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NATO: Aspirants Affirm Solidarity

An international conference on NATO expansion concluded on 12 May in Bratislava. The three-day conference was meant to show solidarity among 10 NATO hopefuls ahead of next year's summit in Prague, at which the alliance is expected to unveil plans for further expansion. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker was in the Slovak capital for the conference. He reports that despite differences, the countries renewed their pledge to support each other's membership aspirations.

Bratislava, 14 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Top officials from 10 Central and Eastern European countries seeking membership in the NATO alliance have reaffirmed a pledge made a year ago to work together to achieve their common goals.

Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, the host of the three-day gathering in Bratislava, told reporters on 11 May the leaders had "resolved as a group to continue to work together and to cooperate at the highest levels" to achieve the common vision of NATO membership.

Dzurinda said the conference continues the work of a similar gathering last May in Vilnius at which foreign ministers of nine NATO hopefuls and Croatia pledged not to undermine each other's efforts to join the military alliance.

"Today's conference continues a process begun in Vilnius approximately one year ago, when all the foreign ministers of the countries aspiring for NATO membership met for the first time and issued a statement on solidarity, values, and commitments."

The Bratislava conference brought together the prime ministers of the three Baltic countries, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia, and deputy prime ministers from Macedonia and Albania. All of the countries except Croatia are members of NATO's membership action plan, or MAP, giving them official recognition as candidates. Croatia is not formally a member of MAP but has expressed strong interest in NATO membership and has made progress toward that aim since democratic elections were held more than a year ago.

NATO is expected to announce plans for a second wave of expansion at a summit next year in Prague. In 1999 Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary become members of NATO in a first wave of eastward expansion that brought the total number of members to 19. The alliance has not said which countries, if any, will receive invitations but has declared that its doors are open and that candidates will be assessed according to their abilities to meet NATO standards.

Many analysts give Slovenia and Slovakia the best chances of receiving invitations next year. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek was visibly confident yesterday that his country would receive an invitation at the Prague summit.

Drnovsek told participants at the conference that Slovenia is doing "quite well" and is "pretty sure" of receiving an invitation:

"Of course Slovenia, at the moment, is quite patient, I should say, about NATO. We are doing quite well, I think. We think that we are ready to participate and to take our share of responsibility in NATO, also for the security and peace in the world, and we are pretty sure that the invitation will come, probably next year [at the Prague summit]."

Membership aspirations of the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) are clouded by Russia's objections to their membership. Moscow has said expansion to the Baltic countries, all former Soviet republics, would bring the alliance unacceptably close to its borders. On 11 May, the Russian Embassy in Bratislava issued a statement at the conference saying it believes that any further NATO expansion would be what it called a "grave mistake."

But in his address to the Congress on 11 May, Czech President Vaclav Havel said that Russia has nothing to fear from an expanded NATO. Havel said Russia must "finally realize" that NATO's mission poses no threat to it. He said that NATO's moving closer to Russia's borders can bring "stability, security, democracy and an advanced political culture."

Earlier, in a letter read aloud to the conference, U.S. President George W. Bush also implicitly reassured the Baltics that they would not be passed over for NATO membership on the basis of their past. He said that "no country" would be excluded from the alliance because of its "history or geography."

Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins told participants that he believes NATO expansion to the Baltics does not represent a threat to Moscow. He told the conference that Russia would benefit from stability on its Western borders: "Enlargement is also good for Russia because it will bring clarity about the Western borders, of its important Western (neighbors), and about the type and structure of its relationships with the countries that in principle should be its first partners and friends."

Dzurinda acknowledged that in spite of the general resolve to cooperate, not all candidates had made equal progress toward NATO membership. He said, however, it was important for the 10 countries to show solidarity. He said the best outcome in Prague would be for the alliance to invite as many countries as possible to join:

"Today, what is important is to show solidarity, to support each other, to be able to fulfill all conditions (that are) necessary to fulfill to have the chance to become a member of NATO. It is impossible to say what [NATO's] final decision will be, but solidarity is the main word, I think, today and this is why we are together, why we support each other, and then we will see. I would be very happy, and I [said] this morning that the best solution is to invite as many countries as possible."

The Bratislava conference is the first of several events this spring to focus on NATO's expansion plans. At the end of the month, NATO holds a ministerial meeting in Budapest. A meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is also planned at the time in Vilnius. Next month, NATO heads of state, including Bush, are expected to meet in Brussels.

While NATO says the agenda for the summit is still being formed, it's clear expansion will play a major role in the discussions.

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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.