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Baltics: NATO Membership Is Divisive Issue

The three Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are enthusiastic candidates for membership in the NATO alliance. With their memories of 50 years of Soviet occupation and still wary of neighboring Russia, these states see NATO as the only real guarantor of their renewed independence. But recent comments by Finnish President Tarja Halonen, in which she expresses skepticism about the enlargement of NATO to include the Baltics, serve as a reminder that not everyone thinks alike on the subject.

Prague, 12 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's opposition to the extension of NATO to include the three Baltic states has long posed a dilemma for the alliance. Should NATO disregard Moscow's disapproval and admit the Baltic states, or should NATO pause and avoid admitting the three in the next wave of expansion?

Time for a decision is running short. The Prague summit of NATO in the autumn of 2002 is expected to deal with the issue of "invitations" to some of the nine eastern countries which are seeking membership.

The public debate on the issue of which countries to admit is already well underway. Recent comments by Finnish President Tarja Halonen can be seen as part of this debate.

Halonen is quoted in a German magazine (Der Spiegel) as saying the question of stability in Europe should be considered in a wider context than only NATO, and should include Russia. Describing good relations with Moscow as vital, she is quoted as saying Finland cannot support the Baltic republics' interest in NATO in the same way as it does their integration into the European Union.

Russia says NATO entry for the Baltic states, all former Soviet republics, will bring the alliance unacceptably close to its border.

Finland is a neutral country and not a member of NATO, and therefore it has no say within the alliance. But it is a member of the EU, and some political analysts see similar thinking among other EU members who are members of NATO.

One such analyst is Laurence Korb with the New-York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Korb says "most Europeans" are not enthusiastic about the expansion of NATO to the Baltics, in contrast to the United States, which would like to go ahead with their inclusion. He cites France and Greece as NATO members who are not supportive and says even Germany, which is careful in its pronouncements, probably has doubts.

Korb told RFE/RL that the question of the Baltics is a divisive one:

"I think it could lead to division within NATO and my guess is that it is not something which will be done with the next round of expansion. I think you will probably admit Slovakia and Slovenia rather than take one of the Baltics, and if you do take the Baltics, you won't take all three, you will probably only take one -- at least initially."

Such an outcome would be a disappointment for many citizens of the Baltic countries. Estonian media commentator Hannes Rumm sums up the feeling of many of his fellow countrymen: "I think if Estonia and other Baltic states would be invited to NATO next year, that would mean Estonian security problems would be solved far better than [at any previous time] during the last thousand years."

Independent of their NATO applications, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are on track to becoming European Union members, and there are suggestions that this offers them a measure of security. Analyst Korb says the EU is strengthening its position as an entity by developing its foreign and security policy and by creating its own rapid-reaction military force. He says:

"There's a long gap between the rhetoric and the reality, but if they [in the EU] come up with a separate defense identity and a common security and foreign policy, I think that will be the de facto equivalent [for the Baltic states] of coming into NATO."

But, as Korb knows, there's a key difference between membership in the NATO military alliance and the civil-based EU. Jan Stroem, the information chief in the Swedish Prime Minister's Office, explained this in comments to RFE/RL. Sweden is current president of the EU. Stroem said:

"On one hand it is certain that EU membership has a security dimension, but on the other hand it [does not involve] security guarantees. There is no equivalent to 'Chapter 5' in NATO, where you give and take mutual security guarantees within the group. There is no equivalent to that in the EU at all. So in that respect there is a definitive difference between NATO and EU membership."

Sweden -- like Finland -- is neutral and is not a member of NATO. Halonen's quoted remarks include a reference to the closeness of spirit between her country and Sweden. In light of her remarks, Stroem emphasized Sweden's complete impartiality on the issue of NATO membership for the Baltics. He said:

"Sweden reserves its own right to choose its own security policy configuration, and defends every other country's rights to choose for itself -- which by some is seen as an implicit recommendation even that the Baltics should become NATO [members]. But that is not the case. We say that it is up to them and it is their decision only."

Estonian commentator Rumm says he is guardedly optimistic about the possibility of progress by the Baltic states toward NATO. And he raises the suggestion that there could be a special deal struck for the Baltics. He tells RFE/RL:

"I visited NATO headquarters last week and I had a lot of meetings with different officials, and high representatives of NATO, and NATO members including Germany and the United States. I got the impression that even if the Baltic states are not included in the next wave of enlargement -- which in my opinion is now more likely than unlikely -- then the Baltic countries will be given very strong compensation for that -- nobody knows yet what that could be."

This reference to "compensation" -- what would it mean in practice? Analyst Korb senses something similar in the wind. He envisages it as perhaps a special arrangement for the Baltics falling short of NATO membership but probably including some form of security guarantee.

This guarantee could for instance be given to the Baltics by the United States and other NATO members outside the formal framework of NATO membership.