- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

LONDON NATO's dream of an ever-widening alliance of democratic states is crumbling just a year after the organization welcomed its first three Eastern European members, say Western officials.

Practical and political problems have overwhelmed the process. NATO's new armies in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are underfunded, badly equipped and often unready for action, blunting the appetite for more members.

As the three countries took their places under NATO's security umbrella at a ceremony in Independence, Mo., in March last year, NATO promised that its doors remained open to the rest of Eastern Europe.

But the experience of enlarging the body has been so painful and divisive that, for the Baltic states and the countries of the Balkans, a new Iron Curtain is hovering. There is a vague deadline of the end of 2002 for the next wave, but it is slipping. The main problem, diplomats in London, Brussels and Washington all admit, is the United States.

"The experience of the previous enlargement was much, much harder than anyone expected," said a senior source. "Clinton and [Secretary of State Madeleine K.] Albright had to battle to get the U.S. Senate to agree to the first expansion. Right now there seems to be no appetite to press for a further one."

NATO enlargement needs a two-thirds majority in the Senate, something that will be hard to achieve no matter who wins this year's presidential election.

Romanian Foreign Minister Petre Roman recently acknowledged that his country is in limbo: "Romania is as eager to be a part of NATO as it ever was. We proved that during the Kosovo conflict. But today in America the dynamics of having a second wave are quite flat."

Russia is the second problem. "NATO is trying to rebuild its relations with Russia, which were badly strained over Kosovo. With a new president, Vladimir Putin, to deal with, no one is in any hurry to antagonize Russia again by raising the enlargement issue," said a Western official.

The third problem is the new applicants themselves. Not only are there obvious military weaknesses, but it is not even clear that they really want to belong.

Slovakia would be near the front of the line but, since the Kosovo conflict, public support for NATO membership there is just 49 percent, with 35 percent against.

"We are being asked to spend about $800,000 on public relations to increase support for NATO," said a Slovak source.

This reflects deep unease among the original NATO countries over the ambivalent attitude toward NATO of the three newest members. They were among NATO's most reluctant supporters in the Kosovo conflict, and since then support for NATO has plunged in them.

NATO's new members have also to prove they can contribute militarily. The armed forces of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary are not good enough to compare with those of established NATO nations, and there is little sign of improvement.

So-called "interoperability" is a crucial part of NATO doctrine, meaning that troops from any NATO member must be able to work alongside other alliance armies and replace them if necessary.

But the doctrine cannot yet be applied to the new members. Their equipment, training standards and doctrine all fall short of NATO standards.

Their main problem is financial. Modern armed forces are expensive, and with all three economies yet to recover from decades of communism, defense budgets are under pressure.

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