American arms largesse ruffles feathers in Eastern Europe

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THE US Senate has upset several emerging democracies in eastern Europe by approving an amendment allowing the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, but no other countries, greater access to US weaponry. The amendment, passed on 14 July, appears to fly in the face of US promises not to create new divisions in eastern Europe by marking out some states for special treatment.

Senators Hank Brown (Colorado, Republican) and Paul Simon (Illinois, Democrat) sponsored the initiative, which was adopted by 76 votes to 22. It offers the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians excess US weaponry, loans and leases of defence equipment, co-operation in military airlifts, and the standardisation of armaments with those of Nato countries.

The amendment cannot become law until approved by a conference of senators and representatives. Even then, it will not oblige President Bill Clinton to act immediately. Still, it is a strong political signal, and Slovakia, linked with its three neighbours in the so- called Visegrad group, was quick to complain about its exclusion. The Slovak embassy in Washington said: 'Slovakia shares the same democratic principles and values as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The efficient co-operation of these four countries in the framework of the Visegrad group is a very positive example for other countries of eastern Europe.

'We think it would not contribute to stability in the region if this co-operation is weakened or if one member from this group is singled out for different treatment. This step, if unintentional, might send a negative signal for the future development of east central Europe.'

Sponsors of the amendment, which puts the three countries in the same category as Bahrain, Senegal, Oman and Morocco, said similar proposals had received the endorsement of foreign policy experts such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. But arms- control advocates suggested that the measure was flawed.

Daniel Plesch, director of the British American Security Information Council, said: 'It would be difficult to explain how flooding excess arms into central Europe squares with projecting stability in the region. It could spark a wider arms race which could eventually import instability into the West. A US armaments programme for countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary may increase support for ultra-nationalists in excluded countries such as Romania and Slovakia.'

Supporters of the amendment said it was necessary to give a strong signal to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland that the United States was encouraging their admission to Nato. 'Inaction on this key question of central European stability may encourage aggression in the future,' Mr Brown said. They also argued that the recent election victories of reformed Communists in Poland and Hungary were connected to a perception in those countries that the West was isolating them from its key security institutions. They failed, however, to explain how the exclusion of Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria would prevent similar outcomes in those states.

Bulgaria is worried about the consequences of an earlier US initiative that allowed the transfer of tanks, planes and other equipment to Greece and Turkey, which lie on Bulgaria's southern border. Meanwhile, conservative and nationalist forces in Slovakia and Romania, where tensions have arisen over the status of ethnic Hungarian minorities, may interpret the amendment as a sign that US regional policy is discriminating in favour of Hungary.

Officially, the Clinton administration is committed to military co-operation with all former Communist countries in Nato's Partnership for Peace programme. Russia, however, is likely to view the Senate amendment as proof that the US is more interested in expanding Nato's frontiers into eastern Europe than in devising a security framework for the whole region that accommodates Russia.