Madrid, 9 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - It was expected - and it happened.
NATO yesterday launched its Eastward expansion by inviting the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to begin membership negotiations. The eventual agreement is to be ratified by all 16 NATO member states in time for a planned accession in April 1999.
Also yesterday, NATO announced that it is - and will remain - an open alliance, determined to accept new countries as members when they fulfill the necessary political and military requirements. Decisions on which nations will be admitted in the second wave of invitations and when this is to take place are likely to be taken at NATO's 50th anniversary summit in 1999.
Today, NATO signed a charter with Ukraine, calling for expanded, cooperative relations and what the document called a "distinctive partnership" to promote democratic values in Eastern Europe. President Leonid Kuchma said that the deal enhances his country's security and corresponds to its national interests.
And also today, top leaders of all NATO member states met with representatives of 27 mostly Eastern countries participating in the Alliance's Partnership for Peace program for talks on ways to enhance cooperation. Most of those attending the meeting were either heads of state or top government leaders
U. S. President Bill Clinton yesterday hailed NATO expansion as a "major achievement in advancing freedom and democracy." Other Western leaders concurred.
But Russia voiced its opposition, with Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov denouncing NATO's Eastward movement as what he termed "the worst mistake" since World War II. This has been Russia's standard and continuing position for the last three years. Moscow has clearly not been affected by the recently signed formal agreement on bilateral relations with NATO.
The Madrid NATO summit also expressed strong support for Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic in her political struggles with radical Bosnian Serb groups.
The summit failed, however, to take decisions on internal reorganization of the Alliance, although all NATO leaders lauded "progress" made in establishing an "European identity" within the Alliance. The summit agreed that further efforts in strengthening this "identity" should be made in the future.
But there was no discernible move toward either changing the existing command structure, in which the U. S. plays a dominant role, or the manner of decision making. France had argued for such a change. But despite what was called a "vigorous and lively discussion," no change was made. French President Jacques Chirac was said by his spokeswoman (Catherine Colonna) to have "presented his case clearly and very strongly, but without stubbornness."
But then, no drastic internal change within the alliance had been expected. NATO has always operated by consensus and there was no obvious consensus on any proposals for introducing drastic moves or alterations.
NATO is generally regarded as the most effective military alliance in history. It has provided its members with a guarantee of security. It has also furnished an organizational focus for the maintenance of democratic values in the contemporary world. It has achieved this status and fulfilled that role by establishing an effective and firm bond between North American and European democracies, and its continuing success depends on the preservation of this bond.
NATO has been seen in this way in most Central and Eastern European countries. This is why they have tried to accede to the Alliance. Some of them have now succeeded in gaining invitations to membership talks. Others hope to follow. The Madrid summit created the gateway for a process that is to continue in the years to come.