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NATO: U.S. Says It Favors 'Most Robust' Enlargement

Heads of government from the 10 member states of the Vilnius Group -- an informal group of Central and Eastern European countries hoping to join NATO -- began a two-day meeting today in Bucharest. The Vilnius Group consists of the nine NATO candidate states -- Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- plus Croatia, which is not a formal candidate. The Bucharest meeting is the last chance for NATO hopefuls to meet as a group before a key summit later this year in Prague where the bloc will invite new members.

Prague, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Prime ministers from the 10-member Vilnius Group of NATO aspirants today gathered in Bucharest for a two-day meeting to discuss prospects for joining the alliance at a summit this November in Prague.

The Vilnius Group -- named after the venue of a 2000 meeting of NATO candidate countries in Lithuania's capital -- brings together the nine candidates -- Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- and Croatia, which is not a formal candidate but is interested in joining.

The meeting is being hosted by Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. He is joined by Albania's Pandeli Maiko, Bulgaria's Simeon Saxecoburggotski, Croatia's Ivica Racan, Estonia's Siim Kallas, Latvia's Andris Berzins, Lithuania's Algirdas Brazauskas, Macedonia's Ljubco Georgievski, Slovakia's Mikulas Dzurinda and Slovenia's Janez Drnovsek.

Also attending are top officials from the 19-nation bloc, including U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the head of the U.S. NATO Committee, Bruce Jackson, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, and Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi.

Analysts and diplomats say two expansion alternatives are being considered. One would be a five-country enlargement, with the three Baltic states plus Slovenia and Slovakia. The other, the so-called seven-out-of-seven expansion, would see that group enlarged by Bulgaria and Romania. Neither Albania nor Macedonia is considered likely to receive a membership bid in Prague.

NATO has not said yet which candidates will receive invitations. Alliance Secretary-General George Robertson has often warned that membership "is not a gift" and will be gained on individual merit.

Host Nastase expressed Romania's strong desire to join, calling for "a substantial and balanced enlargement from a geographical point of view, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea."

After meeting today with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Nastase said Romania is hoping to get American support in its bid to join the alliance this year.

"We are counting on support from the U.S. regarding NATO expansion so that Romania can be included among the countries that will become NATO members."

Armitage bolstered both Romania's and Bulgaria's hopes, saying the U.S. is seeking what he called "the most robust possible" enlargement of NATO in November. Armitage said he is encouraging all participants in the summit "to exert their maximum efforts to sort of sprint toward the finish line."

Analysts say Armitage's statement is consistent with current U.S. policy toward enlargement.

NATO expert Jeffrey Gedmin, the director of the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute -- a U.S. think-tank -- is attending the meeting in Bucharest. Gedmin told RFE/RL that Washington wants the biggest enlargement possible at this moment.

"There is a strong commitment in Washington that NATO enlargement is important and that the biggest [enlargement] round, as conditions permit, is in the interest of the United States and also [of] the alliance." But Gedmin says such statements cannot be interpreted as a guarantee for the candidates that they will be invited to join if they do not meet the political, military, and economic criteria.

Following the Vilnius Group's summit last May in Bratislava, the frontrunners appeared to be the three Baltic states, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

That viewpoint was partly based on a keynote speech by Czech President Vaclav Havel, whose country joined NATO in 1999 together with Poland and Hungary. Havel, in his speech, expressed preference for the five countries.

Jeffrey Gedmin says at the time the most difficult issue appeared to be what he called "the northern dimension," in other words, Russian opposition to the three Baltic countries' membership in NATO.

But Gedmin believes that "strong leadership in the West" as well as changes in the strategic environment caused by the 11 September attacks have diminished Russia's opposition toward Baltic membership.

Gedmin told RFE/RL that it is Europe's southern flank which now requires special attention from NATO.

"Strong leadership in the West and the changed strategic conditions have changed all that now, and it looks like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are highly likely, are highly probable, to be ready and to be admitted to NATO. Now, concentration turns to the southern dimension. This looks like the particular challenge, this looks like the hardest point."

Southeastern NATO candidates Romania and Bulgaria are apparently lagging behind other NATO candidates despite recent positive steps in fulfilling the political and military criteria.

Lack of progress toward economic reform remains the main obstacle after both countries last year were also pointedly excluded from the first wave of European Union enlargement scheduled for 2004.

Both countries now have their sights set on entry into NATO, stressing that their admission would enhance stability in the region and provide the military alliance with a strategically important base in southeastern Europe.

Gedmin says fulfilling the admission criteria will remain the cornerstone to NATO admission. But he says that Romania, the largest of all applicant countries, may benefit in terms of image from organizing the meeting in Bucharest.