"The Washington Post" notes that yesterday's White House ceremony officially admitting seven ex-communist countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) into NATO occurred at a time when the alliance is redefining its role.
"The expansion -- the second time the alliance has added members since the Soviet Union fell -- comes as a changing NATO prepares to send more forces into Afghanistan, considers a future role in Iraq, and works with nations in North Africa and elsewhere to thwart terrorist organizations," Thomas Ricks writes in a news analysis.
Ricks notes that the expansion from 19 to 26 states "tips the balance of the alliance further eastward -- and tends to make the group as a whole more sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy. The seven new members...backed Bush's move toward war in Iraq early last year, even as original NATO members France and Germany opposed it."
Ricks notes that U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking at yesterday's ceremony, highlighted the support of the seven new member nations in the U.S.-led military operations in Iraq and in the war against terrorism.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
Staff writer Alec Russell writes in London's "The Daily Telegraph" that Russia was unhappy with NATO enlargement and irked by the military alliance's decision to send fighter planes to begin "air policing" over the airspace of the Baltic states.
"The prompt deployment of aircraft to start air-defense patrols over the Baltic states will undoubtedly infuriate Russian nationalists, who contend they will spy on their motherland," Russell says.
An analysis in "Stratfor Commentary" points to the fact that NATO's expansion actually consolidates Washington's influence in Europe at the expense of not only Russia, but also France and Germany.
"The admittance of these [eastern] states into the Western structures gives the United States a huge leg up," the "Stratfor" analysis says -- "not just against Russia, but also over the 'old Europe' states of France and Germany, which have striven to turn the EU into a global power-player that is independent of the United States."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Correspondent Seth Mydans, writing in "The New York Times," looks at yesterday's terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan, which left 19 people dead. Mydans notes there is speculation that the Central Asian nation may have become a target of terrorist attacks because of its staunch support for the United States in its war on terrorism.
"Uzbekistan, a largely Muslim nation in a region where militancy has been growing, has been a strategic ally of the United States as it pursues terrorist groups since the attacks of 11 September 2001," Mydans writes.
But the article also notes that Tashkent has been accused of using the U.S.-led war on terror as an excuse to stifle religious opposition.
But Mydans comments that the Uzbek government has been accused of using the war on terrorism as an excuse to stifle religious opposition. "Uzbekistan, he writes, has carried out a campaign of repression against Muslim dissidents." Human Rights Watch is due today to issue a report documenting Tashkent's crackdown on non-mainstream religious followers.
Several newspapers today look at UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's last-ditch attempt to reunify the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus ahead of European Union enlargement on 1 May.
Correspondent Helena Smith, writing in Britain's "The Guardian," writes that Annan's self-styled "win-win" plan has just two days to prove a real winner.
She writes: "With Cyprus scheduled to join the EU on 1 May, the quest for a deal assumed an urgency last night as leaders of Greece, Turkey, and either side of the island's ethnic divide, held intensive talks with Mr. Annan. All have until tomorrow to back the accord which foresees a loose federation of two largely autonomous states. If that fails, the UN secretary-general has a mandate to fill in any gaps before referendums are held on 20 April."
Annan's proposed accord would give Greeks a larger percentage of the territory seized by Turkish troops in the 1974 invasion but allow fewer to reclaim their homes in the north.
An editorial in London's "Financial Times" looks at the Afghanistan donors conference which starts today in Berlin and is due to discuss a $28 billion, seven-year package for the country.
The editorial says the Berlin conference may be what it calls "the last opportunity to set Afghanistan on a path toward stability and modest but self-sustaining prosperity -- provided everyone realizes what is at stake."
The paper mentions a UN Development Program (UNDP) report, drawn up for the Berlin meeting, which warns that "Afghanistan is again in danger of relapsing into a failed state -- only this time fired by a well-fueled drugs economy."
The editorial says the UNDP report "makes revealing comparisons with other post-conflict countries to show that Iraq gets about 10 times as much aid as Afghanistan despite having roughly the same population size, while Bosnia and East Timor get nearly four times more aid per capita."
It adds, "The UNDP's call for a carefully structured seven-year programme, with commitments of $27.6 billion, is of a scale with the challenge."
The paper concludes that "patient institution-building [including through elections now postponed until September], the replacement of drugs by sustainable economic activity and the restoration of security through disarming the private armies and creating a national army will take at least that amount of time and money."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
"The Wall Street Journal Europe" runs a commentary today under the title "Afghanistan Needs Capital Not Aid" that calls for more private investment in the country.
The commentary, signed by former U.S. Congressman Don Ritter and Afghan-American businessman Mahmood Karzai, warns that "governments and so-called nongovernmental organizations do not create sustainable markets, businesses or jobs."
"The private sector," write Ritter and Karzai, "must replace the present charity- and NGO-based economy of Afghanistan for the Afghan people to move beyond subsistence over the long term."
They argue that "economic growth will never be the priority of NGOs, but it is the primary source of better lives for the Afghan people."
The commentary concludes that "building market economies in places like Afghanistan may just turn out to be the most important weapon in the long-term war on terror."
"The Times" looks at an open letter by jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii, in which Russia's richest man praises the country's most powerful man, President Vladimir Putin. Correspondent Jeremy Page calls Khodorkovskii's letter, published in a Russian business daily, "an extraordinary public climb down," and "the first sign of a compromise with the Kremlin since he was arrested in October."
Page says, "[Khodorkovskii] is thought to have bowed to pressure from the Kremlin because his detention failed to arouse the international outcry he had expected and his liberal supporters were crushed in parliamentary elections in December and a presidential poll this month."
Page goes on to say that Khodorkovskii, who used to be a staunch Kremlin critic before his arrest on tax-evasion charges has now done a complete reversal, portraying Putin "as the defender of liberal democracy from hard-line nationalists, who gained ground in the elections."
Page says that Putin, who this month easily won a second presidential term, "is now anxious to wrap up the saga, which has scared investors by raising fears of a broader review of the privatization process."
In an article in the "Financial Times," correspondent Andrew Jack writes that what he calls Khodorkovskii's "self-critical declaration" marks "a sharp change in tone from his previous defiance over the privatizations of the 1990s."
Jack concludes that the Russian tycoon's public penitence "appears to be an attempt to gain a more lenient approach in his case."