Doesn’t anybody just die?

One of the themes of this blog is the notion that there are mysteries out there which can be tough to solve since the perpetrators of the crime wanted it all to be murky. Unraveling the story, getting to the truth, can be difficult and sometimes impossible. Good spies and saboteurs cover their tracks well.

This past week has seen a couple big stories hit the international media – sadly yet typically with too little reflection in the U.S. press, which is presently caught up in presidential polling – which ought to raise some high-level questions about what’s really been going on in a couple major NATO allies.

Poland, where political life remains uneasy since the tragic death of pretty much the whole government in a plane crash in Russia in April 2010, got another taste of unpleasantness this week when the Smolensk disaster reappeared on the front pages. Rzeczpospolita – one of the country’s leading dailies, not the Polish equivalent of The National Enquirer – caused an uproar when it reported that investigators had found explosive residue on several parts of the doomed Tu-154 which crashed, killing 96, including President Lech Kaczynski along with dozens of top politicians and the country’s entire military and security leadership. The late president’s twin brother Jaroslaw, who has always insisted that the tragedy was no accident, jumped on the story to demand a real investigation.

Then, almost immediately, the Polish military prosecutor’s office which is charged with the investigation denounced the report and stated that no explosive residue had been found. In response, Rzeczpospolita backed off its account a bit, yet not entirely, without explaining its sourcing for the bombshell reportage. This, like so much else about the Smolensk disaster, seems fated to remain mysterious for a long time, perhaps forever.

While there has never been much evidence to back up the claims of those who feel something is missing from the official account of the crash, most of whom come from Poland’s congentially Russophobic right wing, it is abundantly clear that Warsaw and the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk have mishandled important aspects of the tragedy. The Russians, as is their wont, have played games with handing over wreckage and evidence, neither Moscow nor Warsaw has been as transparent about the investigation as many Poles would like given the extent of the tragedy, and most embarrassingly several bodies of victims have been misidentified and require reburial. This weekend Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president in exile, who handed over the presidency to Poland’s new and freely elected government in 1990, was buried in Warsaw, after it was revealed that his family had been given the wrong body.

Not to mention some of the strangeness surrounding certain aspects of the case, by no means all of which can be dismissed as fringe obsessions. Last week a Polish flight engineer who had flown into Smolensk shortly before the doomed Tu-154 and had provided key evidence in the case, not all of it apparently in accordance with the official story, was found dead in Warsaw, in what authorities said appeared to be a suicide. In January, a colonel from the military prosecutor’s staff, who defended his office’s account of the disaster, at the conclusion of a press conference on the matter promptly shot himself in the head more or less on camera (amazingly he survived).

One need not be a hardcore conspiracist to find this all a tad strange. Small wonder that the Tusk government, which had been doing well with the public until recently, is tanking in the polls, and suddenly the government looks unstable. Few Poles seem to have much confidence that the full story of the Smolensk disaster will come to light anytime soon, and it’s difficult to counter their skepticism. Instead, Poland likely faces an enduring mystery about a profound national tragedy, something which bodes ill for the country’s political health.

Much the same can be said of Turkey, where a big story has broken about a similar sort of presidential mystery, one which is perhaps less traumatic but every bit as mysterious as the Smolensk saga. Authorities recently exhumed the body of Turgut Özal, the country’s president who died in office in 1993 under less than clear circumstances. Best remembered as a reformer who brought an end to military rule and set the stage for the country’s remarkable economic growth over the last couple decades, he was reported to have died of heart failure, and Özal, who was not exactly svelte, did have a history of heart problems. Yet he had also been the victim of a failed assassination attempt in 1988 by shadowy right wing plotters, he had a host of enemies not all of whom were above murder, and his ostensibly natural death five years later led to a seriously botched job by Ankara: no proper autopsy, lost blood samples, and his family’s insistence that the president had been poisoned.

Hence the effort, nineteen years later, to get to the bottom of the mystery. Which has only, it seems, led to more questions. Yesterday, Zaman, one of Turkey’s top newspapers, reported that the president’s body, which was well preserved, indeed had traces of poison. Yet the very same day, Hürriyet, a leading Turkish daily, reported just the opposite: citing the head of the forensic institute charged with the matter, it said that the autopsy is not complete and nothing suspicious had been found. The forensic boss added that the public should pay no attention to the matter until the investigation is complete. Which is what he is supposed to say, one assumes.

So who knows? All very Byzantine, as perhaps it is fated to be, given history and geography. Perhaps the truth about the death of Turgut Özal will eventually come out, but it’s more likely that half the population will accept the official story and the other half won’t, with the Turkish press equally divided. Nothing healthy for a democracy in that, but perhaps nothing unusual either.

[UPDATE, 24 Nov: The autopsy has revealed that President Özal died of poisoning by four (!) different agents: the radioactive chemicals Cadmium, Americium, and Polonium, plus DDT. It is suggested that Özal’s body was weakened by radioactive chemicals before he was assassinated with DDT, an insect poison. As for who murdered the president … that will have to wait for another day.]