On July 2 Estonia hosted a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the ten countries, situated between the Baltic Sea and the Balkans, that hope to join NATO. This informal club of countries, founded at a similar meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania in May of last year, aims to pool efforts in promoting NATO’s enlargement, avoid mutually debilitating competition among the aspirant countries and substantiate their shared conviction that the alliance’s enlargement represents the sole alternative to redividing Europe into spheres of influence.
In a joint statement the ten ministers recorded the “clear commitment of the alliance to proceed with invitations in 2002” as expressed at NATO’s recent summit, lauded U.S. President George W. Bush for his “visionary speech in Warsaw” on NATO’s enlargement and the growing support in Europe for that goal, and underscored their conviction that the alliance should judge the aspirant countries on their qualifications, not on their “geography or history”–a phrase denoting these countries’ forcible incorporation into Moscow’s former domain. By the same token the ministers underscored their respective governments’ commitment to the Membership Action Plans (MAPs), decided to institute regular consultations among these ten countries’ ambassadors in the capitals of NATO member countries and announced a series of further meetings to promote NATO’s enlargement. On instructions from the heads of state, the Tallinn meeting has scheduled a summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, and one in Riga to be co-hosted by Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
The Tallinn meeting’s host, Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Toomas Ilves, pointed to the political fact of a “strong regional element in NATO’s enlargement discussions,” with certain member countries having certain favorites among the aspiring countries, often on the basis of contiguity or proximity. Therefore the “different candidate countries have to work with different members of the alliance… and find support farther afield than just with neighbors.” Ilves summed up the current stage of the enlargement debate as focusing “no longer on the question whether the alliance would grow or not, but on the scope of its enlargement.” That progress in the debate, he said, requires the aspirant countries to work even harder on their respective MAPs in advance of the Prague summit.
Progress on the national MAPs is known to vary widely from country to country, with the three Baltic states in the lead. In the last week of June U.S. General and Supreme Allied Commander Europe Joseph Ralston visited Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to assess their performance in improving military readiness. He rated the progress favorably in terms of interoperability of the Baltic states’ forces with those of NATO, as practiced in the course of joint exercises and of NATO-led peacekeeping operations. He underscored the fact that any invitation to join NATO would be a political decision, and that military and expert assessments of candidate countries’ readiness would affect that decision.
The Baltic states’ qualifications include one major asset that no group of candidate countries can offer–namely, close cooperation among Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the framework of joint defense projects sponsored by NATO and Nordic countries. Among these projects is the Baltic Defense College (Baltdefcol) in Tartu, Estonia, which trains mid-career officers for senior staff positions. On June 22, Baltdefcol graduated its second class of officers, including ten Estonians, eight Latvians and ten Lithuanians. Concurrently, the joint Baltnet airspace surveillance system moved forward with a Latvian decision to join Estonia in purchasing a long-range radar for the Lithuanian-based Baltnet from the United States. Meanwhile, the joint naval squadron Baltron is engaged in exercises with NATO and Nordic countries’ navies, and the national companies in the joint Baltic Battalion (Balbat) are slated for upgrading as national battalions of a planned joint brigade (BNS, June 27-30, July 2; Defense News, June 28).
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