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Kosovo War Doubts Linger in Newest NATO Member States

March 11, 2000|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Car mechanic Csaba Csepke says it's good that Hungary joined NATO last March because it will promote his country's development as part of the West. But he thinks that the alliance's 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last spring was a mistake.

"If you say that NATO had the right to interfere in Yugoslavia, then the next step would be China, because the same things happen in China," Csepke said. "In China a lot of nasty things are going on against human rights. But perhaps there are too many Chinese people to interfere."

Csepke's skepticism about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's conflict with Yugoslavia is shared among at least a substantial minority of the people in the three states that joined the alliance March 12, 1999. The new members quickly found themselves caught up in an unwanted war in their own neighborhood when NATO began its air campaign 12 days later.

The war "complicated the acceptance of NATO in Czech society, since society was deeply divided over the conflict," said Vaclav Zak, editor of the Czech political journal Listy.

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, speaking Friday at a news conference marking the anniversary of NATO expansion, said that, in all three new member states, "the operation in Kosovo was not greeted with joy" but was seen as "a necessity in defense of human rights."

"All those three countries, and especially Poland, remember what it means to be bombed," Geremek added. "Debate was going on in all those countries. [But] NATO during this whole operation could count on the understanding of its aims and full loyal participation of all three partners."

Positive views about NATO membership are strongest in Poland and weakest in the Czech Republic, according to a survey last month by the Institute for Public Opinion Research, an agency of the Czech government's statistical bureau.

Among Poles surveyed, 60% said joining NATO "assures peace and security" for their country; 56% in Hungary agreed with that view, and in the Czech Republic, 44% agreed. Among Czechs, 40% of respondents said NATO membership "increases the danger of involvement in a conflict," a view shared by 29% of Hungarians and 25% of Poles.

Maria Wagrowska, editor of Polska Zbrojna, a weekly journal of Polish military affairs, said that, if the question is simply support for NATO membership, polls have repeatedly shown that backing for the alliance is extremely high in Poland.

Polish pro-NATO sentiment dropped when the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia began, but "after it was clear that it was in the name of human rights, the support was immediately higher," Wagrowska said. "We were very proud to have such big support compared to the Czech Republic or to Hungary."

Zak, the Czech editor, said he believes that the varying views about NATO reflect different levels of fear toward Russia.

"It's quite clear the Polish see NATO as security before the next Russian attack," Zak said. "I think this, to a lesser degree, is the worry of Hungary. And I think in our country nobody thinks there is an immediate danger."

Czech President Vaclav Havel, speaking with a small group of reporters last month, said the importance of NATO for his country lies in the very long run.

"Today, tomorrow, maybe five or 10 years from now, it perhaps may not be so important whether or not we are members of NATO," Havel said. "But it certainly matters from the long-term point of view, because this country now is firmly anchored by the international security structure."

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