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Tested Yet Again By Tragedy, Poland Exhibits Its Perseverance
The Washington Diplomat / May 2010

By Larry Luxner

The black metal fence fronting the Polish Embassy along Washington’s 16th Street has quickly become the focal point for a spontaneous outpouring of grief following the April 10 plane crash that took the lives of President Lech Kaczynski, first lady Maria Kaczynska and 94 other members of Poland’s political and military elite.

Leaning against that fence are hundreds of bouquets of flowers left by well-wishers, while Catholic votive candles burn in the victims’ memory, dripping their wax on the sidewalk — a scene echoed at embassies around the world.

And next to the embassy’s bronze plaque is a framed black-and-white portrait of the 60-year-old president and his wife, and a simple typed sheet of paper explaining how they died.

“This is an enormously tragic day in the history of Poland,” declares the sign, not far from a card offered by Georgetown University’s Klub Polski and a handwritten note “for the people of Poland on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.”

Inside the embassy, the mood is solemn as a steady stream of visitors enters to pay their respects and sign the official book of condolences. Ironically, that book is located in the same room where, on March 18, The Washington Diplomat interviewed Ambassador Robert Kupiecki for this month’s cover story.

That story was supposed to be a happy one — detailing how Poland has managed to turn its economy into the strongest in Europe despite the financial crisis that continues to plague most of the world. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederic Chopin, Poland’s most famous musician, and in August, Poles were to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Solidarity movement that eventually led to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

But then, a president’s plane went down, and a country plunged into mourning.

Now, Poland’s 38 million people are in no mood for celebrations, although they have been demonstrating the remarkable resilience that has helped this country — pummeled by the Nazis in World War II, when 6 million people were killed, half of them Jews, and then imprisoned for decades by the Iron Curtain — survive its often-conflicted history.

Still, it will take time to heal from this latest trauma, which stunned not only Poles but the world.

“This tragedy has no precedence in our history,” Kupiecki told The Diplomat. “The crash killed our president, the first lady, the chief of the general staff, the commanders of all branches of our armed forces, the president of the national bank and 18 parliamentarians, along with bishops and other religious leaders.”

Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who declared a week of mourning in Poland, has described the Smolensk air disaster as “the worst tragedy to befall the nation since the end of the Second World War.”

Kupiecki said he was awakened at 3 a.m. Washington time, a few minutes after the president’s Soviet-built Tupolev went down in Smolensk, just inside Russia’s border with Belarus.

The flight was en route to Katyn, site of the 1940 massacre of 22,000 members of Poland’s military and intellectual elite by the Soviet secret police. In a cruel twist of fate, Kaczynski and a large number of today’s political elite were to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of that massacre; many on board that flight were also families of those slain at Katyn so long ago.

As much as the fiery crash reopened painful memories, it also galvanized the Polish people as the country set aside political divisions in a show of solidarity rarely seen since the days of Solidarnosc three decades earlier that ultimately brought down the puppet Soviet government.

Poland’s current government quickly sprang into action to reassure Poles that their young but healthy democracy could handle the crisis. “There will be no impact whatsoever on our stability. Poland is a mature, democratic state,” the ambassador declared. “We are now in a period of national mourning.”

The disaster will have little effect on Poland’s economic and foreign policy priorities. For one thing, Tusk — whose senior cabinet members were not aboard the ill-fated plane — holds real political power as prime minister; Kaczynski’s role as president was far more ceremonial.

Electoral mechanisms also quickly kicked into gear after the crash, and presidential elections have tentatively been set for June 20. Bronislaw Komorowski, currently the acting president, is favored to win the next elections as a candidate from Poland’s ruling Civic Platform party. As a practical matter, noted Kupiecki, “parliamentarians will also need to be replaced” given that the crash killed 3 percent of Poland’s elected lawmakers.

“Since the crash, we haven’t slept very much,” admits Kupiecki, who personally knew about 20 passengers aboard the aging jet. “In the middle of all this, I had the sad privilege of replacing my prime minister as chief of the Polish delegation to the nuclear summit. He was supposed to come here instead.”

Kupiecki said he met with President Obama twice, on the sidelines of the nuclear summit, and was reassured by the president’s expression of solidarity with the citizens of Poland.

“The reaction of the American people — from the president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, chief of national security and senators, to normal, average people in the street — is just amazing,” said the ambassador. “From all over America, we’ve received words of deep, profound sympathy. It just confirms the great tradition of Polish-American relations.”

In fact, so many visitors have signed the official book of condolence that the embassy has had to urgently purchase more blank books. As of April 15, the embassy has received more than a thousand phone calls, faxes, letters and e-mails expressing sorrow for the tragedy.

Kupiecki even had to cut our meeting short to receive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had just arrived to sign the book of condolence.

