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All That NATO Can Be: To Prague and Beyond

All That NATO Can Be: To Prague and Beyond

Mini Teaser: An unflinching look at the realities of Mitteleuropa, before NATO's second-round expansion summit in November.

by Author(s): Charles Gati

Since September 11, senior American policymakers have been understandably focused on the war against terrorism-an effort that fixes their gaze on the Middle East and Central Asia, terror cells in western Europe and Southeast Asia, and the exigencies of homeland security. In their peripheral vision, they remain aware of other major zones of policy concern: Russia, China and Taiwan, the Balkans (still), and even the occasional bout of dyspepsia in places such as Argentina and Venezuela. Thank heaven, therefore, for those unproblematic spots that do not generate problems and the consequent need to spend energy and anxiety on them-places like central and eastern Europe.

Alas, we should not yet be so thankful. While we have been attending to other, more pressing matters over the past half dozen or so years, the post-communist success stories that most people expected to write themselves after 1989 have turned into tales with rather mixed plot lines. Intentions and expectations have fallen out of harmony with one another. Thus it is that the road to NATO's November 2002 summit in Prague is paved with good intentions-and outdated expectations.

The intention is to invite as many as seven countries from central and eastern Europe-Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the Baltics; Slovakia and Slovenia from central Europe; and Romania and Bulgaria from the Black Sea region-to join the organization. Together with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, admitted in 1999, they make up a sort of "top ten" of the post-communist world. These ten have accomplished much more than their neighbors in the Balkans and the non-Baltic parts of the former Soviet Union and, not surprisingly, are among the leading candidates for early entry into the European Union.

That said, all is not well in Mitteleuropa-that broad and endlessly fascinating swath of land formerly part of the Habsburg Empire-and its environs. The expectations of the 1990s were excessive. Many who should have known better assumed that history and civilization would inevitably tie these countries to the West-that they would quickly achieve genuine democracy and become eager allies. It has not been that way.1 Rising nationalism has diluted the intensity of the region's commitment to the rule of law and to the spirit of tolerance. Since joining NATO, both the Czech Republic and Hungary have often ignored Western advice. Indeed, unless an appropriate method is found to discipline members for their misdeeds, the utility of NATO as an instrument of Western influence in central and eastern Europe will begin to diminish the very moment these new applicants become members.

For this reason, supporters of Washington's plan for NATO enlargement later this year, like this writer, should make their case based on a candid evaluation of recent trends in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and on an equally candid assessment of what the new candidates are like and may be expected from them. The principal concern is that while the so-called transition from the one-party dictatorships and planned economies of the communist past is well underway, it is still uncertain that change will lead to Western-style democracies and free markets. Widespread official corruption erodes the popular appeal of the capitalist enterprise as nostalgia for the meager benefits of the old welfare state persists. The appeal of national identity, culture and tradition, neglected, manipulated or suppressed under Soviet domination, competes vigorously now with the attraction of integration into NATO and the EU. In power, moderate conservatives, liberals and social democrats find themselves squeezed by demagogues at both ends of the political spectrum-especially by the anti-U.S., anti-EU and anti-semitic far Right-with bitter charges and countercharges evoking old prejudices rooted in historical precedents, myths, stereotypes and scapegoats.
Such negative aspects of the post-communist experience prompt the peoples of central and eastern Europe to view their daily lives and future prospects in hues far darker than those of more sanguine Western press assessments. This is true not only in normally gloomy Hungary but also in normally more optimistic Poland; in poor Romania and in the relatively prosperous Czech Republic; in historically pro-Russian Bulgaria and in the intensely anti-Russian Baltic states. And this is why, with only one exception (in tiny Slovenia), publics in these countries have failed to re-elect any of their governments since 1989; instead, they have preferred to throw the bums out with the next election. Since the restoration of its independence in 1991, Latvia has changed its government at the rate of about once a year. In several countries, including the region's two most populous states, Poland and Romania, as well as in Hungary and the Czech Republic, Socialists or Social Democrats are currently in power. Those who voted for them apparently did so because they believed the Socialists understand better that vast majorities long for job security, inexpensive public transportation, universal health insurance and free education. But the Socialists cannot deliver such services without vibrant economies and institutions of government that can raise revenue and spend it effectively. This is why, despite their past, most socialist parties are vigorous proponents of free-market reform-often outdoing their nominally non-socialist political opponents.

