Washington, 22 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - As U.S. legislators debate the costs of NATO expansion, their attention is turning to the level of military and political development in the three Central European countries that have been invited to join the alliance.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee today (Wednesday) is inquiring into the qualifications of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic for NATO membership and can expect to get a good report that might make the process of enlargement less expensive to the U.S. than previously anticipated.
That was the message delivered by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen at another hearing on NATO expansion Tuesday.
Albright told members of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee who will have to approve America's share of the enlargement costs, that they need not worry about the new allies not being able to carry their weight in NATO.
"If you go to Budapest, Prague and Warsaw...you will see some of the most vibrant economies in Europe," she said.
Albright said Poland has the most advanced armed forces in the region, funds a military assistance program for neighboring Ukraine and Lithuania, and is budgeting generously for further modernization of its own forces. The Czechs and the Hungarians too, she said, are committed to increasing their military spending for several years.
Refuting criticism that the Central Europeans should not be asked to increase military spending while they are still undergoing difficult economic changes, Albright said solid public majorities and every major political party in the three nations supports membership in NATO.
She added "they are telling us they see no contradiction between security and prosperity and we should not substitute our judgment for theirs."
Earlier, visiting Czech senator Michael Zantovsky, told a Washington conference public support for NATO membership in his country is not as strong as in neighboring Hungary and Poland but is increasing.
"The latest polls show approval of NATO membership stands at two to one and is increasing, along with a growing willingness to send troops abroad," he said.
Zantovsky said "there is no real opposition," explaining that "Czech society is traditionally skeptical of anything associated with armies and the military," and that "we do not have the same heroic tradition of organized military activity as our Polish friends."
In Poland, polls show an overwhelming majority of 90 percent of the public in favor of NATO membership.
Zantovsky said Czechs also lag behind their neighbors in military spending but are working hard to remedy that. He said that because of economic problems, the 1998 Czech national budget calls for cuts in every area of government spending, except on defense. "Defense expenditures will double to two percent of the Gross National Product (GDP) by the year 2000," he said, adding that "come April 1999, we will be ready."
That is when the U.S. hopes ratification by the 16 legislatures of NATO member states will be completed and the three new members formally accepted into the alliance -- on NATO's 50th anniversary.
Zantovsky said he has discussed the U.S. Senate hearings on NATO with Albright and other top State Department officials and they agreed that "things are generally looking good for the ratification process."
At Tuesday's hearing, Defense Secretary Cohen assured the panel that the U.S. share of NATO expansion costs is likely to be lower than the government estimate of $2 billion a year through the year 2009.
He said "the initial U.S. cost assessed four, not three new members. Cohen did not elaborate. But U.S. officials last year mentioned Slovenia as a country that fulfills most of the criteria for a NATO candidate.
In addition, Cohen said "NATO cost estimates will be lower because some things are better in the invited nations than people thought."
He said teams of U.S. and NATO military experts dispatched to assess the military capabilities of the three nations are finding some pleasant surprises -- that Hungary is already capable of handling NATO aircraft, that the Czechs have spent their own money to upgrade communications equipment in line with NATO requirements, and that the Poles already have well developed rail facilities capable of transporting NATO armored divisions.
Cohen said that according to U.S. estimates, the new member countries will have to spend between $10 and $13 billion on military modernization to achieve rapid deployment and greater mobility. "Those are costs they will have to absorb in any event...separate and totally apart...from NATO enlargement," he said.
Separately, all current NATO members will be sharing in the cost of NATO's own modernization and restructuring projected at $8 to $10 billion. The U.S. is to pay about a quarter of those expenses.
The additional direct expense of expansion, estimated at $9 to $12 billion is to be shared among the new members, the Europeans and the United States. This is the figure Cohen said will be lower than had been expected.
He rejected criticism in Europe as well as America that this estimate was deliberately inflated to give the American military industrial complex a chance to sell more military equipment to the Central Europeans.
"We are not interested in trying to sell a lot of high-tech equipment to these three new nations," Cohen said, adding "that is not in their interest" and that is why NATO experts are now in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to see what they really do need to make them effective members of NATO.
He said what the three need most now is to begin language training so their personnel can communicate better in English or French. Furthermore, Cohen said they have to modernize command and control and communication systems, improve military infrastructure and develop interoperable forces capable of contributing to the defense of other NATO members, as well as their own.
Only after all this, "finally you get to the purchase of modern equipment -- way down the line in terms of priority," Cohen said.
He told the Senate Committee that the recommendations of the NATO experts will be completed next month and presented for consideration to the regular scheduled meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels in mid-December.