Wednesday, July 12, 2006

NATO hopefuls meet to speed process of joining alliance

With just four months to go before NATO leaders gather in Latvia for their first summit meeting in two years, representatives of four aspiring members of the military alliance met at this seaside resort, anxious to speed up their accession process but also recognizing increasing doubts about the alliance's desire to enlarge.

Croatia, Macedonia, Albania and Georgia are all hoping to get a clear structure and possible timetable for their membership when NATO leaders meet in November. Their meeting here, organized by the Croatian government, brought representatives of the four together along with senior officials from the United States, Europe and NATO.

Croatia is widely regarded as the favorite to gain membership by 2008. But although NATO officials say all of the applicants should be judged on their own merits, strong differences are emerging within the alliance over how fast and far it should enlarge.

American backing for Ukraine and, most notably Georgia, two former Soviet states whose NATO membership Russia openly opposes, has concerned some European states and Canada, which are already wary about the alliance's capacity to absorb states in the Balkans, let alone as far away as the Caucuses.

The debate within the alliance, say senior American officials, is also being influenced by the European Union's disenchantment with its own enlargement process, which is perceived as being unpopular among European voters.

"I think the enlargement fatigue that has affected the European Union has to some degree spilled over to NATO," said Dan Fried, U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, who attended the conference.

Additionally, President Mikheil Saakashvilli of Georgia - which hopes to be granted a Membership Action Plan, an initial step toward NATO membership, at the summit meeting in Riga - said NATO had yet to clarify its own role in a rapidly changing world.

"We don't have a clear perspective from Western European countries," Saakashvilli said. Securing energy resources and ensuring stability in the Middle East are matters that the alliance has yet to take up.

"In order to live up to these strategic challenges, we need a vision," he said. "Everybody says yes, but it's a matter of time."

Next year, Romania and Bulgaria are due to join the EU, and most member- states, 21 of which are members of NATO, believe that expanding the military alliance at the same time will entail too much additional work.

Thus Croatia, Macedonia and Albanian had all hoped that this year's summit meeting would be lead to invitations to join. But NATO's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, confirmed earlier this month that this would not happen until 2008.

U.S. officials, however, appear keen to encourage expansion of the organization eastward, and face what they see as increasingly important challenges.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the terrorists attacks on the United States in 2001, NATO has sought to transform itself from a Cold War bloc designed to deal with a conventional war in Europe to a more flexible alliance capable of deploying units at short notice wherever they are needed.

The threats of terrorism and failing states has seen the alliance deploy in the Balkans throughout the last decade, and now it is assuming an increasing role in Afghanistan.

With the possibility of Georgia's membership, delegates here said, the United States appears to envision an alliance that also plays a strategic role in the Caucuses, one what would aid Western interests in the competition for oil and gas resources, as well as provide another foothold close to the Middle East.

But, delegates said, many European states - most notably Germany, Canada and France - are reluctant to see the alliance's boundaries extend that far.

Concerns include negotiating membership with Georgia, a state whose borders are still disputed and whose neighbors Azerbaijan and Armenia are still officially at war.

Bert Koenders, a member of the Dutch Parliament and vice president of NATO's parliamentary assembly, said some NATO allies believed that the United States was trying to expand the alliance eastward too quickly and for the sake of its own foreign policy agenda.

"It can lead to the sense in Europe that this is their agenda, cleaning up the coalition of the willing, and fulfilling the agenda of the U.S.," he said.

But Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, Croatia's foreign minister, worries about the risks of delay. "We understand the debate," she said "But we don't want to be the victim of a discussion on absorption capacity."

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