No wonder, then, that public opinion surveys reflect a sense of confusion and ambivalence. The latest New Europe Barometer covering the ten countries of central and eastern Europe finds only lukewarm support for a democratic political order: Two percent of the respondents said they were "very satisfied" and 37 percent were "fairly satisfied"; but 43 percent were "fairly dissatisfied" and 18 percent were "very dissatisfied" with the way democracy works.2 Yet an overwhelming majority-more than 80 percent-rejects the possibility of returning to the communist one-party state. In Isaiah Berlin's terminology, they value negative freedom, the absence of undue governmental restraint, but they are still searching for positive freedom to make effective use of their newly gained liberties. What are they likely to find, and how does it affect prospects for U.S. policy toward the region?

Fragments, Frustration and Focus

Persistent popular ambivalence in eastern and central Europe stems from serious economic, political and foreign policy predicaments that confound the processes of "transition." Some of these predicaments inhabit the economic realm, others the political realm.

In the economic realm, differences among and within the countries of the region present old and new problems alike. For example, while some countries have made remarkable economic progress since gaining freedom and independence, others still linger at or below 1989 levels. Slovenia's GDP per capita (about $10,000) is beginning to approach Portugal's, a member, albeit the poorest one, of the European Union. Meanwhile, the average GDP per capita of the three poorest countries in central and eastern Europe-Bulgaria, Romania and Latvia-is less than $2,000, or only 20 percent of Slovenia's. Within each country, there is another, more divisive kind of gap-that between city and countryside. While there is little or no unemployment in Warsaw, for example, rural unemployment in eastern Poland has reached a staggering 30 percent. Dazzling shopping centers in Budapest can make visitors believe they are in the prosperous West, but the occasional visitor to eastern Hungary encounters dilapidated or idle factories and their seemingly dilapidated and idle workers. In Bucharest, the sight of elegant, well-dressed women contrasts sharply with the sight of a mightily disheveled humanity in Romanian villages.

The statistic that best captures economic conditions as they are experienced by the region's inhabitants is GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP). The figures, illustrated in the table below, show that in the last decade the purchasing power of the people of central and eastern Europe has increased by an impressive 40 percent (compared to an increase, admittedly from a higher base, in the European Union of about 26 percent). East of the Baltics, however, the people of the former Soviet Union have become poorer by more than 15 percent. Yet it makes no difference subjectively to the peoples of central and eastern Europe that they are better off than the citizens of Belarus, Russia or Uzbekistan, because Czechs and Poles do not compare their living standards to those in the former Soviet Union. They look instead to Scandinavia, Austria or Germany, and what they see is that it will take a long time to catch up with their western and northern neighbors. This is a source of bitter disappointment, for back in the hopeful days after the collapse of communism they all dreamed, and many fully expected, that hard work and Western goodwill would reposition the region from Europe's periphery to its prosperous center. If that dream lives on at all, it has been crushed into fragments by the reality of the past decade.

Disappointment is also fueled by the popular assumption that almost all of the economic benefits of the past decade have gone to a small group of privileged entrepreneurs and their political cronies: business executives working for Western companies; real estate agents, traders and lawyers; and officials at all levels who were paid off during the skewed privatization processes of the 1990s. If this group-perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the population-has gained as much as their expensive BMWs and fancy homes suggest, and if pensioners and old people in general (who comprise as much as a third of the population) are net losers because of declining welfare-state benefits, then the region's 40 percent gain in purchasing power since 1992 is more apparent than real for the average person. Workers in heavy industry and agriculture have yet to profit from the free market. Double-digit unemployment this year in six of the region's ten states-Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Romania-has added millions to the ranks of those for whom a more competitive economic environment has meant abject poverty.

