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NATO: Many Challenges Await Expansion Process

Madrid, 8 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The NATO summit in Madrid marks a political milestone for Central and Eastern Europe by starting a long-awaited expansion eastward. This makes the meeting historic.

The top leaders of all 16 NATO nations are expected today to issue invitations to at least three Central European states to begin membership negotiations. It is almost certain that the first group will consist of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. All NATO members agree that these countries should be invited to join, and the alliance's decisions are always taken by consensus. There is considerable support also for Romania and Slovenia, but not unanimity. That alone makes the prospect of their immediate entry doubtful.

But the summit will also announce that the process of expansion shall continue, with a next wave of invitations expected to be made public at the 50th anniversary NATO summit in April 1999.

For the first likely group, the invitation will mark a major diplomatic success. Each has made NATO entry a cornerstone of its foreign policy, regarding it both as a security guarantee and the all-important acceptance into the Western community. The invitation means that their efforts have been recognized and appreciated.

But Madrid marks a starting point, not a finish line. Several challenges remain on the road ahead.

The most important is to win the ratification of their entry by all 16 NATO members. This is not going to be easy. There are serious and influential critics of the expansion in each of the NATO countries. The criticism concerns both the timing and the scope of the enlargement, as well as its impact on the alliance itself and the broad system of international security.

In addition, the prospective members must take into consideration Russia's continuing opposition to the NATO expansion, seeing in it a threat to its international position. Moscow's protest will certainly be heard by many Western politicians.

Membership negotiations are to start in a few months - most likely in September. They are to conclude by the end of the current year. The ratification process starts early next year. The vote in the United States Senate, where a two-thirds majority is required, will be of particular importance. Full membership could be approved in two years, in time for NATO's 50th anniversary. The success of this process is likely to determine the timing and scope of the next wave of invitations.

This process of continuing NATO enlargement is all the more important because it marks an important step toward the creation of a new security system for Europe as a whole, affecting neighboring lands as well.

The summit has invited all 27 heads of states participating in the Partnership for Peace program to discuss new forms of still closer cooperation and exchanges. The gathering is to debate means to establish a dialogue with several Mediterranean states. And it will formally mark a new stage of cooperation with Ukraine by a signing of a NATO-Ukraine Charter regulating bilateral relations. NATO signed a month ago (May) a similar cooperative charter with Russia.

Perhaps less historic, but also important task of the summit is to debate internal reorganization. Changes within NATO command structure and procedures have been made much needed in view of the enlargement. There are many different views within the alliance on the direction and sweep of those changes, with several European countries - primarily France, but also Germany and others - arguing for the expansion of European "identity" within NATO. No decisions on this are expected in Madrid, but the summit provides a major forum for a discussion of various options. This discussion is certain to continue for months or years to come.