One of the worst days for Poland is rapidly becoming one of its greatest.
The country's president, its armed forces' chiefs of staff, and its National Bank President, along with many more high state officials--the core members of Poland's governing elite--lost their lives on Saturday morning. Much of the media attention has been on the destination of the presidential visit: the commemoration of the Katyn massacre in 1940. On Stalin’s orders the Soviet NKVD executed nearly 20,000 Polish Army officers (who were also key members of the educational, professional, and administrative elite). The Soviets long denied their responsibility for the massacres, and the issue had long been a major obstacle in Polish-Russian relations. And just as these relations were experiencing a period of warming and mutual concessions, Katyn has claimed more Polish losses. In an obscene irony, family members of Katyn victims were among those killed Saturday, as was Anna Walentynowicz, the crane operator whose firing led to the mobilization of Solidarity in 1980, and the eventual collapse of the communist regime in Poland in 1989. This has led to rampant speculation as to the effect of the crash on Polish-Russian relations (see here, here, and here).
Yet the focus on history, however horrific, misses a central point: The tragedy is rapidly becoming a triumph of Polish democracy. First, the political institutions work. The army leadership has been immediately replaced by committees in place for this contingency; the Marshal of the Parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, is now president ex officio; and new presidential elections are being announced for June. There has been no talk of coups, colonels, or emergency measures. Instead, army spokesmen have explicitly denounced the possibility of emergency powers for the military or heightened security stances.
Second, regardless of their political orientation, Polish elites have expressed a common sentiment: they may not have agreed with President Lech Kaczynski, but this is a vast national tragedy and an enormous loss to Polish politics and governance. Personal animosities and political cleavages have been buried, at least for the time being. Given how controversial a figure Lech Kaczynski had become—he was constantly fighting with the parliamentary majority parties, and the debates were bitter—this is no small feat. In both formal institutional terms, then, and in the informal culture of democracy, the Smolensk tragedy shows a mature democracy grieving—but continuing to govern.
These developments not only show that Polish democratic institutions have consolidated and exert a robust influence over Polish politics. They also stand in stark contrast both to recent Polish history, and to the fate of other new democracies in similar circumstances. Poland faced a similar tragedy during the interwar period: the assassination of President Gabriel Narutowicz in 1922. His murder was the culmination of extensive right-wing propaganda against the president—and resulted indirectly in the military coup of 1926 and the rule of the colonels that ended Polish democracy. To be fair, Polish post-communist democratic practices and institutions did not consolidate overnight: had this tragedy taken place in the early 1990s, for example, only a few years into the building of democracy in Poland, the results could have been far more dire—as highlighted by the current situation in Kyrgyzstan. Other new democracies, especially in Latin America, have succumbed all to readily too military leaders assuming extraordinary powers in times of national crisis.
So what made the difference in Poland? Simply put, institutions—and the presence of political elites that respect those institutions—matter. Poland is functioning smoothly today because despite the absolutely unforeseen nature of Saturday´s events, everyone in the various branches of the government affected by the tragedy is doing what they are supposed to be doing. Poland has often been criticized for its high levels of electoral volatility. Yet ironically, this very instability has perhaps given Poland´s post-communist democracy what it needed most to get through this crisis: repeated experiences with power peacefully changing hands, and often from people and parties that are not very fond of the people and parties to whom they are transferring power. One of the less-noted features of this crisis is that the presidency—at least temporarily—has passed from the Party of Law and Justice to its primary rival, Civic Platform; this is most definitely not a case of Harry Truman replacing FDR. But the transfer of power has gone smoothly. Imagine if a plane crash had claimed the lives of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2007 and the U.S. presidency had passed out of the hands of the Republican Party to Robert Byrd. How smoothly would that transition likely have been? Moreover, one cannot help but wonder how different our commentary would be today had the upper echelons of the Russian government been killed in a plane crash instead.
That said, the international implications of the Smolensk tragedy are also very different from what they would have been only a decade ago. The current government of Poland, and the administration(s) of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia are on a distinctly different footing: relations have become considerably more fruitful, in contrast to the mutual obstruction and criticism of only a few years ago. While there is some talk on the margins of Polish political commentary that what currently appears to be an airplane accident was in fact a conspiracy between the Russians and current Prime Minister Donald Tusk to prevent Lech Kaczynski from winning another term as president, no serious politician or commentator has suggested anything similar. Both Putin and Medvedev immediately issued condolences, and reassured the families of full Russian cooperation in both the investigation and the immediate arrangements. Russian citizens are mourning, and informal memorials to the victims have been set up in Moscow and elsewhere. Already, there is talk of a new era in Polish-Russian relations, long among the thorniest in Eurasia.
The “damned” woods of Katyn have claimed more Polish victims—but they also stand witness to a new and far more robust Polish democracy, and a greater maturity in Polish-Russian relations.
Anna M. Grzymala-Busse is an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. Joshua A. Tucker is an associate professor of politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the political science and policy blog The Monkey Cage. He is currently a visiting professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences of the Fundacion Juan March in Madrid.