Missile defense, shale gas top Obama agenda in Poland
WARSAW (Reuters) - From missile defense to shale gas, President Barack Obama will reaffirm a U.S. commitment to Poland's security on a variety of fronts when he pays his first, long-awaited visit to Warsaw on May 27-28.
Relations with Poland, one of Washington's most loyal NATO allies, are back on a more even keel after a few wobbles early in the Obama administration when the president was sometimes seen as indifferent to central Europe and its security concerns.
Arriving after visits to Ireland, Britain and France, Obama will discover an increasingly self-confident, economically booming Poland that is making its voice heard on global issues from Belarus to the Arab Spring as it prepares to assume the European Union's rotating six-month presidency on July 1.
"The United States has noticed that Poland has become a very important country in this part of the world, is doing well economically and plays a positive role in the EU," said Roman Kuzniar, an adviser to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
"Poland's ties with America in the past were too focused on military matters," he said, recalling that Polish troops served in Iraq and some 2,500 are still based in Afganistan. "Now we look at our relations from a broader perspective."
Komorowski has invited nearly 20 heads of state from central Europe to a working dinner with Obama on Friday to discuss how to promote democracy in places like Tunisia, where Polish teams have been sharing their experiences of democratic transition.
"There are... unique perspectives and strengths that Poland brings to the table at this time of democratic ferment (in the Arab world)," said a senior U.S. administration official.
Obama, whose home city Chicago is often jokingly referred to as the second biggest Polish city in the world after Warsaw because of its Polish diaspora, will discuss energy security in Saturday's talks with Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
U.S. energy giants such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron are at the forefront of efforts to tap Poland's shale gas reserves, estimated by some U.S. experts to be the biggest in Europe at 5.3 trillion cubic meters.
If the deposits are confirmed and if environmental and other concerns can be overcome, shale gas could transform Poland's geopolitical and economic position, reducing its heavy reliance on polluting coal and on natural gas imports from Russia.
"This is just the start of the romance ... Companies are moving very fast. They will encounter barriers but Poland does have a chance to become a player on the world energy scene," said Pawel Swieboda, head of the DemosEuropa think-tank.
Shale gas is not the only area attracting U.S. interest.
Westinghouse, a U.S.-based unit of Japan's Toshiba, is competing with France's Aveva and Japanese-American group GE Hitachi to supply Poland with technology for its first nuclear power plant.
But defense still looms largest in relations between Washington and Poland and the other formerly communist states of central Europe that are wary of a resurgent Russia.
Obama has largely managed to assuage the fears of central Europeans that their security would become a casualty of his drive to "reset" relations with Moscow, whose cooperation Washington needs over Iran and Afghanistan.
After scrapping his predecessor George W. Bush's missile shield plan, Obama is pressing ahead with his own version that envisages eventual deployment of SM-3 interceptors in Poland.
Obama invited Russia to cooperate on the new system, which is due to be deployed in stages till 2020, but has reassured the Poles and others that Moscow will have no veto over the plans.
Separately, Warsaw and Washington are working out a deal that will set up a U.S. air detachment in Poland and allow for the periodic rotation of F-16 warplanes, though officials have played down chances for an announcement during Obama's visit.
"This is a good example of military cooperation that is important to us both, improving air defense capabilities," the senior U.S. administration official said.
In an ironic twist, the eruption of an Icelandic volcano this week sparked fear that Obama might again have to cancel a planned trip to Poland at the last minute.
Last year, Obama shelved plans to attend Polish President Lech Kaczynski's funeral in Krakow after a similar eruption spread volcanic ash across Europe, grounding most flights. Kaczynski died in a plane crash in Russia on April 10, 2010.
Polish officials played down the risk of cancellation.
"In Poland we have low and medium ash concentration, so there is no need to introduce any limitations to air traffic in Polish skies... There is no threat to President Obama's landing on Friday," said Grzegorz Hlebowicz, spokesman for the Polish Air Navigation Services Agency.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Mark Heinrich)