Crash report angers Poles and shakes ties with Russia

January 14, 2011

WARSAW - The crash last spring of a plane carrying Poland's president and other top officials outside the Russian city of Smolensk unexpectedly drew Poland and Russia closer together. Now, Russia's report on the crash is driving the longtime antagonists apart again - and dividing Polish politicians as well.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk cut short a trip Thursday to return to Warsaw, where he attempted to contain the anger building here over the report's findings, published a day earlier. The Russian investigators blamed Polish pilots for the crash, which killed President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, and suggested they were pressured into attempting a landing by a Polish general who had been drinking on the flight.

Good relations with Russia are too important to throw away, Tusk said. At the same time, he said, "the alternative to truth is a lie, and these relations can't be built on a lie."

He said he does not contest the "reasons" for the crash, as identified in the report, but wants to address its "circumstances," which he said the report ignores, including Smolensk's airport being kept open despite bad weather and the possible role of Russian air traffic controllers.

Tusk said he wants to open negotiations with Russia over a rewrite. "It's not about some false symmetry," he said. "It's important for Polish-Russian relations to have common agreement and get rid of all doubts."

That brought a swift retort from Polish opposition lawmakers. Tusk was acting too late and attempting too little, said Stanislaw Wziatek of the Democratic Left Alliance. He accused the prime minister of "wishful thinking" and said he should have started pressuring the Russians before the inquiry's report was released.

"Now it's too late for a common stance," he said.

If Poland's concerns are not recognized by the Russians, "it will be a slap in the face for Poland," said Grzegorz Napieralski, a colleague of Wziatek's. He accused Tusk of trying to score political points by grandstanding over the report without actually attempting to refute it.

The Poles agreed, however, that the inquiry had begun in a spirit of solidarity, but that over the summer the Russians had grown less and less cooperative. In Moscow on Thursday, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin derided Poland's response, suggesting it was cherry-picking the evidence to shift some blame to Russian air controllers when there were decisive grounds for finding the pilots in error.

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