How the relationship between Russia and Poland develops over the coming months is now largely in the hands of Vladimir Putin.

Village of Katyn. The Katyn case has overshadowed Russian-Polish relations for many years. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Last week, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled on a complaint brought against Russia by the relatives of a dozen victims of the notorious Katyn massacre of 1940. The Court ruled that, while it had no jurisdiction over the actual killings, it found that the Russian government had not met its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights because it withheld information from its 1990-2004 investigation into the massacre. The Court also noted that Russia had not made a persuasive case for citing national security concerns as the reason for classifying its decision to close the 14-year investigation.

While the Court may have been right on the merits (Russia, after all, only ratified the Convention in 1998 and the mass killings themselves took place a full decade before the Convention itself came into effect), the political fallout from the ruling is already being felt in Poland, where it is having a distorting effect on public opinion regarding the Smolensk plane crash which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others as they were on their way to a memorial service marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre in April 2010.

A recently released poll taken by TNS Polska found that 45 percent of those surveyed said they 'didn't know' what caused the crash. Conspiracy theories - many of which identify Russia as the culprit - abound and are given credence not only by television documentaries and a popular cinematic dramatization but also by the prodigious propaganda efforts of the newly revitalized Law and Justice Party.

Law and Justice, led by the deceased president’s twin brother Jaroslaw, have advanced several theories regarding the crash and maintain that it was no accident. According to a recent report on Polskie Radio, Law and Justice MP Antoni Macierewicz recently led a conference which featured testimony from a series of ‘witnesses’ claiming the crash occurred because a bomb was planted on the plane. More responsible public figures, like Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, have rejected such claims.

So the Strasbourg ruling is unhelpful for it exacerbates an already heightened climate of anger and mistrust in the wake of the Smolensk tragedy. It also has the potential to destabilize the already precarious position of the ruling Civic Platform, which, in the wake of recent high-level defections and a poor showing in this summer’s regional elections, is at a seven-year low in popularity.

This is unfortunate because, under the leadership of Tusk and his foreign minister Radek Sikorski, relations between Poland and Russia had seen, until recent events intervened, some improvement. Both sides reached an agreement allowing for visa-free travel in the border area between Kaliningrad and Gdansk, and Sikorski and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have met regularly under the auspices of the Committee for Russian-Polish Cooperation Strategy. Economic ties are also improving, though they remain fairly undiversified outside of the energy sector.

However, the ramifications for the relationship, should the Law and Justice Party gain a majority in the Sejm, are not hard to imagine. A resumption of hostile relations between Poland and Russia would also likely become yet another point of contention in the already troubled U.S.-Russian relationship.

So how things develop over the coming months are now largely in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the Strasbourg ruling is a short-run victory for the Russian government, it may well pose a long-term challenge to Russian-Polish rapprochement going forward. Yet, Mr. Putin has an opportunity to revitalize bilateral ties with Poland and he could begin by returning the wreckage from the Smolensk crash to Poland. As Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin has pointed out, “There is no use in keeping what is, after all, Polish government property. The Russians have essentially nothing to hide in the incident.”

Putin should then go a step further and fully come to terms with Russian culpability for the Katyn massacre by meeting the demands of the victims’ families - demands which were not in the power of the European Court of Human Rights to compel. Since no court can force the Russian government to acquiesce, it would be seen as an act of magnanimity on Putin’s part, and it would also go a long way toward overcoming what has, for well over half a century, been a cause of so much discord between the two nations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.