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NATO: What Does It Take To Join?

  • Eugen Tomiuc

NATO candidate countries are stepping up efforts to fulfill admission criteria in the runup to the alliance's summit later this year in Prague, when new members are expected to be invited to join the bloc. Each candidate state must meet military, political, economic, and legal requirements that have been outlined by NATO. Alliance officials and analysts acknowledge the admission criteria are complex but say the bloc will also take into consideration each candidate's particular situation and strategic importance.

Prague, 7 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Nine European countries are vying for membership in the 19-state North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- the world's most powerful military and political alliance.

The candidate countries -- Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- hope to secure invitations to join NATO at the bloc's summit this November in Prague.

In order to join the alliance, candidates must fulfill a series of military, political, economic, and legal criteria that have been outlined by NATO in separate membership action plans, or MAPs.

Candidates are currently stepping up efforts to complete the conditions set forth in their individual MAPs, just as alliance experts are working on their final assessments of each country's progress.

However, some analysts point out that judging to what extent a country will be able to fulfill NATO's conditions is difficult, since many of the admission criteria -- barring the military conditions -- are hard to quantify, and a country's strategic importance may at times be considered ahead of its democratic and economic development.

NATO says that assessing a country's readiness to join the alliance is not a mechanical process that only implies gathering a number of points to secure admission. NATO spokesman Mark Laity said MAP criteria are rigorous but are not mathematical calculations. Laity told RFE/RL that NATO open-mindedly takes into account each candidate's situation.

"Well, I think that the membership action program is what is required of these states, and MAP is very rigorous. But I want to avoid, as I said, being mechanistic. There are a lot of things which countries need to do which are very hard to quantify," Laity said. "This is not a computer program. It is not a subjective process, but you cannot turn it into a mathematical formula. And we are fully realistic about the fact that some countries have to start further back than other countries because of the particular problems they have. But do remember: We want countries to join us, but we are not a charity."

Each membership action plan has five chapters: political and economic issues, defense and military issues, resource issues, security issues, and legal issues.

The first chapter -- political and economic issues -- requires candidates to have stable democratic systems, pursue the peaceful settlement of territorial and ethnic disputes, have good relations with their neighbors, show commitment to the rule of law and human rights, establish democratic and civilian control of their armed forces, and have a market economy.

The defense chapter provides for candidates to reform their armed forces and to contribute militarily to the collective defense, while the resource chapter deals mainly with allocating sufficient funds to defense.

The last two chapters, security and legal issues, require aspirant countries to ensure the proper security of sensitive information according to NATO standards and bring national legislation into line with that of the alliance.

But analysts say it is hard to make objective assessments of aspects such as the quality of a country's democracy.

NATO expert Jeffrey Gedmin, director of the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute -- a U.S. think tank -- said MAPs are intended for candidates to prove to a reasonable extent that they have chosen the correct general direction and are able to stay the course.

"In a word, we are talking about an applicant country proving to a certain threshold that it is a reasonably stable political democracy with a reasonably stable market economy and has a military that -- if not immediately in the present -- at least in terms of curve and direction, it is a military that is under civilian control and can contribute to NATO, and it is not something lacking civilian control, that will be a drain on NATO. That's -- broadly put -- what we're talking about," Gedmin said.

Some candidate countries complain the alliance is pressing them too hard with what they call unrealistic deadlines for resolving widespread problems such as corruption, bad governance, discrimination against minorities and anti-Semitism.

Speaking at RFE/RL on 4 March, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana -- whose country's candidacy is said to have a 50-50 chance of success this year -- said that what NATO should ask for is credible mid- and long-term strategies to eradicate serious problems such as corruption.

Geoana expressed satisfaction that NATO officials have lately shown openness toward plans to consolidate what he called "the values dimension" -- that is, issues related to transparency, bureaucracy, independence of the judiciary, and corruption.

However, NATO spokesman Laity reiterated that protecting democratic values is the alliance's keystone.

"Democracy is a bedrock value of NATO. NATO is there in defense of democratic values. Democratic values include many things, and one of them is a society that is just and fair to all, which produces stable governance," Laity said. "Corruption is obviously a threat to stable governance. It's a threat to democracy."

Laity also said that settling territorial disputes with neighbors remains one of the fundamental criteria for NATO membership: "It is very clear that we do not want to import people's disputes, and we have put a high priority -- and we did with the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland -- on settling outstanding issues with their neighbors. And it is very, very important that countries recognize that this is something we look at very carefully, and we do expect them to sort out disputes with neighbors."

But analyst Gedmin pointed out that NATO in the past did give priority to geostrategic considerations and did admit countries with both border problems and insufficiently consolidated democracies, such as Turkey.

"It's clear that NATO -- as a body, as an institution, as an organization -- has given different emphasis to different criteria at different times during its history," Gedmin said. "Remember, for example, that Turkey was admitted decades ago, even though it was lacking in some of the areas that we are talking about in terms of political development and democratic stability."

Gedmin said, however, that by admitting quarreling neighbors Turkey and Greece into the alliance, NATO managed to contain and reduce the intensity of territorial disputes over a number of islands in the Aegean Sea.

Gedmin said that, in the runup to NATO's expected second wave of enlargement later in 2002, geostrategic considerations might once again counterbalance other criteria.

He pointed to the three Baltic states -- Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- which he said NATO is contemplating admitting as a group into the alliance, even though some of them lag behind others in fulfilling what he called "narrow admission criteria."

"They [NATO member states] are also looking at it in a geo-strategic context -- the context of relations with Russia and also the benefits -- if they don't admit it, that's fine, but they discuss it -- the benefits and the disadvantages of admitting one Baltic country, or two, or three," Gedmin said. "And the argument is going around in circles about -- apart from the qualifications of an individual candidate -- does it make sense if only one, according to narrow criteria, is qualified? Does it make sense strategically, only to admit one country?"

Gedmin stressed that, in the end, NATO will admit those countries that, on balance, bring more benefits to the alliance and to regional security than they bring costs or risks. And that, he said, will be a difficult and complex decision.