TOPICS > Politics

Poland Begins Delicate Political Rebuilding After Deadly Plane Crash

May 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After the devastating air crash that killed Poland's president and many other top officials, Ray Suarez talks to the country's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, about receiving the tragic news, the country's political future and emerging international relations challenges.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: Poland tries to rebound from its latest national tragedy, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: The funeral of Poland’s president last month was still another reminder for millions of Poles that fate seems to conspire against their country.

The day president Lech Kaczynski, victim of an air crash in foggy weather, was buried, another accident of geography turned against the nation. Scores of world leaders, including President Obama, were diverted from the state ceremonies because ash from an Icelandic volcano grounded flights over much of Europe.

One leader who did make the trip to Krakow was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a tangible sign perhaps of a thaw in Russian-Polish relations brought about by the crash. From the first news of the crash, Russia’s leaders and people were quick to express sympathy and show their concern.

The sad irony was this: The doomed plane, carrying the president, his wife, and scores of top officials, was heading to a ceremony marking one of the bitterest moments between Poland and Russia, the World War II murder of 20,000 Polish officers and soldiers by Russian secret police.

Only recently have Russia’s leaders more openly acknowledged their country’s role in the killings at Katyn. More than 20 years since the end of Soviet communist domination, there are constant reminders Poles still live in a dangerous neighborhood, marked by tensions with Russia.

In neighboring Ukraine, a former Soviet republic locked in tense relations with Moscow, fistfights broke out in parliament last week over proposals for Russian access to Ukraine’s ports.

And even in Poland’s new alliances with the West, all is not smooth. Polish relations with the Obama administration remain delicate since Washington’s decision last year not to go ahead with missile defense elements planned in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Joining us is Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski. He’s a former defense minister, also an author and journalist. He was a political exile in England and studied there in the 1980s.

Minister, welcome.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI, Polish Foreign Minister: Hello.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we ended there with a picture of President Obama. How would you describe relations with the United States at this moment? How important an element was that withdrawal of the missile battery from your soil?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Polish-American relations are solid. And we have many projects in common.

Poland is the sixth largest contingent out of 46 ISAF nations in Afghanistan. And despite what your intro stated, the M.D. project wasn’t canceled. Its configuration has been changed. And we rather like the new version better than the previous one.

RAY SUAREZ: You were the member of the Polish cabinet who got the call when that jet went down carrying your president, terrible information to receive. How long was it before you realized the extent of the loss?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: My first information was that the plane crashed, but didn’t explode. So, there was room for doubt and for hope that maybe they just lost a wheel.

But then I got a direct connection to our ambassador, who — who managed to get himself on to the scene and — and saw the wreckage. And there was no chance that anybody was alive. So, I was — had to alert the prime minister. I had to tell the speaker of parliament that he was, as of then, acting head of state.

And I had to get the emergency services going, so that we could start the process of repatriating the bodies and starting the funerals. I also had the unenviable task of informing the twin brother, the leader of the opposition, that the president, with whom he had spoken by sat phone only half-an-hour earlier, had died.

RAY SUAREZ: This is terrible news for any nation, but Poland is a relatively young state, not in its existence as a culture, not in Poles’ existence as a nation…

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Well, we have been around for about 1,000 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Right — but, in your new political dispensation, still a young state. This must be a terrible blow.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Our constitution stood the test. The transfer of power was smooth, and the logistical operation, which was considerable, including the — the visit that you showed of several dozen foreign delegations, was smooth as well.

Poland was actually on a psychological upswing recently. We are the only country that grew last year by 1.8 percent. We are, for the first time in our history, extending assistance to other European countries that have been — that have been affected by the financial crisis. So, this tragedy was — was really a shock and a reminder of earlier times that we thought had — had been confined to the past.

RAY SUAREZ: So, you’re describing a poised, mature system, but you have also just plunged into a new political campaign. Is this another test of your maturity as a state?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: We have a campaign. As the constitution states, we need to elect a president within two months. But I think it will be quieter and more dignified than it would otherwise have been, because we were going to have this presidential campaign this year anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: How has this experience, from the time of the crash to today, changed the relationship, changed the way your country speaks to Russia?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Well, the Russian authorities didn’t try to hide anything, were open and very helpful.

And I think that, coupled with the fact that Prime Minister Putin three days earlier came to Katyn, and — and felt the horror of that place, and acknowledged Russian guilt, that is beginning to — to thaw emotions on both sides, because, just like our reconciliation with Germany, the reconciliation with Russia, which we wish for, has to be based on respect for the facts.

And that’s the only way to overcome the fear that some people still have felt in those relations. So, these are hopeful signs. I think it will be important, not just for Poland, but primarily for Russia and for the world, if Russia were to fully de-Stalinize its historical memory, its historical consciousness, because I think great countries have the capacity to acknowledge not only the good things that happened in their history.

So, we hope that Russia treads that path.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of analysts, both in your country and writing from E.U. member states, have talked about Poland’s recent embrace of Europe, its increased stature in NATO — and you mentioned the role in ISAF — and this new closeness with Russia as all being a sort of declaration of independence from the United States.

Is that really the case, that, if you move toward one, you move away from the other?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: No, I don’t think so.

The United States was very helpful to us when we liberated ourselves from communism, when we made the transition from a command economy to — to the free economy, and in our aspirations to join institutions of the West, OECD, WTO, and, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

There is the security relationship, but there is also a potential industrial investment relationship. Poland likely sits on rather large deposits of unconventional gas. And — and we hope that this will become a Polish-American venture.

