By Joanna A. Gorska
Katyń is one of the most notorious issues in Polish history and Polish-Russian relations. The incident involved the execution of 22,000 Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet NKVD at Katyń and other camps in 1940. Russian authorities have repeatedly refused to recognize those killed at Katyń as victims of political reprisals and to rehabilitate them. In March 2005, the Russian investigation was officially closed, with no one charged, and without identifying the Katyń massacre as genocide or a war crime. As expected, the inconclusiveness of the Russian inquiry and its failure to establish a chain of responsibility provoked a public outcry in Poland.
A potentially new chapter in Polish-Russian relations on Katyń opened in April 2010 with the tragic plane crash that took the lives of Poland’s top officials, including President Lech Kaczyński, who were travelling to Smolensk to attend Katyń commemoration ceremonies. Russia’s quick response to the accident, particularly its involvement in an investigation into the plane crash and the support that it offered to relatives of those killed, appeared to have provided a new impetus for the bilateral dialogue on the events of 1940. The plane crash raised the visibility of the Katyń massacre in the Russian media and within Russian society. More broadly, on the policy front, Russian authorities showed growing willingness to accommodate Poland’s preferences on Katyń. For example, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the Moscow City Court to consider an appeal by the Polish group Memoriał to declassify the decision of Russian military prosecutors to close the Katyń investigation. Russian officials also agreed to release additional documents pertaining to the Katyń killings, which were handed over to the acting Polish president, Bronisław Komorowski, in May 2010. Significantly, in late November 2010, Russia’s State Duma proposed a resolution to recognize the events of Katyń as a crime of the Stalinist regime.
However, this shift in Russia’s policy on Katyń will likely be limited in scope. On the strategic policy level, Russian authorities are likely to continue the policy of opposing the equation of the Katyń killings with genocide or war crimes and refusing to grant compensation for crimes committed by the Soviet Union. Indeed, in a note submitted to the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights, which is considering a claim from relatives of the Katyń victims, Russian authorities have argued that they are under no duty to explain the ‘Katyń events.’ Likewise, the Polish authorities are unlikely to deviate from the established policy course on Katyń, which aims at concluding the investigation, obtaining financial compensation for the wrongs suffered from the Soviet Union, and commemorating those killed by the NKVD. The persisting conflict of primary objectives between Poland and Russia on Katyń and the countries’ limited willingness to make substantial policy adjustments on the issue will allow only for incremental and limited changes. Indeed, as President Komorowski stated with reference to Katyń in the run-up to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Poland in December 2010: "This issue requires considerable effort and a consistent policy aimed not only at reconciliation but also setting some conditions, which would make this reconciliation and cooperation credible."
Joanna A. Gorska currently works for London-based risk management consultancy Control Risks, previously taught at Oxford University, held research positions at NATO Parliamentary Assembly as well as the European Commission, and is the author of Dealing with a Juggernaut: Analyzing Poland's Policy toward Russia, 1989-2009.