- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

BUCHAREST, Romania The United States has given its clearest indication yet that it will back a broad expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe when the alliance meets this fall in Prague.
"In Prague, our nations will take a historic step toward removing the remaining divisions of Europe," President Bush said yesterday in a message read at a summit of nine candidate nations in Bucharest.
"We will move to adapt NATO structures and improve its capabilities so that our societies and our citizens are better protected against new threats, wherever they emerge," he said.
NATO, which last expanded in 1999 by taking in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, would say nothing officially about which countries were likely to get the nod at the summit in Prague.
But Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said yesterday that the politics of NATO enlargement had changed since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The terrorist attacks in the United States "have had a riveting effect on NATO and on the aspirant countries to NATO," Mr. Armitage said. "Certainly a number of our friends and allies have stepped up" in the wake of the September 11 strikes.
Mr. Armitage said several East and Central European NATO hopefuls had aided their cause by offering tangible military and logistical support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The leaders of nine formal candidates Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania are gathered here along with their Croatian counterpart.
Washington is expected to have a decisive say in which countries and how many are accepted, and delegates here have scrutinized Mr. Armitage's words for hints as to the Bush administration's sympathies.
All nine nations are scrambling to complete detailed military reform programs, while at the same time trying to ensure NATO they have the political and economic stability to be useful allies.
Expansion options range from a minimal expansion that might include Slovenia, Slovakia and a Baltic applicant to a much more ambitious enlargement round to embrace all three Baltic states and Romania and Bulgaria as well.
Macedonia and Albania are given little chance of winning an invitation in this round of enlargement.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, in taped remarks to the delegates assembled in the massive, marble-covered Parliament House, said the number of countries invited could range from "one to nine."
Mr. Armitage made clear Mr. Bush was leaning heavily toward a larger number.
"The United States looks forward to the most robust possible accession to the NATO membership at the summit in Prague," he said in an appearance with Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase.
Mr. Armitage said he planned to deliver the same message when meeting today in Brussels with members of NATO's Executive Council.
Romania and Bulgaria, considered at best long shots a year ago, have won several supporters in recent months, pushing effectively a line that the terrorist attacks have made it imperative to shore up the alliance's southeastern flank and provide a "land bridge" to Turkey.
Both countries have supplied men and materiel to NATO and U.S. missions in the Balkans and in Afghanistan.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy said in an interview that "it was clear NATO's mission would have to be changed with September 11."
Bulgaria allowed U.S. forces the use of an air base for the Afghan campaign, the first time in its history it had permitted the stationing of foreign troops on its soil, Mr. Passy said.
Romanian officials also touted a joint letter read to delegates yesterday from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.
The leaders said enlargement "continues to enjoy bipartisan support" in the Senate.
While offering hope on a major enlargement round, Mr. Armitage said he was cautioning NATO hopefuls that the hard work of preparing their militaries for the alliance must be maintained and would not end at Prague.
Noting the mounting optimism of many of the countries gathered here, Mr. Armitage said, "We want to make sure they continue to work as hard as possible to get in."
Russian objections have been cited as a key obstacle to NATO enlargement.
But Mr. Bush, in his message, took note of Russian President Vladimir Putin's new entente with the West against terrorism that had tempered Moscow's criticism of the alliance's expansion.
"We are determined to take advantage of an unprecedented chance to shape a relationship with Russia that focuses on realistic and concrete cooperation against common threats," Mr. Bush said.

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