Celebrating 10 years in NATO

PRAGUE — NATO expansion into the former Soviet bloc, which began March 12, 1999, has strengthened transatlantic ties and provided nearly 100 million east Europeans with security guarantees they had never dreamed possible.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the alliance in the first wave of enlargement, and are marking the 10th anniversary of that expansion with a series of official events.

The new member states are especially enthusiastic about U.S. involvement in European security, said Michael Codner, director of military sciences at the Royal United Service Institute, a public policy institute in London.

“The new NATO nations are very pro transatlantic, and want strong relations with the U.S.,” Codner said. “Poland sees the transatlantic relationship as important because it reinforces the concept of collective security.”

Czech enthusiasm for the alliance evolved more slowly. Today nearly 75 percent of Czechs support the country's membership in NATO. But when the country joined, excitement towards the alliance was lukewarm at best.

The country was doing comparatively well, when viewed through the prism of former Soviet bloc countries. The economy was growing and unemployment was relatively low.

And having been freed from the shackles of the Warsaw Pact alliance just a decade earlier, many Czechs opposed the idea of joining another military alliance so soon, even if membership was voluntary, according to Tomas Weiss, defense expert at the Europeum public policy institute in Prague.

“Less than half of Czechs supported NATO membership,” Weiss recalled.

And within weeks of joining, support for NATO membership “dropped to 30 percent,” Weiss said, when the alliance began a punishing bombing campaign against Serbia in an effort to protect the ethnic Albanian minority in Kosovo.

Czechs still consider Serbs their Slavic brothers, but few now make the direct connection between the NATO bombing campaign and the end result — an independent Kosovo, free from Serbian rule. Indeed, there are Czech troops in the NATO contingent still working to keep the peace in Kosovo.

The Czech Republic also has military commitments — in non-combat roles — in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Its troop deployments are comparatively modest, usually in the hundreds, according to Jiri Pehe. Pehe, the director of the New York University campus in Prague, was a foreign policy advisor to then-President Vaclav Havel in the run-up to NATO expansion.

“It's clear that a country like the Czech Republic, with 10 million people and not a glorious military history, cannot make a big military contribution. But the Czechs have done what's expected of them,” he said.

NATO membership has also transformed the Czech army, and the public attitude towards its military, according to Weiss.

“Appreciation of the army has grown very much, partly because of missions abroad and partly because of the floods in 1997 and 2002,” he said, referring to record-setting waters that swept across the country. The military was called on to act in a civilian manner, filling sand bags, erecting flood barriers and evacuating people.

“NATO enabled the army to transform itself more quickly — there was pressure for reforms,” Weiss said.

Maj. Karel Kout has been in the army for 20 years and he said the changes in the military are like “black and white. Twenty-five years ago it was an iron army, not a digital army.”

What was once an army of 200,000 conscripts who were forced to serve for one year with virtually no pay has been transformed into a professional army of 23,000, Kout said.

Also transformed is the public's attitude toward serving in the military and the public perception of the army. The transformation cannot be overstated, according to Andrej Cirtek, a spokesman for the Czech defense ministry.

Young men's “relationship toward military service and the relationship of society toward the army was quite negative,” Cirtek said. “In those days it was hard to imagine that someone would voluntarily go to serve in the army. The army was compromised and it's image damaged by 40 years of communism.

“Now in 2009 we have a professional army, with a high prestige in society,” he said. “The military is the most trusted public institution, along with the president.”

And what's good for member states is good for the alliance, according to Weiss.

“New member states give NATO political impact,” he said, “the bigger the alliance the bigger the impact.”

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