The initiative has no precedent in post-1989 history. A group of former presidents, prime ministers, and cabinet members from what was once known as the Soviet bloc warn the US president in an open letter that the region’s close alliance with Washington, once treated as axiomatic, is today being put to its most severe test ever.

‘As the new Obama administration sets its foreign-policy priorities,’ says the letter, ‘our region is one part of the world that Americans have largely stopped worrying about. Indeed, at times we have the impression that US policy was so successful [here] that many American officials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all and that they could “check the box” and move on to other more pressing strategic issues. Relations have been so close that many on both sides assume that the region’s transatlantic orientation, as well as its stability and prosperity, would last forever. That view is premature.’

Its tone much sharper than is customary in the diplomatic world, the letter, which will be presented today at a conference in Washington, was signed, along with the former presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic, by the ex-heads of state of Lithuania, Valdas Adamkus; Romania, Emil Constantinescu; Slovakia, Michal Kovacz; and Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

Most of the signatories are people known for their sympathy towards America. The letter is likely a reaction to a recent cooling in the region’s relations with the US. Many experts believe that Central and Eastern Europe is not a priority for the Obama administration. Also opinion polls show a steady decline in public support for the alliance with Washington in the region.

The letter’s authors warn that Central and Eastern Europe is ‘at a political crossroads and today there is a growing sense of nervousness in the region,’ one of the reasons being that the ‘Atlantic alliance stood by’ when Russia ‘violated’ international law and the ‘territorial integrity’ of Georgia during last year’s war. They nurse no illusions about Moscow’s long-term goals either.

‘Our hopes that relations with Russia would improve and that Moscow would finally fully accept our complete sovereignty and independence after joining NATO and the EU have not been fulfilled. Instead, Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods,’ write the letter’s authors, warning president Obama against making the ‘wrong concessions’ to Russia and stressing that a ‘more determined and principled policy toward Moscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimately lead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy as well.’

In this context, the ‘thorniest issue’ may well be the planned US missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. The agreements with Warsaw and Prague were signed by the George W. Bush administration and the incumbent administration has still not made up its mind on them. ‘Abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the United States across the whole region,’ argue the letter’s signatories.

They also call for closer cooperation between the US and Europe in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, for a return to Nato-level policy coordination towards Russia, and for a ‘better and more strategic US-EU relationship as well.’ The Nato and the EU would not only speak in one voice on Russia, but also cooperate on Europe’s energy security.

Kwasniewski, Walesa, Adamkus, Havel and others call ‘absurd’ the fact that the citizens of some of the region’s countries, including Poland and Romania, ‘arguably the two biggest and most pro-American’ states in the region, still need visas to visit the US. ‘It is incomprehensible that a critic like the French anti-globalisation activist José Bové does not require a visa for the United States but former Solidarity activist and Nobel Peace prize winner Lech Walesa does.’