Russia, Poland agree on disputed crash memorial

11th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

The leaders of Poland and Russia on Monday moved to end an array of rows over the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski, announcing a plan for a joint memorial to the tragedy.

The first anniversary of the death of Kaczynski and 95 others in a plane crash outside Smolensk in western Russia has been overshadowed by acrimony over Russia's sudden replacement of a Polish language memorial at the site.

The issue has compounded Polish fury over the Russian probe into the crash that blamed the tragedy on inexperienced Polish pilots of Kaczynski's jet who had given in to pressure from top officials to land in bad weather.

"I want to announce today that we have agreed on the creation of a special international group who will design this memorial," said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after talks with his Polish counterpart Bronislaw Komorowski in Smolensk.

Kaczynski had been due to visit the site of massacre in the nearby Katyn forest where the Soviet NKVD secret police in April 1940 fired bullets into the heads of over 4,000 Polish officers.

The new Russian plaque that suddenly appeared at the site of the air crash makes no mention of the Katyn massacre, a fact that provoked outrage amongst victims' relatives who visited the site at the weekend.

The plaque replaced the original version which was in Polish only and said Lech Kaczynski had been travelling to Katyn to remember the "70th anniversary of the Soviet crime of genocide perpetrated in Katyn forest".

The Russian foreign ministry angrily dismissed the Polish complaints, saying Poland should know that "Russian is the state language of the Russian Federation" and calling the original Polish plaque "temporary".

Seeking to calm the latest simmering diplomatic row, Komorowski said that the text of the new memorial would be in Polish and Russian and would be agreed upon by both sides.

"This has special importance in the context of the events of the last days," Komorowski added.

In 1940, after the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had carved up Poland in the Nazi-Soviet pact, the NKVD shot dead almost 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn, two other massacre sites as well as prisons in the western USSR.

For decades after the war, the Soviet Union blamed the Katyn massacre on Nazi Germany and it was only just before the collapse of communism that the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted the truth.

Even then, the subject was rarely broached in Russia and the taboo was finally broken after last year's crash when the Kremlin made freely available documents including an order signed by Stalin for the officers' execution.

In one of the frankest statements yet by a Russian leader, Medvedev said that the Stalin leadership of the time bore sole responsibility for the Katyn massacre.

"Attempts to present some other versions are groundless, both on the basis of historic documents and moral considerations," Medvedev said.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Poland and Russia saw a stunning rapprochement in ties that raised hopes the shared grief could be a turning point between two nations with the most difficult of histories.

But this was dashed as Poland lashed out at Moscow for accepting zero responsibility over the plane crash and accusing it of still holding back vital documents about the Katyn massacre.

The furore has come at a time of heated political debate in Poland, where the conservative opposition led by the late president's identical twin Jaroslaw Kaczynski have accused the authorities of not standing up for Polish interests.

In a veiled warning to nationalist forces in Poland, the Kremlin said ahead of the meeting that the "not unambiguous pages of joint history should not have a negative effect on the past and future of Polish-Russian relations."

© 2011 AFP

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