PRAGUE — FROM across an Iron Curtain, they faced down the West's military establishment for half a century. Now, the armed forces of Eastern Europe are eager to join it.
Moreover, they have a far clearer idea than the West of what that joint establishment should look like.
``NATO in its current form is the past,'' says Piotr Kolodziejczyk, Poland's defense minister. ``NATO should be the foundation of European security, and for that reason we would like to be a member.'' (East Europe and European Community membership, Page 7.)
It ``accomplished a very important task that is not realized in the West,'' adds Jiri Pospisil, the Czech Republic's deputy minister of defense. ``During the existence of NATO, there was not one single conflict among its members, even when they were very close to conflict.'' His example: Despite long tensions between Turkey and Greece, the two NATO members never went to war.
That cannot be said for the other side. When Czechs liberalized their system in the spring of 1968, its ``allies'' from the Warsaw Pact attacked and crushed the reform movement. No wonder Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and other Warsaw Pact countries are clamoring to join. ``We see NATO as the single organization that is able to protect its own members from attack,'' Mr. Pospisil says.
In contrast to this clear vision for a future NATO, the West is waffling. In the United States, like the other nations of NATO, a debate continues over whether to enlarge the US-West European alliance. Proponents see a historic opportunity to firmly anchor in the West these emerging new democracies of Eastern Europe. Skeptics worry about further foreign entanglements, especially after the setbacks in Somalia and Bosnia. More importantly, they worry about the Russians.
``We have to address the security vacuum in Eastern Europe without antagonizing'' the Russians, a US diplomat says.
These conflicting desires have produced a compromise proposal by the Clinton administration. It is called ``Partnership for Peace.'' The program would allow the East and West to conduct joint military exercises and perhaps search-and-rescue operations. The idea is to enhance contacts but put off any decisions about enlarging NATO. The proposal will be taken up at the Jan. 10 NATO summit in Brussels.
The Poles, in particular, were initially very disappointed that the West would not go further.
``It's better to have partial guarantees than to have none,'' says Poland's Mr. Kolodziejczyk. But he is clearly frustrated with the delays. In the two years since he last served in government, ``nothing has changed,'' he says.
Poland and its East European neighbors acknowledge that they have to make big changes before they are NATO-ready. These changes include restructuring the armed forces, addressing communications problems with the West, and making defense expenditures more transparent.
Here in the Czech Republic, for example, the armed forces are moving to address all three problems. They are changing their offensive, Soviet-style structure of large divisions to a Western-style brigade system, which involves smaller and more defense-oriented units. The Czechs are also cutting the size of their military. Under Communist rule, the former Czechoslovakia had 200,000 troops. Now that Slovakia has broken away, the Czech Republic is down to 100,000 troops and plans to reach 65,000 by 1995.
Poland is making similar changes. But what these countries lack, military officials say, are clear guidelines from the West on what it will take to join the alliance.
East Europe's own ideas about what those criteria should be do not differ much from those voiced by Western diplomats. NATO aspirants should be functioning democracies with a stable economy, civilians should be in charge of the military, their forces should be inter-operable with Western military structures, and they should be ready to accept their share of the military and financial burden.
To those conditions, Western diplomats add two more: transparency in the defense budget, and aspirants should behave in a ``Western'' way.
The Czechs are moving to meet the first item. They are changing to a Western method of military budget accounting. The second will be tougher. All these former communist nations - the Czech Republic in particular - are arms exporters. And Western diplomats suspect that these economically squeezed nations are selling arms to less-than-friendly regimes.
There seems little sense of urgency in the West to address these concerns. One major problem for the emerging democracies is that they have nowhere else to go. Ukraine has talked about forming a security confederation, but the idea generates little enthusiasm in Warsaw or Prague. The East bloc is too suspicious of Russia to look in that direction. Poland is trying to jump-start some kind of security arrangement with Germany and France - something foreign ministers of both countries noted but on which they took no action when they visited Warsaw this month.