Emerging Ally: President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski
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JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, a conversation with the President of Poland, who is visiting the United States this week. Ray Suarez spoke with him this morning at Blair House in Washington.
RAY SUAREZ: The President of Poland is a living symbol of how much Europe has changed. He began his public career as a young Communist Party functionary in a Poland dominated by the Soviet Union. Now he leads a westernizing Poland, is praised by an American President at a White House state dinner, and today accompanied George Bush to Michigan.
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI, Poland: Twenty-six years ago, I was here as a student. Today I’m President of Poland and what is more important, my host and my friend is President of the United States, George W. Bush. ( Applause )
RAY SUAREZ: Aleksander Kwasniewski is 47 years old and in his second term as president. He first won election in 1995, defeating Solidarity leader turned politician Lech Walesa. In an interview this morning in Washington, the President had a progress report for America from post-Cold War Poland.
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI: My message to the Americans, to the American President, is that I am coming from Poland, which is in good shape; it is much different than ten years ago when last state visit from Poland was here in the United States. We are a strong democratic country. We have democrat major democratic institutions. We are an American ally in NATO and in anti-terrorist coalition. And we want to be in the European Union very soon, beginning of 2004. And we want to develop our strategy to partnership and friendship with the United States, which is connected with a very rich history but what is very important for our future. So I think that I can say, as the President of Poland, we’re proud that I am coming from Poland, which is different and what’s more important, much better than before.
RAY SUAREZ: Under President Kwasniewski, Poland joined NATO in 1999; the now democratic nation of 39 million people began the process of modernizing Poland’s army and integrating armed forces that once trained to fight western Europe with the rest of the alliance. Today, Kwasniewski points out with pride to Polish soldiers on peacekeeping duty in the Balkans and fighting alongside the Americans in Afghanistan.
RAY SUAREZ: If there is no longer a Soviet Union, if Poland is at peace with all its neighbors, why is it so important to be in NATO?
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI: Well, because NATO is one of the most important factors of this peace and security, and I think NATO is important in two elements: First one is the organization of peace, security, and very good cooperation between partners. And what is more important, NATO is an organization which protects such values as democracy, tolerance, human rights. And to be in NATO, it means to accept these standards, to accept these values and to realize, to fulfill these ideals. And I think to be in NATO for the countries of our region, it means more guarantees for us, it means more responsibility for our common security, but it means fulfillment of all standards of civilized world, like protection of human rights and democratic mechanisms.
RAY SUAREZ: With the United States finding a new relationship with Russia and cooperating on the destruction of nuclear arsenals and such things, who does NATO protect you from? I mean, if there is no longer opposition in regions of Europe, who are you defending from?
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI: Well, we are very glad that Russia is so close with NATO. We are very satisfied that Russia, and we as a NATO member, signed this NATO-Russia treaty some weeks ago in Rome, Italy, because it’s much better to have Russia on the same side of processes, of approach to many, many political issues. We welcome, we welcome this good cooperation between Russia and NATO. And you asked me for what is NATO now? Well, look in Balkans, you have seen what is the possibility of such conflict, ethnic conflicts, ethnic cleansings, tensions.
So I think that is one of the reasons we can face some regional problems, which are very difficult, very dramatic and is necessary to have instruments to solve these problems. NATO is such instrument. Terrorism. In my opinion, terrorism is a question which is not a short- term problem for all of us. It is a long-term fight. And NATO can play, and will play, a very crucial role in this struggle. Then, what I mentioned, this security system in the region, more countries in NATO means more zone, bigger zone, wider zone of security and stability.
RAY SUAREZ: Now solidly within NATO and supporting the arrival of new eastern European allies like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, the President is now pushing for Polish membership in the European Union.
RAY SUAREZ: That can be a complicated change. Why do you think it’s important for Poland?
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI: Well, because Europe wants to be integrated, and this alternative is very clear. To be in the EU, it means to have same rules of… for economy, for social life, to be together in the majority of European countries. To be out of EU, it means to be in some kind of vacuum, of gray zone. And that is such political very clear alternative. We want to be in the European Union because this organization is very effective. This organization guaranteed for Europe 50 years, more than 50 years of peace and very good cooperation and development of economies in each country, and very positive solutions for many social problems like unemployment, like poverty, like this balance between the various regions.
And so I think the European Union that is after NATO is our second historic goal, which we should reach if we want to encourage Poland… include Poland in this modern world and modern Europe. And we hope to finish our negotiations this year. And what I said, we want to be in the European Union beginning of 2004, so a very short and visible period.
RAY SUAREZ: Prosperous by world standards, Poles are still much poorer than other Europeans. Their industries are antiquated, their farms small and inefficient by EU standards. Poland is trying to join the European Union just as the EU is again embroiled in controversy over the high cost of farm price supports. They account for more than half the entire budget of the EU.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, there are a lot of taxpayers in the union who worry about the costs of incorporating Poland. There are a lot of farmers in Poland who are worry about their futures if Poland joins the union.
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI: Well, I think… of course the new candidate countries are not donators; they will be the beneficiaries of European Union for some years. But why EU is so interested to have Poland and some new countries inside, because it’s a huge mark. There’s almost 100 million people. And this market creates a lot of job places in European Union countries and good chances for development increase of European economy. So I think that is a good business for both sides. It is not that we will have some structure found, some assistance for Polish farmers, which is very important. We count on this assistance very much for the next some years. But in longer term, this is good business for both sides.
And what is politically extremely important, Europe can be united, the first time in the history, after a thousand… more than a thousand years. We can use the whole potential of Europe to be effective in the economy, to be very competitive in the global economy. So I think that is from the European perspective, for the European future, this engagement can be one of the most important and effective decisions in the last 50 years maybe.
RAY SUAREZ: When the Soviet Union fell, Poland made the hard political and economic choice to quickly transform from a state- controlled economy to a market one. The government asked its people for sacrifices.
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI: Today, I think that is a social problem to some extent because the people suffered a lot. And now we have such expectation that it’s time to have some fruits, some positive fruits of the changes. And still the time, especially in the economy, is very tough, very difficult. It’s necessary to be active still, to work, to fight, to make our economy more competitive. And of course, still it is not the time to relax and to make vacations and to eat the fruits of the reforms of the changes last years. It’s psychologically and socially, that is one of the sensitive points in the contemporary life of Poland.
RAY SUAREZ: In the United States, we talk a lot about the American dream and what that means for individual people and families. What’s the Polish dream?
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI: Well, it is a nice question because I think we have dreams. And Poland is such a unique place where we realize some of our dreams. One of our dreams was to be an independent state. We are — to be democratic country; we are — to have our sovereignty again after 50 years of outside rules, we are a sovereign country today. I think today our dream is to have efficient economy, to be one of the important nations and countries in Europe, not superpowers, we have not… we haven’t such ambitions, but to play role according to our heritage, according to our potential, according to our position in Europe yesterday and today and tomorrow, and I think this dream is quite realistic, and we can make this dream true in the next some years.
RAY SUAREZ: And you’re still young enough to see it, see it to the end.
PRESIDENT ALEKSANDER KWASNIEWSKI: Yes. Maybe as the President, I’m not so young because it’s my second term and I have three and a half years to the end. But as a person of course, I’m enough young not only to see how this dream is fulfilled, but to participate in the realization of this dream. We are in a good way.
RAY SUAREZ: How much has the world changed? On the way home from the United States, the Polish President will stop in Berlin to a country that once invaded and occupied his own to help swear in new officers in the German army.