NATO's three newest members lag behind

  • 2002-11-21
  • Beatrice Khadige

More than three years after joining, NATO's first ex-communist bloc members - Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary - are still lagging in efforts to come into line with alliance standards.

The work still to be done by the three in training and buying equipment is a sign of the challenge that the line of eastern candidates will face if they get their cherished invitation to join NATO at the Nov. 21-22 Prague summit.

Hungary's Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz put it most bluntly when he admitted last week that Hungary, now an EU candidate country, was "closer to being able to fulfill NATO's requirements 12 years ago (when communism fell) than now."

"Unfortunately, Hungary's credibility has been questioned because it was unable to fulfill a number of its promises. And what is more, it refused to face this," he said.

Strongly criticized for the slow pace of its restructuring efforts, Hungary has been unable to increase its annual military spending by 0.1 percent of gross domestic product, as it promised.

Military officials say that under the previous government from 1998 to 2002 the reform got bogged down "because of incompetent management," leaving the army unable to fulfill the criteria needed to become inter-operable within NATO.

Poland also says it still has a lot of work to do.

"We have made considerable progress, but we are perfectly aware that there is still a lot to be done," Poland's chief of staff General Czeslaw Piatas said.

"One of our main objectives is to make a third of the army perfectly inter-operable with NATO before 2006," he said.

Poland channels 1.95 percent of its gross domestic product into the defense budget. But it still has to make a big effort, amid an economic slowdown, in order to buy more sophisticated military hardware.

It needs to equip itself with 48 multi-purpose fighter planes at a cost of $3.5 billion, buy 690 armored vehicles at a cost of another $1 billion and also buy missiles.

The Czech Republic, the third ex-communist bloc country to join NATO in 1999, says it is proud of what it has done.

But in a sign of what it still has to do it admitted this week it was not capable of guaranteeing security in its airspace at the NATO summit in the Czech capital.

In a first, it asked for U.S. help.

The government of former Social Democratic prime minister Milos Zeman planned to buy 24 supersonic JAS-39 Gripen planes made by British-Swedish consortium BAE Systems-SAAB, but the deal was rejected by parliament on the eve of legislative elections on June 14-15.

Justifying its decision by the cost of flooding which devastated the country in mid-August, the new center-left government of Vladimir Spidla ditched the plan altogether.

Having given its Soviet-built MiG-29s fighter jets to Poland, the Czech Republic could now end up buying second-hand planes.

And despite the lack of hardware, the armies in the three countries are still overstaffed.

Since 1990 the Polish army has slashed its forces by half to 160,000, half of which are career soldiers. By the end of 2003 the number will have been further pegged to 150,000 in order to come into line with NATO structures.

Senior officers will be the first to feel the ax, Poland having had in the early 1990s 460 generals and more colonels than in France and Britain put together.

The Czech Republic only adopted the reform plan, aimed at making the army more professional by 2006, a week ago.

Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik said the Czech army had to be made "modern, mobile and young in age and in mind." Tvrdik has been criticized for the lack of motivation and even the lethargy of a crisis-hit army which has been plagued by officer-level resignations.

In Hungary, defense ministry spokesman Peter Matyuc described the army as "a miniaturized mass army with a wrong structure."

"It cannot compete with, or even come up to, the fast-moving versatile forces needed in modern warfare," he said.

"We currently have no trained fighting troops that we could offer to send for the global fight against terrorism or for NATO's rapid deployment forces," a foreign ministry official said.