Romania and Bulgaria are expected to be among the countries securing an invitation to join NATO at the alliance's summit this week in Prague. Little more than a year ago, the two Balkan neighbors appeared to have little chance of joining the 19-country bloc. But the two countries' military reforms and their commitment to the war against terror have seen their prospects for membership improve. RFE/RL talked to experts about Romania's and Bulgaria's level of preparedness and their potential contributions to the alliance.
Prague, 18 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romania and Bulgaria appear close to fulfilling their long-time dream of obtaining an invitation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during a summit in Prague this week.
With 22 million and 8 million people, respectively, Romania and Bulgaria are both the largest and the most populous of the seven former communist countries likely to be invited to join NATO this week.
Military experts agree that both countries are of considerable strategic interest to the alliance, providing a land link between Central European NATO members and Turkey, the alliance's bridgehead in the Middle East.
Until last year, however, Romania and Bulgaria's prospects of joining the alliance appeared dim. Hampered by oversized, largely obsolete militaries, weak economies, and poor progress on reforms, neither country seemed a likely candidate for NATO entry.
But accelerated military reforms and a firm commitment to the war on terror, as well as sustained diplomatic efforts, have helped put the two Balkan neighbors back on track for NATO membership. Even last week's scandal over the Bulgarian government's admission of an illegal arms sale averted at the last minute appears unlikely to derail Sofia's NATO prospects.
NATO expert Jeffrey Gedmin -- director of the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute, a U.S. think tank -- told RFE/RL that Bulgaria and Romania have managed to make considerable progress toward NATO membership over the past year: "[Strong] political leadership, the case that they are working to specialize their forces, the continuing case that they are strategically relevant, especially in the post-11 September atmosphere. I think a lot of [Western] policymakers understand now that the center of gravity of the threats is shifting."
Meanwhile, military analyst Ian Kemp, of "Jane's Defense Weekly," said both countries have also made steady progress in meeting NATO admission criteria. He told RFE/RL that the two states have scaled down their armed forces considerably: "Both Bulgaria and Romania have made significant strides in reducing the size of their armed forces. Bulgaria, for instance, had about 82,000 personnel in service at the beginning of 2001 and their current plan is to have 45,000 in military service in 2004. Significant cuts have already been made from the [communist-era] Warsaw Pact levels and now the planned levels for both countries are what you would expect for NATO countries of these sizes which rely upon voluntary enlistment."
Romania, too, has made ambitious cuts, trimming down its armed forces from some 190,000 at the end of communism in 1989, to 96,000 currently, and further cuts are expected to bring the number down to 75,000 by 2007.
Both countries have proved themselves reliable partners for NATO in peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia and in the current antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, where Romania has contributed a battalion to the International Security Assistance Force and Bulgaria has sent a decontamination team.
Furthermore, Romania has increased its defense budget to more than $1 billion this year and it envisages annual military spending of some $1.1 billion -- 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product -- for the next three years.
But Romania and Bulgaria, as well as the other five candidates, are likely to join the alliance at a moment when the 53-year-old bloc is making efforts to reshape itself to better suit the post-11 September strategic environment.
U.S. military officials and analysts have said that, as it turns into a larger, 26-member bloc, NATO needs to become more flexible and better-suited to react rapidly to threats anywhere in the world.
They say that unless NATO becomes a more mobile and specialized military alliance, it risks being increasingly sidelined as a mere political forum, unable to deliver in times of crisis.
NATO expert Jeffrey Gedmin said smaller countries could also play an important role in a new, more specialized NATO: "The emphasis that the U.S. Bush administration and the Pentagon in particular have been trying to convey to European allies is that if NATO is to last as a military organization and not just as a political organization, the accent has to be on flexibility, the accent has to be on mobility, and the accent has to be on specialization. And so, if that means special forces, if that means equipment to detect biological or chemical weapons, there's a whole range of things that even smaller countries -- from Denmark to Bulgaria -- can do, if they want to and if they want to devote resources and time to development."
However, analyst Ian Kemp said for new and prospective members, specialization is desired only if their expertise will help existing NATO members reduce forces or spending in that particular area.
Kemp gave the example of the three Baltic countries. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have concentrated on naval mining countermeasures, but still require much in the way of Western equipment and expertise. He says that there is little the Baltic states can offer that would enable other alliance members to cut forces in those areas.
But Kemp believes that Romania and Bulgaria -- aside from their strategic location as launch pads in a possible war against Iraq -- can also make a contribution to a future NATO rapid reaction force. The U.S. administration has said that such a force should number some 20,000 people and should be able to deploy quickly anywhere in the world.
"Certainly, what NATO will be expecting Romania and Bulgaria to contribute is substantial ground forces for both peacekeeping operations to participate in the war on terrorism, and for general defense missions should a threat to NATO ever arise. And within the NATO reform process over the past several years, the emphasis has been very much on preparing rapid reaction forces, or so-called projection forces, which can be sent abroad for peacekeeping missions in places like former Yugoslavia, or indeed, if the alliance will decide to do so, in [operation] theaters further abroad. The participation of some NATO countries in Afghanistan is a typical example."
Kemp said that Bulgaria and, to an even greater extent, Romania have concentrated their modernization efforts on such rapid-reaction forces. Romania's renowned mountain-warfare forces, he says, could make an important contribution in rough-terrain operations such as those in Afghanistan.
Experts say that countries likely to be invited to join NATO in Prague also have the advantage of being able to avoid mistakes made by their predecessors in 1999 -- Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
Those countries launched overly ambitious modernization plans -- often focusing on the acquisition of very expensive items like fighter planes -- which subsequently had to be downscaled. The seven candidates have also benefited from three or four additional years of preparation with NATO assistance.
But analyst Ian Kemp says both countries will have to step up military reforms to reduce personnel and, at the same time, complete the shift from a conscript-based army to the common Western model of volunteer armed forces. He notes that even though securing an invitation to join NATO appears closer than ever for Romania and Bulgaria, it will mark only the beginning of a difficult road.