PRAGUE, April 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is stressing that this week's meetings are informal -- and therefore will not result in any formal decisions on important issues facing the alliance.
But he says the talks will determine the agenda for a November summit of NATO leaders in Riga, Latvia.
"Foreign ministers of NATO do not meet this often. And I do consider -- and I know they do as well -- that this is an important building block for Riga, because Sofia will help to shape the subjects which will be discussed in Riga," de Hoop Scheffer said. "When defense ministers meet here [in Brussels] in June, we will discuss the military volet [issues]. Now it is political [issues] -- political in the sense that the discussion [will be] on those political subjects which are relevant and important for NATO's on-going transformation."
De Hoop Scheffer said foreign ministers in Sofia will start to discuss what signals they would like to send to aspiring NATO members. Non-Member Considerations
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on April 25, de Hoop Scheffer also said the alliance must be better prepared to interact with the non-member countries that contribute troops to NATO-led operations like the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
Iran is not formally on the agenda of this week's talks. But the secretary-general has said he expects concerns about Iran's nuclear program to be raised when EU and NATO foreign ministers gather for dinner.
"The general thrust of this discussion is that it would be wrong to go on answering 21st-century questions by 20th-century answers," de Hoop Scheffer said. "We have to be innovative in this respect. This is not doing away with NATO's existing partnerships. But it is trying to find the answers in a new and very challenging political and security environment. This is not making NATO into a global alliance. But it is making NATO into an alliance with global partners -- because the threats and challenges are of a global nature."
De Hoop Scheffer cited the planned deployment of Australian forces in southern Afghanistan and the work of New Zealand troops north of Kabul as examples of NATO's expanding partnerships with non-member countries. He also highlighted troop contributions to NATO missions by non-member European countries like Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Switzerland.
But he also said the sensitivities of countries like Pakistan and India must be considered as NATO takes on missions like its current role in Afghanistan.
"When you are in Afghanistan as NATO, you have to pay attention to your relationship with Pakistan. You have to pay attention to your relationship with India," de Hoop Scheffer said. "You are not operating in a vacuum or in a void. And that's why I said 'bringing them into the fold.' Because I have not a specific structure in mind to do that. One very concrete structure is building it around NATO's operations and missions. But how exactly you are going to develop this political dialogue is, of course, another matter -- if you do that in a structured way, if you do that on an ad hoc basis. This is simply because we are only starting this discussion." Belarus To Sudan, And Probably Iran
Iran is not formally on the agenda of this week's talks. But the secretary-general has said he expects concerns about Iran's nuclear program to be raised when EU and NATO foreign ministers gather for dinner on April 27 along with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
"Given the fact that the EU-3 [Britain, France, and Germany] and [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice [will be] sitting in the same room in that trans-Atlantic dinner, it is my personal view that I don't exclude that [concerns over Iran's nuclear program] will come up there -- because of the company sitting around the table," de Hoop Scheffer said.
De Hoop Scheffer says Ukraine's Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk will brief the alliance about recent political developments in Kyiv during an April 28 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine commission. Another important meeting the same day will include members of the NATO-Russia Council.
"We will have the NATO-Russia Council, where I expect a good political discussion. What I expect as subjects to come up there are the Balkans, Afghanistan -- the counternarcotics program together with the Russians," de Hoop Scheffer said. "I do not exclude that the CFE treaty -- the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty -- will come up. I am sure Belarus might be a point of discussion for the NATO-Russia Council. The allies welcome, and I do welcome, the recent agreement that Russia has agreed upon with Georgia on the Russian bases in Georgia."
The NATO ministers also are expected to discuss possible responses to the crisis in Sudan's western region of Darfur.