Lech Kaczynski

Lech Kaczynski
Investigators are poring over the data and voice recordings from the black boxes of the Polish Tu-154 airliner which crashed on April 10 killing Lech Kaczynski, the president, near the Russian city of Smolensk, but the accident is rapidly gaining mythic status in Poland, which may influence Polish politics and harm the recent warming in Polish-Russian relations.

Earlier this week investigators said they were pursuing four lines of investigation: a technical problem with the Russian-built airliner, pilot error, a mistake by air traffic controllers, and a terrorist attack or pressure on the pilots to land despite poor conditions. Andrzej Seremet, Poland's chief prosecutor, specifically excluded "fantastic" theories of why the aeroplane came down.

But for many Poles, the idea that a Polish aircraft filled with senior political and military officials could have crashed by accident in Russia near the Katyn forest, where the Soviets executed thousands of Polish officers in 1940, is absurd. After having spent the better part of 300 years under Moscow's heel, the tendency of many Poles is to suspect the worst when it involves Russia.

"It was all too simple. I'm becoming afraid that it wasn't an accident," said a tearful man outside the presidential palace, speaking in a tendentious programme broadcast by Poland's state television, where the main tone was suspicion of the Russians and accusations that most of the media and Kaczynski's critics had been unpatriotic for criticising him before his death.

The internet is buzzing with theories of why Kaczynski and 95 others died, including grainy films that purport to show Russians executing the survivors of the crash. The fact that investigators have not yet released a transcript of the cockpit tapes, and that the inquiry is being conducted in Russia, the country where the crash took place, is helping fuel the frenzy.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Poles were heartened by the response of Russian authorities, including the sympathy expressed by Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, and that Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, was one of the few world leaders to brave the cloud of volcanic ash and fly to Kaczynski's funeral in Krakow.

But now the suspicions "could create a climate of distrust", warned Aleksander Smolar, president of the Batory Foundation, a foreign policy think-tank. He adds that conspiracy theories give a patina of sense to deaths which, so far, appear most likely to have been caused by an accident.

Questions about the crash are feeding into the elevation of Kaczynski - who was an unremarkable president - into the ranks of Poland's tragic national heroes, something that is likely to prove useful to his twin brother Jaroslaw as he campaigns to replace him in the June 20 snap presidential elections.

Lech Kaczynski already lies, controversially, below the royal Wawel cathedral alongside Polish kings and heroes. Now, the shrine of Poland's holiest icon, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, has announced that it has acquired a fragment of the crashed airliner, which will be incorporated into the Virgin's new vestments.

There has been a dramatic reassessment of Lech Kaczynski following his death. A poll taken a month before the crash found that only 27 per cent of Poles thought Kaczynski was doing a good job as president, while one taken after the accident found 52 per cent now felt positively about him. Some of that sheen has also rubbed off on Jaroslaw Kaczynski, although he still lags behind Bronislaw Komorowski, the acting president and candidate of the ruling Civic Platform party.