Euphoria subsides, hard work, challenges ahead

  • 2002-11-28
  • Calin Neacsu

Seven former Soviet bloc countries may be elated at their new invitations to join NATO, but officials warn that they have much work to do before joining the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

Like the three other ex-communist countries which joined the Western military club in 1999, they face the mammoth task of upgrading their armed forces' capacities.

"We fully understand that today's decision marks not the end, but rather the beginning of a new era," said Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus. "No matter how convincing our achievements are to date, there is still much to be done," he added.

Lithuania is seen as the best prepared of the Baltic members-in-waiting, with an army of 15,000, a small contingent of which was recently deployed in Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson told beaming leaders from aspirant countries that they had already achieved much.

"All aspirants have been faced with tough and difficult decisions. It is a reflection of their political determination to join NATO that they have met this challenge," he said.

But Robertson warned the leaders of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia they had much work to do and could not expect "a free ride."

The invitees appear well aware of the tough challenge ahead.

"Talks with NATO are only beginning, and there is serious work still ahead," said Estonian President Arnold Ruutel, whose Baltic country of just 1.4 million people has an army of 4,100.

"We are going to get down to work today with discipline and perseverance," said Mircea Geoana, Romania's foreign minister, which with 21.7 million inhabitants is the biggest candidate member. Romania's army of 100,000 will be trimmed before it joins NATO.

Geoana said Romania wanted to follow in the footsteps of Poland. "Romania is taking Poland as its role model, its progress and its development, because we want to represent for Southeastern Europe what Poland represents for the north," he said.

In a sign of the challenge ahead for NATO's new invitees, all three current ex-communist bloc NATO members, and in particular Hungary, have struggled to fulfill their obligations toward the alliance they made when they joined.

Candidate countries are putting around 2 percent of their gross domestic product into upgrading their militaries.

The chief of Romania's army, General Mihai Popescu, said Bucharest would "quickly draw up a strategy for acquiring military equipment which is compatible with NATO's armies."

As in most of the countries invited to join NATO, almost everything has to be changed.

"Even the rifles have a different caliber compared to those used in NATO," said Popescu. "The needs of our army are complex and range from fighter planes and warships, but we also need telecommunications equipment."

Dimitar Tzonev, spokesman for the Bulgarian government, said that Sofia also has to undertake major efforts.

"We reaffirm our determination to continue all the reforms necessary to become full NATO members," he said.

In Slovenia, which emerged from the former Yugoslavia, the authorities also have a lot of work to do convincing a public opinion which is skeptical about the wisdom of joining NATO.

"In view of the international realities, to remain a neutral country would represent an abnormal attitude," Slovenian President Milan Kucan said, adding that he was in favor of a referendum on accession to the EU.

Bruce Jackson, president of a non-governmental organization helping NATO candidates, said the candidates do not only face challenges in the military sphere. In particular he pointed to corruption, which he said posed a threat to democracy and internal stability.