U.S. President George W. Bush this week discussed a U.S. missile base in Eastern Europe with Polish and Czech officials, but the results were merely words, and the two European countries showed some naivety as international players.
There were great expectations from two of Washington’s most faithful allies, but the young democracies revealed, each in their own way, that they are still learning how to deal with the world’s superpower.
During Bush’s short stopover to meet with Polish President Lech Kaczynski Friday, both officials insisted on their commitment to the project that would place a radar in the Czech Republic and an antimissile base in Poland to protect the "free world" from missile attacks by "rogue states."
But Polish backing for the project comes amidst growing concern by pundits and the media alike that Warsaw’s faithful support and military contributions to U.S. interventions abroad have not been reciprocated by Washington which does not allow Poles to enter the United States without a visa.
Radowlaw Sikorski, former minister of national defense, was clear in reminding Poles that "Iraq and Afghanistan were our gestures of friendship towards the United States. The shield will be another gesture. The time has come for a tangible gesture of reciprocity."
The discussions were, however, given a jolt by a surprise offer from Russia which had until now staunchly opposed the missile defense project, doubting the rationale given to Washington to build the infrastructure at its radar station in Qabala, Azerbaijan.
Bush promised to study the "interesting" proposal.
"The surprise proposal really changed a lot. The Eastern European visit might not be important after this," Jan Drahokoupil, analyst at the Czech Economy and Society Trust, told IPS. "We have to wait to see what [President Vladimir] Putin’s proposal actually means."
But Russia has already announced what rejecting its offer would mean: "If the Americans turn down this Russian proposal on some pretext, then it will be clear once and for all that the true target of their project is not only a hypothetical Iranian or North Korean threat, but also to limit Russia’s nuclear potential, which we could have guessed earlier," Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, said in a press conference.
The short visit to Poland was markedly different from Bush’s reception in Prague, where the Czech political elite proved its honeymoon with the freedom-preaching United States still resonates in a country deeply resentful of its communist past.
With a few exceptions, Czech media proudly celebrated Bush’s choice of Prague to kick off his European tour, despite strong grassroots opposition to the radar base.
The visit "brought the public media discourse in the Czech Republic back to the era of Normalization (post-1968 communist rule in then Czechoslovakia). It was similar to the coverage of Brezhnev’s visit to Czechoslovakia," Drahokoupil told IPS.
"Czech political commentators agreed how important the country became as a result of the visit. There was absolutely no critical reflection, just adoration, and Czech organizers did not even allow questions in the press conference," the analyst said.
The latest polls suggest public opinion did not change as a result of the visit, with opposition to the radar remaining at 60 to 70 percent of those surveyed. "If media propaganda is too direct, it has little effect," Drahokoupil added.
But Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek warned his passive population that Europe’s lack of will to defend itself had been its biggest problem throughout the past century. A few days before, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra insinuated that Czechs could be facing compulsory military service if they reject the radar.
The prime minister is concerned over plans to hold a referendum on the radar. Opposition parties and even smaller groups in the governing coalition are either against the base or would only allow it within the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
But Topolanek disappointed his own supporters when claiming that the issue of waiving the U.S. visa requirement for Czech citizens traveling to that country was not connected with the stationing of the U.S. base in Czech territory. Instead, he promised advantages in the fields of technologies, science and research in cooperating with the United States.
Yet Bush, well aware of the points he might score with average Poles and Czechs by lifting U.S. visa requirements, promised to convince U.S. lawmakers to follow through.
The U.S. president tried to appease the opposition and much of Europe by promising to coordinate the system within NATO and not just negotiate bilaterally. He also told Czechs there was no need to choose between Russia and the United States, as the Cold War was over.
The event was hardly disturbed by a few small anti-Bush demonstrations in the streets of Prague, but some wanted to make sure he felt at home, to the embarrassment of some of the more sober-minded Czechs.
Concerned that "the Americans could get the feeling that nobody here would remember who liberated the country and then has never occupied it," Czech Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanova tried to charm the U.S. president by offering him a CD with a pro-U.S. song performed by the minister herself.
This was "an illustration of the Czech government’s approach to Bush," Drahokoupil told IPS.
The song, which borrows the melody of a famous Czech hit celebrating Yuriy Gagarin’s arrival to space in 1961, was televised with images of U.S. and Czech flags, a radar installation and a Czech government building in the background.
"Tell the guys who live on the stars; tell the guys who live in outer space. Tell them that we want to live in peace, but we prefer clothes from Uncle Sam," the minister’s lyrics go, before ending with a "we know who has freed us back then in May 1945."