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Lithuania: Foreign Minister Says Country Ready To Join NATO

Washington, 1 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuania's Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas says his country has met the requirements to join NATO and hopes the alliance will remain firmly committed to its policy to admit future members.

Saudargas made the comment Friday (Jan. 29) at a press briefing at RFE/RL in Washington. He is in the U.S. on a week-long official visit, primarily to discuss Lithuania's efforts to secure a second-round invitation from NATO.

Saudargas says Lithuania is now a "fully functioning democracy" and its military forces are being prepared for both cooperating independently and integrating into NATO force structures.

Saudargas says that during his discussions with top U.S. officials at the State and Defense Departments, he outlined Lithuania's 10-year plan to have an active military force of 25,000. He says this force would be organized into three brigades and a rapid deployment force which would be available to NATO on 24 hours notice.

He also says that Lithuania's State Defense Council, chaired by President Valdas Adamkus, has made a commitment to have a credible defense force by allocating 1.6 percent of this year's annual gross domestic product (GDP) to the defense budget - to reach the level of two percent by the year 2001.

Saudargas says Lithuania's armed forces did "very well" in numerous joint Partnership for Peace exercises. He added that a Lithuanian warship visited the U.S. for the first time last year.

In response to a reporter's question, Saudargas said he did not believe Russia would present an obstacle to the admission of any of the Baltic states to NATO. He said he didn't see why Russia would be against an independent country making its own national security decisions.

Saudargas said that if the NATO summit in Washington this April fails to result in the announcement of a second round of candidates, it is his "strong belief" it will not be because of any objections from Russia.

He says Russia is "a great country," and adds that regardless of who Russia's future leaders might be, he did not expect Moscow's foreign policy to change on this point. He says Lithuania believes all Russian leaders, regardless of who they may be in the coming years, will continue to "look toward the future" and not "use the arguments of the past."

Saudargas says: "Of course, this old thinking is still sometimes present, and we hope that the acceptance and integration of the first new members into NATO will give evidence to Russia that nothing will happen."

Saudargas says Lithuania has clearly passed NATO's "litmus test" for membership. The only step now, he says, is to determine how committed NATO leaders really are to keeping the door open to a second round of candidates.

He says: "Our membership can only strengthen the stability of Europe. But the Western members of NATO still face the test - will they continue to enlarge NATO and invite Lithuania and other prepared candidates?" All three Baltic countries are seeking NATO membership. U.S. President Bill Clinton said last year that NATO's door is and will remain open to every partner nation, and that America is determined to create the conditions under which Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can one day walk through that door.

Three East European nations will join NATO's 16 other members in April, when the U.S. hosts a 50th anniversary alliance summit in Washington. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are to be formally accorded full membership status.