Friday marked exactly a decade since a Polish plane carrying President Lech Kaczyński, his wife and 94 others, including top political and military figures, crashed near Smolensk, western Russia, killing all those on board.
The Polish state delegation had been on their way to commemorate some 22,000 Polish prisoners of war and intellectuals who were killed in the spring of 1940 on orders from top Soviet authorities in what is known as the Katyn Massacre.
Anniversary in the shadow of coronavirus
Due to safety precautions amid a coronavirus epidemic, this year’s anniversary events were scaled down and less high-profile than in previous years.
Officials followed social distancing rules as they laid wreaths at a statue commemorating President Lech Kaczyński in central Warsaw and at a separate monument unveiled in 2018 to honour all 96 victims of the disaster.
Meanwhile, President Andrzej Duda paid tribute to the late presidential couple in the crypt at Wawel Cathedral in the southern city of Kraków where they are laid to rest.
A raft of other commemorative events were held later in the day at sites including Warsaw’s Powązki Cemetery, with physical attendance limited due to social distancing precautions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The day when ‘time stopped’
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a Twitter post that the presidential air crash 10 years ago was a national tragedy and “a moment when time stopped” for the Polish people as a community.
Legacy lives on
Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party and the late president’s twin, told Polish Radio on Friday morning that his brother was "a central figure" in Polish politics and a driving force behind some of the key changes in the country.
His legacy carries on “even though he is no longer with us,” Jarosław Kaczyński said.
Poland's ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński (left) takes part in a wreath-laying ceremony at Warsaw's Piłsudski Square on Friday. Photo: PAP/Radek Pietruszka
Polish Radio remembers
Public broadcaster Polish Radio was on Friday paying tribute to the victims of the national tragedy a decade ago.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the plane crash, the names of all 96 victims were read out in a special roll call of honour on all Polish Radio stations beginning at 8:41 a.m., the exact time of the crash on April 10, 2010.
At 4:00 p.m., all Polish Radio stations and the polskieradio.pl website were due to air a special symphony concert in tribute to the victims of the tragedy.
Polish Radio has issued two special CD albums to mark the anniversary of the air disaster.
The newly released Polish Radio CDs offer a selection of President Kaczyński’s key speeches about domestic politics and international events.
The collection also features statements and homilies delivered during a memorial service in Warsaw on April 17, 2010 as well as a recording of an April 18, 2010 concert at Polish Radio’s Concert Hall with works by composers Andrzej Panufnik and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.
Polish Radio CEO Agnieszka Kamińska said: “This anniversary is special, different from previous ones, but certainly in symbolic, emotional and patriotic terms, it is a very, very important day.”
Historian Jan Żaryn said on the eve of the anniversary that the CDs issued by Polish Radio “are of great importance to nurturing the memory of the victims of the April 10, 2010 catastrophe.”
Hints of foul play
Poland’s ruling conservatives have long challenged an official report into the causes of the disaster issued by the country’s previous government, which cited a catalogue of errors on the Polish side, while also pointing to errors made by Russian staff at the control tower of Smolensk Military Airport.
A Russian report placed all the blame on the Poles.
A new commission to probe the crash was set up by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in Poland in 2015. The party is headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczyński.
The commission said in January 2018 that the jet’s left wing was destroyed as a result of an explosion on board.
The commission added that the explosion had “several sources” on the plane.
In April 2017, the Polish commission said that the presidential plane was probably destroyed by a mid-air explosion and that Russian air traffic controllers deliberately misled Polish pilots about their location as they neared the runway.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of 2017 denied Polish suggestions that the 2010 air crash was the result of a Russian conspiracy.
Moscow has refused to return the wreckage of the presidential plane to Poland, claiming that it is continuing to investigate the crash.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the human rights body the Council of Europe in 2018 called on Russia to “hand over the wreckage of the Polish Air Force Tu-154 to the Polish authorities without further delay” in a manner that “avoids any further deterioration” of potential evidence.
“The continuing refusal of the Russian authorities to return the wreckage and other evidence constitutes an abuse of rights and has fuelled speculation on the Polish side that Russia has something to hide,” the Council of Europe parliamentarians said.
Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz told reporters last year that there was “no legal basis and there is no rational justification" for Moscow holding onto the wreckage of the Polish presidential plane.
Warsaw steps up pressure over wreck
The Polish foreign ministry on Friday said in a tweet it had sent a diplomatic note to the Russian embassy in Warsaw calling on Moscow “to immediately hand over Poland's property—the wreckage of the Tu-154 M” plane.
"No norm of international law gives grounds for Russia to hold on to Polish property," the Polish foreign ministry said.