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Friday, March 12, 1999 Published at 11:56 GMT

World: Europe

Poland's 'greatest prize'

President Kwasniewski (right) with US Chief of Staff Henry Hugh Shelton

By James Coomarasamy in Warsaw

Ten years ago, Alexander Kwasniewski was sitting in Warsaw's presidential palace, as part of the communist government. Then, in historic round-table talks, he was negotiating his regime's demise with representatives of the Solidarity trade union.

The BBC's Brian Hanrahan: "Poland's troops still train with old Soviet style gas masks"
Now, as president, he has put the official seal on Poland's membership of Nato - in the very room where the Warsaw Pact was signed.

"I can't believe it," he told the BBC in an interview. "If you'd told me 10 years ago that we would be entering Nato, I would have said it was science fiction".

Security guarantees

But, after years of anticipation, Poland's Nato membership is becoming fact.

It is hard to understate the significance of this for a nation which has been carved up, time and again, by larger neighbours.

Democracy and a market economy may be well established, but, for many, the security guarantees offered by Nato are perhaps the greatest prize of the 1989 revolution.


All the same, Poland's turbulent history has created a cautious nation. Although a majority of Poles do welcome membership of Nato, it is with a certain scepticism. Memories are still fresh of the Yalta agreement, when Poland was condemned to half a century of Soviet domination.

"In our history we had experiences when foreign countries didn't help us, despite making commitments," one young Pole told me, "so we'll see".

Over the past few weeks, opinion polls have pointed to a rising sense of concern about the costs of joining Nato, at a time when the armed forces are undergoing huge restructuring.

Military needs funds

[ image: Walesa: West is indebted to Poland]
Walesa: West is indebted to Poland
President Kwasniewski says Poland's 200,000-strong military is proof his country will not be a second-class Nato member.

But only a small proportion of the military is ready for Nato.

In reality, the Polish armed forces are going to become a two class system, with a Nato-standard rapid reaction force, and an under-funded remainder.

"Western debt to Poland"

According to the former Polish President Lech Walesa, the West is to blame for this potentially destabilising situation. He says it should be welcoming Poland into Nato with open arms and an open cheque book.

"Poland has had to pay the price for the West's blunders, and now you owe us," Mr Walesa told the BBC.

"We haven't forgotten how useful Poland was to you in your battle with communism."

But for the moment, such awkward questions are being put to one side, as politicians and people celebrate an event that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

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