Who better than Aleksander Kwasniewski to deliver candid commentary and critical analysis about emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe?

Short answer: no one.

The former president of Poland (from 1995 to 2005) treated a packed auditorium to a wide range of informed opinions on current political and social issues in those regions at the opening last month of the University of Michigan's Ronald and Eileen Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia.

His talk included some scripted theoretical material, in which he said that promoting democracy in Eastern and Central Europe is "promoting peace and prosperity. ... Democracies do not go to war with each other, or sponsor terrorism. (Democracy) is useful to all societies and cultures, though it may take decades, even generations to create."

But Kwasniewski really started rolling when he left theory on the page and began to speak openly about recent developments in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Trans-Dniester and Poland. To critics who say that expansion of the European Union has led to "enlargement fatigue," Kwasniewski said, "I don't agree. … It is a success story. After the second World War no one expected this could happen, that we could have a common market, 50 years of peace and 27 member states with 500,000,000 people."

Kwasniewski said that the best response to aggressive actions by Russia on the Georgian border is "enlargement of the EU, including full membership offers to Ukraine and Moldova."

He said the Russians may have won the battle on the ground in Georgia, but destroyed a growing positive image that many had of the country in recent years.

"I don't know why (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin -- and you can be certain it was Putin not (President Dmitry) Medvevdev -- decided to demolish that image," Kwasniewski said. "Now, (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel speaks of bringing Georgia into NATO. Before, this was not possible."

Kwasniewski talked of two potential "hot spots" in Eastern Europe: the Transnistrian region that borders Moldova and Ukraine, and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

"Trans-Dniester is now a smuggling center, the black hole (of Eastern Europe)," he said. Kwasniewski added that "an artificial independence movement supported by the Russians," similar to one in the de facto breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, could result in a conflict comparable to what happened this summer in Georgia.

He said Crimea, which the Soviet Union gifted to the then-Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, might pose an even more troubling scenario. "Stalin expelled most of the native Tatar Muslim population" from the territory, Kwasniewski said, but many are now coming back from Central Asia to reclaim national and cultural rights. There is also a naval base shared by Russian and Ukrainian naval fleets on the peninsula on the Black Sea. There have been tensions regarding the base in the past and Kwasniewski said if disputes intensify "it would be the start of a real cold war."

And about the United States, Kwasniewski said "the era of American unilateralism is over. … They must work with China, the EU, South America, even Russia."

In a brief Q&A session after his talk, Kwasniewski answered a question about whether Ukrainians want to be part of the European Union by saying he believed that "a new generation, millions of young people who have worked in the EU, want Ukraine to be a part of it, not a province of Russia."

He said that he supported membership of Turkey into the European Union, despite objections by some critics who think that the mostly Muslim nation of 60 million people would change the identity of Europe.

"But a 21st century Europe is a multicultural, multi-ethnic Europe, where there are large Muslim communities in Germany in France," he said, "even if most Europeans wouldn't agree with (admitting Turkey) if a referendum were held tomorrow." Kwasniewski said admission of Turkey to the European Union would help create "respect for women and minorities" across the continent.

Finally, Kwasniewski answered a question about the recent deployment of a defense missile system in Poland by saying, "politically, I support it. If this is intended to protect the EU and the United States, then I say, 'yes.' I also agreed with the decision to sign the pact during the Georgian crisis, which sent a strong signal to Russia that the U.S., Poland and NATO are all working together."

A $10 million gift by Ronald Weiser and his wife Eileen established the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia. The center serves as the umbrella organization for the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, the Center for Russian and European Studies (CREES) and the Center for European Studies-European Union Center. Ronald Weiser was U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia from 2001 to 2004, during the first administration of George W. Bush.

Also joining Kwasniewski -- who last spoke in Ann Arbor in 2006 when he delivered the lecture "Democratic Revolutions, International Conflict and Global Citizenship" at the University of Michigan's Rackham Auditorium -- at the opening ceremony were Michael Kennedy, a past director of CREES who was named the first director of the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia and Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies; Terrence J. McDonald, Dean of U-M's College of Literature, Science and Arts; and the benefactors, Ronald and Eileen Weiser.

Reprinted from Polish Times, October 1, 2008.