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Estonia: President Presses For 'Big Bang' NATO Expansion

In Berlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin was complaining about a proposed expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to his country's very borders. In Washington, Estonian President Lennart Meri was explaining why the simultaneous inclusion of nine candidates for NATO would be good for Russia. RFE/RL Senior Correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 16 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Lennart Meri, the president of Estonia, is in Washington to make his case for what is known as the "Big Bang" expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Last month, the leaders of the nine candidates for inclusion in NATO met in Vilnius and urged that they all join the alliance simultaneously -- what has become known as "Big Bang" expansion. These countries -- the so-called "Vilnius Nine" -- are Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Meri offered several reasons for supporting a "Big Bang" during an address Thursday at the headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.

The Estonian president said admitting all nine members in 2002 would be good because a more gradual approach would be long and laborious. He said no NATO candidate could reasonably be expected to try to join with a diminished armed force, and that all candidates have been stressing internal stability and good relations with their neighbors.

Meri said the "Big Bang" also would be good for Russia by quickly pushing it through the painful process of seeing its former satellites join the Western alliance.

"I would liken this to swimming in cold climates. The Baltic Sea is a fairly chilly body of water. In my bay, near my home, water temperatures at this time of the year are in the mid-50s -- 50 degrees Fahrenheit [about 13 degrees Celsius] -- I find it much easier to jump in all at once rather than wading in gradually. [Laughter] And then the water feels fine."

The president was asked just how Russia -- specifically its president -- Vladimir Putin, would react to this "Big Bang" enlargement of NATO.

"So far we have seen that President Putin is a very predictable leader, and I have every reason to assume that he does not want to be a loser. So the very moment when he sees that the enlargement of NATO is something indispensable, he will find a way to agree with it."

At about the same time, in Berlin, Putin was denouncing the idea as a threat to Russia because the alliance would reach to his nation's borders.

Meanwhile, Meri said he believes the smaller nations of Europe unequivocally support a rapid enlargement of NATO. He sees resistance from the so-called "Big Three" -- Britain, France, and Germany, who are still preoccupied by their roles in the Western alliance.

"There is some period where the Big Three are looking for their place in the NATO. I think that -- that those are the main problems we have to face."

But the Estonian president stressed that "Big Bang" enlargement is not applicable to entry into the EU. He explained that membership in NATO requires far less precise standards. The alliance, he said, is really nothing more complex than an expression of what he called "political will." The EU, on the other hand, is technically more demanding of its members.

"The union is workable only if there is a certain level regarding the productivity, regarding the standards. You -- any new member must be able to fulfill some very precise criteria."

Still, Meri said he believes the enlargement of NATO and the enlargement of the European Union are, as he put it, "organically linked" and "different sides of the same coin." Together, he said, the two enlargements would lead to what he called a "new, unified and completed Europe."

The Estonian president said he was in Washington to mark an important anniversary for both the U.S. and his nation. In 1940, he said, the Soviet Union took over the Baltic states, but America formally refused to recognize Moscow's sovereignty over the three countries.

Meri noted that political leaders of both parties in America took this stand. He said this gave Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians moral support to maintain their identities throughout Soviet domination -- and eventually to regain their independence.