RIGA - Twelve-and-a-half years after splitting away from the Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were welcomed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after depositing the "instruments of accession" - or credential documents - in Washington, symbolizing the completion of the long process of integrating their systems of national security with that of the world's largest military alliance.
For the three nations, humiliated for centuries by repeated foreign invasions, the long-awaited membership in the Euro-American bloc, which has managed to remain functional long after the Cold War, represented one of the greatest accomplishments in their post-Soviet history.
"Latvia's accession to the alliance is a great day for our nation. It is a day for celebration, a long-awaited moment and fulfillment of a long-cherished aspiration," Latvian Prime Minister Indulis Emsis said in Washing-ton.
"Our accession to the alliance is a decisive step towards creating a Europe whole and free," said Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas.
Estonian Prime Minister Juhan Parts pointed out that membership was not a one-way street, and Estonia was prepared to do its part to "ensure that NATO remained a stable and secure alliance."
The influence of alliance membership was felt immediately, with four fighter aircraft taking up base in Lithuania. (See story on Page 2.)
Along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, the three Baltic states were welcomed into the 55-year-old military bloc by U.S. President George W. Bush on the south lawn of the White House.
The seven new members had "earned their freedom through courage and perseverance, and today they stand with us as full and equal partners in this great alliance," said Bush.
The U.S. president also used the opportunity to bolster his war against terrorism.
"As witness to some of the great crimes of the last century, our new members bring moral clarity to the purposes of our alliance. They understand our cause in Afghanistan and in Iraq, because tyranny for them is still a fresh memory," he said.
Indeed, all the seven acceding countries were strong supporters of the U.S.-led campaign to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, to the extent that they angered France, also an alliance member.
But there was no sign of tension or hard feelings on March 29, with each country celebrating their hard-fought membership in its own way. In Lithuania, parliamentarians and dignitaries met in the Parliament building to share congratulations and champagne. When the actual deposit of documents took place, the assembly broke out in applause.
"I would like to embrace all here assembled. I feel much relieved now," Lithuania's former president and current MP, Vytautas Landsbergis, said.
But not everyone celebrated NATO enlargement. In Russia, officials stressed that the alliance's eastward expansion represented a threat
"Without a doubt, NATO's expansion touches Russia's political, military and, to a certain extent, economic interests," Alexander Yakovenko, spokesman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, said.
Russia went so far as to say on March 29 that, in light of the recent deployment of four fighter aircraft, it might be forced to strengthen its own defenses along the border with the three Baltic states.
"If we feel that this expansion poses a threat to us that demands a military response, this response will follow," the Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov as saying.
Alliance officials moved to assuage Russian complaints.
"NATO needs a partnership with the Russians," Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters in Washington.
De Hoop Scheffer, who is scheduled to visit Moscow on April 7, did admit that there were some "tough nuts to crack" in NATO-Russian relations, but "it's in NATO's interest, and at the same time it is in Russia's interest, that we have a strong partnership."
But while Russia bemoaned the enlargement, alliance leaders stressed the need to continue the mission that began in 1949, when the United States, Canada and 10 European nations formed a bloc to confront the Soviet threat to the east.
Speaking at another ceremony that day in the U.S. Treasury, Secretary of State Colin Powell focused on the "historic step" of extending "Europe's zone of freedom and security from the Baltics to the Black Sea" that the recent round of NATO enlargement represents.
"NATO is determined above all to prevent aggression," Powell said. "Now it is determined above all to promote freedom, to extend the reach of liberty and to deepen the peace."
NATO leaders do not hide the fact that expansion from 19 to 26 members - with all seven new members located in Eastern Europe - is certain to bring about changes in how the alliances works, especially in light of the drastic changes in global security that have taken place over the past three years.
Speaking on March 26, NATO's supreme allied commander, U.S. General Jim Jones, said that the military bloc "is in the process of one of its most fundamental changes in its history."
"It will be a different organization. It will have a different membership. The Eastern European influence will change the voting demographics. It will bring different views," Jones said.
NATO "is going global instead of regional."
Bush also highlighted this aspect of the alliance's future mission in his speech at the White House.
"NATO'S core mission remains the same: the defense of its members against any aggression. Today, our alliance faces a new enemy, which has brought death to innocent people from New York to Madrid," Bush said.
"Terrorists hate everything this alliance stands for. They despise our freedom. They fear our unity. They seek to divide us. They will fail," he said.
In Riga, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga stressed the practical achievement of alliance membership.
"Preparation for NATO was important for the development of the state," she said. "Not just hard political work [and] diplomatic aspirations, but many uncounted practical achievements - not only in the development of our armed forces but in the strengthening of democratic institutions."
Albania, Croatia and Macedonia are also aiming for membership in the bloc, and Bush was scheduled to meet with their prime ministers on March 29.
A second ceremony will be held at NATO's headquarters in Brussels on April 2, when the seven new members take their seats.