Discussion over Ukraine's possible accession to NATO and desires to oust the Russian-backed government in Belarus dominated the alliance's two-day meeting in Vilnius April 21-22. These were just some of the issues discussed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, opposition leaders and foreign ministers on Thursday.
During the meetings, NATO reached an agreement with Russia on expanding the country's military cooperation. The accord would allow an expansion of joint military exercises on Russian soil, possibly to prepare for future peacekeeping operations.
With shaky American-Russian relations as a backdrop to the conference, mostly in Russia's disdain for America's expanding influence over its border countries and biting criticism on the state of Russia's democracy, Rice, who had previously declared that Belarus was the last dictatorship in Europe, said that the country should not conduct a "sham election" next year because it would be "watched by the international community."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also attended the meetings, and said that he was happy with the Russia-NATO accord. He added, however, that he disapproved of Rice's discussion with Belarussian opposition leaders, saying Russia did not support a "regime change."
Meanwhile, Lavrov's Lithuanian counterpart and the host of the conference, Antanas Valionis, said that NATO's door was open to all democratic states in Europe on April 21.
The following day, Valionis and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer discussed the alliance's topicalities and challenges with the academic community at Vilnius University.
"We believe that NATO will remain open to all European democracies. We must not only declare the 'open door policy,' but also give practical support to countries seeking membership," Valionis said.
He added that Lithuania, both through NATO's partnership programs and on a bilateral basis, would do its best to help Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Ukraine and Georgia efficiently carry out reforms and successfully follow the path of integration.
"I believe that the principled and constructive work of Lithuania, our good neighborhood policy will promote closer NATO ties with all eastern neighbors. I mean not only Russia, which we have developed multi-stage cooperation structures with, but also Belarus," the minister said.
During his speech at a meeting with the NATO-Russia Council, Hoop Scheffer said, "The NATO-Russia Council has become an effective forum for concrete, practical cooperation. But equally important is its role as a forum for political dialogue, where we can discuss our differences openly, in a spirit of true partnership, also when we might not entirely agree, and seek ever greater opportunities for common approaches to common challenges."
The brief speech was followed by a closed-door meeting with Lavrov, attended by 26 NATO foreign ministers.
Hoop Scheffer and Lavrov signed the Status of Forces Agreement of the Partnership for Peace Program, regulating military transit, status and other issues dealing with exercises and anti-terrorist operations in Russian territory.
Despite Moscow's good relations with some of the alliance's capitals, especially Paris, Berlin and Rome, the Kremlin is still discontent over the recent wave of NATO enlargement, following which, in Moscow's opinion, the alliance stepped into its sphere of interests -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Furthermore, the Kremlin is concerned about NATO integration plans for Ukraine and Georgia.