Doves fly high in the east

Observations on protest in Europe

One of the most unedifying aspects of the entire build-up to war has been the sight of the former communist party apparatchiks who now hold power in many eastern European countries falling over themselves to endorse the hawkish line of Washington. The same men who 15 years ago were warning their people of America's imperial designs now regard the very same US as the liberator.

According to a statement from the so-called Vilnius 10 group (the nine Nato-aspirant countries plus Croatia), the US should be supported in the "fight against terrorism". It would be a grave mistake, however, to believe that this bunch of opportunists speak for their people any more than Tony Blair does for the British.

Within Nato, the European country where opposition to war with Iraq is strongest is neither France nor Germany, but Hungary, where a recent opinion poll recorded a staggering 82 per cent of people against war under any circumstances, with just 6 per cent supporting military action without UN approval.

Despite having every possible obstacle put in their way by their governments and being denied a proper platform in the mainstream media, the anti-war movement in eastern Europe grows stronger by the day. As it does so, the authorities in the region are beginning to panic.

In Hungary, the authorities attempted to ban the "Stop the War" demonstration on 15 February from marching down Budapest's main thoroughfare, before the sheer weight of public opinion forced them to do a U-turn. In Poland, despite the incessant pro-government, pro-war propaganda pumped out by the state-owned television channel, half a million people were expected to march through the streets of Warsaw at the weekend.

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, support for the anti-war Communist Party, which almost doubled its vote to 18.5 per cent in last year's parliamentary elections, continues to grow amid unease at the stance taken by the Social Democrat-led coalition government of Vladimir Spidla, which has already sent a chemical warfare clean-up unit to Kuwait. One year ago, 39 per cent of Czechs favoured military action against Iraq with UN approval; now the figure is down to 24 per cent, with just 13 per cent favouring joining in with a unilateral US action.

The most hawkish support of all for Washington among the new members of Nato in eastern Europe has come from Poland, with President Aleksander Kwasniewski (widely tipped to succeed George Robertson as the new secretary-general of Nato) and the prime minister, Leszek Miller, both challenging Tony Blair for the award of George Bush's most obedient lapdog. Once again, the electorate has stubbornly refused to follow the line of its political masters: 63 per cent of Poles oppose any Polish military involvement against Iraq.

What the prospect of war with Iraq has done is to bring home to many people in the region the true costs of allowing foreign policy to be closely tied up with that of Washington.

Hungarians are concerned that the training of 3,000 Iraqi exiles at a US military base in Taszar will make their country a target for terrorist attacks. And Polish, Czech and Hungarian parents are worried that their governments' promise of military support to the US means their children will be sent off to fight in a potentially hazardous desert war.

Five years ago, when Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic voted to join Nato, they were told that joining the western defence club would enhance their security. Now, increasingly, people are realising that the opposite may be true. One question above all keeps surfacing: why, when there is no money in the state kitty for health, education and welfare programmes, is there enough for ordering new F-16 fighter jets and sending military units to the Gulf?

A decade ago, it was hard to find anti-American sentiment in eastern Europe. Now thousands are preparing to march with placards proclaiming "Down with US imperialism" and comparing George Bush to Hitler.