President Lech Kaczyński and his legacy

On the 10th anniversary of the tragic death of President Lech Kaczyński Poland IN examines his record and legacy.

It is impossible to write about Lech Kaczyński without mentioning that he was the twin brother of Jarosław Kaczyński, the founder and leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS). Twins tend to be very close and it was not different in the case of the Kaczyński brothers who were always a team. But this did not mean that they always agreed with each other or that they were not very different people in a variety of ways.

The twin team

The twins come from a classic intelligentsia family from a well-known residential area of Zoliborz in Warsaw. A family that participated in the Home Army (AK) resistance against the German Nazis. The brothers starred in a movie for children and both studied law.

But it was Lech Kaczynski who became an academic, a professor of labour law in Gdansk. The fact that he and his wife settled in Gdansk helped Lech Kaczynski in becoming very actively involved in the Solidarity movement. He was an advisor to the striking workers in the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980 He later became a union official, rising to no.2 to the then Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa.

The fall-out with Lech Wałęsa

Both the twins were close to Wałęsa in 1989 when communism began to collapse. They both participated in the Round Table talks with the communist authorities and went on to be elected to Parliament in the elections of that year. It was Jarosław who after having become chief editor of the then influential weekly “Tygodnik Solidarność” decided to launch a political party, the Centre Alliance (PC). Together with his brother he was instrumental in the campaign to elect Lech Wałęsa President in 1990 .

But President Wałęsa and the Kaczyński brothers soon fell out as Mr Wałesa was not prepared to tackle the post-communist establishment in the way the twins wanted. The brothers left his Chancellery and the party they founded was instrumental in the emergence of the centre-right government of Jan Olszewski.

That government collapsed in 1991 under pressure from Lech Wałęsa. He opposed their quest to open and publish files of the secret police, which were alleged to contain details of Mr Wałęsa’s alleged cooperation with the communist authorities. From then on Mr Wałęsa and the Kaczyński brothers became deadly enemies.

Lech’s march through the institutions

Lech Kaczyński was elected to head up Poland’s supreme audit body NIK, he was briefly a presidential candidate in 1995 but eventually withdrew from the race in favour of Jan Olszewski. The twins and their PC fell out with the Solidarity leadership after Wałęsa’s removal from office. They played little or no part in Soiidarity’s election victory in 1997. But they were to be back.

In 2000 Solidarity (AWS) coalition with the liberal Freedom Union (UW) fell apart. The PM of that government, Jerzy Buzek, asked Lech Laczyński to become justice minister. This was the chance Lech and his brother had been waiting for. Lech Kaczyński became a popular justice minister working to tighten the penal system and fight corruption.

He left the government in 2001, but by then he and his brother founded a new party, Law and Justice (PiS). It was from day one a party which was opposed to neoliberalism, conservative in outlook, protective of Polish traditions and emphasizing the need to ensure respect for the law and to combat crime and corruption.

Lech Kaczyński was elected Mayor of Warsaw in 2002 off the back of his popularity as justice minister. During his term of office (until 2005) he was instrumental in promoting the politics of memory through the construction of the highly acclaimed Warsaw Uprising Museum.

Mr President

His finest moment in Polish politics came in 2005 when he beat Donald Tusk in the Presidential election in the same year that his brother Jarosław managed to lead his party to become the largest party in Parliament and to take power as, at first, a minority government. That moment may have been somewhat marred when in his acceptance speech he said “I am delighted to report that the task has been successfully completed”, which was taken as him saying he had done his brothers and leader’s of PiS bidding.

In 2006 came a moment of rare disagreement between the brothers when Lech felt that PiS should go for early elections rather than form a coalition with the populists from Self-Defence (Samoobrona) and the nationalists from the League of Polish Families (LPR). The coalition that formed fell apart in 2007 and PiS lost power in the early parliamentary elections that followed.

Foreign policy initiatives

From that moment President Lech Kaczyński started to focus on foreign and defence policy matters, areas in which the President has major prerogatives. He clashed repeatedly with the Civic Platform (PO) - Polish People’s Party (PSL) coalition government led by Donald Tusk.

He disagreed with the government over its strong support for the Lisbon Treaty, a treaty which he had reluctantly approved when his brother Jarosław had been PM. He refused to sign the Treaty until all other countries had approved it, arguing that they should not be bullied into doing so. He always feared that the Treaty was going to be used to impose a dictat of large member states against the small.

He also disagreed with the government over recognising Kosovo as an independent state. He felt that to do so would open a pandora’s box on redrawing the state boundaries that countries such as Russia would gladly take advantage of.

He was a committed Euro-atlanticist. He supported the US up to the hilt and its anti-missile shield initiative which Russia opposed. He argued for NATO enlargement to the east and for it to have bases in Poland.

Putin’s foe

It was relations with Russia that his most striking interventions took place. He saw Vladimir Putin and his rule as a grave threat to the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. He saw him as a Russian imperialist and dictator. In 2008 he actively opposed the Russians in their offensive against Georgia. He organized a joint visit to Georgia of Presidents from Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine. His speech at a mass rally in Tbilisi in which he proclaimed solidarity with Georgia and opposition to Russia’s imperialist aims in the region is remembered to this day.

