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Baltic States: Leaders Express Confidence In NATO

By Kestutis Girnius

Madrid, 9 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Baltic leaders at a NATO summit in Madrid expressed enthusiasm today about the NATO expansion process one day after Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary won invitations to begin accession talks.

Our correspondent in Madrid quotes Estonian President Lennart Meri as saying he believes a NATO declaration issued yesterday places the Baltic states on an equal footing with Romania and Slovenia for a second round of expansion. In the declaration, NATO leaders said they would review expansion plans in 1999 and said the alliance remains open to new members.

At a news conference, Meri would not speculate on the possible date of Estonia's entry into NATO, but said it will join immediately when regarded as ready by the member states.

Meri also suggested that a future improvement in Russia's economic and political climate will reduce its objections to further NATO expansion. Moscow has said it would particularly oppose NATO membership for former Soviet republics.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas said he believes his country will be asked to join NATO in a second wave of new members. Brazauskas also expressed the hope that Moscow's opposition to NATO membership for the Baltic states will decrease.

And Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis said he expects the Baltic states will be invited to join NATO within five to seven years.