Washington, June 27 (RFE/RL) -- The Baltic republics want to work with the United States "to protect the most pro-American region in the world -- eastern Europe," says Estonian President Lennart Meri.
"Russia is not pro-American," Meri said, adding that that is one of the reasons why Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania want to become full members of the NATO alliance.
Meri, Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis and Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas spoke to reporters Wednesday as they continued a round of meetings in the U.S. capitol with senior government officials and members of the U.S. Congress.
The three leaders had a joint meeting with President Bill Clinton on Tuesday. They reaffirmed the desire of the three republics to eventually join the alliance and said they received "positive answers" from Clinton on the issue.
NATO is not expected to make any decisions about expansion until 1997. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are most frequently mentioned as the most likely new members.
Meri said the Baltic states "are not obsessed" with NATO membership. However, he stressed that the three nations are Western countries and that they want full integration in all of the important Western institutions, including NATO and the European Union.
Russia has repeatedly made clear its opposition to NATO expansion. Meri said the Baltic countries do not want to antagonize their large neighbor, but he also said the republics have legitimate security concerns. All three republics were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. They regained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Meri added that a stable and democratic Russia "is our best security guarantee."
"Russia will always be our neighbor," Meri said. "We also want Russia as a friend."
President Ulmanis said NATO membership is not the only element of security for the Baltics. He said trade and investment ties with the West are equally important. "Security has a much broader significance," he said, adding that the three presidents did not come to Washington to receive guarantees.
President Brazauskas said that Baltic security was mainly the responsibility of the three republics. "Stability should be first achieved through our own efforts," he said.
He added that the foreign policy priority of the Baltics "is normal relations with all of our neighbors."