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Poland Strives To Normalize National Life After Death Of President, Elite

Poland Mourning
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WATCH: Mourners fill Warsaw's Central Square with candles and flowers following the plane crash that claimed the life of Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and many government officials and military leaders. (Reuters video)

(RFE/RL) -- Poland is still struggling to come to terms with the tragic death of President Lech Kaczynski, and dozens of other Polish political, military and religious leaders in the April 10 air crash in Russia.

The government is moving quickly to fill the gaps created by the deaths of so many of the country's elite. By April 11, new acting chiefs of the military were already in place and an interim director of the Central Bank was named.

The office of Prime Minister Donald Tusk says it is in contact with the new head of the Central Bank, Piotr Wiesiolek, to ensure the stability of the economy.

The crash of the presidential airliner at Smolensk in western Russia wiped out many key figures in Poland's national life. Apart from Kaczynski and his wife, the plane was carrying 94 people, including the deputy foreign and defense ministers, two deputy speakers of parliament, the head of the Central Bank, Poland's military chief of staff, and its army, navy, and air-force commanders.

In addition there were senior clergy of the Catholic Church, historic figures linked to the overthrow of communism, and a former Polish president-in-exile during the Nazi occupation.

'Great Legacy'

Kaczynski's body is to lie in state at the Presidential Palace in the Polish capital on April 13. The date of his funeral has tentatively been set for April 17. His returning coffin was carried through the streets of Warsaw on April 11 as thousands of people lined the route to pay their respects.

The president's body is the only one that has been flown back to Poland. The others have been taken from Smolensk to Moscow for identification. Reports say that most of the bodies are so badly mangled that DNA testing will have to be used to establish their identity.

A hearse bearing Kaczynski's coffin drives through Warsaw.
In Washington, while signing a book of condolences at the Polish Embassy, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the loss in the disaster of "many of the leading figures and the strong, stalwart supporters of the Solidarity movement that led to Poland's return to freedom. They leave behind a great legacy and a legacy that will live forever."

The man in Warsaw who has taken over as acting president, parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, has said he will call for early elections within 14 days, in line with the constitution. The vote must be held within another 60 days.

The Associated Press today quoted political analyst Kazimierz Kik of Kielce University as saying the sudden loss of so many public figures is posing a test of Poland's young democracy. He said Poland's institutions are already strong, but that the nation itself is traumatized.

On Way To Katyn

Deepening the sense of tragedy is the fact that Kaczynski and his entourage were on their way to Russia to pay homage to the thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals who were killed by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in 1940. The trip would have marked a distinct warming of Polish-Russian relations.

A scout holds a Polish flag in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, where President Lech Kaczynski will lie in state on April 13.
Russia, which has expressed deep sympathy to Poland, has declared a national day of mourning. In Washington, Secretary of State Clinton said Americans are grieving for Poland.

"We Americans stand with you now and forever," Clinton said, "not only the many proud Polish-Americans who grieve with you today, but every American who admires what Poland has built, admires what Poland stands for, admires the Polish people."

Meanwhile, Russian and Polish experts have been sifting through the wreckage at the crash site. The key question that has emerged is why the Polish pilot decided to land at Smolensk, which was shrouded in heavy fog, apparently against the advice of the airport tower. He made three attempts, crashing into trees just short of the runway on the third attempt.

Journalists are reporting that on a previous occasion, President Kaczynski sharply criticized a pilot who had refused to land a presidential airliner at Tbilisi in Georgia in hazardous conditions.

They have speculated on whether the pilot of the jet lost on April 10 could have been placed under pressure to land.

written by Breffni O'Rourke, with agency material