“The lofty pine is oftenest shaken by the winds; high towers fall with a heavier crash; and lightning strikes the highest mountain.” The words of Horace which remind us that accidents happen even to the highest in the land. Or, more prosaically, the words of Werner Herzog, ‘sometimes bad luck hits you like an ancient Greek tragedy, and it’s not your own making. When you have a plane crash, it’s not your fault.” And in the case of the crash of the Polish presidential plane in 2010, it certainly wasn’t Poland’s fault, it was Russia’s according to Polish prosecutors.
At a special press conference on Monday to sum up the work of Polish investigators looking at the causes of the crash which killed then Polish president Lech Kaczyński and 95 others, including top military and government officials, Deputy Prosecutor-General Marek Pasionek announced that prosecutors wish to charge two Russian air traffic controllers and a third person who was in the control tower at Smolensk airport with causing the accident intentionally. According to dziennik .pl, previously Polish investigators had aimed to charge the Russian air traffic controllers with deliberately bringing about the risk of an accident and unintentionally causing it. Unsurprisingly, the TASS news agency cited a Kremlin spokesman as saying that the Russian authorities “could not agree to such conclusions.”
A new investigation into the accident was begun when the government of the Law and Justice party (PiS) (led by the late president’s twin brother Jarosław) came to power in October 2015. PiS politicians have consistently challenged a report under the previous government which concluded that the crash was an accident. The latest allegations follow a new analysis of comments by control tower staff, said Marek Kuczyński, head of a team of Polish prosecutors investigating the crash, according to dziennik.pl.
The earlier Polish report on the causes of the crash, which occurred in dense fog on the approach to a military airfield which was lacking ground identification radar, cited a catalogue of errors on the Polish side, while also pointing to errors made by Russian staff at the control tower airport. A Russian report placed all the blame on the Poles.
A number of ceremonies are planned for Monday in Warsaw to mark the seventh anniversary of the Smolensk catastrophe, and include speeches by Jarosław Kaczyński and President Andrzej Duda, and a “March of Memory.” Warsaw City Hall has said that only state ceremonies organised by the ministry of culture will take place in front of the presidential palace. Sixteen bans on other assemblies have been issued.
Pilot error remains the most likely explanation, and thus far no conclusive evidence suggesting other causes has appeared, despite the recent exhumation of victims’ corpses for further post mortem analysis. The sad fact is that landing an aircraft in fog if the airport is not equipped with the appropriate instrument landing system falls somewhere between risky and impossible. Added to this is the pressure the pilots were probably under by having the head of the air force visit the cockpit, and the fact that another pilot had been sacked when he had refused an order to land a plane carrying the president in circumstances when he had considered it unsafe to do so, and all the ingredients for a tragedy were, sadly, in place. The fact that the then Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, a political rival of the late president, had made an incident free visit to the same airfield a few days before en route to attend the official Katyń commemoration, only made the imperative to land stronger.
Even if one were to accept conspiracy theories, it is hard to understand what Russia would have had to gain by drawing the world’s attention to the murder of over 20,000 Polish officers and others by the NKVD in the Katyń forest in 1940, responsibility for which had been consistently denied until 1990, the Soviet Union having initially sought to place the blame on Germany. Ever a sensitive issue, November 2010, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for having personally ordered the massacre.
Be that as it may, the tragedy still influences contemporary politics in Poland. The Polish government’s failure to support the re-appointment of Tusk as president of the European Council, in no small part due to Jarosław Kaczyński holding him responsible for the death of his brother. That the crash was a tragedy is clear, but it would be no less a tragedy if its memory is forever conscripted for perceived political advantage.