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NATO: Central Europeans Start Accession Talks

By Bill Echikson

Brussels, 10 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Negotiations open today at NATO headquarters to finalize the terms on which Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic will enter the defense alliance.

NATO Assistant Secretary General for Foreign Affairs Klaus-Peter Klaiber will meet today with Hungarian State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Istvan Smoogyi. A meeting with Polish negotiators is scheduled for next week and the Czech Republic follows two weeks from now. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea says there is "no political significance" in the order.

NATO officials here see few hitches ahead. Three to five meetings are scheduled for each country and the technical details should be worked out by the end of October. Foreign ministers are scheduled to sign a formal "protocol of accession" in December in Brussels.

The decision to invite the three countries already was made at the NATO's Madrid summit in July.

"The drama came earlier this year," says Shea, "this is just the spadework."

During the meetings, NATO will insist that its new members agree to a series of political commitments to guard democratic freedoms. The number of Hungarians, Poles, and Czechs to be stationed at NATO headquarters will be ironed out. And conversely, an agreement must be reached on the number of NATO personnel to be deployed on the new members' territory.

Each applicant also will be judged for its capability of handling NATO intelligence.

"They cannot receive sensitive information until we agree on a set of certified procedures," says Shea. But here too, few obstacles loom. NATO does not seem concerned about excluding former communist officials from receiving top secret documents.

"When we all applied, Romania got the highest security rating," says one East European diplomat. "So I guess the more advanced police state you had, the better you were considered at keeping secrets."

The only real potential for squabbles will come over money. NATO will ask all of the new members to help pay for common military infrastructure. NATO experts already have visited Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to inspect their bases.

The new members, in turn, will try to pry the most money out of NATO.

"Until now, we've divided everything up 16 ways," says Shea. "We have to find a formula to divide everything up 19 ways."

The alliance's poorer members, Turkey and Greece, and even Portugal and Spain, will surely try to hang on to their share of the infrastructure budget.

"It'll be a lot like the negotiations to enter the European Union," says Toivo Klaar, the Estonian attache to NATO. "There's not much money to go around and everybody wants the most he can get."

In any case, the new members know they will have to spend hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars, to bring their forces up to NATO quality. But Klaar and others argue that they will spend less inside the alliance than outside.

"Whether you join NATO or not, in the end you must modernize your aging Soviet stuff," he says. "Inside NATO, you have less costs because you can specialize your forces and get help from the other members."

If all goes right, NATO officials say the three new members should formally be inside the alliance by 1999 after all member parliaments ratify their entry. The way then could be open for a second wave of new members to begin the same process.