The U.S. Senate yesterday voted overwhelmingly to expand NATO to seven Eastern European nations. For the top diplomats of those former communist countries, who said they will work to bridge the trans-Atlantic divide, it was a day of celebration.
Washington, 9 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The foreign ministers of seven Eastern European countries set to join NATO celebrated yesterday after the U.S. Senate voted unanimously in favor of bringing them into the military alliance.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis -- speaking on behalf of his counterparts from Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- told a news conference in Washington after the Senate vote: "This is a moment of truth and a moment of joy for all of the free nations, including the United States and other NATO allies who worked hard to make this happen."
U.S. President George W. Bush later welcomed the foreign ministers to the White House. Speaking on the 58th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Bush said the incoming NATO partners will make the alliance stronger.
"Through decades of crisis and division, Europe's peoples shared with people everywhere the same need and hope for freedom," he said. "This hope overcame the designs of tyrants, and this hope overcame the tragedies of war. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe are one of history's great examples of the power and appeal of liberty."
The U.S. Senate, which ratifies alliances and treaties under the U.S. Constitution, voted 96-0 in favor of expanding the alliance to the new members. Four senators were not present for the vote.
The legislatures of the other 18 NATO nations also must vote on the applications. All members except the U.S., Canada, and Norway have yet to vote, but all are expected to approve NATO's expansion, which is anticipated to formally occur by May 2004.
Appearing together before reporters, the seven foreign ministers said their nations -- which strongly supported U.S. policy in Iraq -- will reinvigorate the trans-Atlantic alliance at a time when it is struggling to reinvent itself to face new dangers such as terrorism and a new rift over the use of U.S. power.
The ministers said they will bring to NATO the "moral clarity" of those who have suffered totalitarianism and know the value of freedom. Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said: "We do not debate NATO's relevance. We are confident in its value and role in defending the security of the North Atlantic area in the post-Cold [War] and post-9/11 era."
All seven nations signed a letter last February that pledged support for the U.S. on Iraq. The letter by the so-called "Vilnius Group," which was also signed by Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia, exposed deep division between nations in Eastern Europe and France and Germany, the Western European powers that bitterly opposed the Iraq war.
The ministers vowed their new place in NATO will help improve sagging relations between Washington and France and Germany. Estonian Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland said: "The countries like we are, we understand very well the importance of North Atlantic relations and the meaning of NATO as the basic security guarantor. And I believe that this is very much in our task, when we will be full members of this organization, to keep this political understanding among European friends."
The ministers also insisted they would make NATO a stronger military alliance, saying they had all worked hard to reform their militaries and upgrade capabilities.
Lithuania's Valionis said the new members would be both "active and effective" providers and "consumers" of security. Slovakian Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan added: "We want to prove, when we are full members, that the enlargement or enlarged NATO will be a stronger alliance. And we would like to contribute to these new responsibilities, which NATO is going to take on in the future development of international relations."
The ministers also urged NATO to continue expanding, in particular praising a recent accord signed by Washington, Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia that is expected to bring those Balkan countries closer to NATO.
Bush, in his address to the ministers, also expressed support for the NATO aspirations of those three countries.
Romania's Geoana said that, coming from a country that has had a difficult postcommunist transition, Bucharest brings to NATO a particular "geostrategic sensitivity" about countries in the Black Sea region that aspire to join the alliance. He and other ministers urged NATO not to "shut its door" after its next expansion.
Romania's neighbor Ukraine, whose president has strained ties with Washington, has expressed interest in joining NATO but has yet to officially seek membership. Georgia, also a Black Sea nation, has formally asked the alliance to consider its future membership.
NATO was last expanded in 1999 when the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined.