NATO Secretary General George Robertson, in an interview with RFE/RL, says no decision on further NATO expansion will take place before 2002. He also says geography won't play a role in who gets in and who doesn't.
Brussels, 5 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary General George Robertson treads a cautious line on NATO expansion.
Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL today, Robertson says the main criterion for a country wanting to join the military alliance remains its success in implementing the Membership Action Plan agreed with NATO a year ago.
His most upbeat message is aimed at Russia. He says he believes president-elect Vladimir Putin is committed to making Russia "part and parcel" of the European security framework. He says talk of Russia's growing antagonism with the West should n-o-t be taken too seriously.
Robertson says he also sees no tension in a strategy that affirms NATO's sovereign right to choose its own members and, at the same time, seeks to assuage Russia's sensitivities.
"Although the Russians have expressed from time to time some antagonism towards NATO expanding to the East, we have been intent on explaining that we have produced a zone of stability in the center of Europe, which is to the advantage of Russia, and something they should value rather than attack."
Speaking of dates and prospective new members, Robertson stresses no decisions will be made before 2002. He says enlargement depends on four factors: whether the aspirant countries are ready to join, whether NATO is ready for another round of enlargement, what the general geo-political situation is like at the time, and whether or not enlargement treaties can win the support of 19 member-country parliaments.
Last year, NATO accepted Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in its first wave of eastward expansion. Another group of countries, including the three Baltic countries, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, have also expressed strong interest in membership.
Robertson rejects suggestions that geography -- especially, whether a country is too close to Russia -- could hurt an aspiring nation's chances. He points to a decision adopted at NATO's Washington summit a year ago saying that no democratic European country would be excluded from consideration regardless of its location.
He says the main criterion is the progress of candidate countries in implementing their Membership Action Plans:
"What the Membership Action Plan is looking at is whether countries are able themselves to take on the obligation of defense -- not just of their own territory but in terms of security, the general security guarantee given by NATO to other countries."
Robertson says applicants must be able to reform their own defense systems. He warned that Cold War-level forces were a waste of money and would not qualify anyone for membership.
Addressing the question of waning support for NATO membership in some aspirant countries -- notably, in Lithuania, Slovakia and Bulgaria -- the Secretary General says this is a matter for the countries concerned.
He says he's ready to accept an Eastern Europe where different countries would be integrated into either the EU or NATO in differing degrees.