Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Investigation Threatens Polish/Russian Relations

Last April a plane crash in Russia killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other dignitaries. The plane carrying Kaczynski and the others was attempting to land during a fierce storm at the city of Smolensk in western Russia to bring the delegation to a ceremony commemorating perhaps the darkest chapter in Polish-Russian relations: the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when thousands of Polish military officers were executed by the Russian secret police on the direct orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin at the outbreak of World War II. Ironically, Russia's heartfelt response to the air crash tragedy spurred a thaw in what had been frosty relations between the two countries, relations that had grown steadily worse since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But now Russia's official investigation into the causes of the crash are threatening to undermine those much-improved relations. Polish officials have reacted angrily to a draft of the report, which places the blame for the wreck squarely on the shoulders of the Polish pilots and senior officials aboard the presidential airplane. Russian aviation officials contend that the airplane never should have attempted to land during the storm, which featured strong winds and near-zero visibility. The plane lost a wing after striking a tree causing it to crash into the ground; the theory is that the pilots were trying to “duck” under the clouds to catch a glimpse of the runway. The portion of the report that has caused true outrage among the Poles though is a contention by the Russians that the pilots were pressured into trying to land by a senior air force official aboard the plane, Gen Andrzej Blasik so that President Kaczynski would not miss the Katyn memorial ceremony scheduled for the next day. A Russian autopsy indicated that Blasik had a blood-alcohol level of 0.06, suggesting that his judgment may have been impaired. To support their theory, Russian investigators offered an excerpt of a cockpit flight recording where one of the pilots reportedly said “this is mad”, which the Russians contend meant that the VIPs aboard would be mad if they were forced to turn away from landing in Smolensk.

You have to wonder though if it wasn't a commentary on the mere craziness of trying to land in the midst of such a storm. As you can imagine the Russian report is getting an angry reception from some in Poland; President Kaczynski's brother Jaroslaw called the report a “joke against Poland”, while Blasik's widow said it was “libel” of her late husband. The Poles also criticize the Russians for not closing Smolensk's airport due to the weather conditions, though the Russians note that the air controllers at Smolensk repeatedly told the Polish aircraft not to attempt to land. But there's also indication that cooler heads might prevail. Poland's current prime minister, Donald Tusk, said that while he felt the report did not go far enough in examining the causes of the crash, it was clear that a majority of the fault lies with the Polish aircrew's decision to try to land in the first place. He also said that a disagreement over the report would not be allowed to harm the much-improved Russian-Polish relations, a sentiment echoed by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
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