Bratislava, 11 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has signaled that he supports further expansion of the NATO military alliance.
In a letter read aloud yesterday to the Bratislava conference of Central and East European nations seeking membership in the alliance, Bush said that "no part of Europe" would be excluded from NATO because of its "history or geography."
Bush did not provide any specifics but said that NATO must be open to all of Europe's democracies that are "ready and able to meet the alliance's obligations and contribute to European security."
The letter was read by U.S. Under Secretary of State Marc Grossman to open the conference, which brings together prime ministers and top officials from nine countries formally seeking membership in the alliance -- Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Macedonia -- plus Croatia.
Grossman began by affirming the Bush administration's commitment to an undivided, peaceful Europe:
"Prime Minister (Mikulas Dzurinda of Slovakia), it is my honor to be here tonight, because the United States of America believes in a Europe that is whole, free and at peace."
In his letter, Bush mentioned all nine formal candidates by name and said that all had made what he called "significant strides" in meeting NATO's obligations. He singled out Croatia for special mention, saying he was "pleased Croatia had declared its intention to integrate further into the trans-Atlantic community."
Croatia is not formally a NATO candidate but has expressed strong interest in membership and has worked toward that goal since democratic elections more than a year ago.
Bush's remarks are likely to be viewed as especially encouraging by the three Baltic states, which share a border with Russia. Bringing the three into the alliance is NATO's thorniest diplomatic challenge. Moscow opposes membership for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, arguing their entry would bring NATO unacceptably close to its borders.
For its part, NATO has said it is open to another wave of expansion in Central and Eastern Europe but has not made any decision on when to expand or whom to take in. The alliance is expected make a formal decision at a summit next year in Prague.
In 1999, NATO invited Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to become members in a first wave of eastward expansion, bringing the total number of its members to 19.
This week's Bratislava conference is the first of several gatherings in the coming days expected to focus on the issue of expansion. At the end of the month, NATO holds a ministerial meeting in Budapest and a parliamentary assembly in Vilnius. Next month, Bush and other heads of state will meet in Brussels for a NATO summit. While the summit agenda is still being worked out, that gathering will give the president another opportunity to clarify the U.S. position.