NATO welcomes 7 new members, who voice support for Iraq effort

Posted in NATO | 04-Apr-04 | Author: Christopher Marquis| Source: The New York Times

BRUSSELS - NATO formally welcomed seven new members into the alliance Friday, stretching its security umbrella to the borders of Russia and prompting Secretary of State Colin Powell to reassure Moscow that it should not feel threatened.

With a flag-raising ceremony in the morning drizzle, foreign ministers from the enlarged, 26-member alliance stood in a plastic tent and listened to martial music and the national anthems.

The NATO ministers also issued a statement calling for greater coordination against terrorism, while the new members expressed enthusiastic support for deeper NATO involvement in Iraq.

"Today is the clearest demonstration that in Europe, geography no longer equals destiny," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary general. Powell, who met with Russia's new foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, shrugged off both a statement by the Russian Duma, the legislature, that criticized the enlargement of the alliance and the concerns voiced by the government of President Vladimir Putin over NATO's deployment of F-16 fighter jets to patrol over Baltic states.

"Dumas are like European legislatures; they are like my Congress; they pass resolutions," Powell said in an interview with journalists from the new member countries. "But I don't think it will fundamentally change the strategic situation. I don't sense that the Russians will find it necessary to counter this move with anything that would be either provocative or destabilizing or dangerous."

The NATO-Russia Council met Friday afternoon with both sides still at odds over the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement, which seeks to evenly reduce troops and military hardware on the Continent. The United States wants Russia to remove its troops from the former Soviet states of Moldova and Georgia and has refused to ratify an adapted version of the treaty until Moscow complies.

But Russia, which wanted the entrance of the Baltic states and Slovenia into NATO to be contingent on their joining the conventional forces agreement, was told to be satisfied with NATO pledges that it will not station additional troops or weapons in the new member nations. The standoff is a "real problem" said one NATO official, though he added that he was encouraged by the Lavrov's decision to attend the event when many officials fully expected he would not. Putin had reduced the rhetoric in recent days, he said. "Putin realized he wasn't going to set himself up for a diplomatic defeat that he couldn't change," the NATO official said. The accession of the new members came as a relief to the Bush administration, which had clashed bitterly with its French and German allies over the war in Iraq, prompting officials to speak dismissively of the complaints of "Old Europe."

Six of the seven new members - Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia - are contributing to the war in Iraq, and all are active in the effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Slovenia is not part of the Iraq coalition. Romania's foreign minister, Mircea Dan Geoana, suggested that the balance had shifted in favor of the American policy in Iraq. He said the countries that suffered under Communist rule had a moral obligation to step up for Iraq, while some saw their contribution as an attempt to prove themselves upfront. "The time has come for nations on both sides of the Atlantic to put these divisions aside," said Geoana, whose nation has 700 troops in Iraq. "The next few weeks and months will be decisive." But NATO, which operates by consensus, is requiring a United Nations resolution authorizing it to take on a greater role after the scheduled June 30 turnover of authority to Iraqis, leaving open the possibility for a renewed debate. Powell said Friday that he did not expect NATO to get involved in Iraq before that. "We don't yet have a NATO role for Iraq, the way we have for Afghanistan," Powell said. "But it took time to get NATO to take a positive role, an alliance role, in Afghanistan. With respect to Iraq, we have not reached that point yet. Bulgaria's foreign minister, Solomon Isaac Passy, who wept when his nation's flag was raised, noted that his country has 500 troops in Iraq. "Iraq needs our help," he said. Such vows likely comforted Bush administration officials, who were stung by Spain's threat to pull out of the coalition unless authority over the forces is transferred from the coalition to the United Nations. Officials privately voiced worries that such a pullout would only make their efforts to field troops more difficult. NATO, which is having difficulties getting equipment to Afghanistan, has cleared the way for the delivery of six Apache helicopters, which were donated by the Netherlands. In their talks on terrorism, the ministers agreed to increase maritime interdiction efforts in the Mediterranean, provide security for the Summer Olympics in Athens and draw up a package of measures prior to a meeting in Istanbul in late June. They condemned the "murderous acts of terrorism" in Iraq and Uzbekistan. Powell said that the coalition must stay the course in Iraq. "We will defeat them," he said. "It will take time. More lives will be lost, and I regret that. But they have to be defeated." NATO ministers emphasized that their first commitment was to widening their presence in Afghanistan, where they currently have 6,000 personnel deployed. They plan to send five new provincial reconstruction teams to that country by the end of June. "It's better to succeed at one operation than to fail at two," the NATO official said.