Leading article: Another tragedy strikes Polish-Russian relations

Leaders everywhere must do their utmost to help limit the damage

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Many Poles believe their country to be uniquely prone to tragedy, and the air crash that took the lives of the President, his wife, and dozens of senior officials this weekend will do nothing to dislodge that conviction. The site of the disaster, in the forest of Katyn near Smolensk, adds a bitter and mocking irony. Of all the places in the world where the Polish President's plane could have met with catastrophe, it had to be here: so close to where the elite of the Polish military was murdered on the orders of Stalin – a place, and an act, that prevented any real normalisation of Polish-Russian relations for the whole of the post-war period.

No less tragic and ironic was the timing. The President and his delegation were travelling to Smolensk for ceremonies to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn killings. But the wreath-layings and services to have been held on Saturday were, in political terms, a coda to a joint Russian-Polish commemoration earlier in the week. In a move without precedent, the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, had invited his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, to join him in marking this most emotive of anniversaries. And in his speech, Mr Putin acknowledged Soviet responsibility, but also pleaded with Poles to draw a distinction between the Soviet Union under Stalin and Russia today.

Both Mr Tusk's acceptance of the Russian invitation and Mr Putin's words were seen as opening the way for warmer relations between the two countries. But not everyone in Poland supported the efforts of Mr Tusk and his foreign minister, Radoslav Sikorski, in their overtures towards Russia, and the President, Lech Kaczynski, was among the critics. Differences over Russia policy were one reason why Mr Tusk and President Kaczynski headed separate delegations to separate commemorations at Katyn. So it was that no sooner had one cause of resentment been purged, than another – the fatal air crash – threatened to take its place. Yet again, Russia is associated with a grievous Polish loss.

It is beyond doubt that the President's death has united Poland and Poles everywhere in mourning – whatever their political sympathies. The generous tributes, the tearful crowds, and the flowers and candles left at the presidential palace and at Polish representations around the world, are ample testimony. The question is where this outpouring of national grief will lead.

The worst possible result would be a revival of the Polish-Russian hatred that Mr Tusk and his government have tried so hard to overcome. The more pragmatic relationship they were in process of forging with Moscow was already having a beneficial influence on relations inside the European Union and on EU relations with Russia. It chimed, too, with President Obama's efforts to change the climate between the US and Russia. His cancellation of plans to station anti-missile defences in Poland was part of that reorientation, and it was supported by the Polish government.

But what happens next does not depend only on Poland. It depends also, and crucially, on Russia. So far – in the early and respectful expressions of official condolences and the dispatch with which arrangements have been made for recovery and repatriation of the victims – Russia has conducted itself with propriety and sensitivity. And there is just a chance that, if this continues, the disaster could help foster a new atmosphere of mutual confidence. With feelings running high and rumours rife, however, leaders on both sides will have their work cut out if the damage from this latest chapter in Poland's difficult relationship with its eastern neighbour is to be limited.

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