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Ten years since NATO expansion, Poland sees alliance as bulwark

Warsaw — Ten years since NATO’s watershed expansion into Moscow’s Cold War-era stamping ground, which cemented Warsaw, Budapest and Prague’s break with their old master, Poland still sees the alliance as a shield against Russia.

"Russia was, is and will remain unpredictable," said Polish security policy expert Jan Czaja. "It won’t stop being a problem. We saw that with the Georgia crisis. Putin has clear ambitions to rebuild a military superpower."

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the trans-Atlantic alliance on March 12, 1999, a decade after breaking from the crumbling communist bloc.

NATO took a further step beyond the old Iron Curtain in 2004, admitting Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia, as well as the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — which had been a formal part of the Soviet Union.

Both expansions in the face of Russian disquiet were a sign that Moscow’s grip on the region had slipped.

"The entry process was tough,” said retired Polish general Stanislaw Koziej. “Poland had made the application when it still had Russian troops stationed on its territory and in the neighbouring former East Germany, and the situation in the ex-Soviet Union was still unclear."

Poland began its membership drive in March 1990, just 10 months after the demise of communist rule. NATO’s communist counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, was officially dissolved in July 1991 and the Soviet Union collapsed that December.

In the 1990s, surveys showed that 90 percent of Poles backed NATO membership, slightly ahead of the proportion wanting to enter the European Union, which the country eventually joined in 2004.

In July 1997, after Poland won a formal invitation to join, then US president Bill Clinton was acclaimed by thousands of people in Warsaw who rallied under the banner "Thank You America."

"Never again will your fate be decided by others," Clinton, who had staunchly supported the three would-be members, said in a speech. "We know you are ready to share the burdens of defending freedom because you know the price of losing freedom.”

The US president also called on Poland to cut a path for other central European countries, adding: "You did not walk through NATO’s door to see it shut behind you."

That was a message Warsaw took to heart.

Along with the United States, the 26-nation alliance’s ex-communist members have pushed to expand it further into former Soviet territory, sparking Russia’s wrath and disquiet among many West European members.

According to Czaja, admitting Poland’s ex-Soviet neighbour Ukraine is as much about building a defensive bulwark for Poland and the rest of NATO as about anchoring Kiev in the West.

For Poland’s conservative President Lech Kaczynski, admitting Ukraine, as well as Georgia, "should be the alliance’s principal goal over coming years."

Kaczynski’s predecessor Aleksander Kwasniewski — a communist-turned-social democrat who was in power when Poland joined — said he agreed.

"Bringing Ukraine in NATO would provide much more security for Poland than setting up an American missile shield on our soil," Kwasniewski said, referring to controversial US plan to site anti-missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic to ward of threats of attack by what Washington called "rogue states," notably Iran.

That plan, which enraged Moscow, was the initiative of the administration of former US president George W. Bush, but there have been signs that President Barack Obama may put it on ice.

That is a concern for Poland, which had been pushing for the US installations on its soil in part to ensure greater links with Washington and thus strengthen security guarantees.

"Only the United States is able to set the tone in NATO,” said Czaja. “Western Europe is too tied up with Russia via economic interests."

Suspending the plan would please the Czechs, however, according to a recent poll suggesting 72 percent opposed the radar base.

Despite the public reluctance there, NATO membership remains "the most important step" taken by Prague since its communist regime fell in 1989, said Czech Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanova.

Maja Czarnecka/AFP/Expatica