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Baltics: Washington Says No Russian Veto Over NATO Expansion

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says NATO will make a decision at its Prague summit next year about taking in new members. Powell says Russia will not have a veto over the matter. The three Baltic countries, meanwhile, agreed to join together in urging the alliance to speed up their entry into NATO. Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports from Washington.

Washington, 15 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says Russia will not be permitted to veto any plans by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to expand -- including possibly to the Baltic states.

The three Baltic states -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia -- as well as Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Macedonia have all expressed strong interest in joining the 19-nation military alliance. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, in the alliance's first wave of expansion eastward.

Powell told a U.S. Senate panel yesterday (Wednesday) that NATO will make a decision about taking on any new members only next year at the alliance's summit in Prague:

"That membership decision will be made by NATO at the Prague summit in late 2002, next year. At the NATO summit meeting this spring in Budapest, we will have a report from all of our NATO members as to their thinking as to how the various nations, of the nine nations [actively seeking membership], have come along with respect to meeting the economic, democratic, and other standards that are going to be required for NATO membership, how they will contribute to the overall strength of the alliance. And I think that the three Baltic states have made progress."

Russia is opposed to NATO expansion, arguing that it's not necessary since the Cold War is over. It is especially critical of any plan to incorporate the Baltic states, which are former Soviet republics.

Powell says NATO has made no decision about how to proceed with its expansion plans.

"There is no consensus yet within the alliance as to whether we -- whether the alliance -- should go for a few, half, or all the nine, or which will be in the half and which would not."

Powell emphasized that any expansion would be NATO's decision alone.

"We have made a judgment, however, that Russia would not be allowed to have a veto over the subject. This matter will be decided by NATO on the basis of NATO standards."

It was the first time Powell has commented publicly in detail about the aspirations of the Baltic countries to join NATO since becoming America's top diplomat in January. The Baltic countries are concerned that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush might bend to Russian pressure and put off expansion plans.

Meanwhile, the three Baltic countries say they will join together in urging Bush to speed up their entry into NATO.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, speaking yesterday in Vilnius at the beginning of a three-day state visit by Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, said the presidents of the three countries will make their position clear in visits to Washington.

Adamkus said all three Baltic states are determined to join NATO.

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) said in January he will urge Bush to support full NATO membership for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the year 2002.

Helms said invitations to the Baltic republics during the expected next phase of NATO expansion will serve U.S. national interests as well as the security needs of the three countries.