- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

This is the first in a series of reports from seven NATO aspirant nations in Central and Eastern Europe before the alliance's November summit in Prague, where they are expected to receive memberhip invitations.

The prospect of a war against Iraq and other recent irritants in Washington's relationship with its European allies are causing fear in several nations eager to join NATO that they will be judged by criteria other than their actual readiness during the alliance's new round of enlargement in November.
What makes their position particularly awkward, officials in these former communist states say, is the difficulty of satisfying those "other" conditions, such as their stance on Iraq or the new International Criminal Court (ICC), in a way that pleases both the United States and Europe.
"It's not easy to go to the Americans and the Europeans with different scripts based on the same facts, but that's exactly what's happening," one senior official said. "If these two sides can't find a compromise, then who can?"
A senior diplomat from one of the Baltic states said the candidate nations feel "sandwiched" between solidarity with the United States in hard times and the appeal of Europe's policies of internationalism and multilateralism.
Although no Bush administration officials have yet linked support for U.S. action in Iraq with NATO membership, "many things are never said, so I'm sure Iraq will come up, and countries will be judged by their behavior," said Miroslav Wlachovsky, foreign-policy adviser to Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda.
But senior U.S. officials insist there will be no surprises at the alliance's Prague summit and that the only requirements the applicants will be expected to meet are those outlined in the so-called Membership Action Plan.
"We are taking great care to make sure that the decision is based on such criteria as the applicants' military readiness, institutional strength and human rights record," Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in a telephone interview from Brussels.
"We are not judging candidates on other issues like Iraq," he said. "Nothing has happened over the summer that will derail NATO enlargement. There is a consensus that the number of countries invited will be historic."
The matter of U.S.-European tensions was raised by government officials and other political and civil-society leaders during visits to several Central and East European NATO hopefuls in dozens of interviews over the past three weeks. Along with Iraq and the ICC, they cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Kyoto protocol on climate change as other examples of friction.
Of all these issues, a war to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was cited as potentially the most worrisome because of the uncertainty of its implications. The fact that most of the world, with a few notable exceptions, opposes unilateral U.S. military action in Iraq further complicates the situation, officials and diplomats said.
"On one hand, the war on terrorism has strengthened the case for our membership, but on the other, the uncertainty of the Iraq situation is also a factor," said Romanian Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha agreed that after September 11 the "probability" that his country and Romania will be invited to join NATO has increased because of their strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. But with a war in Iraq looming, he noted, "nothing can be taken for granted."
Most of those interviewed said that, except for Slovenia, all of the candidates expected to receive invitations in Prague Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia are much more pro-American than some of the current NATO members, such as France, Germany and Greece.
Two more countries, Macedonia and Albania, also are on the formal list of candidates for NATO membership but are given little chance of receiving an invitation to join in this round.
So much new support for the United States coming into the alliance may not be to the liking of some Europeans, one senior Slovak official said. Although he predicted that the new members probably would side with Washington on Iraq, he said that no premature conclusions should be drawn and no decisions should be made before Prague.
In Romania, where public support for NATO membership is higher than in any other applicant nation, the government hopes that its strong pro-American positions will not hurt its relations with the Europeans. Romania was the first to sign an agreement exempting U.S. soldiers on its territory from the jurisdiction of the ICC, angering the European Union.
"If someone decides to bring the Iraq issue into the bargaining in Prague and I don't want to name names that will be shortsightedness," Mr. Pascu said.
A senior Western diplomat in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, said the aspirant countries feel "very uncomfortable" because they were asked by the European Union to "make a choice" between the United States and Europe on the ICC. "They were never told those were the conditions" for NATO or EU membership, he noted.
The official U.S. position is that the ICC, which the Bush administration opposes, will have no impact on the candidates' chances to become NATO members. However, some lawmakers have said both in Washington and during visits to applicant nations that they cannot be good allies if they fail to protect American peacekeepers.
"It's not very helpful when members of Congress come here and link the ICC with NATO membership," said Jelko Kacin, chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee in the Slovenian Parliament, referring to a delegation led by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
On Iraq, Mr. Kacin said his country "will not follow the United States blindly," because "people are very rational here, they don't react emotionally, and they need proof" that Saddam poses a serious threat.
In Slovenia, where public support for NATO membership is below 50 percent, the ICC and Iraq have had a particularly strong resonance among the population. Even the government is divided on what stance to take on Iraq.
"As a true partner, we will support U.S. action in Iraq," said Slovenian Defense Minister Anton Grizold. "Otherwise, how can we be a credible partner? We have to stick together and express solidarity."
But Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said U.N. inspections in Iraq should be given another chance. He also expressed measured frustration with some Bush administration policies.
"We would love to stay in the group of American friends, but sometimes certain statements from Washington are not helpful in making U.S. policies popular," Mr. Rupel said.
Even Romanian President Ion Iliescu, despite his country's pro-American stance, said Washington "should not go to war by itself, because it's necessary to have solidarity in such an important step."
"I hope that the United States will rethink its position and that no dramatic decisions on Iraq will be taken before Prague," he said. As for NATO enlargement, the alliance "has to take into consideration the general context and not forget all our achievements."
Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, citing the series of military and political reforms the applicant nations have implemented to prepare for membership, said "enlargement is on track and we have moved too close for issues like Iraq to have an impact on the process."
But he warned that the meeting in Prague could be hijacked by the Iraq issue, just as NATO's 50th-anniversary summit in Washington three years ago was dominated by the war against Serbia over Kosovo.
Senior U.S. officials, while acknowledging their intention to focus much of the summit's attention on Iraq, said it would not be the only issue and enlargement would get a prominent place on the agenda.
"Iraq is a very important issue, and it will be central for the discussion in Prague, but the summit will stand on its own feet," Mr. Burns said. "The focus will be the future of NATO, the development of a new set of military capabilities and the decision on which of nine candidates to invite to join."
Mr. Burns noted that all alliance members try to be "very deliberate about this round of enlargement," because "membership is a contract for life, with no possibility for divorce."
"There hasn't been a substantive discussion with the allies on who should be invited," he said. "We have been deliberately putting it off, because there are still events that will play a role in the decision."

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