Watching the crowds lining the streets to watch the return of Lech Kaczynski's coffin I couldn't but think how practised we Poles are at commemorating national disasters. The last time we lost a president by violent means was in 1922 when Gabriel Narutowicz was shot by a deranged artist.
This time, though, it is different. Saturday's crash was an accident. But it has delivered a blow to the new post-1989 democratic Poland. It is our first major state tragedy. Like so many others, the shock I feel at what happened to Kaczynski, is reinforced by the death of scores of our top officials. It hit the very root of the country's democratic statehood. Accomplished civil servants like my friend Stas Komorowski, a former Polish ambassador to Britain, died in the crash.
I can't but feel that the shock felt here isn't about the President himself. Lech Kaczynski was awkward with people. His presidency never enjoyed majority support. But Poles' reactions are reminiscent of the scenes following the death of Princess Diana, reflect the sense of losing a symbol of Poland's regained independence.
My head spins with the ironies. Kaczynski had been travelling to the Katyn wood for a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the 1940 massacre. Now the tragedy of his own death and that of his companions will overhang that original crime. And in 1943 General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the émigré Polish prime minister also died in a plane crash in Gibraltar which came after the Soviets broke off relations over his refusal to accept Katyn was a German war crime.
President Kaczynski mistrusted Vladimir Putin. He supported independence for Georgia and Ukraine. This clashed with Poland's government under Donald Tusk which has sought better relations with the Kremlin. Indeed Tusk and Putin had been at Katyn two days earlier. The separate commemoration symbolised the cleavage between the two politicians. Now I see the Russians behaving impeccably over the tragedy. Putin has been to the crash site and has consulted Tusk over the post-accident arrangements. The inquiry into the air crash needs to be transparent. That will keep the conspiracy theorists at bay. They are ever eager to see Moscow's hand in Poland's misfortune. Ultimately, Lech Kaczynski's death could provide a big impulse for better relations between Poland and Russia. That would be the final irony.
The writer is president of the Warsaw-based Unia & Polska FoundationReuse content