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EU: Candidates, In Sensitive Spot, Step Forward With Support Of Coalition

  • Nikola Krastev

At least seven former communist states are now in the process of contributing to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. A Polish commando group is fighting alongside coalition forces inside Iraq. Czechs and Slovaks maintain a joint battalion of about 470 soldiers in Kuwait. Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Ukraine are also playing supporting roles. U.S. experts say the political significance of such contributions should not be underestimated. But as RFE/RL reports, the resolve of several of the countries involved appears to be wavering.

New York, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Back in January, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic jointly declared their support for the U.S. position on Iraq out of gratitude for help in the collapse of their communist regimes.

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq now one week old, they and other former communist states in the region have followed up their words with contributions to the U.S.-led coalition. Most of their forces in the Persian Gulf are special units equipped to deal with both terrorist and conventional threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Poland is directly involved in the military operations and has approved the use of up to 200 troops and special forces.

The contribution of these states has more political than practical importance, according to Richard Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University in New York. "I think the political significance is it enhances their relationship with the United States, which they, as smaller countries in Europe and as part of the former Soviet empire, value perhaps more than some others. So this gets them in very good standing with the Bush [U.S. President George W. Bush] administration. It shows them as important allies and members of the coalition that Bush wants to tout for the war now, given the falling-out with the major European allies. I don't think there is a great deal of military significance, but symbolically, it's important to the Bush administration to show that the U.S. does have support from other governments and important to those governments to show now what seems like a special relationship with the United States," Betts said.

Striking a balance between the priorities of the United States and its coalition partners is a sensitive issue. Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski yesterday criticized U.S. President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for publicly discussing the actions of Polish troops, including special forces, in Iraq.

Warsaw does not want information about its special forces discussed publicly. Public-opinion polls also show that a majority of Poles disapprove of military action against Iraq.

But at the same time, the Polish government also continues to defend its support of action against Iraq. Addressing the United Nations Security Council on 26 March, Poland's UN ambassador Janusz Stanczyk said the use of force became the only option after years of Iraqi noncompliance with UN disarmament resolutions. "Failure to take action for the effective disarmament of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein's regime would be a serious political and military mistake. It would be tantamount to tolerating breaches of the law and persistent disregard of obligations towards the UN," Stanczyk said.

In deciding to support Washington, these countries may have taken a political risk given the split on Iraq between the United States and some of its most important European allies. But any adverse impact is likely to be limited, says Robert Kennedy, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of International Affairs in the United States. "I think that the anger over [the participation in the Iraq offensive of countries like Poland] will be short-lived in the memories of these members of the EU, particularly France and Germany, and they will be looking at much broader issues when they look at the membership of the Czech Republic, as well [as in] Bulgaria and other countries. They will be looking for adherence to the acquis communautaire [body of EU laws] and a real contribution these countries will make to the European Union. And I doubt that they will allow the action of countries in Central and Eastern Europe in support of the United States and coalition efforts in Iraq to get in the way of more fundamental issues," Kennedy said.

Professor Betts said the decision of Central and Eastern European countries to support the United States may derive not so much out of Cold War-liberation sentiments but out of practical considerations.

He told RFE/RL that he also does not expect any long-lasting adverse effects on the countries' future European Union membership. "I would think the controversies will blow over, but [it's notable that] the splits crosscut the Atlantic divide. In other words, it's not just disagreement between Europe and the United States but within Europe as well. And some of the smaller European countries see some utility in being associated with the United States rather than with perhaps the most powerful and dominating European members," Betts said.

Kyiv, in addition to sending a special battalion to the Persian Gulf area, has also indicated it is willing to treat victims of the conflict -- coalition troops, as well as Iraqis -- in Ukraine.

But despite such offers of cooperation, Kyiv is also showing signs of discomfort with the United States. Yesterday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko denied claims by Bush that Ukrainian anti-chemical-weapons forces will serve in Iraq.

Addressing U.S. troops at the Army's Central Command in Tampa, Florida, on 26 March, Bush said Ukrainians would join troops from several other countries "prepared to respond in the event of an attack of weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the region." But Zlenko said the Ukrainian battalion would be based in Kuwait and would not redeploy to any other country.

Also yesterday, Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop said the United States had made a mistake when it named his country as part of the coalition of the willing. Reports that Slovenia was listed as a coalition member yesterday sparked protests in the country. Rop said Ljubljana has asked for an explanation from Washington.

Bulgaria, meanwhile, has affirmed that it will be deploying a special nuclear-chemical-biological (NBC) unit to assist the coalition's military operation in Iraq. Bulgaria's ambassador to the United States, Elena Poptodorova, told RFE/RL her country's contribution will come at a later phase. "As you know, our [Bulgarian] unit is planning to participate during the second phase of the [Iraq] military operation. It means that it will be involved in decontamination activities: nuclear, chemical, and biological defense. Our time has not yet come," Poptodorova said.

The Bulgarian unit was initially composed of 150 soldiers and officers but was later reduced to 100. Poptodorova said that the reduction was due to the decommissioning of unneeded auxiliary personnel.