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Eastern Europe not feeling Obama love

Czechs feel betrayed, Poles irked, Romanians slighted. Ask them who's to blame, and the answer may come as a surprise: President Barack Obama.
Image: US President Barack Obama delivers speech on financial crisis.
Two in three Czechs, Poles and Romanians approve of President Barack Obama's foreign policy, according to a recent survey, far below the backing for Obama in Western Europe, where nine in 10 respondents support him.Peter Foley / EPA file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Czechs feel betrayed, Poles irked, Romanians slighted. Ask them who's to blame, and the answer may come as a surprise: President Barack Obama.

George W. Bush fawned over Eastern Europe, and its leaders rushed to join his post-9/11 "coalition of the willing." Now many — officials and ordinary citizens alike — are grumbling over what they perceive as the Obama administration's neglect.

It's a startling shift in a region long accustomed to cozy ties with the United States.

"Now we see the beginning of indifference," said Tudor Salajean, a Romanian historian and researcher.

At times, and from some corners, the new mood can even border on hostile. Obama's approaches to pressing world problems "aren't worth a moldy onion," declared Mircea Mihaies, deputy head of the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Two in three Bulgarians, Czechs, Poles and Romanians approve of Obama's foreign policy, according to a survey published earlier this month by the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan policy group. That may seem robust, but it pales in comparison to backing for Obama in Western Europe, where nine in 10 respondents support him.

‘Victims of their own success’
It's normal for relations to evolve, and at the moment there appear to be few pressing reasons to make eastern Europe a U.S. priority, said Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"These countries may be victims of their own success," Bugajski said Monday. "They're fairly stable. There's no major social unrest or political instability, no real security threats. The more successful you are, the more you tend to slide down the agenda of U.S. foreign policy."

"They do understand that this is the new face of America — that it's not to anybody's advantage to be anti-American," he added.

Broadly speaking, Obama is still admired by many ordinary Easterners. In April, delivering one of his first major foreign policy speeches with Prague's medieval castle as a backdrop, the U.S. leader invoked decades of trans-Atlantic friendship that helped liberate nations hemmed in by the Iron Curtain — and he was cheered by thousands who packed a square.

Yet after eight years of being wooed and courted by Bush, they're just not feeling the love from Obama — and the reasons vary widely.

Czech and Polish leaders bristle at America's new ambivalence over a Bush administration plan to base a missile defense shield in the two ex-communist countries. The system, which would put 10 interceptor rockets in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, had been touted as a strategic way to counter a threat from Iran.

Trying to improve relations with Russia
But recently, senior U.S. Defense Department officials said they're considering other options. The Czech-Polish plan had infuriated Russia, and the Obama administration has been working to improve relations with the Kremlin.

It gets even more complicated: Although the Czech and Polish governments agreed to host the system, it's been highly unpopular among ordinary citizens, who staged boisterous protests. Now, some leaders fear they may have exposed themselves to needless flak.

"I would consider it a dirty trick if the Czech Republic and Poland would end up unprotected," Alexandr Vondra, a former deputy Czech prime minister and one-time ambassador to the U.S., told The Associated Press.

Vondra was among a group of prominent Eastern European ex-leaders who wrote to Obama in July, saying the region is gripped by anxiety that his overtures to Russia could lead him to ignore them.

"If we don't take care of relations between the U.S. and Central and Eastern Europe, it could lead to a certain worsening of relations in the future," he told the AP.

‘They don't care about us’
Poles have other reasons to be rankled at Washington.

On Sept. 1, the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was there for the commemoration. So was French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. The U.S. sent National Security Adviser James Jones — a move seen as a snub by Poles who expected Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary or State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"They don't want us. They don't care about us," commentator Lukasz Kwiecien wrote in a scathing editorial for the national daily Dziennik under the headline: "We are paying for our blind love for America."

And there could be consequences, warned Bartosz Weglarczyk, a columnist for the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

"I have no doubt that under the new administration, Washington has neglected relations with Poland and with Central Europe as a whole. Some say, and I count myself among them, that it is a mistake and that one day Washington may pay dearly for it," he said.

Romanians feeling hung out to dry
Romanians, among the many Eastern Europeans whose troops fought alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, now feel hung out to dry over allegations their government let the CIA set up a secret prison where suspected terrorists were interrogated and possibly tortured.

The Romanian government has vehemently denied any complicity. But the allegations persist: Last month, The New York Times, citing a former CIA official, reported that one of the covert detention centers was housed in downtown Bucharest.

Romanian President Traian Basescu, a staunch supporter of Bush, recently spoke nostalgically about the "endless list of common objectives that had been reached" with the Bush White House.

This summer, for the first time, Basescu skipped the U.S. Embassy's July 4 party.

Then Romanian media reported that the new U.S. ambassador — who traditionally would get a special audience with Basescu — instead had to present his diplomatic credentials on the same day as the new Canadian, Dutch, Filipino, German and Mexican ambassadors.

The U.S. envoy, Mark H. Gitenstein, plays down talk of eroding support for Washington. Romania, he insists, remains "the most pro-American country in Europe."

Romanian school teacher Roxana Pop isn't so sure, even though she thinks Obama is doing a better job than Bush.

America's influence "wasn't always a good thing," said Pop, 28. "They should leave us alone ... We shouldn't be at anybody's beck and call."