Washington, 19 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - A key U.S. senator has given conditional support to NATO expansion, boosting hopes of the U.S. government that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will be able to join the alliance on schedule in 1999.
State Department spokesman James Rubin Thursday welcomed the development, saying the Department is pleased that Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) thinks NATO enlargement is a worthwhile endeavor.
Helms, regarded by many as a catankerous conservative southerner, is chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful position he often uses to criticize and obstruct president Bill Clinton's policies.
But he has sent a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, released Thursday, saying he wants to be helpful in achieving Senate ratification of NATO enlargement.
"We must work together to make sure that NATO enlargement is done the right way," Helms wrote.
Getting approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for ratification is the first major step in the U.S. legislative process. Following its recommendation, the full Senate must approve the accession protocols to the NATO treaty by a two thirds majority or 67 votes.
U.S. officials have said they hope the U.S. Senate will vote on expansion early next year to set a positive precedent and leave sufficient time for ratification by the legislatures of the 15 other NATO member countries. But no one in the U.S. expects this to sail easily through parliamentary procedure.
In his letter, Helms gave notice of serious concerns he intends to raise in a series of hearings on NATO expansion beginning on Oct. 7.
He said he wants to see a clear military rationale for NATO enlargement that identifies the threats the Alliance may face and justifies its enlargement.
Helms also wants assurances that Amerian taxpayers will not shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs of expansion and that other NATO members will pay their share.
Moreover, he said the U.S. must establish clear limits on Russia's role in NATO decision-making and define some subjects that will be, as he put it "off-limits to Moscow," such as arms control, strategic doctrine and continued NATO expansion.
Helms said he will examine these three themes in separate hearings in October and make his support for enlargement conditional on formulating proper safeguards of U.S. interests.
Asked about Helms' concerns, Rubin reiterated the U.S. position that Russia will have a voice, not a veto over NATO affairs. He said current cooperation between NATO and Russia on peacekeeping in Bosnia works well and may serve as a model for the way the NATO-Russia Council will operate. Certain military facts and security issues are not shared with Russia in Bosnia, Rubin said.
NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said Thursday that he is "very happy" with the relationship with Russia.
"We have not had any serious problem. We are having constructive discussions," he said, adding that he hopes a session of the Permanent Joint NATO-Russia Council in New York next week will be a great success.
Solana made the comments at a Washington press conference before talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about an agenda for the meeting. It is set for September 26, when foreign ministers of the 17 Council member-states will be in New York for the opening debate of the United Nations General Assembly.
Solana said NATO allies and Russia will review the situation in Bosnia, discuss a global concept of peaceekeeping and define a working program for the next three months. He said it will be a busy period with more than ten meetings planned at different levels between Russia and NATO.
Turning to Central Europe, Solana said he is pleased with the way expansion talks are going with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.
"The accession talks are moving smoothly in a very positive manner," he said.
Solana said the parties are now discussing political issues and that a second round will follow on military and strategic questions. The third and last round of talks will focus on security matters and resources, Solana said, adding that the talks are expected to conclude in November and be finalized at a December NATO summit when formal invitations to join NATO are to be issued to the three countries.