- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

RIGA, Latvia President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave NATO hopefuls from Central and Eastern Europe a big boost yesterday, saying a large expansion of the alliance in the fall would help to fight global terror.
In separate videotaped addresses to the leaders of the 10 applicant nations gathered for a summit in Riga, the chiefs of the two leading NATO members also praised the leaders for successfully implementing reforms necessary for membership.
Mr. Bush said the alliance's Prague summit in November, where as many as seven countries are expected to be invited, "will mark the beginning of a new era in Europe and trans-Atlantic relations."
"We seek a new Europe that has buried its historic tensions and is prepared to meet global challenges beyond Europe's borders," Mr. Bush said in his first speech on NATO enlargement since September 11 and only the second in his presidency.
"NATO must prepare itself to fight and defeat terror and the other threats to freedom that we face together, and new members will help improve NATO's capabilities," he said.
Although neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Blair named specific countries, the British leader said he backs "enlargement on as broad a basis as possible."
The seven nations with good chances to win invitations in Prague are Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia, unless the latter votes ex-Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar back in power in September. Albania and Macedonia, as well as Croatia, which applied too late to be considered in November, are seen as making it the next time.
A Senate delegation headed by Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican and Senate minority leader, also is in Riga for the summit. On Thursday, Mr. Lott said he expects the three Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to become NATO members in November, although he conceded their contribution to the alliance will be more political than military and financial.
"The president's address and Senator Trent Lott's presence here are a very good indication of the importance the U.S. government gives to NATO enlargement," said Nicholas Burns, Washington's ambassador to NATO. "But there is no decision yet on who will get in."
A senior NATO official said the alliance's expansion agenda is "very broad" and not confined to formal and strict guidelines. He also noted that NATO decision-makers have been trying to "understand all aspects of society" in the applicant countries to better appreciate the changes they are making to earn membership.


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