Smoleńsk, Conspiracy Theories, and the Upcoming Presidential Campaign
April 30, 2010
Now that the initial paralysis brought on by the Smoleńsk tragedy has subsided, the sober reality of investigations, conspiracy theories, and electoral campaigns has set in. Yet, there are certain aspects of the plane crash that still need to be sorted out. And 20 days after seems a bit late in coming for most Poles.
Three black boxes were recovered from the crash site, two of which are still being examined in Moscow by Russian investigators and Col. Zbignew Rzepa from the Polish Supreme Military Prosecutor’s Office. Poland has repeatedly pressed Russia to hand over the black boxes, the contents of which contain flight parameters and voice recordings of the last thirty minutes of the flight (including the pilots’ conversations with the control tower on the ground). Needless to say, the contents of the boxes have not yet been released to the press… and as most Poles believe, never will be.
Yesterday, four hypotheses for the cause of the crash were officially presented by Polish prosecutors: 1. technical difficulties with the plane; 2. pilot error; 3. organizational problems with the flight – including miscommunication with controllers on the ground; and 4. pressure from passengers to land, despite atmospheric conditions. A terrorist act was all but ruled out by the official investigation, and technical difficulties were deemed unlikely. This leaves miscommunication with controllers the ground and pressure from passengers as the most likely causes of the accident. However, the validation/discrediting of both of these theories goes back to the black boxes, which would have recorded communications on board. And so (forgive the cliché) – a vicious circle has begun.
In terms of conspiracy theories: can you really blame the Poles? I guess in some respects, yes. I encountered many a suspicious reaction right after the crash, when emotions were still raw and unfiltered by rationality. “The President died in a plane crash? In RUSSIA?!” On the other hand, this is not the first time the dead body of a Polish President has flown back from Russia: Bolesław Bierut died under “mysterious” circumstances during a political visit to the Soviet Union in 1956. (It was widely speculated that he was poisoned.) Many Poles also cite the fact that all cameras and filming devices were immediately confiscated at the crash site. The first offcial images were released when rescue crews were already on-site, hosing down steaming pieces of debris. In response to this, I guess it’s appropriate to cite Saddam Hussein’s execution and the controversy over what a cell phone can capture on video. However, in this case, amateur video was captured at the Smolensk crash site and is being investigated by experts. (Most controversial in the video is the lack of ‘dense fog’ and the gunshots heard in the background.) A Belarusian reporter also took photos a few hours after the crash, capturing uniformed military personnel changing lightbulbs that light the runway strip at the Smolensk airport. Whether the originals were necessary to the investigators, or if it was an attempt to cover up some sort of inadequacy, is uncertain. But once these conspiracy theories begin, they can go on forever…
The investigation, itself, will go on for quite a while. Seventy witnesses are being interviewed, personal items of those onboard the president’s flight are being examined (cell phones, laptops, etc.), pieces of the plane have been reconstructed to analyze and test, not to mention those black boxes…
At any rate, it has been very interesting within the last week or so to witness the uncertainty of how to approach the upcoming presidential elections – scheduled for June 20. According to the Polish Constitution (this Monday, May 3rd is actually Constitution Day in Poland and a national holiday), upon the death of the President, the Marshal of the Sejm (=Speaker of Parliament) becomes Acting President–in this case, Bronisław Komorowski–and is required to declare an election date within two weeks. The election must then take place within the next 6o days.
And so, the late President Kaczyński’s national-conservative political party, PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice) put forth its candidate at the last moment – right before the April 26th deadline: Jarosław Kaczyński, the late President’s twin brother/former Prime Minister of Poland from 2006-2007/ current chairman of PiS.
His main rival in the election is Acting President Bronisław Komorowski, vice-chairman of the liberal-conservative PO (Platforma Obywatelska, Civic Platform Party)/Polish Minister of National Defense from 2000-2001/Vice-Marshal of the Sejm (lower chamber of the Polish parliament) from 2005-2007/Marshal of the Sejm from 2007-2010. Komorowski’s candidacy has been endorsed by Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarity movement and first President of Poland (from 1990-1995) after the fall of Communism.
[It is important to note that Wałęsa and the late Kaczyński were on bad terms at the time of his death. The two worked side by side during the Solidarity movement, but fell out afterwards. Wałęsa went on to sue Kaczyński over allegations that he secretly collaborated with the SB (Służba Bezpieczeństwa, Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs)– the internal intelligence agency and secret police established in Communist Poland in 1956 mainly responsible for political repression.]
Kaczyński’s candidacy is quite controversial. Many opponents (particularly the PO party) say he will be riding on sympathy votes, politically exploiting the Smoleńsk tragedy. Marta Kaczyńska, daughter of the deceased President has even joined his campaign, agreeing to appear on billboards to endorse her uncle’s bid for the presidency. What seems like a natural choice for president to some (if not many) Poles has unfortunately reawakened the age-old sharp elbowing, ever present (it seems) in Polish politics.