National security - finally guaranteed

  • 2002-11-21
  • Matt Kovalick

On Nov. 21 the Baltic states can open their history books and begin writing a new chapter.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are expected to receive official invitations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the alliance's annual summit that begins in Prague.

After nearly 11 years after the fall of Soviet Union, and 63 years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact sealed their fate, the three countries - along with aspirants Bulgaria, Rumania, Slovakia and Slovenia - will finally become part of the 20th century's most enduring security alliance.

Speaking at the Prague Castle Nov. 19, Czech President Vaclav Havel said NATO's 19 member countries will likely make an "explosive" enlargement and take new steps that will forever change the organization.

Havel predicted the summit would be a "watershed" event and expressed confidence that the Baltic states would be issued invitations to the alliance, formed in 1949 to counter the growing communist threat in Eastern and Central Europe and that had already consumed the three Baltic nations.

Havel's words were a stark contrast to 1996, when, speaking at Vilnius University, the Czech president spoke of NATO enlargement as a "politically explosive and controversial" concept.

Since then, however, Czech Republic itself became a member (in 1999), and alliance enlargement continues.

Enlarging the alliance to include the three former Soviet republics, "carries a deeper message that expresses respect to the will of nations to be independent, to freely establish relations and bonds of alliance, and to pursue cooperation," said Havel.

NATO spokesperson Yves Brodeur said that prior to the issue of enlargement alliance leaders would discuss NATO's modernization and transformation "to make it possible for all allies to protect themselves from new threats," including terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

A larger alliance is only one of the ways a "new" NATO could emerge from Prague by Nov. 22.

Member states will discuss ways the alliance can work together to face ongoing dangers. Leaders will also try to figure out ways to improve the alliance's airlift, weapon, and communication capabilities including the possible creation of a 20,000 troop rapid response force.

Czech military officials also said on Nov. 18 that the Baltic states could expect some "surprises" after the summit

General Jan Vana, director of the Czech Defense Ministry's strategic planning department, said that the Baltic states will have to focus on airspace surveillance and defense systems.

Latvia, said Vana, has yet to join NATO's Security Investment Program, which invests in member state development so that all can meet minimal requirements.

Another defense ministry official said that changes in global security have forced changes upon the alliance, and that new members will have to help the alliance improve itself.

No matter what the outcome of the meetings, Czech officials have been vigorously preparing to made sure delegates and guests can work efficiently and safely.

At a press conference at the Prague Congress Center, site of the summit, Czech Ambassador Alexander Vondra said, "We are fully prepared to welcome the delegates, journalists and other participants."

Vondra, the head of the Czech NATO Task Force that organized the event, said that over 2000 delegates and 3000 journalists are accredited to attend. He added preparing for the event has been quite a feat considering many parts of Old Town Prague were submerged under three meters of water in August costing millions of dollars of damage.

All three Baltic presidents will participate in the event.

The Czech Republic is the first former Iron Curtain country to host NATO's preeminent event. Like the last summit in Washington, D.C. in 1999, this meeting brings together heads of state of all 19 NATO countries and 46 European Atlantic Partnership Council countries.

Absent from the summit will be Belarus' dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko after Czech officials denied him a visa to enter the country.

Protesters are also expected to arrive en masse. Prague's city center, usually bustling with tourists, is bracing for upwards of 10,000 demonstrators wanting to make their presence felt.

After suffering damaging protests during 2000's International Monetary Fund Meeting, some Prague shopkeepers have taken extra precautions and boarded up windows, and local McDonalds outlets have police posted outside.

Security is tight with 12,000 policeman deployed to keep peace on the ground, while in the sky American F-15s and F-16s fighter jets join Czech military jet patrol the sky.