The very unequal distribution of new wealth is further exacerbated by official corruption. According to Transparency International, Romania is the region's most corrupt country, followed by Latvia, Slovakia and, in a tie for fourth place, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Poll after poll suggests that corruption is present everywhere and is also the single most divisive political issue everywhere. Not only is corruption discrediting free enterprise, but it is also undermining the very concept of the rule of law, turning the optimists and idealists of the late 1980s and early 1990s into the cynics of the early 2000s.

Thanks to extensive reporting by Czech newspapers, and especially the independent investigative weekly Respekt, a vast amount of credible information is available about Czech corruption at the highest levels of the outgoing government of Milos Zeman's Social Democrats, a government kept in power by Vàclav Klaus' conservative Civic Democratic Party since its formation in June 1998.3 At that time, Transparency International rated the Czech Republic next to Belgium in clean government; three years later, in 2001, the Czechs were tied with Bulgaria, just a notch ahead of Colombia and Mexico on the list of ignominy. The evidence, stubbornly denied by the Czech government, is so convincing that 70 percent of respondents in a 2001 survey said they believed their country was run by organized crime. Marginalized and isolated, President Vàclav Havel, a man of integrity occupying a largely ceremonial office, has been unable to resist the trend. His losing struggle against Zeman, Klaus and Foreign Minister Jan Kavan--a man with a mysterious past-is a sad commentary on what has happened in this once so promising post-communist country.

The process by which a small group appears to be suborning Czech democracy is especially hurtful in Prague. But compromised personnel is not the most troublesome legacy of the communist past. It is the memory of shame. Communism always had many active opponents in Poland; it was not really so surprising, then, that millions of Poles signed up to support Solidarity in the 1980s. The Hungarians fought bravely in 1956. Czechoslovakia did have its Prague Spring in 1968. Yet in the 1970s and 1980s, in every country but Poland, for every Vàclav Havel there were hundreds of thousands who stayed on the sidelines. They did not believe in the system, but they, like people elsewhere, went along to get along. Today, so many years later, many claim brave deeds against communism. The result is the pathology of post-communism: the unspoken reality of past accommodation and even collaboration in uneasy juxtaposition with current myths of opposition and resistance.

Indeed, the region's political realm offers as many disappointments as its economic realm. Coherent political constituencies, philosophies and biographies have yet to find each other, and the result is widespread frustration.

As to the biographies, almost all of the early heroes who bravely confronted communism have either lost their popular appeal and retired from active politics (such as Poland's strongly pro-Western Freedom Union, led by such towering figures as Tadeusz Mazowieczki and Bronislaw Geremek), or turned coat and abandoned their original values (such as Hungary's Federation of Young Democrats, the Fidesz Party, led by former Prime Minister Viktor Orban).
As the center does not seem to attract enough voters, polarization, fragmentation and the rise of anachronistic parties mark the region's immensely complex internal politics. On most substantive issues, the dividing line is no longer between ex-communists and anti-communists; many a political contest instead pits anti-EU nationalists against pro-EU integrationists, with ex-communists found in both camps. Interestingly, some of the ex-communist social democrats in Slovenia, Hungary and Poland have been in the forefront of those trying to prepare their countries for Western integration.