RAY SUAREZ: What does that mean, unconventional gas?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: It’s shale gas…

RAY SUAREZ: Ah.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: … that you have explored in the U.S., very successfully. And — and, apparently, there — well, there are companies that are prospecting for it in Poland right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, thanks for joining us.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: Poland tries to rebound from its latest national tragedy, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: The funeral of Poland’s president last month was still another reminder for millions of Poles that fate seems to conspire against their country.

The day president Lech Kaczynski, victim of an air crash in foggy weather, was buried, another accident of geography turned against the nation. Scores of world leaders, including President Obama, were diverted from the state ceremonies because ash from an Icelandic volcano grounded flights over much of Europe.

One leader who did make the trip to Krakow was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a tangible sign perhaps of a thaw in Russian-Polish relations brought about by the crash. From the first news of the crash, Russia’s leaders and people were quick to express sympathy and show their concern.

The sad irony was this: The doomed plane, carrying the president, his wife, and scores of top officials, was heading to a ceremony marking one of the bitterest moments between Poland and Russia, the World War II murder of 20,000 Polish officers and soldiers by Russian secret police.

Only recently have Russia’s leaders more openly acknowledged their country’s role in the killings at Katyn. More than 20 years since the end of Soviet communist domination, there are constant reminders Poles still live in a dangerous neighborhood, marked by tensions with Russia.

In neighboring Ukraine, a former Soviet republic locked in tense relations with Moscow, fistfights broke out in parliament last week over proposals for Russian access to Ukraine’s ports.

And even in Poland’s new alliances with the West, all is not smooth. Polish relations with the Obama administration remain delicate since Washington’s decision last year not to go ahead with missile defense elements planned in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Joining us is Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski. He’s a former defense minister, also an author and journalist. He was a political exile in England and studied there in the 1980s.

Minister, welcome.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI, Polish Foreign Minister: Hello.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we ended there with a picture of President Obama. How would you describe relations with the United States at this moment? How important an element was that withdrawal of the missile battery from your soil?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Polish-American relations are solid. And we have many projects in common.

Poland is the sixth largest contingent out of 46 ISAF nations in Afghanistan. And despite what your intro stated, the M.D. project wasn’t canceled. Its configuration has been changed. And we rather like the new version better than the previous one.

RAY SUAREZ: You were the member of the Polish cabinet who got the call when that jet went down carrying your president, terrible information to receive. How long was it before you realized the extent of the loss?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: My first information was that the plane crashed, but didn’t explode. So, there was room for doubt and for hope that maybe they just lost a wheel.

But then I got a direct connection to our ambassador, who — who managed to get himself on to the scene and — and saw the wreckage. And there was no chance that anybody was alive. So, I was — had to alert the prime minister. I had to tell the speaker of parliament that he was, as of then, acting head of state.

And I had to get the emergency services going, so that we could start the process of repatriating the bodies and starting the funerals. I also had the unenviable task of informing the twin brother, the leader of the opposition, that the president, with whom he had spoken by sat phone only half-an-hour earlier, had died.

RAY SUAREZ: This is terrible news for any nation, but Poland is a relatively young state, not in its existence as a culture, not in Poles’ existence as a nation…

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Well, we have been around for about 1,000 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Right — but, in your new political dispensation, still a young state. This must be a terrible blow.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Our constitution stood the test. The transfer of power was smooth, and the logistical operation, which was considerable, including the — the visit that you showed of several dozen foreign delegations, was smooth as well.

Poland was actually on a psychological upswing recently. We are the only country that grew last year by 1.8 percent. We are, for the first time in our history, extending assistance to other European countries that have been — that have been affected by the financial crisis. So, this tragedy was — was really a shock and a reminder of earlier times that we thought had — had been confined to the past.

RAY SUAREZ: So, you’re describing a poised, mature system, but you have also just plunged into a new political campaign. Is this another test of your maturity as a state?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: We have a campaign. As the constitution states, we need to elect a president within two months. But I think it will be quieter and more dignified than it would otherwise have been, because we were going to have this presidential campaign this year anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: How has this experience, from the time of the crash to today, changed the relationship, changed the way your country speaks to Russia?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Well, the Russian authorities didn’t try to hide anything, were open and very helpful.

And I think that, coupled with the fact that Prime Minister Putin three days earlier came to Katyn, and — and felt the horror of that place, and acknowledged Russian guilt, that is beginning to — to thaw emotions on both sides, because, just like our reconciliation with Germany, the reconciliation with Russia, which we wish for, has to be based on respect for the facts.

And that’s the only way to overcome the fear that some people still have felt in those relations. So, these are hopeful signs. I think it will be important, not just for Poland, but primarily for Russia and for the world, if Russia were to fully de-Stalinize its historical memory, its historical consciousness, because I think great countries have the capacity to acknowledge not only the good things that happened in their history.

So, we hope that Russia treads that path.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of analysts, both in your country and writing from E.U. member states, have talked about Poland’s recent embrace of Europe, its increased stature in NATO — and you mentioned the role in ISAF — and this new closeness with Russia as all being a sort of declaration of independence from the United States.

Is that really the case, that, if you move toward one, you move away from the other?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: No, I don’t think so.

The United States was very helpful to us when we liberated ourselves from communism, when we made the transition from a command economy to — to the free economy, and in our aspirations to join institutions of the West, OECD, WTO, and, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

There is the security relationship, but there is also a potential industrial investment relationship. Poland likely sits on rather large deposits of unconventional gas. And — and we hope that this will become a Polish-American venture.

RAY SUAREZ: What does that mean, unconventional gas?

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: It’s shale gas…

RAY SUAREZ: Ah.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: … that you have explored in the U.S., very successfully. And — and, apparently, there — well, there are companies that are prospecting for it in Poland right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, thanks for joining us.

RADOSLAW SIKORSKI: Thanks.