By Nicholas Dima l July 31, 2009
With a changing of the guard occurring in the U.S. as well as in Central and Eastern Europe comes a growing sense of trepidation in Central and Eastern European capitals among those seemingly timeless dissident leaders like Lech Walesa of Poland and Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, who helped to forge a future for freedom and independence from Soviet domination during the largely bloodless revolutions of 1989, beginning with Poland, Hungary and Romania.
In the wake of the 20 years since the Velvet revolutions of the former Eastern Bloc states surviving under Communist rule is a new generation coming of age in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. This generation lacks a sufficient connection and understanding of the importance of the American role or for that matter even that of its own leaders in achieving their country’s freedom and independence from Soviet Russia. During this critical transition period where new leaders are emerging, the former policy makers and intellectuals of the CEE have issued an Open Letter to President Barack Obama. In part, they point out that the joint successes of U.S. Cold War-era policy have laid a “proper foundation for the transatlantic renaissance we need today.” More specifically, they posit:
“Twenty years have passed since the revolutions of 1989. That is a whole generation. We need a new generation to renew the transatlantic partnership. A new program should be launched to identify those young leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who can carry forward the transatlantic project we have spent the last two decades building in Central and Eastern Europe.”
The evolution of this “Open Letter” is most interesting. Under the leadership of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the United States, a largely German government supported Washington-based think tank concentrating on transatlantic policy, GMF backed the Central European Task Force consisting of six regional experts who produced a GMF Policy Brief entitled: Why the Obama Administration Should Not Take Central and Eastern Europe for Granted, published July 13th. On July 16th, GMF hosted a CEE roundtable discussion in Washington featuring former Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served as commentator. Simultaneously on July 16th, the Open Letter was widely disseminated appearing on the GMF web site, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In fact, the GMF Policy Brief had become the basis for an expanded version of the Open Letter.
The Open Letter iterates at the outset its concerns over the dramatic changes having taken place in the region due to the success of U.S. policy, from those dark days of Cold War subjugation as part of the former Eastern Bloc under Moscow’s control, there being no further need for concern. Accordingly, they write:
“As the new Obama Administration sets its foreign policy priorities, our region is one part of the world that Americans have largely stopped worrying about. Indeed, at times we have the impression that U.S. policy was so successful that many American officials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all that they could ‘check the box’ and move on to other more pressing strategic issues. Relations have been so close that many on both sides assume that the region’s transatlantic orientation, as well as its stability and prosperity, would last forever.”
In view of the formidable push made by the German Marshall Fund in bringing the region’s serious concerns to the forefront, it is easy to comprehend those concerns expressed by the signers of the Open Letter in light of the November 2008 election of a relatively obscure and inexperienced first term U.S. Senator from Chicago who is raised to the dizzying heights of the presidency of the United States of America. Given President Obama’s lack of experience in foreign affairs, the prescience of the GMF was validated during his recent trip to Moscow. It is difficult to evaluate the achievements of the president’s trip especially when balanced against the concessions that were made. What concessions did the U.S. president make to Moscow? Apparently, the Russians received an approving nod for strengthening their presence in Central Asia; it is likely they got away with their gains in Georgia; and most likely, they gained the upper hand once again in the Ukraine and Moldova. It seems, however unexpectedly, that Moscow also obtained some concessions in Central and Eastern Europe.
The culmination of Obama’s trip was the July 6th signing of a Joint Understanding between the United States and the Russian Federation regarding strategic missiles that would begin a process to replace START (strategic arms reduction treaty) with a new treaty. This agreement for the mutual reduction of nuclear arsenals comes in the midst of continuing tensions over the proposed U.S. installation of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, strenuously opposed by Moscow. Just 10 days after the signing of the Joint Understanding, GMF published the Open Letter to President Barack Obama and held its roundtable discussion.
