Washington, June 21 (RFE/RL) - A senior U.S. official says NATO will take significant steps to expand the western alliance at its December summit in Brussels.
The statement was made Thursday by Rudolf Perina, Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, at a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing inquiring into U.S. policy on NATO enlargement.
Congressman Bejamin Gilman (R-New York), chairman of the International Relations Committee, said he convened the hearing in another effort to spur the administration of president Bill Clinton to quicker action on NATO expansion.
Gilman has sponsored legislation urging the U.S. to name Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as the first new countries to be allowed to join NATO and to receive funds to help with the transition to full membership.
Perina said the executive branch has no major objections to the bill but will not disturb NATO's agreed timetable for enlargement. He said the designation of new members will be made at the December summit and membership talks will proceed with the governments in 1997.
Perina said NATO does not want to name countries now while NATO is engaged in a process of intensified consultations with 15 countries participating in the Partnership for Peace program.
He named them as Albania, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, the three Baltic states and Finland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, as well as Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and the former Yugoslav republics of Macedonia and Slovenia.
Perina said only some of these countries will be invited to join NATO and that Finland and Ukraine have said they are not interested in membership at this time. But, according to Perina, completion of this consultative phase of NATO enlargement is "a critical element in NATO's deliberations on the 'who' and 'when' of expansion."
Gilman and several other congressmen said NATO goals would be better served by starting the expansion process now. They said this would not divide Europe but stabilize the region and that one of the benefits would be to stimulate and accelerate democratization of the region.
Congressman Doug Bereuter, Republican Representative from Nebraska, said that for example, not including Slovakia in the first ranks of the new members should be, in his words "a wake-up call" to the Slovak government.
He said Bratislava should understand that parliamentarians in all 16 NATO countries are concerned about the deterioration of democracy and democratic institutions in Slovakia.
Congressman Thomas Lantos (D-California) said Russian fears are unjustified because NATO has always been a purely defensive alliance.
One of the witnesses giving testimony was Peter Rodman, a former staff member of the White House National Security Council and currently at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom - a Washington-based private foreign policy research group.
Rodman said western hesitation on NATO enlargement could lead to what he called "the Finlandization of Central Europe" and that NATO expansion thus becomes "a matter of crisis prevention."
He said if a new dividing line does appear in Europe, "it will be hundreds of kilometers east of where it used to be at a time when Russia is broke and has pressing security problems elsewhere in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Rodman added that "Russia should fear this result more than we,"and urged the West to have more courage and proceed with NATO expansion.
Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana), the ranking minority member on the House International Relations Committee, said he favors a quicker pace, but he said hard questions need to be asked about the extent of the U.S. commitment in an expanded alliance.
He said preliminary studies show it would cost the United States as much as 1,000 million dollars annually over the next ten years to fund the requirements of taking in new NATO members. That money will have to be appropriated by the U.S. Congress. Also, the U.S. Senate will have to ratify NATO membership for each new country, as will the legislatures of the 15 Western NATO states, Hamilton said.
He also asked about the deployment of troops and nuclear weapons and the extent of the U.S. security commitment in guarantees extended to new members. Hamilton said few U.S. legislators would sanction, for example, sending American boys to fight and die to protect the border of Slovakia.
Perina noted that there are no plans now or in the forseeable future to deploy nuclear weapons or station troops eastward, although NATO would reserve the right to do so when it expands.