After plane crash, Poland is at a political crossroads

By Marjorie Castle
Saturday, April 17, 2010; A13

Rarely is personal tragedy so intertwined with the political. For Poland, the crash in Smolensk, Russia, last weekend of the Tu-154 airliner carrying the country's president, first lady and dozens of other officials is a history-changing event. It is also a personal tragedy of extraordinary proportions for former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who lost his twin brother -- his constant collaborator and political partner -- President Lech Kaczynski. This disaster's long-term impact on the Polish right -- on its worldview, its relations with domestic opponents and its stance toward Russia -- can be shaped by the bereaved twin, if he so chooses.

The story reads like a novel, albeit a highly unrealistic one, because the plot twists are wildly improbable and the coincidences strikingly neat. Identical twin boys are born to Polish patriots, veterans of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. After a brief stint as child actors, the brothers study law and commit themselves to the overthrow of communism, working in the underground opposition. With communism defeated, they adapt with lightning quickness to the new democratic game. Within a couple of decades they become the most successful of former oppositionists -- at one point holding the offices of both president and prime minister.

They are passionate ideologues, devoted to cleansing Poland of remaining communist influences as well as to remembrance of crimes against Poland, especially those crimes committed by Russia. Chief among these crimes is the massacre of several thousand Polish army officers and other elites in the Katyn forest in 1940. In a development that any self-respecting author would reject as too obviously ironic, the presidential twin dies in a plane crash on his way to a 70th-anniversary commemoration of the massacre.

This brings us to the surviving twin, a bachelor now mourning not only his brother but also his sister-in-law and dozens of longtime political colleagues and friends. All the Polish political elite are in mourning. One politician described himself as not knowing for which of his many friends he was shedding tears. Each of the largest political parties lost at least three important members. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski has lost something much more than that.

Many years ago I interviewed the Kaczynskis separately about Solidarity's negotiations with the communists. One twin had participated in the official talks, the other in the private meetings. Truthfully, I could have saved myself time and interviewed only one. They knew exactly the same facts and told identical stories. Jaroslaw, for example, was eager to explain to me not just the contribution his brother had made to the secret negotiations but even Lech's reasoning. Lech made sure I realized what Jaroslaw had added to the opposition's preliminary strategy sessions.

In democratic Poland, the twins continued to operate in close political partnership, with never a visible disagreement between them on their fundamental goals. Even in 2006-07 as heads of such inherently competitive institutions as the presidential chancellery and the prime minister's government, they worked together without a hitch. President Kaczynski's last phone call, from his ill-fated plane, was reportedly to his brother to tell him that the trip to Katyn was going according to plan.

As unquestioned leader of Law and Justice, the only right-wing party that can collect enough signatures to nominate a candidate for the early presidential election in June, Kaczynski has the power to determine the future of the Polish right. As his brother's survivor he has an exceptional moral authority to do so.

The remaining Kaczynski's interpretation of this tragedy, whatever it may be, is likely to be shared by a significant proportion of Poles. Was it an incomprehensible act of God or the latest martyrdom of the "true Poland"? Should he accept the conciliatory gestures of his political opponents or dismiss them as hypocritical and opportunistic? Should he take Russian declarations of sympathy and solidarity at face value?

But these possibilities are merely political. In the grip of such a personal tragedy, Kaczynski might withdraw from politics entirely. In a novel, this would be the cliffhanger, as the bereaved twin readies himself for Sunday's state funeral, in between hospital visits with his critically ill mother, whose doctors recommended against telling her the news. Unfortunately for Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the Poles joining him in mourning, this is reality.

Marjorie Castle, an associate instructor of political science at the University of Utah, is the author of "Triggering Communism's Collapse: Perceptions and Power in Poland's Political Transition" and co-author of "Democracy in Poland."

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