Polish president laid to rest

World leaders, kings and princes
cancelled their trips to pay tribute to the late President Lech Kaczynski at a
grand state funeral in Krakow, blaming the cloud of volcanic ash hovering over Europe.

As a result, the Polish head of
state was seen off by two dozen Central and East European leaders — who had
made their way to Poland by car and by train — as well as by Russian President
Dmitry Medvedev and hundreds of thousands of Poles who had been travelling
across the country to Krakow for the past 36 hours.

“It is perhaps better this way,”
said Kamil Podgowinski, a boy scout who had spent the night waiting for an
open-air Mass in Krakow’s Market Square. “We are together among ourselves.
It has become a Polish event again.” Despite the closure of Polish air space,
the coffins of the President and his wife, Maria, were flown by a turbo-prop
aircraft to Krakow early today and were due to be laid to rest in the crypt of
Wawel Cathedral, alongside Polish kings, poets and national heroes.

President Barack Obama topped a
long list of statesmen and women who decided that attending the funeral would
be too risky. Although it would be feasible to fly in a small plane — a
delegation from Morocco flying in a small Cessna touched down in Krakow without
problems on Saturday night — many politicians are worried about a fresh ash
cluster stranding them in Poland.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on
her way back from the US
last week, found herself re-routed to Lisbon.
She managed to fly to Rome before taking a
convoy of cars to Germany
via South Tyrol. Back in Berlin,
she cancelled the trip to Krakow but Germany will be represented by
President Horst Koehler.

President Sarkozy of France,
Spanish premier José Luis Zapatero, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the
Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the president of the European
Council Herman van Rompuy, the Prince of Wales and the crowned heads of Norway, Denmark,
Spain and Sweden are all
staying at home.

Some refused to be deterred. Jerzy
Buzek, the President of the European Parliament drove across Europe,
while many European deputies crowded into trains.

However, the character of the
funeral was unmistakably changed. “It was supposed to have been a geopolitical
occasion,” Maciej Wierzynski, a veteran Polish commentator, said. “You could
tell that by the fact that President Obama agreed originally to come as soon as
Russian President Medvedev said he would be there.”

The subtext of the funeral is that
the air crash that killed the President and 95 others, including many senior
officials, has brought Poles and Russians emotionally closer. The delegation
had been flying into the fog-bound city of Smolensk,
in western Russia,
to commemorate the thousands of Poles murdered by Soviet hitmen in 1940.

The crime, denied or barely
acknowledged by Russia
for decades, has suddenly become part of the country’s national discourse.

But if Poles and Russians draw
closer there is a knock-on effect and US
policy towards Eastern Europe has to be
redrafted. The funeral was to be an opportunity to make a first assessment of
the changing political landscape.

Instead, it has become an
opportunity for Eastern European leaders to say farewell to a hard-headed
politician — and for Poles to shed the last of their public tears.