To the surprise of many, those warm feelings now extend to Poland’s longtime adversary, Russia, as well. Interestingly, Kaczynski, a fierce Polish nationalist, was a frequent critic of Moscow — which may have been in part why the president was heading to Polish-organized ceremony in Katyn separate from the commemoration Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had attended days earlier.

But what could have precipitated a catastrophe in bilateral relations seems to have had the opposite effect, offering a rare window for Poland and Russia to reconcile their long-standing differences — and both sides seem to be seizing the moment, at least for now.

Indeed, many Poles have been impressed with Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s response, as the Russian government — not always known for its transparency — seems determined to conduct an open investigation to quash any rumors of foul play.

And although conspiracy theories linger in Poland and on the Internet — nearly all of them suggesting that Russia had a hand in bringing Kaczynski’s plane down — both countries have made it clear that this was an accident most likely attributable to pilot error.

“There are not enough words to express the gratitude we feel to the Russian government,” said Kupiecki. “The reactions of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin were very proper. On the very day of the tragedy, the Russian prime minister met my prime minister and promised full cooperation in the investigation of this crash.”

The two governments had for some time been making efforts to put their troubled past behind them. To that end, Kupiecki says Poland — which enjoyed close U.S. ties under former President Bush — doesn’t feel threatened by the Obama administration’s recent outreach to Russia, which some fear will come at the expense of America’s traditional allies in Central and Eastern Europe (also see “Will Poles, Czechs Be Sacrificed In U.S.-Russian Realignment?” in the November 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

“We are OK with the reset policy, provided the intensity of consultations with Russia is somehow balanced by the intensity of consultations with countries adjacent to Russia,” he said. “We want to be part of the process.”

Kupiecki added that he welcomes the new START treaty signed April 8 in Prague between Obama and Medvedev requiring the United States and Russia to slash by 30 percent each side’s number of nuclear warheads deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-based ballistic missiles and bombers.

“This is a major success for the Obama administration and it sends a good message to the world,” the ambassador said. “Experts in the U.S. argue to what extent the cuts are meaningful, and while Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world won’t happen within our lifetimes, the path that’s set is increasingly clear.”

Kupiecki said Poland is sufficiently satisfied with the treaty, even though his country would have preferred no linkage between offensive and defensive weapons systems such as the “missile defense shield” proposed by President Bush and later modified by the Obama administration.

“If the U.S. says the provision regarding linkages provides no constraints or limits on deployment, testing, and the implementation of any future missile defense program including European components, then we take this statement as reassurance that this is the case.”

Last year, Russia threatened to send its missiles to the Baltic sea enclave of Kaliningrad — sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania — in response to the deployment of U.S. missiles in Poland and an accompanying radar system in the Czech Republic.

That plan was eventually scrapped, and last fall, Obama rolled out a revised European missile defense strategy that focuses more on Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles. U.S. officials have been trying to convince Moscow that the missiles — armed with thermonuclear warheads — are meant to protect Europe from Iran, not Russia. They’ve also expressed hope that Russia might eventually play a role in that strategy.

“Initially, there were a lot of questions regarding this administration’s preoccupation with U.S.-Russian relations,” admits Kupiecki. “In the beginning, we were asking whether the ‘reset’ button would be at the expense of practical consultations with Central European countries including Poland. There were doubts about the missile defense program, and obviously the way it was announced was very bad [on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland]. But six months later, the body of evidence regarding Polish-American relations points to the growing commitment of the administration and progress regarding the strengthening of NATO.”

In fact, on April 28, the United States and Poland are to relaunch a strategic dialogue, which coincides with the relocation of a Patriot missile battery and 100 U.S. troops to Polish soil, part of an agreement signed last December to upgrade the NATO member’s air defenses, following Obama’s decision to reconfigure the missile defense plans.

This is a subject Kupiecki knows intimately.

As a career diplomat, his assignments have dealt mainly with security policy. A recognized expert in that field, Kupiecki was one of the pillars of Poland’s accession to NATO in the 1990s, and he’s led Polish delegations working with NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations and other bodies dealing with disarmament, arms control and nuclear nonproliferation.

From 2004 to 2008, Kupiecki was director of the Security Policy Department of Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since taking up his current post in Washington two years ago, he’s been one of the key players in talks surrounding the possible installation of the U.S. anti-missile shield in Poland.

“There are three elements to this plan,” Kupiecki explained. “First, we were not seeking out the role of missile defense. We were requested by the U.S. government to do it. The argument was that it helps the defense of the United States and its allies and friends, and obviously the defense of Poland. And we fully bought this argument and consented to the deployment.

“The second argument was that we wanted to enhance our own security, and third, we view missile defense as a platform for enhanced political and military relations with the United States. So even though the program has changed, the logic hasn’t.”

