The Washington Diplomat / December 2005
By Larry Luxner
Twenty-four years ago, on a cold December day in Warsaw, Janusz Reiter showed up at his county's main international airport, having suddenly decided to travel to New York.
"But then I got ill, I didn't feel well and at the airport made a decision not to go. Six days later, martial law was declared in Poland, and that was the end of any travel for a long time," recalled Reiter, who at the time was 29. "I realized I was standing at a crossroads — with one road leading to becoming a U.S. citizen, the other to becoming Polish ambassador to the U.S. Fortunately, both roads led to the United States."
Reiter shared that little anecdote with President Bush on Oct. 3, the day he presented his credentials as Poland's new envoy in Washington, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. Barely a week later, he was back at the White House, this time accompanying Poland's former president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was in town to say goodbye to his friends in Washington after having served the maximum two terms in office.
Since then, the country has inaugurated a new president, Lech Kaczynski, amid national debate on such issues as Poland's role in the new Europe and whether the new government should pull Poland's 1,500 troops out of Iraq.
On the job for just under two months now, Reiter says he can't complain.
"I'm impressed by this city," he told us. "I didn't know Washington very well, and I didn't realize how attractive the city is. I also have a strong personal feeling of happiness connected with this job."
Asked his impressions of President Bush, Reiter said "I think he's somebody who is very much interested in people rather than abstract formulas. Some leaders don't care so much about people, but for Bush, personal relationships play an enormous role. It's a question of trust. You can only establish relationships with partners you can trust."
Reiter, 53, spoke with the Washington Diplomat at the stately Polish Embassy fronting Sixteenth Street NW. Much of our interview focused on the results of Poland's Sept. 25 runoff elections, in which Kaczynski — the former mayor of Warsaw — and his PIS (Law and Justice) party won with 54.5% of the vote against Donald Tusk of the PO (Civic Platform) party, with 45.5%.
Kaczynski, whose party is headed by his identical twin, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, will lead the country along with Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz
"I strongly believe that these last elections marked the end of the so-called post-communist era in Poland which started in 1989," said the new ambassador. "These divisions in our political system were about the past, between people who stemmed from the former Solidarity movement and those from the former Communist Party. This time is now over."
Reiter, 53, ought to know — he lived through that time and was intimately involved in the struggle for democracy.
A graduate of the University of Warsaw, Reiter in 1977 became editor of the daily newspaper Zycie Warszawy, but was later dismissed during martial law. In addition to founding and editing a number of opposition magazines, Reiter helped establish the Foundation for International Initiatives and the Independent Center for International Studies.
From 1984 to 1989, he was a commentator for Przeglad Katolicki and the following year was appointed Poland's ambassador to West Germany, a post he held until 1995. As such, Reiter was able to witness first-hand the reunification of Germany and its profound impact on the rest of Europe.
Since 1998, Reiter has served as president of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw. He's also a founding member of the Foreign Policy Council and co-chairman of the Polish-German forum, and has written extensively on the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in Rzeczpospolita and other publications.
"We have two major political parties, both of which stem from the Solidarity movement," he explained. "The 25th anniversary of Solidarity last August contributed to the atmosphere that made the outcome of these elections possible. The myth of the Solidarity movement became strong again. People felt, particularly after these last four years, that they needed a strong sense of values. Solidarity provided the foundation for the parties that once called themselves anti-communists."
He continued: "I'm not saying this is absolutely irrelevant. But now, if you look at the Parliament, our disputes are on social and economic policies, like any democratic country. This is the most important outcome of the Polish elections."
At the moment, said Reiter, relations between the United States and Poland — a country of 39 million inhabitants — are considered good.
"There is a strong historical and emotional basis for these relations," he said. "The U.S. has always been considered a reliable ally. There is no conflict between popular feelings and the political agenda. After all, the belief in Poland is that the United States is the only country in the world that can provide strong leadership in case of any crisis."
Yet it remains to be seen whether the new government will keep the 1,500 Polish troops in Iraq. So far, 17 Polish soldiers have been killed there since the military operation started, and Poland's military commitment in Iraq has become a serious economic issue, said Reiter, noting that in 2005, defense spending constituted 1.8% of his country's GDP.
"We have to restructure our military, and this is an enormous financial burden. We believe that this effort should be supported by the United States in order to make Poland able to participate. Otherwise, we will be overstretched," he said.
"There is no tradition of pacifism in Poland, and people understand you have to take risks if you want to be engaged in foreign policy. However, we cannot afford to fail in Iraq. We must do everything we can to make sure that this was the right decision and that it pays off."
