- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

The decision is not due until late next year, but the lobbying to get into the world's most powerful military club has begun in earnest.

Senior representatives from the nine central and Eastern European countries hoping to join NATO were much in evidence in Washington this week, many attending yesterday's National Prayer Breakfast, buttonholing lawmakers on Capitol Hill and making contacts in the new Bush administration.

"The key decisions will be made this fall and next spring, and we have to make our case now," Slovakian Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said over a quick lunch at a Capitol Hill eatery yesterday after meeting with a group of senators on the subject.

"The decisions about NATO enlargement in the end will be political ones," Mr. Dzurinda said. "I have no concerns about our candidacy, but the silence I hear on enlargement in Washington and Europe means we have to be more active in making our position known."

Upon accepting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as members in 1998, the 19-nation NATO alliance also laid out an "Open Door" policy to consider a slate of new applicants from the Balkans to the Baltics.

Nine countries are on the doorstep Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. A formal decision on who if anyone gets in is expected at the NATO summit in Prague in October 2002.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has reaffirmed the new administration's support for expanding NATO next year, but has carefully refrained from saying which candidates President Bush will support.

Major European powers in NATO have their favorites, and a fair amount of horse-trading is expected in the next few months. Many believe that Slovenia, considered the strongest and least controversial applicant, was left out of the 1998 enlargement round just to ensure the expansion process didn't grind to a halt.

NATO has to take into account the strong opposition of Russia to any NATO expansion and in particular to the candidacies of the three Baltic hopefuls: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, has argued strongly for inviting the three Baltic applicants to join NATO next year.

While handicappers consider Macedonia a long shot for the 2002 round, President Boris Trajkovski was in Washington this week saying his small, multiethnic nation deserves strong consideration.

He said his country had proved its worth to the alliance as the prime staging area for the 1999 war against Kosovo.

"We are already acting like a NATO member," said Mr. Trajkovski, who met with Mr. Powell.

"Our unique position and capabilities make Macedonia a strong stabilizing factor in the Balkans," he said.

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, who also met with Mr. Powell, argued that his country was the largest of the nine candidates, occupied a key strategic point in Southeast Europe and would, with Bulgaria, help strengthen the land link between Turkey and its NATO partners in Western Europe.

"It's early, and we are veterans of this process," Mr. Geoana observed. "But now is the time to make as strong as possible a case."

Friedbert Pfluger, who oversees security policy for Germany's center-right Christian Democratic opposition, said he favored admitting Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and perhaps one Baltic nation as a "taboo-breaker."

Without exception, the candidate countries say NATO must accept at least one applicant in the next round to avoid a severe popular backlash.

"Disillusion is the worst thing that can happen in public life and in politics," said Slovakia's Mr. Dzurinda.

"I care deeply for the security of my country," he said. "I will not sleep easily until Slovakia is admitted into NATO."

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