Prague, 25 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's punitive action against Belgrade over its continuing crackdown in Kosovo is putting the commitment of the alliance's three new Central European members to a severe first test.
Hungary, which joined NATO along with Poland and the Czech Republic earlier this month, is the northern neighbor of Yugoslavia -- whose forces will be heavily targeted by NATO air strikes.
At the same time, Poland borders Belarus, putting it close to Serbia's traditional ally Russia, which has strongly criticized any NATO action against Belgrade. Poland also borders Russia's Kaliningrad enclave.
Both Budapest and Warsaw already have felt pressure from their neighbors over their membership in the alliance as tensions between NATO and Belgrade have risen sharply in the last days to the point of imminent air strikes.
Yugoslavia warned Hungary and four other neighboring states last night to stay out of any punitive action directed against Belgrade in connection with the Kosovo conflict. Correspondents report that Yugoslavia's foreign ministry summoned ambassadors from Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia and Romania to hand over a note warning, to quote, of "possible political and military consequences of NATO aggression against Belgrade."
U.S. State Department Spokesman James Rubin said yesterday that NATO would respond sharply to any retaliatory acts by Belgrade aimed at NATO members or neighboring states.
"Let me simply say with respect to neighboring countries [that] Milosevic is well aware that if he attempts to broaden or escalate further the conflict, he will face extremely serious consequences."
A senior NATO official said earlier yesterday that Secretary General Javier Solana had written letters that NATO will assure the safety of Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Slovenia. Slovenia does not share a frontier with Yugoslavia but is within range of Serb weapons. All the countries which received the NATO assurances are members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
The heightened military tensions in the region have been paralleled by rising diplomatic tensions between NATO and Moscow, which has said any NATO air strikes would destabilize the Balkans. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on Russian television that Moscow could reconsider its cooperation pact with NATO over the crisis.
None of NATO's three newest members are being called upon by the alliance to take part in any attack against Belgrade, but all have volunteered various degrees of military and civilian support to their NATO partners.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi has said that in the event of air strikes, NATO aircraft would be allowed to use his country's airspace. The Hungarian parliament is due to make a final decision on whether to also give NATO airplanes permission to land in Hungary. Budapest currently provides use of its Taszar airfield as a supply base for the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia.
A spokesman for Hungary's Border Guard said yesterday that it is ready to reinforce the country's frontier with Serbia. Attila Krisan told Hungary's MTI news agency that some 1,000 border guards could be relocated from elsewhere to reinforce the 170 kilometer border line between the two countries and would help defend Hungary along with the armed forces if Yugoslav forces retaliate over NATO air strikes.
Polish leaders have repeatedly stressed Warsaw's backing for NATO action. Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek said yesterday that "diplomatic means have been exhausted" and that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic bears responsibility for the crisis. The head of the National Security Bureau, Marek Siwiec, told Warsaw-based Polonia TV that his government sees the current crisis as a test of Poland's credibility as a NATO member.
Czech President Vaclav Havel said yesterday that Milosevic bears responsibility for any air strikes and urged him to "prevent further escalation, in which he has no chance to win." The Czech Chamber of Deputies approved sending a Czech Army field hospital to Macedonia as support for any future NATO peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.
Meanwhile, a number of other eastern European states which hope to one day join NATO have also expressed support for NATO punitive strikes. Bulgaria has opened its airspace to NATO warplanes. However, officials in Sofia stress NATO has not yet requested permission for over flights. Romanian President Emil Constantinescu has said that a NATO strike against Yugoslavia is legitimate if Belgrade refuses a peace settlement over Kosovo.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also have said they back NATO. The Lithuanian foreign ministry said in a statement that it regards the NATO decision to strike Yugoslavia as a means of preventing the spread of military conflict in the Balkans.