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Poland: Kwasniewski Honored For Friendship On U.S. Visit

  • Andrew Tully

Washington, 18 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Poland's president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, is only the second head of state to be invited to the White House on a state visit since U.S. President George W. Bush took office 19 months ago.

At a welcoming ceremony on the morning of 17 July and during a news conference later that day, both Kwasniewski and Bush spoke of the closeness of the Polish-U.S. relationship, and their agreement on dominant international issues: the war against terrorism and the state of the world economy.

During the White House welcoming ceremony, Kwasniewski said the two nations may be half a world apart, but they still think alike: "Never before have we had so much in common and never before has so much resulted from these bonds. Today Poland and the Unites States, despite the big geographical distance, are partners and allies."

Later, during a joint news conference, Bush spoke of Poland's contributions to the war on terrorism, and how the two countries have very similar outlooks on this and other international issues: "America and Poland see the world in similar terms. We both understand the importance of defeating the forces of global terror, and America appreciates all that Poland is contributing to this great struggle. Our nations also understand the importance of building a better world beyond terror, one where prosperity replaces poverty."

At the news conference, Kwasniewski and Bush said they spent two hours discussing a wide range of topics, focusing on how the two countries work together on international security, and Poland's efforts to make the difficult transition to a market economy.

As a NATO member, Poland has contributed materially to the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, just as it did in 1999 in the alliance's military action in Yugoslavia.

Poland also was in the vanguard of resistance to its socialist rulers a decade before the breakup of the Soviet Union and the demise of communist control of Eastern Europe. In the past decade, it has surpassed its neighbors in developing an open economy.

In an article published on 17 July in "The New York Times," Kwasniewski expressed pride in his country's economic transformation. He wrote that in 1990, more than 70 percent of Poland's gross domestic product, or GDP, was produced in state-run enterprises. Today, he wrote, more than 70 percent of Poland's GDP is privately produced.

Because Kwasniewski is in Washington on a formal state visit, he was greeted at the White House by an arrival ceremony, complete with the U.S. Marine Band performing the anthems of both nations. The ceremony also included the presentation of the countries' flags and honor guards. The visit culminated in the evening with a formal state dinner in the White House's State Dining Room.

On 18 July, Kwasniewski is scheduled to accompany Bush to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, a state with many citizens whose ancestors immigrated from Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. There they will meet with leaders of the Polish American community.

The only other foreign head of state to pay a state visit to the Bush White House was Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico. Bush honored Fox because the U.S. president hoped to increase economic and other exchanges between the two neighboring countries.

Bush said inviting Kwasniewski for a state visit recognizes the great importance that his administration places on the friendship between Poland and the United States. Thomas Carothers agrees. He specializes in Eastern and Southeastern Europe at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent policy research institution in Washington.

Carothers told RFE/RL that Bush wanted to honor Poland's economic success: "It's supportive of our basic economic and political and security interests, and there's just a deep attachment to Poland's successful transition in Eastern Europe. It's a leader in that region."

Carothers says he believes that Bush also wanted to reassure Poles that his close association with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, does not pose either a military or an economic threat to Poland: "Some Poles, I think, have been a little concerned about America's much more positive relationship with Russia and [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin, and possibly by giving full honors at this kind of visit it's a way to assure them that we haven't forgotten about our very important relationship with Poland."

Ted Carpenter agrees that Bush is interested in reassuring Poles -- but not the Poles in Poland. Carpenter -- the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank -- told RFE/RL that Bush's invitation to Kwasniewski was a cynical move based on domestic politics.

According to Carpenter, Bush wants to endear himself to Americans of Polish decent and others whose ancestors came from the region: "If one looks at domestic politics in the United States, [Bush's honoring of Kwasniewski is] an appeal to an ethnic bloc, namely that of Central and East European descendants here in the United States. I think that's probably the main reason."

At the close of the White House news conference, Kwasniewski said he and Bush also discussed ways to bring Poland's neighbor, Ukraine, into the European mainstream.

Most observers say Ukraine's development has been slowed by political and economic corruption. As a result, it will not be invited to join NATO at the alliance's summit, which will be held in Prague in November.

Other former communist nations in Europe are candidates to join. They are Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovenia. Kwasniewski said he is convinced they will be admitted.

Poland has served as a kind of mediator for Ukraine in dealings with the West -- particularly the United States. Carothers of the Carnegie Institute says Kwasniewski is doing a good job acting on his neighbor's behalf. But he stresses that there is just so much Poland can do. He says it is up to Ukraine's president, Leonid Kuchma, to embrace reform if he wants his country to join NATO, much less become an integral part of a new Europe. "I don't think we're envisaging Ukraine as a member of NATO any time in the near future, so it's not so much with NATO membership per se, but more about just try[ing] to prevent a sense of Ukraine being isolated from the West."

Carpenter of the Cato Institute describes Poland as being a broader role model for all the former communist nations of Europe. As for specific efforts to make Ukraine ready to join NATO, Carpenter says Warsaw has a blunt message for Kyiv: "As the club continues to grow, one doesn't want to be on the outside looking in. And I think that's perhaps the message that Warsaw is conveying to Kyiv: 'You'd better get your act together [begin reforming]; otherwise you're going to be in an unholy triumvirate with Russia and Belarus as the only countries in Europe not eventually admitted to NATO.'"

Nevertheless, Kwasniewski said at the 17 July news conference that he believes Ukraine should play what he called "a more important role in the region." Ukraine, a nation of 50 million people, has great agricultural and industrial resources, and -- as Kwasniewski pointed out -- lies at the geographical heart of Europe.