Prague, 3 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The foreign ministers from the 16 NATO countries in December signed the formal "protocols of accession" accepting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as members. If the alliance's eastward expansion is ratified by all 16 member countries, the three Central European nations are scheduled to be accepted as full members in a ceremony on April 4, 1999, marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the alliance.
Almost from the moment that Communism collapsed in 1989, membership in NATO became one of the top goals of the three countries -- and also of many other former Communist countries that were not fortunate enough to be included in the first round.
In Poland, public opinion polls show that some 80 to 90 percent of the population supports NATO membership. In the Czech Republic, support is weaker, but the government is blamed for not having done enough to build support for the idea.
Just last month (Nov. 16), Hungarians overwhelmingly endorsed NATO membership with an 85-percent "yes" vote in a referendum. But many see the referendum's results as having even greater significance. As Matyas Eorsi, State Secretary in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, put it:
"It was a very strong message that the last 50 years were a historic tragically wrong way that was forced on Hungary and it has never enjoyed the support of the Hungarian people."
In all three applicant countries, the top military insist that the officers who were indoctrinated in the Warsaw Pact mold and could not adapt to the change in the system are gone. Some outsiders insist that there are still many more old-guard officers who need to be removed. And many even within the countries admit that still much has to be done to transform the Warsaw Pact mentality, and not just to see NATO as a Western version of what they experienced in the Warsaw Pact.
But Lt. Col. Bela Puskas, who coordinates relations between the Hungarian military and the U.S. army at the military base in Taszar in southern Hungary, sums up the attitude of most Hungarian officers this way: "We realize that the defense of the country's values are more protected if we belong to NATO and the Western sphere of interest."
For its part, NATO insists that taking in these three countries will strengthen the alliance and contribute to stability in the heart of Europe.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said that Poland has the most advanced armed forces in the region and that the Czechs and Hungarians are committed to increasing their military spending for several years.
Most of the opposition to NATO expansion -- both within the Central European countries and in current member countries, especially the United States -- has focused on the cost of expansion. Estimates have varied wildly from $2 billion to $27 billion.
There will be costs to the Western European countries to improve their abilities to help new members in case of attack. There will also be costs to NATO itself on making the new members' forces compatible with the alliance's command, control and communications systems and the costs of improving airfields and pots. NATO's own studies show this would cost an extra $1.3 billion over ten years -- $700 million for integrating Poland, $315 million for Hungary and $265 million for the Czech Republic. Divided among 16 countries -- 19 after the accession of the three Central Europeans is ratified by NATO member states -- this figure would obviously not be a strain on defense budgets. This cost estimate was formally accepted in November by all NATO governments.
A third cost is the modernization of new members' forces. This cost will be born by the Central Europeans themselves. The Economist quotes a NATO official as comparing entering the alliance to joining a tennis club. "Once a new member has paid his entry fee," "The Economist" says, "he has to choose his own equipment. Hard-up members have to make do with old wooden racquets."
Poland's Defense Ministry has estimated the cost of a modernization program at about $1.3 billion. Spread over 15 years, annual spending would be about $84 million or 3.3 percent of the 1995 defense budget. Even factoring in contributions to NATO budget and the cost of maintaining missions to NATO headquarters and separate forces, joining NATO seems a bargain.
Military men in the three applicant countries argue that they would need to modernize their armed forces anyway. In Hungary, for example, the army's vehicle pool is on average over 20 years old, and no money has been spent on it in 10 or 15 years. Fewer than half of the Hungarian air force's fleet of aging Soviet MiG fighter planes are capable of flying at any one time, and pilots are having trouble meeting their minimum required flight hours.
As Lt. Gen. Nandor Hollosi, Deputy Chief of Hungary's Defense Staff puts it: "The modernization of the army costs a lot of money, but if we hadn't joined NATO, it would have cost a lot more."
But the emphasis on hardware is misplaced, NATO officials say. Peter Carstens, NATO's European chief of staff, on a recent visit to Prague, told the Czech government that it should initially concentrate on education and training rather than purchasing military equipment. He emphasized that well-trained and educated soldiers with knowledge of foreign languages are "a necessary precondition for full participation" in NATO.
U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen has also said that the priority for the three countries is to begin language training so their personnel can communicate better in English or French.
Former Polish ranking defense official Andrzej Karkoszka has recently told RFE/RL that the lack of fluency in Western languages, particularly English, is still a problem but the situation continues to improve.
While Poland wins high marks for its state of preparedness and Hungary has demonstrated its NATO preparations in day-to-day co-operation with the American soldiers at Taszar, in recent months the Czech Republic has faced considerable criticism from several NATO member states, particularly the United States, concerning its alleged lack of preparedness for joining NATO. The list of complaints includes tardiness in reforming personnel and inadequate controls to prevent security leaks.
Cohen told a U.S. Senate Committee in October that the Czech Republic lags behind Poland and Hungary in military capability but is determined to catch up by the year 2000. That would be one year after it is due to join the alliance.
A prime example of the problem of security leaks is the publication in the Czech news media of the text of a recent confidential cable from the country's ambassador to NATO concerning a NATO report on the state of "protective security" in the Czech Republic.
Although Czech defense ministry officials say they have resolved the issues raised in the cable, the very fact that the confidential cable was reprinted in the Czech news media only reinforces suspicions about Prague being a sieve for sensitive information.
Once the accession protocols are signed in Brussels in December, attention will turn to the ratification process, especially in the U.S. where there are powerful forces opposed to NATO's eastward expansion. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary hope there will be no glitches in their acceptance by 1999.
And Hungary, for one, is already looking forward to the role it will play within an expanded NATO. Eorsi at the foreign ministry puts it this way:
"Hungary would not only like to consume stability, which is anticipated by membership, but would like also to contribute to the stability in the region. And Hungary, being in the heart of Central Europe, with a great deal of instability in certain regions in this neighborhood, we would like to be very active in helping all our neighbor countries get prepared for NATO membership so to enjoy the same stability and prosperity as we would like to enjoy."