THE US-sponsored Partnership for Peace is prompting Central European nations to reevaluate regional cooperation efforts.
Four nations - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary - make up a loose political and economic cooperation pact, known as the Visegrad Treaty. What brought the so-called Visegrad nations together three years ago was the common desire to break out of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. But now the countries see their security depending on membership in NATO, and each has its own view on how to achieve this goal.
Poland is the most vocal, urging intensified cooperation among the Visegrad nations and stressing the need to build a regional free-trade group. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, prefers to go it alone.
``We understand how important it is to have good cooperation with neighbors,'' Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec told the Monitor. ``But we should accept that somebody could have another opinion about the mechanism of the process of [NATO] integration.''
NATO is offering the Partnership for Peace, which offers former Warsaw Pact nations, including Russia, closer cooperation with the West without extending security guarantees to participants. Polish officials are disappointed by the Partnership, saying it does not contain a specific timetable for NATO membership. ``Poland thinks it would be tragic for itself and for Europe if this region [Central Europe] became a gray area,'' Polish Foreign Minister Andrezj Olechowski told journalists.
But as far as the Czech Republic is concerned, the Partnership is sufficient. ``We believe the organization of any pressure group to knock on the doors in Brussels [headquarters of NATO] is counterproductive,'' Czech Foreign Minister Zieleniec said.
Slovak and Hungarian officials seem somewhat less satisfied with the program than their Czech counterparts, but are more or less content with the Partnership.
What the Visegrad states are most worried about is new attempts by Russia to dominate the region, especially following the rise of ultranationalists in Moscow. ``If trouble starts in Russia, no one can predict where it would end,'' one Visegrad diplomat said.
Given its history as part of the Czarist and then Soviet empires, Poland is understandably more nervous about this than its peers. Except for the cold war era, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary were never part of the Russian sphere, and instead were linked to the rest of Europe by their Hapsburg rulers. In addition, the Czech Republic is the only Visegrad state not currently sharing a border with Russia.
Like the former Yugoslavia, the Visegrad region is a patchwork of ethnic groups. And Polish officials say close cooperation is the best way to prevent Yugoslav-like problems from developing.
``We live in an area with little tradition of cooperation and friendliness,'' Polish Foreign Minister Olechowski said. ``Any way to strengthen friendliness and cooperation is useful.''
Don't bring me down
The Czech Republic's resistance to closer Visegrad cooperation is driven by Communist-era experiences, economists say. Before World War II, Czechoslovakia was among the most industrialized countries of Europe. But Communist attempts to manage economic development - relying on the Moscow-based Comecon trade alliance - drained Czech economic potential. Since the collapse of communism in 1989, the Czech Republic has made rapid progress in reconstruction efforts. Czech leaders are afraid of jeopardizing the gains made over the last four years.
``We [Czechs] have had a bad experience with leveling,'' said Ladislav Bartonicek, an analyst with the Prague-based BIG economic consulting firm. ``It turned out that all countries were brought down to a certain level [by Comecon], and there might be some worries that Visegrad could do the same, maybe not so much economically as politically.''
Indeed, the political situation in the other Visegrad states is more unsettled than in the Czech Republic. Poland, for instance, recently experienced a voter backlash against shock-therapy reforms, as former Communists made gains in parliamentary elections.
But the most unsettling political development in the region is the increasing tension between Hungary and Slovakia over the Slovak treatment of its sizeable Hungarian minority. The ethnic Hungarians - who number 600,000, or about 11.5 percent of Slovakia's population - are agitating for greater cultural autonomy.
In early January, about 3,000 ethnic Hungarian leaders gathered to advocate equal status with the Slovak majority. Slovak nationalists in the capital Bratislava fear that the Hungarian activity could be the start of a secessionist campaign and are resisting the ethnic Hungarian demands.
Bratislava has called on Hungary's leaders to give written assurances that it recognizes the existing border between the two states. Hungary refuses. To do so would be ``hypocritical,'' Hungarian Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky told journalists in Prague.
``As long as these people have legitimate claims that aren't being listened to, it wouldn't be proper to sign a treaty,'' Mr. Jeszenszky said.
Confronted by the revival of Russian nationalism, as well as of old ethnic animosities, some political and economic observers in Prague admit that closer cooperation might be the best way to prevent problems from becoming aggravated. But the experts added that some views may have already hardened to the extent that they can't be easily forgotten.
``The argument that the Visegrad states would be better off if they remained more unified is a valid one,'' said one Czech economist, speaking on condition of anonymity. ``But as history has unfortunately shown, people in this kind of situation often come to this realization only after it is too late.''