Invitation to security alliance in hand

  • 2002-11-28
  • Matt Kovalick

With the strike of a custom-made gavel, the decade-old aspirations of the Baltic states and four other East European countries came true Nov. 21 at NATO's annual summit.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson announced that "a consensus has now been reached" between the 19 existing members to formally invite Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia into the 53-year-old military alliance.

"By welcoming seven members, we will not only add to our military capabilities - we will refresh the spirit of this great democratic alliance," said U.S. President George Bush following the enlargement announcement.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, host of the summit, said that the alliance's enlargement was a signal that "the era when countries were divided by force into spheres of influence, or when the stronger used to subjugate the weaker, has come to an end once and for all."

At a special session of the North Atlantic Council later in the day, the leaders of the invitee-states took seats next to the members around the grand conference table. They expressed gratitude and pledged to be committed members.

"Today's decision marks not the end, but rather the beginning of a new era," said Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus. "We will make sure that our membership strengthens the alliance's capability to perform present tasks and take on new ones."

"We consider this invitation as a serious indication of trust and fully understand the obligations we are accepting," said Estonian Prime Minister Sim Kallas.

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, president of Latvia, echoed her Estonian colleague's sentiment when she said, "We make a solemn pledge here, on this historic day that we will strive to do our part to contribute to the strength of the alliance."

Alluding to Russia and its concerns about NATO expansion, Robertson said, "This round of enlargement will maintain and increase NATO's strength, cohesion and vitality, and that it is not directed against the security interests of any partner state."

Only after forging stronger ties with the U.S.A. following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did Russia tacitly accept the idea of enlargement to the former Soviet republics, where over a million Russians live.

The secretary general also reminded the invitees they are not yet full members. "Your work is far from over and membership carries heavy responsibility. There is simply no room for passengers," said Robertson.

By March of next year, the seven countries will commence an accession process that should result in official NATO membership in May 2004. The Parliament of each NATO member state must ratify the decision to accept the new members.

"The three Baltic states are calm and confident. We do not foresee problems if we continue with our homework," said Lithuania's Deputy Foreign Minister Giedrius Cekuolis in speaking about the ratification process.

In addition to the largest enlargement in alliance history, leaders agreed to sweeping changes aimed at strengthening the alliance so it can face new threats and security challenges of the 21st century, according to the summit declaration.

Recognizing that threats may come from beyond Europe's borders, NATO also made a series of decisions to revamp its outdated territorial defense structure.

For instance, the alliance agreed to create a Rapid Response Force - a 21,000-troop, technologically advanced force that can be quickly deployed to global hot spots.

Members also committed themselves to streamline the military command arrangements, and they approved the Prague Capabilities Commitment to improve areas such as defense against chemical, biological and nuclear threats, precision guided-munitions, and communications.

A number of NATO states including Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway and Portugal "lined up to say that they are going to increase their defense budget," said Robertson.

Although not an official item on the summit's agenda, the subject of Iraq often took the spotlight during the two-day event.

The heads of state and government participating in the meeting approved a Prague summit statement on Iraq. They called on Saddam Hussein to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolution 1441, stating, "NATO allies stand united in their commitment to take effective action to assist and support the efforts of the U.N. to ensure full and immediate compliance by Iraq…"

NATO member states did elaborate whether or not they would contribute to a coalition in a potential conflict with Iraq.

According to a NATO official, the members hoped that by expressing themselves in an united way it would "increase pressure on Iraq to comply."

At press conferences following the official invitations, the Baltic Presidents expressed satisfaction after finally hearing the invitation.

"For us it's a day of great joy and a day of relief because we worked hard to prepare ourselves," said Latvian President Vike-Freiberga. "It is a historic day for Latvia…it definitely will be in the history books of Latvia and the history books of Europe."

Around the summit's venue at the Prague Conference Center and across town, a large security presence loomed. At times it seemed to outnumber Prague inhabitants.

Spooked by the protests during the IMF/World Bank meeting in 2000, many stores boarded up their windows.

However, many of the planned anti-NATO demonstrations fizzled and fell way short of the estimated crowds.