Plane tragedy could impact East-West ties in Europe: experts

MOSCOW, Christopher Boian- Appalling as it is, the plane tragedy that killed Poland's president is a potential game-changer in thorny Russian-Polish ties that may impact broader East-West relations in Europe, experts say.
The Russian government led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has moved with extraordinary speed to telegraph a message of sympathy and convey its will to facilitate anything Poland feels it needs to do to cope with the disaster.

Lech Kaczynski
Lech Kaczynski
At the same time, Russian leaders know the timing, nature and location of the crash near the site where Soviet forces massacred 20,000 Poles 70 years ago could badly damage their efforts to repair ties with Warsaw.
"They have shown an unprecedented readiness to do everything possible to help Poland in everything from the investigation to the very sad process of body recognition," said political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov.
"They have said much more than anyone could have expected about solidarity with, and help for, Poland."
Poland, today a member of the European Union, is the most powerful of the former Soviet satellite states and carries particular weight among eastern European nations once under the Kremlin's thumb.
That east European contingent, including the three ex-Soviet Baltic states and other former Warsaw Pact members, in turn is a vocal component of the EU with a growing influence on the European bloc's foreign policy.
"The atmosphere in relations with Poland will have a big influence throughout eastern Europe," Lukyanov said.
Though Russia has excellent ties with Germany, which also carries considerable weight in eastern Europe, it is the Russian-Polish relationship that remains at the core of the East-West dynamic in EU policymaking.
If that bilateral relationship improves, the overall atmosphere between Moscow and Brussels may follow suit despite numerous divisions among the EU countries themselves on how to deal with Russia.
But by the same token, if the crash aftermath sparks a resurgence in Poland of mistrust of Russia then East-West tension in Europe could continue to percolate.
"Kaczynski was, to put it lightly, not a friend of Russia," said Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in World Affairs.
"Nonetheless, he is being treated with the utmost respect by the Russian leadership.
"This crash however is symbolically very gloomy... and may reinforce in Poland the notion that everything associated with Russia is awful and bad.
"Even if it is confirmed that pilot error caused the crash, there will inevitably be those who say it was the KGB that killed Kaczynski," Lukayanov said.
Another analyst, Dmitry Babich, said it was too soon to say whether the crash would lead to an improvement or worsening in ties -- but noting that it could have a wider impact either way.
"I hope there are no conspiracy theories," Babich told Radio Liberty. "Unfortunately, in Polish-Russian relations, these theories arise on both sides.
"However, strange as it may seem, maybe this terrible tragedy could produce an improvement in Russian-Polish relations."
The crash occurred just three days after Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk came together at Katyn for ceremonies marking the massacre there in 1940. Kaczynski was travelling to the same place for the same reason.
Moscow for decades denied Soviet forces had anything to do with the massacre and the subject remains sensitive in Moscow.
Shortly before the Putin-Tusk meeting, a film documenting how the Soviet troops slaughtered the Poles in Katyn Forest was broadcast on Russian state television, a landmark event that could not have occurred without Kremlin approval.
Within hours of Saturday's crash, the Russian foreign ministry said visas would be granted in Warsaw instantly for Poles needing to come to Russia to join the investigation and identify bodies.
And on Sunday, Russian authorities went to great pains to communicate the message that Polish experts were involved in every aspect of the probe.
Arseny Roginsky of the rights group Memorial, however, cautioned that the weight of history on Russian-Polish relations was still heavy.
"The stamp of 'Russia-phobia' on Polish consciousness may only get stronger," Roginsky told Radio Liberty.
"Those who seek it will always be able to find some kind of additional confirmation of the guilt of the Russians. It doesn't matter what the country's leaders say. What matters is what the people believe."

Monday, April 12th 2010
Christopher Boian

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