibly, this huge government delegation was flying to Russia for the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish prisoners of war in the village of Katyn. About 20,000 Poles were executed in the Katyn Massacre by the Russians during World War II, many of whom had been the top Polish government officials and intelligentsia during the interwar period. It was a Stalinist plan to castrate Polish resistance after the Russian annexation of half the country by eliminating anyone who could lead the country.
Relations between Poles and Russians are, to say the least, not very good. As soon as I heard about this crash I knew that probably half of the Polish population will suspect foul play by the Russians. The irony would be almost too much to bear – On their way to commemorate the massacre of the top Polish government officials by Russians 70 years ago, the top Polish government officials are again assassinated. It is far-fetched to believe that the Russians would ever carry out such a blatant act of political assassination, and all evidence seems to be pointing to pilot error. But it is not outside the realm of imagination for an ordinary Polish person who still remembers how his country suffered so grievously at the hands of the Russians for so long.
An election for a new president will need to be held in 60 days, but it’s hard to see how Polish society can pull itself together so quickly. Since their top luminaries have largely been killed, it is hard to see who from Kaczynski’s PIS party could run. It may end up being his twin brother, the former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The two were famous child actors (Poland's version of the Olsen twins, if you will) who grew up to lead the “Law and Justice” party, a right-wing group that grew increasingly popular over the past decade. The two have also been prominent symbols of Poland’s resistance to communism.
It’s hard to predict what will happen now politically in Poland. The Kaczynski twins had actually been falling heavily out of favour with the Polish public, who voted out Jaroslaw in 2007 in favour of the centrist, pro-EU Donald Tusk. With the party’s leadership decapitated, it could completely collapse altogether. But what seems more likely to me is that whoever runs as the PIS candidate in 60 days will get a large sympathy vote in Poland, especially if that candidate is Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The party could actually reverse its downward trajectory and rebound back into power, with Lech becoming a martyr for their cause. It’s anybody’s guess really.
But for now, all of Europe is still trying to grapple with the idea that an entire top level of a government can be killed in just one quick moment. It’s a frightening reminder of our mortality, that’s for sure.