The real political problem in Poland, for example, is that since parliamentary elections last September, no major pro-integration party is left on the scene to counter the new coalition government led by the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance, or SLD. The centrist Freedom Union could not even pass the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, and Andrzej Olechowski's moderately conservative Civic Platform received less than 13 percent of the vote. The opposition that gained about a quarter of the parliamentary seats in that election consists of three backward-looking parties that reject both Westernization and modernization: the demagogic Self Defense, a farmers' group; the League of Polish Families, a Catholic fundamentalist party known for its anti-semitic tirades; and Law and Justice, a populist law and order party. They all object to what they see as excessive Polish concessions to the European Union. Always angry and negative, and often irrational, they rail against Poland's enemies at home and abroad, believing that vast international conspiracies aim to undermine Polish sovereignty.

Their main target is Prime Minister Leszek Miller. The same people attack him for his hard-line communist past and for his present pro-Western, social-democratic policies. Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz is also under multiple attack-sometimes for having signed a letter of protest against NATO's Kosovo campaign in 1999, sometimes for having withdrawn his signature from that letter in 2001, and often for having changed Warsaw's negotiating position so that Poland could close four new chapters of the European Union's acquis communautaire in record time this spring. In the event, then, Polish voters-like many of their counterparts elsewhere in central and eastern Europe-are left with an unsavory choice. They can support politicians whose past is tarnished but who currently pursue respectable policies, or politicians whose past seems respectable but who advocate positions empty of any content relevant to the 21st century.

If Polish politics are complex and contentious, Slovak politics are even more so. There, more than half a dozen parties make up a pro-Western but highly fragmented coalition of strange bedfellows that includes Christian Democrats and reformed Communists, Greens, Social Democrats, and an ethnic Hungarian party that is itself a coalition. Despite all, the government, led by Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, has worked hard to meet NATO's expectations, and it has also done a remarkably effective job getting the country ready to enter the European Union. Yet with elections scheduled for September 2002, two months before NATO's Prague summit, this unwieldy coalition will almost surely unravel because the necessary reforms it has carried out have eroded its political base.
The worst possibility is that Vladimir Meciar, the authoritarian former prime minister whose Movement for a Democratic Slovakia continues to lead in the polls, will return to power. (Washington, to its credit, made it clear earlier this year that a Slovakia with Meciar at the helm will not be invited to join NATO.) Somewhat more promising, and perhaps more likely, is the possibility that if Meciar wins only a plurality of the vote, the Slovak president would ask Robert Fico to form a government with some or most of the parties from the present coalition. Fico, a political chameleon, leads an undefinable new party called, ironically, under the circumstances, Smer (Direction). He is younger, more charismatic, and perhaps wilier than Meciar, but what a diverse coalition under his direction could accomplish, and how long it would last, is anyone's guess.

The issue matters for Slovakia and for NATO, however. For if NATO prefers to enlarge its ranks by inviting all seven serious applicants, it might include a Slovakia run by Fico despite his seemingly unmanageable coalition. While such a Slovakia may or may not become a reliable and stable ally, it is clear that the exclusion of Slovakia alone at the Prague summit would seriously harm whatever chance democratic governance has to set roots there.
In Slovakia, as indeed everywhere else in central and eastern Europe, domestic politics thus significantly intersects with the realm of foreign policy. NATO should be particularly concerned with two aspects of this intersection: regional stability and Russian influence.

Regional stability is not the serious problem it was earlier this year when the Hungarian government, which was voted out of power in April, sparked considerable tension with several neighbors. At issue was the "status law" that provided some 4.5 million ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, notably in Romania and Slovakia, with the right to live and work in Hungary for three months. The perks in themselves were innocent enough, but then-Prime Minister Orban's accompanying inflammatory rhetoric deeply offended Romanians and Slovaks alike. When he spoke of the need to "link together Hungarians living beyond our borders with those in Hungary" and of "joining the forces of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin", some Romanians and many Slovaks began to wonder if Hungary would return to the active irredentism of the interwar period. That was not in the cards-Orban is no Milosevic. But so pervasive is concern about ethnic conflict and regional instability in central and eastern Europe that nearly everything tawdry and dangerous seems possible.

