Chimp remark strains Russian-Polish relationship

Poles are fuming over a Russian aviation official's remark that even if a chimpanzee had been running the control tower the day their president's plane crashed in Russia the disaster would still be entirely their fault.

Media and officials widely condemned Oleg Smirnov's remarks, broadcast live in Poland to a public still hurting over the April death of their president and 95 others — and indignant that a Russian report released last month placed the blame squarely on their countrymen.

Defense Minister Bogdan Klich called the remarks "propaganda," while the Super Express tabloid on Friday said that "Russians again slander the Polish pilots."

The Polish government admits that most of the blame for the crash in Smolensk, Russia, falls on the pilots' decision to try to land in heavy fog, but believes failures by Russian air traffic controllers and the rudimentary state of the Russian air field were also factors.

For weeks now, ties between Moscow and Warsaw have been strained over the issue, threatening to reverse recent improvements. Poland has long been suspicious of its powerful neighbor, which dominated the country during the communist era and has continued attempts to influence Eastern Europe.

On Thursday, Smirnov, a veteran Russian pilot, entered the fray, appearing at a news conference in Moscow to defend the official Russian position. Poles were taken off guard by the news conference, which was organized by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti and announced only the evening before. Several Polish commentators expressed irritation that the conference was held so unexpectedly.

"Even if there weren't a single air traffic controller in the tower at Smolensk and instead a chimpanzee sat there and in a language that is not understandable to any human being, to any nationality, gave out information in gibberish — even such an absurdity would not be a reason for the catastrophe," said Smirnov, who was a deputy civil aviation minister during Soviet times and now heads the nonprofit Partner of Civil Aviation Foundation championing flight safety.

Edmund Klich a Polish official involved in investigating the crash, said he was shocked by the press conference and that he found the remarks insulting.

"If chimpanzees were running the control tower, I would be afraid to fly" there, Klich said in an interview on TVN24.

"But I think that they have trained and professional controllers, and not chimpanzees, so that comparison is offensive to the people who were there."