(Ottawa) –

The following is a guest column co-authored by Carleton Professor Piotr Dutkiewicz and Leszek Miller, former prime minister of the Republic of Poland. It is in the top 10 pages on the Russian Internet. At the time of this posting, 26 people are reading it, every minute. It has been circulated by the Russian News & Information Agency RIA Novosti.


Russia and Poland – the Day After 14 April 2010

By Piotr Dutkiewicz and Leszek Miller

Big human tragedies are moments of change but can also provide the spark of unity. Political differences, competing interpretations of history, and differences in values all – even for a short moment – disappear in the face of death. They simply lose their importance and their very sense.

There shall be a respectful silence over the tombs of those who died in the plane accident. It is a silence that will permit us to think about the dark symbolism of what has happened: A Russian-built plane carrying the Polish President and tens of prominent Poles crashed in Russia near the final resting place of thousands of Poles who were massacred in Katyn 70 years ago whose graves they were going to visit to commemorate this tragic anniversary.

Tragedies of such magnitude have significant social consequences. The spontaneous outpouring of solidarity from the Russian people with those who met their untimely ends was instantaneous and, what is more, unexpected by Poles. There are no doubt many complex reasons behind the fact that Poles and Russians are not on the most amicable terms. No more than thirty percent of both think about each other as a “friendly nation”; the rest look at their neighbor with suspicion (and some, no doubt, with hatred). And yet the day after the crash flowers and candles appeared in front of the Polish Embassy in Moscow and thousands of letters and e-mails of support and condolence were sent to Poland by Russian citizens.

There is an unique atmosphere of support from Russians – across the social and political spectrum – not seen in our relations for years. The Russian government went so far as to put condolences in Polish on the official web site of the Russian President; Prime Minister Putin is personally supervising the crash investigation; Russia announced last Monday a day of mourning; top Russian experts were sent to Smolensk to join the investigation; Russian television has shown A. Wajda’s film “Katyn” in prime time. Such an overt show of sorrow and compassion to Poles is quite extraordinary behavior for this government.

One of the best Polish political commentators wrote from Moscow: “I don’t know what is to come. But for now, from what I have seen in Smolensk and from the behaviour of the government in Moscow, I want to say with my whole heart: Thank you for this, Russia!”

Tragedies of that magnitude have political consequences as well. Domestically, Poland has lost a significant part of its political and military elite which now has to be replaced efficiently and with a minimum political cost. Internationally, the crash has turned the attention of the international community to the state of Polish-Russian relations, which have been seriously constrained for many years due to quite an impressive list of real and imagined grievances. At present, there is an ongoing political dialogue between Warsaw and Moscow, both at the highest executive (Prime Ministers) level and at the working diplomatic level (MFAs). There is a Public Forum composed of eminent personalities, and a special group on difficult historical issues. There is also an initiative (by the Moscow School of Political Studies) that seeks to establish links between youth leaders in both countries. Trade and cultural relations are improving and seem reinvigorated.

What is missing is a political and security dialogue. Yet, it is in this area where mutual suspicions are strongest. Poles fear a resurgent and even aggressive Russia, and many Russians see Poland as a willing platform for U.S. weapons that might threaten Russia and as a rival for domination of the new Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. This situation will not go away by itself, at least not very soon. What is required is a new, joint Polish-Russian initiative to deal with these matters to build some basic trust and to develop a Polish-Russian political and security agenda for the 21st century and draft a report on a “Road Map Toward Russo-Polish Reconciliation” to be presented to the public in both countries.

Let us be silent over the tombs, but also let us think about how to turn this tragedy into a new chapter of our relations. Let us make life triumph over death. Big tragedies can certainly be unifying, but they can also be divisive; indeed, they are never ambivalent. If our two nations cannot forgive each other at a moment like this, when will they ever be able to forgive each other? We cannot allow ourselves to waste this chance out of respect for those who perished in Katyn seventy years ago, for those who died in Smolensk last Saturday, but also for all Russians and Poles . We hope that this great loss of life will begin a process of genuine reconciliation. So far Russians and Poles were living separately – it is time that will start to live together.

Piotr Dutkiewicz, Professor, Director, Center for Governance and Public Policy, Carleton University. Ottawa , Canada
Leszek Miller, Former Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland (2001-2004) , Warsaw, Poland