Washington, 24 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- When U.S. President Bill Clinton announced this week that he wants the first new NATO members from Central and Eastern Europe admitted by 1999, political observers said it was no surprise he chose to break the news in the state of Michigan.
The midwestern state is in the middle of a band of ten heavily populated states -- stretching from Massachusetts in the east to Minnesota in the midwest -- where millions of Americans with roots in Central and Eastern Europe live. And for many of them, NATO expansion will be a large political concern when they go to the polls in U.S. national elections November 5.
Estimates place the total number of Americans with Eastern European roots at some 20 million, or about 9 percent of the total U.S. population. In the country's highly-competitive election process, where races are often decided by a few percentage points, that is enough to capture the attention of political strategists. But because of the way U.S. presidential elections are decided, their concentration in 10 large states makes them an even more significant political force.
That is because U.S. presidents, as well as vice presidents, are not elected based on the total national vote but rather on the total number of votes they receive from an Electoral College. The number of seats a state has in the Electoral College is equal to the number of seats it has in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. The larger the state, the more seats it has.
The presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes in a state on election day -- no matter how small the margin -- will win all of that state's votes in the Electoral College. (The two exceptions are the small states of Maine and Nebraska -- it is possible that their electoral votes could be split.) A candidate must receive a simple majority (half plus one) of the 538 electoral votes to win.
The ten large states where voters with roots in Central and Eastern Europe comprise at least 10 percent of the population have a total of 173 electoral votes. President Clinton, then the Democratic challenger, carried all of them four years ago, giving him nearly two-thirds of the electoral votes he needed to win the White House. Former Senator Bob Dole, Clinton's Republican challenger this year, would likely need to carry at least a few of these states in order to have a chance of winning.
In these states, Polish Americans are by far the largest group with roots in the East. The 1990 national census estimated that more than 10 million Americans view Poland as their single or at least principal ancestral home. And an aide to one midwestern senator told our correspondent that they are a "very important constituency" in part because they are "politically active and politically aware."
One of the main Polish-American organizations is the Polish American Congress, based in Chicago. Its Executive Director, Les Kuczynski, told our correspondent that for Polish Americans, the expansion of the NATO military alliance into Central and Eastern Europe is "issue number one." He says it is "the best way to...prevent the Cold War from coming again" and to protect against an unraveling of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.
Polish Americans, according to Kuczynski, also actively support continued U.S. financial aid for the states of Central and Eastern Europe and oppose efforts to reduce legal immigration into the United States.
While far fewer in number, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Romanian Americans and Americans with ancestors from the Baltic states are also organized and active. So are Armenian Americans. And members of groups representing each community say they are maximizing their influence by working together.
Eugene Iwanciw, Washington representative of the Ukrainian National Association, told our correspondent that several organizations came together three years ago to form the Central and East European Coalition. Today, the coalition includes 18 organizations from 12 ethnic groups.
Iwanciw says that each group brings something to the coalition. He says "Polish Americans have the numbers but some of the smaller groups are better organized and far more active."
One community that is not involved in the coalition are Russian Americans, who according to census estimates number some 3 million. While Iwanciw says that the Congress of Russian Americans worked with other ethnic groups before the collapse of communism, cooperation later became "untenable." He says that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Congress of Russian Americans would repeat "many of the lines coming out of Moscow about the threats to Russia from its neighbors, particularly from the" Baltic states.
The president of the Congress of Russian Americans, Peter Budzilovich, denies his group concerns itself with such issues and says it often disagrees with the Russian government. As an example, he says it condemned Russian President Boris Yeltsin's firing last week of the secretary of the National Security Council, Aleksandr Lebed.
But Budzilovich agrees that the collapse of the Soviet Union largely ended his group's cooperation with the other ethnic lobbies, saying common ground had "pretty much disappeared."
Budzilovich told our correspondent that although the Russian American community is large, it is difficult to organize, noting that his group has only some 10,000 members. He says most Russian immigration came in the last century, and that Russian Americans have been assimilated.
"The only thing they've retained is Russian borscht," he says.
Other observers note that there has been a significant influx from Russian lands in recent decades. But they say that most were Russian Jews who are more likely to involve themselves with America's Jewish community than with Russian-American groups.
After Poles and Russians, the third largest group with eastern roots are Slovak Americans, estimated at over 2 million. John Karch, a Washington-based official with the Slovak World Congress, told RFE/RL that until the split with Czech lands in 1993, Slovak Americans were active in supporting independence for Slovakia. Karch says that since 1993, many Slovak Americans have become less political. For those who remain active, he says the focus is now on security for Slovakia.
Karch says his organization wants Slovakia included in the first tier of countries gaining NATO membership, saying it would help guarantee independence.
Smaller in number but widely acknowledged as a political force, the Armenian-American community is centered both in the Midwest and East but also in southern California.
There are two Armenian-American groups with offices in Washington. The Armenian Assembly of America focuses broadly on support for Armenia, while the Armenian National Committee also concerns itself with developments inside Armenia and is critical of the government of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan.
One Armenian American told our correspondent that the difference in focus "has poisoned the atmosphere" between the two groups. But others add that the two often feuding groups nonetheless work in "parallel" on many political efforts concerning their homeland's security.