The Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, died in a plane crash last Saturday as he travelled to a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of The Katyn Forest massacre. He was 60 years old. The plane, a 25-year-old Russian-built Tupolev Tu-154, operated by the Polish Air Force, crashed in thick fog as it approached a military airport near Smolensk in western Russia, killing all 96 passengers and crew, including Kaczynski's wife, Maria, and many senior political and military officials. It is thought that pilot-error was to blame.
Over the years, Kaczynski was keen to make Katyn a pivotal factor in Poland's relations with Russia as it had had such an impact on Poland. The execution of more than 20,000 Polish officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia by the Soviet secret police (NKVD) in April 1940 was an event that soured relations between the two countries for decades. It was only in 1990 that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the responsibility of Stalin's NKVD. Last week, Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and Poland's Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, were the first leaders in either country's history to mark the anniversary of the massacres together. Kaczynski was not invited and instead chose to participate in a separate ceremony.
The air tragedy is said to have torn a hole in the country's political elite, killing not just the President, but the heads of the armed forces, leaders of the main opposition party and state officials. Poland's former President Aleksander Kwasniewski believed that "the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic" had been lost.
Known as a pugnacious nationalist who sought to give Poland a more powerful voice internationally, Kaczynski and his twin brother, Jaroslaw, courted controversy wherever they went. Their populist right-wing views, nationalism and deep distrust of both the EU and of Putin's Russia, endeared them to many Poles – particularly the large Roman Catholic population, traditionalists and rural voters.
Lech Aleksander Kaczynski was born in Zoliborz, Warsaw, on 18 June 1949, shortly after his twin brother. Their father, Rajmund, was an engineer and fought in the Resistance during the Second World War, while their mother, Jadwiga, was a philologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Both later took part in the Warsaw Uprising of August and September 1944 against the Nazis, which ultimately failed because of the non-arrival of the Red Army; it was estimated that between 160,000 and 200,000 Poles perished. It was undoubtedly his parent's patriotism and his nation's tragic history, coupled with his admiration for his father that prompted Kaczynski to create the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising in 2004 during his tenure as the city's mayor.
At the age of 12, the brothers shot to fame as the mischievous boys Jacek and Placek in the allegorical 1962 film Two Boys Who Stole the Moon. Both then read law at Warsaw University, graduating in 1971. Little did Kaczynski know then that his subsequent move to Gdansk (Danzig) in northern Poland would prove pivotal to the rest of his life. He attended Gdansk University as a tutor/researcher and gained his doctorate in Labour Law in 1979; he continued to lecture there for the next 20 years.
During the late 70s the Polish economy was under enormous strain and there was widespread social discontentment. Government policy sparked nationwide strikes, protests and riots. Some protesters and strikers were arrested by the authorities. In order to defend these victims a new organisation was formed, the Workers' Defence Committee (KOR), a body that brought together the proletarian and the intelligentsia opponents of the regime; it was also one of the Eastern Bloc's most important manifestations of a new and powerful phenomenon, "civil society".
In 1977, Kaczynski approached the KOR and began working for them, organising lectures and writing for dissident publications. In August 1980 the trade union Solidarity was born when there was industrial unrest in the shipyards of Gdansk, led by a flamboyant and brave electrician called Lech Walesa. This laid the foundation for what occurred later in Eastern Europe in 1989 – the collapse of Communism. With the Communist authorities wishing to negotiate, Kaczynski found himself as one of the union's key advisers. Following the implementation of martial law he was arrested along with numerous others in December 1981, and spent almost a year interned.
In 1988, Solidarity was finally recognised by the government and in 1989, the regime agreed to a round-table with the democratic opposition in which Kaczynski participated. In June 1989, he was elected a senator in the first free elections since the war, and became the vice-chairman of Solidarity. In December 1990, when Walesa became Poland's first democratically elected President, Kaczynski failed in an attempt to take over as leader of Solidarity. However, Walesa consoled him with the position of Security Minister, but dismissed him in 1992 following what was the start of a long and bitter disagreement. From 1992 to 1995 Kaczynski headed the government's Central Audit Commission, and in 1996, with promotion to professor, he returned to Gdansk University. He remained there until 2000 when the Prime Minister, Jerzy Buzek, appointed him Justice Minister. He held this position until June 2001 when he was sacked after he had a public row with Buzek over the arrest of a government official.
Advocating stiffer sentencing for a wide variety of crimes and the restoration of the death penalty (abolished in 1998), Kaczynski found his popularity increasing. Thus, in 2001, he and his brother founded the Law and Justice Party. Kaczynski was elected to parliament in September of that year and by 2005 the party had established itself as one of the main forces on the right of Polish politics. In 2002, he was elected mayor of Warsaw and immediately took the opportunity to ban two gay marches. Kaczynski's strong support proved decisive in March 2005, when he surprisingly beat Tusk in the electoral race for President. The Kaczynskis' party won parliamentary elections the same year and formed a coalition government with two nationalist and populist parties. In 2006, Kaczynski appointed his brother Prime Minister; Jaroslaw served for a year, and was succeeded by Tusk.
Kaczynski had a clear foreign policy agenda. He noted that Poland needed "energy security" in order to protect Polish interests; he was perceived as distrustful of the EU, although he wanted to develop closer ties, as well as of Poland's neighbours, Germany and Russia. He also saw the strengthening of ties with the US as vital and was a major supporter for the deployment of a US anti-ballistic missile system on Polish soil, which agitated Russia. During the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Kaczynski supported Georgia's President Saakashvili and called for international intervention. He backed the bids of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, and pushed for closer co-operation between the EU and post-USSR states from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, believing it was a crucial deterrent to any Russian aggression.
One commentator summed up the former President. "Kaczynski was not a charismatic speaker, but his steely disdain for the Communist era and populist sound bites won over much of the country. He was a great patriot."
Lech Aleksander Kaczynski, politician: born Warsaw 18 June 1949; married 1978 Maria Mackiewicz (died 2010, one daughter); died Smolensk, Russia 10 April 2010.