Volcanic ash over Kaczynski's funeral

  • 2010-04-21
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite planned to fly on April 18 to the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski in Krakow, in Lithuania’s Spartan-type military plane but the volcano ashes in the sky forced her to make this 800-kilometer journey by car. Starting from April 16, the airports of Vilnius, Kaunas and Palanga were deserted as the volcanic ash cloud reached Lithuanian air space. Nobody knows for how long: Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano can stay angry from a few days to a few years. There is hope that the concentration of volcanic ash over Europe is not as dangerous as predicted. On April 19, some flights from the Vilnius airport were resumed.

The unexpected air blockade struck Lithuania, which this year enjoyed 49 regular flights from its airports. It is the highest ever number of regular destinations in the history of Lithuania. “Those ashes are not some steam. They are fragments of volcanic rocks which are as sharp as fiberglass,” Kestutis Auryla, the head of the civil aviation administration, said at his briefing in the Vilnius airport on April 16. He was rather pessimistic about a quick end of volcanic ash-caused troubles.
The Star1 Holidays travel operator stated that 400 Lithuanians could not go on vacations to Egypt last weekend because of the grounded planes. The Novatour travel operator reported the same story about 100 Lithuanians who planned to spend their vacations in the Canary Islands.

Those tourists can choose other times or destinations for their travel, or get their money back. In an even worse situation are those Lithuanians who cannot come back from their vacations in Egypt. Now Star1 Holidays pays for their extended stay in Egypt’s hotels and it is unclear yet if tourists will need to repay this later. On April 16-19, some 29,000 passengers, having tickets to or from Lithuania, were affected by cancelled flights. The sales of ferry, train and bus tickets rose significantly. The Lithuanian National Road Carriers’ Association Linava announced that its members, who work all around Europe and beyond, can help - those who are stranded somewhere in Europe can write to [email protected] asking for a lift by Linava’s truck.

Some Lithuanian politicians managed to say their farewell to Kaczynski before these troubles due to the volcanic ash: on April 15, Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene, Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius and Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis prayed in Warsaw near the coffins of Lech and Maria Kaczynski in the Polish president’s palace, which is the former palace of the Lithuanian nobility family Radziwills.

Former President Valdas Adamkus did this on April 12. Earlier last week, he left for the United States with a short stop in Warsaw. He was the first foreign politician who visited the coffin of Kaczynski. He planned to participate in Kaczynski’s funeral on April 18 in Krakow as well, but changed his plans because of the closed airspace over Europe.

The volcanic ash over the Kaczynski funeral added even more mystical speculation in the Polish media. Kaczynski was bringing a wreath to  honor the Polish army officers killed by Stalin near Smolensk 70 years ago, and after the presidential plane’s crash, that wreath was the only item which remained untouched by flames. Kaczynski died a day before the Catholic holiday of the Divine Mercy. Five years ago, Pope John Paul II also died the day before the holiday of Divine Mercy - the holiday was established by that pope in 2000 to honor visions of St. Faustina, who lived in Vilnius, where now the main shrine of this holiday is situated.During the Mass for the souls of the Kaczynski couple in St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, the protocol service of interim Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski reserved seats in such order: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (the most honorable seat which is the closest to the church’s altar), Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Medvedev and Yanukovych came by plane despite the volcanic ash.

President Kaczynski was buried in the Wawel Castle’s Cathedral, which is decorated by dozens of coat-of-arms of Lithuania due to close historical ties between Lithuania and Poland. The Lithuanian-origin kings are buried in the Wawel. The Jagiellons’ dynasty, originating from Lithuania’s Grand Duke Gediminas, reigned over many Central European countries (present day Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, parts of Estonia and Russia) between the 14th and 16th centuries. Their influence on Polish history was tremendous. Kaczynski was buried in front of his idol, the creator of the pre-war independent Polish state, Jozef Pilsudski, who was ethnic Lithuanian, could speak Lithuanian and loved Lithuania so much that he occupied for Poland his native Vilnius, and this fact still causes some troubles in communication between the average Pole and Lithuanian. Anyway, the political elites of both countries rather successfully overcame those former animosities.

Only 19 presidents and prime ministers, including Latvian president and his wife and Estonian prime minister, managed to get to the funeral. U.S. President Barack Obama decided not to risk flying to Krakow. However, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili proved that this was not some mission impossible. His route, from Washington to Krakow with several landings during his journey was as follows: the U.S.-Portugal-Italy-Turkey-Bulgaria-Romania-Krakow. Just one hour before the end of the funeral, Saakashvili managed to join his Dutch wife, who arrived earlier to the funeral by car from Holland.

The absence of Western leaders provoked angry reactions from the Polish media as well as from Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who thinks that Western Europeans were happy to use the volcanic ash issue as an excuse not to come to the funeral of Kaczynski, whose values were rather different from the EU mainstream. Gazeta.pl publishes Klaus’ angry comment to Czech Radio.

“I can understand no arrival by the governor general of Australia, but no arrival of some Europeans, especially from Brussels, is unforgivable. It shows that talk about the unity of Europe are meaningless words,” Klaus said. He and Adamkus were the closest foreign friends of Kaczynski. Kaczynski and Klaus shared a similar euroscepticism, while the Kaczynski-Adamkus relation was based on pro-Americanism and their idea of spreading western democracy to non-EU post-Soviet countries.