Washington, 2 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- With just hours to go before the start of the new financial year Tuesday, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation that provides $625 million in economic assistance for the states of the former Soviet Union and $425 million for the nations of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic.
Congress also approved a measure urging the NATO alliance to expand its membership to include its former Warsaw Pact adversaries as new members, and it set aside funds to help new members make the transition to alliance membership.
President Bill Clinton signed the legislation Tuesday. The House of Representatives passed the measure on Saturday.
The aid for the former communist countries was part of the $12.2 billion congressional appropriation for all U.S. foreign operations for fiscal year 1997, which runs from October 1 to September 30. That sum, in turn, was part of a giant, all-encompassing spending bill passed by the Congress to provide money to run the U.S. government.
Most of the government appropriations are usually approved separately. This year, however, they were lumped into one bill because the Congress and the President wanted to avoid a repeat of last year's federal budget crisis. The two sides failed to agree on many items last year and as a result, the Congress failed to approve money in time. That caused many government agencies and programs to be shut down for short periods of time until emergency funds were approved.
There were no surprises in the foreign aid bill. The Congress gave Clinton about $800 million less than he had requested back in January, but the level of funding for all U.S. foreign economic assistance programs is about the same as it was in fiscal year 1996.
In the former Soviet Union, Ukraine displaced Russia as the chief beneficiary of U.S. assistance. The legislation sets aside $225 million for Ukraine and about $160 million for Russia.
The Ukrainian aid is broken down into several areas. For example, not less than $25 million is to be used as part of the U.S. obligation to help Ukraine shut down the Chernobyl nuclear reactor complex, the site in 1986 of the world's worst civilian nuclear power plant accident.
Another $35 million is to be used for agricultural projects in Ukraine and another $5 million is to be used to help Ukraine develop small independent businesses.
For the first time, the Congress also set aside a specific amount for Armenia and Georgia. Armenia is to receive $95 million and Georgia is to receive $35 million. There are no specific amounts set aside for the other countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union.
The same is true for Europe and the Baltics. The funds are put into a pool and are usually administered as grants for specific programs such as creating an independent banking industry or training small business owners.
The Congress also approved, as expected, a resolution that urges the NATO alliance to accept former Warsaw Pact states and former Soviet republics as new, full members. However, it does not insist on a specific date for the acceptance of new members. The language is also more moderate than earlier congressional demands that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland be given full membership right away.
Instead, the legislation says those three states have made the most progress toward meeting requirements for NATO membership and that they would be designated first to be eligible for the $60 million set aside to help new members.
It also says that Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Ukraine could also be considered for new membership.
The legislation specifically notes that "Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have valid historical security concerns that must be taken into account by the United States," and that these three countries "should not be disadvantaged in seeking to join NATO by virtue of their forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union."