Sunday 17 December 2017

'Accursed' Katyn makes a nation weep yet again

Matt Moore in Warsaw

HE DIED en route to the most sensitive mission possible -- a visit to the place that has driven a wedge between Poles and Russians for three generations.

The death of Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski, and dozens of his high-level countrymen -- and the purpose behind their journey -- laid bare the deep divisions that remain between two nations that are still struggling to be more than uneasy neighbours.

Saturday's planned visit to the Katyn forest was sombre in purpose but it served to underscore President Kaczynski's suspicious eye on Poland's massive neighbour and former subjugator to the east.

The memorial service was to mark the 70th anniversary of the systematic execution of tens of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviet secret security during World War Two.

Katyn. The site of the massacre of Polish military officers, priests, rabbis, shopkeepers. Men shot in the back of the head by Josef Stalin's NKVD, the precursor of the KGB.

"It is an accursed place," former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24 after the crash.

Janusz Bugajski, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Saturday's crash had put Katyn at the centre of Polish-Russian relations.

"It brought to the forefront again an event that Moscow would like to forget or, if not to forget, to sideline," he said.

However, he also noted that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had taken a significant step by attending the Katyn commemorations last Wednesday along with his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk.

Last week, Poles took deep satisfaction in Putin's presence at the memorial for the 22,000 killed there.

He was the first Russian leader to commemorate the Katyn massacres with a Polish leader and he admitted: "In our country, there has been a clear political, legal and moral judgment made of the evil acts of this totalitarian regime and this judgment cannot be revised" -- but he still did not apologise.


Listening to Putin's remarks was the Polish prime minister, Tusk. As president, Kaczynski had not been invited to the event, so he and the others who died were making their own trip on Saturday for the Polish-only commemorations.

For half a century, Soviet officials claimed that the mass executions had been carried out by Nazi occupiers during the Second World War.

But the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev admitted in 1990 that the crimes had been committed by Stalin's NKVD secret police.

"Without a doubt, there is evident symbolism in this tragedy that we cannot even grasp now," said Slawomir Debski, the head of Poland's Institute of International Affairs.

He added: "At a time when it seemed we were reaching a conclusion of the Katyn issue between Poland and Russia, after the ceremonies, we have another tragedy."

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal 'Russia in Global Affairs', said Kaczynski's death could fuel anti-Russian sentiments among some Poles.

"There will be certain people who will say, 'It was the Russians who organised the whole thing,'" Lukyanov was quoted as saying.

He said only an open investigation by the Russian authorities could put to rest any suspicion.

However, Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University, sounded a note of optimism.

"We may also look for a grain of hope in that it can mend our relations because it is such a tragedy that we may see in it a kind of catharsis," she said.

Irish Independent

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