Monday, April 12, 2010

Poland: Plane tragedy - Poles ponder implications for political landscape

By Anna Zamejc

Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Poles Mull Political Implications Of Plane Tragedy

As Poles mourn the loss of their president and scores of the country’s top civilian and military leaders in a plane crash on April 10, they are only just beginning to ponder the implications for Poland’s political landscape.

Commentators say the full repercussions of the tragedy – an unprecedented decapitation of the country’s political elite -- are still unclear.

Instead they dwell on the extraordinary nature of the situation -- one that "stretches the limits of the imagination," as Polish constitutional expert Ryszard Piotrowski put it to Polish Radio TOK FM.

President Lech Kaczynski and other top political, military, and financial figures, including the country’s military chief and central bank governor, were among nearly 100 people killed as their plane crashed on approach to Smolensk in western Russia.

Early Presidential Election

Most immediately, the tragedy means a new presidential election will be brought forward -- within 60 days -- though it was scheduled for October this year anyway.

But much else is still uncertain, says Robert Mazurek, a journalist with the Polish daily “Rzeczpospolita” and political weekly “Wprost.”

He notes that the dead included two of the men who were expected to run in the election -- Jerzy Szmajdzinski, of the leftist opposition, and Kaczynski, who was supposed to be the candidate of the Law and Justice party.

“Within two weeks we will see who will join the presidential race. We have lost two vital candidates -- the candidate of the left and the candidate of the Law and Justice [party]," Mazurek says.

"Right now we do not even know who will run in the election in Poland that is due to take place within two months. Without answering this question, we cannot ponder over the political future of Poland."

The death of Kaczynski -- along with aides and lawmakers -- is a blow for the Law and Justice party, which has been flagging in the opinion polls way behind Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform.

Some commentators have speculated that the outpouring of sympathy could give a boost to Law and Justice, headed by Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw.

But Mazurek says the tragedy just as easily could bolster its opponents.

“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," Mazurek says.

"But on the other, 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.”

Rafal Chwedoruk, a political scientist from the University of Warsaw, told Radio TOK FM he expected a muted election campaign, saying “all political elites will be taking an exam for which no one prepared them.”

“There is no room for a normal election campaign. Who will care, bother to conduct it?” he said. "Perhaps some little campaigning will appear in the last weeks in the run-up to the election, perhaps only in the runoff.”

Interests As Usual

Commentators say the tragedy should not have any impact on Poland’s political stability.

The office of president is mostly ceremonial with the government -- headed by Prime Minister Tusk -- holding most power.

And Mazurek says not much should change for Poland’s neighbors in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“Poland is a member of the EU, NATO and nobody will question that. Poland has its own interest and some kind of mission in the east and all the candidates share this view,” he says.

"Polish foreign policy won’t change, economic policy will not change or if it does, it will change in a minimal way. There will be no unexpected, abrupt shift in the history of Poland. The only change is that the people have passed and new ones will come.”

Kaczynski’s plane crashed as he and other officials were heading to a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacres, when Soviet secret police executed more than 20,000 Polish officers and others on the orders of Josef Stalin.

The ceremony was to have followed one last week at which Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- in what was seen as a signal of reconciliation -- became the first Russian leader to join his Polish counterpart for a Katyn commemoration.

After the tragedy, Russian leaders led condolences, announced a day of mourning, and Putin was among those who laid flowers at the crash site.

All these actions will not pass unnoticed, says “Gazeta Wyborcza’s” Moscow bureau chief, Waclaw Radziwinowicz. But he tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service the crash will not fundamentally affect Russian-Polish relations.

“Of course, emotions will eventually subside, everything will return to a normal life, but I am deeply convinced that these gestures of compassion, all that we see now, the Poles will not forget,” he says. “That will stay in the mind -- that these were complicated, terrible days, and then Russia, Russians behaved this way, and not in another way.”

Russian opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov says there are too many persistent problems nagging at relations.

In addition to Katyn, he says they include Poland’s opposition to the Nord Stream pipeline project -- just launched -- that will carry Russian gas to Germany, as well as Poland’s support for NATO's further enlargement to include Georgia and Ukraine.

“For a short time, perhaps, maybe weeks or months, this terrible tragedy will minimize the differences and create an impression of greater trust, of warmer relations,” Ryzhkov tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

“But in the long term, I think interests will remain interests, and little will change. I think in general, the Russian-Polish differences will remain roughly at the same level as before.”

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