The seven countries invited yesterday to join the NATO alliance are due to become official members only in two years' time, once the decision is ratified by the parliaments of the current members. Although the candidates are not yet full-fledged members, their relations with the alliance are substantially closer than before.
Prague, 22 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- What a difference a day makes, at least, for the seven Central and Eastern European countries that yesterday received formal invitations in Prague to join the NATO alliance.
It will be nearly two years before the seven invitees -- Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia -- officially join the alliance, a step that can only be made once the enlargement is ratified by all 19 current member parliaments.
Although the candidates may begin even now to feel the benefits of their new status, in the form of improved security and increased interest from foreign investors, much work remains to be done before the seven countries are accepted as full-fledged alliance members in May 2004.
The invitees' obligations include taking a more substantial role in NATO's Parliamentary Assembly, which serves as a key forum for alliance dialogue on security, political, and economic issues.
Assembly head Rafael Estrella said he welcomes the Prague summit decisions. He told RFE/RL the seven invited countries are now free to envision their future as partners in the Euro-Atlantic community.
Estrella said the invitees can also feel assured they will not be left alone in any potential times of crisis. "It is hard to imagine [that such a crisis would take place], but it is clear that there will [now] be a sort of deterrence to anyone thinking to attack these countries. I mean, the fact that they are now clearly on their way to joining NATO -- that they have been admitted and that they have negotiated the membership -- will provoke immediately a political warning [from NATO], saying 'Don't touch it,'" Estrella said.
Estrella said that an invitation to join NATO provides not only a security guarantee but an economic one as well. "That's also a clear message to the markets and to investors. The country worthy of being invited to join NATO is not an unstable country. It's not a country whose future or stability you can doubt. So I think [the invitations] will also boost investment in those countries," Estrella said.
Estrella said the economic perks of being a NATO invitee are especially important for Romania and Bulgaria, which have been left out of first round of European Union enlargement.
But Jiri Sedivy of the Czech Institute of International Relations does not see the NATO invitations as an automatic panacea for economic woes. He said there is no clear link between foreign investment and NATO membership. "[Entering NATO might provide] some, let's say, psychological assurance for potential investors, but there is no way you can actually prove this link," Sedivy said.
Sedivy did say, however, that NATO membership can deliver benefits in other ways. He said the Czech Republic, which joined the alliance in 1999 along with Hungary and Poland, has been forced to push through long-needed reforms of its communist-era military structures.
He noted that last week's decision by the Czech government to move forward with plans to create a professional army would have been impossible without pressure from NATO. "It's very often an informal pressure, although [NATO] Secretary-General [Lord George] Robertson was here in May 2001, and he was very explicitly criticizing our military reform and our lagging behind on our obligations. He was also very explicitly criticizing our procurement decisions and it helped a lot," Sedivy said.
Sedivy said certain tasks may be easier for the Baltic states and Slovenia, which only a decade ago did not have their own armies. Now, he said, they have begun to build their armed forces from the ground up and are applying NATO standards from the start. He added that military reforms may be much more difficult for countries like Romania and Bulgaria, which have large standing armies that may be hard to scale down and modernize.
Sedivy said there is a difference between the three countries to enter NATO in 1999 and the new invitees that expect to join in 2004. He said that because each of the so-called "Prague 7" holds an individual Membership Action Plan (MAP) with the alliance, "formally or informally, NATO will put more pressure on them to fulfill their obligations."
States participating in the MAP process are required to draft and submit annual integration plans to NATO for assessment and feedback. Sedivy said the possibility remains that not all seven invitees will succeed in becoming full-fledged members. "It's a possibility. If there are some serious problems concerning, for example, [a country's] internal political situation, if there is some serious [setback] in the military reforms,...the membership of such country simply will not be ratified by some of the NATO members," Sedivy said.
All the same, Sedivy said, the possibility that any of the seven will suffer such a severe political setback, or be the subject of a military invasion, seems highly unlikely.