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Eastern Europe: Vilnius Group Supports U.S. On Iraq

Despite resistance from Germany and France, support for Washington's hard-line stance on Iraq is growing in Europe -- particularly in the East. That support could help provide political cover for the Bush administration should it seek to attack Iraq outside the framework of the United Nations.

Washington, 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush often says he may lead a "coalition of the willing" to disarm Iraq by force should the United Nations not enforce its demands that Baghdad disarm. The coalition of the willing -- at least in Europe -- now numbers 18.

Yesterday, 10 Eastern European countries that constitute the Vilnius group jointly pledged to support the U.S. position on Iraq, after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the UN Security Council what they called "compelling evidence" of Iraq's weapons programs. The Vilnius 10 was formed in 2000, when Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia decided to work together in seeking NATO membership. Last week, eight European countries issued a similar statement in support of the U.S. stance on Iraq.

Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi of Bulgaria, addressing the Security Council after Powell, conveyed the spirit of the statement by the Vilnius 10: "In the event, in the near future, the inspectors don't report to the council that Iraq has changed its attitude with regard to its obligations, the Security Council will have to take the appropriate action for the implementation of the relevant resolutions adopted since 1990."

Using photos and wire-tapped conversations of Iraqi officials, Powell sought to show that Iraq is hiding weapons from inspectors and has ties the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Permanent Security Council members France, China, and Russia said they were not convinced the evidence warranted an immediate move to war.

But the Vilnius 10 sounded more like Washington. It said that Iraq is already in "material breach" of UN Resolution 1441 and that "the clear and present danger posed by the Saddam Hussein regime requires a united response from the community of democracies."

The members of the group also expressed their willingness to join a coalition to disarm Baghdad if it continues to violate the UN. They did not call for the UN to adopt a second resolution before military action, as some countries including U.S. ally Britain have done.

The statement also urged members of the trans-Atlantic community not to allow disagreements over Iraq to undermine their unity -- precisely the message of last week's pro-U.S. letter from the leaders of Italy, Spain, Britain, Denmark, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Portugal.

Ilona Teleki is a scholar on Eastern Europe at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. She said the Eastern European countries are grateful to the U.S. for its strong support for their bid to enter NATO and its backing during the years of communist rule.

Indeed, the Vilnius statement said, "Our countries understand the dangers posed by tyranny and the special responsibility of democracies to defend our shared values." Last November, seven of the Vilnius 10 were invited to join the alliance, while Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania hope to join in the future.

Teleki made this observation to RFE/RL: "The U.S. has played such a fundamental role in the transition [from communism] of all these countries. And they see the U.S. as kind of bringing them into -- not into the modern world, but into the Western world."

But other analysts say the strong support for the U.S. by Eastern Europe's governments, often in contrast to more skeptical attitudes among the general population, signals a growing division within Europe.

Two weeks ago U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed Germany and France, who are among the toughest critics of U.S. foreign policy on Iraq, part of a complacent "old Europe" that differed sharply with the energy and outlook of the "new one" in Eastern Europe.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former member of President Richard Nixon's National Security Council, is an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. Sonnenfeldt told RFE/RL that Eastern Europe's pro-U.S. stance will not drive a wedge between it and Western Europe, but will cause problems for Brussels. "There will be people in the EU countries and governments and media and others who will be disturbed by this. There will be people who will try to minimize whatever support the East Europeans give [in regard to Iraq]. But the West Europeans will have to make their own judgment whether they really want to have a new division in Europe," he said.

Others see the issue more starkly. Ted Galen Carpenter is an analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. Carpenter told RFE/RL Eastern Europe's staunchly pro-American stance could hurt the aspirations of some of its members to join the EU. "I think this is going to make the French and Germans extremely suspicious. French and German officials have suspected for a long time -- with good reason -- one of the reasons the United States has been so enthusiastic about the expansion of NATO and the expansion of the European Union, is that these countries for the most part constitute American proxy votes in both institutions. That's not going to make expansion any more appealing to the French and Germans."

George Papandreou, the foreign minister of Greece, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, is seeking to patch up the differences on Iraq. Papandreou, with a nod to Rumsfeld's remarks last month, had this to say at a news conference yesterday at the UN in New York: "My feeling is there are minuscule differences as far as what we want. I think it's wrong to portray the international community or the European Union or even a future European Union as divided. I also think this division between new and old Europe doesn't have any credibility. We have a very common approach."

Not sufficiently common, however, for all European countries to be eager to join Bush's "coalition of the willing" -- if indeed things come to that.

What form such a coalition would take remains unclear.

Most of the 18 countries that pledged support for the U.S. on Iraq appear to have been asked to contribute military or logistical support for a possible war in Iraq. The Czech Republic currently has a special anti-chemical-warfare unit stationed in Kuwait for possible use in a conflict across the border in Iraq. Hungary has allowed its territory to be used for training Iraqis who would act as guides and interpreters for coalition troops in case of war. The Bulgarian parliament, meanwhile, is considering a U.S. request to open the its airspace to U.S. warplanes and for temporary landing rights on Bulgarian airfields. The contribution of smaller countries would be more symbolic.

Carpenter of the Cato Institute believes the countries of the Vilnius 10 cannot offer significant military contribution to a war against Iraq. But their political support is important. "At most, the influence would be minimal. I think what it does is give the United States plausible political cover that we are leading a coalition, that it's not just the United States acting unilaterally. But that faade barely meets the 'straight face' test. These are countries that are lending political support, but that is essentially about it," he said.

This political support will be vital for the U.S., which hardly needs military help, said Janusz Bugajski, director of the Eastern European project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Bugajski said the Vilnius statement is very significant. "The message itself speaks about unity at this very important time, both for the United States but also for the allies. I think it's a message to keep NATO together, to keep the alliance together, and to help the United States in any way possible in fighting what is perceived, I think throughout Eastern Europe, as a very real danger. So it's a message to Washington and to Europe, and I wouldn't diminish its political importance even though militarily the NATO aspirants do not have volumes to offer."