- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2002

A new Senate staff report recommends admitting seven new members to NATO, adding momentum to the drive for an ambitious enlargement round when the 19-nation alliance gathers for a summit in Prague in November.
But the report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, cautioned that several of the applicants posed serious military or political challenges for NATO, and that pressure should be kept on all seven Eastern European nations to meet even minimal defense-spending targets.
"Despite the pledges to meet the financial requirements, we remain skeptical of the will of each of the candidates to meet this goal once membership is granted," Patricia McNerney, the committee's Republican staff director, and David Merkel, a senior staffer for the committee, said in their report.
The seven countries are the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, plus Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Albania and Macedonia are also among the formal candidates, but few give either much chance of receiving an invitation at Prague.
The Bush administration has prodded reluctant NATO allies in Europe to agree to the largest round of expansion in the history of the 53-year-old alliance, and the first since Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were invited to join in 1997.
The staff recommendation, which followed a tour of all the candidate countries, was sent Aug. 30 to committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, and ranking Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Surveying the seven applicants, the report found that each poses problems as well as opportunities for NATO.
Corruption remains a serious problem in Romania, while a possible comeback by authoritarian Slovak politician Vladimir Meciar in this month's elections could complicate that country's NATO hopes. Slovenia, the report said, has only recently begun to rally public support for NATO after failing to secure membership in 1997.
More generally, the staffers found, there was a mismatch among the NATO hopefuls over what they could offer the alliance in security matters and in political terms.
"As a general matter, we found that those countries with strong assets to contribute militarily specifically Romania and Bulgaria, have more serious work remaining to develop and modernize their democratic institutions," the authors noted.
They said the countries "with strong democratic institutions, market economies, and the rule of law do not add significantly to the overall military posture of the alliance."
The report noted that many of the fears of those opposed to a major NATO expansion to the east have eased. Russia's opposition to the three Baltic candidates has softened markedly as relations between Washington and Moscow have improved in recent months.
The enlargement question has helped fuel a larger debate on the future of NATO, which no longer has its Cold War mission and has not been a major factor in the Bush administration's global war on terrorism.
Taking on new, militarily minor members only sharpens the question of NATO's effectiveness as a security force, according to Guillaume Parmentier, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations, writing in the recent NATO Review.

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