Sunday, April 18, 2010

Poland Buries its President

By MARC CHAMPION
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Krakow for the lavish state funeral of the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Sunday, while volcanic ash prevented most Western leaders from attending.

The attendance of the Russian president at a funeral filled with Catholic and Polish military pomp underscored Moscow's efforts to improve relations since last Saturday's air disaster. Mr. Kaczynski and 95 others died on April 10, when their plane crashed in thick fog on its approach to Smolensk airport, in western Russia.

Nature, in the form of volcanic ash from Iceland that closed airspace over Western and Central Europe, kept most Western leaders away. That turned the funeral into a kind of reunion of the ex-Soviet bloc, as only those traveling from the east could fly. But the importance of Mr. Medvedev's presence was evident.

After some two dozen purple-robed bishops processed into Krakow's St. Mary's Church to thundering strains of Mozart's "Requiem," Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz opened with a reference to Katyn—the 1940 massacre of some 22,000 Poles by Soviet agents. Mr. Kaczynski had been on his way to commemorate the killings when his plane crashed.

"These words I address to the President of Russia," said Cardinal Dziwisz, calling for last Saturday's crash to bring reconciliation between the two nations. "This is the task of our generation." Poland's acting President Bronislaw Komorowski went further, calling for the whole truth about Katyn to be revealed, and calling Mr. Medvedev's presence a sign that it might.
Before flying back to Moscow, Mr. Medvedev responded ambivalently in remarks to media in front of his plane. Noting that Poland and Russia had been doing "a lot" recently to repair their difficult relations, he said Katyn was "one of such difficult issues."

A nun held a rosary in front of St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow, Poland, on Sunday.

"Yes we do remember about crimes committed by Stalin and his cronies," he said. "What is needed is extra research and extra tests. However, our position is steady and unchanged." Russia hasn't acknowledged Katyn as a war crime, linked it directly to Stalin, or released many documents concerning the killings.

Sunday's funeral service against the backdrop of the St. Mary's dramatic 42-foot-tall carved altar piece capped an extraordinary week of public grief in Poland. Already in Warsaw on Saturday, close to 100,000 people attended an outdoor Mass for the crash victims. Thousands more, many in military or historical Polish dress, stood in Krakow's main square as the service was played on giant television screens.

Close to 50 world leaders who had planned to attend Sunday's ceremony canceled, according to a Polish government press official in Krakow.

A propeller-driven military transport aircraft carried the remains of the first couple from Warsaw, the capital, in the morning. The plane stayed below the 6,000-meter (19,700-foot) ceiling considered safe, the official said.

President Barack Obama canceled his trip to Poland on Saturday. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, driving back to Berlin from Italy Sunday morning, after a marathon return trip from the U.S., also canceled. So did French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain's Prince Charles and others. Germany President Horst Koehler arrived by helicopter. Leaders from Central Europe, however, made the journey by land, while those from farther east were able to fly through clearer skies. Those included Ukraine's new pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, and Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili. Mr. Kaczynski was a staunch supporter of Georgia during its 2008 war with Russia, and of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which denied Mr. Yanukovych the presidency in 2004.

The coffins carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, killed in a plane crash last weekend, are taken to Krakow's Wawel cathedral ahead of the funeral. Video courtesy of Reuters.

Mr. Medvedev left before the burial. Mr. Saakashvili walked directly behind the coffins in the procession to Wawel Castle.

The tragedy could have sent relations between the Russia and Poland into a tailspin, as some analysts predicted at the time. But Moscow has gone to unusual lengths to show goodwill in response to the crash. In addition to the Mr. Medvedev's attendance at the funeral Sunday, Moscow has invited Polish officials to take part in the investigation, and aired a Polish film about Katyn on prime-time television.

Only weeks ago, Moscow had appeared to freeze out Mr. Kaczynski, when Mr. Medvedev denied the Polish president's request that the two leaders should attend the first Katyn commemoration Russia has taken part in, together with the countries' prime ministers. As a compromise, two ceremonies were to be held, one with Russia on April 7, and one with Mr. Kaczynski alone on April 10.

After the service at St. Mary's, the two coffins were put onto gun carriages pulled by military-green U.S.-built Humvees. They crawled through the streets of central Krakow towards Wawel Castle, behind the Bishops and honor guard, as crowds threw flowers and applauded.

Some of the people buried at Wawel Castle. Dates given are for burial, unless specified as death.
Kings
Wladyslaw the Elbow-High (died 1333) -- the first King buried at Wawel
Sigismund the Old (died 1548) -- Ruled Poland in its 16th century Golden Age
Sigismund II (1574) -- The last king of the Jagiellon dynasty, revered as a statesman
Stefan Batory (1586) -- A Hungarian elected king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Defeated armies of Russia's Ivan the Terrible to recover lost territory
Jan Sobieski (died 1685) -- defeated the Ottoman armies in the 1683 Battle of Vienna
War Heroes
Prince Jozef Poniatowski (1817) and Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1818) -- Led a dogged defense against Russian armies in 1792, resigning when the king signed a treaty that led to Poland's partitioning three years later
Marshal Jozef Pilsudski (1935) -- secured Poland's independence in 1918, and repulsed Bolshevik Red Army in 1921.
General Wladyslaw Sikorski (1993) -- Prime Minister in exile and commander in chief of the Polish armed forces in World War II. He died in an air crash in 1943.
Poets
Adam Mickiewicz (1890) and Juliusz Slowacki (1927) – wrote epic patriotic poetry, in a period when Poland did not exist, due to partition by its neighbors

Soldiers shouldered the coffins into Wawel Cathedral, where they were to be placed in a crypt, next to Marshall Jozef Pilsudski. An authoritarian leader, Pilsudski is revered in Poland for securing the country's independence in 1918, after the country disappeared from the map for more than a century, partitioned by its neighbors.

The decision to bury Mr. Kaczynski at Wawel had fractured the national unity that followed the crash. During the week, hundreds of protesters took to the streets to argue that Mr. Kaczynski —whose opinion polls ratings were around 30% when he died—didn't rate a place next to Pilsudksi, or great Polish kings such as Jan Sobieski.

On Sunday, however, there was little sign of such dissent. In what seemed a response to such complaints, Cardinal Dziwisz said Mr. and Mrs. Kaczynski would by their presence honor the memories of all 96 people who died Saturday, as well as the thousands killed at Katyn. The depth of the tragedy required "a deep symbol," the cardinal said.

The choice of Wawel was made by the president's family. The couple are survived by their only daughter, Marta, as well as by Mr. Kaczynski's identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, and his mother, Jadwiga. Critics of the Wawel burial saw it as political, designed to revive the lagging fortunes of Mr. Kaczynski's party, Law and Justice, and its yet-to-be chosen presidential candidate.
Mr. Kaczynski had been a polarizing president, drawing fierce loyalty from supporters but equally fierce opposition. His political agenda included pressing for conservative values and recognition of historical wrongs done to Poland, particularly by Russia and Germany. He pushed hard for Polish interests in the European Union. He was a strong supporter of Poland's Catholic Church.

Mr. Kaczynski had been preparing to run for re-election in the fall. Opinion polls had placed him behind his main rival, Mr. Komorowski.

It isn't clear who the Law and Justice Party will choose to run in the presidential election in his place. Jaroslaw Kaczynski dominates the party, but is considered a still more polarizing figure than his brother. Mr. Komorowski said this week he would set an election date Wednesday, with the vote likely to take place June 20.—Laura Stevens in Krakow contributed to this article.

Write to Marc Champion at marc.champion@wsj.com