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At Democracy Forum, Central, Eastern Europe Slam U.S. Engagement With Russia

Vaclav Havel, the forum's founder, criticized what he called the United States' 'small compromises.' (file photo)
Vaclav Havel, the forum's founder, criticized what he called the United States' 'small compromises.' (file photo)
Forum 2000 has never been a Kremlin-friendly affair.

Launched in 1997 by then-Czech President Vaclav Havel to discuss global challenges, the annual conference traditionally attracts policy-makers from former Soviet countries and rights campaigners critical of Moscow.

But participants at this year's two-day conference, which wrapped up October 13, were particularly vocal in denouncing Russia's increasingly assertive stance and poor human rights record -- two ills that some say are being aggravated by U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to "reset" relations with Moscow.

Czech Senator Alexandr Vondra, while moderating a debate on Russia's role in global politics, put the same question to all participants: "Should we be afraid of Russia?"

The answers were not reassuring.

"Moscow is simply trying to pressure and interfere in new ways, using energy and other weapons of political pressure," said Sandra Kalniete, a European Parliament deputy from Latvia. "It seeks to marginalize countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States in NATO and in the European Union."

U.S. Letdown?

Kalniete went on to condemn Obama's shock decision last month to scrap previous plans for a missile-defense system partly based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The proposed replacement system no longer provides for bases in those two countries, at least in the short term.

Kalniete voiced a feeling shared by a number of Central and Eastern Europeans -- that the United States is walking out on Central and Eastern Europe.

"We take the withdrawal of antimissile plans from the Czech Republic and Poland as a signal that Eastern Europeans and Poles are no longer as high on the U.S. agenda as they used to be during the Bush and Clinton eras," she said.

Obama's policy of engagement with Russia has angered many in Central and Eastern Europe, where resentment over decades of Soviet domination runs deep.

After last year's war between Russia and Georgia, many in the region believe Western nations should do more to protect them against potential Russian threats.

Kalniete, Vondra, and the conference's patron, Havel, were among the 22 policy makers and intellectuals from the former Communist bloc to sign an open letter this summer warning Obama against making concessions to Moscow -- which they described as a "revisionist power pursing a 19th-century agenda."

The letter also urged Obama to press ahead with the missile-defense shield advanced by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Havel himself used Forum 2000 to take issue with Obama's efforts to mend fences with Russia -- and engage China.

"I think that when, for example, the freshly awarded Nobel Peace Prize winner postpones a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after he visits continental China, he makes a small, inconspicuous, little-noticed compromise -- a compromise that has a certain logic," Havel said. "Nevertheless, the question is whether big, fatal compromises do not have their origins, their first roots, in these small, inconspicuous, and more or less 'logical' compromises."

The conference coincided with Hillary Clinton's first visit to Russia as U.S. secretary of state, during which she declared feeling "very good" about Obama's reset of relations with Moscow.

‘Put Europe In Order’

Paradoxically, the most sympathetic comments at this year's Forum 2000 came from veteran Russian opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky.

Yavlinsky deplored the lack of democracy in his country. But he also criticized the West's carrot-and-stick approach to Russia as "disastrous," calling instead for a clear, consistent stance on Russia.

Europe, he added, must clean up its act before helping put Russia on the path to democracy.

"How can you help? The answer is simple: by your example," Yavlinsky told the audience. "Please put the European Union in order, please show you can exercise the values and principles that you declare. Help the United States overcome the economic and political crisis, and we will look at your example and move much faster. All the rest we can do ourselves."

The Czech Republic is currently the only European Union member not to have ratified the EU Lisbon Treaty following Poland's signature last week, preventing the accord from coming into force.

The Czech Constitutional Court is currently studying a complaint against the treaty backed by Havel's successor, euroskeptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus.

Seemingly unconcerned by the furor over Lisbon and anti-Russian talk at Forum 2000, Klaus traveled to Moscow on October 14 for talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on bilateral trade, energy cooperation, and European security.

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