In Gdansk, Poland, yesterday, the final stop of his three-country overseas tour, Mitt Romney met with former Polish President and Nobel Prize winner Lech Walesa and the country’s prime minister, Donald Tusk.
The presidential candidate was received in the birthplace of Poland’s communist-era democratic trade union Solidarity by crowds of cheering Poles, as well as several dozen protesters.
One group of protesters chanted “Obama, Obama” as Mr. Romney left the meeting with Mr. Tusk, while another group held a banner supporting Romney's Republican rival Ron Paul.
Poles are disgruntled over the US's waning attention and disregard for their war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Poland is still considered one of the most pro-American countries in Europe. Local observers say the US presidential candidate was received with praise because of Poland’s desire for reassurance about its importance in American foreign policy.
“You often hear that Poland is one of the most pro-American countries in Europe, but people would like to see more tangible proof that the feeling is mutual,” says Teresa Nowak, a local shopkeeper. “After we fought in Afghanistan and Iraq alongside the US, it would be good to ... have our safety strengthened by [the missile defense system].”
Former US President George W. Bush proposed a plan for establishing an antimissile defense system in Poland, which Poles welcomed as additional border security. President Obama has since abandoned this plan, displeasing many Poles.
The significance of the visit to American voters is twofold, according to Marek Jablonowski, professor and director at the Institute of Journalism of the University of Warsaw. “This visit could be a factor in safeguarding the Polish American vote in the election, but it also sends a message to other voters in the US. It proves there are still countries where American politicians are cheered.”
Following a meeting with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski today, Romney gave a speech on US-Polish relations and the values of liberty at the University of Warsaw.
“It is critical to stand by those who stood by America,” Romney said at the event. “In a turbulent world, Poland stands as an example and defender of freedom.”
Mr. Sikorski said Poland's aim is to maintain good relations with the United States regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential election, but some Polish politicians openly endorsed the GOP candidate.
Mr. Walesa, the historical leader of the Solidarity trade union and later the country’s first democratically elected president after the fall of communism, praised Romney as a man driven by values.
“Many things indicate that we have a lot in common,” Walesa told journalists after the meeting.
Contrary to expectations, he and Romney did not discuss Poland’s much-awaited membership of the visa waiver program, Walesa said. Currently, Poles must apply for travel documents ahead of trips to the US. This is a point of contention because many of Poland's European neighbors do not have to obtain paperwork in advance, and Poles see the continued requirement for them as a slight.
The Solidarity trade union distanced itself from Romney’s visit in an official statement, saying that it did not favor Walesa’s meeting with the GOP presidential candidate.
“Solidarity was in no way involved in organizing this meeting, nor did it invite Mitt Romney to Poland,” Andrzej Adamczyk, head of the union’s foreign affairs bureau, said in a statement. “We were informed by our friends from the American trade union center AFL-CIO ... about Mitt Romney’s attacks on trade unions and employees’ rights.”
Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s liberal newspaper of record, wrote that the trip to Poland is “the last hope of the Republican candidate” after his offhand remarks in London and Jerusalem sparked widespread controversy.
Cold War mind-set
Pawel Gras, the spokesman for the Polish government, said the prime minister and Romney discussed a wide range of issues, including the Republican candidate’s views on Europe’s relations with Russia and Ukraine.
Prior to the visit, Romney said that he believed Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” a remark some commentators regarded as a demonstration of his cold war mind-set. However, Polish media have expressed doubt that US policy toward Russia will change dramatically if Romney wins.
Polish media widely discussed Romney’s support for Bush-era plans of establishing a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Poles who support the system see increased US military presence on Polish soil as an additional safeguard of the country’s borders.
Local observers say Romney made a good impression on Polish decisionmakers who are interested in bolstering ties between the US and Poland.
“So far, the visit seems to be rather a success for both Poland and Mitt Romney. He cannot make any binding promises for obvious reasons, but seems to be genuinely interested in building relationships with local politicians,” says Jablonowski.