Russia defends erasing mention of Polish massacre
Russia on Sunday stoked the flames of a new diplomatic flare-up with Poland by expressing dismay at Polish fury over its replacement of a plaque honouring the death of the country's president one year ago.
The original version of the commemorative sign noted that Lech Kaczynski and 95 other plane crash victims had been travelling to the Russian town of Katyn to mark the 70th anniversary of the murder of 22,000 Polish officers by Soviet secret police.
The late leader's Russian-made Tupolev jet missed the runway in heavy fog in the western Russian city of Smolensk and exploded on impact on April 10, 2010.
About 40 families of those killed visited the site of the air disaster on Saturday to mark its first anniversary and noticed that the large granite stone near the runway now bore a completely different sign.
The new shorter version is written in both Polish and Russian and makes no mention of Katyn -- a tragedy that Moscow covered up until the late Soviet era and which remains a source of friction between the two countries.
The Russian foreign ministry angrily dismissed the Polish complaints.
"The Russian foreign ministry expects Polish officials to know that Russian is the state language of the Russian Federation," the ministry said in a firm statement.
The ministry called the original Polish plaque "temporary" and said Warsaw flatly ignored Moscow's efforts to come up with a new bilingual sign that could suit both countries.
"The Polish side was invited to resolve a problem that it itself created. There was no response," the ministry said.
"In this connection, the comments of the official representative of the Polish foreign ministry cause bewilderment," the statement added.
Smolensk Governor Sergei Antufyev separately told reporters that the airport "is not the place where we mourn the Polish tragedy" at Katyn.
Moscow covered up the horrific World War II massacre -- which also occurred in other regions of western Russia besides Katyn -- until the dying days of the Soviet Union and became a symbol of the two sides' uneasy ties.
Those relations had begun to improve with the Russian release of the first batch of Katyn documents, and Moscow has since admitted that the summary executions were ordered personally by the dictator Joseph Stalin.
But Saturday's discovery of the switched plaque created a furore in Warsaw that underscored deep-running suspicions and mistrust.
"This was a very bad decision which has spoiled not only the current commemorations but also bilateral relations," said Polish foreign ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki.
He suggested that President Bronislaw Komorowski might not lay a wreath at the new plaque when he visits the site on Monday, and hundreds of nationalists demonstrated outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw.
Komorowski is due to appear in Smolensk together with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and a Polish foreign ministry official told Interfax that the visit still appeared to be on.
The two are expected to start the day by travelling together to Katyn -- for the first time that the two countries' presidents will appear jointly at the memorial.
The row was entirely ignored by Russia's state-controlled television stations but received broad play on Moscow's main independent radio station and was roundly condemned by the Memorial human rights group.
"If Russia really did have problems with the plaque's contents, it should have resolved them with the Polish authorities," the organisation's Polish programmes director Alexander Guryanov told Moscow Echo radio.
"It should not have been done so suddenly and unexpectedly," he said.
© 2011 AFP