Daniel Korski

Polish tragedy

Polish tragedy
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Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and a number of top Polish officials, including the Central Bank president, the Polish ambassador to Moscow and an Army chief, were killed when the presidential plane crashed near an airport in western Russia.  The tragedy – the worst in modern Polish history – ends an extraordinary career for the actor-turned-politician who, alongside his twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, upended Poland’s political system when they founded the conservative party Law and Justice, and in 2006 controlled both the presidency and the government.

The brothers first found fame as child actors, with angelic faces in a film version of the popular children's book The Two That Stole The Moon. But though Lech Kaczynski only gained international prominence when he defeated current Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the race for the presidency in 2005, the brothers had by then been a near-permanent fixture of Poland’s transition from communism. They were instrumental in helping Solidarity hero Lech Walesa defeat Tadeusz Mazowiecki in the first free elections and were awarded for their efforts with government posts. But Lech quickly fell out with President Walesa over the pace of Poland’s economic reforms and left government. He later returned to government as Minister of Justice

In 2005, Lech was elected president and, following the victory of the Law and Justice party in a subsequent parliamentary election, appointed his brother Jaroslaw as prime minister. But their ascension to power did not turn out to be smooth. Homophobic, seen by many as intolerant, ultranationalist and eager for a scrap with Poland’s neighbours, the twins set alarm bells ringing in and out of the country. Relations with Germany fell to a low during their tenure, and scraps with Poland’s EU allies became frequent.

Domestically, the Kaczynski record is a matter of dispute. Their vigorous pursuit of "lustration" policy, which required officials and professionals who had dealings with the former communist secret police to confess their collaboration or lose their jobs, caused considerable tensions. But the brothers achieved a number of things in office that previous governments did not. They include the streamlining of government spending to properly disburse billions of euros in EU assistance, and greater budgetary discipline. Unemployment fell by four points from a high of 18 percent on the brothers' watch, and the economy grew at an impressive rate.

Two years after coming to power, however, the Kaczynski twins were beaten in a parliamentary election by the opposition Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk, the man who Lech Kaczynski had defeated in the race for the presidency a few years earlier. In the last three years, Kaczynski “co-habitated” with Tusk, but maintained a critical view of the economically liberal government, often vetoing its bills, including 2008 plans to encourage hospitals to operate on a commercial basis - a plan the President Kaczynski said amounted to privatisation. Lech Kaczynski was due to face off with parliamentary speaker Bronislaw Komorowski in this year’s race for the presidency – a contest Kaczynski was almost certain to loose.

President Kaczynski’s death is not only a personal and national tragedy, but has in many ways brought to an end an important chapter in Poland’s post-transition history.