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Same-Day Analysis

Air Crash Claims Large Swathe of Poland's Political and Military Elite

Published: 12 April 2010
The worst aviation disaster in Polish history occurred in the early hours of 10 April near the Russian town of Smolensk, claiming the lives of President Lech Kaczynski, Central Bank governor Slawomir Skrzypek, and dozens of other prominent political, military, and religious figures.

IHS Global Insight Perspective

 

Significance

President Lech Kaczynski and many other members of the political and religious elite were travelling to a commemoration of the 1940 Katyn massacre of Polish officers when their plane crashed near Smolensk in western Russia.

Implications

The crash robs Poland of many of its most prominent public figures, including the President, key parliamentary figures, the central bank chief, and the heads of the military. The disaster will shake up Poland's political scene for some years to come, but political and economic stability should not be compromised.

Outlook

The president's death means a new election must be held within two months. The country is also facing a Senate by-election, the appointment of new Sejm (lower house of parliament) members, election of a new Polish Central Bank governor, and the appointment of new army commanders.

Poland in Mourning

Prominent Victims

Name

Position

Lech Kaczynski

President

Maria Kaczynska

President's Wife; First Lady

Ryszard Kaczorowski

Former President-in-Exile

Jerzy Szmajdzinski

Deputy Speaker of the Parliament

Krzysztof Putra

Deputy Speaker of the Parliament

Andrzej Kremer

Deputy Foreign Minister

Tomasz Merta

Deputy Culture Minister

Stanislaw Jerzy Komorowski

Deputy Defence Minister

Wladyslaw Stasiak

Head of President's Chancellery

Janusz Kochanowski

Poland's Ombudsman

Slawomir Skrzypek

Head of Poland's Central Bank

Aleksander Szczyglo

Head of the National Security Bureau, former Defence Minister

General Tadeusz Buk

Head of Polish Land Forces

General Franciszek Gagor

Chief of Staff

Admiral Andrzej Karweta

Head of Polish Navy

Janusz Kurtyka

Head of National Remembrance Institute

Anna Walentynowicz

Former Solidarity Activist

A tragic accident on Saturday (10 April) claimed the lives of many of Poland's leading figures in politics and the military. At 7:56 GMT, the airplane carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski crashed while trying to land at the military Smolensk-Severny airport in western Russia. The passengers included various political, religious, and military officials who were flying to the Russian town to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn killings, one of the biggest tragedies in Polish history. According to official reports, all 97 who boarded the Tupolev TU-154 aircraft—including 88 members of the Polish official delegation—perished. The accident claimed the lives of President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria Kaczynska, governor of the Polish Central Bank Slawomir Skrzypek, deputy speaker of the Sejm (lower house of parliament) and presidential candidate for the centre-left Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) Jerzy Szmajdzinski, a number of Sejm deputies, senators, and the entire command of the Polish armed forces. According to preliminary reports, the Smolensk-Severny airport control tower advised the pilot on a number of occasions to redirect to Minsk (Belarus) or Moscow (Russia), due to thick fog. The crew decided to go ahead and try to land at Smolensk-Severny, in the process hitting trees on approach to the military airport's runway. The official cause of the accident is still being investigated by both Poland and Russia. The latter inquiry is being led by Russia's former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

Presidential Election Consequences

The tragic accident changes Poland's political landscape and has long-term implications. Most importantly, the accident will bring forward the presidential election, originally scheduled for October. In line with the constitution, Kaczynski's responsibilities have passed in the meantime to Speaker of the Sejm Bronislaw Komorowski. The latter must announce a new election date within 14 days of the accident, and the polls must take place within 75 days. Apart from being the acting president, Komorowski is also the governing Civil Platform (PO) party's presidential candidate. Before the accident, it was expected that Kaczynski, of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, would run for a second term. Due to his controversial nature and continuous rifts with Prime Minister Donald Tusk's government, his popularity had been waning. Kaczynski's conservative and traditional-patriotic rhetoric endeared him in particular with the country's rural population. The race between Kaczynski and Komorowski (who has led polls since his nomination by the PO) would have been tense (see Poland: 30 March 2010: Election 2010: Polish Ruling Party Names Candidate for Presidential Polls). Adding to the upheaval, the accident also claimed leftist SLD's presidential nominee Jerzy Szmajdzinski. It is as yet unclear which candidates will represent the SLD and PiS in the presidential race, and what impact the crash will have on the successors' fortunes. The death of PiS-supported Kaczynski may well increase voter sympathy for the party.

