U.S. senators back Baltic NATO membership

  • 2001-08-30
  • J. Michael Lyons
RIGA - Two influential U.S. senators cast their unconditional support for membership of the Baltic states in NATO during trips here late last week, while the Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Slovakian prime ministers requalified their previously firm backing.

Sen. John McCain, the tough-talking sometimes isolationist who gained international attention when he ran against George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in the spring of 2000, told journalists in Riga on Aug. 26 that NATO enlargement should include the Baltics.

"I will be supporting as much as I can the membership of the Baltic states in NATO," McCain said during a press briefing in Riga's Old Town.

McCain echoed the sentiments of Sen. Richard Lugar, a senior member of the Senate's powerful foreign relations committee, who visited Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius during a tour of NATO candidate countries.

Both cast their support for Baltic membership in the next round of enlargement, which is likely to be spelled out during the NATO summit in December 2002 in Prague.

Expansion to the Baltics is likely to be the most contentious issue surrounding enlargement due to Russian opposition.

"The point that I've been trying to make is that there should be a conscious choice for Baltic membership, hopefully in 2002," Lugar said in Riga on Aug. 25.

With Russia vociferously opposed to NATO expansion into the Baltic countries, some officials here have worried that the United States might sacrifice its support for Baltic membership in exchange for Russian approval of America's proposed U.S. missile defense system.

Both senators said dealings with Russia on missile defense will not influence NATO expansion.

"There is no trade, there will be no deal," said Lugar. "They are separate issues entirely."

Lugar and McCain recalled a speech by George W. Bush in Warsaw earlier this summer when he made the now famous statement "no more Yaltas" while elaborating on fears of a deal with Russia.

"The president would not have given the Warsaw speech and used the phrase 'no more Yaltas' were he not cognizant of the skepticism that is involved," said Lugar.

Though NATO enlargement is approved by all member countries, approval by the United States is paramount in any decision to expand the security alliance.

Lugar added that he believes that Bush will enjoy bipartisan support in the Senate should he issue invitations to the Baltic countries, though the Senate has the power to snuff Bush's decision thanks to a one-vote majority for the opposition Democrats.

The Senate has sometimes proved unpredictable on foreign policy issues, which Lugar said may reflect an increasing reticence among some Americans toward foreign intervention issues like NATO troop deployment in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"But I think when the NATO (enlargement) issue arises it is seen as a very solid decision," said Lugar.

Following his visit to the Baltics, Lugar flew to Russia for talks on arms reduction before traveling to Rumania and Bulgaria.

McCain also was scheduled to visit Rumania and Bulgaria, both NATO long shots.

Officials here welcomed their support and were skeptical of reports last weekend that the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia would only support Baltic membership if Slovakia and Slovenia are also admitted.

"The Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland) fully supports the accession of the Baltic states in the next round of NATO expansion, but there is a precondition to that," Agence France-Presse reported Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as saying at a press conference.

The precondition was that Slovakia and Slovenia be admitted "at the latest" by the time the Baltics are admitted.

Orban and his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia held talks Aug. 25 in Hungary that alloyed support for Slovakia and Slovenia's NATO ambitions.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, which were admitted to NATO in 1999, form the Visegrad Group, a foreign policy alliance promoting regional ties and the countries' admissions to NATO and the EU, and named for the Hungarian town of Visegrad where it first met in 1991.

Baltic officials defused the statements, saying that they were evidence that the Baltic countries' plans to join NATO were taken seriously.

"The Hungarian prime minister's idea that Slovenia and Slovakia should be admitted to NATO earlier than the Baltic states indicates that we are ranked among best-prepared candidates," Giedrius Cekuolis, Lithuania's NATO coordinator, told the Baltic News Service.

Danish Prime Minister Mogens Lykketoft backed Baltic membership in NATO with no conditions during a visit to Riga on Aug. 28.

"You should be invited without any conditions regarding the membership of any other country," he said.