Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Continuing Divisions of Smoleńsk

Last week the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee published the final report of its investigations into the causes of the Smoleńsk aircrash on April 10 last year. They announced that it had been caused primarily by pilot error that had been partly the result of the pressure exerted by other senior figures that were present in the cockpit when the crash occurred. The results seemed to confirm the theory that the trip to Katyń last April had been so politically charged that the decision was made to land the President’s plane come what may. Such conclusions were inevitably going to be met with suspicion and hostility in Poland.

In response to this report the Polish government published recordings of discussions between the control-tower and the aircraft, that they claimed showed how the crash was partly the fault of the crew in the control-tower in Russia (almost immediately the Russians then reproduced the full transcript of these discussions). The Polish government sought to show how the control-tower staff had itself come under external pressure and committed fundamental errors, that they did not provide the pilots with sufficient help and that in such weather conditions they should have refused the plane permission to land and closed the airport.

It is difficult for anyone observing this debate to make a conclusion on the technicalities of such an event. However, it is clear that this report must be seen to be fair and objective and be broadly accepted as such in both Poland and Russia as well as in the wider international community. However, public opinion polls in Poland show that the majority of the population does not believe that the crash was soley due to errors on the Polish side. 26% of Poles believe that the crash was due both to the pilot attempting to land the plane in difficult conditions and the decision not to close the airport; 24% place the blame soley on the Russian control-tower staff and 19% believe that it was caused by external pressure placed upon the pilot during the flight. Thankfully only 8% of Poles believe that the Smoleńsk tragedy was the result of a deliberate attack. Unfortunately nothing about this whole episode is clear or straightforward and any difference of opinion or uncertainty can be used by different sides for their own political gain.

Therefore beyond the technical discussion about the reasons for the Smolensk tragedy, a wider political game is being played. This involves external relations between Russia and Poland – with all the historical sensitivities that this throws up – and internal political realities in both countries. In Poland it is has become the major issue of attack by the opposition party PiS, who have claimed that the Polish government has acted in a subservient manner to Russia since the events of April 10. PiS was able to lead relatively large mobilisations of people outside the Presidents’ Palace, even although they represented the views of a minority of society. Even after the dispute over the cross had been resolved, they have managed to organise manifestations there on the 10th of every month. The publication of the Russian report last week has led to a new wave of denunciations and criticisms – not least by the arch-conspirator Antoni Macierewicz – about the role of Donald Tusk’s government and their supposed subservience to Russia.

The irony of this whole situation is that this is precisely what PO and Tusk would want to occur. For the previous few weeks media attention had moved away from the Smoleńsk tragedy, and the symbolic cultural conflicts that surround it, and begun to focus on the real issues that face Poland: such as its pension system, transport infrastructure, cost of living, etc. If the major opposition party was able to keep the public debate on such issues; concentrate on how the government’s policies are affecting people’s living standards and offer concise alternatives to them, then PO could be seriously challenged at this year’s elections. PiS neither has the political will nor ability to do this.

And so once again the television screens and newspapers are filled with arguments that abstract from the real events that occurred in Smoleńsk and end up in a phoney cultural war. Recent polls have shown that almost a half of PO’s entire electorate remains loyal to the party because of a fear that PiS and Jarosław Kaczyński could return to power. In other words, PO’s vote is more likely to remain strong when PiS and Kaczyński are most vocal and active. The first anniversary of the Smoleńsk tragedy will take place in less than three months time - which will undoubtedly be a focus of new political debate and division - and will shortly after be followed by the planned beatification of John Paul II on May 1. This will then take us up towards the parliamentary elections planned for later this year. As long as there are no unexpected economic shocks between now and then, PO should be able to keep the political debate precisely where it wants it and as always PiS will be more than willing to help it achieve this.

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