Washington, 13 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia arrive in Washington tonight to begin three days of highly visible meetings and ceremonies, marking the official opening of a new chapter in their relations with the United States.
The high point comes Friday at the White House with the signing of a U.S.-Baltic Charter of Partnership that pledges U.S. support for the integration of the three Baltic nations into Western institutions, including NATO.
From the U.S. perspective, the document marks the true beginning of normal state-to-state relations and the end of the long journey of the Baltic countries from the 1940 Soviet occupation, through the declaration of independence, and recovery from Soviet dominion in the first half of the 1990s, to genuine sovereignty and continuing democratization in the closing years of the decade.
But for many in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the charter, which took a year to complete, is only another step forward on their way West, falling short of initial high hopes.
State Department spokesman James Rubin Monday carefully articulated what the charter does, as well as what it does not do -- thus pinpointing the quiet controversy, kept out of the public eye during the negotiations.
He said the charter sets a framework for development of U.S.-Baltic relations and is a clear statement of U.S. support for "Baltic integration into European and transatlantic institutions."
Rubin noted that "the U.S. welcomes and supports Baltic aspirations to join NATO." But he also said "the charter is not a security guarantee" and "does not commit the United States to Baltic membership."
He emphasized that "the charter in fact reaffirms U.S. policy that aspirants can become members only as they prove themselves able and willing to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership."
Although Estonia is generally recognized by experts as being as able and willing as other successful NATO candidates, Baltic leaders have had to accept their exclusion from plans for the first round of NATO expansion, confined to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic,
They may also miss out on a second round of NATO enlargement expected after 1999. Washington sources say U.S. officials have advised the Baltic governments they will not be able to join NATO anytime soon.
When asked about Baltic membership, the stock reply of U.S. and NATO officials is that enlargement must take into account the interests of the whole alliance and not weaken it in any way. In other words, U.S. and NATO officials say concern about Russia's opposition is a looming factor in consideration of Baltic membership in NATO.
Rubin yesterday said the U.S. has briefed Russia on the Baltic charter but not received an official reaction.
The charter itself has been designed to soothe Russian sensitivities regarding the Baltic states.
Rubin said the document contains specific language, as he put it "welcoming the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the strength in NATO-Russia relationships as core elements of their shared vision of a new and peaceful Europe."
Another early disappointment for Baltic leaders, especially Lithuanians, was U.S. insistence on one charter for all three states instead of separate bilateral documents individually for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
But in Washington this week, there will be public praise and applause for the charter. Presidents Lennart Meri of Estonia, Guntis Ulmanism of Latvia and Algirdas Brazauskas of Lithuania have already called it a unique and significant document that will strengthen regional stability and forge closer ties between the Baltic countries and Europe as well as the United States.
The charter sets up formal bilateral working groups loosely modeled after U.S. commissions with Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which are co-chaired by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the respective president.
The ranking U.S. official on the U.S.-Baltic Partnership Commission is expected to be Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, with Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Stuart Eizenstat in charge of economic development issues. They will meet regularly to advance cooperation in science, technology, commerce and other areas.
The three presidents are getting a head start on some bilateral business and political interests in meetings in New York today.
They are scheduled to arrive in Washington late tonight and begin an official round of discussions and public engagements Wednesday.
The itinerary of the Baltic leaders includes meetings with top U.S. officials, financiers, and the Washington policy establishment, as well as a press conference Thursday.
The signing ceremony with President Bill Clinton at the White House is set for Friday, 2000 hours Prague time.
Outgoing Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas will sign for his country. But Lithuanian sources say the president-elect, Valdas Adamkus may reaffirm the Partnership Charter when he makes his first trip to the United States as president. Adamkus is to be inaugurated into office in late February.