Madrid, 9 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Speaking in Madrid at the conclusion of the first day of the NATO summit, U. S. President Bill Clinton said that "it was a great day for the cause of freedom." Clinton was commenting on the summit's decision to invite the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to begin accession negotiations.
The summit yesterday issued the invitations, following a vigorous discussion about potential candidates. Some NATO members, led by France, were willing to invite other Central European countries, as well. But, the summit agreed on only three, seeing them as first in a wider process of eastward expansion. "The alliance expects to extend further invitations in coming years to nations willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership," said the summit's declaration.
The declaration mentioned Romania, Slovenia and the Baltic states as having achieved a remarkable progress toward "democracy and the rule of law" in their internal politics. But, it stopped short of either promising that these countries will be selected for entry in the second wave of invitations - or even setting the time for making decision when to begin the second wave itself.
Commenting on the summit's decision, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said that "no European democratic country whose admission would fulfill the objectives of the (NATO's founding) treaty will be excluded from consideration."
Following the announcement, Czech President Vaclav Havel said at a press conference that all three Central European invitees "are resolved to take an active part" in NATO operations. This statement was seconded by the Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn.
For those who listened to their press conference, it quickly became obvious that the occasion was historic in more ways than one. It marked an expansion of democracy and freedom, as emphasized by President Clinton. But, it has also brought a measure of a different kind of change: for the first time in the alliance's history, Czech, Polish and Hungarian languages were heard in NATO's official forum. For many present in the hall, it clearly was a shock, but, for some of them, it also was a much-awaited signal of political recognition.
Answering reporters questions, President Kwasniewski said that the occasion marked "the definitive end of the Yalta era," a long period during which Europe remained divided into "spheres of influence" exercised by either the West or the Soviet East.
The summit said that the accession talks should be completed by the scheduled annual NATO foreign ministers meeting in December, and the ratification process be concluded in time for membership to become effective by NATO 50th anniversary in April 1999.
Then, the new NATO is to review the entire process of extension and decide when the next wave will start, and who will be invited to take part in it.