Among the six critical steps proposed by the Open Letter, the authors describe their third step as the “thorniest” of issues. Of course, this is the missile defense shield to be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic. On July 6th, in an interview given to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Obama said, “We have not yet decided how we will configure missile defense in Europe. But my sincere hope is that Russia will be a partner in that project.” Moscow views this missile defense shield as a threat to its interests and as expressed by Russian President Dimitry Medvedev on July 10th at the G8 Summit, if the U.S. installs the missile shield, Moscow will install the mobile Iskander-M ballistic missile system in the Kaliningrad enclave, a result of the accommodative Potsdam Conference of August 1945. The Open Letter clearly and explicitly addresses missile defense in Europe stating:
“Regardless of the military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventually decides to do, the issue has nevertheless also become – at least in some countries – a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region. How it is handled could have a significant impact on their future transatlantic orientation. The small number of missiles involved cannot be a threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, and the Kremlin knows this. We should decide the future of the program as allies and based on the strategic plusses and minuses of the different technical and political configurations. The [NATO] Alliance should not allow the issue to be determined by unfounded Russian opposition.”
How to deal with the rise of a revisionist Russia, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, sets the tone for the entire Open Letter in the context of the transatlantic relationship. Moscow has treated the CEE countries with outright contempt and disrespect for their sovereignty once having been either part of the former Eastern Bloc or the former Soviet Union itself that Moscow today considers its “near abroad” within its sphere of influence. On the issue of how to deal with Russia, the Open Letter explains:
“Our hopes that relations with Russia would improve and that Moscow would finally fully accept our complete sovereignty and independence after joining NATO and the EU have not been fulfilled. Instead Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21 st-century tactics and methods. At a global level Russia has become, on most issues, a status-quo power. But at a regional level and vis-à-vis our nations, it increasingly acts as a revisionist one. It challenges our claims to our own historical experiences. It asserts a privileged position in determining our security choices. It uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.”
Moscow has sought a monopoly of energy supplies with the intent of creating a European dependence on natural gas setting high prices to pressure transit and end user countries. Alternatives have included American support for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which would not have otherwise been built. European energy security includes the recent agreement to build the Nabucco natural gas pipeline project completely bypassing Russia, which was signed in Turkey on July 13th.
Praising America’s historic support for liberal democratic values, the authors compare the widely different and unfortunate outcomes when America stood up for those values and how the region suffered when it did not, citing the “reality of Yalta,” a reference to the post-World War II division of Europe and the Iron Curtain that descended upon Central and Eastern Europe for nearly 50 years. If the “realist” view had prevailed in the 1990s, they would not be members of NATO or the EU. Similarly, they express the nervousness permeating their capitals today warning of their concern that under the Obama administration the United States and the major European powers might embrace a new contemporary division embodied in what they refer to as the “Medvedev plan for a ‘Concert of Powers’ to replace the continent’s existing, value-based security structure.” The authors conclude their Open Letter with a very nuanced but prophetic statement:
“We, the authors of this letter, know firsthand how important the relationship with the United States has been. In the 1990s, a large part of getting Europe right was about getting Central and Eastern Europe right. The engagement of the United States was critical to locking in peace and stability from the Baltics to the Black Sea. Today the goal must be to keep Central and Eastern Europe right as a stable, activist, and Atlanticist part of our broader community.”
Without a revisionist Russia and the election of a U.S. president who is young and inexperienced, there would be no need for such an Open Letter from these venerable pro-Western leaders from Central and Eastern Europe. Written and signed in their personal capacities as individuals “who are friends and allies of the United States as well as committed Europeans,” this all important missive conveys a desperate sense of need for reassurance from Washington at a very critical time.
The Open Letter was signed by Valdas Adamkus, Martin Butora, Emil Constantinescu, Pavol Demes, Lubos Dobrovsky, Matyas Eorsi, Istvan Gyarmati, Vaclav Havel, Rastislav Kacer, Sandra Kalniete, Karel Schwarzenberg, Michal Kovac, Ivan Krastev, Alexander Kwasniewski, Mart Laar, Kadri Liik, Janos Martonyi. Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Adam Rotfeld, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Alexandr Vondra and Lech Walesa.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to