Orban also managed to irritate the Czechs with a casual comment about another historical issue, the so-called Benes Decrees. Named after Czechoslovakia's postwar president, Eduard Benes, the decrees provided for the expulsion of ethnic Hungarians (as well as ethnic Germans) from Czechoslovakia in the immediate aftermath of World War II. They were seen as Nazi collaborators, and the Czechoslovak government confiscated their property without compensation. By espousing collective guilt, the decrees were unjust; yet by suggesting their revocation more than half a century later Orban opened a can of worms. The Slovak government decided not to attend a four-country summit of the Visegrad group of central European states, and Prague and Warsaw soon followed suit. The summit was cancelled. The good news is that Hungary's new government will not flirt with that country's ultra-nationalist Right, and thus even the remote prospects for a clash have disappeared for years to come. Yet the episode showed how thin is the veneer of regional stability, and how quickly it could be sacrificed on the altar of domestic political opportunism.

The second issue for NATO is the gradual revival of Russian interests, notably in the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Rich Russian oil companies-Yukos and Lukoil in particular-have been buying refineries and seeking markets for their products. Whether they seek only profits or also collude with the Kremlin on political matters is not clear. In 2000, the Polish press offered evidence that the Russian firm Gazprom was putting down not only a pipeline across the country, as it had contracted to do, but was secretly laying a fiber optic cable as well. The oil business aside, Hungary, with the help of the FBI, collected enough evidence in the late-1990s to expel from Budapest one Semyon Mogilevich, the reputed head of the Russian mafia in central and eastern Europe.

Reports in the Czech press often wonder about the unusual number of Russians, perhaps as many as 15,000, who live in the famous resort town of Karlovy Vary, the Czech Republic's answer to Brighton Beach. There is a daily flight from Moscow, and Russians own about 40 percent of the town's real estate. Karlovy Vary, which is situated right on the German border, used to be a center of Warsaw Pact intelligence activity. The Prague daily Mlada fronta Dnes summarized the problem for the Czech Republic, and by implication for the whole region and for NATO, too, when it said last summer that members of the Russian mafia sought to "penetrate economic spheres, gain interest in strategic economic sectors, and they try to cause corruption in state administration and influence decision making. They try to establish their members in bodies of state power and political parties." With ethnic Russians making up 30 percent of the population in Latvia and 26 percent in Estonia, the problem is presumably even more acute in those countries.

NATO's Choice

Given such economic, political and foreign policy trends in central and eastern Europe, what should NATO do at its Prague summit with and for the countries of the region? What in turn can central and eastern Europe do for NATO? The answers to these questions may emerge from a consideration of what NATO has become, how it needs to change, and what it can be.

What NATO has become: The NATO that will admit new members in Prague is not the same military-political organization it was before September 11. Especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Washington decided to bypass its allies and thereby downgrade NATO's military utility. The war against terrorism is America's war, with Europeans reduced to playing a supporting role. With Europe falling further and further behind the United States in military technology and know-how, and with Russia inching closer to the organization, NATO's strategic significance after 9/11 has become unclear.
Against the backdrop of such developments, Washington has not yet devised a new strategy and, regrettably, has neglected an ideal opportunity to remodel the superstructure of U.S.-European relations at a time when all parties' interests and attention spans are up to the work. The need is great, for an impossible paradox needs relatively quick resolution. On the one hand, the United States effectively controls NATO, and all agree that NATO should matter because it offers a legitimate way for the United States to stay in Europe (something everyone wants), and because serious conflicts requiring joint action might well arise in the future. But the Bush Administration either cannot or does not wish to make effective use of NATO, which in time must diminish U.S. control over it and the legitimacy for a U.S. role in Europe that NATO confers.

