- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

STOCKHOLM — What a difference a decade makes. Anyone who participated in debates over NATO and EU enlargement 10 years ago would find few similarities between the arguments back then and the discussion at the recent conference on Baltic Sea Region Security and Cooperation, which took place in Stockholm in late April.

In the early 1990s, there were lots of questions. Vocal opponents of NATO enlargement thought it would provoke the Russian military into doing something truly crazy and cause the remilitarization of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Some worried that it would so radicalize ordinary Russians that democratic development would be hopelessly undermined. Others worried that NATO enlargement would create a new iron curtain in Europe, albeit one further to the east. And then there was the cost, which no one really knew how to quantify. In fact, some thought the United States itself might become so overextended with new NATO commitments that we would go into a permanent decline. Others that nuclear disarmament would come to a halt.

When the decision was finally made, however, in the spring of 1999 to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in NATO, we found that the sky didn't fall, and the Russians didn't go berserk. Most of those earlier arguments appear almost quaint as NATO leaders contemplate the second round of enlargement to be decided at the Prague summit in November. Aspirants for the second round are the three Baltic countries, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia and Albania.

Today, a great many different topics are on the agenda. Poland's aspirations as a major new member of NATO and as an influential regional power are being acknowledged. The success of regional cooperation among the Baltic countries and their Scandinavian neighbors is promoted as an example of how former east and west can get along together. The war against terrorism and NATO's role therein is a crucial subject of discussion post-September 11. And, not to forget, so is the state of the transatlantic relationship. Englargement itself, though, is considered a given.

Most amazing perhaps is that Russia is hardly ever talked about as a threat. Not by the Americans nor by the Europeans. Even as the Stockholm conference convened, the Russian and U.S. governments signed an agreement for a Russia-NATO council, which will all but make Russia the 20th member of the new NATO. Later this month in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush will sign a dramatic new arms reduction treaty, as well as a joint statement outlining the new strategic framework. The statement will "prescribe the principles on the basis of which Russia and the United States will build their bilateral relationship in the long-term future," according to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

The European Union, too, is entering negotiations for closer economic links with Russia, as an anchor for Russian reforms. As Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson remarked at the opening of the Stockholm conference, "the Baltic region might become the most dynamic in Europe, especially if Russia is included."

The Russian representative at the conference had his own agenda. In 1990s, the Russians used to hint darkly that unless NATO behaved itself nuclear weapons might be stationed in Kaliningrad, a Russian port and outpost formerly known as East Prussia, which borders Lithuania on one side and Poland on the other. It has long been considered a potential trouble spot. According to Valery Ustyunov of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma, "Kaliningrad is a common challenge for Russia and the European Union," he said, "and if ignored will cause serious damage."

The Russian proposal is for Poland and Lithuania to waive visa requirements for Kaliningrad residents after EU enlargement, and for the EU and Russia to work together to make a Hong Kong of the West out of Kaliningrad, an entry point for Europeans seeking to do business in Russia and a model for future EU cooperation. There's a long way to go. Today Kaliningrad is in a state of advanced decay as a military installation and boasts the highest rate of AIDS in Europe.

As might well be imagined, the few voices raised to caution about the rapprochement between NATO and Russia belonged to Central and East Europeans. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski warned that the new formula for the NATO-Russian council must not change the role of current NATO institutions. Cooperation should be based, he said, on the principle that "the share of decision making should be commensurate with the share of responsibility for implementation. " One hopes the Bush administration listens.

The realities of a new Europe are finally taking shape, unifying the continent and hopefully bringing peace and prosperity. It is a good thing to see.

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