Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 103

On May 19 in Vilnius, the three Baltic states and six other countries appealed to NATO to invite all of them simultaneously to join the alliance at its 2002 summit. The “Vilnius Declaration” capped a conference of the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ministers of foreign affairs with their Central European and Balkan counterparts, in the presence of NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, on “NATO’s Role in the Changing European Security Environment.” While reaffirming each country’s resolve to meet the admission criteria and to be considered on its own merits, the nine countries underscored the importance of NATO consensus on inviting all of them to accession negotiations and setting a firm date for launching that process at the 2002 summit. The declaration pointed out that NATO membership for any of these countries will amount to a success for all of them, and membership for all would be a success for the Euroatlantic world with both its pillars–NATO and the European Union.

This new and bolder approach to NATO’s eastward enlargement is being dubbed the “Big Bang,” by way of contrast to the piecemeal approach which has prevailed so far. That approach has tended to encourage political disagreements within the alliance, favoritism by some NATO allies toward certain aspirant countries, competition among aspirant countries for such favors, distortion of the enlargement agenda under the impact of domestic politics in key NATO countries, as well as complacency and unimaginative bureaucratic attitudes toward the basic issue of enlarging NATO and its missions. Moreover, as Baltic and other speakers at the conference pointed out, the piecemeal approach entails a lengthy transitional stage for most candidate countries, invites Russian doubts concerning NATO’s resolve to accept new members, encourages Moscow to obstruct the process and can expose NATO aspirant countries to Russian pressures during the transition.

The early steps of President Vladimir Putin’s administration in Russia have added to the Balts’ concern–as Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Minister Algirdas Saudargas put it at the conference–that “the Baltic states have the most to fear, should revanchism take hold in Russia.” The Central European aspirant countries, less exposed than the Baltic states, but trailing them in the NATO admission queue, have agreed with the Balts to combine forces in pressing for a faster and more resolute enlargement of the alliance.

As a model worth emulating, conference speakers cited the formation and enlargement of NATO in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the alliance not only grew quickly, but admitted countries whose credentials were challenged even at the time, but which proved their value as allies. Evoking that proven model, Estonia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Toomas Ilves urged transferring it from the western to the central part of the continent. By avoiding a “beauty contest” against each other, the candidate countries would not only enhance each other’s prospects of admission but also contribute to the region’s unity and to the cohesion of NATO itself.

Lithuania’s parliamentary chairman Vytautas Landsbergis urged NATO to focus not only on reassuring Russia of the alliance’s peaceful intentions, but also on the equally important task of discouraging official notions in Moscow that the Baltic and other liberated countries are in some ways “Russian lands.” Suggestions that some countries should be denied admission to avoid irritating Russia amount, Landsbergis remarked, to reinforcing “the Russia of the past, the Russia of the ‘old thinking’ and of spheres of influence,” not Russian democracy. To wish Russia well is to help dispel the expansionist myths of the imperial and Soviet periods, he said. Apparently with a view to Latvia, which currently bears the brunt of Russian political pressures, Landsbergis proposed that NATO set up an Ombudsman-type institution, apt to respond in the alliance’s name through political means to aggressive conduct of states toward their neighbors. (BNS, LETA, May 19-23; The Wall Street Journal, May 22-23; see the Monitor, March 23, May 5; Fortnight in Review, May 12).