Poland Mourns

A View from Warsaw

Polish Consulate in Sydney
Poland Mourns : A View from Warsaw - Monika Noniewicz


On April 10, 2010 Lech Kaczynski, the President of Poland, his wife and dozens of top government officials were killed in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia. Poland's army chiefs of staff, deputy Foreign Minister and central bank governor were among the 96 passengers on board. The delegation had been flying to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which an estimated 22,000 Polish POWs were executed by the People's Ministry of Internal Affairs (NKVD ). Ironically, some on board the plane were relatives of the officers slain in the Katyn massacre. Bologna Center's Monika Noniewicz interviewed Agnieszka Lada, the Head of the European Program at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, Poland, about the implications of the crash.

We hear a lot about the symbolic dimension of the tragedy. What are the ramifications for the Polish political scene?

First of all, we lost our president, so Poland is now facing a snap presidential election. Every election is an organizational challenge and entails rivalry between different political parties. Two big parties lost their candidates as well as very prominent members who were therefore considered as possible candidates. As far as the organizational aspect is concerned, parties now have to get a certain number of signatures in support of their candidates to officially register them for running. The question arises; will smaller parties have enough time to organize? Is the electoral law in Poland inherently biased against smaller parties? Another issue is the fact that many other important positions have to be filled in. Apart from the president, there were many people on board of the plane, like the head of the central bank, the head of the National Security Bureau, the Commissioner for Citizens' Rights, etc. Temporarily, their deputies have taken over, but these positions will have to be filled in permanently. Different rules apply to how they are nominated. Candidates for some of these posts are picked by the president, who we do not have at this point. We also need to have an election for the Senate in three regions. Due to the death of a number of MPs the activity of several parliamentary commissions has been severely disrupted. We lost three speakers of the Polish parliament. It will take time for new people to be appointed and get accustomed to their duties. All of that has a potentially destabilizing effect on the smooth functioning of state institutions, which needs to be reigned in. But what must be underlined - Poland has passed this test - all the institutions are functioning really well, there is no institutional or political crisis. It shows that the Polish democracy, albeit still young, is stable.

What is the biggest challenge for those who will be taking over after their tragically deceased colleagues?

It always takes time to get settled in any position. In this case, the transition is particularly abrupt. We also need to take into account that it is taking place in an atmosphere of utter shock, and emotions experienced by those involved definitely play a role in the smoothness of the transition. There is also the issue of whether the deputies who came into their new positions in these extraordinary circumstances will feel that they are legitimate in their new roles. They are well aware of the transiency of their tenure, they know they could soon be replaced, and this awareness may not be conducive to an effective fulfillment of their duties. Another thing is that they may be concerned over whether those who will eventually replace them on a permanent basis will not question the decisions being made now. And finally, they may also be facing a dilemma whether to honor the national mourning or get straight to work. So far, however, all of the people who already assumed their new duties are working really well.

A lot has been said about the breakthrough in Polish-Russian relations fostered by the recent tragedy in Smolensk. What is your view on this?

There is a lot of symbolic meaning to it. We must remember that the crash happened three days after another commemoration event took place, in which both PM Tusk and Putin participated, and already that was widely commented on. Putin is said to have shown a lot of good will. Right now, in the aftermath of the accident, we not only see a lot of matter-of factly assistance on the part of Russia, but also ordinary Poles feel that the Russian people are genuinely sympathetic of their plight, and that can definitely bring the two nations closer together.

Would a breakthrough in Russian-Polish relations have any impact on EU-Russia relations?

EU institutions are definitely observing Russia's reaction right now as well as the thaw in Polish-Russian relations, which may eventually improve Russia's image in the EU. Russia could be perceived as a country that can pass the test it was faced with. Its institutions will be seen as working effectively. On the other hand, Russia for some time now seems to be more and more aware that Poland's position in the EU is growing stronger. For this reason, Russia is trying to improve its relations with the Polish state. In the long run, however, economic issues will be of paramount importance, but there can be no doubt that Polish Russian relations are entering a new phase so the EU-Russian relations will also not be the same as before 10 April 2010.