IN MEMORIAM: Hours after the news of the deaths of Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski and those aboard his April 10 flight to Smolensk, people started placing flowers in front of the Polish embassy in Sofia.
It has been a time of deep-felt mourning for Poland and its friends around the world, with very few people willing to spare a moment to think or speak about the decisions the country must make after the tragic deaths of president Lech Kaczynski and those aboard his April 10 flight to Smolensk.
Most media reports highlighted how Russia joined in the mourning, neglecting – except in a few specialist cases – how keenly felt the emotions were in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
The prominence given to the role of Russia is understandable, however, given not only that it was the site of the crash, but the reason that the Kaczynski presidential aircraft was headed there; the deeply sensitive memory of the 1940 Katyn massacre committed by the Soviets against Polish officers.
On the long-troubled landscape of Polish-Russian relations, interpretations varied of the implications of the aftermath of the tragedy. The more optimistic commentators saw the outreach by prime minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders, the displays of compassion, as a literal Phoenix from the ashes; the more hard-eyed view was that at best, nothing more than a small step forward had been taken and that it is far too early to proclaim that the plane crash will bring a new turning point in reconciliation.
In considering the political future of Poland, there are some indisputable facts. Whoever is elected as Poland’s new president will succeed to a constitutional role with certain powers but not as head of government, a job held by prime minister Donald Tusk. The country is an unquestionably important member of the European Union, a strategically-important member of Nato and there is no substantial reason to expect significant changes to economic or domestic policies.
Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party lost the 2007 national parliamentary elections, which spelt the end of his now-bereaved brother Jaroslaw’s term as prime minister.
The polls had seen a downward curve for the party ahead of the presidential elections that, had not tragedy intervened, would have been held in October but now will be brought forward to the summer.
The crash also claimed the life of Jerzy Szmajdzinski, who had been expected to stand as the presidential candidate of the left-wing Democratic Left Alliance, although that party’s prospects had not been regarded as strong.
Bronislaw Komorowski, who as speaker of parliament has become acting head of state pending presidential elections, has been named in media reports as likely to stand as a candidate on a liberal platform, and even before Lech Kaczynski’s death, was being seen as having the potential to win.
Another name that has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate is that of prime minister Tusk. To a significant extent, Kaczynski and Tusk represented diverse approaches to the looming question of relations with Russia, with Kaczynski having represented a considerably firmer if not outright untrusting approach towards Moscow.
Tusk’s Civic Platform party has an additional boost in that it has overseen an economy that has done relatively well in the context of the global financial crisis that to varying degrees sent all other EU countries into recession.
It was no surprise that media reports have named Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a possible contender to succeed his late brother, with some commentators going so far as to liken this scenario to the hope that another brother would succeed the slain JFK. This was an especially sensitive question in a time difficult enough as it was, given the state of mourning of the surviving twin. Some, however, were bold enough to speak of a "sympathy vote" that could propel Jaroslaw into office as head of state, with commentaries in the Times of London among these.
Political analyst Radoslaw Markowski, quoted by euronews, said of Jaroslaw: "There are two possibilities, one that he will run for candidate, that will be supported by his party. The other, that he’ll withdraw from politics, I don’t believe in this possibility. There’s also the possibility that the party will try to search for a new candidate, but that will have less support".
RFE/RFL quoted Robert Mazurek, a journalist with Polish daily Rzeczpospolita and political weekly Wprost, as saying that "we can make a conjecture about how the ruling Civic Platform will get extraordinarily strengthened and could take over a lot of power without the necessity of winning the elections, but, we could speculate how their opponents from Law and Justice could win major support on the wave of all these emotions and sympathy that is flowing after the tragedy. But to be honest, these kinds of speculations do not bother the Poles now".
Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, told the Voice of America that, as people set aside politics to mourn, there was no sense of the institutions not working.
The dead on the aircraft included the deputy foreign and defence ministers, two deputy speakers of parliament, the head of the central bank, Poland’s military chief of staff, and its army, navy, and air force commanders. By April 11, acting military leaders had been named along with an acting central bank head, and the overall message was of continuity and control of the business at hand. With economic policy firmly in hand, there was reported to be no haste to name a new central bank chief.
For all that, it is in foreign policy matters that the question of relations with Russia will reassert itself, and that is not only in dealing with the traumatic memory of Katyn, but also in latter-day issues such as Nato expansion, energy issues and the overall balance of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.