Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 106

From May 27 to 31, NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly held a landmark session in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. Concurrently, the North Atlantic Council met at the level of foreign affairs ministers of the allied and aspirant countries on May 29-30 in Budapest, Hungary. The two events and their parallelism are fraught with political symbolism. For the first time, these NATO bodies convened on the soil of former captive nations, Hungary being a new member of the alliance while Lithuania is one of the three Baltic aspirant countries. The concurrence of the two meetings also underscored the obsolete nature of any perceived distinctions between ex-Warsaw Pact countries and ex-“Soviet republics” in terms of their case for joining NATO.

The Baltic case topped the agenda of the Vilnius meeting and gained perceptibly in political support. Three political trends are crystallizing. First, the United States leads a growing momentum toward NATO’s Baltic enlargement, while European allies are supportive in varying degrees or are biding their time. The net effect is that some former doubters are becoming supporters and some former naysayers are becoming fence sitters. Second, in the United States itself, the Congress is moving on a bipartisan basis one step ahead of the Bush administration, which is, however, believed to share that view and clarify it in short order. Third, the timid scenario envisaging the early admission of one Baltic state is losing credibility in favor of the option to admit the three together. That option is recognized by now as realistic politically and as the only realistic one militarily.

The new chairman of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, Rafael Estrella of Spain, made a statement that reflected both the need and the wide scope for American leadership on enlargement. Estrella declared that the allies await a statement of “clear and unequivocal commitment to enlargement” by President George W. Bush at the earliest opportunity. Such a statement from the U.S. president would offer “all our governments an opportunity to lend substance to the open-door policy, so that the next members can be identified at the Prague summit, and invitations can be issued that include a Baltic dimension.”

The assembly’s concluding declaration urges the North Atlantic Council–the alliance’s top political decision-making body–to issue, no later than the 2002 Prague summit, invitations to NATO accession negotiations to any European democracy that seeks membership and has met the criteria for membership as established in the alliance’s 1995 study on NATO Enlargement. The declaration rules out any nonmember country’s veto to enlargement. While the latter stipulation refers to Russia, the confirmation of the 1995 criteria aims to prevent a change of rules in the endgame–that is, any unfair raising of the admission standards for the Baltic states above the standards used for the 1999 admission of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

In his address to the plenum of the assembly, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas urged the alliance to “erase the scar defacing Europe, the line forcibly drawn sixty years ago. Are we destined to bear the cross thrust upon us by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact? One often gets the impression that, as both we and the West discuss our accession to the alliance, Russia’s shadow is looming above our heads. Is that [shadow] not a pretext for reluctance to make a decision?”

The prime minister was taking issue with a view that seems to be rapidly receding in NATO councils. At present, few give serious consideration to Russia’s thesis NATO must not cross a Baltic “red line”– the new name of the old Ribbentrop-Molotov line. Paksas cited a statement made by U.S. President Ronald Reagan years before the enlargement issue had moved onto the political agenda. NATO, Reagan said, was created not only to prevent wars but also “to expand the frontiers of freedom.”

NATO’s Secretary-General, Lord George Robertson, told the assembly that NATO the alliance is irreversibly committed to accepting any new members who meet its criteria. “And let me be very clear and very blunt: this includes every democratic country in Europe, not just some.” With that, the alliance signaled that it is not prepared to put the Baltic states in a disadvantaged category because of their past annexation by Moscow. In the same vein, Robertson asserted that “geography can no longer be destiny” for purposes of admission to NATO of qualified countries.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell similarly told the Budapest ministerial conference that “geography and history must have no influence on the enlargement.” These remarks aimed straight at Moscow’s argument that countries bordering on Russia and formerly occupied by it should be denied admission to the alliance. Estonia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Toomas Ilves in turn asked rhetorically in Moscow’s direction: “What’s the statute of limitations ? When do we declare the Soviet Union over and done with?”

Both Robertson in Vilnius and the allied foreign affairs ministers in Budapest made clear that admission decisively depends each individual candidate country fulfilling its Membership Action Plan (MAP). MAP is a three-year NATO program, launched in 1999, to assist aspirant countries in their efforts to prepare for accession to the alliance. The ministerial conference in Budapest received a comprehensive report on the results of MAP’s second annual cycle, as part of the ongoing review of the enlargement process. Allied and aspirant countries are now moving toward the third and final annual cycle, the results of which will largely determine the success or failure of membership bids at next year’s Prague summit. Meanwhile, in Vilnius, Robertson went on television to advise the Balts to “keep taking the medicine of military reform and of increased defense spending.”

Earlier this month, the alliance’s enlargement in the Baltic and Central European regions received a strong political impetus at the Bratislava conference of aspirant countries and prominent Western supporters. Czech President Vaclav Havel’s address to that conference helped redefine the political and historical framework of the debate, in favor of a parallel, early enlargement in those two directions. The Vilnius meeting has clearly marked a further political step toward that goal. Reaching it next year seems by now to depend primarily on the Baltic states’ own performance in meeting the admission criteria in a timely fashion under the Membership Action Plans (BNS, Vilnius Radio, ELTA, LETA, NATO releases, May 27-31; see the Monitor, February 6, 22, March 6, April 11, 13, May 14; Fortnight in Review, April 13).