The Herald, Sharon,
PA Published Thursday, March 19, 1998


Remembering the past, hoping for the future
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Crown return plugs NATO membership
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By Mark Wigfield
Ottaway News Service

WASHINGTON _ Leonard Krichko of Hermitage came to Washington Wednesday to commemorate a most unusual event in history: the transfer 20 years ago of Hungary's 700-year old Holy Crown of St. Stephen from safekeeping in Fort Knox back to Hungary.

But Wednesday's ceremony perhaps had as much to do with a debate going on today in the Senate as it did about history. That debate is over expansion of NATO to include Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Those three nations were once satellites of the Soviet Union, the nation NATO was created to protect against.

Officially, the ceremony was for Hungary to present the U.S. with a replica of the crown, which will be kept at the Carter Library in Atlanta.

The Hungarian army had handed the original over to the U.S. at the end of World War II for safekeeping, correctly fearing for its fate under Russian domination. Krichko, then an 18-year-old in the Army who spoke Slovak, was invited to the ceremony because of his role as a translator in the transaction. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter, sensing a political shift in Hungary, ordered the return of the crown to the country.

The crown has been a potent symbol of the Hungarian identity, an identity that has survived through hundreds of years of domination by other nations. But on Wednesday, NATO was as much a topic as the crown as speaker after speaker urged the Senate to approve the three nations for inclusion into the alliance.

It's a move that could finally make Hungarian independence more than a fleeting notion, they said.

The U.S. and Hungary ``will soon become NATO allies,'' said Rep. Lee Hamilton, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. ``Twenty years ago, we did not imagine so desirable a result.''

The Senate is expected to pass the measure, but not without a fight. Critics say the Senate has given the idea too little thought.

NATO was formed in 1949 by 12 nations which pledged that an armed attack on any one member would be taken as an attack on all. The pact also pledged political and economic cooperation.

The alliance's counterpart was the seven-nation Warsaw Pact. But since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, all the Warsaw Pact nations but Russia have asked to join NATO. The development of parliamentary democracies and free-market economies in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic has opened the door to them for NATO membership.

By joining the alliance, the three nations hope to strengthen their bond to the West and perhaps join the European Union, gaining substantial trade and financial benefits. For NATO, adding new members in the East could provide more stability in historically unstable Central Europe.

But some say there's a down side as well.

The countries have had trouble meeting NATO's requirements, such as training in English and improved communications technology, not to mention military capability. And there are fears the move will increase tensions between Russia and the West.

In January, Russia's parliament passed a resolution calling NATO expansion the biggest threat to Russia since the end of World War II.

Liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., opposed the bill in committee because of Russia's concerns. And conservative Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., a likely presidential candidate, wants the U.S. to exert more control over NATO before expanding it.

None of those concerns were heard at Wednesday's ceremony in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, featuring House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and Czech President Arpad Goncz. The Army String Ensemble played Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 6, and Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, extolled the virtues of an expanded alliance.

``Hungary has long wanted security and peace,'' he said. ``This time they will be successful.''

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