WARSAW, Poland – About 200 Poles chanted accusations against Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, accusing the Russian leader of murdering their own President Lech Kaczynski in a 2010 plane crash in Russia.
The rally in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw came on the eve of the third anniversary of the plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, that killed Kaczynski and a swath of the Polish military and political elite — a total of 96 people.
A Polish investigation has put most of the blame for the catastrophe on the Polish pilots who tried to land the plane in heavy fog despite warnings not to by Russia air traffic controllers. But some Poles are convinced that Russia planted an explosive device in the plane to bring it down and silence Kaczynski, a strong opponent of Moscow.
Protesters chanted "Putin, murderer!" and "Punishment for murderers!" as they faced a barricaded embassy, a grand structure with neo-classical columns in the city's government quarter. All of the embassy's windows were dark and the only other sign of life were Polish police officers in riot gear who faced the protesters with blank looks.
The protest was organized by a right-wing newspaper, Gazeta Polska.
The belief in Russian guilt despite the Polish state investigation that found no sign of foul play underlines a deep distrust toward Moscow that persists in Poland even 23 years after this former Soviet satellite nation threw off Moscow-backed communist rule. Poles also remember a harsh occupation by Russia over a part of Poland during the 19th century.
Protesters said they see Russia today as an authoritarian state that uses murder to keep its opponents in line. They also argued that Putin had reason to despise Kaczynski, who had strongly criticized Russia during its war with Georgia in 2008.
"They murdered our president, they murdered the Polish elite," said Jerzy Szarwark, a 56-year-old selling pins, including one that showed a picture of the plane's wreckage and the words "Putin knows — but we don't."
Beata Slawinska, a 46-year-old who works in advertising, said people in the West can't understand Russian motivations the way Poles can.
"They have no experience with Russian occupation," Slawinska said.
Another protester, Joanna Kazmarek, 46, expressed anger that Russia still has not given the plane wreckage over to Poland. It's a complaint often heard in Poland, and one that Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski has been pressing Moscow on.