Bush to Address Slovakia

President Bush (search) looks at Slovakia and sees a faithful ally in Iraq (search) and the war on global terror.

But many Slovaks look at their leaders and see a government intent on keeping troops in Iraq — even though recent surveys show three in four citizens want the soldiers home.

That's the divide Bush will face when he addresses the nation from a snowy Bratislava square (search) on Thursday with a speech expected to salute Slovaks for contributing a small but symbolic contingent of roughly 100 non-combat troops to the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.

"I see the presence of troops in Iraq negatively. There is no reason to be there," said Jan Galusek, a 63-year-old retiree.

"By being there, Slovakia is taking part in something illegal. It just adds to the government's unpopularity," he said. "There has always been some type of brown-nosing here — at first brown-nosing Stalin, and now the United States."

Although Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's government is among the United States' staunchest allies in Central and Eastern Europe, many Slovaks take a decidedly dim view of Bush.

An unflattering survey last week suggested that more Slovaks see Russian President Vladimir Putin (search), who holds a summit with Bush in Bratislava on Thursday, as a better guarantor of democracy around the world. Forty-three percent of the 505 respondents to the survey by the Markant polling agency said Putin offered greater protections than Bush, who was backed by 36 percent.

Alexander Duleba, an analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, told the Sme newspaper he thought the poll reflected Slovaks' disagreement with Bush's policy in Iraq.

American engagement in the region dates back decades. The United States encouraged dissent in the former Czechoslovakia, which shook off communism with the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Bush — the first U.S. president to visit Slovakia since it gained independence in 1993 with the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia — has said the country could serve as an example to other former East Bloc nations struggling to make the transition to democracy. Slovakia became a member of the European Union and NATO last spring.

Gratitude over U.S. support in helping Slovakia join the Western military alliance has been a key factor in the government's readiness to commit troops to U.S.-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Slovakia, Dzurinda declared earlier this month, "is a faithful and solid ally of the United States."

But ordinary Slovaks aren't nearly as effusive.

Several activist groups, including one calling itself Neither Bush Nor Putin, have threatened to stage small demonstrations on Thursday to protest the visit.

"They silently accept the violence and humiliation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, just as they leave without notice the suffering of Chechnyan people," the group's organizers said in a statement urging people to "not leave Slovakia with the image of a hostile country."

Citizen backlash over deploying troops to Iraq certainly isn't confined to Slovakia. Opposition has mounted in the United States and Britain as well as in countries in Slovakia's neighborhood that have sent troops, notably Hungary, which pulled its 300 non-combat forces out of Iraq at the end of December.

Despite Slovakia's speedy transition to a modern, Western-style democracy, Dzurinda's government has taken pains to maintain cordial relations with Russia. Moscow still commands a measure of respect from older Slovaks who experienced their nation's 41-year communist past and were taught Russian as a second language at school.

Keeping open lines of communication with Russia while standing unabashedly shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States has been a tricky balancing act for Slovakia.

It has meant "leaning towards tradition and historical identity on one hand and extending the other to hold hands with bigger nations that promise protections from all kinds of events, wars, crises and conflicts," Beata Balogova, editor of The Slovak Spectator newspaper, wrote in a commentary.