Many Poles chuckled in 2006 when they learned that their prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, had never opened a bank account or used an ATM card. Others were less amused; they saw it as proof that the 61-year-old—who speaks no foreign languages, despises travel and lives with his mother—is too old-fashioned for the briskly modernizing country. Kaczynski lost in the 2007 general election, and then lost again last summer when he ran to replace his twin brother Lech, the Polish president who died in a plane crash in Russia last April. But now, observers say that anger over Russia’s handling of that tragedy may be so powerful that Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party could wrestle power back from Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform in this October’s election.
The crash in Smolensk that killed Lech Kaczynski and 95 other Poles could not have been more darkly symbolic. The planeload of statesmen were on their way to a memorial in the Katyn Forest, where Stalin massacred 22,000 Poles in 1940. After decades of obfuscating over those murders, Moscow had appeared to be finally adopting a softer line, and showing some recognition of Polish grief. But hopes of further reconciliation seemed to be dashed with the crash. Although experts said early on that it was likely a combination of weather, pilot error and shoddy airport facilities, the disaster prompted Polish theories that it was an assassination attempt by Russians who had somehow created the foggy conditions or tampered with the plane’s electrical systems.
Then came the official report by the report by Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee. Released on Jan. 12, it placed all of the blame on inebriated Polish commanders who pressured their pilots to attempt a landing, while omitting plausible evidence from the Polish side that Russian air traffic controllers gave incorrect flight paths and altitudes. Kaczynski was quick to call the report “a mockery of Poland”—while giving the conspiracy theories more legitimacy than ever, says Piotr Wróbel, an expert on Poland at the University of Toronto. Along with a Catholic media that is telling “the audience every day that the government are traitors who work for Russia,” says Wróbel, he is ratcheting up the anger. And if Kaczynski can rally his aging base around the anti-Russian cause, he could close the double-digit gap between him and Tusk. “This is the beginning of the electoral campaign,” says Wróbel. “The catastrophe is very easy to use.”
Indeed, older Poles remember well Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the result of a secretive deal between Berlin and Moscow. Younger Poles, meanwhile, look back to the Soviet denial of any problems in the early days of the 1989 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. With this report, says Wróbel, “the Polish came to the conclusion that the Russians lied to them again.”
Of course, younger Poles aren’t as emotional, says Wróbel. “They’re interested in business, money and the future.” If Tusk can convince Poles he’s improving the economy, he could still win in October. On the other hand, there could soon be further fuel to Kaczynski’s anti-Russian fire: Poland’s own report on the tragedy is due in February.