This Tragedy May Just Herald a New Dawn in the East ; the Reaction in Poland and Old Foe Russia to President Kaczynski's Death Shows the Change in Eastern Europe

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IT IS hard to imagine an event as drenched in historical irony as the crash of the Polish head of state's plane in Smolensk at the weekend. President Kaczynski was on his way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre at Katyn, where the then Soviet secret police, the NKVD, massacred 20,000 Polish army officers.

Even under communism, when Poland was expected to act as a loyal ally to Moscow, the issue of Katyn was never far from the surface. There are few better illustrations of the trauma which these events inflicted on Polish consciousness than Andrzej Wajda's film released last year about the massacre: the father of Poland's greatest film director was among those murdered in the forests near Smolensk.

For many Poles, this appalling crime was the defining moment in their troubled relations with Russia during the 20th century. But for decades Moscow lied that Hitler, and not Stalin, was responsible for the murders. There has never been any love lost between the Russians and the Poles.

While President Gorbachev had acknowledged Russian responsibility for the crime in 1990, in the past decade Moscow appeared once again to downplay Stalin's role in the tragedy. And so it was understandable that as soon as the news broke on Saturday about the plane going down, rumours spread rapidly in Poland and beyond that the crash could not have been a simple accident -- there had to be a conspiracy behind it. And to judge by history, it must be a Russian conspiracy.

Indeed, in a previous era, a catastrophe of this magnitude may well have triggered a violent change in government, a military coup or even full-scale war.

But the reaction in both Poland and Russia to Saturday's events testify to the profound changes in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall over the past 20 years. The Poles have shown great dignity in their loss while Russia's sympathy for Poland's distress has been genuine, moving and, to many, unexpected.

Democracy and stability have replaced autocracy and uncertainty as the primary political forces in the region.

Moscow's response also suggests that in the past two years the tense relationship between Russia and Poland has benefited greatly from President Obama's decision to "hit the rest button" in Washington's dealings with Moscow.

Since the weekend, the Poles may have been grief-stricken and anxious but the country has shown no signs of panic. The speaker of parliament has quietly taken over the presidency, as the nation's constitution dictates, while the deputy head of the military has assumed the role of his late superior. There has been no fractious jockeying for power as might once have been the case.

Instead, there has been a unity of purpose among Poles to adhere to the rules of democracy and the constitution.

This is not Poland's achievement alone. From the minute communism was swept away in Poland, the European Union began to invest considerable effort and funds in establishing the rule of law throughout Eastern Europe. …