You are here: Home Články / Articles 1997 Discussion about NATO membership heats up

Discussion about NATO membership heats up

The upcoming summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), that is to decide which East European countries will be offered membership in the first wave, and the recent proposal by U.S. State Secretary Madeliene Albright to speed up NATO expansion, have set off a heated debate in the Czech Republic. A number of both politicians and political commentators suggest the Czech Army is not ready to join NATO. Various opinion polls show that less than 50% of the Czechs support their country's membership in NATO. And the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) suggest that membership should be decided in a referendum.

All three coalition parties are staunchly opposed to a referendum. Almost immediately after CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman announced at the end of February that his party is in favor of a referendum on NATO membership, Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec accused the CSSD of planning to drag the country into a counterproductive political battle similar to that that recently surrounded the adoption of the Czech-German Declaration by the lower chamber of the parliament. Zieleniec charged that , in proposing a referendum, the CSSD again wants to court extreme-right and extreme-left voters.

True, should the CSSD insist on a referendum, one of the most important steps in the country's modern history--that NATO membership undoubtedly represents--could fall victim to political passions far exceeding those the Czechs witnessed during the debate surrounding the Czech-German declaration. Both the far-right Republicans and the unreformed Communists are staunchly opposed to NATO membership. Any further integration into Western structures represents a major defeat for the two parties, both of which thrive on xenophobia and instability.

At the same time, Zieleniec's attack on the CSSD was partly unjust. A referendum on NATO membership is not a new CSSD strategy aimed at courting extremists; the party called for a referendum already in its electoral platform issued last Spring. Zeman could propose dropping the referendum idea from the party's platform. But his insisting on a referendum can also be seen as an honest effort to live up to the promises given to CSSD voters.

The idea of a referendum represents a nightmare for coalition politicians mainly because they have not managed to convince a majority of the population that NATO membership is necessary. While Czech politicians have been very active internationally in trying to persuade Western countries that NATO should be expanded and that the Czech Republic should be among the first countries to be admitted, they have failed to run an effective campaign at home. As a result, most Czechs do not seem to know what NATO membership is good for or why they should care at all.

The situation in the country is very different from that in Poland, where security issues are high on politicians' agenda. Opinion polls show that a majority of Poles still fear Russia and see their country's security as better protected if Poland becomes a NATO member. Most Czechs, on the other had, do not see Russia as a threat.; the symbolic value of NATO membership has played a larger role than security concerns. But just like in Hungary, the importance of symbolism attached to NATO membership has diminished as NATO has procrastinated with its expansion and as, at the same time, the country has become a member of other Western organizations.

The Czechs have a long anti-militaristic tradition. Unlike in Poland, the Czech army is not held in high regard. And neither the army nor the government has done enough to convince people that the army really matters--quite to the contrary. The government has repeatedly failed to provide the army with a large enough budget to be able to modernize and adjust rapidly to Western standards. Strategies to modernize the army, submitted by various defense ministers, have been repeatedly rejected by the government; and currently no such comprehensive strategy exists. Army officials admit that the army has not done enough to adjust to Western standards. An open competition for supplying the army with a command communication system compatible with those used by NATO has gotten bogged down in a bureaucratic maze. And the army currently cannot find 100 of the 700 STANAG documents which NATO started giving to Partnership for Peace countries in 1994 in an effort to prepare them for possible full membership.

Given the low level of support for NATO membership among people, one can argue that should NATO membership be approved only by the parliament, it may be challenged by extremist as not representative of the public's feelings for years to come. Holding a referendum would represent a way out. On the other hand, a referendum would stir up an emotional and possibly destabilizing debate that the country--still recovering from the political farce surrounding the adoption of the Czech-German Declaration-- can ill afford. Moreover, the coalition rightly argues that unlike membership in the European Union, NATO membership does not amount to giving up parts of national sovereignty.

The CSSD supports NATO membership--though it is opposed to stationing foreign troops and placing nuclear weapons on the country's territory. Some CSSD deputies have indicated they do not support holding a referendum. The CSSD may therefore consider dropping the idea of a referendum at its upcoming congress. In the meantime, coalition politicians are doing their best to play down low support for membership. Some are even using arguments bordering on demagoguery. For example, Foreign Minister Zieleniec went recently as far as publicly arguing that an opinion poll commissioned by his ministry and showing that a majority of people think NATO membership would increase the country's security, indicated that a majority of Czechs were in favor of NATO membership. It, of course, did not.

Reuters - 4. 3. 1997