Bloomberg News

Polish Crash Report Threatens to Strain Russian Relations

July 29, 2011

(Adds comment in third, sixth-seventh, ninth, 15th, in 19th, resignation of defense minister in 12th paragraph.)

July 29 (Bloomberg) -- Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk risked worsening ties with Russia after a report on the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski last year found the airport unsafe, spreading the blame to officials in Moscow.

Polish investigators today rejected the findings of the Interstate Aviation Committee of former Soviet states, which said Jan. 12 the pilots of the Polish airliner that crashed outside Smolensk, Russia, in heavy fog were solely responsible for the disaster. None of the 96 people on board survived.

“The truth has turned out to be pretty painful for Russia too,” Tusk told a press conference in Warsaw today. He also accepted the resignation of his defense minister after the probe found flaws in the pilots’ training.

Relations between Russia and Poland, a Soviet satellite for more than four decades after World War II, improved immediately after the crash as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev braved a cloud of volcanic ash to attend Kaczynski’s burial. Progress faltered amid tension over the probe, concern about Poland’s involvement in a proposed U.S.-led missile shield and a Russian ban on importing Polish vegetables.

“The crash made the attempt to continue the dialogue that had been started with Russia far more difficult,” Andrew Michta, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office, said before the report’s release. If Russia “chooses to reject all responsibility for the accident, any improvement we’ve seen in Polish-Russian relations could stall for a long time.”

‘Psychological Pressure’

The Russian-led investigation found that the pilots were under “psychological pressure” to land because the commander of Poland’s air force, General Andrzej Blasik, was in the cockpit and had alcohol in his blood. Interior Minister Jerzy Miller, who headed the Polish investigation, said today Blasik didn’t interfere with the crew’s decisions.

While much of the Polish report corresponded with the earlier findings, “some of the conclusions aren’t clear to us, including their certainty that the plane’s pilot did not intend to land or that the presence of other people in the cockpit, particularly the chief of Poland’s Air Force, didn’t influence the pilots’ decisions,” Alexei Morozov, head of the technical commission, said on Russian state television today.

The disaster occurred on April 10, 2010, when a Polish air force Tupolev-154 crashed while trying to land in bad weather. The Polish delegation, which included central bank Governor Slawomir Skrzypek and military commanders, was traveling to Russia to commemorate the murder of 22,000 Poles by the Soviet secret police in 1940.

‘Not Safe’

“The air controllers gave the crew incorrect information about its position,” said Wieslaw Jedynak, a member of the Polish committee, at the presentation of the 328-page report. The airport was “not safe” to land in, another member of the committee said.

Tusk said today the report may be the “basis for good relations” between the two countries as it “doesn’t try to duck” Polish responsibility, Tusk said.

Today’s report also acknowledges Polish responsibility, saying the division of labor in the cockpit was unclear, the crew didn’t respond to automatic warnings and failed to measure the plane’s altitude with a pressure altimeter in poor visibility conditions.

No ‘Russia Bashing’

The tension surrounding the investigation may be the result of Polish political differences between Tusk and the opposition Law & Justice party, rather than a reflection of the two countries’ relations, said Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight.

“Law & Justice can drum up this nationalist sentiment, but realistically, Russia and Poland are natural business partners,” she said by phone today. “It’s important that” the report “didn’t turn into a Russia-bashing exercise.”

Tusk, who will seek re-election in parliamentary elections in October, was under pressure to respond to Russia’s findings. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s brother and leader of Law & Justice, criticized Tusk for being pro-Russia and not trying to find the cause of the accident.

“Prime Minister Tusk didn’t respond to the Russian report’s slander,” Kaczynski told reporters in Warsaw today. “He’s responsible for failing to defend Polish interests and Polish honor.”

Tusk’s Support Declines

A poll published in March showed that less than half of Poles expected their own government’s report to be an honest assessment of all the important issues surrounding the accident, and 32 percent said it would be unreliable.

Support for Tusk’s Civic Platform dropped 3 percentage points to 47 percent in a poll conducted July 21-25 by GfK Polonia, according to the survey of 1,000 people published in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita. The survey didn’t give a margin of error or account for undecided voters.

“The report will definitely stoke the debate over this year’s election,” Michta said. “The Smolensk tragedy has become a lens through which many Poles see their relations with Russia.”

--With assistance from Dorota Bartyzel and Nathaniel Espino in Warsaw and Scott Rose and Henry Meyer in Moscow. Editors: Willy Morris, Balazs Penz, Paul Abelsky

To contact the reporter on this story: Katya Andrusz at kandrusz@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net


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