It looked at first like the chance of a lifetime, if not a millennium. On April 10, when Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his entourage died in a plane crash in eastern Russia, the flood of grief from the Russian people struck such a chord in Poland that the long history of war, betrayal and oppression between the countries finally seemed to turn a corner. For the first time since anyone could remember, the two nations’ leaders began to call each other brothers, a show of amity that would have been hard to imagine before the crash.
But over the past few days, a new cycle of recriminations has begun, helped along by a lack of tact on both sides. The Russians, having closed their official investigation into the tragedy, are stonewalling urgent questions from the Poles, while the Kaczynski family is calling the accident an assassination carried out by Russia. The two countries had the chance to make amends, but now the moment has passed.
That became clear on Jan. 12, when Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee held a press conference in Moscow to reveal the causes of the plane crash. With none of the Polish investigators in attendance, the head of the committee, Tatyana Anodina, launched into a stone-faced monologue that cleared the Russian side of all responsibility. All of the blame, she said, fell on the Polish flight crew, which her report accused of ignoring warnings from ground control and making other “absolutely illogical” mistakes. According to the report, for some reason they failed to heed the automated system that was screaming “Pull up! Terrain ahead!” inside the cockpit, and at one point a crew member also inexplicably pressed a button that skewed the altitude gauge, leading the pilot to believe he was about 525 ft. higher than he actually was. Why the Russian control tower did not point out this mistake was not clarified in the report.
Most shocking of all to the Polish public, however, was the claim that the chief of the Polish air force, Andrzej Blasik, who was on board as part of the President’s entourage, had been drinking when he allegedly barged into the cockpit and demanded the pilots to land despite the heavy fog. The report also alleged that in August 2008, during the war in Georgia, President Kaczynski had insisted that the pilots change course at the last minute and land in the capital Tbilisi, instead of at an airport further away from the war zone, in order to save time. After the pilot refused, he was allegedly banned from flying the President’s plane.