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US: 'No Free Lunch' for NATO's New Members

Today's Senate hearings pressure Czechs, Hungarians to boost military budgets.

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1997



WASHINGTON

It promises to be the most far-reaching realignment of the European political firmament since the collapse of communism.

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Yet, even as the Senate begins considering the admission of former Soviet bloc states to NATO, concerns persist that two of the first invitees aren't doing enough to prepare to join the alliance.

United States officials have been telling Hungary and the Czech Republic they must boost both their military budgets and public support for NATO participation, especially the obligation to defend other members. Hungary has also been exhorted to strengthen parliamentary oversight of its military, including keeping better track of how it spends money.

How far the two states succeed in meeting the requirements goes directly to a key question posed by NATO's eastward expansion: Will the new members contribute to Europe's defense or will they be charity cases unable to modernize their Soviet-era armies without the help of US taxpayers?

The question will be among those most closely examined by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a series of hearings that will culminate in a vote on NATO expansion. The hearings open today with a defense of the initiative by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, the panel's powerful chairman, says he wants to support the plan - but not before key questions, including costs to the US, are fully answered.

"I have expressed some serious concerns about the way the administration has approached NATO enlargement thus far," he said in a recent letter to Ms. Albright.

"The Senate will want to see serious efforts by these countries to join the NATO military family," says Stanley Sloan, a defense analyst with the Congressional Research Service. "The Senate clearly will not want the US to be faced with rescuing any of these countries."

Senior Hungarian and Czech officials visited Washington last week to reassure the US that they can meet their obligations. Says Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs: "We do not seek refuge in NATO."

But some US officials are apprehensive. They say that unless Hungary and the Czech Republic address their shortcomings, the Senate could attach conditions to their admission. "It's important as we get into the ratification issue to focus on the Czech and Hungarian cases and think about ways we can keep some leverage on them," says a Pentagon official.

The two nations and Poland were invited in July to become the first in Eastern Europe to discuss joining NATO. Their admissions must be approved by all 16 NATO legislatures. None is expected to act before the US Senate, where a vote is not due before February. Ratification requires support of two-thirds of the chamber.

Weak Europe could pass bill to US

NATO expansion is a centerpiece of President Clinton's foreign policy agenda. It aims to create a post-cold-war security framework that will safeguard democracy and avert a resumption of the European feuds that sparked two world wars.