WARSAW (Reuters) - Poles mourned on Sunday their former president and 95 others killed in a plane crash one year ago, but their commemoration was marred by political divisions and anger with Russia over the removal of a memorial plaque.
President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria, and a sizeable chunk of Poland’s military and political elite died on April 10, 2010, when their plane crashed in thick fog while trying to land at Smolensk in western Russia.
Poland’s worst disaster since World War Two revived historic suspicions about Russia, its former Cold War master. It also deepened a rift between Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centrist government and the right-wing opposition party of Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw, who blamed Moscow and Tusk for the crash.
Kaczynski shunned Sunday’s official commemorative ceremonies attended by Tusk and President Bronislaw Komorowski, going instead to a separate church service and performing his own wreath-laying ritual in front of the presidential palace.
Thousands of supporters cheered Kaczynski, waved white and red Polish flags and shouted anti-government and anti-Russian slogans, branding Tusk a “traitor” for seeking better ties with Moscow. Some in the crowd scuffled with riot police.
Many Poles are angry that Russia’s official report into the causes of the crash pins all the blame on the Polish pilots and absolves the Russian ground staff of any responsibility.
A recent poll shows a majority of Poles feel there has still not been an adequate explanation of what happened.
“We want the truth (about Smolensk). Without that truth we will not be the Polish nation,” Kaczynski said at the launch of a new movement dedicated to preserving his brother’s memory.
Kaczynski hopes the patriotic emotions unleashed by Sunday’s anniversary will fire up his campaign for Poland’s parliamentary elections, due in October.
Tusk’s pro-business, pro-European Union Civic Platform is expected to win, but some opinion polls show Kaczynski’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) narrowing the gap.
Last April, Lech Kaczynski’s party had been heading to Katyn forest near Smolensk to honour 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals murdered by Soviet forces in 1940.
President Komorowski will visit the Smolensk crash site and the Katyn memorial on Monday with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev. He is expected to raise the issue of a memorial plaque that has exacerbated Poles’ sense of grievance against Russia.
A Polish-language plaque, erected at Smolensk by families of the crash victims, described how Kaczynski’s party died while trying to mark the 70th anniversary of “the Soviet crime of genocide against prisoners of war, Polish army officers”.
But to the fury of the families, Russian authorities replaced it on Saturday with a much shorter text, in both Russian and Polish, that omits all mention of the Katyn massacre and refers only to the plane crash.
“This is a slap in the face for Poles. It shows how the Russians view Polish-Russian reconciliation,” said Zuzanna Kurtyka, a widow of one of the officials killed in the crash.
Andrei Yevseyenko, a spokesman for Smolensk’s governor, said Poland had previously agreed to the removal of the original sign and its replacement with a bilingual plaque. He said it was not necessary to mention Katyn on a plaque at the site of the crash.
The original Polish plaque will be transferred to a museum at Katyn dedicated specifically to the 1940 massacre, he said.
Polish media suggested Komorowski may not now lay flowers at the site on Monday as a mark of protest, though his adviser said he expected a solution would be found.
“The Polish diplomats preparing the visit will manage to cope with this problem in such a way as not to wound Polish hearts,” said Tomasz Nalecz, Komorowski’s chief adviser.
“I believe the presidents will discuss the incident sincerely in a good atmosphere and with good results.”
Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Smolensk; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Sophie Hares