- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

REYKJAVIK, Iceland NATO, brushing aside Russian opposition, officially opened its new round of enlargement yesterday by meeting with the nine former communist countries that will be considered for membership at the alliance's Prague summit in November.

A day after the 53-year-old organization embraced Russia as a de facto ally in the fight against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and other modern ills, it declared the road to Prague "clear." It also told the applicants that those chosen to join will sign "individual accession protocols no later than" next spring.

"They all want in," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters traveling with him on the trip. "They are all working hard."

He said the United States would insist that there be "no probationary status" for the countries invited to Prague, and that they become full-fledged members soon afterward.

NATO's 19 foreign ministers, at the end of a two-day meeting here, also forged stronger partnerships with Ukraine, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and Yugoslavia, against which the alliance waged its last two military campaigns over Bosnia and Kosovo.

"North America, Europe and countries of Central Asia are now part of a political community that is unprecedented in its breadth, in its inclusiveness and in its capacity to work together," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson told those at the meeting yesterday.

Mr. Powell said the desire of so many countries to become members invalidates the recent criticism that NATO has lost its relevance and should be dismantled.

"It's very hard to close down when people are standing in line to get in," he said.

Although the final communique of the meeting didn't use the word "robust" to describe the enlargement that NATO envisions, the United States, which coined the phrase "robust expansion," insisted that was not a sign of disagreement with its allies.

"I'm not sure why the specific choice of words was made," Mr. Powell said. "Robust is, I think, a pretty accurate description of the feelings of my colleagues and the positions that I see emerging in all of the alliance members."

As many as seven applicants Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia and perhaps Slovakia are expected to get invitations in Prague. Albania and Macedonia are not seen as viable candidates yet. Croatia, the former Yugoslav republic, also is an aspirant, but it submitted its application too late to be considered for this round.

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