Romania and Bulgaria Edge Nearer to NATO Membership
Tue Mar 26, 8:56 AM ET

By STEVEN ERLANGER The New York Times

BUCHAREST, Romania, March 25 A year ago, the idea that Romania and Bulgaria might join NATO this autumn in the next round of enlargement seemed laughable, and many thought that the aspirations of the Baltic nations for NATO membership might be held hostage again to relations with Moscow.

But in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and with the war on terrorism, the southern flank of NATO suddenly seems more important, and the domestic blemishes of candidate countries like Romania less important.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has apparently decided not to make too big a fuss over Baltic memberships in return for more influence with NATO, a better relationship with the United States and a freer hand in Chechnya, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The prime ministers of 10 NATO candidate countries are meeting here in another joint effort to press their case. They are receiving warm messages of general support from President Bush and from Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who came here to demonstrate the American commitment to enlargement.

The Bush administration, concentrating on the larger war in Afghanistan and beyond, sees the chance to make the NATO summit meeting in Prague in November a celebration of European unity and of completing the current plans for NATO enlargement, by taking in up to seven countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.

Three other countries represented here Albania, Macedonia and Croatia are considered to have little chance of being offered NATO membership in this round.

Bush officials stress that no final decision on American preferences is likely until late September because of the election planned for Slovakia, where Vladimir Meciar, a strong nationalist, could return to power, once again undermining its chances of joining NATO.

Mr. Armitage, in an interview here today, praised Romania's and Bulgaria's quick efforts to help the United States and NATO after Sept. 11. He noted that Bulgaria has allowed American tanker planes and some 200 American soldiers to use an air base at Burgas while Romania sent troops to take part in the Afghan peacekeeping force in Kabul.

"Sept. 11 had a riveting effect on NATO and applicant countries," Mr. Armitage said. "A lot stepped up to the plate."

The Bulgarian foreign minister, Solomon Passy, noted that his government had never before allowed a foreign country to use its air bases, "not even the Soviet Union," and that the Bulgarian Parliament had declared itself, after Sept. 11, a "de facto ally of NATO."

The Romanian foreign minister, Mircea Geoana, said his country and Bulgaria were now seen as increasingly important to stabilize the Balkans, to fill the hole in NATO between Hungary and Turkey (itself more important after Sept. 11), to be in a better position to protect oil pipelines and to serve as a kind of bridge to Central Asian states like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

"It is an important challenge to the West to assist in the creation of moderate Muslim nations in Central Asia," Mr. Geoana said. "We also can help stabilize this arch of instability in the south for a NATO that is already more global." He, too, stressed Romania's support for American leadership in NATO.

Mr. Armitage said all the candidate countries would be required to continue the "heavy lifting" required to meet NATO standards, even after possible entrance, and to keep reforming and democratizing their governments and economies.

 

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