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Europe

NATO, Here We Come

East European countries still clamber to join the world's most powerful military alliance, a decade after its original purpose – deterring Soviet power – disappeared.

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Officials of NATO candidate countries make a show of solidarity in Bucharest

A meeting of top officials from East Europe's NATO-candidate countries this week has provided a fresh reminder that much of the continent's newly democratic East still craves membership in the military alliance.

This, despite enormous political changes since the end of the Cold War that critics argue have rendered NATO out-of-date in a new Europe.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the alliance in 1999, just shortly before NATO began dropping bombs on Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war.

Those three were, however, already joined by a chorus of other candidate countries that Tuesday at a conference in Bucharest were the top hopefuls: the three Baltics states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. These make up the "Vilnius Group", named because their first meeting was held in the Lithuanian capital.

Also meeting in Bucharest were some very-dark horses in the alliance's expansion plans – Macedonia, Albania and even Croatia, which has not formally declared its candidacy.

Terrorism, the new catchword

Previous Vilnius Group meetings caught the world's attention by upping the ante for NATO expansion.

In 1999, they called for a "big bang" that would have let all the candidate countries in at once, disarming Russian officials who long sternly opposed any eastward movement by NATO.

But this year the catchword was "terrorism", since US and European defences now seek to adapt to threats as perceived "post September 11".

Romania and Bulgaria especially, as two under-dog candidates of the original Vilnius Group, stressed that expanding the alliance into their territory would "shore up" NATO-zone defenses against terrorism in Europe's unstable, porous south.

"Our NATO membership will complete a real democratic shield against terrorism, consolidatingg the southern flank of the alliance," said Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg, Reuters reported.

Expansion and rumours of expansion

There are two likely scenarios for NATO expansion, but a decision will not be announced until the alliance's summit in Prague later in 2002.

One option is an expansion into the Baltic states, once a controversial region because of Russia's fierce opposition but less so now, as well as the central European countries of Slovenia and Slovakia.

Another would add Romania and Bulgaria to that same list of five, stretching it to seven.

United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage attended the Bucharest conference and said Washington is "looking to the widest possible accession".

Yet there are many factors. One ever-changing factor is the US's roller-coaster relationship with Russia, which could sour in cases of heightened trade war or military action against Iraq.

A longer-term factor is an almost-forgotten pledge US diplomats reportedly made to Moscow as the post-Soviet leadership disbanded its own military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. But that pledge, that NATO would never expand, was already discarded in 1999.

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