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Celebrating 10 years in NATO

Membership in the alliance has transformed Czechs' attitudes toward their military.

Czech troops of the NATO-led peacekeeping force KFOR rest as they await a possible Serb protest at a border post near Mutivode in Kosovo, Feb. 28, 2008. Serbs in Kosovo had called for the return of Russian peacekeepers to the country after the ethnic Albanian majority's declaration of independence from Serbia in early 2008. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

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.