- Associated Press - Sunday, January 1, 2012

WARSAW Of all the twists in Europe’s debt crisis, one of the oddest must be this: Poles, Czechs and other Eastern Europeans - long the recipients of massive amounts of Western aid - are being asked to contribute to an emergency fund for financially troubled Western European states.

That plan, decided at a European Union summit last month, is sparking resistance and some outrage from Eastern Europeans who see a huge injustice in being asked to sacrifice for countries that still enjoy much greater wealth, even with mountains of state debt.

“This must be some kind of bad joke,” said Jonas Vaicys, a math teacher in Lithuania, a former Soviet state still recovering from a huge hit taken in the financial crisis of 2008-09.

“Lithuania, itself, is on the verge of asking for international help, not donating money to some fund.”

The plan is one of several measures that EU leaders adopted as they struggle to pull Europe out of its debt crisis. It involves EU members providing up to $260 billion in loans to the International Monetary Fund to empower it to bail out indebted states.

The bulk would come from the 17 EU nations that use the euro as their common currency, but the other 10 members are also being asked for help.

Hungary and Romania will not contribute because they are still paying the IMF back for past bailouts. Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, says it has nothing to offer.

“Bulgaria did not cause the crisis in the eurozone, nor will it be the one to take the zone out of the crisis,” Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov said during a lively debate in parliament on the matter.

However, several other ex-communist countries now face an obligation to make reserves from their central banks available to the IMF as loans.

This marks a dramatic change for a part of Europe that has depended for years on Western aid to overcome the crippling economic legacy of communism. That their help is now sought signals just how far they have come after years of investment and high growth.

Some in Eastern Europe argue that gratitude alone should prompt them to contribute to the fund without complaining.

However, despite years of economic progress, the standard of living across Central and Eastern Europe still lags far behind the West.

Poland, for instance, has a debt load much lower than that of Greece and Italy, primarily because it simply does not provide the generous welfare benefits to its people that many take for granted in the West. Public-sector wages, jobless benefits and baby bonuses are all just a fraction of what they are in much of the West.

Asking these countries to spare funds for indebted eurozone members could create a popular backlash against any governments that contribute, especially as their own economies are already feeling the pain from the broader European crisis.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas said he is personally against contributing the roughly 90 billion koruna, about $4.6 billion, that the EU has requested.

“It’s a serious situation and a very complicated financial problem,” Mr. Necas said. “A considerable amount of money is involved.”

In Slovakia, Jozef Kollar, a leader of Freedom and Solidarity, a center-right party in the government, called the plan a “weird transaction” pushed through by German and French leaders to get more money for an EU rescue fund without going through their parliaments.

The mood is different in Poland, where the pro-EU government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the central bank favor contributing. Leaders in Warsaw hope to adopt the euro one day. They argue that the survival of the eurozone, a source of large EU subsidies and a key trade partner, is crucial to Poland’s own continued growth and modernization.

“A collapse of the eurozone would be an economic disaster for us,” said central bank president Marek Belka.

Poland, the largest of the new EU members, is also trying to establish itself as a leading European power.

The popular view is different, however.

Poland’s leading tabloid, Fakt, has tried to stir up a sense of outrage over what it depicts as an absurd injustice. It carried recent front-page stories that compared the low salaries in Poland where minimum-wage earners get about 1,400 zlotys, or about $410, a month to incomes two or three times as high in Greece and Italy.

“And we are supposed to pay for their luxuries?” the paper asked in big letters across its front page.

Emotion aside, other arguments against contributing to the fund are also coming up.

Tomas Vlk, an analyst with Patria Finance in Prague, worries that participation could “worsen the Czech position in the eyes of rating agencies.” That could make it more expensive for Prague to finance its own state debt.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, known for his skepticism of the EU, said he opposes contributing. He argued that doing so would add to the country’s own debt problems.

“In this situation, it would be irresponsible to increase our debt by providing more loans to the countries with extreme debts, which would only allow them to further delay real solutions,” Mr. Klaus said on Czech public radio.

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