Rebuilding Central Europe; Political Relationships Still Have Time to Cement
Byline: Kurt Volker, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Central Europeans are known for their persistent pessimism. An old Hungarian joke sums it up well: We know that next year is going to be an average year - because it's going to be worse than this year, but better than the year after that. That glass-half-empty mentality was on public display in July 2009, when several senior Central Europeans wrote an open letter to President Obama decrying the lack of engagement from the new U.S. administration. While the tactics of publishing such a letter were ill-considered, the feelings behind it were genuine.
One could be equally dismal about developments in Central and Eastern Europe, with nationalism again bubbling up, corruption hard to shake, the tragic death of many of Poland's elite in the April plane crash at Katyn and the financial and economic crisis with its toll on vulnerable populations. Yet in the autumn of 2010, there somehow is renewed optimism.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwartzenberg lays out an agenda of political and economic cooperation, ranging from Afghanistan and missile defense to nuclear-energy partnership, outreach to the European Union's Eastern Partners (Ukraine, Georgia and others) and academic exchanges.
A young and articulate Bulgarian foreign minister, Nikolay Mladenov, arrives in town with a view of strengthening his country's partnership with the United States in NATO, the Balkans and the Black Sea region.
The Macedonian defense minister, Zoran Konjanovski, outlines his country's contributions to NATO operations and restates Macedonia's readiness to join the alliance as soon as the dispute with Greece over the country's name is resolved.
All this was within in a 24-hour period. It is as though after staying up too late and drinking too much, we have awakened the next morning and realized we still need to get on with things. There is plenty of work to do.
From a U.S. perspective, the agenda with Central Europe can be summarized in four parts. First, there is engagement with these nations on their own terms. We made a mistake in thinking the transition begun in 1989 was complete, as the economic downturn, declining EU solidarity and still-malleable political institutions have exposed continuing challenges. Our ongoing engagement with one another is important to give steady direction to domestic developments in Central European allies.
Second, it is important that the U.S. continue to support Central Europe as embedded in the EU and, within the EU, solidarity between West and East. In the early days of NATO and EU enlargement, the United States led the charge on helping these states integrate fully into European institutions. …