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Former Ambassador in Washington Looks Back on Poland’s Long Journey
The Washington Diplomat / September 2010

By Larry Luxner

WARSAW — For Janusz Reiter, this month’s 30th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity is more than a historical curiosity: Poland’s former ambassador to the United States was intimately involved in his country’s struggle for democracy.

These days, he’s director of the Center for International Relations, a Warsaw-based think tank.

“Now my job is trying to explain Poland to you,” Reiter told a group of 20 visiting journalists from around the world — on their first day of a week-long press trip organized by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Reiter, 58, served as his country’s top diplomat in Washington from 2005 to 2007. Before that, he was ambassador to Germany. 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.

“The 1980s were a sort of Polish decade in Europe,” he said. “Poland was writing a blueprint for the European revolution, but then suddenly, in 1989-90, Poland lost its sense of ownership. Poland did a good job but lost its sense of mission. Today, there is bitterness that the country’s contribution is underestimated.”

Reiter lamented the fact that the collapse of communism today evokes dramatic images of the Berlin Wall being toppled rather than Solidarity’s shipyard strikes in Gdansk.

“This is the greatest failure of Poland, translating the Polish experience into a universal message,” he explained, adding that “the legacy of the Polish revolution is not a legacy of romanticism that prevailed against realpolitik. It is a legacy of realpolitik serving a romantic vision.”

Romance aside, Poland currently enjoys the strongest economy in Europe. Last year, it was the only member of the 27-nation European Union that showed positive GDP growth. Yet somehow, that doesn’t translate into optimism for the future, said Reiter.

“This is still an exciting place, but I’m afraid that people are no longer really enjoying it. They feel uncertain about themselves,” he observed. “There is a gap between real change in this country, and the perception of change. What Poland really lacks is strong self-confidence. This uncertainty is often reflected in behavior that appears to be irrational.”

Reiter added: “Very often, when Polish people get together with foreigners and hear messages like ‘this is an extremely successful country,’ they seem not to be sure that it’s their country being spoken about. Poland needs stronger self-confidence.”

For one thing, he said, Poland is too inward-looking, which is wrong.

“Poland perceives Europe more and more as a sort of space that allows people to live in security and prosperity without much effort,” he complained. “Poland should take a more ambitious role in Europe. We’re doing that in some areas: trying to play a role as advocate for Ukraine and, to some extent, Georgia, in their aspirations for EU and NATO membership. But the success of this effort will depend on how much Poland would be willing to take on in other areas.”

Reiter said “controversies between Poland and Russia will not cease” and that Warsaw’s relations with the Kremlin “are today based on mutual interests, not on being nice to each other.”

“If Poland was located where Spain is, then we could neglect Russia. But we can’t. There are no illusions about this relationship,” he said.”We agree that Russia is too important to be neglected.” Even so, Warsaw’s warming ties with Moscow under Dmitry Medvedev “are moving in the right direction, contributing to Poland’s significance on the European stage.”

Reiter, who began and ended his post in Washington with George W. Bush in the White House, said U.S.-Polish relations under President Obama have forced his country’s leaders to make some adjustments.

“The last few years of the second Bush term were determined by the missile defense issue, which was not an expression of love for Poland, but the administration’s strategic thinking. Poland happened to be a country the U.S. needed for this project. This was understood on the Polish side,” said the former ambassador.

“Then the new administration came, and this positive coincidence of interests ended — not because Obama had less sympathy for Poland, but because it has a different strategic concept, and missile defense in Poland was not part of it.”

He added: “This administration is paying less attention to democracy promotion as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. If you look at the U.S. agenda compared to the Polish agenda, it’s more difficult to find common interests. We have to work on that. I don’t believe this is a hopeless case, but the U.S. is a demanding partner, and Poland has to make some difficult choices.”

At the same time, security is no longer the paramount issue it once was among Polish voters, meaning that strong ties with the United States are no longer an asset politicians can use for gaining domestic support.

“As in other European countries, a good relationship with the U.S. is more a preference of the elite — and must be supported against a lot of public criticism. It’s less than in Western Europe, but even the Polish people are getting more critical of U.S. policy, and the U.S. has lost its traditional unambiguity in Polish circles.”

He added: “Previously, you had the face of Mr. Putin, provocations like the war in Georgia, and Russia cutting off gas to Ukraine. That kind of rhetoric left little room for hope. But the rhetoric has now changed and this gives us some reason for hope.”

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