Prague, 23 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U. S. President Bill Clinton yesterday said that America expects NATO to accept its first new full-fledged members from among the Central European countries by 1999. It was Clinton's most clear and explicit statement to date about the Western alliance's eastward expansion plans.
Clinton was speaking at a presidential campaign meeting in the city of Detroit, home to a large Polish-American community and other sizable groups of American voters with ties to Central and Eastern Europe.
The president stopped short of naming the potential new members. But it has been widely assumed that Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are among the leading candidates.
The decision on who is going to be invited to join is to be made by a NATO summit expected to take place in mid-1997.
Clinton's statement was welcome in Central Europe. The most explicit reaction was that of Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who issued yesterday a statement expressing satisfaction with the U. S. president's declaration. This conforms with Polish expectations, Kwasniewski said, adding that he fully supports the U. S. president's determination to build lasting European integration.
Poland's Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz told reporters yesterday that his country had always sought precise and detailed statements on the NATO enlargement process. He said that Clinton's declaration was a major and important move in that direction.
The Czech Republic also welcomed Clinton's statement, although the country's military was reported today by the Prague newspaper "Mlada fronta Dnes" to have been concerned about the cost of the necessary modernization of its equipment.
The adaptation of military equipment to NATO standards is regarded as important for joining the alliance. NATO is expected to contribute to the modernization of weaponry and logistical equipment, with the cost of expanding the alliance estimated at between $60 billion to $125 billion over a 15-year period. But each prospective member is expected to make a major effort on its own to upgrade its military prowess.
The Czech military spending has recently emerged as a controversial political issue within the ruling coalition. The government was forced to cut overall spending, owing to lower than expected revenues. The cuts have also affected expenditures on the military, which have been increased only marginally over last year's. Reuters news agency reported that the U. S. government has raised the issue with Czech officials.
There has been no official statement yet from Hungary, but top Hungarian government officials were meeting yesterday in Budapest with the visiting NATO supreme allied commander in Europe, U. S. General George Joulwan. The issue of Hungary's potential membership in the alliance was said to have been the focus of those meetings.
Full membership in NATO has long been an important political goal of most Central and Eastern European states. Entry into the alliance has been sought after by Slovakia and Slovenia, Romania and the Baltic states. They all have linked their security and political stability to the prospect of membership in the alliance and have made major efforts to convince the NATO members to accept them as soon as possible.
NATO leaders and officials have repeatedly said that the alliance is and will remain an open organization, with membership criteria centered on progress toward free market democracy, civil control over the military and the absence of border conflicts with neighbors. NATO officials also said that there will be several waves of membership expansion.
Of the East European former communist countries, Bulgaria and Ukraine have expressed no immediate wish to join NATO, while Belarus and Russia have been explicitly and openly opposed to the alliance's eastward expansion.
Reacting to Clinton's statement, Gennady Tarasov, spokesman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, said yesterday that the planned enlargement of NATO could endanger security of the Russian Federation. He also said that Moscow's oft-stated opposition to the enlargement has not weakened.
All Central and Eastern European countries, including those opposed to the enlargement, are currently active participants in the NATO Partnership for Peace Program.