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Polish Plane-Crash Probe Becomes `Brazilian Soap Opera' as Elections Near

The plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others spurred weeks of public mourning in April and triggered calls for national unity. Now it’s a political dogfight.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Lech’s twin and leader of the largest opposition party, on July 14 blamed the disaster on the government’s “criminal policy” of not buying new aircraft. The next day, a leaked transcript of cockpit recordings suggested Lech Kaczynski ordered the pilot to land in bad weather.

The exchange came 10 days after Kaczynski won a better- than-expected 47 percent of the vote in a presidential runoff, boosting his Law & Justice Party before local and parliamentary elections over the next year. Kaczynski’s strength may hamper efforts to control the budget deficit, analysts said last week.

“My country and the government behave worse than in a Brazilian soap opera,” Marek Siwiec, a European parliament member from the Left Democratic Alliance, said today on his blog. “Responsibility for the catastrophe has become a top theme of the political fight. When it will end? Shame.”

The April 10 air disaster was Poland’s worst national tragedy since World War II. Central bank Governor Slawomir Skrzypek and the country’s four top military commanders, as well as Kaczynski were killed when a Soviet-era Tupolev-154 crashed in Smolensk, Russia, while trying to land in heavy fog. The dignitaries were on their way to honor 22,000 Polish prisoners killed by Soviet secret police in 1940.

Public Mourning

Crowds lined the streets of Warsaw as Kaczynski’s funeral cortege passed through the city the day after the crash, and a week later thousands filled the capital’s Pilsudski Square where a memorial service was held.

The crash returned to the headlines this week, with Gazeta Wyborcza saying, “Smolensk Is Back,” and Rzeczpospolita asking, “Who Benefits From the War Over Smolensk?”

Zbigniew Girzynski, a lawmaker from Kaczynski’s Law & Justice Party, said the leaked transcript showed that the government’s investigation of the crash is being manipulated for political purposes.

“It was a controlled leak from offices supervised by the ruling party, giving a short and out of context fragment that could only fuel speculation and help manipulate public opinion,” Girzynski said in an interview.

Pawel Gras, a spokesman for Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government, rejected suggestions that the crash investigation was tainted by politics.

“Any accusations that the government didn’t handle the investigation properly are just absurd,” Gras said in an interview with TVN24 television.

Martyred Brother

After his surprise showing in the July 4 runoff, the 61- year-old Kaczynski told supporters they “must stay united in a movement built on my martyred brother for future victory.”

In an interview published July 14 by the newspaper Gazeta Polska, Kaczynski said the government was acting “strangely” in its investigation of the crash and that any politicians found responsible for the disaster should leave office.

Kaczynski said he told Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski that the crash was the government’s fault when the minister informed him about the crash.

“That’s because of your criminal policy,” Gazeta Polska quoted him as telling Sikorski. “You didn’t buy new planes.”

Poland has considered buying new planes to carry top officials because of maintenance concerns about its Tupolevs, which were bought before the collapse of communism. Sikorski told Gazeta Polska that a tender for replacements was canceled when Jaroslaw Kaczynski was prime minister from 2005-2007.

‘He’ll Kill Me’

A day after Kaczynski’s comments were published, TVN24 television reported on previously unreleased transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder.

“If I don’t land, he’ll kill me,” the pilot said seconds before the crash, TVN24 reported.

The sentence, which hasn’t been officially confirmed, may add to speculation Lech Kaczynski pressured the pilot to land.

The theory arose after Polish media outlets reported that Kaczynski had criticized the pilot of another plane for refusing to land in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, during the August 2008 conflict with Russia.

Kaczynski told journalists on the Georgia flight that someone who decides to be an officer “cannot be timid,” Gazeta Wyborcza reported. Arkadiusz Protasiuk, the senior pilot in Smolensk, was the co-pilot on the Tbilisi flight, Gazeta reported July 15.

‘Basis to Decide’

A 40-page transcript released by the government on June 1 showed the Smolensk pilots were warned about “horrible” weather and poor visibility 30 minutes before they tried to land. The document was incomplete because Russian experts weren’t able to decipher all of the recordings. Since then, the Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow and police laboratories have been continuing to fill in gaps.

Justice Minister Krzysztof Kwiatkowski wasn’t able to say whether the transcript reported by TVN24 was accurate, according to an interview with the Polsat News TV channel.

“While I still cannot confirm the newest reading of the transcript, I’d see such a sentence as giving a strong basis to decide whether there was a pressure or not,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dorota Bartyzel in Warsaw at dbartyzel@bloomberg.net

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