Balts optimistic on NATO enlargement

  • 2001-10-11
  • TBT staff
RIGA - Returning from a summit of countries hoping to join NATO, in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga hailed confirmation by senior U.S. officials that NATO enlargement would go ahead despite last month's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

At a news conference on Oct. 6 Vike-Freiberga said the next six months would be "crucially important for all candidates" because the admission of new members is due for discussion by the alliance in Prague in November next year.

Vike-Freiberga said the meeting of the Vilnius 10, as the NATO hopefuls are collectively called, provided an opportunity to discuss NATO development and their response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

At the summit the countries' presidents reiterated that admission of the Eastern European and Baltic countries to NATO would contribute to European and world security. The attacks against the United States only made accession to the alliance more urgent, they said.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson told them the attacks had neither interrupted the enlargement process nor shut the doors to NATO.

Petras Zapolskas, spokesman at Lithuania's Foreign Ministry told The Baltic Times, "The so-called Vilnius 10 group gathered in Sofia to continue the dialogue which started at the Vilnius Conference in May 1999. Lithuania is ready to join NATO."

The Vilnius Group, made up of Slovakia, Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania and Slovenia, was launched in May 1999 when the countries' foreign ministers signed a joint declaration in Vilnius calling on NATO to admit new members in 2002. The group has since been joined by a 10th member, Croatia, which is not an official candidate but hopes to acquire that status.

NATO enlargement will help create an alliance of democracies which share and defend common ideals, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus told delegates on Oct. 5.

"After September 11, we have realized our common values need to be resolutely defended and our children need real protection. In reality, we need an alliance that is strong and capable of carrying out this mission," Adamkus said.

The Lithuanian president recalled that he was in Washington, D.C. during the terrorist onslaught, with the purpose of delivering a message to the U.S.A. that Lithuania and the other Baltic countries had a vision and a strategy for developing their cooperation with Russia.

Lithuania, he said, was prepared to build on its successful cooperation with neighboring regions of Russia. The Baltic states and Russia both want economic development and prosperity for the region, he said.

Lithuania is committed to promoting cooperation between Russia and Euro-Atlantic institutions even after NATO and the EU expands and was ready to help Russia with the difficult task of coming to terms with its history, he said.

Meanwhile Russia may reconsider its opposition to the enlargement of NATO to the Baltic states - formerly Soviet ruled territory, if the alliance becomes a political organization, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Brussels on Oct. 3.

Russia should be consulted in the process, he told journalists from AFP and Reuters. "One can take another, entirely new look at this if NATO takes on a different shade and becomes a political organization. Of course we would reconsider our position with regard to such expansion if we were to feel involved in such processes," Putin told a joint news conference with European Union leaders.

NATO and Moscow must find a joint mechanism to fight the common threat of terrorism, he added.

"They keep saying that NATO is becoming more political than military. We are looking at this and watching this process. If this is to be so, it would change things considerably," Putin said.

The Bulgarian authorities announced that the presidents of the Baltic states, Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia, Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania and Lennart Meri of Estonia, had been in danger in Sofia because an armed man was detained in the Hilton hotel they were staying in.

"A particularly dangerous criminal armed with a Scorpio machine gun and 40 cartridges was arrested Thursday night near the Hilton Hotel where four of the presidents were staying," Bulgarian Interior Ministry Secretary General Boiko Borissov told Bulgarian radio, without naming the heads of state involved.

"The man put up a fierce struggle when police tried to arrest him, breaking one officer's arm."