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NATO: Official Says Consensus Is 'Crystallizing' On New Members, But Maintains Silence

Two months before NATO's Prague summit, alliance officials remain tight-lipped about most details of the impending enlargement. Gunther Altenburg, the alliance's deputy secretary-general in charge of political matters, told RFE/RL that discussions in NATO member capitals are still going on, although he hinted that a consensus is "crystallizing." Altenburg also said the candidates will join a defensively geared, relevant NATO with its full security guarantees intact.

Brussels, 20 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As is customary these days among NATO officials in Brussels and politicians in member capitals, Gunther Altenburg is loath to publicly divulge any details about who next will be invited to join the alliance.

Altenburg, the highest-ranking official at NATO's Brussels headquarters dealing with enlargement, instead dwells at length on so-called "objective criteria," i.e., the need for candidates to show they are ready for accession and able to contribute usefully to NATO's work.

In an interview yesterday with RFE/RL, Altenburg admitted that at the end of the day, the decision about who will be admitted is largely a political one, made by politicians in member capitals. "This alliance works on the basis of consensus. At the end of the day, we need a consensus on each and every one of the candidates to be invited, and we need a consensus on the whole package," Altenburg said.

Altenburg said such a consensus, although not yet there, is "crystallizing." He said opinions differ on the exact number of countries that should be invited to join at NATO's Prague summit in November.

At the same time, he strongly hinted that the "middle-of-the-road" views among the allies are best exemplified by a recent report of the British parliament's Defense Committee. The report says it now seems to be generally agreed that the most likely outcome of the enlargement process will be that between five and seven countries will be invited to join NATO at the Prague summit.

The report's more detailed analysis says that both Albania and Macedonia have failed to make the cut. Among the rest, Slovenia is the clear favorite. The three Baltic countries are considered well-prepared and widely favored, with the only remaining question mark being the sizable Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia.

In Slovakia's case, this weekend's parliamentary elections are being eagerly awaited. Success at the polls by former autocratic prime minister Vladimir Meciar would be seen as denting the country's otherwise excellent chances. But as an anonymous NATO source told RFE/RL this week, "The fog is clearing." In other words, there now appears little chance of Meciar's returning to power.

The fate of Bulgaria and Romania appears still to hang in the balance. The British report describes them as lagging behind as political, economic, and defense reforms stagnate. Nevertheless, the countries' strategic geographical location is a strong argument in their favor.

Altenburg is more forthcoming when it comes to the basics of what new members can expect from NATO. He does not share the fear that recent developments, such as NATO's meager role in the post-11 September antiterrorism campaign and its rapprochement with Russia, mean that NATO has been reduced to a merely political role. "I think NATO's mission also in the future will be to be a defense organization, a military organization with a clear defense mission. That is the core of the activities of the alliance also in the future. We will need to look into the new threats that are ahead of us, like terrorism and WMD, that is, weapons of mass destruction. But I think that'll be the main thing," Altenburg said.

Consequently, Altenburg assures the accession candidates that as full members they will benefit from the same security guarantees that have made NATO membership so desirable in the past. "I think the answer is very clear. The [founding] Washington Treaty remains the Washington Treaty and Article 5 [collective defense] in the Washington Treaty remains as it is. We're not going to change the Washington Treaty. The new members will, of course, be members of the alliance, which has as its basis exactly that treaty. So in that sense, I think [there is] nothing new," Altenburg said.

Altenburg believes that NATO's blossoming relationship with Russia will not affect the core functions of the alliance. He said the NATO-Russia Council formed in Rome this May will play a "constructive and positive role."

Altenburg said he does not share the view that Russia is less interested in practical cooperation with NATO than in carving itself an influential niche in what Moscow calls the "Euro-Atlantic security space." He noted that the Rome Treaty contains a detailed work program agreed by Russia but does add a caveat. "The Russian side was very eager to have a kind of work program as we included it in that document of nine points where we think we have areas where we can produce early results in our cooperation. In that sense, I think, the Russians are as interested as anybody else in the alliance in producing what they call, and what we call, 'deliverables,' so that's very well on track. Of course, as in all multilateral exercises, that [cooperation] is an exercise in compromise," Altenburg said.