Poland interred President Lech Kaczynski and his wife in the ancient capital of Krakow yesterday in the presence of Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev amid signs the historic enemies may reach a reconciliation.
Medvedev lit a candle at the service for the couple, who died on April 10 when their plane crashed in Smolensk, Russia, on the way to a ceremony in Katyn forest honoring 22,000 Polish officers and officials killed in 1940 by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s secret police.
Medvedev and German President Horst Koehler were among 700 foreign guests, Polish officials and family members gathered at the 14th-century St. Mary’s Basilica, where a Mass was led by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop of Krakow and the former secretary to Pope John Paul II.
“Seventy years ago Katyn divided two nations,” Dziwisz said at the beginning of the Mass. “The tragedy eight days ago has released stores of good will in individuals and nations, and the sympathy and support we have received from our Russian brothers revives hope for reconciliation.”
Ash from Iceland’s erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano closed airspace over Europe and led U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to cancel plans to attend. Other delegations struggled to arrive on government planes with clearance to fly at low altitudes, or by helicopter, rail or road.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili flew to Rome and Istanbul, then made stops in Bulgaria and Romania before his plane made it to Krakow in the late afternoon. He arrived in time to walk behind the dead president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, in the funeral procession.
During Georgia’s 2008 military conflict with Russia, Kaczynski collected the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine for a joint trip to the country’s capital, Tbilisi, in a show of support for Saakashvili.
The call for improved ties between Russia and Poland overshadowed disruptions from the volcano.
“Facing such a grievous loss, we can make efforts to bring our countries closer together and listen to each other better,” Medvedev told journalists in Krakow before boarding his plane for the return fight to Moscow. He called Katyn “a crime of Joseph Stalin and his associates.”
More Than Obama
Polish commentators said such language, backed by Russian decisions to call a day of national mourning and show Oscar-winning director Andrzej Wajda’s film on Katyn on national television, suggests the countries may be headed for the kind of rapprochement German Chancellor Willy Brandt started in 1970 by kneeling at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
“Medvedev didn’t have to come to Krakow, he’d already done a lot. But he came. His presence is more important than Obama’s absence,” wrote commentator Aleksandra Klich on the Web site of newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
“Nothing we saw today lessens the chance of a breakthrough. We still need Russia to release documents and legally rehabilitate the victims, but I think that will happen,” Andrzej Rychard, a professor of sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, said by phone.
Medvedev, who made his first official visit to Poland, met with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and parliamentary speaker Bronislaw Komorowski at Wawel Castle before the funeral Mass.
Kaczynski, his wife Maria, and 94 other officials including central bank Governor Slawomir Skrzypek and the top four leaders of Poland’s armed forces were victims of the April 10 crash.
“The Russians have shown us their empathy,” said Bogdan Zawada, 40, an engineer from Sycow in western Poland waiting with his family in Market Square. “It’s a pity though that so many lives had to be lost for this moment to come.”
Investigators continue to work on synchronizing voice and flight data from the “black box” recorders from the plane crash, said Col. Zbigniew Rzepa, a spokesman for the Polish Military Prosecutor’s Office. Russian specialists today completed decoding the recorders, Interfax reported.
At a ceremony on April 17 in Warsaw honoring Kaczynski and the crash victims, Tusk, whose ruling Civic Platform party had often clashed with the president and his brother, called for Poles to overcome their political differences in what has been called the country’s greatest disaster in generations.
“This is a serious test for all of us,” Tusk told a crowd in Pilsudski Square. “Like the passengers on that airplane, we differ by background, political views and age. Our sense of community can only be preserved within us.”
Poland must hold an election by the end of June to fill the post of president. Komorowski, who has assumed Kaczynski’s duties and is the ruling party’s candidate for president, said he will set a date on April 21. Opposition parties and a legal opinion prepared by parliamentary experts give June 20 as the preferred election date.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski may choose to run for president to succeed his fallen brother, or may withdraw from politics altogether, the Polish Academy of Science’s Rychard said.