Alik Keplicz/AP Photo
A huge crowd of mourners gather in front of the Presidential Palace to pay tribute to
late Polish President Lech Kaczynski, in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, April 10, 2010.

Overshadowing Katyn Massacre Commemoration, a Tragic Plane Crash Leaves Poland Reeling

April 10, 2010 10:58 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
The death of Poland’s President in a plane crash in Russia comes as relations between the two countries had been improving, and as ceremonies commemorating the Katyn massacre take place.

Officials Had Requested New Government Planes

The Globe and Mail reports that Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and everyone on board were killed when the presidential plane crashed in western Russia. The “26-year-old Tupolev” was transporting passengers to events being held in honor of the 70th anniversary of Soviet secret police’s mass killings of thousands of Polish officers.

In addition to the President and his wife, Poland’s “army chief of staff, national bank president, deputy foreign minister, army chaplain, head of National Security office, deputy parliament speaker, civil rights commissioner and at least two presidential aides and three lawmakers,” were killed in the crash.

The catastrophe is particularly troubling because Polish officials had “repeatedly requested that the government’s aging air fleet be replaced,” The New York Times reported. The plane was designed in the mid-1960s by Soviets, and production of the style was stopped about two decades ago.

A spokesman for Sergei Antufiyev, the governor of Smolensk region where the crash occurred, said “air traffic controllers had recommended the president’s jet land at another airport because of bad visibility, but that the crew decided to land anyway,” according to The Times.

What’s Next for Poland’s Government?

According to The Globe and Mail, the deaths should not “directly affect the functioning of Polish government,” as the President’s “domestic duties are chiefly symbolic,” aside from acting as commander in chief of the armed forces. The prime minister was not on the plane. Poland’s acting president, the parliament speaker, has “declared a week of national mourning.”

Poland’s constitution allows the acting president two weeks to announce when new elections will be held, which must be within 60 days, according to The New York Times. The nation’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski was the one who told Prime Minister Donald Tusk about the crash. Sikorski told Radio Zet in Poland that Tusk “was in tears when he heard,” The Times reported.

Related Topic: Putin at Commemoration; Katyn massacre

“The Katyn massacre was one point of tension” between Poland and Russia, The Times said. But last week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “took a major step to address improve relations” when he became “the first Russian or Soviet leader to join Polish officials in commemorating the anniversary.” Putin invited Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to the Russian town of Katyn for the commemoration.

On April 13, 1990, the Soviet Union accepted responsibility for the 1940 executions of imprisoned Polish officers in the Katyn forest, a massacre the Soviets had previously blamed on the Nazis.

The admission came on the 47-year anniversary of the discovery of the mass graves. Previously, the Russian government had maintained that the Nazi regime was responsible. Nearly 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed and buried in mass graves, according to the CIA. 

Background: Poland’s Government and Economy

The U.S. Library of Congress details Poland’s Government Structure, including the roles of President, Senate, Supreme Control Chamber, Council of Ministers and Judicial System. “By mid-1992, the Polish government had evolved into a presidential and parliamentary democracy with an increasingly independent judiciary,” the Library of Congress reports.

The Library of Congress also details Poland’s constitution, including its adoption in 1952 and amendments after the fall of communism in 1989.

Further explore Poland’s local government system, and learn about the country's geography, security, housing, education, culture and more on Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Related Topic: Poland’s Holocaust Heroes

During World War II, Irena Sendler worked for a unit of the Polish underground, Zegota, which was formed to help Jews in hiding. As a health worker, Sendler was issued a pass to come and go from the Warsaw Ghetto, according to The Holocaust: Crimes, Heroes and Villains Web site.

In 1942 and 1943, she led some 2,500 children—twice as many as Oskar Schindler—out of the ghetto to safe hiding places. She died May 12, 2008, in Warsaw, Poland, after a long illness.

On Sept. 19, 1940, Polish resistance member Witold Pilecki deliberately got himself arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where he spent two years supplying Allied forces with information about the concentration camp.

Pilecki was a dedicated member of the Polish resistance, formed in the wake of Germany’s defeat of the Polish army in the fall of 1939. He was a co-founder of the Polish Secret Army, later part of the Home Army.

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