Washington, May 27 (RFE/RL) -- A leading U.S. senator is scheduled to be in Estonia today (Monday) for talks with top officials on European security and NATO expansion.
Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) and President Lennart Meri are meeting in Tallinn to exchange views on U.S. policy, the approaching Russian presidential elections and implications for European security.
Before leaving Washington at the weekend, Lugar, a prominent member of several powerful U.S. Senate Committees, including the Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence, told our correspondent and other reporters that he discussed his trip with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher over a working breakfast Friday and that Christopher "welcomed and applauded it."
Lugar plans a one-week swing through Central Europe that began in Brussels at the weekend. From Estonia he goes to Lithuania on Tuesday, continuing on to Germany and Poland and ending in the Czech Republic on the weekend of June 1st.
He says an important part of his fact-finding mission is to explore views on NATO expansion ahead of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin on June 3rd.
The Berlin meeting is expected to review NATO peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and prepare the agenda for a NATO summit in December that will decide which Central European countries will be the first to join the NATO alliance.
Lugar says the U.S. and its allies "are at a very important point (in plans for NATO expansion) given the Berlin meeting and then the December meeting."
Christopher will attend the Berlin session and also meet with a group of Central European foreign ministers, including ministers from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia to brief them about the proceedings. But the Baltics are not likely to hear good news from him.
Although U.S. officials have been careful in public statments to remain general, inclusive and ambiguous about potential new NATO members, it's widely understood that Poland, the Czech republic and Hungary are in the first ranks and the Baltic states will have to wait longer for full membership.
Lithuanian officials have expressed concern about the expected delay, saying it will create a security vacuum in the heart of Europe and separate the Baltics from the community of democratic nations.
U.S. officials have intensified expressions of support for the three Baltic states to reassure them and dispel that notion.
Lugar cited Christopher as saying Friday that, as Lugar put it, "the U.S. is keenly interested in the integrity of the borders of the Baltic countries and their independence."
Lugar added that many members of the U.S Congress are, in his words "enthusiastic about the building of democracy, market economics and strong ties with the West that are exemplified by the Baltic states."
He says Baltic participation in the NATO Partnership for Peace program gives the three states what Lugar calls "consultation status with the U.S. and NATO allies" enhancing their security.
"Secretary Christopher has affirmed that we take this very seriously," Lugar said.
Asked about Slovakia's prospects for joining NATO, Lugar said each country will be evaluated independently for membership. He says "the United States will look at the merits as will other NATO allies."
However, Lugar said he believes "the political situation in Slovakia is distinctly different from that of the Czech Republic, or Hungary, or Poland and that has to be factored in to the NATO decision."