Prague, 17 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The year 1997 was the year in which NATO opened to the East.
This process started in May, when the Alliance and Russia set up a special council to facilitate relations. Russia subsequently established political and military representation at the Alliance's headquarters near Brussels, and the NATO-Russia council met several times to discuss relevant issues, although it has no determining influence over the Alliance's decisions.
In July, the NATO summit in Madrid issued formal invitations to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to commence membership negotiations. The summit also opened doors for a possible further expansion in the region.
Furthermore, the Madrid summit established a special cooperative council with Ukraine calling for a "distinctive partnership" to promote democratic values in that eastern country, and set up a large Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) uniting the NATO member states with 28 mostly eastern countries, participating in broad cooperative programs and the Partnership for Peace (PfP).
The EAPC builds on the Partnership for Peace program that has provided, since 1994, an effective mechanism to expand relations between the Alliance and all Central and East European countries as well as other post-Soviet states. It also adds a new element to an emerging Euro-Atlantic security system, alongside an expanded NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The membership negotiations with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland concluded successfully at the end of October, and December 16, in Brussels, foreign ministers of all 16 NATO member states signed the so-called Accession Protocols paving the way for the three Central European countries to become full members of the Alliance.
The protocols are now to be submitted to ratification procedures in each of the Alliance member states. Debate on the accession has already begun in the U.S. Senate, and is said to be moving smoothly. The German cabinet has also given its agreement. Other NATO member states are expected to follow. The odds are that the three Central European states will formally join the Alliance in April 1999, its 50th anniversary.
For the Czechs, the Poles and the Hungarians, this will mark the culmination of their sustained and determined drive to enter NATO. For them, and for many other Easterners as well, the membership in NATO has long been synonymous with the sense of security shared by all Alliance members.
But there are different considerations as well. For many Easterners, the membership in the Alliance appears as a tangible proof of belonging to the family of democratic and stable nations - and a gateway to the West, its institutions and its political and cultural environment. This is why the Central and East European countries make repeated efforts to enter as soon as possible.
For NATO, the opening to the East marks a political and organizational watershed, signaling a major shift in the very concept of the Alliance's role and mission. NATO was initially conceived as a trans-Atlantic security arrangement providing Western Europe with a U.S.-supported shield against Soviet aggression. This is no longer the case, though there is still some uncertainty about how to deal with Russia.
The opening to the East has prompted a gradual move away from the once predominant emphasis on collective Western defense, and toward a concern with promoting political stability throughout all of Europe through international cooperation.
All this created the need for changes within the Alliance itself. This need has been generally recognized, providing the subject for recurring debates throughout the year. But the difficulty has been on defining the manner and scope of their implementation.
Particular problems concern the burgeoning demands within the Alliance for a clear institutional recognition of an "European identity" within NATO. This led to a dispute between the U.S. and France about the allocation of command posts to either Americans or Europeans. France argued for the right to hold a southern-flank command that controls the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and has been traditionally held by the U.S. Washington refused for strategic reasons.
The Madrid summit produced a statement supporting the strengthening of "European identity" within the Alliance, but no decision was taken on practical implementation of that notion, and there is no indication that such a decision would be taken in the near future.
NATO's change is likely to be lengthy and gradual. It could be slowed or even temporarily arrested as a result of unexpected developments and crises. But it is certain that the Alliance that has served Europe and America for many decades will not go away. Indeed, it may become even stronger with the expansion to the East.
The Alliance's enlargement is generally regarded as the most important development in recent East-West relations. It signals a major expansion of Western influence, Western values and Western institutions to the Eastern region. Underpinned by shared military planning and cooperation - but also extending into economic, cultural and environmental fields - it changes the political map of Europe.
U.S. President Bill Clinton hailed NATO expansion in a speech in Madrid as a "major achievement in advancing freedom and democracy." Other Western leaders concurred.