- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

PRAGUE — Central and Eastern European political leaders, caught between growing domestic discontent over the war in Iraq and a desire to maintain good relations with Washington, have increasingly adopted a minimalist approach to the continuing conflict.

“They try to do as little as possible for their own political reasons, which is: In a democracy, they want to have popular support,” says Charles Gati, an East European scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

“On the other hand, they want to do something, so they remain favorably regarded by Washington,” he said.

When President Bush put together a coalition to invade Iraq, few governments, and people were more eager to support the United States than the Polish.

The report reflected an affection for America going back to the days of communism and U.S. support for Poland’s pioneering efforts in the 1980s to free itself from Soviet hegemony, but nearly two years after the U.S.-led invasion, public opinion polls show increasing disillusionment among Polish voters because of the relentless insurgency and the realization that Iraq apparently didn’t have weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

“Polish political elites by and large are in favor of keeping the troops in Iraq, [but] 75 percent of public opinion is opposed,” said Konstanty Gebert, a columnist for the country’s most prominent newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.

“Most people feel deceived by the reasons given by the U.S. for the war, since no WMD were found,” Mr. Gebert said. “They also believe that the intensity of the Iraqi resistance indicates that we are not liberators, but occupiers and believe it is wrong for us to play that role.”

About 700 of Poland’s 2,450 troops in Iraq are coming home, said Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Piotr Pertek.

“The Polish military presence in Iraq was to provide stabilization to the country and its people,” Col. Pertek said. “Now, after the successful [Iraqi] elections, the reduction of the Polish contingent became possible. Polish engagement will gradually change from stabilization to training mission.”

He would not comment on the decline of public support for Polish troops in Iraq.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko campaigned on a platform to withdraw Ukrainian troops from Iraq. Before Mr. Yushchenko took office — in a bitterly contested election with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych” his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, announced that the country’s 1,600 troops would begin leaving Iraq by March or April.

Late last year, the Hungarian parliament rejected a U.S. request to extend the mission of its 300 troops in Iraq and brought them all home.

The reduction of troops from Eastern Europe is likely to be an issue for President Bush in Europe this week, especially during his stop in Bratislava, Slovakia, for a NATO summit. During his visit, the president will meet leaders from former communist states that since have joined the alliance.

He is also slated to meet Ukraine’s Mr. Yushchenko, who will attend the NATO meeting to lobby for his nation’s eventual membership.

Ukraine Defense Minister Anatoly Gritsenko signaled Thursday that the Ukrainian withdrawal would not be as sudden as with Hungary, saying he anticipated that 700 troops would be pulled out by April, his spokesman, Andriy Lysenko told the Associated Press.

Even if domestic opposition in Eastern Europe makes it difficult for governments to commit troops in combat zones, NATO is expected to participate in training the Iraqi police and security forces.

In the case of Hungary, Mr. Gati, of Johns Hopkins University, said the government would not be able to muster the two-thirds vote in parliament needed to directly commit troops to a combat zone. However, it can authorize troops to NATO with a simple-majority vote, and Mr. Gati said he expects the Hungarians to commit 150 troops to a NATO-led training contingent.

The Czechs—arguably the least enthusiastic regional supporter of the war before it began—and Slovaks are maintaining modest commitments in Iraq. Each country has sent just scores of troops—the Czechs for training Iraqi police and national guard and the Slovaks for demining operations. Both are expected to remain in Iraq at least through the end of the year.

Another obstacle to making commitments in Iraq is that Eastern European nations are revamping their military forces. The Czechs ended compulsory military service for all young men last year.

The transition remains a costly work in progress, in part because the military can’t be shut down for the renovation, said Rostislav Kotil, director of the Defense Policy and Strategy Division of the Czech Defense Ministry.

“It’s always about the money and the resources,” Mr. Kotil said. “We had 130,000 troops in 1993; that’s a huge number. The aim is to reach 35,000 by the end of the reform.”

The Czech Republic, like Poland and Slovakia, also faces other military obligations, such as maintaining troop deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, he said.

“We’re spending 1.3 billion crowns for foreign deployments, out of a military budget of 50 billion crowns,” or $2.2 billion, Mr. Kotil said.

The Czech military isn’t just downsizing, however. “Interoperability” is a goal for new NATO members, which still need to upgrade military hardware, training and communication equipment to coordinate with their new allies.

NATO includes 10 former communist nations: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Eight of the 10 maintain a military presence in Iraq.

“Clearly, the Bush administration would like to see a longer-term commitment by the Central-East Europeans to the Iraqi mission,” said Janusz Bugajski, an East European scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “but it does understand the political and public pressures in several countries that are either facing elections or have already declared that they will lower their troop numbers.”

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