04/12/2010, 00.00
RUSSIA – POLAND
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Relations between Moscow and Warsaw at risk over airplane crash near Katyn

by Nina Achmatova
The two countries are cooperating in the inquiry to determine the cause of the accident, but too many ghosts from the past haunt their relationship. President Medvedev has Katyń, a hitherto banned movie about a wartime massacre of Poles, shown on Russian TV. The Russian Orthodox Church expresses its solidarity. In the meantime, the two countries continue negotiations on energy cooperation.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – Many in Russia are wondering whether the airplane accident in Smolensk that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and many members of Poland’s political, economic and military elite will accelerate the rapprochement between Moscow and Warsaw or stop it in its track.

Kaczynski was a staunch conservative, an anti-Communist nationalist who was not particularly happy to see Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk improve relations with Russia. His tragic death is partly related to this difference. As head of state, he chose not to participate in the remembrance ceremony for the Katyn massacre held last Wednesday and attended by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

That service was greeted by many as a first move towards a thaw in relations. On that occasion, Putin squarely spoke about Stalin’s crimes. However, for Kaczynski that was not enough. For him, it was still too little, too late because Moscow had neither asked for forgiveness, nor declassified all the documents collected during the investigation into the massacre. It had also refused to call the massacre a war crime. Russian-Polish relations were thus far from ideal. For that reason, he was travelling on 10 April to Katyn Forest, where Stalin had members of the Polish intelligentsia shot by the thousands, and then blamed it on the Nazis.

Cooperation in the inquiry

As the investigation into the disaster gets underway, all eyes are now on Moscow. Putin, who will personally supervise the commission investigating the crash, said the inquiry would be meticulous and transparent. The logistical centre for the investigation is being set up in Moscow. Both flight recorders were recovered and are now being examined in the Russian capital. For the time being, technical problems have been ruled out as the cause of the crash. Investigators are focusing instead on the decision by pilot of the presidential plane to land at Smolensk’s small Severnyj Airport despite low visibility and against the advice of air traffic controllers.

Polish authorities opened their own investigation into the incident. Russian analysts quoted in Russian media, like the daily Moscow Times, said that cooperation in the investigation might favour the rapprochement between the two countries.

Since foreign policy is a prerogative of the Polish prime minister, and not the Polish president, Poland’s international stance should not change.

Polish experts believe that the thaw between Poland and its big neighbour should slowly continue, especially after pro-Western leaders were defeated in Ukraine’s elections in February.

Concerns and interests

The Kremlin cannot however stand on its hands. For the Unia & Polska Foundation, if questions about the air crash should remain, bilateral relations might take a turn for the worse.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is concerned about the tragedy’s impact on Russia’s image. Some believe that he is preparing a speech to the Polish nation and is prepared to be more forthcoming on the Katyn Massacre. In the meantime, he has cancelled celebrations for Cosmonautics Day, which falls today, a very popular festivity in Russia since it marks the anniversary’s of the first manned earth orbit by Yuri Gagarin.

Riding the wave of emotions elicited by the tragedy, Russian state TV broadcast Katyń, a 2007 movie about the massacre that had been largely ignored in Russia.

Following the incident, the Russian Orthodox Church has also expressed its sorrow for the victims and solidarity towards their families.

Archbishop Miron Chodakowski, Orthodox Ordinary of the Polish Army, and Mgr Tadeusz Płoski, Catholic Bishop of the Military Ordinariate, were among the passengers travelling on the presidential plane when it crashed.

For Moscow, the stakes are high. Not only does it have to be sensitive in honouring and paying its respect to the victims of the air tragedy, but it must also try to avoid irritating Warsaw at a time when it is involved in energy negotiations. Gazprom is in fact close to a deal with its Polish counterpart that would see Russia become Poland’s only supplier of gas and oil.

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