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Baltics: German Comment Heightens Concern Over NATO Entry

A statement in Estonia this week by a senior German defense official is again raising suspicion in the Baltic countries that some European NATO members are lukewarm in their support for the entry of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia into the North Atlantic alliance. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 22 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- On Monday a remark by a senior German defense ministry official, Walter Kolbow, on a visit to Estonia, was interpreted by politicians in the Baltic countries aspiring to NATO membership as meaning Russia had an effective veto on their entry into the military alliance.

Kolbow was quoted as telling a news conference in Tallinn that Russian objections to NATO's continued eastward expansion must be overcome before any new countries are admitted. The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, quoting the Baltic news service BNS, cited Kolbow as saying Russia's "zustimmung" (consent) would have to be won before any new members could be accepted.

The three former Soviet Baltic republics, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, are among nine countries applying for membership. All see NATO membership as a foreign policy priority and their countries' best guarantee against any future attempts by Moscow to occupy them.

NATO has said that any new decision to take on new members will not be made until 2002. Last year, in a first wave of expansion, NATO admitted as members Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic over Russia's objections.

Russia is opposed to further expansion and President Vladimir Putin earlier this month, during a visit to Germany, warned that the Baltic countries' membership in NATO could lead to destabilization.

The German Defense Ministry on Wednesday (June 21) issued a clarification of Kolbow's remarks, saying that Kolbow had emphasized that Russia does not have any veto about who can become a NATO member.

The statement added that Germany would try to work to smooth over Russian opposition before any future expansion.

But Kolbow's remarks -- in spite of claims by the German Defense Ministry that he had been misquoted -- only served to heighten concern by the Baltic states that came to the fore earlier this month during a visit to the Baltics by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

The impression gained by Baltic politicians, and reflected by local and German media, was that Schroeder had dampened the hopes of the Baltic states of joining NATO and that he was more interested in building a good relationship with Putin even if that was at the expense of the Baltic nations.

The head of Lithuania's bilateral relations department, Gedrius Cekoulis, who supervises his country's NATO entry process, said Lithuania and the other Baltic states felt that some NATO members were not very supportive of the Baltic countries' applications.

"I will be frank, yes, I have a personal feeling that there is a sort of division of opinions probably of who might be called [to enter NATO]. It is so. We really feel some strong U.S. support and we would wish to have stronger European support for our NATO aspirations."

Cekoulis said that just because the three Baltic countries had been occupied by the Soviet Union, that should not interfere with their ambitions to enter NATO. He said Russian objections demonstrated that some of the Russian governing elite were still trapped in an old imperial mold but that he was certain that NATO would not alter its position that Russia had any official or unofficial veto on the alliance.

NATO has tried to establish cordial relations with Russia and has repeated many times that the eastward expansion of the alliance should not be seen as a threat to Russia.

NATO spokesman Lee McClenny said that although the alliance wants to build closer ties with Russia, that does not allow Russia to dictate who becomes a member of NATO:

"Senior NATO officials, including the secretary general Lord Robertson, have been very clear on this subject and that is that neither Russia nor any other nation that is not a NATO member has any veto on the decision-making process here at NATO. Only the 19 member nations have the right to enter into discussions in the North Atlantic Council and that would be true of all matters that come before NATO; questions of future expansion or questions of current military operations."

He said that the only way Russia could influence NATO was by influencing some of the member countries and that there was likely to be a great amount of discussion before there is agreement about who can join NATO after 2002.

"It's naturally true that if you have an alliance of 19 members there will be differences of opinion. We here at NATO, an organization with a 50-year history of success in the field of security in Europe, we have a mechanism for dealing with decision-making, it's a consensus process. There's a great deal of discussion, a great deal of open and frank discussion among the 19 members -- extraordinarily frank discussion I have to say -- and through the process of consensus we reach agreement. And once an agreement is reached, all 19 members stand behind the agreement."

Cekoulis said the decision to enlarge NATO will be 95 percent political and all that his country and its two Baltic neighbors can do is to lobby hard and ensure that militarily their armed forces are up to NATO standards.