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This week, Poland has been preparing to commemorate the April 10, 2010, plane crash in the Russian city of Smolensk, which killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, including the country’s top army chiefs.
Although Russian and Polish investigators concluded that the plane’s crew had simply failed to heed bad weather conditions, the reason for the crash is still being debated. In March, Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz argued that the tragedy made Poland “the first major victim of terrorism in the modern conflict which is unfolding before our eyes.” Characterizing it as an assassination, he continued that “what happened near Smolensk was aimed at depriving Poland of its leadership.” In response, Russia’s foreign ministry described his statements as “Russophobic” and “beyond absurd.”
Macierewicz is not alone. Politicians from Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, the populist right-wing ruling party led by the late president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have consistently called into doubt official accounts. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who as undisputed leader of PiS guides the policies of the country’s prime minister, Beata Szydlo, has said he is “99 percent sure” his brother was assassinated, and it was probably out of “revenge” because he had “stepped on many toes in the former [Soviet] empire.” Whether Kaczynski and his party colleagues really believe that Moscow blew up a Polish president’s plane in Russian airspace is one thing. What is certain is that they have used the tragedy to exploit deep-rooted Polish fears of Russia.
That the ill-fated flight had been carrying Lech Kaczynski to attend the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn Forest is reminder enough of the origins of such fears. Add to it PiS’s persistent fueling of conspiracy flames, and it should come as no surprise that, despite the absence of credible evidence indicating that the Smolensk plane crash was anything other than a tragic accident, only 50 percent of Poles believe the official story, with 20 percent certain it was an assassination and 30 percent on the fence, stating that it is “difficult to say” one way or the other.
Conspiracy theories are hardly unique to Poland, but it does seem rare for top government officials to actively encourage them, especially at the risk of worsening already bad relations with such a powerful and aggressive neighbor. Post-Communist Poland’s relations with Russia have rarely had a smooth ride, but things have gone downhill since 2014, when the previous government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk (current president of the European Council) came out against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Poland urged a tough international response, angering Moscow and escalating tension between the two countries. Since taking power, the PiS government has been a staunch supporter of continuing the sanctions against Russia.
Poking the bear is a risky move, but Kaczynski seems to have something bigger in mind: forging a new national founding myth and asserting its dominance in questions of what constitutes the core of Polish identity. His calculation may be that as long as Poland strongly opposes Russia’s actions in neighboring Ukraine (which is an imperative, considering that Ukrainian independence has been a central tenet of post-Communist Polish policy), ties with Moscow are unlikely to improve. In which case, why not exploit Poles’ fear of Russia to build a Polish identity in line with Kaczynski’s and his party’s vision? If successful, PiS would own the narrative around national identity, making it not just another party but a guardian of Polish patriotism. Unseating such a party from power would not be easy.
The outcome of this effort matters for the rest of the world: it will help shape societal attitudes and the domestic and foreign policies of the present Polish government—and of future ones as well. And, as Eastern Europe’s biggest country and economy, Poland’s policies cannot help but affect the geopolitics of the region.
PiS has come in for plenty of criticism from the West and from liberal, Western-leaning Poles since it came to power last year. The government has been blasted for encroaching on legislative independence by impeding Poland’s highest court from striking down legislation and increasing political control over the prosecutor’s office, diminishing free speech by seizing direct control of public media and overseeing a purge of journalists it views as hostile, and handing the police widespread surveillance powers.
PiS has shot back, rejecting this criticism as unfounded and suggesting it stems from sinister motives. “We are fighting for Poland to be truly sovereign. Of course, not everybody likes this because a weak Poland is convenient for various powers in Europe,” said Kaczynski in February. He added that his party “doesn’t take seriously” the Western criticism it has been receiving.
Meanwhile, PiS has worked hard to build up a Lech Kaczynski cult, commissioning buildings, monuments, and memorials in his name all over Poland. And now, it is organizing a commemoration of the Smolensk crash in Warsaw on Sunday in an effort to show that it has popular backing for its stances and to associate the patriotic sentiment linked to the tragedy with the ruling party.
Yet highlighting the catastrophe is risky. In 2010, after the initial shock and grief wore off, deep sociocultural and political divisions within Polish society quickly came to the fore. First, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz announced that the late president was to be buried in Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral, an honor reserved for the greatest Polish kings and leaders. Although Lech Kaczynski’s supporters rejoiced at the news, many other Poles were furious, insisting his lifetime achievements didn’t warrant burial alongside such figures as Jozef Pilsudski, the Polish statesman credited with leading the country to independence in 1918, or Wladyslaw Jagiello, the historic king whose reign laid the foundation for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which later became one of the largest and most influential empires in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Lech Walesa, the legendary leader of Solidarity and Poland’s first post-Communist president, was dubious and suggested that the plane crash was Kaczynski’s fault, since he had been so anxious to get a photo op at the Katyn commemoration ceremony that he had probably forced the pilot to attempt a landing despite adverse weather conditions. This, in turn, infuriated supporters of the late head of state.
