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Eastern Europe: Do Citizens Of Vilnius 10 Support Action Against Iraq, Or Only Their Governments?

  • Eugen Tomiuc

The so-called "Vilnius 10" group of Central and Eastern European countries this week pledged support for the U.S. position on Iraq, adding to similar stances expressed last week by Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. But recent polls show the public in many countries in the region oppose both military action against Iraq and their countries' support for such action, raising the question of whether governments have enough popular backing in their pledge to assist the United States.

Prague, 7 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ten Central and Eastern European countries known as the "Vilnius 10" group have pledged in a joint letter to support the United States position on Iraq, saying that the United States has presented the United Nations Security Council with what they call "compelling evidence" of Iraq's weapons programs.

The Vilnius group was established in 2000 by Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in order to support their efforts toward NATO membership.

The "Vilnius 10" statement comes after nine European countries, including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, issued a similar letter of support for the United States on 30 January.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer yesterday said President George W. Bush is proud to have the support of the 10 countries of the Vilnius group. "The president today would like to thank the 10 nations of Eastern Europe that issued a statement yesterday in support of the United States' effort to disarm Iraq. The people of Eastern Europe know well the dangers and risks of allowing tyranny to go unchallenged, and they stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the United States," Fleischer said.

But recent opinion polls cast doubt on whether it is the citizens of these countries who support the United States on Iraq or simply their governments.

A Gallup International poll conducted in January in 41 countries showed that in only one of the "Vilnius 10" countries was a majority of the population in favor of the country's support for military action against Iraq. In Romania, 45 percent said they were in favor, compared with 38 percent saying they did not support such action.

Public support for such involvement among the "Vilnius 10" group of countries was lowest in Macedonia, with 10 percent; Bulgaria, with 21 percent; and Estonia, with 30 percent.

Other recent polls show that in Latvia, 74 percent oppose toppling the Iraqi regime using military force. Only 20 percent of respondents in Latvia backed military action.

In the case of NATO members Hungary and the Czech Republic, public opinion is also strongly opposed to war. Polls show that 82 percent of Hungarians and 67 percent of Czechs are opposed to military action against Iraq under any circumstances.

In Poland, a local survey showed 63 percent of Poles opposed sending troops against Iraq, but 52 percent thought Warsaw should back the United States politically in any military action.

Petr Drulak, a political scientist at the Prague-based Czech Institute of International Relations, said the discrepancy between government statements of support for the United States and antiwar feelings among the public can be explained by the fact that people in the region do not display a passionate interest in developments in the Middle East and Iraq. "That's why governments and political elites can ignore the popular sentiment to a large extent, because they can be sure that even if the country supports possible American military action, that there will be no huge mass demonstrations in the street, because even if people are against the war, they don't feel about it that strongly to punish their government for participation in it. So the government, clearly, has to decide between public opinion, which is against war but doesn't feel too strongly about it, and its commitments to Americans and to its Atlantic orientation. And the governments tend to choose the Atlantic orientation," Drulak said.

In Latvia, however, Prime Minister Einars Repse saw his popularity drop from around 70 percent to some 40 percent after expressing support for the U.S. position. Furthermore, disagreement over Iraq has also been reported within the power structures of some countries.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi signed the "Vilnius 10" statement despite President Georgi Parvanov's apparent reluctance to support unilateral U.S. action.

In the Czech Republic, former President Vaclav Havel endorsed the 30 January letter of support, but Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla did not.

Drulak said that in some of the region's countries, the political class has always been split on foreign-policy issues. "Clearly, the Czech Republic and maybe some other countries are split on that, but it's rather their internal problem, because their political elites were not able to agree among themselves on what their position will be. And we can expect that with another major crisis we will experience such a split again, because if you look at the Czech case, we have experienced this kind of split, exactly this kind of split, several years ago when NATO started bombing Yugoslavia. Again, the president was quite clearly supportive of NATO's action, whereas the government was rather hesitant," Drulak said.

But despite internal bickering, several Eastern European countries have already pledged military assistance to the United States.

The Bulgarian parliament today approved a U.S. request to use Bulgarian airspace for U.S. military flyovers and for the stationing of up to 18 U.S. or other allied aircraft and 400 soldiers at the Sarafovo air base. Slovak legislators yesterday agreed on the deployment of an antichemical-and-antibiological-warfare unit to the Persian Gulf.

Romania has already offered overflight and basing rights to the U.S. military and will decide next week whether to commission troops in the event of conflict. Hungary has agreed to host a training camp for Iraqi exiles who would accompany any advancing U.S. troops, while Poland has offered unspecified military backing, and the Czech Republic has already sent a chemical-warfare cleanup unit to Kuwait.

The offers for help to the United States from the Eastern Europeans, in contrast to the reluctance of some Western countries, has cast a shadow over the much-desired goal of European unity on foreign-policy issues.

Cracks have appeared not only between what U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently called "old Europe," namely, Germany and France, which oppose military action against Iraq, and the pro-U.S. formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, but also within the EU states, and more recently within NATO.

Analyst Steven Everts of the London-based Centre for European Reform believes that such multipronged disputes, which he calls "loudspeaker diplomacy," have soured the mood across Europe.

Moreover, Everts said, they threaten to move the focus from the real issue: the need to disarm Iraq. "There is a bit of this risk that what we are doing now is more reacting to each other or reacting to the United States rather than focusing on how we can get Iraq to comply with the UN resolutions, which is the main thing. The main issue is weapons of mass destruction and disarmament. Let's focus on that. How can we achieve that objective that is absolutely much more important than who said what to whom and who has consulted what and who is more pro-American than the other. That's in the end much less important than achieving the results," Everts said.

Everts said the dispute over Iraq has further highlighted the need for a common EU position on foreign policy. But he concluded that it will be increasingly difficult to achieve such a goal once the EU expands from its current 15 members to 25 member states next year.

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