NATO's war repels new member

Sun Journal

Loner: Having worked so hard to join NATO, the Czech Republic finds itself all but alone in opposing the alliance's war on Yugoslavia. Prague is flunking its first loyalty test, say NATO sources.

May 04, 1999|By James Drake | James Drake,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- When the Czech Republic's President Vaclav Havel flew into the Canadian capital, Ottawa, last week for a three-day visit, he had some explaining to do.

Fresh from NATO's Washington summit, Havel thanked Canada in an address to both houses of parliament for its support of his country's application to join the military alliance.

Yet of the three new Central European members that formally joined NATO on March 12 -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- the Czechs find themselves at odds with the alliance over Yugoslavia.

Within two weeks of joining NATO, those countries were yoked to 16 other members in launching the first attack on a sovereign state in the alliance's 50-year history. And most Czechs -- their government included -- wanted nothing to do with it.

True, Havel, the former anti-Communist dissident who enjoys his people's affection and respect, has over the past five weeks continuously hectored them about their duty to oppose tyranny.

But the night the bombing began, his minority left-of-center Social Democratic government disassociated itself with almost indecent haste from the decision, claiming that it had been made before Prague joined the alliance.

"This was supposed to prevent fighting, not bring us into war," says Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who likens the current Yugoslav conflict to "cave men throwing rocks."

Zeman is mirroring the popular mood. Polls consistently show that no more than 35 percent of Czechs endorse the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia.

"This is a minority government," explains Jonathan Stein, an analyst with the Prague branch of the East-West Institute, a think tank in Washington. "They can't stick their neck out because they could very easily find it chopped off."

NATO sources have been shocked by the hostile Czech response to the alliance's action, particularly given the reaction of their Central European colleagues.

At the Washington summit, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, according to witnesses, dropped his habitual bonhomie to give a tongue-lashing to Czech Ambassador Karel Kavanda.

Solana upbraided Kavanda for his country's alleged failure to live up to its new responsibilities and warned that Prague was being tested in a baptism of fire closely observed in other allied capitals -- as well as in Belgrade.

Hungary, the only NATO country that borders Yugoslavia, is vulnerable to reprisals because of the 300,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina.

Some of those ethnic Hungarians have been conscripted into the Yugoslav armed forces and dispatched to Kosovo. Budapest has reported that several ethnic Hungarians have been killed in Kosovo since the airstrikes began March 24.

Yet, according to opinion polls, only 45 percent of Hungarians are opposed to the NATO airstrikes, while 60 percent of Poles back the campaign.

In a recent visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Janos Martonyi, the Hungarian foreign minister, reminded the allies that his country has been placed in the agonizing position of going to war against fellow Hungarians. Thus, he said, it would be unthinkable for Hungary to supply troops for a NATO ground offensive in Kosovo, if that should prove necessary.

Many Czechs are asking why their country joined NATO in the first place.

"Did the Czech Republic's politicians join NATO to protect itself from Yugoslavia?" asks Stein of the East-West Institute. "Of course not. It's part of a more general process of aligning themselves with the West, of joining all the Western structures that will have them. The trouble is, that's a fine point that's lost on most people here."

The disillusionment of Czech citizens with NATO reflects a recurring theme in Central Europe, not just in Prague: a gap between their ruling elites and the citizenry.

On the continent's two more significant debates, NATO's eastward expansion and the European Union's single currency, the Central European leaders have been positive, even though many of their citizens are dubious of the benefits.

But in part, at least, the Czech mood is also a bitter residue of history. This tiny nation, with a population of about 10 million, has had unhappy experiences with alliances. In 1938, a treaty with France was no protection against Nazi tanks that annexed the country's outlying edges and finished the job six months later. In 1968, it was tanks from the "fraternal" Warsaw Pact that rolled into Czechoslovakia -- on orders from Moscow to put down the "Prague spring" uprising.

Military forces here generally have been an object of derision rather than respect. In Poland there is a long warrior tradition. Czech soldiers, by contrast, have not fought in defense of their country's borders for four centuries. The 200,000-strong army of 1990 is about 60,000 men today.

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