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Eastern Europe: Does The Vilnius 10 Group Have A Future?

The 10 ex-communist NATO aspirants known as the "Vilnius 10" have stepped onto the international stage by throwing their joint backing behind the United States on the Iraq issue. They have joined another three Central European NATO members who also pledged their support for the U.S. position on Iraq, prompting praise from Washington, which calls them part of the "New Europe." But analysts say that besides their shared past under communism and an interest in U.S. security guarantees, the Vilnius 10 countries appear to have too little in common to speak with a single voice in future.

Prague, 11 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Growing support for the U.S. position on Iraq from Central and Eastern Europe has brought the countries of the region into the international limelight at a moment of heightened tension between Washington and some of its Western European allies, such as Germany and France.

A joint statement from 10 ex-communist NATO hopefuls known as the Vilnius 10 last week pledged backing for the U.S. stance on Iraq, based on what the signatories called "compelling evidence" of Iraq's weapons programs.

The Vilnius 10 statement -- signed by Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- followed a similar letter of support on 30 January by leaders from nine European countries, including the three ex-communist NATO members Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Analysts say the common denominator behind the joint actions of these countries remains the need for security guarantees from NATO and ultimately from the U.S.

Analyst Vlad Socor of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies told RFE/RL that for the 13 countries, NATO membership is the key to an alliance with the U.S. "Every one of these 13 nations knows that its entire future, its security and independence, are a function of membership in NATO, which is an alliance led by the United States. In fact, most of these countries regard their membership in NATO as a means to become allied to the U.S. The disparity of power between the U.S. and the other NATO members is so great that for the newly free nations, NATO is a means for a bilateral relationship with the United States," he said.

Indeed, the Vilnius group was established in 2000 with the declared objective of supporting each of the 10 countries' efforts to gain NATO membership. Seven of them did secure invitations to become members at a NATO summit in Prague in November, while Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia still hope to join the bloc.

Therefore, their strong support in favor of the U.S. position on Iraq may not have come as a surprise. But resurfacing as a group after most of its members had already achieved their initial goal has prompted some to ask the question of whether the Vilnius 10 can speak with a single voice in future.

Analysts remain skeptical about whether the Vilnius group is either able or willing to play a role as a regional consultative body.

Jonathan Eyal of the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies said the NATO invitation for seven of the Vilnius 10 members has even had the opposite effect, reducing the appeal of regional arrangements. "For instance, Lithuania has very little interest in a Baltic security arrangement once Lithuania, together with the other two Baltic states, has been invited to NATO. Nor is there much coordination between Romania and Bulgaria on the other side of Europe. So it's not so much that this Vilnius group is a serious group or that the regional arrangements that exist are going to survive. Clearly, each country has its own interests," he said.

Analyst Socor, however, believes that it may be premature to judge whether such a group could have a role in future. Socor told RFE/RL that the current Iraq crisis is a serious trial for the cohesion of several political relationships. "It is too early to tell, because the crisis concerning Iraq is really the first test of the political cohesion on several levels: on the American-European -- that is, trans-Atlantic -- level, on the intra-European level, and on the level of the relationship between the 13 new [former communist] countries and the rest."

Nonetheless, Eyal said that even though the future of the Vilnius 10 as a group is questionable, its statement of support for the U.S. was welcome.

Eyal stresses that amid growing trans-Atlantic tension within NATO caused by the French-German opposition toward possible U.S.-led action against Iraq, the statement, as well as the earlier letter of nine, focused attention on two things. "But what I think is very important here is that the statement of this group which, rather like the letter of the [nine European leaders] signed last week, has achieved two things. First is to serve as a warning that these countries are worried about the debate that goes on now between the Europeans and the Americans. And secondly, which is probably just as important, to reject the claim of France and Germany to be speaking for the whole of Europe," Eyal said.

Eyal believes that the statement by the 10 countries also made the fundamental point that maintaining consensus with the U.S. does not mean being anti-European. Despite current difficulties and differences, he concludes, a commonality of interests exists between Europeans and the United States.