RIGA - Though the thrust of the Riga Summit was Afghanistan 's reinforcing the alliance's most important military operation in its history 's the NATO meeting wouldn't have been bona fide without discussions on further expansion.
Granted, no formal invitations were made, but the alliance's 26 heads of state and government decided that they would likely invite Albania, Croatia and Macedonia to join the military bloc at their next meeting in 2008. Moreover, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina were invited to join the Partnership for Peace program, which is the first important stepping stone to eventual membership in the alliance.
The Balkans, it would seem, will fall entirely under NATO's shield in the foreseeable future.
But the real story concerning NATO expansion during last week's summit surrounded Georgia, the small Caucasus mountain nation that in the three years since its so-called Rose Revolution, when its people overthrew the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevernadze, has been unequivocal about its long-term goal of attaining NATO membership.
There are three reasons why Georgia was at the center of attention. First, after Moldova and Ukraine's membership aspirations recently turned tepid, Georgia is the only former Soviet republic expressing an unambiguous desire to join the alliance. Second, Georgia is in the Caucasus, and so represents unique regional challenges and opportunities for the alliance. Third, and most importantly, since Russia has all but declared economic war on the Caucuses nation, Georgia has become a sort of rallying cause for the alliance's East European member states, particularly the Baltics.
Georgia's parliamentary speaker, Nino Burjanadze, was present throughout the three days of summit activities, and held a roundtable discussion with U.S. Senator Richard Lugar on the country's aspirations to become an alliance member.
"It's really important for our country because NATO isn't only about security 's it's an organization about democracy and common values," Burjanadze said in an interview (see full text on Page 14). "This is why Georgia really needs to be in this club."
Nor did Georgia's entreaty fall on deaf ears.
"And as it continues on the path to reform, we will continue to support Georgia's desire to become a NATO ally," U.S. President George W. Bush, who visited Georgia in May 2005, said in his speech at the University of Latvia on Nov. 28.
In their summary statement, NATO members welcomed an intensive dialogue with Georgia, saying they would "continue to engage" the country actively as it carries out reforms.
"We encourage Georgia to continue progress on political, economic and military reforms, including strengthening judicial reforms, as well as the peaceful resolution of outstanding conflicts on its territory," the Riga summit declaration reads.
But conflict resolution will test Georgia's mettle, and patience. The Kremlin is deeply involved in the Abkhazian and South Ossetian standoffs 's two of the "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet Union 's and is sparing no effort to ensure that Tbilisi doesn't regain control over the renegade regions. In terms of expansion, these are challenges NATO hasn't faced during the last two waves of enlargement in 1999 and 2004.
"Ms. Burjanadze and others have made the point that these conflicts are unlikely to be solved by Georgians and Russians. The context and structure of negotiations have not been very productive and are unlikely to be," Lugar said in an interview.
"I don't think there's much impetus as it stands on the part of the Russians to attempt to solve anything," he added.
"Therefore, there's a need for intervention by NATO members, to restructure the conversations and the potential for movement," Lugar said, adding that one of the purposes of the roundtable discussion was to get an idea of what the United States could do to prevent a renewal of hostilities on Georgian territory.
By contrast, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, while answering questions at the youth conference that took place on the sidelines, stressed that the alliance's members would not get involved in local conflict-resolution.
"Let there be no mistake 's NATO is not seeking a direct role in the conflicts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said.