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East Europeans Ask for More Attention in Washington - 2004-01-30

Is Washington paying enough attention to its new friends in Eastern Europe? The President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, visited Washington recently to lobby for more U.S. help to his country. Poland, together with many nations in the former communist Europe, is a staunch U.S. ally on Iraq and other issues. But some in the region complain that pro-American policies have not brought them enough tangible benefits.

Poland’s President Aleksander Kwasniewski came to Washington on January 27. He was the first foreign leader visiting the White House in 2004, and President Bush welcomed him as an old friend. His said his guest was “making a mark on the continent of Europe through his leadership.”

But the Polish president did not come to Washington for mere assurances of friendship. High on his agenda was a substantial increase in U.S. military help, Iraq reconstruction contracts and visa-free travel to America for Polish citizens. What he achieved was less than Poles expected. The Americans promised $66 million of direct military aid instead of the hoped-for $300 million. They also made clear that insistence on visa-free travel is unrealistic, although visa processing could be made easier and more equitable.

This is not enough, concluded the Polish media, pointing out that its country has 2,500 soldiers in Iraq, commands a multinational division there, and its pro-American position caused it problems within the European Union. Similar voices of discontent can be heard from other Eastern European countries.

But some Washington analysts see those complaints as unfounded and inappropriate. Professor Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, says the strategic alliance with the United States should not be linked with matters like visas and preferential trade relations. “That sounds somewhat petty, frankly,” he says. “One would argue that the United States has done quite a bit for these countries over the last 50 years. It has led the charge on enlargement after the Cold War. The United States Senate has made the most solemn commitment that any country can make to another, and that is to pledge to come to its defense in a case of attack. There is not much more you can ask for in terms of reciprocity and quid pro quo.”

Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, adds that certainly the Polish government did not support America on Iraq with short-term benefits in mind. “Poland did not do things for this administration,” he says. “Poland did things because it believed it shared the values of the United States. The sense that favors were given in some back channel way to curry the favor of this administration or to neglect the Europeans, I just don’t think is the correct way of looking at things.”

Polish National Security Advisor Marek Siwiec, who was in Washington before President Kwasniewski’s visit, says this is exactly the Polish government’s position. But he adds that words of praise and gratitude for Poland and the “New Europe” from U.S. leaders raised high expectations in the region. Now, says Mr. Siwiec, many people wonder if these words carry any meaning. In his view the Americans should try to “create substance” and a new set of priorities in their dealings with the “New Europe,” which he sees as a test of the American perception of European-American relations in the future.

Some analysts suggest that East and Central Europeans may have a point in demanding more attention from Washington, because American actions after 9-11 radically changed the nature of their alliance. Not only Poles but also Bulgarians, Hungarians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Romanians, Slovaks and others serve in Iraq, and that ties up their military resources and strains their budgets.

Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thinks the Americans make a mistake taking East Europeans for granted and believing their gratitude for winning the Cold War and for NATO expansion can assure their continued support. “I think what Washington tends to forget is that when NATO was actually being expanded, membership in NATO looked largely cost free,” he says. “With the Iraq war, with NATO’s key role in Afghanistan, with the possibility of more wars in the future in the Middle East, perhaps involving NATO -- NATO membership doesn’t look cost free any more, and therefore is not something that a lot of Central Europeans feel very grateful for.”

Professor John Micgiel, director of the East Central European Center at Columbia University in New York, says the nations of Eastern Europe are growing more concerned about the costs of supporting the United States and may start reassessing their policies. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” he says, “if, when budget time comes around in Warsaw, in Budapest, in Bucharest, in Prague, these governments once again begin to think about how much their military budget is being put out of whack by their friendship with the United States.”

In Professor Micgiel’s view, this is exactly the case the leaders of those countries should be making in Washington.

Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University adds that Americans will listen to practical arguments. They may have a habit of not paying enough attention to the world outside their borders, but America is, after all, one of the most open societies in the world. “If people want to have more influence or more attention paid to them,” he says, “they need to come here and make the case, and just do it, as the Americans would say, and not complain about it.”

But what could give Eastern Europeans enough leverage in Washington? Professor Micgiel of Columbia University believes Americans with roots in the region can act as an effective lobby, as they did during the first round of NATO enlargement.

Anatol Lieven of Carnegie Endowment thinks those countries should also practice what the British call “triangulation,” or balancing American and EU interests in their foreign policy. “That does not, of course, mean committing oneself to a French vision of Europe, let alone committing oneself to French leadership,” he says. “But if one is talking about leverage, influence, bargaining, one needs to hold as many cards as possible.” Mr. Lieven adds that one of the reasons why the Central Europeans are in a weak position is that they appear to give away too many of their cards early on.

For now, it seems that the countries of the much praised “New Europe” just want to be noticed, treated as serious partners and listened to more attentively in Washington. That was at least, the message delivered by Polish National Security Advisor, Marek Siwiec. President Kwasniewski assured after his meeting with President Bush that on Europe and Iraq both have identical positions.

Analysts believe that in the foreseeable future the nations of Eastern and Central Europe are not likely to swing in an anti-American direction. But a new generation of Eastern Europeans is coming on stage. It is a generation that does not remember the Cold War and is less inclined to idealize America. The era of almost unconditional support for the United States from the former communist countries may be coming to an end. Analysts say this is yet another feature of a new united Europe that may make difficulties for America.