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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 February, 2003, 18:37 GMT
'New Europe's' US leanings
By Jan Repa
BBC Central and Eastern European analyst

George Bush effigy at Prague anti-war demonstration
Czech anti-war protests have been relatively small
Central and East European governments have reacted with barely suppressed anger to President Jacques Chirac's threats that support for American policy on Iraq could cost them dear. But what do people in the region really think?

Last Saturday saw huge demonstrations in many Western capitals against war in Iraq. Around a million protested in London, 650,000 in Rome and half a million in Berlin.

In the Polish capital, Warsaw, meanwhile, the figure was 1,500. Even fewer Czechs turned out in Prague. Next to nothing happened in Romania. The contrast was striking.

People in Central and Eastern Europe do not trust West Europeans - the French in particular - to protect their interests
Opinion polls suggest that in most Central and Eastern European countries public opinion is largely against an American attack on Iraq - 82% in Hungary and 67% in the Czech Republic.

But in Romania, 49% back American action and 52% of Polish respondents say Poland should back America - which is not quite the same as favouring war itself.

But where people have misgivings, these do not translate into public criticism of America.

Mistrust

President Chirac laid France's cards on the table. The French assumption is that an enlarged European Union will be a more American-oriented European Union.

UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with guarantee from Hitler in 1938
Central Europeans have taken to talking about pre-war appeasement
This critical assumption is apparently shared by the German left. An article in the weekly "Der Spiegel" refers to Poland as Washington's "vassal".

People in Central and Eastern Europe do not trust West Europeans - the French in particular - to protect their interests. A Czech minister this week declared, "After the experience of the 1930s, don't talk to us about French guarantees".

Central European officials have taken to talking about "appeasement" - the policy of accommodating Nazi Germany pursued by France and Britain in the run-up to World War II - usually at the expense of Germany's immediate eastern neighbours.

Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians still feel a debt of gratitude towards America for its contribution to bringing down the Soviet empire.

America as a model

While Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined Nato three years ago, other countries in the region are still waiting. That means being nice to Washington.

They have no means to influence the course of events in the Middle East - and are unlikely to be involved in any fighting.

But there may be a more complicated reason for the region's pro-Americanism as well.

Communism was a radical experiment in social and cultural engineering. Traditional elites were destroyed. Links with the past were deliberately severed. Often unable to reconnect with their own past in any meaningful way, these countries are forced to look to the future to realise themselves.

America provides a model: dynamic, populist and optimistic. It also helps that millions of Americans trace their roots to Polish, Czech and other Central and East European immigrants.


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