Polish leader honours massacred officers on Russia visit 9/17/07 http://www.russiatoday.ru/features/news/14259/video

MOSCOW (AFP) - Poland's Lech Kaczynski on Monday made his first visit as president to Russia for highly charged commemorations for 22,500 Polish servicemen massacred by Soviet secret police in World War II.

The visit to Katyn in western Russia, where many of the killings happened, took place against a backdrop of heightened tensions between Poland and Russia since Kaczynski's rise to power in December 2005.

The visit took place on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, which occurred under a secret agreement between Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Nazi German leader Adolf Hitler, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Together with victims' relatives, the Polish leader laid a wreathe and lit candles at burial sites of thousands of Polish officers, soldiers and civilians who were taken prisoner by the Red Army in 1939 then executed at Katyn forest, in Smolensk province near Russia's western border.

Kaczynski sounded a conciliatory note on relations with Russia, while also urging respect for the truth.

"The Soviet Union no longer exists. We have a new Russia. We should live for the future and consider the past with calm and wisdom, but also with respect for the truth," Kaczynski said, according to Polish news agency PAP.

"Today we should pay respect, we should preserve their memory. Historical memory, of what is good and of what is bad, is important. But this does not mean we want to feed only on this memory," he said.

Kaczynski took part in ceremonies both in a cemetery for Catholic victims and in another cemetery for Russian victims of Stalinist repression, a Polish embassy spokesman told AFP.

He was also to visit churches of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox faiths.

Putin sent an envoy, Georgy Poltavchenko, in his place.

Although Katyn is the most famous massacre, there were many others in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, bringing the total estimated number of Polish servicemen murdered by the Soviets in 1940 to 22,500. Most were shot in the head.

Commentators in both countries said Kaczynski's visit was partly aimed at rallying Polish voters ahead of early elections on October 21 at which the president's twin brother, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is fighting for his political survival.

But it also reflected continued Polish grievances.

Poland has demanded that Russia recognise the Katyn atrocity as a crime against humanity and has said that anyone responsible who remains alive should be prosecuted.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev only acknowledged Soviet responsibility for the massacre for the first time in 1990, ending decades of official Soviet propaganda lies that blamed Hitler's Germany.

However in September 2004, after a 14-year investigation, the Russian military prosecutor's office refused to acknowledge Katyn as either a war crime or a crime against humanity.

The visit comes amid a host of disputes between historical rivals Poland and Russia, ranging from a Russian ban on Polish meat imports to US plans to site interceptor missiles in Poland as part of a missile defence system.

The independent Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei commented caustically on Monday that "this isn't about an improvement in bilateral relations because Mr President is visiting Russia in order to recall the most painful page in history."

"For the dear Kaczynski brothers the symbolism is very relevant to their domestic political needs," namely the elections, the paper said.

As a new European Union member, Poland has urged fellow EU countries to take a tougher line on Russia, particularly in talks over a planned EU-Russia partnership accord.

Warsaw has also been reasserting its historical influence in Belarus, the country that separates Poland from Russia and that is viewed by Moscow as its sphere of influence.

On Friday Belarus sentenced four army officers charged with spying for Poland to between seven and 10 years in jail.