We should candidly admit that NATO's current agony is due less to European disinterest and mischief than to Washington's decision to go it alone. Nor can NATO's condition be blamed on the admittedly mixed results of the first round of enlargement. The critics of the mid-1990s were wrong: enlargement has not stopped improvements in U.S.-Russian relations; it has not "diluted" the organization; and it has not increased our NATO-related expenses. However, the critics were right in anticipating continued and persistent nationalist resistance to genuine integration.

The beginning of NATO's recovery: Under the circumstances, the second round of enlargement could be-and should be-the beginning of a process to redefine NATO's mission. The new NATO will not be the NATO of the Cold War, and it ought not be the NATO that could not find its place after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It should be a NATO whose primary mission is to maintain and expand the zone of political stability from the Atlantic to the Urals.
The record of enlargement so far proves this to be a realistic objective; after all, contrary to many forecasts, the miserable and dangerous Balkan wars have not spread to central and eastern Europe. One reason for that happy non-event is that NATO's new and old members have understood their responsibilities and have acted accordingly. Not only the new members but the new applicants, too, have contributed to the difficult peace slowly emerging in the Balkans. Elsewhere, too, despite dire predictions, differences such as those between Hungary and Romania, or Poland and Lithuania, have produced no wars, not even skirmishes. After reviewing some of the potential sources of ethnic strife, William E. Odom explains it well: "Why have most of these 'sleeping dogs' not barked, or not barked louder? Because prospective NATO members do not want to spoil their prospects for admittance. Without that hope, some of their leaders would feel free to exploit these issues for domestic political purposes."4 Their eagerness to lend a hand offers the prospect of considerable interest in embracing a common Western political and economic agenda in the future, as well. As an April 7 Washington Post editorial put it, the real benefit of enlargement "lies in the leverage it offers to shape the political and economic development of European countries where democracy and free markets are not yet taken for granted. . . . [A]dmission to NATO will maximize the chances that Central and Eastern Europe will, for the first time in its history, become a region of stable and pro-Western governments."

What NATO can become: For this to happen, however, Washington must be realistic about what the West can expect to achieve in central and eastern Europe. Despite the Poles' enthusiasm and deep commitment, the region will not significantly enhance NATO's military might. But given its location, central and eastern Europe could and should play a helpful role in pushing the frontiers of stability eastward, most essentially toward Ukraine. Growing stability in the region as a consequence of progress toward Western-style democracy taking root is an achievable goal worthy of NATO's efforts. In other words, NATO, with its strictly military mission uncertain for now, should work for regional stability and long-term democratic development.

For the seven candidates who might be invited to join NATO in November, Prague should therefore be seen not as a sprint to the finish line but as the beginning of a marathon. For its part, the United States should insist on being heard-now and after enlargement, too. The U.S. Mission to NATO should be required to report to the U.S. Congress every year on how new members are fulfilling their responsibilities, including the contributions they make to advance the rule of law and civil society, as well as how many tanks they have and how many training exercises they undertake. If members commit what NATO's majority regards as misdeeds, they should be isolated and ignored, perhaps suspended. Absent an amended NATO treaty providing for a member's suspension or expulsion, the United States could and should apply appropriate bilateral penalties and convince other allies to follow suit. With such follow-up mechanisms in place to assure continued Western influence, the process of enlargement should continue. It is the best way, in the end, to remove eastern and central Europe from our list of places that could go boom.

1 For an early account along these lines, see Charles Gati, "The Mirage of Democracy", Transition (March 1996). See also Thomas Carothers, "The End of the Transition Paradigm", Journal of Democracy (January 2002).

2 Richard Rose, Advancing into Europe? Contrasting Goals of Post-Communist Countries (Freedom House, forthcoming).

3 See Matthew Rhodes, "Czech Malaise and Europe", Problems of Post-Communism (March-April 2000), and Jeffrey M. Jordan, "Patronage and Corruption in the Czech Republic", RFE/RL East European Perspectives, February 20 and March 6, 2002.

4 William E. Odom's testimony before the House International Affairs Committee (April 17, 2002).

Essay Types: Essay