He added: “Nuclear nonproliferation is of utmost importance to us. We are highly interested in developing nuclear energy, and we plan to build nuclear power plants over the next 20 years, so universal adherence to the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty is in the interests of the world.”

Likewise, Poland’s commitment to fighting terrorism is unwavering, said Kupiecki, noting that his country will soon send an additional 600 troops to Afghanistan, boosting its total presence to 3,000. Twenty of its soldiers have died in fighting so far, and about half of all Poles oppose their country’s presence in Afghanistan, according to Kupiecki, though he says there’s no talk of withdrawing any of them at present.

In the meantime, Poland is trying to boost its influence within the 27-member European Union, where it ranks as the sixth-most populous country behind Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain.

“Our role is growing,” said Kupiecki. “On one hand, there is more power for central bodies of the EU in those areas which were previously run by nations. On the other hand, the most populous, biggest European countries retain their positions in the decision-making process. Obviously, we don’t buy this division of Old Europe-New Europe. For us, there is only Europe.”

And within that continent, Poland has seen its economy outperform all others. In 2008, its gross domestic product grew by a healthy 5 percent. But even more impressive was its 1.7 percent GDP growth in 2009 — a year in which Europe’s overall GDP shrank by 4.1 percent and that of some of its Baltic neighbors by as much as 12 percent.

In fact, despite ominous predictions of a euro meltdown spurred by the Greek financial crisis, Poland been quietly humming along, becoming the only country in Europe to avoid recession or even a contraction of its economy. Predictions for 2010 see Polish GDP climbing by 1 percent or more.

“Since the crisis erupted, there hasn’t been a single bank collapse in Poland, and we attribute this to our wise policy,” said Kupiecki. “Our society did not panic or start withdrawing money from banks. All those elements combined to create this relatively stable situation.”

The Polish zloty ranks as one of Europe’s strongest currencies, though the zloty will be phased out once Poland adopts the euro at an unspecified date in the future. On the down side, 12 percent of Poles are unemployed, slightly higher than the European average of 10 percent.

Nevertheless, income tax reforms introduced in 2009, just as the global crisis set in, boosted the spending power of Polish consumers, which in turn kept private consumption as a relatively strong growth factor, said analysts. They also point to a steady demand from Poland’s large domestic market and relatively low dependence on exports as a mix that helped it record growth during a year of global recession.

“We are a relatively big European market. Our domestic consumption and the power of our domestic market makes it a significant factor,” the ambassador confirmed. “I would also point to a smart economic policy and good regulatory instruments.”

Poland’s economic prosperity has attracted the attention of more than 200 U.S. companies, which together have invested $15.6 billion in factories and other infrastructure. In mid-March, Sikorsky announced the production of its first Black Hawk S-70i helicopter fully built in Poland. Production at the plant in Mielec is expected to total 36 to 40 choppers per year — and marks the first time Black Hawks are built anywhere outside the United States.

“Poland is a promising market for defense contractors,” Kupiecki told The Diplomat. “We have highly skilled professionals and internationally experienced armed forces, and we are on the verge of modernization. Potentially a lot of projects can be developed in Poland, because we are highly competitive.”

But more than anything, Kupiecki and his countrymen really want to see progress on the contentious visa waiver issue. There’s a chance he may get his wish, especially if there’s an outpouring of emotional support for Poland in the wake of the April 10 plane crash.

At present, 33 European nations qualify for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, meaning that citizens of those countries do not need to go through the lengthy and often frustrating visa application process to visit the United States.

In October 2008, President Bush announced that six former communist countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — would be added to the program. But Poland’s continued exclusion has angered many people on both sides of the Atlantic, especially considering all that Warsaw has done to accommodate U.S. foreign policy interests, including backing the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There is little justification for the current situation. Even if it’s motivated by national security concerns, I don’t see Poland being a problem. On the contrary, if you look at Poland’s military engagements over the last 20 years, one draws the conclusion that wherever American troops were deployed, Polish troops followed,” Kupiecki pointed out.

“And even if it’s motivated by anti-immigration concerns or defending the U.S. labor market, that’s of lesser concern than it was 20 years ago. Poland is now part of the European Union and our economy is great, so it’s also changing the reason Poles travel. Even being a diplomat trained in explaining things, I can find very few arguments for this situation,” said Kupiecki, adding that, these days, Poles are more likely to want to visit the United States as tourists than settle there as immigrants.

“On the street level,” he says, “people wonder, ‘If our soldiers were accepted by the U.S., then why doesn’t America liberalize its policy regarding visas? If our soldiers were good enough for Afghanistan, why can’t their wives visit the United States and spend money in American shops?’”

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