Prague, 21 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- All 19 of NATO's member nations have strongly praised the formal invitation of membership to seven former communist countries: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. U.S. President George W. Bush said the invitations -- made today during a summit in Prague -- will reaffirm NATO's commitment to peace in Europe: "We believe today's decision reaffirms our commitment to freedom and our commitment to a Europe which is whole and free and at peace. America is very pleased by today's decision. We believe it strengthens our nation's most important alliance, NATO. By welcoming seven members, we will not only add to our military capabilities, we will refresh the spirit of this great democratic alliance."
The expansion was formerly made by NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, who said: "I, therefore, put it to the heads of state and government of NATO meeting here in the North Atlantic Council that we invite to accession talks with NATO the following nations: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. I take it that this is agreed. [He hammers the gavel.] Thank you very much. The council has so decided." Applause then broke out.
Robertson went on to say: "For NATO, Prague is a transformation summit, it is a truly defining moment for the Atlantic alliance. We will welcome new members, take on new missions, modernize our military capabilities and strengthen our relations with friends and partners throughout the Euro-Atlantic area. NATO was at the head of Europe's transformation in the 1990s. It reached out to heal our divided continent and it acted to bring and to keep the peace in the Balkans."
He said that the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 11 September last year have left the world with "new challenges." He added that "A deadly cocktail of threats is now menacing free societies."
He welcomed the new members into the alliance and gave hope to those still seeking membership. "Aspirant countries have been working hard to modernize and to reform their armed forces and to meet NATO's very high standards on values, the rule of law and robust democratic institutions. All aspirants have been faced with tough and difficult decisions, and it's a reflection of their political determination to join NATO that they have met this challenge. To those aspirants who were not today invited to begin the accession talks, the message is, the door to NATO membership remains open. Today's invitees will not be the last. Through the Membership Action Plan process we will continue to help you pursue your reform process and we will remain committed to your full integration into the Euro-Atlantic family of nations."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the addition of the seven countries represents "the importance of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It also deepens the stability of Europe, which is the historic mission of the alliance and, taken together with the new relationship between the alliance and Russia, I think it marks a profound step in improving European security.
"When, sometimes, people question the relevance of this alliance in a different and changing security environment, I would say talk to the new members of this alliance and they will tell us why it matters and why, I believe, it will remain the bedrock of our common security for many years to come to the benefit of future generations," Blair said.
Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said the expansion means Europe can "look to the future with greater hope and confidence." He added that: "Today is a historic day for us because, with the accession of these new members, we will not only strengthen our alliance. We will also look to the future with greater hope and confidence thanks to this great achievement accomplished through mutual efforts, dedication and solidarity."
Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski said today marks the end of Cold War divisions. "We are making a decision that will finally put an end to the era of Yalta and Potsdam divisions, the evil of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Cold War, and the false balance of fear. The creation of democratic institutions, the development of civic society, democratization and modernization of the armed forces have been taken up with great determination [by the candidates]."
Kwasniewski added: "The open-door policy of the alliance is needed and it ought to be continued. I repeat the proposal I presented in Riga to cooperate with all the countries that wish to join NATO in the future, including the countries that defined clearly their intentions a long time ago."
Czech President Vaclav Havel said the expansion is a commitment to the "freedom, dignity, rights and prosperity of the citizens" of NATO member nations. "I would be pleased if this meeting would not leave anyone in the dark about the most essential significance of our deeds which is an endeavor to protect, in the best possible way, freedom, dignity, rights and prosperity of the citizens whom we represent here.... We consider this enlargement to be of crucial significance. This is so not only because several medium-sized or small European countries will thus receive safeguards of their defense and security or because these countries will assume their share of responsibility for a life in peace and freedom throughout the great Euro-Atlantic sphere of civilization. Even more important is the indirect meaning of the enlargement. It is only through this enlargement that a clear signal is given not only for all Europeans but for the entire world that the era when countries were divided by force into spheres of influence or when the stronger used to subjugate the weaker has come to an end once and for all."
French President Jacques Chirac said: "The enlargement of the alliance further testifies to the end of Europe's artificial division. This enlargement is indeed a historical moment. It is a moment when Europe reunites, step-by-step, eliminates those fractures that have been such a cruel blow to it in the past. It is also a moment when Europe and North America reassert the indivisible character of their security.... In 1997 [at the NATO summit] in Madrid we and a few other countries supported the idea of an ambitious enlargement. Five years later, this vision of the future of our continent is now shared by all. Seven new [countries] are expected to join our Alliance. Let us welcome them.... We believe that it should be continued and that the doors of the Alliance should remain open."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said NATO should also recognize progress made in other candidate countries. "I believe that we should also make it clear that we should know how to properly honor the progress made by Albania, Macedonia and Croatia in their preparations. I think it is very important to point out that this expansion process has been discussed with Russia extraordinarily openly and fairly."
Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said that "the invitation of Slovakia to become a member of the North Atlantic Alliance brings satisfaction for all citizens of the Slovak Republic. This day will definitely strengthen the Slovak republic significantly...it will strengthen us in our belief that we are walking on the right path toward a meaningful goal."
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga commented: "It definitely will be in the history books of Latvia, I think it will be in history books of Europe, because we are not alone there -- there are six other nations with us. I am very happy because I think the right decision was taken today, which is all for the good of Europe's future."
Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius said: "It's not the end of the game, it's probably the beginning...but it's more challenging and important and difficult to be good allies. So now we are starting a new quality process. It's a historic moment."
In Moscow, Russia reacted to NATO's formal invitation to seven former communist countries to join the alliance by saying the three new Baltic members should sign an international treaty that puts limits on weapons and the presence of troops. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia views NATO's expansion "calmly." But he said the three Baltic countries that received invitations should quickly sign the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe to "promote stability in Europe."
Ivanov said the three countries were not independent states when the treaty was signed in 1990 and are therefore not technically bound by its provisions.