SLUPSK, POLAND – For the citizens of the Polish city of Slupsk, the American election is personal.
Like the rest of Poland, the northern city has borne the scars of Europe's many wars and invasions. Now Slupsk is preparing for another potential conflict – as proposed host to a controversial U.S. missile site, one that has drawn the fury of Russia.
Slupsk, which had to be rebuilt after World War II, is central to a U.S.-led NATO expansion around and into the former Soviet Union, which is ratcheting up the tension between Moscow and Washington.
"The people of Slupsk are more interested than ever in the U.S. election," Mayor Maciej Kobylinski said.
The mayor backs the missile site, envisioning new highways, a small civilian airport, a water park and an Olympic-size swimming pool "not only for Polish citizens, but for the Americans that will come," he said.
He's dusting off the welcome mat for an estimated 1,000 U.S. military personnel, but the warmth toward the installation isn't unanimous – and opinions are divided over which U.S. presidential candidate will be best for Poland.
For Woytech Czajka, who sells "gold of the north" – amber jewelry – on the Baltic Sea boardwalk 20 minutes north of Slupsk, "George Bush was a very good partner in politics for Poland, but I've heard that [Barack] Obama wouldn't be as good."
Sipping Zywiec beer and showing off his resin pendants, Czajka, 21, said the missile site would protect his country.
"We are a free country now, but Russia doesn't accept that," Czajka said.
A divided city
Both candidates, in fact, back the plan. Obama, however, has said that he would want to test the effectiveness of the missiles before they are activated.
Under the defense deal, 10 missile interceptors will be placed in underground silos at Redzikowo airfield, on the outskirts of Slupsk. By 2011 to 2013, they will work in conjunction with U.S.-run radar based in the Czech Republic to thwart a potential attack by Iran. In an attempt to quell the Kremlin's worries, The U.S. Missile Defense Agency says the system cannot be used for an offensive attack without obvious modification of the football-sized field it will occupy.
Yet the proposal has divided this city of 100,000.
"No to the U.S. Shield," reads red paint on a wall next to a busy market in the heart of Slupsk.
"The Russians threatened to point their missiles at Poland," if the deal was signed, said Mariusz Chmiel, a district leader who said he hoped Obama would win.
"Six months ago, our politicians did not believe them, but today, after the events in Georgia, the Russians' threats should be taken seriously," he said, adding that three different surveys of the local population showed that 70 to 75 percent were against the missile shield site.
The local population's views appeared largely stratified by age; those who lived through a Soviet presence in Poland are anxious about having any foreign troops back in their country.
"Those who remember the communist time under the Russian Army that was stationed near here say, 'We used to have Russians and now the Americans are coming,'" said Krzysztof Pedzich, a local translator.
Slupsk is 65 miles away from Gdansk, home of the Solidarity labor movement which helped overturn Poland's communist system. Poland is now a member of the European Union and was among the handful of EU nations to back the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"If you could see how it used to be before, the foreign army, any foreign army ... is treated like an intruder," said Pedzich, a father of four, who was studying in Gdansk during the anti-communist protests in the late 1980s.
|Jennifer Carlile / msnbc.com|
|Graffiti on a wall in Slupsk reads "No to the U.S. Shield."|
A conquered land
The city's architecture tells of a tumultuous past.
Governed by Prussia and then Germany until the end of World War II, Russian forces razed most of Slupsk to the ground before the war's end. Out of the ruins, the 16th century castle was rebuilt, along with the Witches Tower, where 18 women prisoners had been put to death by 1714.
During a recent trip, children were feeding ducks on a lush green riverbank alongside the tower, which now houses a funky, contemporary art gallery. On the other side, laundry hung in front of a low-rise Communist tower block with "Skinheads" scrawled on its façade.
From well-maintained city gardens to an abundance of EU buntings, civic and European pride abound. But, unemployment is high and the average salary is just 2,500 Polish Zlotcych ($1,022) a month – about one-sixth lower than the national average.
For Kobylinski, the city mayor, the missile site will mean jobs while drawing American soldiers and tourists to the area, which is not on most tourist itineraries (The 65-mile train ride from Gdansk can take more than 2 1/2 hours).
Kobylinski, a member of a left-wing party, is convinced that the missile site will be built no matter who becomes the next U.S. president. So he's backing Obama, because of what he sees as their shared liberal philosophies.
With lots of family and friends in the United States, especially in Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago, many here have a direct interest in the U.S. election, he added.
|Jennifer Carlile / msnbc.com|
|Zbigniew Kramek guards the Redzikowo Airfield, where the U.S. missile site will be based.|
For others, the process is part-politics, part-entertainment.
"The election in the U.S.A. looks like a big show, or Hollywood," said Aleksandra Rutkiewicz, 27, whose job is to promote Slupsk out of the 19th century city hall.
"I would prefer McCain because he's not such a showman as Obama," she said, adding that she fully supported the missile shield.
At the Redzikowo airfield only a couple of old planes and disused buildings could be seen behind a guard's fence.
For the guard there, the choice was more basic. Will one of (the candidates) make it so we can go to the U.S. without a visa?" asked Zbigniew Kramek. "He's the one I want."