Brussels, 16 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- NATO foreign ministers opened a two-day meeting in Brussels this morning.
The first round of talks is taking place in the North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO's supreme governing body. The council is discussing a new mandate for NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Bosnia following the expiration of the current mandate of the Stabilization Force (SFOR) next June.
Later today, the 16 NATO ministers are to meet with Czech, Hungarian and Polish foreign ministers to sign protocols of accession setting the stage for the three Central European applicants to become full members of the alliance by April 1999, NATO's 50th anniversary. In the interim, NATO members will have to ratify the accession of the three Central European states, which in turn will have to implement a variety of legislative changes --for example, on protection of secrets.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told her 15 counterparts this morning that the accession protocols are being signed now because, in her words, "NATO has determined that the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are ready to meet the obligations that allies share." She said that the strength and reliability of their democracies place them within the European mainstream.
Albright commended the three candidates for progress in adapting their armed forces to NATO's standards and procedures. She said the U.S. is confident that over time the three will achieve what she called "a mature military capability."
Albright said that the three nations are accepting a fundamental change in their national identities. As she put it: "Now for the first time they are accepting responsibility for the freedom and security of others....We will be counting on them to stand by us in our future hours of need."
Albright said ratification of NATO enlargement must not be prejudged or taken for granted. She predicted that the U.S. congressional and public debate on the issue will grow more vigorous in the weeks to come. She reiterated Washington's pledge that NATO's doors will remain open to new members, noting that, as she put it: "A new stage of dialogues should begin next month for the next round of NATO enlargement."
Albright also said NATO should avoid making commitments to specific countries. In her words, there is no need to raise expectations by playing favorites. She told the ministers that NATO must insist the remaining candidates for membership meet the highest standards before they are invited to join. That means they must clear the highest hurdles of reform, demonstrate that they can meet the full obligations of membership, and show that their inclusion will advance NATO's strategic interests.
The Secretary of State did not mention any second-round candidates by name. Slovenia and Romania are generally considered at the top of the list. Russia has warned against NATO membership for any of the three Baltic states.
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov is due to hold talks with the 16 NATO foreign ministers tomorrow. Later this afternoon, the NATO ministers will hold talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Hennady Udovenko.