- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

PRAGUE Officially, the list of new NATO members will not be finalized until the November summit meeting here, but the leader of Lithuania, one of the candidates, says it would be a body blow to the country if it is not asked to join the alliance.
"I would be really surprised and greatly disappointed if we weren't invited to join NATO in Prague," Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, who was in the Czech capital Thursday to pay tribute to the work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said in an interview. "We've worked very hard and met all the criteria put before us to be in NATO."
The Prague summit will usher in the second round of expansion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the post-communist era. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the alliance in 1999.
It is expected that the enlargement would create a contiguous alliance as far east as the Black Sea, with Romania and Bulgaria bridging the current gap between Hungary and the Mediterranean countries, Greece and Turkey.
Lithuania would anchor NATO's Baltic contingency including Latvia and Estonia which together total little more than 5 million people.
Russia no longer poses a military threat to the Baltic nations, and because they are small countries, their military contribution to the alliance will be limited, Mr. Adamkus conceded. Joining the alliance, however, will be good for their economies, he said.
"Every businessman is looking for a safe place to invest," Mr. Adamkus said. "Capital moves only into safe, secure geographic areas. NATO provides that. It is a security system for the entire European Continent."
In a separate interview on the sidelines of the conference, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana took time out to make the case for his nation's bid to join NATO.
"Romanians bring a fantastic enthusiasm for the alliance," Mr. Geoana said. "They don't look at Prague as an end but as a starting point."
In Romania, public support for the bid to join NATO exceeds 80 percent. And in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Romania's size and location give it a strategic appeal as well.
"In the aftermath of September 11, Romania can be a springboard to the Black Sea and the Caucasus, which have become of paramount importance to the West," Mr. Geoana said.
More important is the access the country would provide for any military action President Bush may choose to take against Iraq, said Janusz Bugajski, director of the Eastern Europe Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Romania and Bulgaria fill out the southern flank for any operation in the Middle East, especially if Turkey is reticent," Mr. Bugajski said. "And recent statements suggest they are reticent."

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