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Polish Ties Face Test After Plane Crash

MTA woman hanging a portrait of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski at the Polish Embassy in Moscow on Sunday.

Russia's uneasy ties with Poland face a test after Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and dozens of other senior Polish officials died in a weekend plane crash tentatively blamed on fog and pilot error.

The Polish delegation was flying to Smolensk on Saturday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of a Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the nearly village of Katyn when its descending Tu-154 plane got caught on a tree and broke up.

Air controllers at the Severny military airport said the pilots ignored recommendations to land elsewhere, including in Minsk, because of the poor weather conditions and made three attempts to land before the disastrous approach. All 96 people on the plane died.

Russian leaders quickly offered support and sympathy. President Dmitry Medvedev ordered crash investigators to make sure that the Poles have complete access to all information that they collect. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who marked a reset of relations with Poland at a meeting with his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, at Katyn just three days earlier, gave Tusk a comforting embrace at the crash site late Saturday that was beamed around the world. Putin is personally leading the crash investigation.

The Kremlin published Medvedev's condolences in Polish on its web site and declared a national day of mourning for Monday — a day when Russia usually celebrates Yury Gagarin's feat of becoming the first man in space.

“Medvedev and Putin found the surprisingly right words for the Poles,” said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert on the German Council for Foreign Relations. “To organize a day of mourning on a national holiday — not every country could have done that.”

Rahr suggested that relations might be damaged if the crash is blamed on something other than bad weather and a pilot error. Otherwise, they do not face much risk, he said.

Indeed, the joint investigation into the crash might draw the countries closer together, said Nikolai Zlobin, director for Russian and Asian programs at the World Security Institute in Washington.

“No matter if they want it or not, they will have to deal with this together,” he said. “It may become a basis for rebuilding mutual trust.”

Putin and Tusk took a major step toward bridging the gap between the countries when they attended the first Russian-Polish commemorations at the Katyn memorial on Wednesday. Putin had invited Tusk to the ceremony but pointedly excluded Kaczynski, who was a critic of Russia.

"It is an accursed place," former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told Poland's TVN24 after the crash. “It sends shivers down my spine. First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk, now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk Airport.”

Stalin's secret security force, known by its acronym NKVD, massacred 4,400 Polish officers and intellectuals in the forest near Katyn in the spring of 1940 after Soviet troops invaded Poland. In all, more than 20,000 Poles were killed in various parts of Russia.

“I am at loss for words. It is a disaster, the second after Katyn," former President Lech Walesa said. "They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished. Regardless of the differences, the intellectual class of those on the plane was truly great."

A total of 88 of the 96 people on Kaczynski's plane were members of the official Polish delegation, including the central bank chief, the head of the armed forces, the deputy foreign minister, the head of the National Security Office and the deputy parliamentary speaker, the Polish Foreign Ministry said.

The body of Kaczynski was sent home to Warsaw on Sunday. The rest of the bodies were sent to Moscow, where relatives and Polish officials were arriving to identify them on Sunday.

The presidential plane, a 26-year-old Tu-154M, was fully overhauled in December, the head of the Aviakor aviation maintenance plant in Samara told Rossia-24 on Saturday. The plant repaired the plane's three engines, retrofitted electronic and navigation equipment and updated the interior, Alexei Gusev said. He said the plane was completely airworthy.

Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin told Putin on Sunday that a preliminary investigation suggested that the crash had not resulted from “technical problems with the plane.”

Crash investigators began to decode the plane's flight recorders Sunday, the Transportation Ministry said.

On Saturday, the investigators had suggested three possible reasons for the crash: bad weather, pilot error or a problem with the aircraft.

Mourners, meanwhile, flocked to the Polish Embassy in Moscow on Sunday to lay flowers and express hope that the tragedy would bring Poland and Russia closer together.

"I'm sure that the accident is a chance to unite the peoples now," said Adam Kuzelewski, 42, a Polish citizen who has lived in Moscow for almost four years. "I know that the Poles feel very grateful to the Russian government for its actions."

The sidewalk outside the embassy was blanketed with flowers and lit candles. People prayed and hung black ribbons and poems on a fence.

Dozens of mourners stood in line to write a note in a book of condolences inside the embassy, which was dark, silent and filled with the scent of wax on Sunday afternoon. A large black-and-white portrait of the president and his wife stood on one side of the room where the book of condolences rested on a table.

"I was shocked. It all looks like fate. I can't recall any other tragedy of this kind involving a country leader," Sofia Statkevic, who moved to Moscow from Poland in the 1970s, said as she left the embassy.

"Russian-Polish relations were never easy, but now is the right time to stop [the fighting]," she said. "But fears remain that relations might be affected."

Mojto Rastislav, 31, a Slovak who came to lay flowers with his family, said he was impressed with the Russian response. "Relations between Russia and Poland have been complicated. But right now the Russian government has reacted well at the very top level," he said.

Natalya Belyayeva, a Russian book editor, predicted that relations would improve. "I visited Poland recently, and I realized how close our people are," Belyayeva said after laying flowers near the embassy.

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