Prague, 12 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A historic day has arrived, as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are set to become members of the NATO alliance.
The inclusion of these Central European countries into the Western defense pact is the culmination of a process which began a decade ago, when the Marxist era in Europe crumbled. In the years after the collapse of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact, familiarization between military men in East and West received a powerful boost by means of NATO's Partnership for Peace programs, which began in 1994.
By 1997, on the occasion of the Madrid summit, that process had reached such a point that the alliance felt able to issue formal invitations to a first wave of candidate members, namely Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
But in order to achieve the membership gained today (March 12) these three countries have had to fulfill certain conditions, both political and military. The other transition states of the region, which are hoping to be included in subsequent admissions, will have to meet the same conditions.
Let's look at these requirements, starting with the military conditions first. A spokeswoman at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Christine Gallach, told RFE/RL the basic list contains five headings -- internal security, air defense, infrastructure, force contributions and communications/information systems. Gallach explains:
"Those are the areas we needed, and they needed, to be at a minimal level so that from the first day of integration, we could work together. Our military structure has to be integrated with their military structure, so we must be able to communicate, pass information, have a common air defense, have infrastructure which we could use for landing and deployment. Those minimum requirements have been analyzed by our military experts and all agree that these three countries fulfill them."
Several of these headings, relating to air defense and communications compatibility, converge in the area of air surveillance. The new NATO partners must be able to track and identify all air movements in their airspace, and transmit that information immediately to other alliance members. For this purpose, much effort in the last few years has gone into a major upgrade of their air traffic monitoring and control facilities.
This of course raises the issue of internal security, because the information gathered must be securely and instantaneously transmitted between members. And this in turn brings into play infrastructure, meaning that the command and coordination instruments, as well as physical requirements like landing strips, must be in place to allow for quick deployment of large amounts of manpower and equipment.
Absent from NATO's basic list is a requirement for updated weaponry. Gallach explains that arms re-equipment is a priority, but a secondary one.
"NATO does not want these countries to start a process of spending lots of money on re-equipment. What is more important is that the equipment they have represents investment which is bearable for their weak economies -- let's be frank, they are in transition, their economies are weak -- so that we can work together. NATO does not propose that those countries should increase defense expenditure to a level which is insupportable for their societies. That would be counter to our desire to support peace and stability in the region".
Something that NATO does desire, however, is a re-orientation away from static defense of national borders towards flexibility and mobility of force deployment. This will enhance the ability of members to participate in NATO-led peace forces, such as the prospective deployment in the Serbian province of Kosovo.
So much for the military requirements. On the political front, there is also a short but essential list of requirements. These are that NATO members must possess a solid democratic system, have good relations with their neighbors, be under the rule of law, and have free market economies.
For Central and Eastern European countries, with their long history of border changes and minority populations, probably the most delicate heading in that list is good neighborly relations. Hungary illustrates the work that has been done in that direction. In the first half of the 1990s, Budapest concluded treaties with Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria, following that in 1995 with Slovakia, then the following year with Romania. The last piece in the puzzle, a treaty with Yugoslavia, is still missing.
NATO has gone out of its way to emphasize that enlargement is a continuing process, that it has not ceased with the admission of the first wave. NATO's Gallach:
"Our policy of opening to the Central and East European countries is a policy of non-exclusion. [At Madrid], three countries were invited, but the rest were given a very clear signal that we want to construct a Europe without divisions."
To that end, say NATO officials, today's ceremony at Independence, Missouri, will not be the last of its kind.