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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

NATO's New Members Get a Quick Initiation

Military: Only days after induction, Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic are exposed to wrath of Bosnia's Serbs.

April 01, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Polish troops are flanked by seething Serbs as they guard a key gateway in the north of Bosnia. Czech soldiers patrol the volatile Serb-held region around Banja Luka. Forces from Hungary have drawn less prickly duty with an engineering unit of the international peacekeeping mission here--small comfort for this new NATO member that suddenly finds itself on the front line of the Yugoslav conflict.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic courted membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with fervor during the first years of freedom from the rival Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union's tether.

But only days after their induction into the world's most powerful military bloc, the three Eastern European states, whose troops also serve as part of the international peacekeeping force here, find themselves exposed to the wrath of Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and vulnerable to Yugoslav retaliation for their guilt-by-association in NATO's bombardments.

The launch of the alliance's campaign against Yugoslavia--mere hours after U.S. ceremonies to welcome the three new members to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization--has undermined political and popular support for the Balkan actions in those countries. And it has raised doubts about the wisdom of putting the stability of fragile new democracies at risk for the right to share shelter behind NATO's shield.

Top officials in Warsaw, Budapest and Prague, the Polish, Hungarian and Czech capitals, have made their airspace available for the bombing runs in Yugoslavia. Poland and the Czech Republic are also contemplating sending troops for any Kosovo peace enforcement effort, similar to the one prescribed for Bosnia under the 1995 agreement brokered in Dayton, Ohio.

Underlying Czech Loyalty to Yugoslavia

But under the three nations' stated commitment to NATO airstrikes to halt Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo--a southern province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia--lurks a nervous fear that admission to the alliance has brought more threat than stability.

Although Czech President Vaclav Havel has voiced unequivocal support for NATO's actions, Prime Minister Milos Zeman warns that the bombardment has strengthened Milosevic, and that Czechs should reconsider siding with "primitive troglodytes who think everything can be solved by bombs."

A Czech television poll last week found 48% of respondents against the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia and 36% in favor.

Czechs tend to view Yugoslavia with more sympathy than other European states, because of late leader Marshal Josip Broz Tito's denunciation of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the help Belgrade offered thousands of refugees who made their way to freedom via Yugoslavia after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring reform movement.

Fears of inciting Russia to new hostilities is a common thread among those dubious of the benefits of membership in NATO.

"I am not happy at all that Hungary has joined NATO, because it jeopardizes our situation, because of the negative attitude of the Russians," said Peter Szabo, a 28-year-old cook in booming Budapest.

And, because it shares a border with Yugoslavia and hosts NATO forces at the Taszar air base south of the capital, Hungary is particularly vulnerable to potential Yugoslav retaliation. So far, however, no use has been made by NATO of the Hungarian-based forces.

A U.S. political analyst who has close contacts with NATO intelligence sources said Wednesday that one scenario being considered by alliance strategists is a NATO ground-force invasion from Hungary into Yugoslavia's north. That would force Milosevic to divide his troops and hardware to defend a second front, because the fighters loyal to the Serbian strongman are already battling armed Albanian separatists in the Kosovo Liberation Army in the southern province.

Hungary's parliament, however, would have to approve any NATO use of national territory for land forces, said Defense Ministry spokesman Lajos Erdelyi, and the fractured legislature has already expressed its opposition to alliance use of airspace.

'Scared That World War III Will Start'

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has deemed NATO actions against Milosevic completely justified, and has said Poland would be ready to contribute its share of peace enforcement troops for Kosovo should a negotiated agreement be reached.

A poll by the Penpor agency showed more popular support among Poles for the NATO actions than among the citizens of the other two new alliance members, with 59% behind the bombardments.

But former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki spoke for many who have reservations about the air campaign when he said the unprecedented alliance attack on a sovereign nation was a breach of international law, even if justified by the moral obligation to protect against atrocities.

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