U.S. A. optimistic on NATO

  • 2002-08-15
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis, VILNIUS
U.S. Congressman Elton Gallegly said Lithuania was likely to win an invitation to NATO at the alliance's forthcoming summit in Prague this November.

"We don't know exactly what is going to happen yet but Lithuania is making a very strong case for being invited to join NATO," he told journalists Aug. 9 during a two-day visit to the Baltic country.

Gallegly, a Republican from California, said the country had made an impressive case for membership throughout the 1990s and said Lithuania's commitment to military reform and democratic values had paid off.

Lithuania, along with neighbors Latvia and Estonia, have lobbied hard for NATO membership and expect to win invitations in Prague.

Once considered the most unlikely candidates for enlargement because Russia vehemently objected to their joining the U.S.-led alliance, the three Baltic states are now at the top of most leaders' short lists for membership.

Slovenia, Slovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria have also been named as possible invitees later this year.

Gallegly said a larger NATO would be crucial in the fight against global terrorism and said the Baltic states could contribute to that struggle.

"Bearing in mind the resources you have, we are impressed by your voluntary assistance to us and our allies in Afghanistan or wherever we are in attempts to stop the expansion of international terrorism in the world," he said.

Lithuania has said it is ready to send its paramedics to Afghanistan. Troops already serve as peacekeepers in Bosnia.

Lithuania has also offered Zokniai Airport as a military base for NATO air forces, a proposal U.S. authorities said they were considering.

Another group of congressmen recently reiterated strong support for the Baltics' NATO bid while in the Latvian capital, Riga.

"I know there will be a vigorous debate, but I know from having spoken with colleagues of mine on both sides of the aisle that there is broad, bipartisan support for the expansion of NATO," said Representative David Dreier, Republican of California.

The upper house of the U.S. legislature, the Senate, ultimately will have to ratify any invitations made to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at NATO's summit in Prague, as will legislatures in the 18 other NATO countries.

The House of Representatives is not empowered by the U.S. Constitution to ratify treaties.

Still, congressional visits are additional opportunities for the Baltics to show how far they had come since declaring independence in 1991.

In Latvia, Dreier said members of his delegation were "extremely impressed with the amazing success Latvia has had in dealing with the challenge of emerging from 50 years of oppression."

He pointed to last year's 7.6 percent gross domestic product growth as an example of Latvia's recent achievements, a testament, he said, to Latvia's functioning free market economy.

Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas also highlighted his country's economic reforms during Gallegy's visit, pointing out expected GDP growth of 5 percent to 6 percent in 2002.