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NATO: Baltic, Romanian Leaders Stress Desire For Membership

Prague, 24 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Officials from the Baltic states and Romania today repeated their countries' desires to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A Russian ambassador stressed Russia's strategic interest in the Baltic region and raised the possibility of an alternative security structure.

Speaking at a NATO workshop in Prague, Estonia's Defense Minister Andrus Oovel said admission of the Baltic states into NATO would enhance security on the continent and also compensate for injustice done to the Baltic states in the past.

Speaking to RFL/RL, Oovel, however, did not mention a possible date for Estonia's admission into NATO, saying much needed to be done in the country to achieve that goal. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas said NATO should express clear political will toward candidates. His Latvian counterpart, Valdis Birkavs, said he expected new NATO members to be the Baltic states' natural allies.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to Brussels, said at today's NATO workshop that the planned NATO enlargement will make more countries unhappy than happy.

Churkin also criticized earlier speeches by Baltic states' leaders who demanded that NATO give clear guarantees they would be admitted in a next wave of expansion.

Churkin said that, like the Baltic states, Russia has strategic interests in the Baltic Sea area. Churkin said again that besides NATO membership, there were other possibilities to guarantee the security of the Baltic states, such as a common European security structure and "the model of Finland and Sweden."

Russia has previously said that it would reconsider its relations with NATO if it takes in any of the Baltic states as members. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are expected to be the only countries invited to join NATO at a summit in Madrid next month.

In Romania, Foreign Minister Adrian Severin left Bucharest for Belgium and Britain today in a bid to persuade officials from the two NATO nations that Romania should be included in the first wave of expansion.

And Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea is making an unexpected return to Washington today to meet with Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

Ciorbea was in the United States last week to press Romania's bid for early membership in the NATO military alliance. He met with Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is traveling outside Washington today. The officials told Ciorbea that Washington wants to limit the first round of NATO expansion to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. They said Romania would be a good candidate for the next round.

A State Department official who did not want to be identified told our correspondent that today's meeting between Ciorbea and Talbott does not mean the United States has changed its mind about who should be invited to join NATO next month.

He said the meeting will review discussions about NATO expansion that took place at the summit of the major industrial powers in Denver over the weekend.

The State Department says the meeting is set for later today. Ciorbea is arriving from New York, where he had gone to attend the United Nations' environment conference.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Senator Bob Dole held talks with government officials in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana in an attempt to console dashed hopes that Slovenia would be invited into NATO next month. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are expected to be the only countries invited to join NATO at a summit in Madrid next month.