- - Monday, June 2, 2014

WARSAW, Poland — When President Obama visits Poland this week, he will encounter skeptics of American power who hope their concerns are unjustified.

The U.S. president journeys Tuesday to Poland to commemorate the 25th anniversary of democratic elections that helped bring an end to communist rule in Central Europe.

But many Poles expect Mr. Obama to take advantage of his two-day visit to deliver a clear statement on the geopolitical crisis facing Europe: Russia’s aggression toward Poland’s eastern neighbor Ukraine.

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“In the context of Russia being an obvious threat to regional security, Obama’s visit can be seen as reassurance for Poland,” said Polish political analyst Lukasz Mezyk.

Polish-American relations traditionally have been close. Many Poles are grateful to the United States for opposing the Soviet Union during the Cold War and reciprocated when the U.S. needed allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa, the greatest wonder is how Poland saw the departure of the Red Army under his presidency, after decades of domination. He rejoices at Poland's hard-won democracy, but wishes he had achieved more: a more effective state, equal opportunity and welfare for all, greater success in bringing communists to account. "When I see how much we have spoiled, how careless we were, how much injustice we have caused, then I am displeased," said Walesa. (Associated Press)
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But as Cold War memories fade, Polish perceptions are changing. Respect for American democracy has given way to criticism about U.S. overreach and inequalities in the bilateral relationship.

The Laboratory for Social Research, a Warsaw opinion polling institute, has found that while Poles associate the U.S. with “democracy,” “tolerance” and “equality,” they add “consumerism” and “obesity” to a list of terms describing the leading nation of the Western world.

A recent poll found that 60 percent of Poles believe the U.S. has a significant influence on global affairs, but only 13 percent thought that influence is unequivocally beneficial. More than 40 percent thought the U.S. role in the world is as negative as it is positive.

Poles also feel that their close cooperation with the U.S., often through NATO, has not necessarily reaped dividends for ordinary people, business and their country.

“We supported the U.S. militarily,” said Michal, an architect who declined to give his last name. Waiting in line at the U.S. Embassy to apply for a visa to visit his cousin in Boston, he said, “We hoped to gain something from that but got nothing instead.”

Unlike the British, French and other citizens of Western European countries, Poles can’t simply depart from a flight and enter the U.S. for a few months on a tourist visa. Instead, they need to apply for permission to enter the country, explain the purpose of their trip and often whether they or family have resources to pay for their stay.

Ordinary Poles view the process as an indignity.

“The U.S. treats us as a submissive ally but not a true partner,” said Michal. “The fact that I have to stand in this line to apply for a visa is extra proof of that.”

The 2009 White House decision to cancel a missile defense shield that had the potential to protect Central and Eastern Europe from a Russian nuclear attack reflected the same dynamic on a geopolitical scale. Poles couldn’t understand why Mr. Obama was softening the U.S. stance against Moscow.

More recently, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that a smaller, reformulated missile defense plan will be introduced in late 2018, after Mr. Obama leaves office. The next U.S. president could reverse Mr. Kerry’s promise and thereby refuel Poles’ mistrust of the U.S.

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