- - 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.

“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.

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.

“Poles feel like an abandoned child,” said Agnieszka Morysinska, president of the Laboratory for Social Research. “Once needed and appreciated, nowadays they feel forgotten and forced to strive for attention.”

Meanwhile, the European Union has been pouring billions of dollars into transportation construction and other projects in Poland to bring its infrastructure up to Western European levels. It is one clear benefit of Poland’s relationship with Brussels.

The Laboratory for Social Research poll illustrates Poland’s views about its diplomatic priorities. About 48 percent felt Poland’s relationship with the European Union is the most important international challenge facing the country. About 28 percent said relations with the EU and the U.S. are equally important. Less than 5 percent said bilateral relations with the U.S. are the top priority.

But Poles’ interest in the EU also might reflect their dissatisfaction with the bloc. An April poll by the Polish Public Opinion Research Center found that 78 percent of Poles said the EU needs to do more to address the crisis in Ukraine. Fifty-seven percent said the U.S. could do more.

In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s destabilizing influence in Eastern Ukraine, the U.S. dispatched a dozen F-16 fighter jets and about 300 troops. In April, a contingent of U.S. paratroopers held exercises with Polish forces.

The response of the EU, especially Germany, has been more tepid, in part because Russia provides Germany and much of the rest of Europe with oil and natural gas that are crucial to their economies. To Poles deeply mistrustful of Russia, the lack of European urgency is a shock.

“The idea of a close Polish-German alliance, promoted by Polish authorities, de facto went bankrupt during the Crimean crisis,” said Piotr Maciazek, an independent analyst based in Bielsko-Biala who specializes in Polish-Russian relations. “Despite the aggressive actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the EU does not take an effective response to his activities. German reaction to the events in Ukraine was very badly received in Poland.”

The EU’s soft approach has reminded some Poles about why they have drawn closer to the U.S. since they liberated themselves from Soviet domination in 1989.

“Only the USA has a global strategy,” said Tomasz Jakubiec, a university student. “Has Spain cared at all about what has been happening there? Or Italy? Not at all. We cannot count on our allies in Europe. I believe it’s better to trust America again.”



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