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Czech Mates and Russians

TEN years ago most Western leaders would have sacrificed their grandmothers to induct Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland back into the European family of nations. Then the wall and the curtain came down and no grandmothers were needed.

Now that it should be so much easier to fully reintegrate the old Central Europe into greater Europe, no one seems able to take the lead. Partly this is a matter of fixing on the wrong vehicle. US and European officials have spent months trying to find a way of granting these nations (now four in number after the Czech-Slovak divorce) NATO membership without upsetting Russia.

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But NATO isn't the club for them to join. The European Union is. And the Czech Republic should be first in line at the clubhouse door.

The reasons for dropping a NATO strategy are many. The most fundamental one is that giving these four Russian neighbors membership in the West's military alliance would create the very danger such membership is meant to avoid. It would help to revive an anti-Western, militaristic, Communist Russia. This is true well beyond coming weeks, when Russia prepares for its watershed election.

A subsidiary reason is money. Little-noticed budget studies in Washington show that the four nations would not be able to meet the costs of joining NATO without major aid. That means one more large bill the US Congress is unlikely to approve. (Nor would European parliaments, trying to get both welfare-state costs and unemployment under control).

Hawks scoff at holding back for fear of upsetting Russia. They argue that Moscow should be left to stew in its own decisions, whether Boris Yeltsin or Communists make them. That argument conflicts with much that Western governments are doing to win Russian cooperation on economic reform, Balkan peacekeeping, oil pipelines to Europe, and weapons proliferation.

Admitting the Central Europeans fully into the Western European economy will not be easy, because of competition in wages and farm prices. But the European market has managed to absorb the lower-wage Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, and Greek economies.

Now it's time to move on, beginning with Prague. Both tough-minded Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and visionary President Vaclav Havel are ready to lead diligent Czechs to fulfill the necessary market discipline. Germany's Chancellor Kohl is supportive.

And there's a fringe benefit that should mollify hawks. As the Central Europeans gradually join the market, they will gain at least the tacit protection of the alliance's defense umbrella.

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