Obama visit to Poland chance to add vigor to ties

May 27, 2011 - 10:12 AM
France G8 Obama Japan

President Barack Obama speaks to reporters as he meets with Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the G8 summit in Deauville, France, Thursday, May 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — President Barack Obama's last stop on his European tour brings him to Poland for the first time, giving him the chance to inject new vigor in a relationship with an ally that has sometimes felt slighted by Washington.

But hours before his arrival, Polish headlines were dominated by news that Obama was being snubbed by legendary Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, who said he was refusing to meet with Obama.

Solidarity was a national freedom movement under Walesa's leadership in the 1980s that helped bring down communism. His courage in defying communist authorities at the time earned him a Nobel peace prize.

Walesa said in televised remarks that President Bronislaw Komorowski and the U.S. ambassador to Poland had called him hoping to persuade him to meet Obama. Walesa insisted, however, that he had no interest in a meeting that would amount to little more than a photo-op.

"This time a meeting does not suit me," the 67-year-old former president said in comments on news station TVN24. His office said he planned instead to attend a biblical festival in Italy.

Walesa refused to divulge more, but it seemed possible he was offended at not being offered a one-on-one meeting with Obama early on. Initially, there was talk of Walesa meeting with Obama along with other Polish politicians. In past visits to Poland, U.S. presidents often scheduled private meetings with him and Walesa is accustomed to having visiting leaders travel to his home in the northern port city of Gdansk to see him.

Though Walesa's snub got significant media attention in Poland, some said it wasn't a surprise given his reputation for public complaining if he feels he hasn't been given enough respect.

"This is typical of him — he always has his own opinion," said Ewa Wroczynska, a 60-year-old educator in Warsaw. Pawel Nowak, a 40-year-old civil servant, was worried Walesa was casting a shadow over Obama's visit.

"I don't think he should represent us," Nowak said.

Obama will hold two days of political meetings focusing on security, energy and joint U.S.-Polish efforts to promote democracy in North Africa, Belarus and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

But unlike past U.S. presidents who visited this nation of 38 million, Obama will not meet or address the Polish public directly. That deprives him of the chance to connect directly — and emotionally — with Poles in the way former presidents such as George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton did on visits to the country.

It will also make it harder for him to win over a nation that has never warmed to him the way many have in more liberal Western Europe, according to Marcin Zaborowski, a political analyst and director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

Obama will attend a dinner Friday night with about 20 central and eastern European leaders holding a yearly summit. However, the inclusion of Kosovo's president has caused a diplomatic wrinkle, prompting Serbia and Romania to boycott the event in protest. Neither one recognizes the independence of the former Serbian province.

Obama's trip will also feature bilateral talks that will focus on security issues. Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said the two countries would discuss a plan for Washington to station F-16 fighter jets and Hercules planes in Poland on a rotational basis starting in 2013.

Another key topic will be deepening cooperation in the area of shale gas exploration and nuclear energy.

Several U.S. companies are searching for shale gas in Poland, which is believed to possess vast quantities of the energy source underground. American companies also hope to have a role in a Polish project to build the country's first-ever nuclear power plants in the coming years.

But perhaps most importantly, the trip offers a chance for Washington to stress to Poles that it considers the relationship important — a message U.S. officials have made an effort to stress.

"It's significant that the president is coming here not as part of a Central or Eastern European swing," a senior official in the Obama administration told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

"He's coming here after visiting major European capitals and taking part in a major G-8 meeting, and he very much sees our relationship with Poland in that context — as one of the most influential members of the EU and most active members of NATO."

Poles have felt in past years that both the administrations of George W. Bush and that of Obama have neglected their concerns, and traditionally strong pro-American sentiments are in decline compared with the early years after the fall of communism. At that time, Washington was seen as both a model of democracy that helped end the Cold War and as Poland's main guarantor of security in a region where Russia still throws its weight around.

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Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.