Eastern Europe’s Historic Leaders Publicly Complain that the Obama Administration is Taking their Countries for Granted — A Message Ignored by U.S. Mainstream Media     Print

In the first public rebuke to the Obama administration from pro-American allies, prominent former policy-makers in central and eastern Europe have published an open letter to the President complaining that Washington is neglecting their interests and is jeopardizing public support for NATO and for U.S. leadership in their countries.

The statement, published on the heels of President Barack Obama’s summit meeting with Russian leaders in Moscow in late July, reflects fears in these former Warsaw Pact countries that the new U.S. administration is over-optimistic about Russia’s intentions and overly sanguine about stability and pro-Western trust in these European nations that border the Russian Federation.

Without a renewal of U.S. engagement with central and eastern Europe (CEE), “there is a danger that instead of being a pro-Atlantic voice in the European Union, support for a more global partnership with Washington in [this] region might wane…

“As the new Obama administration sets its foreign-policy priorities, our region is one part of the world that Americans have largely stopped worrying about. Indeed, at times we have the impression that U.S. policy was so successful that many Americans have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all and they could ‘check the box’ and move on to other more pressing strategic issues,” the letter said.

The message reflects the jittery feeling in these CEE nations confronting serious economic downturns, growing domestic instability, and economic and political pressure from Moscow. In particular, the message evokes Russia’s renewed readiness to use strong-arm tactics in trying to establish a new “sphere of influence” for itself in these former Soviet satellites.

Its signatories included former presidents and key policy-makers from seven countries that belong to NATO and the EU. The ex-presidents include the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel and Poland’s Lech Walesa, together with Aleksander Kwasniewski; Emil Constantinescu of Romania, Michal Kovac of the Slovak Republic, and Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia. Most of them were personally instrumental in moving their countries from Communist rule to being Europe’s “new democracies” and they recall in the letter how much they relied on U.S. help in making the transition.

The statement was not signed by current policy-makers, who are wary of aggravating working relations with their U.S. counterparts. But many serving officials reportedly share the message’s central tenet: that among eastern Europeans faith is waning about the Western institutions they joined enthusiastically a few years ago.

It is possibly symptomatic of attitudes in Washington that this early warning about this region becoming a trouble spot again has barely been mentioned in the mainstream U.S. media. Nor has the open letter – published in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza on July 16 – been publicized in the capitals of the older EU member states. Behind the scenes in Washington and other allied capitals, however, diplomats are hotly debating the impact of what one European official described as “a clarion call” for the Obama administration and other major EU governments to recognize that the CEE region may be approaching a new political crossroads. Trends cited in the letter suggest that the pro-Western consensus in these countries is increasingly fragile. Unless this erosion is reversed, the authors warn, “the United States risks losing the most pro-American voices inside the EU,” according to a source close to one author of the letter. These CEE governments supported Washington over the invasion of Iraq, spurning objections from France and Germany.

Even so, new structural and psychological impediments could lead to a disconnect between the U.S. vision and those of these CEE nations. While the U.S. and its bigger European allies are focusing increasingly on a global agenda, that approach is increasingly at odds with the pressure on CEE governments to deal with challenges closer to home. As the letter spells out, there are signs of increasing provincialism and short-term thinking in CEE countries – a tilt aggravated by the decline of high-level U.S. involvement with them. Part of the problem is that emerging “successor generations” are too young to have experienced first-hand the powerful role of Washington in helping move these countries away from Communist control and closer to Western-style democratic, free-market systems.

A core complaint implicit in the letter, sources said in Europe, are concerns that the Obama administration could cede renewed sway to Moscow among its former European satellites in exchange for greater Russian help on front-burner issues such as Iran and Afghanistan. As indications of new American readiness to compromise with Russia, the authors allude to signs that Washington may delay action on two key issues with Moscow: a U.S. missile-defense system with installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, where governments have taken political risks to support the plan despite Russian objections.

The message also reflects concern that Washington seems more lukewarm about hopes for Ukraine or Georgia to forge closer Western ties. This concern has been assuaged, at least temporarily, by Vice-President Joseph Biden’s trip to these two nations last week. On his return to Washington, however, he publicly described Russian power as “not sustainable.” His comments, which were not disavowed by the White House, fits with disappointment expressed privately by European diplomats about the more upbeat approach to Russian relations signaled by President Obama at the recent summit meeting in Moscow. He seemed to take too lightly, these sources said, the potential for Russia to destabilize the CEE region. As the letter said, “At a global level, Russia has become, on most issues, a status-quo power. But at the regional level and vis-à-vis our nations, it increasingly acts as a revisionist one – [using] overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation.”

CEE concerns of this sort were not relieved by the Moscow summit. As proof of U.S. complacency, the Obama administration offered no pre-summit consultations to these small European governments, according to Europe-based diplomats from two CEE nations. Indeed, the meeting’s main substance seemed to be nuclear arms control, with scant attention to the mood of alarm among these small but fervent allies – many of whom have sent troops to Afghanistan and taken political risks to support pro-U.S. policies in Europe.

In the absence of stronger U.S. involvement, “storm clouds” are gathering over the region, the letter warned. To restore stability and regional confidence, the authors urged the Obama administration to lead NATO into a build-up of its positions and defenses in their countries, including the prepositioning of NATO forces and equipment on their soil to be ready in a crisis. “A key factor in our ability to participate in NATO’s expeditionary missions overseas is the belief that we are secure at home,” the authors wrote, presumably referring to Russian military pressure. Currently, they said, the populations of CEE nations perceive NATO as less and less relevant in their affairs. Lack of confidence in NATO is already having effects – for example, in undermining determination to lessen European dependence on Russian energy supplies by pressing hard to find alternative pipelines and alternative sources of supply. The CEE is particularly vulnerable to Moscow’s ability to cut off the flow of natural gas westward to Europe.

Amid these deepening uncertainties about the U.S. commitment to central and eastern Europe, they said, economic turmoil is fueling “forces of nationalism, extremism, populism and anti-Semitism” in some countries there. Indeed, these trends were shown to be gaining ground by the results of the recent European Parliament elections. In a very low-turn out, many voters stayed home to protest against their governments’ performance in handling the economy. But extremist and fringe parties made breakthroughs in several countries, including Austria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Many of these extremist parties ran on an anti-immigrant platform, but in Latvia, a Russian minority party, led by a former Communist official jailed for plotting a Soviet coup against independence in the 1990s, took a quarter of the country’s seats in the European Parliament.

An opportunity to reverse these trends has appeared with the arrival of the new U.S. administration headed by a president with high personal popularity across Europe, the letter said – provided that Washington will “reinvest” in the region.

The “thorniest issue may well be America’s planned missile defense installations [in the Czech Republic and Poland],” they said. Insisting that Russian opposition to the system has no military justification, the authors warned that “involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the United States across the whole region.”

America’s voice in the region has faded in recent years, the authors said, partly because of American success in helping these CEE countries gain membership in the EU. As a result, they write, “our leaders and officials spend much more time in EU meetings than in consultations with Washington, where they often struggle to attract attention or make our voices heard."

Restoring commitment to strong pro-American policies and reviving popular belief in U.S. leadership in these countries will require very specific steps tailored to the region. Washington now wants countries to operate with an over-arching global agenda, but the CEE countries do not have any tradition of this. Even some items on the transatlantic agenda – such as climate change – do not resonate in the Central and Eastern European publics to the same extent that they do in Western Europe,” according to the letter.

Beyond bolstering military defenses and working to help Europe gain more diversity in energy supplies, a new drive to rebuild ties and cooperation between the CEE region and the United States will require a conscious effort to forge personal ties between the “successor generations” on both sides. As the U.S. loses its traditional interlocutors, including the letter’s signatories, “the new elites replacing them may not share the idealism – or have the same relationship with the United States – as the generation that led the democratic revolution,” the letter said.

Its signatories were top-level former officials and policy intellectuals from nine CEE nations: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

The signatories, besides former presidents, included Karel Schwarzenberg, former foreign minister of the Czech Republic, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, former defense minister of Poland, Adam Rotfeld, former foreign minister of Poland, Alexandr Vondra, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic, Mart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia, and Rastislav Kacer, former ambassador of the Slovak Republic to the United States.