Thursday, June 22, 2006

America and central Europe

Stamped by history

Jun 22nd 2006 | TALLINN
From The Economist print edition

Post-communist countries like America. Shame they can't travel there

IT WAS to America that the captive nations of central and eastern Europe once looked for succour. And when they gained freedom, it was America that pushed to make them safe, by bringing them in to NATO. Those memories are still strong. George Bush's visit to Hungary this week, marking the 50th anniversary of the failed anti-Soviet uprising there, would have met similar warmth in any of the eight ex-communist members of the European Union. In parts of “old Europe”, by contrast, the welcome would have been cool or outright hostile.

Most of Europe's new democracies still believe that, in a tight spot, only America can guarantee their security. That is particularly true for those edgy about Russia: Poland and the Baltic states. They were thrilled to hear Mr Bush's vice-president, Dick Cheney, denounce Russia's energy imperialism in Vilnius last month.

But it is not just Russia. Hungary, for example, keeps an uneasy eye on next-door Serbia, home to an unhappy Hungarian minority. If extremists took power in Serbia, says George Schöpflin, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, only America could protect Hungary.

The post-communist countries are useful American allies. They supported the war in Iraq both diplomatically, and (see table) with troops on the ground. The numbers, Poland aside, may look small. But for the countries involved, they are large. Addressing Congress earlier this month, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia's president, said that her country's contribution to operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the western Balkans was “proportionately one of the largest in the world”.

America tends to underestimate the political cost of this. One post-communist minister recalls trying vainly to convince his American counterparts that staying in Iraq was rather unpopular at home. American military aid to the new democracies has been stingy. And the cost and hassle of America's visa policies grate harshly. “Estonians don't understand why their sons are dying in Iraq for democracy and freedom, and yet their families can't get visas for the United States,” says Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former foreign minister.

So far, only Slovenia's 1.9m people have visa-free travel to America. Poland and the Czech Republic have lobbied hard; so did Mrs Vike-Freiberga on her recent trip. But there is little sign of change. In most post-communist countries, each visa application costs a non-refundable $100—a week's wages. In Romania, even the appointment costs $11, for seven minutes of telephone time.

That makes it hard for pro-American politicians to thrive. Mikulas Dzurinda, the outgoing Slovak prime minister, was an ardent Atlanticist. He was well-received during visits to Washington, but brought little home to show for it. The victors in last weekend's elections were anti-American leftist and nationalist parties.

Such wobbles barely trouble American policy-makers. East European governments of all stripes usually end up trying to get on well with America. The Hungarian government that welcomed Mr Bush is a coalition of ex-communists and liberals, but it has been a solid ally in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Poland, under the presidency of ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, helped America, notably in places such as Ukraine. The country's current conservative rulers, though explicitly pro-American, are shackled by their incompetence in foreign policy.

Atlanticism is a harder and riskier sell than it used to be. The public increasingly thinks Iraq was bungled. Many politicians would like to say to America: “If you want us to be your allies in places such as Iraq, then do things better,” says Kadri Liik, a Tallinn-based foreign-policy analyst. Polish opinion has swung sharply against a clumsily presented new American anti-missile radar base.

The furore over rendition has been damaging too. Although all the governments concerned—in Poland and elsewhere—deny that they have provided secret bases for torturing, or transporting, terrorists, solid suspicions remain.

The hope now is that America will open large bases of a more conventional kind, with the attendant jobs and contracts. In April America leased three bases in Bulgaria, which are expected to bring several thousand troops to build logistics for larger forces heading east and south.

In Romania, the port of Constanta has been used for NATO exercises and is likely to become an American base by year-end. President Traian Basescu has energetically pushed the idea of using his country to open the Black Sea region to American and European influence.

So long as the European Union's own foreign policy looks muddled and weak, the ex-captive nations are likely to look mostly to America for security. And loyal friends in useful places are welcome, even if they are small, weak and tiresomely keen on actually visiting their big ally.

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