Top officials from 10 NATO candidate countries are meeting today in the Latvian capital, Riga, for a two-day summit to boost their bid to join the alliance. They are discussing issues related to security, democratic freedoms, and human rights. It is the last high-level meeting of the candidates before the NATO summit this autumn in Prague, when the alliance will decide who will be invited to join in its second wave of expansion.
Prague, 5 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders from 10 countries aspiring to join NATO -- Albania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, and Croatia -- today began a two-day summit in the Latvian capital, Riga.
Billed as "Riga 2002 -- Bridge to Prague," it is the last meeting of the aspirant countries before the crucial NATO summit in Prague this November, when the alliance will decide which countries will be invited to join in its second wave of expansion.
The meeting is also being attended by the defense ministers of Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, Sweden, and Turkey; parliamentary delegations from several NATO member countries, including a group of U.S. senators; and top officials from many other NATO countries.
While the future expansion of the alliance is widely seen as a foregone conclusion, no individual countries have been singled out as being the most credible candidates.
Today, U.S. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott gave a special address to the delegates at the summit. "NATO is open to all that share the vision of democratic ideals and the rights of man. As [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush noted, the question of 'when' for some may still be open for debate, but the question of 'whether' is not in doubt," Lott said.
Lott urged the candidate countries to work against corruption and intolerance as part of their efforts to join the alliance. "We take seriously the problems that still linger from the old order, like corruption and religious intolerance. For the promise to be fulfilled, the ancient maladies must be wiped out and individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law restored," Lott said.
The hosts of the summit, Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, opened the summit this afternoon. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are scheduled to deliver separate video addresses to the participants. They are expected to express support for NATO enlargement and call for the alliance to reform to meet new challenges in international security.
Later in the day, officials will take part in a roundtable discussion on building a community of shared values.
During the Riga summit, special attention will be paid to the three Baltic states, which only 10 years ago were Soviet republics. Three former Soviet bloc countries -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- became NATO members five years ago.
Estonian President Arnold Ruutel said yesterday that, "all three countries in the Baltic region took a decision to establish a priority to return to the historic cultural and economic space, the European Union, and the security space, NATO."
Ruutel stressed the importance of the Riga summit and thanked the West for its support of the Baltic states. "This meeting is one of the steps in the way we have chosen. In the recent exchange of ideas, we were convinced that you support us in becoming members of NATO. On behalf of Estonia, I would like to thank you for the support," Ruutel said.
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus credited the United States for its support. "We definitely have not only supporters but good friends. We are really grateful to them and, through them, to the United States Senate, Congress, administration, and the American people," Adamkus said.
Yesterday, U.S. Senator Lott said the contribution of the Baltic states to the alliance would be more political than military or financial. "Their membership may not be one that is overwhelming in terms of their financial impact or military impact, but their impact in terms of what they can say, the leadership they can provide, and the values that they espouse will be an inspiration to NATO and the rest of the world," Lott said.
Lott said there is what he called a "special feeling" in America about the Baltic countries. He said they stand a "very excellent chance" of being invited to join NATO. "If I could cast my vote," he said, "I'd say yes."
Lott said he looks "forward to inviting the largest-possible number" of countries to join the alliance at its Prague summit.
The case of the Baltic states clearly illustrates the changing geopolitical situation in the world. Only a year ago, Russia strongly opposed the idea of the three former Soviet republics' joining NATO. Many NATO countries also viewed this possibility as too big an irritant in the alliance's relationship with Moscow.
However, an agreement signed in late June that gives Russia a say in some NATO decisions helped alleviate such concerns. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said that Russia will not oppose NATO membership for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Rafael Behr, writing in the British daily "Financial Times" today, said the real problem for NATO is not Moscow but the alliance's own search for a new role in the world. "The redrawing of Cold War borders in Europe -- an early goal of enlargement -- has been rendered increasingly obsolete by the diplomatic rapprochement between Russia and the U.S. since September 11," Behr wrote.
Behr quoted U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Brian Carlson as saying that, although NATO is a defense alliance, after 11 September, everyone has a slightly different concept of what NATO is about. "[NATO] is a community of nations that agrees on common principles," Carlson said. "In the war on terrorism, that's important."