Poland lost a leader in a plane crash, and we must know why

  • Article by: TOMASZ PIOTR (PETER) PRZYTULA
  • Updated: April 14, 2013 - 6:18 PM

Will the world ever be ready to challenge Russian statements about a Polish tragedy?

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A Polish citizen grieved at the site of the crash near Smolensk, western Russia, that killed his country’s president and nearly 100 others in April 2010.

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Three years ago, I wrote a commentary for this page remembering Polish President Lech Kaczynski; his wife, Maria, and 94 top Polish government officials killed in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia, on April 10, 2010. They had traveled there to commemorate 4,400 Polish POWs ruthlessly murdered by the Soviets back in 1943.

At the time, like everybody else, I naively assumed that an independent commission would be set up to investigate the tragedy and that, within a year or so, we would know what caused the crash.

None of that turned out to be true.

Three years later, despite numerous appeals from the Polish government, the Russians have yet to return the wreckage to Poland. Moreover, Russian officials continue to blame Poles for the disaster, while the Polish government is too timid to respond. Most of Polish people are at a loss as to what really happened on that tragic day.

Back in 2010, acting contrary to the 1992 Polish-Russian treaty, the government of Poland immediately handed over responsibility for the investigation to the Russians. Within about a year, the Russians’ conclusion was that the main causes of the disaster were multiple pilot mistakes and pressure to land, despite thick fog, coming from the drunken Polish Air Force chief on board the plane.

Some in Poland accepted this official Russian explanation. But the official Polish investigation faulted Russian air traffic controllers’ unprofessional plane guidance.

Likewise, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk — who soon after the disaster indulged in a hearty condolence bear hug with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — expressed concerns about the Russian report, calling it “incomplete” in 2011.

However, last year, when an investigative journalist from Rzeczpospolita, a prominent Polish daily, reported that traces of explosive materials had been found on and inside the plane, officials from Tusk’s office pressured the publisher and effectively got the reporter fired.

A political-opposition-based Polish commission investigating the tragedy has faulted the Polish government for not providing the late president enough protection. Planes were not readily available, and the air control tower in Russia was inadequately prepared for the landing of a head of state’s plane. The same commission found sufficient evidence to conclude that there was an explosion on board before the plane hit the ground.

Last October, a scientific conference analyzing the causes of the crash was held in Poland, and almost 100 scientists from the U.S., Australia and Poland attended. The consensus seriously challenged both the official Russian report and its Polish counterpart.

Dr. Wieslaw Binienda, a professor and chair of the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Akron in Ohio, is one of the most prominent skeptics of the two official reports. When he travels to Poland to continue investigatinga, Binienda finds it necessary to have security accompany him, due to numerous threatening e-mails and phone calls.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of the deceased president, has lamented “the growing process of forced amnesia” in Poland regarding the crash. In fact, many in Poland believe that the Polish government is not particularly interested in finding the truth because it may prove too embarrassing for the prime minister and his cabinet.

Similarly, nobody in European Union is showing any desire to learn the truth, fearing that it may implicate the Russians. Faced with such information, E.U. countries — who are heavily dependent on Russian energy — might be forced to take a stand and criticize Putin, something they are loath to do.

Regrettably, in the United States, a resolution from U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., calling for an independent investigation of the 2010 crash fell on deaf ears in Congress. One notable exception is U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Bachmann issued a statement on last week’s anniversary commemorating the late president and expressing “solidarity with the people of Poland.”

In Poland, meantime, theories on the causes of the crash abound. In a poll last week for National Polish Public TV, two-thirds of Poles indicated that they did not really know why the presidential plane crashed, while one-third believed it was a Russian-orchestrated assassination.

The fact that Russian authorities put the victims’ bodies in sealed caskets in Moscow only fanned conspiracy flames. And when in the course of a couple of exhumations it was discovered that some caskets and corpses were mislabeled and misplaced, the collective disbelief, anger, and suspicion went sky high.

When will we know the truth? Is there enough will and interest around the world to support an international commission that would carry out a truly independent investigation? Not for now.

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Tomasz Piotr (Peter) Przytula is a professor of mass communications at St. Cloud State University. He was born in Poland and often travels and lectures there.

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