Prague, 24 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. ambassador to NATO says that admission to the 16-nation security alliance will remain open to all Eastern candidate states even after what he calls the first "few" of them are invited to begin membership negotiations next year.
But Ambassador Robert Hunter suggests that far from all of the 12 Eastern states that are now concluding individual bilateral dialogues with NATO will gain admission by the end of the decade. In a speech earlier this week, President Bill Clinton spoke of the "first group" of Eastern candidate nations joining the alliance during 1999, its 50th anniversary year.
Hunter says NATO is now seeking to upgrade its Partnership for Peace cooperation program with Central and Eastern European nations. He says that the Alliance is currently "trying to make the difference between being a member and a partner as small as possible. Everybody who wants to be part of the NATO family will be a part."
Hunter made his remarks during an interview with an RFE/RL correspondent in his office at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The interview took place late last week, but at the ambassador's request was not aired until Clinton delivered his speech on Tuesday.
Hunter would not comment on which of the Eastern nations will be invited to begin membership talks at a NATO summit meeting in the middle of next year. But other U.S. and European diplomats at NATO confirm the likelihood of at least three Central European countries -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland -- being among the first to be asked to join the alliance.
The diplomats, who requested that their names not be cited, also suggested that Slovenia could be among next year's invitees. They said Romania and Slovakia were also still in consideration, but were not likely to end up with a formal invitation from the summit meeting.