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Slovakia: NATO Meeting Centers On Expansion

Top officials from Central and East European countries aspiring to NATO membership are gathering in the Slovak capital Bratislava today and tomorrow to exchange views and to seek ways of coordinating their efforts. The conference is just one of many gatherings in the coming weeks that is likely to focus on NATO expansion. The alliance will not be participating formally, but says it welcomes conferences such as these as signaling strong interest among prospective members.

Bratislava, 10 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Prime ministers from eight East and Central European countries seeking membership in the NATO alliance are meeting today and tomorrow in the Slovak capital Bratislava to discuss ways of coordinating their efforts.

Heads of government from the three Baltic states, as well as Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia, are attending the conference, called "New European Democracies: Leadership and Responsibility." Macedonia and Albania, which have also expressed interest in joining, are expected to be represented by deputy prime ministers. In all, 140 delegates will take part.

The highlight of the conference will be a keynote speech tomorrow (Friday) by the president of the Czech Republic -- and NATO member -- Vaclav Havel. NATO members Hungary and Poland are also sending high-level delegations as a show of support for aspirants from Central and Eastern Europe.

The meeting follows a similar gathering held last May in Vilnius at which high-level representatives of nine prospective members pledged to coordinate their efforts to join the alliance and not to compete among themselves.

The Bratislava meeting is the first of several important NATO gatherings in coming weeks expected to focus at least partly on expansion. At the end of the month, NATO holds its ministerial meeting in Budapest (May 29-30). During the same period (May 27-31), a NATO parliamentary assembly meeting will take place in Vilnius. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson is due to address the assembly on May 31.

Next month (June 13), NATO heads of state, including U.S. President George W. Bush, hold a summit in Brussels.

NATO is not participating in a formal capacity at today's Bratislava meeting, but is sending an observer delegation.

Robert Pszczel, a NATO press officer based in Brussels, says NATO welcomes these types of gatherings:

"A conference of this type, which of course gathers prime ministers and heads of governments of these countries, is very important. We feel it's a very useful event from the point of view of the implementation of the integration programs because -- as is always the case -- it is not just the armed forces or even one or two ministries of these countries involved in the integration process. But it requires an effort on the part of all of the branches of government of these countries. "

NATO has said it remains open to the issue of expansion but will not decide until next year's summit in Prague on when to expand and which countries to take in as new members.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Mark Grossman this evening will address participants on behalf of President Bush. He is expected to brief officials on U.S. plans to construct a defense system to protect against ballistic missiles fired by rogue states.

A speech by U.S. political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, will be another conference highlight.

Organizers of the conference have planned five discussion panels, with the main one dedicated to the vision of a free and united Europe. The discussion will take the form of a roundtable involving the prime ministers or their deputies from the 10 participating countries.

Another discussion panel, to be chaired by the president of the U.S. Committee on NATO, Bruce Jackson, will focus on cooperation between the 19-member alliance and the European Union. A third panel will focus on achieving peace and stability in Southeastern Europe. The other panels will concentrate on fighting corruption in transition countries and on creating civil societies.

The participants are expected to issue a "Bratislava declaration" at the close of the conference on Saturday.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.