- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

Three Baltic and two Balkan nations have formed separate coalitions in hopes of improving their chances of winning invitations to join NATO at the alliance's Prague summit in November.
The Bush administration already has said that expanding NATO's "zone of stability and security through the Baltics and the Balkans" would be good for the alliance. But it says the applicants' individual merits will determine who gets in the exclusive club.
The three Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been waging a joint effort to join NATO for more than a year. Now, following their example, Bulgaria and Romania have joined forces in a common bid.
They say the coalition, while informal, is "practical" and has received "vocal" support from Greece and Turkey original NATO members that for the first time would have a land link to their NATO partners if the two were admitted.
"Bulgaria and Romania had a synchronized response to the attacks on September 11, and for the second time after the 1999 Kosovo crisis acted as de facto NATO members," Romania's ambassador to the United States, Sorin Ducaru, said in an interview.
"NATO's southern flank is very important as the front line in the war on terrorism, and the solidarity among Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece has generated a positive response," he said.
To demonstrate the significance of that solidarity, Mr. Ducaru welcomed the Greek and Turkish ambassadors in Washington to his residence 10 days ago for a dinner in honor of the new Bulgarian ambassador, Elena Poptodorova.
The foreign ministers of the four countries also meet regularly to discuss stability in the Balkans and better ways to cooperate on NATO and other regional matters.
While the Bush administration has encouraged cooperation among NATO applicants, a senior State Department official said in an interview that the final decision on the second wave of enlargement will be based on the individual countries' qualifications and not on the blocs' strategic locations.
"If you offered me alternatives, I'd choose the individual achievements of the candidates," the official said. "The judgment this time will be more factual" than during the first round in 1997, when the motives were more political.
Mr. Ducaru said Romania and Bulgaria "aren't neglecting the self-performance factor" and will use the remaining eight months before the Prague meeting to improve their economic and military performance.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic received invitations at the alliance's Madrid summit five years ago. The formerly communist states officially became members in 1999.
A former State Department official, who was deeply involved with the first wave of expansion, said the cooperation among the NATO candidates shows that they will be "good allies in a part of the world where they have been pitted against each other."
"If they can't get along, they will undercut their candidacy," Ron Asmus, deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs in the Clinton administration, said in an interview.
He noted that the joint efforts of the Baltic and Balkan applicants are also a sign that they have learned a lesson from the "beauty contest" in 1997, when the approach of many candidates was, "Let me tell you what's wrong with my neighbors."
A senior staff member of the House International Relations Committee said it made sense for the Baltics to apply together because of their similar levels of development since they gained independence from the Soviet Union more than a decade ago.

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