Of all the parties, the PiS was most heavily represented by the MPs on board the airliner, and now faces the greatest uncertainty. Since losing to Tusk's PO in the 2007 general election, its popularity has suffered considerably. The party will presumably now appoint younger representatives, and possibly appeal more successfully to the younger Polish population. For the PO; meanwhile, it will be difficult to go on the attack against a party that has suffered such a tragic loss.

Foreign Policy Consequences

The timing and location of the tragedy is extremely sensitive. The victims were on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the so-called Katyn massacre, in which more than 20,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia were murdered by the Soviet secret police. The Katyn massacre has for many years strained diplomatic relations between Russia and Poland, and was only officially acknowledged by the former in 1990. This year's commemorations near the Katyn forest have marked the important first steps towards reconciliation (see Poland - Russia: 8 April 2010: Katyn Tragedy Commemoration to Soothe Russia-Poland Relations). Saturday's accident—which once more saw many prominent Poles perish on Russian soil—has the potential to either damage or repair bilateral relations. The unpredictable outcome, moreover, has important implications for broader Russian-European relations. So far, the accident seems to be bringing the two countries together. The Russian government led by Putin has acted with extraordinary speed to show solidarity and sympathy towards Poland. Putin is personally leading the Russian investigation into the accident, and the Russian foreign ministry has agreed to grant visas for Poles needing to come to the country to join the investigation or cope with the disaster. Furthermore, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has announced that today will be a day of national mourning in Russia for victims of the tragedy. The quick and determined Russian response suggests that the second Katyn disaster may ultimately help overcome the bitter legacy of the first. Nevertheless, the situation remains fluid and the Russian response will be studied intently in grief-stricken Poland.

Economic Consequences

Slawomir Skrzypek, who was both president of the National Bank of Poland and chairman of the Monetary Policy Council (MPC), accompanied Kaczynski on the doomed flight to Smolensk. Skrzypek's three-year tenure at the helm of the central bank had got off to a controversial start as his qualifications for the job were questioned, but he earned respect for steering the central bank and Poland's monetary policy through the global financial crisis without major mistakes. Indeed, following a steep depreciation, the zloty stabilised in early 2009 and has recovered since, contributing to Poland's role as an anchor of stability in the region.

Skrzypek's functions at the central bank have been taken over by his first deputy Piotr Wiesiolek, but his seat on the MPC will remain vacant until a new central bank president has been nominated. According to the constitution, the central bank president is nominated by the Polish president and approved by the parliament. Acting president and Sejm speaker Komorowski has already said that the election of a new central bank chief is among the highest priorities. Although Wiesiolek cannot take over Skrzypek's functions at the MPC, monetary policymakers can convene nevertheless. Meetings may be called upon the request of at least three members; regular meetings had already been scheduled by the late chairman until the end of June. The meetings may be chaired by a council member who is elected by the remaining nine members. This ensures that the functioning and operations of both the central bank and the MPC are secure.

Outlook and Implications

The tragic accident has thrown the Polish political scene into disarray, but at this point the country is handling its losses with astonishing resilience. Senior Polish officials have asserted that the government will continue to operate normally. The military leaders were meanwhile immediately replaced by their subordinates. Members of parliament will be replaced by the next-highest vote winner from the same party in the electoral region; and acting president Komorowski is due to announce a new date for the presidential election after discussions with all political parties.

It remains unclear whether Komorowski will quickly nominate a new central bank president, but the functioning of the central bank and monetary policy are not in jeopardy. The appointment of the new central bank president, however, could be a major issue of contention between Komorowski, who hails from the governing PO party, Prime Minister Tusk, and Lech Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who leads the PiS, the main opposition party. Markets have reacted calmly to the news, and there is no hint of panic. Indeed, the resilience of Poland's economy has just been tested by the global recession. The country's budget deficit is too high, but there are no major policy decisions due imminently. The MPC was in a wait-and-see mode anyway, and was not expected to switch either the implicit policy bias or change interest rates before mid-year. With Skrzypek's voice now being lost, it is likely that the MPC will shift more to the hawkish side again, as almost all new council members—appointed by the governing coalition at the beginning of the year—have relatively hawkish credentials. That said, it is still too early to draw any conclusions in this respect, with political life in Poland being in a state of shock.

The aftermath of the accident will take time play out on numerous levels. The crash itself is already the focus of intense speculation—was it the fault of the crew or was the age of the Soviet-era aircraft the real culprit? Should so many top officials have been allowed to travel on the same plane? With the country in a state of mourning, the political scene could be shaken up dramatically. There is a good chance that the right-wing PiS will be boosted after the tragic spectacle of former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski mourning his brother. Although the events of Saturday morning do not threaten Poland's political and economic stability, they will recast the political scene, affect economic policy direction, and redefine foreign relations towards Russia, for better or for worse.
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