- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

WARSAW — Poland, which hosts a grateful U.S. president this weekend and holds a referendum to join the European Union a week later, is assuming a high-profile role in global affairs reminiscent of the days when it broke with the Soviet Union.

President Bush is expected to discuss Poland’s role in Europe’s future during his brief stop, as well as to thank Polish leaders for their unwavering support of the war in Iraq.

“Poland is a very special ally,” U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said in an interview broadcast yesterday by Polish television. “I think Poland is an ever bigger player.”

Mr. Hill said that Mr. Bush, who arrived last night, would deliver “the only policy speech he’s going to give in Europe.”

Poland was one of the U.S.-led coalition’s staunchest allies during the Iraq crisis, and contributed about 200 troops to the war to overthrow strongman Saddam Hussein. Poland later drew the assignment of overseeing a zone of occupation in postwar Iraq, the sector between Baghdad and Basra.

Mr. Bush flew into Krakow, Poland’s most picturesque city. He is to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp today, meet with Polish leaders and give his speech to 2,000 invited guests at Wawel Castle, home to Polish kings between the 11th and 17th centuries.

Poles relish the prospect of their nation’s enhanced importance to both the United States and the European Union, said Andrze Rychard, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw.

“Polls show the biggest group of Poles don’t see a contradiction between U.S. support and EU support,” he said. “Both represent the way West, which was always the aim and goal of Polish society.”

It’s a contradiction that’s not lost across the border in Germany, where relations with the United States soured over Iraq. The aftermath created a climate of suspicion in Germany about U.S. intentions and motives on a host of issues, said Frank Umbach, a security expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Bush’s decision to bypass NATO and give Poland a key role in Iraq provoked unease among some of the older European powers.

“He seems to want to use NATO as a toolbox and not a multinational security organization,” Mr. Umbach said. “The U.S. can rightly argue that Europe isn’t as important now because the security threats come from outside Europe.”

Poland is stepping out on the world stage amid an ongoing campaign to reform its military as one of NATO’s newest members.

“It’s a challenge I deeply hope will bring some radical changes in our military machinery,” said Vojtech Luczak, editor of Raport, a Polish military magazine. “It’s absolutely necessary to have a professional military force to project power.”

Mr. Luczak said Poland’s 180,000-member army needs to be slashed by more than half, with the money saved on wages funneled into high-tech weaponry and better training. No more than 10,000 are properly trained for peacekeeping missions, he said.

In addition, Poland’s struggling economy — 18 percent unemployment and GDP growth of 1 percent — means the United States will pick up much of the tab for the Polish deployment.

“We don’t pay Polish wages,” U.S. Embassy spokesman John Matel said, though he declined to speak of other costs associated with Polish deployments in Iraqi peacekeeping missions.

Salaries notwithstanding, “the U.S. is underwriting the Polish contribution,” said Ian Kemp, editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly. The United States would pay about 90 percent of an estimated $90 million tab, he said.

Given the proper equipment and logistical support, Poland’s small contingent of 3,000 could effectively carry out its mission, Mr. Kemp said.

Economic woes are helping to drive the Central European nation of 38.3 million toward the European Union.

Poland’s farmers are among the more strident opponents of EU membership. They are miffed at getting a smaller subsidy from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy than their Western counterparts, but have been appeased for now, political analyst Chris Mularczyk said.

“They’re among the few Poles who will benefit from Day 1, with cash up front,” Mr. Mularczyk said, referring to the EU’s scheduled expansion in January 2004.

Small farmers will get $1,000 a year, or four months’ income. Bigger farms will benefit even more, he said.

A sweet deal for the farmers, a vigorous “yes” campaign by the government and a direct appeal by Pope John Paul II to his countrymen to support EU membership would seem to ensure a positive vote during the June 7-8 plebiscite.

Polls show strong EU support among likely voters.

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