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NATO: Next Round Candidates Want Door Left Open

Washington, 13 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On the eve of the U.S. Senate's vote on NATO enlargement, Central and East European nations not included in the first round say they will continue their campaign to keep the door open for future membership.

Last summer, NATO officially invited three countries -- Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland -- to join the alliance. Their expected membership would mark the first change in the organization since Spain was added in 1982.

At the same time, those countries passed over by NATO in the first round were assured that they would still have a chance to join the organization in the future.

But NATO enlargement is a controversial issue in the U.S. Even though experts predict the 100-member U.S. Senate will vote overwhelmingly in favor of admitting the three new nations, there is concern that U.S. interest on further enlarging NATO may wane.

Not all U.S. senators and leading officials are for a rapid enlargement. Some are against expansion altogether, while others are proposing legislation that would require longer pauses before the organization invites any more countries.

This greatly worries those nations who were passed over, but whose chances look good the second time around. So, what are these countries doing to keep their candidacies alive, particularly in Washington?

During an interview with RFE/RL, Romania's Ambassador to the U.S., Mircea Geoana, said he is fully aware that interest in NATO expansion may lessen after the first round. He said NATO officials will likely be more focused on integrating the new members than preparing for a second round of invitations.

But Geoana said he strongly believes in America's commitment to the Madrid declaration and its policy to keep the door open for future inductees into NATO.

Said Geoana: "We do believe that after a short period of time-out ... the focus will come again. And not only on NATO expansion, but on security issues in Europe and the trans-Atlantic area."

He said Romania will not pursue the issue in an "extremely aggressive" manner immediately after the vote in the Senate. But he said his country will maintain active efforts to "prepare and fight and present our case for the next round of NATO expansion."

He added: "I do believe the time we still have ahead of us, between now and April 1999, will allow us, together with the [Clinton] administration, Congress, the think-tank communities, the ethnic groups, and other players in this very sophisticated game, to try and convince Americans that the continuation of the process is foremost serving American interests and also the interest of all Europeans and the democratic world."

Latvian Ambassador to the U.S. Ojars Kalnins told RFE/RL that his country is also working hard to ensure the Madrid declaration remains intact and the door to further enlargement remains open.

Said Kalnins: "We will continue to work with the [U.S.] State Department, which fully supports this concept, and with the members of Congress to keep this door open....If the door is kept open then our responsibility is to do everything that is necessary internally to fulfill all the requirements and conditions of membership so that when the time comes, we will be ready. But we feel that as long as that principle is maintained and that qualified candidates will have the opportunity to join in the future, that we will do fine."

Stasys Sakalauskas, Lithuanian's ambassador to the U.S., says his country's embassy in Washington intends to keep NATO enlargement a very high-profile issue.

During an interview with RFE/RL, Sakalauskas said that Lithuanian officials will continue to meet regularly with members of the U.S. Congress, the State Department and the Clinton administration to indicate Lithuanian's continued interest in joining NATO.

Sakalauskas also says he has every confidence the door to NATO will remain open for future members and adds that Lithuanians were heartened by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's statement last summer that Lithuania is considered a strong candidate for the second round of enlargement.

Slovenia's Ambassador to the U.S. Dimitrij Rupel told RFE/RL that his country was "disappointed" last year when Slovenia was not included in the first round of inductees.

He said that Slovenia is doing "whatever it can" to be included into the second round and will maintain active efforts to keep its candidacy for NATO an important international issue.

Said Rupel: "There is a chain of events which is intended to keep the idea of Slovenian presence alive. Of course, we are using all of the available mechanisms, channels and opportunities to tell our story."

As it is, these countries, and many others, are getting a boost from powerful ethnic organizations in the West. All over Europe, and in America in particular, ethnic groups are playing an important role in keeping the candidacy of many of these nations a pressing issue.

In America, voters of Eastern European extraction -- many of them in key, populous states -- have put enormous pressure on their elected officials to support NATO enlargement.

Aija Straumanis, Director of Public Information for the Joint Baltic-American National Committee, told RFE/RL that her organization helped form a Baltic-Freedom Caucus in the U.S. Senate which strongly supports the ascension of the three Baltic nations in to NATO.

It is no coincidence that the six senators brought on board by the committee all come from states which have sizable ethnic Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian communities.

Said Straumanis: "This is part of our strategy. These senators will take the lead on Baltic issues. What we've done in the past is to make sure that this caucus keeps growing. Then the caucus can help us raise the visibility of Baltic issues, including accession into NATO."

Armand Scala, President of the Romanian-American Congress, told RFE/RL that after the U.S. Senate votes on the first round of inductees, his organization plans to focus on educating members of the U.S. Congress about the strategic importance of Romania and the assets the nation would bring to the NATO alliance.

He added that his organization's work is not only extended to Romania, but to all of the countries of the region.

Said Scala: "We fully intend to work very hard for a second phase, a third phase, for as many phases as it takes for any country in the region who wants to get in, to be admitted."

Eugene Iwanciw of the Ukrainian National Association told RFE/RL that like many people, he expects there will be a lessening of interest in the issue of further enlargement as NATO inducts the new members and works to integrate them into the organization.

But he says he firmly believes NATO will keep the door open for more members. He says his organization, which belongs to a larger alliance of other ethnic groups called the Central and East European Coalition, will keep the pressure on to admit additional countries to NATO. The Central and East European Coalition, which is an alliance of more than a dozen ethnic groups and claims to have 22 million members, says all its members share an important goal -- keeping the door to NATO open.

Says Iwanciw: "Believe me, there are enough interest groups [in the U.S.] who see the value of continued expansion of NATO so that pressure will continue on members of Congress, on this administration and on subsequent administrations."

This effort is not lost on the governments of the countries anxiously awaiting another chance to join the alliance.

Romanian Ambassador Geoana says that he appreciates the work the ethnic groups are doing to keep people interested in NATO enlargement.

Says Geoana: "I'm confident that [these groups] will keep the same interest and energy like for the first round of NATO expansion in supporting their country of origin.... We do strongly believe that the Romanian community, together with the other Central and Eastern European ethnic groups, will continue to support the process of NATO enlargement."