Ticket to NATO: No Sass From Top Brass

Ensuring civilian control of E. Europe militaries has some officers seeing red.

When the topic is Hungary's aspiration to join NATO, discussion often leads to one man: Lt. Gen. Ferenc Vegh.

The commander of Hungary's armed forces represents an emerging breed of Western-educated, westward-looking military brass in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. They are leading the charge to meet key conditions for NATO membership, foremost of which is civilian control of the military. The Central European trio expects to be invited in July to join the alliance.

General Vegh has enthusiastically implemented his Euro-Atlantic vision, removing those who resist his my-way-or-the-highway fashion. And with language that would make his American mentors proud, Vegh appeals to parliament for not only funds, but for its direct involvement. "It may sound unbelievable, the military asking for more civilian control," says Vegh, a 1993 graduate of the US Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

"But I understand that the greater their participation, the more they'll become personally responsible for our success," he adds.

Not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon, however. In Poland, the armed forces chief of staff was fired in March, reportedly for resisting the authority of the civilian-led Ministry of Defense (MOD).

Elsewhere, leaders like Vegh must grapple with stodgy MODs and a bloated corps of colonels and lieutenant colonels. Both camps are filled with old Soviet-era dogs who hamper the process because they can't - or won't - learn new tricks.

"For the older generation, it's no longer a question of retaining power," says Czech Army Maj. Dusan Dubovy. "They can either leave the military, or concentrate on their professional duty."

Still, with morale diminished by poor pay, low prestige, and old weaponry, they feel little incentive to conform. But instead of being swept out, the disgruntled legions benefit from a Catch-22 common to post-communist societies: With them, the "civilianization" process suffers; without them, and left with a dearth of civilian experts, there's no one who could capably run the place.

So military officers, lawmakers, and analysts regionwide loosely interpret a core NATO criterion to mean "democratic," not pure civilian, control.

"Democracy is a framework, but who is there to introduce it?" asked Ferenc Gazdag, director of the Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies in Budapest. "We can't replace all leadership in our society. We need to be patient for a generation."

By the "democratic" yardstick, the consensus is that the Central Europeans make the cut for NATO.

Legal and constitutional guidelines for when and how to use the military are almost fully in place. Parliamentary defense committees hold the purse strings and demand budget transparency. And elected officials determine their mission, with the military serving an advisory role.

All this accountability to the public contrasts starkly with the old days. Then, top military leaders were members of the Communist Party, wielding enormous influence in military-related operational and financial matters, not to mention overall public policy. The MOD served a mostly administrative function; the Parliament rubber-stamped party dictates.

The end of the cold war and a commitment to Western-style democracy brought dramatic change - and massive downsizing - to the military.

Despite the voluntary departure of most of the hard-line, card-carrying officers, true civilianization remains the greatest challenge.

Take Hungary, for example.

After the first free elections in 1990, the center-right government purged the MOD's military apparatchiks. They were replaced with political appointees, none of whom had military expertise yet who were entrusted with revamping the armed forces. The general staff balked, and the MOD leadership flailed.

The rise to power of the current Socialist-Liberal coalition in 1994 sparked a new wave of house-cleaning. To start with, Gyorgy Keleti, a retired colonel and former party official, was named defense minister. He quickly filled many of the ministry's top posts with cronies, old military hands who traded in their gold stars for pinstripes. The moves fortified the general staff's grip on the ministry.

One step forward for effectiveness, but two steps backward for democracy, says Reka Szemerkenyi, a research fellow who analyzed the NATO front-runners in a report published last year by London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Indeed, she noted, the military has taken greater strides toward NATO "inter-operability," through Hungary's prominent role in the Partnership for Peace program and by participating in the Bosnian peacekeeping effort.

Yet there was also Mr. Keleti's well-publicized blunder last spring, when he allowed eight Hungarian MIG-29 jet fighters to join in a live-fire exercise in Poland without first seeking parliamentary approval.

These are growing pains of the transformation, but Ms. Szemerkenyi says it's a question of changing the mentality. So she advocates a trial-by-fire approach to developing a cadre of civilian experts: Let them learn on the job.

"If you want to have civilians, you need real civilians, not just retired military officers," she says. "They may know what a Warsaw Pact defense ministry is all about, but they have no idea and no practice in how a democratic MOD operates."

On the civilian side, Szemerkenyi wrote, parliaments also struggle in their new role. They've generally taken a hands-off approach or shown little interest in military affairs. There are also insufficient opportunities for civilians to educate themselves about military strategy and doctrine, though Hungary's first university course on the subject is anticipated for the fall.

The problem, says one Hungarian lawmaker, is that they are understaffed and must become knowledgeable in military matters on their own. And unless confronted with direct, insightful questions, officers are generally reluctant to volunteer anything more than the bare minimum.

"We fight everyday, redrawing the spheres of influence between parliament and the MOD, between civilians and the military," says Tamas Wachsler, co-chairman of Hungary's parliamentary defense committee. "The military doesn't refuse to cooperate, but there are other ways to sabotage decisionmaking."

Still, it's parliament calling the shots. And despite a fresh round of MOD purges after an expected government turnover in next year's elections, observers expect democratization of the military to continue.

"If the issue is civilian control of the military, then it's a nonissue," says Col. Arpad Szurgyi, military attach for the US Embassy in Budapest. "When you put the package together, you have to conclude that civilian control is extremely entrenched and effective."

Perhaps a greater concern to the 16-member NATO alliance may be the dubious support - both financial and public - demonstrated for membership by each of the three candidates, says Jeffrey Simon, an influential NATO expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

Both Poland and the Czech Republic have finally promised to lift their military funding levels to the Western norm of 3 percent of GDP. But Hungary, whose funding hovers somewhere between 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent, has not yet shown the political will to pull its weight. And citizens in both Hungary and the Czech Republic, in recent surveys conducted by the US Information Agency, overwhelmingly say they oppose shifting funds from social programs to the military.

"The public must be educated that there are certain obligations that go along with NATO membership," Mr. Simon says. "The alliance wants members who will be producers, not only consumers, of security."

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