Obama: Poland a leader in Europe, world

President Barack Obama litens to a media question as he participates in a joint news conference with Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk, not seen, at the Chancellery Building in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, May 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

May 28, 2011 6:56:42 AM PDT
President Barack Obama praised Poland's early democratic leaders as an inspiration to the world Saturday, and encouraged them to share their experiences breaking free from the grip of communism with people in the Middle East and North Africa who are seeking greater freedoms.

Obama met here in Poland's capital with dozens of veterans of Poland's Solidarity movement, as well as current and past political leaders, some of whom have already traveled to Tunisia where popular uprisings led to the overthrow of a longtime autocrat and sparked the protest movements that swept throughout the region.

Obama said Poland's experience from its own democratic transition would prove invaluable in Tunisia, and throughout the Arab world.

"We all know that in the aftermath of the overthrow of a repressive regime, emotions run high," Obama said. "But new democratic governments have to show themselves to be able to channel that energy in constructive ways to hold themselves to higher standards than their authoritarian predecessors."

Obama met earlier Saturday with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski. He tried to assure Poland that his efforts to boost U.S. relations with Russia are not a threat to Central and Eastern Europe. He also told Komorowski that Poland still needed to be a force for democracy in its own region, particularly in Belarus, a country Obama said is "backsliding." He urged Poland to help encourage democratic forces within Belarus.

"The kind of repressive actions we're seeing in Belarus can end up having a negative impact over the region as a whole and that makes us less safe and less secure," Obama said.

During the meeting with Solidarity leaders, Komorowski said there is an "absolute convergence of views" between Poland and the United States on the need to press for democratic change in Belarus.

Obama's overnight visit to Poland, his first stop here since taking office, caps a six-day European tour that has also taken him to Ireland, England and France. The whole trip has played out against the backdrop of the Arab rebellions, and time and again Obama has emphasized the potential global impact of a democratic revolution in the Middle East and North Africa.

Poland's legendary Solidarity founder Lech Walesa was supposed to attend the meeting with Solidarity leaders, but announced hours before Obama's arrival here that he had no interest in a meeting that would amount to little more than a photo-op.

Solidarity was a national freedom and labor movement under Walesa's leadership in the 1980s that helped bring down communism. Obama told his hosts that those days stirred Americans.

"I remember at that time understanding that history was being made because ordinary people were standing up and doing extraordinary things with great courage and against great odds," he said. "Your actions charted a course for freedom that inspired many on this continent and beyond."

The message the White House is hoping to send is that two decades after choosing democracy, Poland has a growing economy and is a strategic partner on the world stage - and the same could happen in Tunisia and Egypt, where another longtime leader has stepped down from power.

Samuel Charap, an expert on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, said Poland also sees an opportunity to boost its international standing by taking on a consulting role in the Arab uprisings.

"Part of being a serious actor is adding value internationally, and the Poles rightly feel that they can add value on democracy promotion and democratic transition, given their own success since 1989," he said.

Liz Sherwood-Randall, one of Obama's top Europe policy advisers, said the key to making that happen is finding out what worked and what didn't in the transition from communism to democracy and identifying what steps will translate well to the Arab world.

She said democratic institutions in the U.S., including the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute, are already working with the Poles to support their efforts to engage in the Arab democracy movements.

And at the Group of Eight summit in Deauville, France, Obama and other world leaders said they hoped to provide Tunisia and Egypt, as well as other countries that follow their path, economic incentives similar to those offered to the Soviet bloc countries 20 years ago.

The G-8 leaders laid out a plan for refocusing the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which was created specifically to help Eastern European economies after the collapse of communism, to help Arab democracies.

Obama arrived in Warsaw Friday night. He took part in wreath-laying ceremonies at Poland's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a memorial for those killed in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. He spoke with Holocaust survivors gathered at the site, telling one elderly man that the memorial was a "reminder of the nightmare" of the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were killed.

The president also attended a lengthy private dinner with Central and Eastern European leaders, where aides said there was a discussion about the opportunity the Arab uprisings presented for leaders to show their support for democratic change.

Obama had first planned to come to Poland last year for the funeral of President Lech Kaczynski, who was killed in a plane crash. But Obama's trip was scrapped six hours before his departure because of a volcanic ash cloud over Europe that disrupted air travel.

Shortly before departing Warsaw, Obama will stop at a memorial to those who died in the crash.

The president returns to Washington Saturday evening.