Polish premier pledges Iraq pullout, missile defense talks
Signaling a rapid about-face after last month’s parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Donald Tusk pledged Friday to end Poland’s military deployment in Iraq in 2008 and said his nation would engage in more “dialogue” with its neighbors before accepting a U.S. missile defense system on Polish soil.
The three-hour speech before Parliament marked a significant departure from the politics of the last two years, when President Lech Kaczynski and his twin, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, set Poland on a nationalist course. The government largely supported U.S. military objectives but antagonized neighboring nations in the European Union and was at times openly hostile to Russia.
Lech Kaczynski remains president, but his brother, who lost the premiership when his party was tossed from power in the Oct. 21 elections, was reduced Friday to grumbling from the opposition benches. He accused Tusk’s new coalition government of taking Poland “back to the ‘90s” on a course of rapid privatization, lower taxes and what he described as inappropriate government skulduggery and political warfare.
Tusk, the 50-year-old leader of the pro-market Civic Platform party, pledged to proceed with economic overhaul and said he would uphold the party’s campaign promise to end Poland’s military role in Iraq.
“In a year’s time, I will tell you here in this chamber that our military mission in Iraq is over,” Tusk said, as the lower house erupted in applause.
“We have taken the decision, as far as the government powers go, to make 2008 the year when the pullout of Poland’s military mission is started and completed,” Tusk said. “We will carry out that operation with the conviction that we have done more than what our allies, especially the U.S., had expected from us.”
He said Poland would leave its 1,200 troops in Afghanistan next year while phasing out its 900-troop deployment in south-central Iraq.
But he was relatively noncommittal on whether Poland would allow the United States to position 10 interceptor missiles in the country. Russia has warned that the program would start an arms race in the region.
In a shift from the previous government, Tusk’s ministers have made it clear that they will consult Russia and other nations before making any decision on the missile defense system.
He hinted that Poland might expect additional incentives from the United States, which some of his political allies have interpreted to mean additional military aid.
Of Moscow, he said, “We want dialogue with Russia. The absence of dialogue helps neither side.”
Washington says the missile defense system is aimed at countering not Russia but potential aggression from nations such as Iran. But Russia is opposed to new American military infrastructure on Europe’s boundaries, particularly in a country that was once a Soviet ally.
In his policy address, Tusk focused on domestic issues, but also made it clear that Poland intends to engage rather than bicker with neighbors such as Germany and France over issues that include the Iraq war, European Union voting rights, reparations to Germans who lost property in Poland during World War II and an energy pipeline across the Baltic Sea planned jointly by Germany and Russia.
Tusk repeatedly called for a new era of trust between government and citizens, which he said was a crucial underpinning of economic development and the creation of a modern civil society.
“For example, he said, if you trust each other, you can decentralize, and decentralization means more power to local government,” said Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, who heads the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs. “It means decentralization of the European regional policy, it means a bigger role of self-governance in education, in health. He showed how this can develop positive energy in many different spheres.
“All this positive energy is completely opposite from the philosophy of the Kaczynskis in the last two years,” Kolarska- Bobinska said.
In the first of several hours of opposition speeches that preceded a divided vote of confidence in the new government, Jaroslaw Kaczynski said it was the “aggressive attacks” of the election victors that instigated Poland’s recent months of political warfare.
Yet he left the door open to conciliation.
“The message of what he [the new prime minister] says is obviously right,” he said. “We accept it: Let us finish the political war.”