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.