Even though most Poles oppose their country's involvement in Iraq, said the ambassador, "what makes Poland so different is that public opinion is strongly pro-American. So people are against the war without being against the United States or even against the U.S. president. The bottom line is that Poland, by engaging itself in Iraq, made the decision to become a player in international politics. Given the size of the country and our limited resources, this is a pretty ambitious agenda."
For now, no decision has been taken on Iraq. The new defense minister, Radek Sikorski, is known to be critical of Washington for not repaying Poland for its support in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
In a 2004 interview on the U.S. public TV show "Foreign Exchange," Sikorski told his interviewer that "Poland can't afford to subsidize the U.S. any more. We were hoping that the U.S. would help us organize our army and shoulder this burden, but it has not materialized. If that's how the United States treats its friends, you will have fewer of them in the future."
Nevertheless, Marcinkiewicz said at a recent news conference that "the decision on Iraq was made by the previous government. Our troops are to stay until February 2006. For the time being, nothing has changed."
Meanwhile, Poland is focused on consolidating the benefits of membership in the European Union, which it joined on Mar. 1, 2004, along with nine other countries. Those benefits are being felt already, such as the freedom Poles now have to work and travel throughout the 25-nation bloc. Other milestones will have to wait a little longer, such as Poland's adoption of the euro as its currency, which Reiter says won't happen before 2010.
"Membership in the EU is about accelerated development and growth, and also about security — not in military terms. To join the EU, you have to make a lot of reforms, not for the EU, but for yourself. That contributes enormously to public support for these reforms. People would never have accepted all these reforms without it having led to EU membership," he said.
"For a country that has to catch up with Western Europe after more than 40 years of communism, this is enormously important. Not being part of the EU would have created enormous tensions between Poland and the rest of Europe."
Interestingly, the bad feelings towards the United States that seem to permeate every level of society in countries like France and Germany are absent in Poland, a country that looked to Washington as a beacon of hope during the long dark years of Soviet domination.
"In France, this kind of anti-Americanism is part of the French identity. The French are pretty predictable in their anti-Americanism, while in East Germany, the anti-Americanism was of a different nature. The U.S. presence in these countries was much stronger than in Poland, and people owe the United States much more than we do, but the result is not that they are grateful," he said. "Also, because Poland was a relatively open country, and because the authority of the communist regime — even in the 1970s — was undermined, it was challenged by a strong opposition. This is different from East Germany, where anti-Americanism left a very problematic legacy. "
In Poland itself, resentment against Germany for its role during World War II — which started, after all, with Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 — is fading. Today, even though France is Poland's largest foreign investors, Germany is its chief trading partner. With a GDP of $2.36 trillion, the German economy is 10 times as large as its Polish counterpart.
"Germany is certainly the most important partner in Europe, but the Polish attitude towards Germany is ambivalent," said Reiter. "I always told my German friends that what we need from Germany is not only sympathy but also respect. In the political establishment this is understood, but in wider public opinion the picture is much more mixed. People are uncertain about Germany's motives."
They're even more uncertain when it comes to Russia — no doubt a legacy of the 40 years Poland spent under Soviet-style communism.
"Unfortunately, our relations with Russia are not good," Reiter conceded. "Looking at where we were 16 years ago, our ambition was to redefine our relations with our neighbors. We succeeded to do that with Germany, but we failed to do so with Russia. After all, it takes two to tango, and Russia hasn't been interested in this kind of dialogue. The Russian elite refuses to accept the changes that have taken place in Central Europe. The time is over when Russia was the center of gravity."
That's why, he said, the EU's biggest single challenge today is "how to develop a common European position towards Russia. Individual European states are too weak and don't have enough self-confidence to be a partner for Russia, even though in many cases they are economically stronger than Russia."
As an example, he said, "when President Bush went to Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, he first went to Riga [Latvia], then Moscow. No European leader would have combined the two cities in one visit because the Russians would have opposed it."
Reiter said another potential flashpoint for Poland is neighboring Belarus, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently labeled an "outpost of tyranny" along with Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Burma.
"We have had some disputes with our Western European partners, because they decided to isolate the regime there," he told the Diplomat. "Our position is different. We believe we have to isolate the regime, but without isolating the Belorusian people. We need a different approach to punishing the bad guys in Minsk, but also to attract people who may be interested in establishing dialogue. We must be very cautious, because there are no simple recipes."