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NATO: Expansion Issue Stirs Debates In East And West

Prague, 12 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - With NATO's attention firmly focused on the situation in Bosnia, the issue of the alliance's eastward expansion has recently been pushed onto the back burner. But it is likely to regain political importance in the weeks and months to come.

Two days ago, NATO began the accession talks with Hungary. Next week, the alliance will start negotiations with Poland and then with the Czech Republic. This series of talks is expected to conclude by the end of October, and the signing of membership agreements is tentatively scheduled for December.

Meanwhile, efforts are being made to garner political support for the expansion both in the candidate countries and in the West.

Hungary's government has said it would hold a referendum on NATO membership prior to making any firm commitment to the alliance. Its decision was prompted by uncertainty whether the Hungarian public really supports NATO membership. According to several earlier public opinion polls the level of support has at times dipped below 50 percent.

This contrasts with the situation in Poland, where more than 80 percent of respondents in similar polls were favorable, and the Czech Republic, which also consistently showed a majority support. Neither of the two countries has planned a referendum on the NATO issue.

The Hungarian government has set a tentative date for the referendum at November 16, although this may change, owing to maneuvering by various parliamentary groups, which want to use the occasion to settle political quarrels not related to the NATO issue. In any case, the decision will have to be taken before the end of November, owing to NATO's procedural requirements. Approval is expected.

Much more significant, and difficult, will be an effort to secure political approval in the West for expansion. To become formally valid, the expansion must be ratified by all current members of the alliance.

The main attention is centered on the United States, the most powerful country in the alliance. Washington's approval, it is argued, is certain to determine decisions by the other members.

The expansion has been criticized by various groups. Public letters signed by influential personalities opposed to the move have been sent to the U.S. Congress. On June 20, U.S. Senators -- Republicans and Democrats -- wrote to President Bill Clinton criticizing NATO moves and demanding a comprehensive debate on the expansion issue.

Yesterday, the president responded by saying in a statement prepared by the Departments of State and Defense that the expansion "would foster stability and democratic reform throughout the European continent," that it "would help against non-traditional security threats from outside Europe," and that it "increases security (of the Baltic states and other countries of the region) even though they have not yet been invited to become alliance members."

More important, the president said that the case for expanding NATO includes "the possibility that Russia could abandon democracy and return to the threatening behavior of the Soviet period, although we see such a turn as unlikely."

Clinton's response came only a few days after the New Atlantic Initiative, a non-governmental group of prominent personalities, made public a statement supporting the enlargement of NATO. The statement was signed by former vice-presidents, former secretaries of state and defense, and scores of former ranking government officials.

The ratification debate in the U. S. Senate is likely to start early next year. But the public discussion of the expansion issue has already commenced.