He clashed with the Tusk government over its support for the reset with Russia that had been ordained by President Obama. He also opposed the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s mission to Moscow on behalf of the EU, the outcome of which was a ceasefire on highly unfavourable terms for the Georgians.

Hero in the east

Lech Kaczyński developed strong bonds with both Ukrainian President Yuschenko and Georgian President Saakasvhvilli. He became popular in both these countries to the extent that after he passed away streets were named in his honour in both, whereas to this day the PO controlled city council in Warsaw has not done so.

He also worked tirelessly to improve relations with Lithuania and Israel, countries which had issues with Poland. Lithuania was suspicious of its bigger neighbour and Israel had issues with Poland over the way the Jewish diaspora had been treated in Poland before and after the war. Some on the radical right criticised him for his approach to both Israel and Ukraine. They argued that he gave ground too easily, but Lech Kaczyński felt that Poland should never forget history, yet should be capable of learning from it and moving on.

The last journey

The politics of memory was always something close to the heart of a man who had a tremendous sense of history. He believed Poland must rediscover its history and rehabilitate all those who had fought against the Soviets and the German Nazis.

Remembering those who perished in Katyn in 1940, where Stalin ordered the mass murder of Polish officers, was bound to be a priority for him. This is why he wanted to honour them on the 70th anniversary of the massacre in 2010.

He had not been invited to an event put on by the then Russian PM Vladimir Putin. Polish PM Donald Tusk was invited and responded positively to an invite obviously designed to further intensify divisions between him and the President. Divisions that had already led to rows even over the use of the Presidential plane, the use of which was controlled by the government.

Lech Kaczyński refused the offer of just attending the celebration of Russian victory of the second world war, in which he would have no doubt been seated somewhere in the third or fourth row, as President Aleksander Kwaśniewski had in 2005 as punishment for Kwaśniewski’s support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. He decided to travel to a separate commemoration on 10 April and the Presidential plane took off for its fateful mission on the morning of that day.

It never landed in Smolensk, the airport at which both Mr Putin and Mr Tusk had landed safely in good weather conditions just four days before. The plane, a dated Russian Tupolev which was still being used to carry Polish VIPs, crashed in difficult foggy weather conditions killing all 96 on board including Lech Kaczyński, his wife Maria and many state officials and members of Parliament.

The Russian investigation pinned the blame on the Polish pilots, a Polish investigation by the Tusk government also blamed the pilots but also Russian ground control staff. To this day the Russians have not returned the wreckage or the original black boxes, feeding speculation about foul play.

His death united Poles but only for a short while. Soon arguments flared up over where he was going to be buried. His detractors protested that Wawel was the place for kings and heroes and not ‘ordinary politicians’.

For years arguments raged between PiS and the PO over how he should be honoured in Warsaw. Finally, during the lifetime of the present government a statue of him was erected in a major Warsaw public space, with the local council protesting the decision to this day.

A major contribution to Polish political life

Lech Kaczyński had been instrumental in steering his party and the Polish right towards the politics of memory, staunch opposition to crime and corruption and an economic and social policy that tried to connect with Solidarity trades union roots. Arguably his presidential campaign in 2005 created a new cleavage in Polish politics as being between internationalist liberals and patriotic communitarian conservatism. It is a division which has lived on until this day and has replaced the dominant until then cleavage of Solidarity v post-communism.

His foreign policy stances have returned with full force with the election of President Andrzej Duda. Mr Duda had served in Lech Kaczyński’s chancellery and has always repeated that he is fulfilling the deceased President’s legacy.

He has done this in a variety of ways. First of all he had managed to realise Lech Kaczynski’s dream of having a significant and enduring US military presence on Polish soil. Second, he has launched the Three Seas initiative for North-South cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe. Lech Kaczyński had always sought for Poland to play a very active part in the region and saw that as a bigger priority even than relations with Germany and France.

Arguably Lech Kaczyński would have been delighted with much of the present government’s economic and social policies. He instinctively wanted to see redistribution targeted at ensuring that the fruits of economic development were more evenly shared. He would have welcomed all initiatives aimed at honouring those who opposed the communist regime and at uncovering heroes of the past.

It is more debatable whether he would have welcomed all aspects of the judicial reform which have been implemented. Without speculating as to what he might have done, everyone would agree that he would have had considerable influence on its course had he been alive. Law and history were topics he was prepared to debate into the long hours of the night.

A human being, with all strengths and frailties that entails

He is widely remembered as a warm and kind human being. Maybe even someone whose humanity was on occasion taken advantage of by the kind of courtiers which surround all major political figures. There is little disagreement over the fact that he enjoyed a very happy marriage with his wife Maria, who was widely respected and loved as his first lady in the Presidential Palace.

He was the first Polish President to be treated as ‘just another politician’ by both the media and the political establishment and not given the respect that had previously been afforded heads of state. There were four reasons for this. First of all his close relationship with his brother. Second, the high level of political polarisation that took place from 2005 onwards. Third, the fact that he had been a surprise victor of the election and was not accepted by much of the business, media and political establishment. Fourth, Lech Kaczyński did not have a thick skin that many politicians develop, so he was an easy target for personal attacks as he would be visibly hurt by them.