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Baltics: Defense Ministers Say They're Small But Could Pack Powerful NATO Punch

It is widely believed the three Baltic countries have a very good chance of being admitted into NATO during the next round of alliance enlargement in November, but the defense ministers of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are taking nothing for granted. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the three ministers are lobbying hard for NATO membership during a trip to Washington this week.

Washington, 15 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The defense ministers of the three Baltic nations are pressing their case for NATO membership in Washington this week, vowing to make serious military contributions to the trans-Atlantic alliance.

NATO is expected to bring in several new members from the former Soviet bloc at a summit in Prague in November. U.S. President George W. Bush has vowed to support candidates that make efforts to contribute militarily to NATO. Defense Ministers Girts Valdis Kristovskis of Latvia, Linas Linkevicius of Lithuania, and Sven Mikser of Estonia tried to prove to their U.S. hosts this week that their countries are doing just that.

The Baltic nations are considered by some to be shoe-ins for NATO membership, a fact that may explain a slip of the tongue by Kristovskis. During an address to a forum in Washington yesterday, Latvia's defense minister at one point said Riga is a NATO "member," but then corrected that to "candidate."

No one in the audience appeared to notice the slip, but everyone seemed to understand the ministers' main message -- that their countries have made great strides in preparing for NATO membership, will continue to do so after joining, and will bring non-military assets to the alliance, as well.

Estonia's Mikser summed up the Baltics' message:

"Today, we are looking toward the Prague summit, and we are definitely aware of how much work lies beyond Prague. So this is not a process that will end in Prague. And we believe that our countries are ready to contribute, ready to participate, and we believe that NATO is also ready to make this year a truly historic year, not only for a small group of East and Central European countries, but for global security."

All three ministers say their countries have made military improvements to be ready to contribute to NATO. They also thanked Washington for its support during the Cold War -- when the U.S. did not recognize the incorporation of the Baltic countries into the Soviet Union -- and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

They say that, because of their lack of financial resources and small size, with a combined population of about eight million, their countries have made a strategic choice to specialize their military forces in key areas. They have also elected to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic products on the military, a decision praised yesterday by the U.S. State Department.

Mikser says Estonia is focusing on air surveillance and naval mine countermeasures. He says Riga recently signed a deal to buy a three-dimensional radar system from the U.S. firm Lockheed Martin that will serve to upgrade its air surveillance system. And he added that Estonia, like the other Baltic countries, has agreed to send troops to accompany a Danish unit to Kyrgyzstan, where they will support the antiterrorism effort.

All three countries have been taking part in NATO peacekeeping operations, often beside Danish troops, since the early 1990s. Mikser says:

"Since 1994, we have actually participated with approximately 900 Estonian troops in operations in Kosovo, in Bosnia, and elsewhere. This figure might not seem particularly big, but when you consider that per capita we actually send almost the highest number of people to participate in these operations of all countries in the world, then it's quite significant."

Lithuania's Linkevicius also says Vilnius is focusing, among other areas, on air surveillance. He added that all three countries are ready to share data and visual imagery with their NATO allies once a decision on membership is made.

Linkevicius says Lithuania recently became the first European country to decide to buy special antitank weaponry and is also close to buying Stinger anti-aircraft missile technology. He says Vilnius is set to help NATO defend member countries under Article 5, the part of the alliance's founding charter that states that an attack on one member is considered an attack against all NATO countries.

NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its 52-year history in early October after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S. Linkevicius says:

"In Lithuania, we agreed, and it was agreed with a NATO team that visited Lithuania quite recently, to prepare a battalion-sized unit ready for Article 5 operations by the end of this year. Quite soon, it will be ready by all means -- weapons systems, communications, whatever. That unit, we believe, could take part in future operations."

The ministers say their nations also have a lot to offer NATO that is not strictly military in nature. With a geographically strategic location between the Baltic Sea, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Russia, and Belarus, the ministers say their countries have already started to play a key role in spreading Western, democratic values in the region.

Linkevicius says he sees the Baltics playing a vital role in the economic development of Kaliningrad. And he says similar initiatives, although more difficult to undertake, are being made toward Belarus under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka:

"Recently, we invited a group of journalists to Lithuania from [Belarus]. And it was a composition from all parts -- opposition, position [members from the state-run press]. It was a unique situation -- they told us themselves. They are never in the same room because those who are writing on behalf of the Lukashenka regime, they are not talking to opposition journalists, and they are not even communicating [among themselves]. But in Lithuania, they were together, and we brought them to military units, to show how we are living, what is the style of life, what we are thinking about. And you know, strangely, even those newspapers -- government newspapers -- wrote quite positive articles. So I think it's really modest, but a step in the right direction."

Overall, Linkevicius says the Baltics want to be active "players" in the trans-Atlantic community and strongly reject the notion that the tiny nations will simply be "freeloaders" in NATO.

Latvia's Kristovskis agrees that the Baltics could help the West forge new ties with Russia. He says he welcomes warmer ties between Washington and Moscow and between NATO and Russia, and says the alliance's enlargement will only end up spreading democracy and enhancing security throughout Europe.

Besides meeting with a range of military officials, U.S. congressmen and the media, the Baltic defense ministers held talks at the Pentagon yesterday with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage at the State Department on 13 March.