Seven formerly communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe today received formal invitations to join NATO at the alliance's Prague summit. Officials from Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia hailed the move as a historic step that will dramatically change their nations' futures -- and Europe's future as well.
Prague, 21 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from the seven former communist states invited today to join the NATO alliance hailed the move as a history-making event. Among the jubilant officials whose countries make up the new invitees, politicians from the three Baltic states -- former republics of the Soviet Union -- said the day was of particular significant for them.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said today's events clearly show that Europe is no longer divided. She added that her country looks forward to being treated as an equal within the 53-year-old alliance, saying, "We expect nothing less than to be under the same security umbrella" as the other NATO countries.
Russia has been an outspoken opponent of NATO expansion, particularly in regard to the Baltic states. Today's invitations will ultimately bring the Western military alliance literally to Russia's doorstep. But rather than fueling resentment in Moscow, Freiberga said her country's inclusion in NATO would have a positive impact on relations between Latvia and Russia. "We feel that the fait accompli -- what happened today here in Prague -- is going to be an extremely positive signal to Russia that we are indeed on our path to becoming members of this alliance and it's as members of the NATO alliance that our relations of the future will occur with Russia."
Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius told RFE/RL that the decision is of historic significance and removes his country once and for all from the danger of returning to a Russian sphere of influence. "It's a turn in our history. It's not too much to say that. We have been waiting for this for not just years or decades but even longer, because we have had no security guarantees in our history at all. One more point is very important -- it's not the end of the game, it's probably the beginning. We enjoyed being good candidates, but it will be even more challenging and important and difficult to be good allies. So now we are starting a new process -- it's a very historical moment."
Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said the decision is a major step on the path towards permanent democracy, and provides satisfaction for the people who suffered under communism. "The day will definitely strengthen the Slovak republic significantly. At home, in Slovakia, it will strengthen us in our belief that we are pursuing the right path toward a meaningful goal."
Dimitrij Rupel, the foreign minister of Slovenia, said the invitation is a testament to the growth of the former Yugoslav country, and shows that "Slovenia belongs to the West."
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said his country's acceptance into NATO marks a new era in its history. Hope was also expressed that the country's acceptance into NATO might help its eventual aim of joining the European Union. Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Baltic states are all expecting to join the 15-member bloc in 2004, but Bulgaria and Romania have had their EU hopes delayed.
Bulgarian government spokesman Dimitar Tsonev said, "I hope that today's news from Prague, I am sure it will be some kind of...very strong message to all member countries of the European Union for the next enlargement of the union."
Today's seven invitees are due to formally join the NATO alliance in May 2004, once the decision is ratified by the parliaments of the 19 current member nations.