Warsaw, Poland – Three years ago, a plane carrying Poland’s president and a delegation of high-level officials crashed in Russia, killing 96 people. The political fallout from the disaster continues to reverberate through Polish society.
President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and many of the country’s political and military elite perished in the crash in Russia’s western city of Smolensk on April 10, 2010. The delegation was on its way to commemorate the 1940 massacre of thousands of Poles by Josef Stalin’s secret police in Katyn forest, near Smolensk.
Two official investigations have been carried out – one by Russia and one by Poland – that said the Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft’s demise was an accident caused by pilot error in heavy fog.
But a growing number of Poles – about 33 percent according to a recent poll – say they “take into consideration” the possibility that the president was assassinated. Conspiracy theories suggesting an explosion brought the plane down have gained momentum in recent months, mostly among President Kacynski’s supporters, and continue to polarise the Polish electorate.
“Among the most important unresolved issues which burden the Russian-Polish relations are issues concerning the Smolensk aircraft crash.“
– Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, deputy foreign minister of Poland
Fuelling the theories is the fact that Russia has not turned over the wreckage of the downed airliner. Moscow says it has not yet completed its investigation, and will return the debris to Poland when it does.
“Among the most important unresolved issues which burden Russian-Polish relations are issues concerning the Smolensk aircraft crash, particularly the return of the plane’s remains to Poland,” Deputy Foreign Minister Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz said earlier this month.
“The foreign ministry believes the delay of almost three years is ungrounded.”
The disaster remains on the minds of many Poles, as researchers continue to probe the incident. In March, a Warsaw court reopened an investigation into the civil responsibility for the disaster, after a June 2012 decision to suspend proceedings. Another military investigation is also underway.
Underscoring the political chasm over the issue, separate ceremonies were held on Wednesday with Prime Minister Donald Tusk leading official commemorations at a military cemetery in Warsaw, and the main opposition, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski – the fallen president’s twin brother – at the presidential palace with hundreds of supporters.
Tusk said he hoped “the day would come when this sad, tragic anniversary of the Smolensk tragedy would not divide Poles”.
Fuelling conspiracy theories
According to the March public opinion poll, 51 percent of Poles agree with the two official investigations carried out so far – that pilot error was to blame for the 2010 crash.
|Twin brothers Lech Kaczynski, right, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in August 2005 [EPA]|
However, more than one-third of respondents said foul play involving Kaczynski’s political rivals, Russian intelligence agents, or both working together, may have been responsible. That’s up from 25 percent when the same question was asked in June 2012.
Distrust of Russia among Poles runs deep because of historical wrongs committed, including occupations of the country both after World War II and in the 19th century. Kaczynski was a vocal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and had denounced Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia.
About 200 demonstrators surrounded the Russian Embassy in Warsaw on Tuesday, vociferously accusing Putin of involvement in the plane crash.
“They murdered our president, they murdered the Polish elite,” said Jerzy Szarwark, who was selling pin badges outside the embassy – one with a photo of the wreckage and the words, “Putin knows – but we don’t.”
Putin, meanwhile, said a Russian investigation committee still looking into the disaster would put to rest all questions surrounding the crash.
“We must offer objective answers to any questions that will be posed by our and Polish public. It’s a task for the investigation committee and I’m going to talk to them about it,” Putin was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
Politics is also contributing to the rise of conspiracy theories about the plane crash, observers say.
Kaczynski’s brother Jaroslaw, now chairman of the main opposition Law and Justice party, has publicly claimed sabotage brought down aircraft.
Macierewicz told Al Jazeera the probe had uncovered evidence that two explosions brought down the aircraft. “The catastrophe took place earlier in the air, caused most likely by two explosions. The basic information presented by the Russian and Polish investigators is not true,” he said.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski denounced both the Russian and Polish investigations, and helped set up a parliamentary committee of scientists and investigators led by chairman Antoni Macierewicz, a long-time legislator and Kaczynski ally.
Macierewicz, however, failed to provide the evidence when asked for it.
“The parliamentary committee has not taken any steps to identify the potential perpetrator. At this stage of the investigation we do not want to indict anybody,” said Macierewicz.
However, a new report published on Wednesday by the committee seemed to suggest Russian involvement.
“It turns out that … Russian intelligence services decided which firms and when Poland’s most important planes would be overhauled,” Macierewicz said in the report.
Other researchers told Al Jazeera there was no evidence that an explosion downed the aircraft.
“The Polish committee did not find any evidence to confirm the explosion theory,” said Eng Maciej Lasek, chairman of the State Commission Investigating Aircraft Accidents.
Another independent researcher – Professor Pawel Artymowicz from the University of Toronto – agreed. “My work confirmed the conclusions of the Polish committee [that no explosion occurred],” he said.
‘Strategic’ political move
Political scientist Olgierd Annusewicz said political division between the ruling Civic Platform party, led by Prime Minister Tusk, and the Law and Justice party heightened in 2006, and then “grew after the Smolensk plane crash”.
“It has to be taken into consideration that in case of such tragedies, there will be always people trying to prove that the truth was different than the official version.“
– Tomasz Lenz, Civic Platform party
“Polish society is divided on a few levels,” Annusewicz told Al Jazeera. “Small conflicts that divided Polish society until 2010 gained a new dimension after the tragedy. In this sense we live in a polarised society.”
Initially, the crash united Poles – with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to mourn the fallen president and top officials.
However, that unity collapsed after presidential elections in the summer of 2010, when Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost to the Civil Platform’s Bronislaw Komorowski, Poland’s current president.
“Kaczynski announced that not involving the issue of the Smolensk crash plane in his political campaign was a mistake, and has begun to use it in his political rhetoric. This started the political polarisation,” said Annusewicz.
The Civic Platform’s Tomasz Lenz accused the Law and Justice party of using the plane crash to score political points.
“The Law and Justice party reinforces the Smolensk tragedy to fuel Poles’ distrust regarding their own country,” Lenz told Al Jazeera. “Top officials from all political parties have died in this tragedy … This party is using that tragedy for its political aims.”
He also denounced the assassination theorists.
“It has to be taken into consideration that in case of such tragedies, there will be always people trying to prove that the truth was different than the official version,” said Lenz. “The same situation applies to the Smolensk catastrophe.”
Professor Annusewicz also said raising the assassination issue was a “politically strategic move”, but added it wasn’t just the Law and Justice party to blame for the political discord bubbling in the country.
“Both parties do not communicate with each other,” Annusewicz said. “The opposition considers the government a traitor in every sense of the word, while the ruling party considers the opposition as people who lost their minds. There is a risk that if the politicians will not change their behaviour, the average people will stop communicating with each other as well.”
And, he said, the strategy by the opposition appears to be working.
“More and more Poles are increasingly suspicious about the causes of the plane crash,” said Annusewicz. “Assassination theories repeated multiple times will ingrain on people’s minds and become probable.”