Russia, Poland leaders seek to quell crash row

11th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

The leaders of Poland and Russia on Monday sought to quell a bitter row over the air crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski in talks at one of the most tragic regions in Polish history.

President Dmitry Medvedev and his Polish counterpart Bronislaw Komorowski were to visit the site in western Russia of the April 10, 2010 tragedy and the nearby forest where Soviet secret police murdered Polish officers in 1940.

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 one year on, this has been overshadowed by angry disputes over the Russian probe into the crash that blamed the tragedy on inexperienced pilots who had given in to pressure from top officials to land in bad weather.

"The tragedy of April 10, 2010 brought Russia and Poland closer but its echoes threaten to again set them at odds," the Russian daily Kommersant wrote.

Medvedev and Komorowski were to pay tribute to the 96 victims of the crash near Severny airport outside Smolensk before heading to Katyn forest, the location of one of the most notorious massacres committed by the Soviet NKVD secret police.

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.

The ceremony at Katyn -- where over 4,000 Polish officers were shot dead -- will mark the first time that the two countries' presidents will appear jointly at the memorial complex.

But in an indication the wounds have not healed, the anniversary has been marred by Polish protests that a new Russian plaque that has suddenly appeared at the site of the air crash makes no mention of the Katyn massacre.

"To the memory of 96 Poles headed by Polish Republic President Lech Kaczynski, who died in the air disaster near Smolensk on April 10, 2010," the bilingual plaque reads in Polish and Russian.

The plaque replaced the original version which was in Polish only and said Lech Kaczynski and the plane crash victims 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".

Polish foreign ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said the change had spoiled "not only the current commemorations but also bilateral relations". He suggested Komorowski might not even lay a wreath at the new plaque.

The furore also comes 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.

Late Saturday, several hundred right-wing nationalists demonstrated outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw, accusing Moscow of covering the truth about the Smolensk crash.

"In both countries there are quite a number of people who want to live in the world of their own prejudices and support enmity and distrust towards neighbours for political ends," said the Russian daily Vedomosti.

© 2011 AFP

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