Vilemov, 23 October 1997 (RFE/RL ) -- The head of the defense and security committee of the North Atlantic Assembly says he is convinced that the next wave of NATO expansion will begin in 1999 despite possible opposition by Russia.
Retired German colonel Heinz Kluss told RFE/RL during a recent conference on NATO expansion at Vilemov near Prague that Russia, while it is associated with NATO and represented in the North Atlantic Assembly, could not overrule a NATO decision.
But he also insists that "by 1999... the Russians will have understood that NATO expansion is in their own basic interests."
The North Atlantic Assembly consists of 188 representatives of the parliaments of NATO member states as well as some 70 representatives of 15 central and east European states with associate status, including Russia. It meets twice a year in plenary sessions. Its purpose is to foster cooperation with NATO.
Colonel Kluss says the most important criteria for joining NATO require prospective members resolving outstanding border conflicts with neighboring states, treating ethnic minorities in one's own country humanely and maintaining democratic civilian control of the military.
Kluss says the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, as well as several other countries which he did not specify, already meet these criteria.
The North Atlantic Assembly committee chairman says he is convinced that NATO expansion is worth the cost if it really results in stability and freedom in eastern Europe.
Moreover "the East European states have to modernize their armies regardless" of whether or not they join NATO.
"The living conditions of the soldiers in comparison to the West are ghastly -- new barracks must be built, come what may," he said.
In the long term, he says, defense costs less when done together with many others rather than alone. But it will not come cheaply, he notes with some understatement, "of course a bit of investment will be required in the initial years."
Kluss says that Germany is the real winner in NATO expansion since for the first time in history Germany is surrounded by friends.
"For the first time in history, Germany has no reason to believe that it is encircled - this was the cause of many wars. For the first time in history, Germany does not wish to change anything, not even borders."
As a result, Colonel Kluss says, not just Germany, but the whole of Europe wins.
"It is really about all countries in Europe cooperating with each other and trying to resolve security problems together," Kluss says, adding, "security is the foundation of prosperity."