By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour
It seemed a far cry from the heady days after the 1989 collapse of communism in Central Europe, when the leaders of the Polish and Czechoslovakian peaceful revolutions--Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel-- received rapturous welcomes in Congress and elsewhere in Washington.
Now, 27 years later, Poland's current head of state and the prime minister of the Czech Republic have come to the Washington in the wings of a global nuclear security summit. They used their trips also to speak to respectful crowds at think tanks, while much of the U.S. capital's attention has been focused on a Mideast in flames and a rising China and Asia.
Poland's president Andrzej Duda and Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, both in their early 40s, are a generation removed from the leaders who helped free their nations from Soviet domination. Indeed, Duda was a school boy during the martial law era aimed at quelling Walesa's Solidarity movement and Sobotka was not even born when the Soviet Union and its allies sent tanks to Prague in 1968 to oust a government voicing liberal ideas.
In their Washington talks, both leaders evoked their countries tumultuous histories, and in Sobotka's case, warning Americans not to take their eye off Central Europe where two world wars began and eventually drew in the United States. The leaders both emphasized the importance of trans-Atlantic solidarity and the continuing strategic importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), especially after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. Both tried to avoid direct answers to questions about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump while addressing his assertions that Europe should pay more for its own defense.
Where their differences most clearly emerged was on issues involving the European Union. Both face electorates growing increasingly skeptical about the grouping they joined 11 years ago, a skepticism that has hardened into hostility across much of Central Europe in the face of German proposals for EU members to share the burden of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
Sobotka and his left-center coalition represent the sliver of Czech opinion still pro-European, and the prime minister reiterated his support for a strong Czech role in a flourishing EU. But with certain caveats. Though the Czech Republic has taken in a few hundred refugees, he tried to distance himself from the harder anti-refugee line of the neighboring Slovak and Hungarian governments. He asserted his government was ready to help but more measures were needed to guarantee that more refugees did not mean deepening the terrorist networks already embedding in Europe.
"Democratic politicians have to respect the legitimate fears of the public (for their security). If not, they create space for populist and other extremists," he said.
While acknowledging the right of Britain to determine its future in the EU, he warned of further unraveling as far away as Catalonia (in Spain) should the June 23 referendum lead to a UK exit.
In view of the refugee crisis and the growing public perception that the EU could not handle the problem, Sobotka said that he had told British Prime Minister David Cameron, "You could not have picked a worse time for a referendum."Though some of the words of Polish President Duda on the refugee issue sounded similar, the tone was different. And in more than an hour-long talk and question and answer session, the tensions between the recently elected, right-wing Law and Justice government and European institutions came up only briefly at the end. He responded to an audience question about criticism from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe that the new government was undermining constitutional protections by packing the country's Constitutional Court.
"We want the political crisis solved," Duda said, asserting the recommendations of the Venice Commission will be implemented. He reiterated the government's position that its actions on the court were aimed at de-politicizing the body and were taken in response to court-packing by the outgoing government after it had lost national elections.
Several times Duda said Poland was not deporting or refusing to accept refugees, but that none were coming to Poland.
"We are not denying assistance to anyone," he said, "Europe is not dealing with refugees in a coherent way."
Most of his prepared talk, delivered in smooth English, was devoted to NATO and security issues, coinciding with a Wall Street Journal report that the Pentagon has decided to deploy a U.S. army brigade and modern equipment to Central and Eastern European nations. Up to now, the U.S. and NATO have been rotating troops and relying on older hardware.
Though Duda did not mention that news report, he said Poland wanted a standing NATO presence on Europe's Eastern front. At the same time, he said, Poland did not want to isolate Russia. But he also observed the threat to contemporary European security "has one source, the violation of human dignity and international law, and we see it in Ukraine and Syria."
Both the Polish and Czech leaders said they were meeting the NATO goal of spending two percent of gross domestic product on defense, with Sobotka dryly noting that in his country right wing governments had reduced military outlays while center-left governments had increased them.