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Europe

NATO's Eastward Expansion Rift to Dominate Summit

The membership bids of two former Soviet Republics, Georgia and Ukraine, backed strongly by US President Bush, are set to overshadow a NATO summit in Romania -- much to the displeasure of Germany.

Romanians walk past a poster advertising the upcoming NATO alliance summit in Bucharest,

Merkel with Romanian President Basescu and NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer

US President George W Bush urged his European allies to set the two former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, on a path to NATO membership, setting the tone for a potentially tense summit of the 26-member alliance which opens on Wednesday, April 2, in Romania.

The NATO meeting will consider full membership for three countries, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, and plans for potential membership for Ukraine and Georgia. The applications from Ukraine and Georgia have met skepticism within the alliance as well as open opposition from Russia.

"The time is not ripe"

Both Germany and France, backed by several smaller countries, strongly oppose Bush's Membership Action Plan (MAP) for the two nations, arguing that Georgia and Ukraine do not meet NATO's criteria and the decision would be an unnecessary provocation to Russia before President-elect Dmirty Medvedev takes office.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Bucharest that both Georgia and Ukraine should have a long-term prospect of NATO membership, "but there is one difference with the United States: we believe the time for MAP is not ripe."

Earlier, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview Europe should try to avoid further damaging its relationship with Russia.

It is clear "that we have reached the limit in foreign policy in relations with Russia," Steinmeier regional daily Leipziger Volkszeitung in an interview.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Steinmeier wants better relations with Russia

Steinmeier pointed to Russia's anger over Kosovo as a recent example of deteriorating relations. Russia is likewise strongly opposed to Georgia and Ukraine becomign NATO members. And Steinmeier said he could see "no convincing reason...to create more tension."

Steinmeier stressed that Germany does not oppose Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO out of deference to Russia. The German government feels the countries need better internal stability and more internal support for NATO before beginning a membership process.

Expansion disagreements

NATO leaders are meeting in Bucharest to discuss the eastwards expansion of the 26-member alliance as well as its involvement in Afghanistan and strategies for the future.

Georgia and Ukraine are hoping to be offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a key step to full membership. Russia opposes the bids on grounds that NATO is intruding on its sphere of influence.

"The Membership Action Plan marks the point of no return, in our opinion," Moscow's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told Interfax news agency. "If MAP is granted to Georgia and Ukraine ... our relations would take a dramatic turn."

US President George W. Bush, who is in Eastern Europe on a week-long visit, is expected to tell his counterparts that the alliance must remain open to all European democracies looking to join, according to excerpts of his speech made available by the White House.

Afghanistan prominent on agenda

Military troop numbers in Afghanistan are also likely to dominate the two-day meeting in Romania. At a session on Thursday, NATO allies and other troop contributors will also meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss better coordination of military, civilian, development and humanitarian efforts.

Earlier this week, Bush toned down demands that Germany take on a combat role in southern Afghanistan, but he is still expected to ask for Europeans to increase their troop contingents.

Activists of the nationalistic People's Union movement hold flags and posters against Ukraine's efforts to join NATO as they protest at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Tuesday, April 1

Protesters at the US embassy in Moscow don't want NATO to expand east

Germany currently has around 3,250 troops based in the capital, Kabul, and the relatively peaceful north, where they are engaged in provincial reconstruction missions. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Tuesday that the number of Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan would not surpass the 3,500 limit set by parliament.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy has said his country was considering beefing up its deployment to Afghanistan and Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Paris may send "a few

hundred" extra troops to Afghanistan. France currently has about 2,200 troops stationed in Afghanistan.

The move has, however, led members of the French opposition to threaten a no confidence vote if Sarkozy goes through with his plan.

Next year's plans

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to use the meeting in Bucharest to launch an initiative with Sarkozy to stage a summit early next year marking the 60th anniversary of NATO's founding.

"With this gesture, Sarkozy and Merkel want to underline the German-Franco friendship, European reconciliation" and the importance of the transatlantic alliance, German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm.

Wilhelm said the summit would be held jointly in the French city of Strasbourg and across the River Rhine in the German city of Kehl.

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