MADRID (Reuter)–NATO on Tuesday formally invited Hungary–Poland and the Czech Republic to join–paving the way for the biggest single expansion of the Western alliance in its 48-year history.
An announcement read by Secretary-General Javier Solana during a summit of the 16-member alliance in Madrid also named Slovenia–Romania and the Baltic states as potential candidates for consideration in future enlargement rounds.
While the official declaration did not specifically name the former Soviet republics of Latvia–Lithuania and Estonia–it said: "We recognize the progress achieved towards greater stability and cooperation by the states in the Baltic region who are also aspiring members." Russia has warned that it would consider NATO membership by the Baltics as a threat to its own security.
"Today the heads of state and government have agreed to invite the Czech Republic–Hungary and Poland to begin accession talks with NATO," Solana told the assembled alliance leaders and the news media.
"Our goal is to sign the protocol of accession …in December 1997 and to see the ratification process completed in time for membership to become effective by the 50th anniversary of the Washington Treaty in April 1999 (NATO’s founding treaty)." Solana–speaking after hours of wrangling between delegations over the exact wording of the expansion declaration–pledged that NATO would remain "open to new members" and said it expects to extend further invitations in coming years.
"Those nations that have previously expressed an interest in becoming NATO members but that were not invited to begin accession talks today will remain under consideration for future membership,” Solana said.
The United States had insisted on limiting the first round of NATO expansion to Poland–Hungary and the Czech Republic–rejecting a French-led clamor to include Romania and Slovenia as well.
But President Bill Clinton told US embassy employees after the historic decision was made that "this is not an American achievement–this is a NATO achievement."
France–faithful to its reputation as NATO’s enfant terrible–told Western leaders on Tuesday their alliance would not survive if the transatlantic balance of power did not change in Europe’s favor.
With NATO’s invitation on Tuesday to Poland–the Czech Republic and Hungary to apply to join the alliance–Central Europe began a historical slide out of the Russian orbit and into the Western camp.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit where the invitation was issued "will change the politics of Europe for ever," US. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said. Although the application process will take two years–the three invitees – and neighboring countries expected to follow their path – could now see themselves finally emerging from a long night of domination by Moscow.
Polish Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz called the invitation the "end of the Yalta order in Europe," a reference to the 1945 big power agreement which assigned eastern Europe to the Soviet sphere of influence.
The Kremlin-appointed communists who ruled the states in the region after World War Two said they were bound eternally to the Soviet Union – politically–economically and through the now defunct Warsaw Pact military alliance.
But since the Soviet empire collapsed at the end of the 1980s–and democratic governmen’s took over–countries from Estonia in the north to Albania in the south have been united by one idea: to join the West as fast as possible.
For them this promised not just security from Russia and other historical oppressors–but also riches if they could join the European Union and get a piece of Western Europe’s prosperity.
The Central and East European countries – small and medium sized states speaking a Babel of languages unknown elsewhere -have known little freedom–crunched for centuries between Germans to the West and Russia’s to the East.
The major powers marched across these countries whenever they went to war with each other. The largest and most populous state in the region–Poland–was partitioned between Russia–Prussia and Austria from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.
Independence was thrust once before on the states in the area–when the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Ottoman empires collapsed after World War One.
But–unsupported by any collective security or economic system–many became dictatorships and all eventually fell to Adolf Hitler’s German armies before coming under the sway of Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Western leaders say the key to avoiding a repeat of this type of scenario is integrating these vulnerable states into Western organizations like NATO–a process now starting–and the EU–which will take longer.
These groupings have kept Western Europe at peace and can do the same for the East–they say.
As evidence–they point to efforts already made by Hungary and Romania–Poland and Ukraine–and the Czech Republic and Germany–to patch up long-standing ethnic and other disputes.
But although NATO leaders say expansion is not aimed against Russia in the post-Cold War era–they have failed to avoid antagonizing their former adversary–already humiliated by its collapse from world superpower to economic basket case.
Russia has been mollified by a charter signed in May which will give it a voice–though not a veto–in NATO affairs. But Moscow is drawing a new line in the sand–saying it will fiercely oppose the entry of the Baltic states into NATO.
But the East European states–including the Baltics–insist that they have always been culturally part of the West and espouse "Western values" -a view shared by Western politicians supporting NATO expansion.
"These nations will bear the cost of defending freedom because they know the price of losing freedom,” Albright wrote in a newspaper article on Tuesday. "They are ready–willing and able to contribute to our common agenda for security… and we should be ready to welcome them.”
Critics of the move argue–however–that NATO expansion makes no political or military sense–and is motivated essentially by guilt over Western countries’ failure to support or defend their East European neighbors earlier this century.
According to Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington–giving the East Europeans NATO membership is a "cruel deception" since no major Western country would send troops to help them in a crisis.
"Neither Americans nor Western Europeans will fight Russia for the sake of Poland–the Baltic states or Ukraine. Giving them NATO membership cannot change geographic and political reality,” Luttwak wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday.