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NATO: U.S. Says No Geographic Exclusions

Washington, 19 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- While acknowledging continued Russian opposition to NATO alliance membership for the Baltic states, the United States says no potential member will be excluded for reasons of "geography or history."

Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said NATO expansion "is an issue of very real disagreement," among the U.S., the alliance, and Moscow. Talbott said the challenge for the future "is to manage disagreement" with the Russians, but he has insisted to the Russians that no sovereign state would be denied membership in NATO.

Talbott added that, while further expansion should not be referred to as "inevitable," there are -- in his words -- considerable grounds for optimism on the parts of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that their goals will be realized.

Talbott spoke to reporters on Friday after meeting Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Latvian State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maris Riekstins, and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas in Washington. The occasion was the second official meeting of the U.S.-Baltic Charter of Partnership Commission. The commission was established by the four countries in 1998 to accelerate the integration of the Baltic republics into Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union.

The commission was supposed to have met in May, but the session was postponed because of NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia.

Talbott thanked the three countries for the contributions they made to the alliance effort in the Balkans, and he said the conflict in that region demonstrated why further expansion of NATO is needed.

The U.S. official reaffirmed the commitment of the U.S. -- and NATO -- to what is called the "open door," policy for prospective members. He said this policy will not be slowed down, and he also said the conflict in the Balkans will not, in his words, tilt the alliance toward giving more consideration to potential members from southern Europe. Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia also want NATO membership.

Latvia's Riekstins said the Baltic states received assurances from Talbott and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that future new members will be judged solely on their ability to meet NATO standards and not on their geography or history.

Ilves said NATO membership is the top foreign policy priority for Estonia. Ilves, who served as spokesman for the three republics, said Friday's talks were, in his words, very, very productive.

Talbott said that not only is NATO membership for the Baltics desirable, but that there is good reason for the three nations to be confident that they will be admitted. He said all three have made great progress in meeting the criteria set down by NATO for membership. However, Talbott offered no potential date for further expansion.

When the alliance held its 50th anniversary summit in Washington in April, the members agreed that expansion should take place "sooner rather than later." Prior to the summit, NATO welcomed the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland as its newest members, bringing the total number of alliance states to 19.