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Russia crash row tests Poland ahead of EU helm

A Polish-Russian row over the Smolensk air disaster is posing a serious challenge to Poland’s governing liberals as they gear up for the EU presidency in July and an autumn election, analysts say.

The popularity of Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s liberal party suffered after both the conservative opposition and his own inner circle slammed his handling of the crash aftermath and leaving the probe in Moscow’s hands.

The inquiry has also strained Polish-Russian ties, overshadowing a nascent rapprochement as Warsaw and Moscow trade blame for the April 2010 crash which killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others as their plane landed in thick fog at Russia’s remote Smolensk airfield.

The row’s timing could hardly be worse, Adam Szostkiewicz, a commentator with Poland’s top selling Polityka weekly, told AFP.

“It is really a very serious moment in Polish politics, both domestic and international, especially in terms of Polish-Russian relations within the context of the upcoming Polish presidency of the European union,” Szostkiewicz said.

Krzysztof Bobinski, chief of the Warsaw-based Unia & Polska Foundation, agrees Warsaw should be cautious.

“Poland really has to keep its head and make sure that relations don’t deteriorate so greatly that it will not be able to conduct the Polish (EU) presidency in its Eastern aspect because of bad relations with Russia,” he warned.

While Poland’s Tusk-allied liberal President Bronislaw Komorowski has made conciliatory gestures towards Moscow over the Smolensk disaster, his senior aide Tomasz Nalecz recently termed Russia’s crash report “dishonest” and calculated to divide and weaken Poland.

“There have been many times in Poland’s history that it was in Russia’s interest to fuel internal Polish conflicts and create a situation in which Poles will fight among themselves because this weakens Poland and gives Russia more room for manoeuvre,” Nalecz told public broadcaster Polskie Radio.

“In my opinion, the opposition, which thinks it is defending Poland’s honour (…) is playing the main role in the Russian scenario,” Nalecz added.

Attacks by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s conservative opposition on the Tusk government over the Smolensk probe were back-firing and weakening Poland, he argued.

Prime Minister Tusk’s success in beginning to mend fences with Moscow after the vitriolic period under the anti-Russian tandem of president Lech Kaczynski and twin brother Jaroslaw as prime minister in 2006-07 has strengthened Poland’s position within the EU, says Szostkiewicz.

But hawkish Russian politicians prefer to deal with a weak Poland, he warns.

“What pays off better for Moscow?” he asked rhetorically.

“To have Poland like it is now under Tusk, or to have it back to the times of prime minister Kaczynski when Poland was seen as an unstable, irresponsible, unpredictable, political player in European politics?”

For him, the answer is clear.

“The isolation of Poland plays into the hands of the hawkish wing in the Russian political elite, which still thinks it is better for their interest to have a Poland like Kaczynski’s — because it alienates Poland within the EU and they don’t want Poland to get a better position, to get stronger within the EU context,” he told AFP.

“So what we are going through now is of utmost importance because if Tusk fails in it — if he fails in settling the Smolensk dispute internationally this of course ruins the Polish priority for the Eastern Partnership” as EU president, he added.

Stanislaw Koziej, head of Poland’s National Security Bureau (BBN), insists the Smolensk row has brought Polish-Russian ties to a critical juncture, with the ball now in Moscow’s court.

“We are at a point when at the level of the Polish government and the Russian government we will be able to tell whether the Russians want to continue the good atmosphere we’ve had in recent months or not,” Koziej recently told Poland’s TVP public broadcaster.