Such reactions to the Smolensk catastrophe revealed the importance of (and sharp divisions over) national symbols and identity to Poles. On the one hand are supporters of the late president and PiS, who share a very clear vision of Polish national identity: one forged by values broadly described as conservative, Catholic-oriented, nationalistic, messianic, inward-looking, and wary of foreigners, most especially of historic enemies such as Germany and Russia.
For this group, which counts as supporters roughly one-third of Poles, the Smolensk catastrophe could not have been a senseless tragedy. Rather, because of its hugely symbolic circumstances, it could only be interpreted as a historical sacrifice for the nation, akin to the 1940 Katyn Massacre and the failed 1944 Warsaw Uprising. In this worldview, Poland’s history is uniquely tragic. It is “the Christ of nations,” as Adam Mickiewicz, widely regarded as the greatest Polish poet, described it. Moreover, painful historical experiences are not coincidental; they are all connected. Awareness of that fact is a prerequisite of “true” Polish patriotism. That is why PiS places much emphasis on what it calls “the politics of memory”: Poles need to be reminded of the bloody sacrifices past generations made for the survival of the nation. They also need to remember that foreigners cannot be trusted, for, as Kaczynski says, “a weak Poland is convenient for them.” Thus, domestic policy is geared toward cementing the nation as a unified community in opposition to Western-style liberal individualism. And on the international front, Poland must constantly be on its guard, as it has many enemies bent on exploiting it and limiting its independence.
Roughly one-third of the population strongly disagrees with this conception of national identity and memory, but this group is not as cohesive in its views, and it shares no uniform opinion on what values contemporary Polish national identity should be based on. The group includes leftists and liberals of all hues, who tend to shun what Holocaust historian Jan Gross has referred to as a Polish mindset “vested in martyrology,” which they consider masochistic wallowing in past suffering and national failures. In this worldview, an event such as the failed 1944 Warsaw Uprising should not be celebrated. Rather, it should be seen as a senseless loss of lives, an endeavor doomed to fail due to vastly superior German firepower.
This group argues that dwelling on national tragedies such as Smolensk only fosters a victim mentality and holds Poles back from being “normal” Europeans working on “important” issues such as economic growth and pension reform (in the case of the more economically neoliberal) or taking better care of Polish have-nots (in the case of those of more leftist bent). But the only thing that really binds this second group together is fear and disdain of the PiS and its ilk, which is in power and has the upper hand.
These divisions have deeply polarized Polish society, inflaming passions on both sides and leading to what is often described in Polish media as the “Polish-Polish war.” Both groups have their own intellectual and political elites who find it hard to conceal their mutual contempt, and each side believes the worst of the other’s intentions. Kaczynski has referred to PiS’s domestic critics as those representing the “most immoral, base and animalistic elements of society.” Meanwhile, Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Poland’s largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, and a leading intellectual in the opposing camp, says the country is now run by a “political mafia.” Such rhetoric leaves little hope for dialogue.
In between the two sides are the undecideds, those who are apparently open to persuasion by either group and who have shifted their support from the right to the left at various elections, depending on the prevalent political dynamics of the moment. Due to a Polish school curriculum already heavily woven with martyrdom, however, the vision of national identity propagated by Kaczynski and his party, remains the most familiar to the everyday Pole.
That is why, in the current climate of fear of (Muslim) migrants and economic uncertainty, PiS’s vision of an inward-looking identity is resonating. Despite the avalanche of Western criticism of the party, its support remains high and, according to some polls, is even growing. Polish public opinion has generally shifted very much to the right in recent times; in last year’s parliamentary elections, right-wing parties collectively garnered over 51 percent of the votes, with PiS being the most moderate of the lot.
Current political dynamics, most especially regarding the migrant crisis and Russia’s openly aggressive policies, play well for PiS, and its vision of Polish identity is likely to gain traction in the foreseeable future. This would mean a domestic policy energetically striving to cement the national identity and maintain Poland’s status as one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous societies in Europe. Its foreign policy can be expected to continue the nationalistic and unabashedly self-interested course adopted by the new government. In the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks, Szydlo said that she “no longer sees the possibility” of Poland accepting any relocated migrants on its territory, despite Germany’s appeals for European solidarity on the issue. PiS considers this proof that it will not buckle to pressure from external powers and that, as Kaczynski has vowed, Poland “will not be a colony.”
Poland’s strained ties with the rest of the world will further destabilize a region already on edge. Putin is unpredictable enough, and now Poland’s relations with the West will continue to deteriorate too, as PiS digs its heels in. The battle for Poland’s soul thus rages on. The results will shape Eastern Europe for years to come.