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Baltics: Commission To Explore Further Cooperation With U.S.

Washington, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Fresh from the NATO summit that raised hopes for their eventual membership in the military alliance, senior Baltic diplomats return to Washington this week for the second formal meeting of the U.S.-Baltic Partnership Commission.

Officials at Baltic embassies in Washington say they expect nothing but positive results from the meeting.

The one-day working session will take place Wednesday at the U.S. State Department. An unofficial agenda obtained by RFE/RL says the meetings will cover economic, security and political issues. A communique is expected at the end of the day.

The U.S.-Baltic Commission was established in January 1998 through the signing of the U.S.-Baltic Charter of Partnership. That was an accord designed to help Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania speed their transitions to market economies and their integration into major Western institutions, including the NATO alliance.

The joint commission held its first meeting in Riga, Latvia in July 1998.

Rolandas Kacinskas, second secretary at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington said the main purposes of the meeting will be to review the progress of the past year and explore new areas of cooperation for the future. He said he believes there was a great deal of progress in relations over the past 12 months, culminating with the three Baltic nations' participation in NATO's 50th anniversary summit in Washington last month.

"We want to welcome the results of the Washington Summit, including the reaffirmation of the NATO open doors policy and that no country is excluded from the consideration by reasons of geography."

NATO took in three new members in March: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are among a large group of Central and Eastern European nations that also feel qualified for full membership. Russia opposed NATO expansion and Moscow remains adamantly opposed to membership for its three Baltic neighbors.

However, the NATO summit communique, while not setting any dates for accepting more new members, endorsed further enlargement and said that NATO, and no other country, would decide on membership.

In a speech in Bonn, Germany last week, the U.S. representative on NATO's North Atlantic Council -- Ambassador Alexander Vershbow -- said:

"The Washington Summit communique also referred to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by name and committed that, regardless of 'geographic location', each and every candidate for NATO membership will be 'considered on its own merits.' "

Vershbow added his belief that the governments of the three nations "should take particular satisfaction in these statements of alliance policy."

Estonian Embassy First Secretary Lauri Lepik told RFE/RL that Tallinn did take satisfaction from the NATO summit communique. He said Estonia "very much" welcomes the summit results.

Lepik said NATO membership is a top policy priority for Estonia, and he said the establishment by NATO of a blueprint for future membership was a very important development for Estonia.

He described relations between the U.S. and Estonia as having reached a new level, which he described as "quite incredible." Lepik said bilateral cooperation, especially in the security area, has rapidly increased during the past year.

Estonia will be represented by Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves, Latvia by Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs and Lithuania by Deputy Foreign Minister Algirdas Rimkunas. Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Canada Ronald Asmus will lead the U.S. side.