- The Washington Times - Friday, July 5, 2002

RIGA, Latvia Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said yesterday that he expects the three Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to become NATO members in November but conceded that their contribution to the alliance will be more political than military and financial.
After a meeting of a bipartisan Senate delegation with the Baltic presidents in Riga, Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican, said NATO expansion is "worthwhile." He also said that he looks "forward to inviting the largest possible number" of countries to join at the alliance's Prague summit in the fall.
"There is a special feeling in America about these three countries," Mr. Lott told reporters. "They stand a very excellent chance to be invited, and I expect that will be the result. If I could cast my vote, I'd say yes."
He will be able to cast his vote, along with all his colleagues in Congress, when the Bush administration sends the enlargement bill to Capitol Hill for ratification. The parliaments of all NATO members have to approve every new accession.
Many legislators have been supportive of what the Bush administration calls "robust expansion" in fact, the debate on the issue has been virtually nonexistent this time compared with the impassioned discussions five years ago, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic received invitations.
But no member of Congress had gone as far as Mr. Lott, both to predict the outcome and to publicly endorse specific applicants so far in advance of the heads of state meeting, nearly five months away.
Only a year ago, taking in even one of the former Soviet Baltic republics was viewed by many NATO capitals as too big of an irritant in the alliance's relationship with Moscow. However, with an agreement signed in late June making Russia a de facto member, that concern has vanished.
Moscow, however, maintains its official position of opposition to the alliance's eastward enlargement.
Mr. Lott, with Presidents Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia, Valdas Adamkus of Lithuania and Arnold Ruutel of Estonia standing at his side, said the three countries' membership would have value "in terms of the principles" NATO believes in, because it is "much more than a security alliance."
The three presidents, along with the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania, Macedonia and Croatia, gather today for the last time before the meeting in Prague, where a first set of seven countries is poised to win invitations.
President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will make separate video addresses to the participants in the Riga summit. While they are expected to give the hopefuls a big boost, the two also will caution that the road to actual membership does not end in Prague.
The delegation led by Mr. Lott also included Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Republican Sens. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Robert F. Bennett of Utah.

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