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April 10, 2010
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Norman Naimark, an expert on modern East European, Balkan, and Russian history, spoke to Stanford News Service about Saturday's airplane crash that killed Poland's President Lech Kaczyński and first lady Maria Kaczyński, along with Poland's deputy foreign minister and a dozen members of parliament, the chiefs of the army and the navy, church leaders, the president of the national bank, and others.
The Stanford history professor's current research focuses on the history of genocide in the 20th century and on postwar Soviet policy in Europe.
The New York Times asked today: "For Poland, the losses raise the question of how a country of 38 million can replace a whole political class." Comment?
This is a terrible, terrible tragedy for Poland and the Poles. Our hearts go out to the people of Poland. But this is a very talented and highly educated people. The political class took a very hard blow. But Poland will survive with new leaders.
Ironically, the crash happened en route to a Polish commemoration of a Soviet atrocity against the Polish people at Katyń. Can you discuss the resonances of these events, and this tragic coincidence, for the Polish people?
This was indeed a bitter irony. First, the Nazis murdered some 60,000 members of the Polish elite after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Then the Soviets arrested and executed 22,000 Polish officers and administrative officials in April 1940, also as a way to deprive Poland of its political and military leadership. President Lech Kaczyński, the Polish leaders – including the entire leadership of the military – and surviving family members of the Katyń victims were on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragedy that took place in roughly the same location where they themselves fell victim of a plane crash.
Any nation that had lost major figures of its political leadership in a plane crash would suffer grievously as a result. But in the context of the history of such losses, Poland, I think, feels this even more profoundly.
By the way, the Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, Władysław Sikorski, fell victim to a mysterious plane crash in July 1943.
Katyń has for decades symbolized Russian domination and tyranny – and it's significant Kaczyński, seen by the Kremlin as more pro-American and less friendly to Russia, was not invited to commemoration events earlier in the week, although Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was. Although it's still early, how might this tragedy affect Russian-Polish relations?
It was significant that Prime Minister Putin met with Prime Minister Tusk at the earlier commemoration of the Katyń tragedy, though, unfortunately, he made some pretty feeble excuses for Stalin's murderous actions against the Polish internees. President Medvedev has ordered an investigation of the crash that will be supervised by Putin. I think a lot will depend on the outcome of that investigation.
Given the long and difficult history of Russian-Polish relations over two centuries, and in particular, the history of Soviet domination after the Second World War, Russian-Polish relations will not be particularly friendly ones. Poland's active role in the recent past in supporting Georgian and Ukrainian independence vis-à-vis Moscow also has annoyed the Russians.
Unless some Russian culpability turns up in the investigation of the plane crash, I don't think Russian-Polish relations will be effected one way or another by this tragedy. In fact, the outpouring of sympathy from Russians about what happened may actually help.
The Baltic states have been voicing concerns about Russian incursions on their sovereignty. Given Poland's history of occupation, and its current vulnerability, how valid are Polish anxieties about Russian aggression?
The Poles are in the European Union and NATO – as are the Baltic countries. And within those organizations, they are the most wary of Russian intentions. Moscow has and will continue to try to find ways to reduce their impact on EU and NATO policies and will try to put pressure on them to defer to Russian interests in the region. With that said, I do not think either the Baltic countries or Poland will be subject to Russian aggression, though historically there is every reason to understand their feeling of vulnerability.
Poland has been concerned about President Obama's scaling back of missile defense plans in Poland – a plan that had had enthusiastic support from President Kaczyński. Might there be increased pressure on the U.S. to step up to the plate?
I do not think this tragedy will change the calculus of security relations in Eastern Europe. The Poles do have a difficult problem in replacing their chief military leaders. Questions are already being asked in Poland how the entire military leadership could be put on one airplane like this. But the American and NATO commitment to Poland, which includes the promise of surface to air missiles, will not change.
There are unusually strong personal and strategic ties between the United States and Poland. The Poles are strong supporters of NATO and American Afghanistan policy and have a substantial military contingent there. I also do not think that the Russians will somehow step up that threat. The Obama administration in 2008 withdrew earlier plans to include Poland and the Czech Republic in a strategic missile defense system.
In the next two months, Poland will see early presidential elections. Again, it's early, but can you discuss possible repercussions on Poland's coming presidential elections? The Law and Justice Party lost numerous important leaders in addition to the president, including its parliamentary leader – how is that likely to play out in the voting booth? Although Kaczyński had been trailing far behind his opponent in the polls, and was a divisive figure, particularly for the young, and had been trailing in the polls, might an outpouring of grief benefit his party?
Let me say first of all that the Poles themselves at this point are not thinking about politics. It's worth emphasizing again that this is a national tragedy of enormous proportions, one that has even more impact, if that's possible, because of Poland's truly catastrophic historical experiences. The Polish coverage that one can read on-line emphasizes the unity of the nation in the face of yet another national tragedy. Elections will be held earlier and the country's political leaders will have to find a way to engage in a democratic contest for power. I do think this tragedy will alter the dynamics of the election. But I don't think it is clear yet just how.
Norman Naimark is author of the critically acclaimed volumes: The Russians in Germany: The History of the Soviet Zone of Germany, 1945-1949 (Harvard 1995) and Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in 20th Century Europe (Harvard 2001). He is the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of East European Studies and senior fellow (by courtesy) of the Hoover Institution and the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies.
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