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18 Apr, 2010 03:29

Poland holds funeral for presidential couple

Poland is holding the state funeral for the late President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria in the city of Krakow. The presidential couple will be laid to rest in Wawel Castle later on Sunday afternoon.

Thousands have crowded the streets of the Polish city of Krakow to pay their last respects to the president and the first lady ahead of their funeral.

After the Mass at Krakow’s historic St. Mary’s Basilica, the funeral cortège transported the coffins of the presidential couple to their final resting place in Wawel Cathedral.

Delivering a speech during the service, Acting Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski acknowledged the compassion and support that Poland has received from Russia following the tragic plane crash. He also brought up the significance of the Katyn Massacre in determining the future of relations between Russia and Poland.

“Katyn is an open wound in Polish history that has for many decades soured relations between Poland and Russia. [Lech Kaczynski] didn’t have a chance to say that he wished that this wound could heal completely. We have to complete these hopes of the president by mending our relations and allying our countries,” Komorowski said.

Iceland's volcanic ash prevented many world leaders – including the US President, German Chancellor and French President – from attending the funeral.

However, delegations from the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia were present. Jerzy Buzek, the President of the European Parliament, traveled across Europe to attend the funeral. German President Horst Koehler represented Angela Merkel.

Despite unprecedented closures in Europe’s air space, President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Krakow for the funeral.

“It really was a very dreadful tragedy, for the Polish nation first of all, not to mention family members of the deceased, but also for the world order in general, too,” Medvedev said in an interview to RT. “When a country’s president and a significant number of leaders die in a catastrophe, to some extent it’s a trial for a society as well as for the international system. Therefore, there was such a united response from the entire international community and from the Russian nation to this tragedy. But it was a really tragic accident. There was something mystical about it, and perhaps there were rational reasons, too, which the investigation must find, and explain what happened there. This is very important.”

Slawomir Popowski, a friend of the late President Kaczynski, says Poles are grateful for the way Russia reacted to the tragedy – something that may have contributed to the warming in relations between the two nations.

Both sides will always defend their political interests,” Popowski said. “But the fact that we will be able to have a normal dialogue is a great achievement, which I admire.”

After the crash

All victims of the plane crash that killed Polish president Lech Kaczinsky have now been identified and their remains have been transfered to Poland.

A week after the plane crash that ended the lives of many of Poland’s political elite, the country was still in mourning. During the week of mourning, tens of thousands came to central Warsaw to pay their last respects to Kaczynski and 95 other top politicians who died in western Russia.

On April 10, Kaczynski’s jet crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk. Investigators have ruled out a terrorist attack or a technical malfunction. It’s down to two possibilities now: pilot error or poor weather conditions. These explanations appear even more likely now that investigators have revealed that the presidential plane made only one landing attempt, not four, as was claimed in the first hours after the crash.

Data from the flight recorders has been deciphered and Russian investigators are now waiting for their Polish colleagues to identify the voices on the tapes.

The deputy head of Russia's investigative committee, Vasily Piskarev, is confident the causes of the tragic event will be revealed sooner rather than later.

“We’ve been working together as a single team,” Piskarev said. “We provided the Polish side with all the evidence, allowed full access to the investigation. By now most of the bodies have been identified and sent back to Poland. We believe it won’t take long until we establish what caused the plane crash.”

Kaczynski’s delegation was on its way to a commemoration ceremony to honor the victims of the Katyn massacre. The execution of 20,000 Polish officers and public servants ordered by Joseph Stalin in 1940 is perhaps the biggest source of tension between Warsaw and Moscow. But after a joint declaration by the two countries’ prime ministers three days before Kaczynski’s visit, many saw the Polish leader as stepping on the path of reconciliation.

“I was a political rival of President Kaczynski, but if you read the speeches which he prepared for the mourning ceremonies in Katyn, you would read in them offers of reconciliation with Russia,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. “He was impressed by the meeting of the prime ministers in Katyn and he was ready to go in the same direction.”

The date of the early presidential ballot, which will decide the country’s future, is due to be announced on April 21. That’s three days after Kaczynski’s funeral, a ceremony which has already caused some controversy.

Wawel Castle in the city of Krakow has traditionally been the tomb of Polish royals, influential artists and generals. When it was decided that the late president would be buried here, some locals protested. They said that politicians – no matter how good they were – mustn’t be laid to rest next to the most important people in the country’s history.

The government found a compromise, deciding to bury the presidential couple in a different wing of the castle.

Anton Bespalov, political analyst from the Voice of Russia radio station, says the controversy over the burial place is a sign of some division of Polish society over its history.

“It is up to the Poles themselves to decide who deserves to be buried in Wawel castle, but the controversy arising from this decision can tell us a lot about Polish society itself, its views on politics and history and deep divisions within the society,” Bespalov told RT. “We can even talk about the existence of two Polands. One that is eager to revive the old Polish tradition of martyrdom and suffering – which can have lasting repercussions for Polish politics as well as its relations with the neighbors.”

Publisher and writer Alan Heath agrees that the burial place is the decision of the Polish people, but both camps have their reasons.

“I can understand both points of view. Those who are opposed to [the burial in the Wawel cathedral] say this is something that is reserved for people who have done something great for Poland in the past,” Heath says.

“The argument in favor of this is that there is no tradition at all. The last president who died outside the Communist period was in fact Pilsudski, who died in 1935, and who was buried [in Wawel]. I would argue this is a tradition; it will be made a tradition. It means that Lech Walesa will have to be buried there eventually. And it also means that the former Communist Aleksandr Kwasniewski will also have to be buried there.”