Warsaw — The disintegration of Soviet Communism accelerated in 1989 with the Solidarity movement here, the Velvet Revolution in Slovakia, and similar democratic uprisings across Central and Eastern Europe. Thirty years later, during a trip to reengage a region he says that the U.S. has neglected for too long, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo drew on that history of resistance to Russian interference as part of an argument that the U.S., not Russia, belongs in Central Europe.
Pompeo began his trip with a Monday stop at the statue of Ronald Reagan in Budapest’s Liberty Square, completed in 2011 to commemorate his administration’s stalwart opposition to the Soviets (and which stands opposite a 1946 monument to Hungary’s Red Army “liberators”). Then, on Tuesday morning in Bratislava, the secretary of state visited the Gate of Freedom memorial at Slovakia’s Austrian border. He ended the day with a meeting with Poland’s foreign minister, Jakub Czaputowicz.
At every stop, Pompeo reminded his audience of U.S. and international reporters of the grim legacy of Soviet Communism while paying tribute to his host countries, which, he said, “cast off the Soviet yoke.” At the Gate of Freedom memorial, which commemorates the hundreds of Slovaks who were killed attempting to cross over the junction of the Morava and Danube rivers and into independent Austria, Pompeo met with five former political prisoners. “Where barbed wire and armed guards once stood, today people, goods, and information cross freely,” he said. He is the first secretary of state to visit the country since 1999.
Central to Pompeo’s message was a warning that democracy is a contingent state of affairs — and that Russia, 28 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is still working to undermine it. “Democracy is hard,” he said during a conversation with the president of a Slovak think tank. “It’s boisterous, it’s contentious, people have different views. Boy, it’s different in Russia.”
The trip began Monday and wraps up on Friday. A senior State Department official characterized it as a reversal of decades of disengagement from the region — which he attributed both to structural forces and political choices made by previous administrations — during which Russia and China filled the void. Reengagement in Central Europe was broadly in line with the Trump administration’s strategic objectives, he said, which include beating back Chinese and Russian attempts to expand their sphere of influence.
If that’s the line, then Pompeo is staying on message. At his meeting with the Polish foreign minister, he reiterated that a state’s cooperation with Chinese telecom company Huawei would pose a threat to its relations with the U.S. But his comments on Russian president Vladimir Putin were perhaps his most pointed of the day: “Let me assure you that Vladimir Putin is intent on undermining democracies throughout the world. Make no mistake about it.”
Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland have all faced varying degrees of criticism for a perceived decline in civil liberties. Responding to such concerns, the State Department official noted that the U.S. is starting a new program to train investigative journalists from all four Visegrad countries, including the Czech Republic. And for Pompeo, who served as a U.S. army officer in West Germany between 1986 and 1989, the choice between looking West and looking East is clear: “I saw what happens when repression and tyranny rule a people, and we can’t ever take that path again.”