Washington, 29 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has formally accepted seven new nations into the military alliance, extending NATO's frontiers to the Russian border and holding out the possibility for further expansion.
At a White House ceremony on 29 March, U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed the former communist nations into NATO.
Bush was joined by the prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. These countries submitted accession documents to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell during a ceremony in Washington earlier today.
Recalling the Cold War-era domination by the Soviet Union of its satellites, Bush said: "The people of these seven nations were captives to an empire. They endured bitter tyranny. They struggled for independence. They earned their freedom through courage and perseverance and today they stand with us as full and equal partners in this great alliance."
The acceptance of the seven countries increased the members in the alliance to 26. Under the treaty, they are bound to defend each other militarily if one of them comes under attack.
The new members will participate in their first meeting on 2 April in Brussels, Belgium, at NATO headquarters. Three other nations -- Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia -- hope to join at a future date.
Bush said the door to NATO will remain open "until the whole of Europe is united in freedom and in peace." The president said the seven new members will strengthen the alliance. "Our new members bring moral clarity to the purposes of our alliance. They understand our cause in Afghanistan and in Iraq because tyranny for them is still a fresh memory," Bush said. "These nations know that when great democracies fail to confront danger far worse peril can follow."
NATO, said Bush, now has a new greater mission: to fight against international terrorism. "Today our alliance faces a new enemy which has brought death to innocent people from New York to Madrid," he said. "Terrorists hate everything this alliance stands for. They despise our freedom. They fear our unity. They seek to divide us. They will fail. We will not be divided."
The president said that even before formally joining the alliance, the seven countries were undertaking vital missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Bulgaria provided refueling facilities during the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom and has deployed more than 400 soldiers to Iraq. Military engineers from Estonia and Latvia are helping to clear explosive devices from Iraq. Forces from Lithuania and Slovakia are helping to secure Iraq. Romanian troops have sacrificed their lives fighting terrorists in Afghanistan," Bush said.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Russia -- an opponent of the enlargement -- should not be worried. De Hoop Scheffer said he believes Russia understands an expanded NATO has no designs against Moscow. He said NATO has a solid relationship with Russia and intends to build on it.
But Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko again voiced his government's objection, particularly concerning Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joining the alliance. "By admitting the Baltic countries and offering them security guarantees, many NATO countries apparently proceeded from the old concept of the possibility of a war in Europe," he said. "Only this logic explains the inclusion of the Baltic states in the alliance's integrated air-defense system, the recent AWACS [NATO's Airborne Warning and Control radar aircraft] flights, and the construction of new military facilities near our borders."
Earlier today, Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russia's Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, also reiterated Moscow's opposition to NATO expansion. Mironov said the Russian armed forces are in a state of continual battle readiness and they will "track the situation that is developing at our borders owing to the expansion."
The alliance was originally set up by the West to counter the Soviet Union's military might. NATO was established on 4 April 1949 by 12 nations: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. During the Cold War, the alliance grew to include West Germany, Greece, Spain, and Turkey. After the Cold War ended, three former members of the once-rival Warsaw Pact joined NATO -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.