Poland: A bridge of sighs

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Months after feeling euphoric at their role in Ukraine’s
revolution, Poles are now feeling a little deflated about the
country’s foreign policy, writes Jakub Jedras
in Transitions Online.

Aleksander Kwasniewski received a very warm welcome when he
visited Washington in early February. There were smiles and
bonhomie. There was talk of the “strategic, lasting character” of
Polish-U.S. cooperation and a promise from President George Bush to
try and squeeze $100 million from Congress to help modernize the
Polish military, an offer that seems to have defused a Polish
threat to scale back its presence in Iraq. The only thing marring
the public performance was that Kwasniewski suddenly discovered
that, to Bush, he was “Prime Minister Kwasniewski,” not President

This might, of course, have been a slip of the memory, rather
than ignorance. President Bush has done the same before, mixing up
Slovakia and Slovenia, for example. That will not stop Bush meeting
Russia’s Prime Minister–sorry, President—Vladimir Putin in
Bratislava on 24 February. Nonetheless, it was an embarrassment for
a country labeled a “fantastic ally” by Bush when the presidents
met on 9 February and, for some political commentators, further
evidence that Washington does not take Warsaw seriously on issues
other than Iraq.

And Poland certainly wants to be taken seriously, very
seriously. On 17 February, the foreign ministry won parliament’s
approval for a set of ambitious foreign policy goals for 2005. The
policy may not explicitly say that Poland wants to be a great
power, but that is what the four main aims all suggest. They are:
to support the democratic changes in Ukraine, to strengthen
Poland’s “privileged” relations with United States, to find a new
formula for Polish engagement in Iraq after January’s elections,
and to secure a favorable deal from the EU’s budget for

In effect, Poland sees itself as a bridge between the EU and the
“Wider Europe” beyond the EU’s borders, and a bridge between Europe
and the United States. These are grand aims and are the issues most
animating discussion about Poland’s foreign policy, not Iraq or
winning extra money from the EU.

Poland and the United States

But it would have been hard to guess that Poland’s aims are
quite so lofty from Kwasniewski’s visit to Washington. It has
become something of a tradition that the debate ahead of every
Polish-American state visit is dominated by an issue of marginal
importance compared to these great geopolitical visions: the demand
for Poles to be able to enter the United States without a visa. It
was the same this time.

The visa issue riles Poles. They have been going to America in
large numbers for almost two centuries. To be forced to apply for a
visa seems wrong to them, even discriminatory, since, for example,
the Irish—another nation with a large U.S. diaspora—do not have to
stand in 100 meter-long lines at an embassy and pay $100 to talk
with a consular official. Every Polish president and prime minister
feels obliged to discuss the problem with George Bush

This time the meeting partly succeeded, at least officially.
Bush and Kwasniewski announced a “road map” that will lead, first,
to a liberalization of visa regulations and, ultimately, to Poles
being able to travel without visas. But Polish public opinion
simply took this as the leaders pulling the wool over its eyes. The
road map “is a diplomatic record of excuses rather than a plan to
repair this bad foreign policy of the United States,” wrote Tomasz
Wroblewski, editor-in-chief of the Polish edition
of Newsweek. “The United States should abolish visas
as proof of its political respect for Poland”—which, in his eyes,
primarily means respect for Poland’s role in Iraq, where it is one
of the mainstays of the U.S.-led coalition. 

But Wroblewski also touched on a nagging Polish concern raised
by the visa problem: that the Polish diaspora in the United States
is less interested in Polish matters than it used to be and that
its influence on Capitol Hill is waning. Such fears were, for
example, a refrain (albeit muted) in coverage of the death of Jan
Nowak-Jezioranski in late January. A wartime hero who relayed to
London information about the activities of the Polish resistance
and who later became the head of the Polish service of Radio Free
Europe, Nowak-Jezioranski had used his retirement to push Poland up
the U.S. agenda, eventually becoming a National Security Advisor.
His personal relationship with residents of the White House and
Capitol Hill was seen as critical in convincing Washington to take
seriously the anti-communist Solidarity movement and Poland’s
accession to NATO. 

To read the article in full, visit the Transitions Online website.