Poland is a place where tragedy often appears written into the national DNA. At the mercy of Russians and Germans for more than 200 years, its history is one of tears and blood, resistance and martyrdom.It was while remembering some of those martyrs, the victims of one of Moscow’s greatest crimes against the Poles in Katyn Forest in 1940, that the President, Lech Kaczynski, and a large slice of the Polish elite lost their lives. The irony could not be crueller. ”That place is damned,” said Mr Kaczynski’s predecessor as head of state, Aleksander Kwasniewski.Against the national and historical backdrop of heroic failure – epitomised by the moving Museum of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, built when Mr Kaczynski was mayor of the Polish capital – Poles can be forgiven for their fatalism about the latest tragedy.But the current reality is not one of failure, but rather of success in building the best Poland that arguably there has ever been – a success in which Mr Kaczynski and his twin brother, Jaroslaw, have played pivotal, if polarising, roles.In the great financial and economic slump of the past two years, Poland stands alone among the 27 countries of the European Union in not having fallen into recession.For the first time in its history, the country is where it wants to be, firmly embedded in the West. A key member of the EU, a stalwart friend of the US, a member of NATO, Poland is a boisterous, stable, independent democracy.For years after it led the way in destroying Soviet communism in 1989, Poland seemed fated for a future as the Italy of eastern Europe, a kaleidoscope of collapsing governments.But over the past decade the chaos has matured into a working three-party system: the left, comprising modern social democrats and fading remnants of the ancien regime; the liberal centrists of the governing Civic Platform, under the Prime Minister, Donald Tusk; and the nationalist conservative right, consolidated and led by the Kaczynski brothers.For the twins, the high point came in 2005 to 2007, when Lech cohabited with his brother Jaroslaw’s governing Law and Justice Party. It was an unhappy and salutary experience characterised by paranoia and troublemaking at home and abroad. Were it not for Saturday’s tragedy, the political demise of the Kaczynskis would probably have been sealed in October, when Bronislaw Komorowski, a patriotic liberal, looked likely to unseat Lech as president. As parliamentary speaker, Mr Komorowski is now acting president and looks like a shoo-in for the early presidential election in June.The Kaczynskis embody a large and legitimate constituency: chippy and prickly, wary of Germany, hostile to Russia, Eurosceptic and staunchly pro-American, obsessed with ”moral renewal” at home. Given the history, it is no surprise. But their emphasis on righting history’s wrongs is backward-looking, while the young, the cities, and the elites of Poland live in the present, relishing a better future for their children.Last week, the Polish and Russian prime ministers met for the first time at Katyn in an attempt to put an awful past behind them. It was a qualified success.But there can be no big breakthrough, only an incremental process of small steps and benign gestures.Mr Tusk and Vladimir Putin met again on Saturday amid the carnage of Smolensk, again united in grief. Improbable as it seems, Lech Kaczynski’s legacy may be to bring Warsaw and Moscow closer and to help Poland break the tragic cycle of its history.Guardian News & Media
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