WARSAW, Poland — When tens of thousands of Poles bade farewell to President Lech Kaczynski during his April 18 funeral, there was no doubt as to whose body was buried in the crypt below the Wawel royal cathedral in Krakow.
But nine months after the April 10 airplane crash that killed Kaczynski and 95 others, many of them senior Polish officials, the feelings over the crash have become so raw that Kaczynski's backers have now begun to cast doubt on whether the president's body is in fact lying in the marble coffin.
“I recognized my dearly departed brother at the airport, and there I had no doubts … however when I saw the body that had been transported to Poland in a coffin, I did not recognize him,” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the dead president's twin brother and leader of the opposition right-wing Law and Justice party.
Kaczynski did not rule out asking for the body of his brother and his wife from being exhumed to confirm their identity.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a political foe of the Kaczynskis, said he was astonished by Jaroslaw's words, and military authorities stressed that there were no doubts at all as to who is buried in the cathedral.
In reply, the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, an opponent of Law and Justice, published a graphic account of how Kaczynski's body had been found amid the wreckage of the Polish government airliner on the foggy morning of April 10. The article spelled out in wincing detail how Kaczynski's naked body — with a crushed skull, a missing arm, its left foot torn off and its right leg ripped away at the knee — had been quickly found minutes after the crash and laid on a stretcher and covered with a white cloth.
Unlike all the other victims, Kaczynski was not taken to Moscow to be examined, but instead was taken to nearby Smolensk for an autopsy before being flown with full military honors back to Poland.
The brief period of Polish unity that sprang from the shock of the crash quickly dissipated, and the disaster has become a subject of political battle. Kaczynski supporters now claim that his body was left in the mud by the Russians as an intentional slight to a president who had been known for his hawkish attitude towards Moscow.
Russian officials investigating the crash today blamed the Poles, pinning the decision to land on an intoxicated air force commander.
While some of Jaroslaw Kaczynski's backers have tried to edge away from his comments about who is buried in Krakow, other families of Smolensk victims are also casting doubt over who came back from Russia and want the issue examined.
As well, Marcin Dubieniecki, Lech Kaczynski's son-in-law, recently said that he could not rule out that the president had been assassinated — something that both Polish and Russian authorities investigating the crash have said is not a possibility, but which is a view held by some of the wilder conspiracy theorists who see the crash as the result of a plot between Russia, Poland's historical enemy, and Tusk's government.
“I have doubts as to whether today we are still dealing with a free and sovereign country,” said Magdalena Merta, the widow of a former deputy culture minister killed in the crash, after a screening last week of a new film looking at the emotional impact of the disaster.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski has settled on the air disaster as the best way to rebuild his party's tattered fortunes, hoping to use it to consolidate his base of support.
Tusk's task of preventing the crash from dominating Polish politics has been made more difficult by controversy over the Russian crash report; the Polish leader called the preliminary draft of the report “unacceptable." The final report is expected to be released today.
Because the crash took place in Russia, the Russians take the lead in investigating the crash, but Polish investigators are working alongside them. In the initial weeks after the crash, the cooperation between the two sides was unusually problem free, but after the publication of the initial report, the Poles accused the Russians of trying to dodge any responsibility for the crash. Although the Polish pilots made the disastrous decision of trying to land the Russian-built Tu-154 airliner in a dense fog, Russian air controllers did not close the airport, and may have committed other errors.
“It is obvious that if the decision to land had not been taken, then there would have been no catastrophe,” Tusk said. “However, we know that there were other important causes ... . When I say that the report is unacceptable, that is because there is a lack of precise indications as to the responsibility of the Russian side.”
Edmund Klich, the lead Polish investigator, was even more blunt, saying recently: “I have doubts that the Russians are telling the truth when they say that they do not have control tower recordings from the Smolensk airport on April 10.”
The increasing problems over the accident report are fueling the deep resentment and suspicion of Russia that marks the Kaczynski camp, and building future political problems for Tusk as he gears up for parliamentary elections later this year.