Following the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s victory in the 2015 elections, conspiracy theories resurfaced in Poland about the 2010 Smolensk crash, which killed President Lech Kaczyński, the brother of the new ruling party’s chief, Jaroslaw Kaczyński. EurActiv Poland reports.
[This article was updated to include a statement by the Federation of Katyn Families]
The sixth anniversary of the crash that shocked Poland six years ago was observed on Sunday (7 April) with a commemorative event.
While the ceremony stopped short of implying that the crash was actually planned, the suggestion was clear to Poles and observers of Polish politics.
The Federation of Katyn Families, which represents the victims of the crash, drew attention to what it describes as “an impartial and independent review” of the previous official Russian and Polish investigations which concluded at the time that the crash was a simple accident.
Led by Frank Taylor, a British aviation expert, the alternative inquiry concluded to “serious omissions and deficiencies” in the official investigations and called for a further inquiry “of all aspects to the Smolensk crash”.
The association also drew attention to “leading air accident investigators in Sweden” who, they claim, “discovered a raft of serious discrepancies in previous official investigation reports and cited concrete grounds for a further investigation”.
The association also cites satellite images suggesting that some items of wreckage were moved during the day of the accident or the day after. Frank is cited in the Brussels Times news website saying he found no explanation for this, adding fuel to the conspiracy theory.
That kind of rhetoric has been characteristic of Polish authorities since PiS came to power in 2015.
This year, following its assumption of office, the party has leveraged its control of government media channels to drive home its own views about what actually happened in Smolensk.
Official investigations, led by Polish and Russian teams, have concluded that there is no proof that the crash was anything else than an accident. Recently released recordings from the last 38 minutes of the flight have tended to reinforce that theory.
The official investigation, conducted before PiS came to power, concluded that Smolensk airport was unprepared for landings in foggy weather, and that the pilots were pressured by the high-ranking passengers to land anyway, causing the plane to crash.
Suspicious of this conclusion, the new government in Warsaw wanted to form another committee to investigate the crash, and called on Frank Taylor to lead the team. Taylor is described by the Katyn association as a former Director of Safety & Air Accident at Cranfield University where he remains a Fellow.
“The Polish Government is fully justified to proceed with a new investigation of the Smolensk Crash and has found fully accredited international air accident investigators to assist with its efforts,” said a spokesman for the Federation of Katyn Families in an email to EurActiv.
Emotions and suspicions
Many Poles sympathise with that view, as shown by the thousands who attended the commemorative events in Warsaw.
There are several reasons for this, the most important being related to the location of the crash.
Kaczyński was heading to Russia to visit Katyn, the site of the murder of 22,000 Polish soldiers by the Soviet NKVD, in 1940. Crashing en route helped get Poles in touch with the trauma of the Soviet period, and appealed to anti-Russian feelings which remain strong in Poland.
Given its nationalist dimension, the Smolensk crash remains a perfect foil for Law and Justice to resurrect the notion that Russia is Poland’s enemy, and that PiS is best placed to lead the country’s relations with Moscow.
The assassination theory
Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz is especially fond of using the word “assassination” in reference to Smolensk. He has a long history of engagement in Polish politics and has gravitated towards the Conservative Christian right ever since the transition to democracy.
A former counterintelligence official and government minister, Macierewicz has a long history of criticising his enemies for being “Soviet agents.” After he became Defence Minister in the PiS government, supporters of the assassination thesis went back in full force.
Both public media and state-owned companies were staffed with loyal supporters of PiS. Even seemingly apolitical companies, such as the Polish Security Printing Works, published advertising in their publications commemorating Katyń.
The other Kaczyński
Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński is also the twin brother of Lech and was deeply touched by the death of his brother in Smolensk.
Kaczyński has never called the crash an assassination, but he has suggested that for one reason or another, the previous government led by Donald Tusk is responsible for the crash – through criminal negligence, if nothing else.
Given Kaczyński’s control of his party and power in Poland, his views on the matter strongly influence his government and its supporters.
The government’s campaign promoting the commemoration of the Smolensk crash suggest that Law and Justice wants to use its remembrance to further consolidate its power, blaming the opposition Civic Platform party for what happened.
The Civic Platform party’s former leader, Donald Tusk, is currently in Brussels holding the European Council Presidency. Tusk’s term will end before the next elections in Poland and could be tempted to run against PiS and return the Civic Platform back to power.