Piotr Maciej Kaczynski: Attitude to Russia at heart of the dispute

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Ever since Poland regained its sovereignty in 1989 it has been totemic for the Polish political class to address unresolved issues around the Katyn massacre and to commemorate its victims. Historical remembrance was particularly important for Lech Kaczynski. And it will be part of the dead president's legacy that the whole world now knows about that war-time atrocity and who committed it. The president's perception of Polish history is shared by almost the entire political class in Poland. It is an interpretation based on historical facts which are obvious to any Pole but difficult to swallow for the average Russian.

But Kaczynski adopted an approach to Russia which was confrontational, which aimed at limiting Russian influence in Eastern Europe and in demanding apologies and compensation for the crimes of the past.

His approach influenced EU relations with Russia, too. It could be felt for example in the EU's plan for ending the Georgian war in 2008; and in the move to diversify European energy imports, especially imports of Russian gas.

The Prime Minister Donald Tusk's approach on the other hand was to engage in dialogue and rapprochement. That approach paid off with a number of concrete achievements, on trade for example. And last Wednesday's Katyn commemorations brought another achievement; Vladimir Putin admitted that the 1940 massacre "cannot be justified in any way".

Mr Kaczynski and Mr Tusk did not synchronise their Russian policy; the result was a bad cop, good cop routine. But Tusk's hand was strengthened by the President's impatience with compromise. In short, there would have been no rapprochement without the President's tough stance towards Russia.

The Smolensk catastrophe could now bring a catharsis to Polish-Russian relations. History cannot and will not be forgotten, but there is a measure of new good will on both sides. The consequences remain largely unknown. Perhaps this tragedy will even have a transformative impact on Russia's internal debate on its own history. For the moment one thing is sure: for the first time in decades there are people in Poland speaking of "our friends from the East".

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies