NATO's weak flank: public polls

European governments try to keep support - where it exists - for the

Each evening, as the anchor on Italy's largest private TV station introduces the nightly news, he is dwarfed by a giant sign behind his back.

"43 days of war," it read yesterday.

As NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia drags on, with no clear signs of success, European public support for the war is showing signs of fraying, say pollsters and analysts, limiting governments' options as they plan future action.

And those governments are clearly worried by such a prospect. For the past week, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea has enjoyed the services of a newly beefed up public relations team in Brussels, headed by top White House spin doctor Jonathan Prince.

European attitudes toward the war have varied from country to country since the operation to defend ethnic Albanian Kosovars began March 24. At one extreme, 72 percent of Britons back the war, according to a poll last week. At the other end of the spectrum, 96 percent of Greeks oppose the attacks on their Orthodox Christian cousins.

Even within individual countries, differences have emerged: eastern Germans, for example, generally oppose the war in the same numbers that their western German counterparts support it.

Overall, however, public opinion of NATO's actions has stayed generally favorable or neutral: 59 percent of Germans, 55 percent of the French, 55 percent of Spaniards, 60 percent of Poles, 47 percent of Italians, and just over 50 percent of Hungarians, according to the latest polls.

"[Slobodan] Milosevic is making the point of why we are doing this better than anyone else could," says a senior NATO diplomat in Brussels, referring to the wrenching coverage of Kosovar refugees deported by the Yugoslav president's campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

But as the weeks of bombardment go by, nagging doubts about the NATO operation's efficacy are beginning to surface, and each new NATO mistake -such as the bombing of civilian transportation systems - ratchets up the degree of skepticism.

Clinton visit

President Clinton arrived in Germany yesterday for a two-day visit intended to show support for the German government, which is coming under increasing fire from opponents of the NATO campaign. The US leader is likely to face a dip in public support at home following the first American fatalities of the mission. Two US Army pilots were killed when their Apache helicopter crashed on a training flight in Albania.

Governments across the continent risk losing touch with their electorates, warns Everhard Holtmann, a political analyst at the University of Halle in eastern Germany.

One NATO government -that of new member the Czech Republic -has made no secret of its reluctance to take that risk. The night the bombings began, Prime Minister Milos Zeman's government disassociated itself from the attack, claiming the decision had been made before Prague joined NATO. He was only mirroring the popular mood: Polls consistently show that only one-third of Czechs back the bombing. "This is a minority government," points out Jonathan Stein, a Prague-based analyst with the East-West Institute, a US think tank. "They can't stick their neck out."

No Hungarian, German troops

In Hungary, another new NATO member, domestic considerations also limit the government's options. Some of the 300,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Serbia have been drafted into the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. Hungarian Foreign Minister Jano Martonyi has told his NATO colleagues that Budapest could not provide troops for any land offensive that risked pitting Hungarian against ethnic Hungarian.

Nor would any German troops be likely to participate in an eventual ground attack, say political observers in Berlin. Seventy-five percent of Germans oppose a NATO invasion according to Richard Hilmer, manager of Infratest, a polling company. "This opposition crosses all party lines. It is very strong," he says.

Under the Constitution, the German parliament must approve the dispatch of any troops abroad. While deputies are expected Friday to back deployment of 1,100 soldiers in Macedonia and Albania for civil engineering and medical duties, sending combat troops is unthinkable, parliamentary sources say.

Indeed, airstrikes without definite results "can only go on for a few more weeks before public opinion swings the other way," predicts Professor Holtmann. German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder also has to bear in mind his coalition government partners, the Greens, whose grass-roots members are fiercely critical of the NATO campaign.

The German Greens are to hold a convention May 13, which could take the party out of the government and leave Mr. Schrder without a parliamentary majority. But party leader Joschka Fischer, who as foreign minister has supported war, is likely to be able to use his popularity to keep the rank and file under control.

Tough sell in Italy

A fragile coalition is also uppermost in the mind of Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, whose center-left government ranges from former Christian Democrats to Communists, who don't even want Italy to be a member of NATO, let alone participate in the war against Yugoslavia. For the time being, though, says leading Italian commentator Sergio Romano, the Democrats and the Communists are sticking with Mr. D'Alema so as not to precipitate a crisis in the run-up to presidential elections, which the conservative former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might exploit.

In France and Germany, where public doubts about the war are growing, the governments are rallying support for continued bombing by also embracing diplomatic initiatives to end the violence. German public backing for the campaign fell to 49 percent before Schrder launched a diplomatic offensive, which brought the figures back up to 59 percent last week, according to Infratest.

In France, President Jacques Chirac insisted in a speech Monday that "we are also, of course, pursuing the search for a political solution," and reminded his listeners that he would be going to Moscow next week in a further sign of encouragement for Rus-sian efforts to mediate an end to the fighting. Mr. Chirac made his comments in his weekly televised address - a six-week-old ritual that underlines the government's anxiety about public opinion.

Spin in high gear

And in Brussels, where Mr. Prince is working alongside British premier Tony Blair's top spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, the battle to maintain public support has gone into high gear.

"They are giving us their 'story of the day' and making sure we stick to it," says Martin Walker, who covers NATO for The Guardian, a British paper. "They are very, very good at staying on message, and the sense of news management is better now."

*Richard Wentworth in Rome, James Drake in Prague, and Lucian Kim in Berlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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