Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Polish premier’s ill-fated trip shrouded in acrimony

The ill-fated journey that wiped out Poland's governing elite on Saturday was prompted by an angry feud between President Lech Kaczynski and his Prime Minister over the country's tense relationship with Russia, it has emerged.

As the body of the 60-year-old President, who died along with 95 senior religious, political and military figures, lay in state and Poland struggled to come to terms with its worst national tragedy since the Second World War, details of the political acrimony that preceded the disaster surfaced in Warsaw.

A constantly changing crowd now gathers in front of the city's white stucco presidential palace where the pavements have disappeared under an ocean of flowers, flickering candles in glass holders and photographs of the deceased President and his wife, Maria.

Many queued for hours to sign a book of condolences. Jana Sokolowska, a 45-year-old office worker with three children, said she had taken the day off work to join the long line snaking into the palace building. “This is one of the saddest times for Poland and I wanted to show my solidarity and sympathy with all the relatives of those killed in the crash,” she said.

A joint funeral will be held on Saturday at the earliest.

Details emerged in Warsaw of the background to the President's fatal flight to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by Soviet forces.

Sources said Mr Kaczynski and many in his entourage on board the doomed Tupolev were dissatisfied with attempts to effect a reconciliation over the 1940 massacre at a special ceremony in Katyn on Wednesday called by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin, a former KGB agent, had invited his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, to attend a special ceremony of remembrance.

But the soft-glove handling of that event by Mr Tusk tried the patience of the Polish President, who had not been invited. He resolved to fly to Katyn himself three days later in the company of his political allies in defiance of Mr Putin. “They wanted to hold their own ceremony in Katyn to give the anniversary the importance they thought it deserved but felt had been denied by Russia,” a source close to the President's office said yesterday.

President Kaczynski and members of his right-wing Law and Justice party felt they had been snubbed by Russia. They were also irritated that Mr Tusk, leader of the liberal Civic Platform party, had been allowed to take credit for Wednesday's ceremony. But even more galling was the fact that Mr Putin had failed specifically to apologise or address the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn and had simply referred to “victims of Stalinist terror” during the ceremony and that Mr Tusk had apparently failed to take his Russian counterpart to task over it.

“Moscow is sabotaging attempts to give a proper historical account,” said Andrejz Przewoznik, the general secretary of Poland's State Council for National Memorials. “There was no breakthrough on Katyn,” remarked Aleksandr Szczyglo, president of the Polish National Security Council. Both men were on the plane and were killed in the crash.

Mr Kaczynski had a long history of rivalry with Mr Tusk. The two even argued about who was entitled to use Poland's official Tupolev 154 plane, which crashed on Saturday.

There was also speculation in Poland yesterday that President Kaczynski was so determined never to set foot in Moscow before extracting an apology from Mr Putin that he may have personally intervened and ordered the 36-year-old pilot of the Tupolev not to divert to the Russian capital but to land in Smolensk — despite repeated warnings by air traffic controllers at the tiny airport that the fog made conditions too dangerous to attempt a touch down.

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