The eastward expansion of the NATO alliance is in the news again, with leading politicians from Western and Eastern Europe -- as well as from the United States -- saying that expansion must soon continue. Even the Baltic states are being mentioned as candidates for the next wave of expansion -- a controversial move since Russia is strongly opposed to the inclusion of the former Soviet republics in the Western alliance.
Prague, 3 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There's still more than a year to go before NATO holds its summit in Prague, where it is expected to invite more Central and Eastern European countries to join the alliance.
How many NATO invitations might be issued -- and to which countries -- is still a matter of internal debate. That debate has been enlivened in the last week by a series of calls from top politicians for the inclusion of various candidates.
The latest call came over the weekend from U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, a member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who on a visit to Sofia expressed the hope that Bulgaria will be among those invited to join.
His comments follow those in the preceding week by the prime ministers of Denmark, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for early accession of the three Baltic states as well as Slovakia and Slovenia. The emphasis on the admission of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is controversial in that Russia has strongly opposed the inclusion of those former Soviet republics into the Western alliance.
Security analysts point out that not only is there increased emphasis on admission of the Baltic states, but also on bringing them into the alliance simultaneously. Danish Foreign Minister Mogens Lykketoft said in Tallinn last week that the Baltic region might be destabilized unless all three republics are invited to join at the same time.
According to independent defense consultant Alexandra Ashbourne, who is based in London, there is the perception that dividing the Baltics by membership dates could indeed affect stability in the region. Regarding Lithuania, she notes the country's special concern about the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad:
"What will the Russians want to do regarding the movement of people and troops through Lithuania to Kaliningrad? There's a feeling that if all three Baltic states could be brought into NATO then that would send a very clear signal to Russia, namely that 'we are not going to allow the Baltic states to be taken hostage yet again just to keep you happy.'"
Another analyst, the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Adam Daniel Rotfeld, also calls for simultaneous membership for the Baltics. He says there are only three options open to next year's NATO summit in Prague. Either all nine applicants are admitted in a so-called "big bang" accession or none at all are admitted, or a selection of candidates is made. Only the third option is practical, he says, and he considers the Baltics, Slovakia and Slovenia as the most likely to be selected. This, of course, would have consequences.
He says: "My understanding is that if a decision is to be taken about the Baltic states region, then the three Baltic states should be offered membership simultaneously. But this provokes the question of the relationship between NATO and Russia; it seems to me that Russia has very legitimate concerns about its security, but it is possible to reconcile both the enlargement and Russia's security concerns."
Rotfeld says this is because the dialogue initiated between the Western powers and Moscow in 1997 has recovered from a rough patch over the Kosovo conflict, and is now running "visibly" better. And he goes further, saying that the whole concept of security is changing, is moving away from the idea of confrontation to one of cooperation.
"Today -- unlike in the past -- security is built on the concept of inclusive security, meaning it is not [aimed] against somebody," he said. "That's a very important element, that [actions] are not taken to oppose [somebody] but to cooperate, and in that sense one can say that NATO enlargement is in the broader sense a step in the direction of how to create a cooperative security system in Europe in general."
Rotfeld expects this new concept of security eventually to permeate both sides of the former East-West divide, thus removing the controversy from such issues as Baltic membership in NATO and also securing Russia a place in the security framework.
He continues: "I can imagine that Russia should not be seen as a kind of power outside NATO, against whom all this process is directed, but to the contrary -- as one of the partners which knows that it in future can be seen as a member of the alliance, but first of all as a friendly country with whom one can cooperate about security in Europe and the whole trans-Atlantic area."
Analyst Ashbourne is also inclined to think that the Prague summit should result in an invitation to the Baltic states for membership, pointing out that historically speaking they are more Western-oriented than some of the other central and southeastern European countries. She says the admission of the Baltics could be considered a less sensitive matter than the accession of Romania or Bulgaria:
"I think more NATO members take the admission of the Baltic states as a right of the Baltic states than [they do of] Romania or Bulgaria. I think if we had not had the Kosovo operation a couple of years ago, Bulgaria and Romania would not [now] be so high up [on] the list for NATO membership."
The debate goes on -- and by next year, it may have taken on new dimensions.