WARSAW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin’s brotherly embrace of a tearful Polish prime minister was one of the most powerful images beamed from the site of Saturday’s plane crash that killed Poland’s president and many of the country’s elite.
Poles have been moved by the simple humanity displayed by Russia’s usually poker-faced prime minister as well as by many other gestures of solidarity from Moscow at their time of crisis and hope they may herald a wider improvement in long-strained ties with their giant neighbor and communist-era overlord.
Nobody expects Moscow and Warsaw to suddenly start agreeing on such vexed issues as missile defense, gas pipelines and troubled episodes from their long-shared history, but Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s untimely death in a Russian forest could reinforce a cautious rapprochement already under way.
“We did not expect this gentle, kind approach, this personal involvement from Putin,” said Witold Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland’s National Security Bureau and one of the few Kaczynski aides not to have been on Saturday’s ill-fated flight.
“Naturally it will have a positive impact on the relationship between our countries. I can imagine a high-ranking Russian delegation from Moscow coming to Kaczynski’s funeral.”
His comments were echoed by Poland’s ambassador to Russia.
“We can sense Russian solidarity at every step of the way (since the crash),” Jerzy Bahr told Polish television.
Putin flew to Smolensk on Saturday to accompany Polish Prime Minister Tusk to the site where Kaczynski’s aged Tupolev plane had come down in thick fog, killing all 96 people on board.
“This is our tragedy as well. We are grieving with you, our hearts go out to you,” Putin told Polish television.
Russia declared Monday a day of national mourning for the crash victims. On Saturday, President Dmitry Medvedev made an unprecedented televised address to the Polish people.
The state TV channel Rossiya was due to broadcast Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s film “Katyn” on Sunday evening. The film chronicles the massacre of 22,000 Polish military officers and intellectuals in 1940 by Josef Stalin’s NKVD secret police.
The much less-watched arts channel “Rossiya Kultura” became the first Russian television channel to air the film last week to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the massacre, which for decades Moscow had falsely blamed on Nazi Germany.
Katyn is an enduring symbol for Poles of their suffering at Soviet hands. Kaczynski and his entourage had been heading to Katyn to mark the anniversary when their plane crashed.
Last Wednesday, Putin impressed many Poles by acknowledging their pain over Katyn during ceremonies in the forest attended by Tusk and members of the Polish government.
“Putin and Medvedev are both trying to push forward the reconciliation impulse created by Tusk’s visit to Katyn,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
“I don’t expect any breakthrough (in bilateral ties). The relationship is very complicated, with animosities built over many centuries. You can’t rewrite history. But for the first time we can see political momentum from both the Russian side and the Polish side,” Lukyanov said.
Ironically, Kaczynski represented a conservative, nationalist-minded segment of the Polish public that remains deeply skeptical of Moscow 20 years after the fall of communism.
Kaczynski vocally opposed what he branded as Russian “imperialism” in ex-Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine, even braving bullets during Moscow’s short war with Tbilisi in 2008 to show his solidarity with President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Putin invited the pragmatic, quietly-spoken Tusk, not the more abrasive Kaczynski, to last week’s Katyn commemoration. Kaczynski decided to go anyway, but on a different day.
With Kaczynski now dead and Acting President Bronislaw Komorowski, a close Tusk ally, tipped to win the presidency, analysts say efforts to repair economic and political ties between Moscow and Warsaw may accelerate.
But they stress that this has less to do with Saturday’s crash and much more to do with Moscow’s decision that it has to start treating Poland, its largest communist-era satellite and now a NATO and EU member, as a serious partner.
“Russia seems to have decided some time ago that it is too difficult to go over Polish heads in its dealings with the European Union or with Germany,” said Eugeniusz Smolar of Poland’s Center for International Relations.
That did not mean Russia would stop opposing U.S. plans for missile defense in Europe — a policy backed by Poland — or that Warsaw would end its support for EU and NATO expansion to take in Georgia and Ukraine despite Moscow’s fierce opposition.
“Moscow has realized that Poland is an important country and that it must adjust its approach accordingly,” Smolar said.
Additional reporting by Conor Humphries in Moscow; Editing by Michael Roddy