After President Lech Kacynski and dozens of other top Polish officials died in a tragic plane crash in Smolensk, Constitutional law quickly and seamlessly transferred presidential power to Bronislaw Komorowski, who as leader of the lower house of Parliament was the top remaining successor. Komorowski has two weeks to set emergency presidential elections which must then be held within 60 days. But as a presidential contender himself, he stands to leave a real mark on Poland--and on Europe--during his temporary presidency. Poland's fraught relationship with Russia, which had long chilled under Kacynski, could very well thaw.
Kacynski's hostility towards Russia, already treated by eulogies as the defining feature of his foreign policy legacy, began in 1980 when Poland's Soviet occupation government jailed him for months as an "anti-socialist." Once released, he launched his political career within the underground movement against the Soviets. From his successful 1989 parliamentary campaign as a hard-line anti-Communist, to his unsuccessful 2006 proposal for sweeping EU sanctions on Russia, Kacynski maintained his anti-Russian posture to the very end.
It's true that Komorowski brandishes anti-Communist bona fides from years of Soviet-era resistance. But his center-righ Civil Platform party, of which Prime Minister Donald Tusk is also a member, clashed with Kacynski over policy toward Russia. Kacynski had refused to join the Katyn massacre ceremony held by Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, undermining the event that was otherwise heralded as an extraordinary moment of rapprochement between the two states. The Polish president died on his way to a second Katyn ceremony organized in defiance of the Tusk-Putin meeting. Now that the presidency is filled by a member of Tusk's own party, the Civil Platform agenda of easing relations with Russia has the potential to move forward unobstructed. Even if he does nothing while in office, Komorowski's mere presence ends the Kacynski-Tusk deadlock on Russia. Tusk and other officials eager to thaw the Poland-Russia chill can now proceed unimpeded.
With President Obama currently stressing nuclear non-proliferation and engagement with Russia, Poland's sudden change of course has regional, and perhaps global, implications. President Obama had rolled back President Bush's missile defense pledge to place 10 ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) systems in Poland. The plan, abandoned to advance the strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, would have exacerbated Polish-Russian tensions by treating Poland as NATO's front-line barricade against Russian missiles. However, Poland's missile defense systems would also have benefited Russia by providing a shield against Iranian or even Pakistani missiles. Russia's vote on the United Nations Security Council is crucial for passing sanctions against Iran for its nascent nuclear program. With Poland's U.S.-provided missile defense shield gone, and with Russian officials now facing one less antagonist within Europe, Putin may be more willing to stand with Europe and against Iran.
What lays ahead for Poland? Out of respect for Kacynski, Komorowski will likely do little with his interim position. But the now-temporary president, whom the Wall Street Journal called "a key candidate in the presidential elections that would normally be scheduled in the autumn" and who led Kacynski in pre-crash polls, must surely be considering the replacement vote he is charged with scheduling. Basic decency would seem to mandate that Komorowski not use the president's office as a campaign platform. Will sympathy for Kacynski ensure his Law and Justice party retains the presidency? Or will Komorowski's interim leadership inspire greater confidence in Civil Platform? Before we see the outcome, Civil Platform will lead Poland through at least two months of international summits and conferences, all dominated by President Obama's drive for pan-European cooperation.
Even if a member of Kacynski's Law and Justice party wins the emergency presidential election, it will not be for some time. Those intervening weeks, during which Obama will press hard for international cooperation at events like this week's high-profile nuclear security summit, will be crucial in setting the tone of Poland's relationship with Russia. Despite Kacynski's years of work to distance Poland from Russia, Tusk, Komorowski, and Obama could undo much of the hostility in only a month or two. Whatever the outcome of this summer's election, Kacynski's defiantly anti-Russian policy appears to have died with him.
Image: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk on September 1, 2009, in Gdansk, Poland. Their meeting took place on the 70th anniversary of the opening shots of World War Two, when German ships opened fire on Polish troops in Gdansk. Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty