WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Seeking ways to support Arab uprisings, President Barack Obama is asking Polish leaders to use the lessons they learned during the fall of communism to aid fledgling democratic movements in the Middle East and North Africa.
Obama will meet Saturday with Poland's political leaders, as well as a democracy-building team that recently returned from Tunisia, where popular uprisings led to the overthrow of a longtime autocrat and sparked the protest movements that have swept throughout the region.
The president's overnight visit to Poland, his first stop here since taking office, caps a six-day European tour that has also taken him to Ireland, England and France. The whole trip has played out against the backdrop of the Arab rebellions, and Obama has made no efforts to underestimate the potential global impact of a democratic revolution in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the Polish capital, Obama is making a direct comparison between Poland's overthrow of its communist regime and the movements happening in the Arab world.
The message the White House is hoping to send is that two decades after choosing democracy, Poland has a growing economy and is a strategic partner on the world stage — and the same could happen in Tunisia and Egypt, where another longtime leader has stepped down from power.
Samuel Charap, an expert on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, said Poland also sees an opportunity to boost its international standing by taking on a consulting role in the Arab uprisings.
"Part of being a serious actor is adding value internationally, and the Poles rightly feel that they can add value on democracy promotion and democratic transition, given their own success since 1989," he said.
Liz Sherwood-Randall, one of Obama's top Europe policy advisers, said the key to making that happen is finding out what worked and what didn't in the transition from communism to democracy and identifying what steps will translate well to the Arab world.
"These countries that moved along towards democracy at the end of the Cold War have great experience to share with those countries that have not yet made that transition," she said.
Sherwood-Randall said democratic institutions in the U.S., including the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute, are already partnering with the Polish to support their efforts to engage in the Arab democracy movements.
And at the Group of Eight summit in Deauville, France, Obama and other world leaders said they hoped to provide Tunisia and Egypt, as well as other countries that follow their path, economic incentives similar to those offered to the Soviet bloc countries 20 years ago.
The G-8 leaders laid out a plan for refocusing the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which was created specifically to help Eastern European economies after the collapse of communism, to help Arab democracies.
The bank was set up when the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union convinced European leaders of the urgent need to support a region emerging from decades of political and economic dictatorship. The idea was to set up a "transition bank" to help lead the way on banking systems reform, price liberalization, privatization and establishing legal property rights in a region just shaking off the effects of almost 50 years of planned economies.
Obama arrived in Warsaw Friday night. He took part in wreath-laying ceremonies at Poland's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a memorial for those killed in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. He spoke with Holocaust survivors gathered at the site, telling one elderly man that the memorial was a "reminder of the nightmare" of the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were killed.
The president also attended a lengthy private dinner with Central and Eastern European leaders, where aides said there was a discussion about the opportunity the Arab uprisings presented for leaders to show their support for democratic change.
Obama had first planned to come to Poland last year for the funeral of President Lech Kaczynski, who was killed in a plane crash. But Obama's trip was scrapped six hours before his departure because of a volcanic ash cloud over Europe that disrupted air travel.
Shortly before departing Warsaw, Obama will stop at a memorial to those who died in the crash.
The president returns to Washington Saturday evening.