Prime ministers from the 10-member Vilnius Group -- an informal assemblage of Central and Eastern European countries hoping to join NATO -- today concluded a two-day meeting in Bucharest. The group's members reaffirmed their determination to step up cooperation in the run-up to the alliance's summit later this year in Prague, where new members are expected to join. Candidates argued that an enlarged alliance will help the fight against terrorism and enhance European security. NATO has so far declined to say which countries are favorites for membership, while U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said no decision is likely to be made before October.
Prague, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A two-day meeting of government leaders from NATO candidate countries ended today in Bucharest with participants pledging to step up cooperation and urging the alliance to accept them as members at a summit later this year (November) in Prague.
In their final statement, the 10 states of the so-called Vilnius Group -- Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, plus Croatia, which is not yet a formal candidate -- said the coming NATO summit in Prague will offer what they called a "historic opportunity to launch an ambitious NATO enlargement round." The statement also says participants in the summit believe enlargement should have "a southern dimension."
The statement also reiterates the Vilnius Group members' determination to support the international coalition against terrorism.
During the two days of the Bucharest meeting -- dubbed "The Spring of New Allies" -- the NATO hopefuls argued that an enlarged alliance would be more effective in fighting global terrorism and would enhance Europe's security.
Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase today said at the end of the meeting that candidate countries are partners, not rivals, in their efforts to become NATO members.
"It's clear that we have to move much more, to act much more in terms of 'and' -- 'north and south,' not 'north or south.' So I have the feeling that now at least there is no competition or we do not try to play one group against another group of countries in trying to get into the alliance. And this gives a sense of responsible conduct and is an extra argument for our countries to become members."
Furthermore, Nastase said the Bucharest meeting was an occasion to show the candidates' solidarity. He also pleaded for a generous NATO enlargement.
"We wanted to reinforce the collaboration and solidarity between the [NATO] aspirant countries and the relevance of a robust enlargement from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea."
Nastase said candidates such as Romania and Bulgaria are prepared to join NATO and contribute to strengthening the alliance's southeastern flank by filling in the gaps between Western and Central Europe and the alliance's only Muslim member, Turkey.
Nastase said Romania, in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, has opened its airspace and airfields, as well as its naval facilities, to allied forces and is now taking part directly in the security assistance force in Afghanistan.
Analysts say NATO is considering two possible expansion alternatives. One would be a five-country enlargement, with the three Baltic states, plus Slovenia and Slovakia.
The other, the so-called "big-bang" expansion, would see that group enlarged by Bulgaria and Romania. Neither Albania nor Macedonia is considered likely to receive a membership bid in Prague, while Croatia is expected to become an official candidate in May at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Iceland.
In a videotaped message to the participants in the Bucharest summit, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson indicated that no final decisions have yet been made on which nations will be invited to join the 19-nation bloc. Robertson said "between one and nine" countries could be invited to open admission talks in Prague. He also urged all candidates to redouble efforts to meet the political, military, and economic criteria for admission.
The United States, whose opinion has a decisive influence within the alliance, has indicated it favors a large-scale expansion. President George W. Bush said in a message to the Bucharest meeting that NATO in Prague will take "a historic step" toward removing what he called "the last divisions of Europe."
Furthermore, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who delivered Bush's message in Bucharest, today reiterated that the U.S. "looks forward to the fullest, widest possible accession to NATO" at the Prague summit.
Armitage did not mention which or how many countries may be invited. But he did say that no final decisions will be taken before October.
"The final decisions for Prague will probably not be made until mid-fall -- late October. I can't imagine why anybody would want to make it prematurely. I think at [the NATO foreign ministers' meeting in May in] Reykjavik, nations will probably get a sense of how close they are to accession or not. But the final decision won't be until mid-fall."
Armitage, too, urged candidates to step up political reforms, restructure their armed forces, and pursue the fight against corruption.
Leaders of NATO countries present at the Bucharest meeting also spoke in favor of the alliance's enlargement.
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski -- whose country was admitted into NATO in a first wave of enlargement in 1999, together with Hungary and the Czech Republic -- said a second wave of expansion is a matter of "historic justice" for former communist countries.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said new threats such as terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are advancing across borders. Ecevit urged NATO to admit southeast European countries in the alliance, arguing they will contribute to the extension of security and stability to what he called "a sensitive area of Europe."
NATO members Turkey and Greece have pledged their support for Romania's and Bulgaria's admission in the alliance.
The Vilnius Group was named after the venue of a May 2000 meeting of the nine official NATO candidate countries in Lithuania's capital. Croatia was admitted last year.
The Vilnius Group also announced in Bucharest that its last meeting before the Prague summit will take place in July in Latvia's capital, Riga.