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NATO: Official Says Alliance Has Confidence In Quick Accession Of Prague Invitees

NATO Assistant Secretary-General Guenter Altenburg yesterday took stock of the accession process of the seven countries that received invitations to join the alliance at its Prague summit in November. Altenburg said NATO does not anticipate any major last-minute problems in the talks and expects to close them in mid-February. New members would sign their accession protocols in March 2003 and fully join NATO in May 2004.

Brussels, 18 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Having received invitations to join NATO barely a month ago, the accession process of the alliance's seven new members-to-be is already well-advanced.

Although it took NATO five negotiation rounds to admit the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999, Guenter Altenburg, NATO's assistant secretary-general in charge of enlargement, said Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia will only need two sessions. This is partly due to the experience gained by NATO in the previous enlargement and partly a result of the fact that unlike the three previous candidates, the seven new members have already spent three years preparing for accession within the framework of the alliance's Membership Action Plan.

So far, Latvia, Romania, and Slovakia have already held the first of their two rounds of talks, with the four others expected to follow suit in the coming days and weeks.

Altenburg said NATO aims to conclude accession talks in mid-February so that accession protocols can be signed in late March 2003.

Altenburg indicated that politically speaking, the talks are largely a formality. "These accession talks have two objectives: first, to ensure that the invitees fully understand the obligations and commitments of membership and to confirm their interest in receiving the invitation to join the alliance; and then second, to seek confirmation of their willingness and ability -- and that is of each of them -- to undertake the commitments and obligations under [NATO's founding] Washington Treaty," Altenburg said.

Nevertheless, the talks will cover in some detail most areas of cooperation between the alliance and its new members: political, military, security, economic, and legal issues. The new members will also be asked to endorse existing NATO policy toward its neighbors, including Russia and Ukraine.

Altenburg does not deny that important reforms in a number of new member countries have been slow to materialize. He said NATO expects all invitees to prepare detailed reform plans, including deadlines, before they can sign the accession treaty in March. However, Altenburg said NATO has no formal means of coercing the new members to comply with the commitments assumed by them, adding repeatedly that the alliance has "full confidence" in the applicants. He also pointed out that the seven invitees are required to continue their involvement in Membership Action Plans until May 2004.

Citing NATO's "confidence" in the new members' abilities, Altenburg rejected fears that widespread corruption in Slovakia or the presence of former Soviet officials in the security structures of the Baltic countries could undermine the alliance.

One of the less formal matters in the accession talks appears to be the financial contributions expected from the new members. Altenburg said the invitees' contributions will reflect their "relative wealth," but he refused to disclose any figures. He offered the experience of the previous enlargement as a rough guide. In 2003, the Czech Republic will foot 0.9 percent of NATO's $1.4 billion budget, while Hungary will contribute 0.65 percent and Poland 2.48 percent.

Altenburg confirmed that, as in the case of the last batch of entrants, no nuclear weapons will be stationed on the territory of NATO's newest members. "NATO's policy on that issue has not changed. In December 1996, NATO defense ministers stated that enlarging the alliance will not require a change in the NATO current nuclear posture and therefore that NATO countries have no intention, no plan, or no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members," Altenburg said.

As for the new members' participation in possible NATO military action between now and May 2004, Altenburg said little will change compared to the present situation. According to their abilities and responding to the particular needs of the allies, all invitees already participate in NATO peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations in the Balkans, while some are also present in Afghanistan.

Finally, a NATO official who wished to remain anonymous said the alliance is not overly concerned about Russia's insistence that the Baltic countries sign the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, which underpins the strategic military balance on the continent.

He did add, however, that, although Russia has not sought to prioritize the issue in its contacts with NATO, "It would be in the best interests of all parties concerned" if the Baltic states signed the treaty as soon as possible.