Brussels, 7 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign ministers from the so-called "Vilnius 10" group -- comprising the nine NATO aspirant countries and Croatia -- met today with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The meeting took place in the margins of today's meeting in Brussels of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which brought together foreign ministers from all NATO partner countries in Europe and Asia.
The meeting was called by Powell to thank the aspirants for the support they have given the U.S.-led fight against terrorism and to discuss recent developments in the alliance. One particular item on the agenda of the 30-minute meeting was NATO's decision to set up a new body for cooperation with Russia, expected to become operational before May 2002.
The "Vilnius 10" countries -- Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- chose Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves to speak for the group at the outset of the meeting.
Speaking to RFE/RL this afternoon, Ilves said Powell began by expressing gratitude for the candidate countries' efforts in the fight against terrorism. Powell also told the foreign ministers that the United States remains a strong advocate of enlargement.
Ilves said Powell -- who had just attended the NATO-Russia meeting this morning -- reassured candidates that NATO's recent rapprochement with Russia will not mean that Moscow will have a veto in NATO affairs, including enlargement. Ilves said Powell also told the "Vilnius 10" that the new NATO-Russia forum will not lead to any "dilution" of the alliance.
"He said directly that there is no need to worry, that these fears are unfounded. It's a form of cooperation, closer cooperation than has existed up to now, involving a Russia-NATO partnership. But this does not mean that NATO would in any way be 'diluted.' These fears have been expressed not only by observers in the newest NATO member countries [the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland] but also by some Western commentators, but in talking with colleagues who are actively involved in shaping this [new NATO-Russia relationship], it becomes clear that there is no reason for concern. [The new council] will be a forum in which Russia has an opportunity to talk more, which does not mean NATO would start making any decisions."
Ilves said Powell's assessment of Russia's position was delivered in what he said were "fairly positive" tones.
Earlier today, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told journalists after meeting his NATO counterparts that Russia is not interested in NATO membership and seeks no veto of the alliance's decisions.
Ivanov added, however, that in Russia's view, the task of the new NATO-Russia council is to address wider questions of European security. NATO members have offered more limited and detailed descriptions of the goals of the new council.
Foreign Minister Ilves said that Estonia -- along with Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania -- has sometimes been described as the staunchest opponent of any Russian involvement in NATO affairs. Ilves said he fully rejects such criticism -- which he described as "journalistic invention" -- saying the Baltic countries understand that Russia's normalization of relations with NATO is a "deeply psychological" process that will benefit its neighbors.
The "Vilnius 10" foreign ministers handed Powell a joint declaration that says the countries "fully associate" themselves with NATO's statement yesterday on the alliance's response to terrorism. The "Vilnius 10" declaration condemns the 11 September terrorist attacks and says the candidates consider the attack on the United States to have been an attack on them all.
The document also says the "Vilnius 10" group remains committed to conducting its foreign and security policies in line with the principles of NATO's founding Washington Treaty.