Insight Poland

Why was the 2010 Smolensk disaster a watershed moment for Poland?

Coffins_of_victims_in_Warsaw_-_2010_Polish_Air_Force_Tu-154_crash

Krakow, Poland – The events of April 10, 2010 have cast a long shadow on Polish politics and society, and though 12 years have already passed the tensions surrounding the Smolensk crash have yet to be resolved.

With relations between Russia and Poland at an all-time low following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, this year’s commemoration of the tragic crash promises to revive interest in Smolensk’s controversial legacy.

Lines in the sand

It comes as little surprise that the coinciding tragedy of the Katyn Massacre and the Smolensk crash, which claimed the lives not only of then president Lech Kaczyński, but also several high ranking government and military officials, almost immediately garnered an emotionally charged and divisive reputation.

In 2010, the far reaching political and social significance of Smolensk became quickly apparent with the protests and demonstrations that took place at the doorstep of the presidential palace in Warsaw. Surprisingly, the focal point of these manifestations was the removal of an unassuming wooden cross erected in memorial of the victims.

In many ways the struggle over this cross came to symbolise the growth of greater social divisions, not only over secularism and Catholic heritage, but over historical consciousness and recurring themes of martyrdom and the image of Poland as the “Christ of Nations.” Yet in an immediate sense, the removal of this cross pitted the demonstrators and supporters of the Kaczyńskis’ Law and Justice (PiS) party against the governing Civic Platform party (PO) led by prime minister Donald Tusk, and the interim president Bronisław Komorowski.

Even when the cross was finally moved to a nearby chapel, the movement it created persisted becoming what has since been called the “monthly” or miesięcznice, a politicised memorial in support of the Kaczyński’s. Suspicions also fell upon the ruling government, with the twin brother and political partner of Lech, Jarosław Kaczyński on multiple occasions insinuating that there may have been collusion between Russia and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk.

These accusations amounted to covering up the truth behind the crash, even so far as to suggest that Tusk was responsible “in a political sense” for the disaster.  As a whole, the legacy of Smolensk acted to further catalyse a political rift in Poland, sowing distrust and suspicion in an increasingly two-party system.

The rise of a new and united right in Poland

Looking back, the crash has also come to represent something of a turning point in the way Polish politics are conducted, marking the beginning of a polarising “emotionalisation” of political discourse, eventually giving rise to the Law and Justice party and the United Right Coalition in government. 

In 2007 the government led by what at the time was very much the Kaczyński’s party, Law and Justice, collapsed, unable to form a governing majority. This heralded the beginning of a dark time (2008-2015) for the right in Poland, where the centrist coalition of Civic Platform, and the Polish Peasant’s Party dominated the political scene.

However, the Smolensk disaster which was very much a personal tragedy for the Polish right, also became instrumental in their eventual resurgence, particularly in the lead up to the defining 2015 parliamentary and presidential elections.

In the first place, the controversies surrounding the incident reflected poorly on the ruling centrist government, particularly in the eyes of many right leaning voters who shared scepticism with Jarosław Kaczyński and the right parties.

This was not helped by the fact that between 2010 and 2015, the centrist government was further embroiled in a number of political scandals such as the so-called “Tape Affair” and the “Amber Gold Scandal.” In effect, this helped to exert a centripetal force on the Polish right, allowing for right-wing parties to overcome differences, which had previously made coalitions unstable, in the face of the centrist opposition. 

At the same time, the appealing emotional narrative of loss and injustice gave the Law and Justice party and its head, Jarosław Kaczyński, a renewed and this time undisputed position of leadership within the coalition of right-wing parties, the United Right.

The legacy of Smolensk today

Ultimately, the 2015 elections became a watershed moment in the political development of Poland, where the Law and Justice party gained the first majority government since the fall of communism, as well as the presidency.

For many it seemed that in the wake of the 2015 elections and the undisputed mandate of Law and Justice, that the Smolensk controversy had played its part, and that it could finally be laid to rest.

Indeed, the investigation committee, which began its work in 2015, led by then defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, has so far failed to present a definitive report proving that the crash was anything other than an accident, despite costing the state roughly 22.6 million zloty (nearly €5 million).

However, this year, tensions with Russia have reinvigorated discourse around the Smolensk crash, with Jarosław Kaczyński openly stating that “I have no doubts that there was an attack. This decision had to be taken at the highest level of the Kremlin.”

At the same, new interest has been taken in the investigation report of Macierewicz, which has finally hinted that a publication of findings and results may soon occur.

By Nathan Alan-Lee

Nathan is a research assistant working with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He completed his Masters degree in European studies at the Jagiellonian University, focusing on party politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, he is pursuing a study of politicisation and partisan influence in society, emphasising memory and historical revisionism.