The Death of Poland's President: A Danger to the Region?

The crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the senior command of the Polish Army is without doubt a national tragedy for Poland. But the disaster is unlikely to have many regional or strategic ramifications. Poland is a parliamentary republic whose president is largely ceremonial—much as in Germany and Italy. Kaczynski’s political role was limited to representing Poland abroad, with policymaking in the hands of Prime Minister Donald Tusk. The two men had clashed several times over the last few months over a growing rapprochement between Poland and Russia favored by Tusk. The most recent public rift came last week, when Tusk and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers by Stalin’s secret police side by side. Putin, like his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, called the massacre a “terrible tragedy” but emphasized that it should become a “focus of reconciliation” between the Russian and Polish peoples. Kaczynski had declined to be at the joint Russian-Polish ceremony and was on his way to a separate commemoration, with a wholly Polish delegation, when his plane crashed.

Kaczynski’s death will bring forward elections originally scheduled for the fall. His main challenger was Bronislaw Komorowski, the speaker of the Polish Parliament and a member of Tusk’s centrist Civic Platform Party, who has taken over Kaczynski’s job until new elections. At the time of his death Kaczynski and his nationalist, conservative Law and Justice Party had been trailing Komorowski in the polls. Tusk and his close ally Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski have advocated a policy of rapprochement with Russia since a damaging row with Moscow over Polish meat imports four years ago. Kaczynski and his twin brother, Jarosław, leader of the Law and Justice Party, had adopted a more confrontational attitude to Russia, preferring to emphasize solidarity with Ukraine and Georgia and to actively support those countries’ accession to NATO. However, voters felt otherwise, rejecting Jarosław Kaczynski’s government in 2007 and voting in Tusk’s more Russia-friendly Civic Platform.