TOPICS > Politics

Poland Rebuilds Government After Crash

April 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the wake of the plane crash that killed Poland's president and 95 others over the weekend, Ray Suarez talks to Andrew Nagorski, author and vice president of the East-West Institute, an international affairs think tank.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we are joined by Andrew Nagorski, author and former Warsaw and Moscow bureau chief for “Newsweek.” He is now vice president of the EastWest Institute an international affairs think tank.

And, Andrew Nagorski, you heard the former Polish President — President Lech Walesa say, “We lost great people, and it will be hard to replace them.”

How hard? Is Poland managing today, when it has lost such a large group of its elite?

ANDREW NAGORSKI, vice president, EastWest Institute: It’s — it’s — it’s managing, but it’s very painful. The mourning which is going on is huge. It was such a shock to the system, if you can imagine that sort of group of people in this country going down in Air Force One, and maybe on their way to something like the 9/11 site, which has that added symbolic value.

For Poland, what happened in Katyn, where — the destination of this plane, was just as emotional, even more so. But I think what we have to say is that, amid the mourning, there has been a — a tremendous resilience shown by the Polish people and a system which is, after all, a democratic system only created 20 years ago, after the collapse of communism, is showing that it’s functioning.

Every step of that system is functioning — an acting president. Now there’s an acting head of the central bank. They are — people are being replaced, and new elections are coming up. And there’s a sense, I think, already of quiet pride that they are managing with this terrible tragedy.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned that the system is only 20 years old. Is there a deep enough group in leadership so that these positions in a fairly young system could be filled quietly, easily and with competent people?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Not easily, but I think they will find competent people.

I think there have been a lot of people who have — who have risen in the last 20 years. And, remember, also, Poland had a struggle for freedom for the previous 20 years, at least, but especially in the ’80s, that helped nurture a new generation of leaders who, at first, when they went into the opposition largely and were part of things like the solidarity movement, didn’t imagine that they would ever be running the country.

But, by running an underground movement, an opposition movement, they learned the tactics of politics, forced a change in the system, and then learned to manage the new system. And I think we’re going to see a lot of new faces coming up. There will be gaps, of course, but I think the Poles have shown that they can manage both the politics and the economics, by the way, quite well.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that the ill-fated trip was to a commemoration of the Katyn massacre. This was a part of a very slow process of normalizing relations with its giant neighbor, Russia.

How could this accident affect Polish-Russian relations?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Oddly enough, the legacy — there may be — out of this tragedy, there could be two good things that happen, if you can call them good things.

One, the Poles always felt a tremendous amount of frustration that — about the lie about the Katyn massacre. During the communist days, the Soviet Union and the Polish communist rulers insisted on the lie that this was a massacre perpetuated by the Germans, who had not yet even invaded the Soviet Union at that time.

So, even though everybody in Poland knew who really was responsible, they — the official line was that lie. And it’s been painful to try to get the Soviet Union and then Russia to finally acknowledge that.

It began to change — this began to change in the ’90s, and gradually, in recent years, changed some more, although there was certainly some back — backsliding, as Putin tried to airbrush some of that history.

This time, there’s been a lot more acknowledgment of what happened. And even a Polish film about the Katyn Forest massacre, an extremely powerful feature film, was shown on — on — on Russian television recently. And Putin did attend a memorial with the prime minister of Poland a few days before this tragedy.

And I think the dignified way in which Russia has dealt with the tragedy, issue — having a day of mourning, being very respectful of what’s happened, and helping the families as they identify the remains, has impressed the Poles. And a lot of the old Polish-Russian enmity, of course, won’t disappear right away, but there is hope that this will begin to — to clear the air and allow for a new, more — more cooperative spirit to enter the relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: Very briefly, Andrew Nagorski, you mentioned the dignified response from Russia. Is it also more open? You used to work in this country as a reporter. Is it possible to find out more about these things than it once was?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Oh, absolutely.

I mean, the — the press is still — still has a lot of controls, but there has been — on this issue, there’s been much more open discussion on the issue of simply the crash itself, the conditions.

There’s been — there have been immediate cooperation with the Polish authorities. In the past, of course, everything would have been shrouded in — in secrecy, and which would have — would have created all sorts of conspiracy theories.

Now, the fact of this openness and this willingness to at least deal with and try to get to the facts, and then also acknowledge the underlining — underlying tragedy that — that brought these people to — to Smolensk in the first place, has diminished those conspiracy theories. There always are some, but they’re far fewer.

And I think — I think, as long as the Russian authorities continue to behave this way, I think there will be far less of this kind of climate of suspicion that has usually shrouded these sorts of events.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Nagorski, thanks for joining us.